Learning About Islam

For the past few years as a world history teacher, I had the benefit of teaching about Ramadan — the ninth month of the Islamic calendar when a good number of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims fast from sunup to sundown and recite the holy Quran — while it was happening.

Note that two items in the first sentence of this post are already potentially controversial — first, nobody knows how many Muslims there are in the world.  Estimates range from 1.2 billion to about 1.6 billion.  I’m using 1.6 billion because a) an article I just read uses that number, and b) a 2009 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life said there were 1.57 billion Muslims.

Second, “Quran” is an Arabic word, and it can also be spelled “Koran” in English. I’m using Quran because I asked the imam at Duke, Abdullah Antepli, how he spells it, and he uses Quran).

In looking up the Pew Forum statistic, I found this really cool interactive map. Here’s what it looks like:


Why is it “interactive”?  Well, when you click on a country, it gives you statistics. For example, Indonesia is (for now) the country with the most Muslims.


I have, in the past, asked students what country they think has the largest Muslim population. I did this to get students to shift their thinking about Islam (most people don’t think of Indonesia right away), but now I see that this map provides more context, and that when you look at Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, there are more Muslims in that region than anywhere else. That’s worth pointing out (and astute students of world history know that Bangladesh used to be East Pakistan, so from 1947-1971, the answer would probably have been Pakistan).

Anyway, my point (and I do have a point) is that for the past few years Ramadan has been a great teaching moment because it has fallen in the first few months of the school year. That means that I could do web searches for the news and find articles about Ramadan that were happening right now. As you can see from this Wikipedia chart below, Ramadan began on September 13 back in 2007 and began right when school started for me last year in 2010, on August 11. Because Islam follows a lunar calendar, the date of each month shifts back about 11-12 days each year.

When Ramadan began on August 11 last year, that actually created a touchy situation. Why? Because the holiday lasts a month, and that means that the celebration marking the end of Ramadan fell right around 9/11. In today’s political climate, it felt uncomfortable to celebrate on 9/11 — at least in the United States.

I had forgotten, until I read this article, about the controversy around the Mosque at Ground Zero (see the last paragraph above) and how that issue dominated the news last year.

By the way, I found the above article from the Seattle Times by running this search:

These are the sorts of searches I would model for students at the middle school I plan to open in 2013, so that they can learn to perform such searches on their own, and thereby give themselves more context about various events they may learn about.

Getting back to when Ramadan occurs, the chart above (reproduced again below for easy access) shows that Ramadan this year — in 2011 — begins in two days, on Monday, August 1.

For the next few years, Ramadan will both start and end during the summer. From a US point of view (which I want us to get away from at my school, but that’s the starting point most students in the US have), many schools are not in session yet, and so we lose a teachable moment. From a Muslim perspective, this means Ramadan will occur during the hot months of the summer, which can make fasting more challenging. Here’s a quote I just found from an article in the Economist about the economics of Ramadan in the summer:

But a summer Ramadan is, overall, bad for the economy. Governments worry about the higher cost of producing more electricity. The lights stay on longer, as people have to eat after nightfall. Kuwait’s electricity ministry has given warning of power cuts and electricity rationing, since more locals will stay at home for Ramadan, with air conditioners on full throttle, rather than go abroad, as many of them usually do in August. The authorities in many Arab countries offer food subsidies to ensure that families can afford basic staples. Price controls are often imposed on retailers who are tempted to raise prices to take advantage of increased demand.

Western tourists hesitate to spend their holidays at a time when food can be hard to find during the day and alcohol sales are suspended, as in Morocco. Muslim tourists may also choose to stay at home for Ramadan. Egypt, where August is a peak month for tourists from other Arab countries, has launched a festival to entice this high-income clientele to come and celebrate away from home.

How did I find that article? Well, what search terms would you have used to find an article about Ramadan in the summer heat? Hmmm…

Anyway, I mention all this as background because I was just expanding my global perspective by reading the news from PRI’s The World, where this article in the bottom right corner of the page caught my attention.

I clicked on the link, and saw this story, which expanded my global perspective:

When I listened to the story, about a documentary called Koran by Heart (the PRI story is pretty good — and it’s only about 8 minutes long), I became interested in learning more. So I looked up the documentary itself, and found this amazing review of the movie by Andrew O’Hehir of Salon — apparently the movie previewed at the Tribeca Film Festival in April.

Here’s a great line from the review in Salon (note to younger readers: Spellbound is a great movie from 2002 that follows young students in the US who compete in the National Spelling Bee):

It’s “Spellbound” plus a poetry slam. Plus Islamic fundamentalism. Exactly: OMG.

And here’s how the review describes the three 10-year old kids profiled in the movie:

One of our stars is a 10-year-old kid from Tajikistan named Nabiollah, an angelic, big-eyed moppet who can recite the entire Quran from memory in an astonishingly pure boyish soprano, with remarkable command of melody and intonation. He’s like the Justin Bieber of Quran recitation, and judges at the Cairo event seize on him as an amazing gift from Allah. But memorizing the Quran (in Arabic, which he does not otherwise speak or read) at a rural madrassa has nearly been Nabiollah’s entireeducation; he is functionally illiterate in Tajik, his own language.

You can’t say that about Rifdha, also 10, a cuddly, sparkling child from the Maldives (an archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean) who seems younger than her age but is something close to a prodigy. She excels at Quran recitation, but it’s clear she would excel at anything she pursued. She studies advanced science and math, speaks several languages and yearns to be an undersea explorer and researcher. Her mother is fully supportive, but her father, a calm and thoughtful man with the untrimmed beard that indicates a certain stream of fundamentalism, insists that Rifdha must receive a strict Islamic education — perhaps in Yemen, rather than the relatively liberal Maldives — and become a housewife.

Perhaps most affecting of the film’s three 10-year-olds, however, is Djamil, an earnest imam’s son from an impoverished village in Senegal who travels to Cairo all by himself as a representative of an entire nation on the outer fringes of the Islamic world. Barker filmed the 2009 competition (when Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, seen in the film, was still in power), which featured 110 contestants ranging in age from 7 to about 20, including a few from Western nations: a teenage girl from Italy, a 10-year-old Australian boy.

Whatever assumptions you might have about a Quran-recital competition, they’re likely to be wrong. It’s a high-tech affair held in a luxurious meeting hall, with a touch-screen interface and electronic scoring. (The finals are broadcast on live TV around the Arab world.)

Regular readers of this blog will know I can’t read about Tajikistan, the Maldives, and Senegal without first making sure that my students know where these places are located — enter Google Earth:

So now I want to see this movie. It premiers on HBO this Monday August 1. Gotta find someone with HBO, I guess…  But what an amazing way to hook students so that they want to learn about Islam. And how sad that because of the rush at the beginning of the year, I imagine that few (if any) schools will take advantage of the opportunity to use this film as a springboard to learning about Islam.

What’s also sad is that most schools already have their curriculum set, and there’s no room to squeeze in more time to learn about Islam, even though watching the movie and discussing it and putting it in context would make for a compelling unit that students would remember for a long time.

At my school, this is the sort of unit we would have the flexibility to propose and then carry out a few months down the road, assuming students were interested. Teachers would need to preview the movie and make sure it’s appropriate for 6th graders, and would need some time to set up the contours of the unit by doing some preliminary research — but what a great unit and what an important topic: Learning About Islam. Say, that’s a catchy title for a blog post 🙂

P.S.  A link to my prior blog post is that the students who recite the Quran best at these competitions do so not mechanically (as a technician) but with emotion and feeling, bringing creativity to the way they express the words from the Quran.

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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