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Why Muslims should have a wide-ranging religious education

By Mariam F. Alkazemi, Ph.D. –

Muslims need education about other religious sects and religions. According to the Holy Qur’an, God favored humanity over angels due to man’s ability to learn and to be educated. In 2:31-32, the Qur’an explains how God taught Adam what angels clearly expressed was beyond their ability to know. The concepts of education in Islam run deep, from Adam to the Final Prophet. The first command relayed to the Prophet Mohammad Peace Be Upon Him through Gabriel was, “Read.” These Qur’anic and Islamic concepts are widely accepted in Muslim circles. Yet more education for Muslims about controversial topics can improve tolerance in the Muslim community and help Muslims understand Islam more.

One such example involves Sunni-Shiite conflict. In the news media, many reports of sectarian conflict inform audiences around the world about conflicts among Muslims. Individuals who have never met a Muslim unlike themselves are more likely to inform their attitudes towards other Muslims through the lens of international conflict and disaster. Some have asked me where in the Qur’an the concepts that divide Muslims are stated (see Caliphate reference in 2:30 and Imamate reference in 36:12). Fewer Muslims can explain both the perspectives of Sunni and Shiite Muslims, which does not help in providing an alternative narrative to the ones of extremists from the mass media.

Failure to learn about other sects also limits our ability to contextualize sectarian discussions as a Muslim community in the United States. Sunnis and Shiites are both Muslims and both follow the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book. Both groups pray five prayers daily and fast Ramadan, a time at which both groups believe the Qur’an was revealed. While there may be minor differences in how Islamic principles are interpreted and expressed, few Muslims understand these differences and acknowledge that Islam can be followed in several ways. The inability of Muslims to understand one another has implications for how Muslims fit into a wider and more diverse society.

Outside of the Muslim community, similar problems exist. Muslims report feeling discriminated against.  Because they themselves are Muslims, they realize that the media coverage of Islam often deals with terrorism, war and outrageous remarks about women. To journalists, religious zealots who make outrageous statements create newsworthy headlines. However, as Muslims we recognize that there are limits to the veracity of the image of Islam portrayed in the media.

We ask why more non-Muslims do not know the truth about Islam, but it is wiser to ask why Muslims are not learning more about non-Muslims. When we ask Muslims why 4:23 prohibits men from marrying two sisters at the same time, we hear imagined ideas about jealousy and justice. Few will be familiar enough with Leviticus 18:18 which states, “Do not take your wife’s sister as a rival wife and have sexual relations with her while your wife is living.” Included in the Old Testament and believed by Christians and Jews, this verse lies in a Biblical section outlining unlawful sexual relations. Christians and Jews believe that it was introduced to the set of laws to which believers must adhere after Jacob married two sisters. Yet the details of this marriage are not included in the Qur’an and can be obtained only by a deep knowledge of Islam and the monotheistic traditions to which Islam is connected. In other words, learning from Jewish and Christian texts can make us better Muslims. A faith that is based in the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of understanding perspectives different than one’s own is powerful (see 49:13).

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