by Mahjabeen Dhala
Editors’ Note: This is the first in a series of essays on Community Engaged Learning and Islamic Studies.
To state that the events of 2020 disrupted our understanding of normalcy and security, would be putting it mildly. A deadly virus put our physical health at risk, and violence towards racial minorities and harassment of ethnic groups revealed a deeply embedded systemic injustice that put our communal health at risk.
Along with the chaos and the precariousness, there also emerged a phenomenal sense of interconnectedness as communities rallied together to meet the moment with their faith in God, good, and justice. While physicians and pharmacists worked around the clock in search of a cure, community leaders joined front liners to provide care and support to those disproportionately impacted by the virus.
As a religious educator and an academic scholar, the past year opened opportunities for me to be directly involved in community COVID relief efforts and to curate a course that would incorporate a unique fusion of the pedagogy of prophets, as I understand it from the Qur’an, and key elements of feminist pedagogy in which I was trained as a scholar in the academy. Being invited to join a Wabash-sponsored cohort of scholars pedagogically focused on community engaged and experiential models of teaching/learning, served as an added incentive to develop such a course.
The result was a community engaged class I co-taught in spring 2021 at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley, that raised the concerns and contributions of BIPOC community leaders during the pandemic. The unique community engaged learning (CEL) approach of this class centered the ethos of teaching, learning, and engaging communities like prophets, softening the often-hard lines across the confessional and academic demeanor of students and teachers alike.
Before starting my doctoral studies in the department of Sacred Texts and their Interpretation at the GTU, I had spent years studying in Islamic theological seminaries in Syria, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates and had decades of experience serving as a religious educator for Muslim communities in countries across South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, United Kingdom, Canada, and the US. My work in training community volunteers to offer support to women and raising awareness and funds for women’s education granted me a unique insight into the trials, triumphs, and tenacity of Muslim women in the global north and south —an insight that I brought to my doctoral research. My work deploys Islamic theology as well as feminist theory to interrogate the undersupply and underrepresentation of pre-modern Muslim female voices for activism and social justice, that remain muted today due to patriarchal, sectarian, and secular biases. In my current position as Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies and Director of a collaborative study program between the Jewish and Islamic traditions in the thriving multireligious landscape of the GTU, I have the impetus and opportunity to innovate pedagogies that fuse the ethos of faith with critical academic thought to create courses that interrogate the perpetuation of race, gender, and class inequities. In the Spring of 2021, I co-taught “Covid-19 and Precarious Life”—a CEL course that deployed my understanding of a prophetic pedagogy to study critical health and social issues raised by the pandemic especially for communities of color.
Covid-19 and Precarious Life: A Course
The course was inspired by my time serving on the steering committee of the Henry Luce Foundation Grant for Covid relief awarded to the GTU in the summer of 2020. The grant would support faith-based and other community organizations working on the frontlines to meet the spiritual and physical needs of their local constituents in the wake of the pandemic. The steering committee led by the Director of the Center for Islamic Studies at the GTU was tasked with seeking out BIPOC-led organizations serving at-risk communities and creating outlets to lift the voices of vulnerable communities who are often the least heard and the most hurt. The course “Covid-19 and Precarious Life” focused on frames of vulnerability, precariousness, race, gender, age, access, and ability in the context of the already vulnerable including the elderly community, single-parent families, women in shelters, displaced refugees, and those experiencing homelessness and incarceration. Learning objectives included deploying a critical service-engaged-learning model to study the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on communities of color in the Bay area. What follows are vignettes from my venturing into an academic class with the intention of teaching and engaging like a prophet.
The Qur’an, much like the sacred texts of most religious traditions, includes stories of prophets’ engagement with communities as educators of spiritual, social, and communal wellbeing as well as actors for equity and justice. My teaching philosophy is partly influenced by my understanding of a prophetic pedagogy which I draw primarily from the Qur’anic verse that states, “It is He who sent to the unlettered [people] an apostle from among themselves, to recite to them His signs, to purify them, and to teach them the Book and wisdom …” (Q62:2). This verse outlines four distinct roles of prophets as educators: to read the verses to the community, to purify intentions and actions, to teach the Scripture, and to deliver wisdom. I interpret this as a prophetic pedagogy that informs, unforms, reforms, and transforms communities. I understand the process of reciting the verses as a mode of informing them of that which they did not know. The information would facilitate a critical thought that would initiate an unforming of prevalent norms leading to what the verse states “to purify them.” Through a steady process of information and un-formation supplemented by teaching the Book, prophets guided communities to reformation that would lead to the ultimate goal of transformation through wisdom.
But before they became educators, prophets were learners through divine inspiration, revelation, and observation. Stories of prophets in the Qur’an speak of their holistic and experiential engagement with learning. Revelation involved information for the mind, conviction for the heart, and the embodiment of knowledge. As they marveled in their observation of the universe as a sign of the Creator, prophets also learned to trust the voice of revelation and inspiration. While seclusion worked best for their personal spiritual growth, their mandate to act on what they had learned and to teach it to others could best be achieved only by engaging with communities, thus setting early precedents for a theological CEL modality. Although, it might be too farfetched to think about divine revelation as a pedagogical tool deployed in an academic classroom, it would be worthwhile to explore and incorporate a paradigm and practice of learning that is sacred and transformative, holistic and experiential.
My teaching philosophy of fusing elements of information, un-formation, reformation, and transformation with holistic and experiential methods of learning resonate not just with a prophetic pedagogy that I interpret from the Qur’an but also with bell hooks argument for a holistic and engaged pedagogy. In her Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, hooks focuses on creating a “democratic setting” (hooks, 38) where “student expression” (hooks, 20) is valued and encouraged. I aim at creating a humble and collaborative space where students can teach, and teachers can learn by sharing lived experiences. By incorporating specific pedagogical practices, like the ones I elaborate on in this essay, I strive to honor and acknowledge the minds, hearts, spirits, and “bodies in the classroom” (hooks, 138) to emulate what hooks refers to as a “community” that creates room for “openness and intellectual rigor.” (hooks, 40) In merging my theological understanding of what it means to teach like a prophet with the idea of feminist engaged pedagogy, I also work on facilitating an environment for learning like prophets—with room for intellectual inquiry as well as spiritual inspiration.
Learning like a prophet
In my graduate and undergraduate classes, I adopt two specific approaches that help set the scene for learning like a prophet: a check-in practice and an independent visit to a community. I start each class with acknowledging the minds, emotions, and bodies of the participants by allowing five to ten minutes for expression of head space, either through one-word reflections or emoji charts. The objective is to facilitate a centering of one’s own intellectual and emotional positionality within a learning community.
During the pandemic, this practice was much appreciated by my undergraduate class, especially the international and out-of-state students who were faced with abrupt interruptions in their living spaces and anxieties about the wellbeing of their families back home. The Covid-19 course was a graduate course which comprised of some difficult reading materials about injustices and vulnerabilities that were erupting very close to home. The class engaged in conversations around what it meant “to reflect upon precarious life and pandemic politics during the US presidential election and ongoing white supremacy and systemic racism, and how we could draw on the positive role of families, communities, and religions in providing care and hope.”*
Students were encouraged to make notes of moments of despair and hope as those emerged through the readings in a personal journal. During check-in, the class shared their reflections which included poems, paintings, and short silences. It was clear that the course materials were not just being absorbed by their minds but were also leaving an impact on their hearts and they were eager to collaborate with communities who were disproportionately impacted by the health and social crisis, so they could also involve their bodies in the learning process.
Another approach that I use in my class which draws on an experiential learning modality is an independent visit to a Muslim community. In all my Intro to Islam courses, students are required to visit a Muslim religious and/or cultural site/website and then present an oral reflection to the class. In most cases, it would be the student’s first ever encounter with Muslims and Muslim spaces. The objective of this assignment is to encourage a practical engagement with a community and to experience the nuances of speaking with, rather than speaking for/about other communities and to learn more about diversity than could be known solely through course readings and classroom discussions. For the Covid-19 course, students were asked to prepare a class presentation on a course theme that resonated with their own experiences, research, and/or vocation. The graduate class included students who were chaplains, pastors, affiliates of faith community, and those preparing for ordination. This assignment gave them an opportunity to share their own community experiences viz-a-viz the pandemic.
For their final project, students were encouraged to reach out to faith-based and related organizations from amongst the Luce Foundation grantees and others who were working on the frontlines of providing Covid-19 relief. Their project would have to demonstrate a commitment to learning with and from the community of their choice, highlight that particular community’s response to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic, and elaborate on how engaging with that community merited their academic, ministerial, and/or professional interest and/or vocation.
The check-in practice and community engaged assignments in the Covid-19 course brought multiple communities together at different levels of engagement. While the class presentation assignment gave the students an opportunity to introduce themselves and the communities that they identified with from an insider perspective, the final project required them to come out of their comfort zones and engage with communities other than their own as they carefully navigated their outsider perspective. For me, an intriguing aspect of the course was that the check-in practice and assignments organically curated a space for the students and instructors to come together as a community in their own right—a space where at times we shared deeply personal reflections on the readings, asked brave questions without the fear of being judged, and shared resources and feedback to support each other’s research.
Besides the holistic, experiential, and engaged modality of learning, the course themes and readings for “Covid-19 and Precarious Life” also reflected the inform-unform-reform-transform elements of a prophetic pedagogy. The course syllabus included journal articles, books, films, documentaries, interviews, and visual arts from open access resources. Course themes included the framing of Covid-19 in the contexts of global/media, environment, and sustainability from interreligious, international, and interdisciplinary perspectives.
In our class discussions, “we challenged the idea of the pandemic as the great equalizer and focused on how it had revealed and often intensified racism, global inequalities, inequities, and injustices. From food and housing insecurity to lack of access to healthcare and medications, schools, and education, we looked at how the pandemic had disproportionately affected Black, Brown, Indigenous and other vulnerable communities.”* We asked probing questions about pandemic politics, vaccine nationalism, and technological divides. The course brought up stories of loss and injustice and explored the role of religion, spirituality, and chaplaincy in providing care and hope for an aching world.
Several moments during the course were marked with brave confessions about the responsibility of people of privilege viz-a-viz the invisible hurt of minorities. The world view of most participants was significantly impacted, and this was evident in their final projects. Students submitted well researched final projects that included interviews with communities on the Mexican borders for whom the health crisis exacerbated their already precarious immigration situation, the vulnerabilities of African American Muslim communities in a predominantly white Marin County especially in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, the collaboration between religious communities to offer each other’s resources for outdoor services, and the daily challenges of interreligious chaplains at Stanford hospitals as they provided care to patients and families directly affected by the pandemic.
My work as a public religious educator and an academic scholar has validated for me that to teach effectively one must be prepared to learn continuously. I have always walked out of a classroom edified by rich discussions and generous intellectual sharing. Even though embodied and experiential practices such as check-ins might often be deemed unscholarly by conservative pedagogical standards, I have learned from the undergraduate and graduate courses I taught last year that it adds to the depth of class discussions, facilitates a holistic learning space, and is more often than not, appreciated by students. Positive student remarks from the course evaluation forms for the Covid-19 course have emboldened me to continue fusing theological methods with academic research methods in my courses moving forward and to keep teaching, learning, and engaging communities like a prophet.
* Quotes borrowed from a course description compiled by Munir Jiwa.
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Mahjabeen Dhala is Assistant Professor of Islamic studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California where she also serves as chair of the Women’s Studies in Religion program, the director of the Madrasa-Midrasha program, and co-editor of the journal Teaching Theology and Religion.