Teaching about world religions through scriptural, literary, and artistic sources is an excellent way to introduce students to diverse traditions and cultures. However, using such information in the classroom can often be challenging and confusing. To explore this topic, two daylong professional development workshops for educators took place at the museum during the recent exhibition The Art of the Qur’an. Held on on November 5, 2016, and January 28, 2017, the workshops, titled “Exploring World Religions: Focus on Islam,” were organized by the Freer|Sackler and the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS) at Georgetown University. More than fifty educators attended.
I recently asked Dr. Susan Douglass, K–14 education outreach coordinator at CCAS, about her work at the center and the impact of our work together.
As an educator, how do you resolve the need for a more inclusive worldview in the face of forces that seem to be pulling us in the opposite direction?
I am a world historian, and I believe that learning about the entire human experience on a global level is as important a civic enterprise as learning about the United States or any country’s national history. We are all citizens of nations whose formation is a modern phenomenon, but our common roots go back to the Africans who ventured across the continents tens of thousands of years ago. We have, in short, common origins. Knowing how human cultures interacted to give our generation the gifts and challenges that we share lends us a sense of responsibility for the future that overshadows artificial divisions. The United States is among the most diverse nations, and we have found a way to live together that we can maintain if we insist on elevating knowledge over ignorance of one another, and [on] encouraging respectful speech and behavior toward one another.
What messages and approaches do you hope the teachers in the workshop took back to their classrooms?
The once-in-a-lifetime The Art of the Qur’an exhibition gave visitors a chance to discover the Qur’an as a scripture [and] what stories it tells. I hope that teachers gained familiarity with it as a meaningful historical document on that level. The exhibit and the lectures also showed the artistic care given to preserving the Qur’an and refining its expression in Arabic script. I hope the teachers gained an appreciation for the technical process of calligraphy and illumination, and for the sheer beauty of the manuscripts and other objects. In fact, the teachers expressed great appreciation for the workshop and felt that their day at the gallery was a wonderful one.
Teachers have an opportunity to influence students’ perspectives about others. How can art provide a non-threatening way to explore tricky issues of race, religion, and identity?
One of the remarkable things about the exhibition that [didn’t] jump out at first glance is that these works represent the thought, effort, and artistry of people who belonged to a vast array of ethnicities and linguistic backgrounds, who coalesced around the Arabic Qur’an without necessarily being Arabs [themselves]. Those artists also represented enormous class differences over time, from common people elevated by their commitment to belief to those whose acquired skill brought them royal commissions to illuminate the manuscripts with powdered gold and precious stones.
The art of beautiful writing is a shared human contribution to the continuity of learning that transcends loss over time. I try to expose teachers and students to primary source documents that show how people of many faiths contributed to the preservation of knowledge. Because of their commitment to knowledge, they were willing and able to transcend individual differences to build bridges of continuity across time. Without such diverse people’s love of learning, we would have lost the link to valuable accumulated knowledge. In short, if we cannot overcome trivial differences to work toward the common good, we face tremendous loss that will affect all of us. Putting evidence of this continuity of human achievement in front of the public is among the most important functions of art museums.
As a convert to Islam, you have a foot in more than one world. What insight have you gained about how others may view your adopted faith?
I have been a practicing Muslim for more than forty years, or about two-thirds of my life. I have spent time in Germany, Egypt, and the US as a Muslim, each offering very different perspectives that have changed over time with world events. I find it easy to locate common ground with the people with whom I interact directly, who often include educators, but also people of many walks of life. A lot of the problem with Islamophobia is that many people have never met a Muslim—or don’t think they have. In fact, they may very well not have known the person’s religious identity. There are certainly distinctive elements in the many different Muslim cultures with which I am acquainted, but they all have much in common with who I am as a person raised in Cleveland, Ohio, in a family with Scotch-Irish and German immigrant roots going back to the eighteenth century. In order to overcome real and perceived divisions, it is necessary to learn about each other’s deepest differences, but also our common hopes and dreams for a just society and sustainable world.