By Abdus-Sami Hoda
North America’s newest Islamic College recently completed its second term. Students first attended classes at the new College of Islamic Studies (CIS) at the Islamic Institute of Orange County (IIOC) in Anaheim, California at the beginning of 2013.
I was able to interview Shaykh Mustafa Umar, currently Director of Education and Outreach at IIOC, and College of Islamic Studies’ Lead Instructor about building the new college and teaching within the American context.
1. What led you to conceive of and lead a project like the College of Islamic Studies (CIS)?
I have always loved sharing what I learn with others. I remember starting my first Arabic grammar class at University of California Irvine only two weeks after I had started studying Arabic for the first time on my own. While I was studying Islam overseas, every time I came across a point of knowledge which really resonated with me, I would be eager to share it with others. Upon returning back to America and serving as a leader in the Muslim community, I noticed a high level of ignorance about Islam, even among practicing and activist Muslims. I have always been thinking of a way to spread the knowledge of Islam in the quickest and most efficient manner possible, and that is where the idea of the College of Islamic Studies came from.
2. There are more and more correspondence based and online Islamic Studies programs popping up in the past five years. What does this tell you?
It tells me that there is a thirst for knowledge in the Muslim community, but there are usually few good resources available to English speaking Muslims. It also indicates that many people who are interested in learning about Islam are quite busy and unable to attend the classes/lectures held in their area due to their busy schedules. Correspondence courses offer the convenience [despite requiring added discipline] of studying from any location.
3. What did your own studies around the world teach you? What worked, and what didn’t?
It taught me a lot about how different cultures determine what aspects of Islam are emphasized, both in studies and in practice. I realized that many things I was learning were never going to be of any practical benefit, because of the culture that I lived in. Why would I care about how many buckets need to be drawn out of a well in case an animal falls inside and dies? We don’t use wells and are not likely to ever use them. I also realized that there were many things that I should have learned, but didn’t. How do we pay zakah on a 401k or IRA account? We did not even learn the underlying theory needed to answer these questions. So I realized that in order for Islamic studies to remain relevant, practical and interesting for students, several modifications would need to be made, not only in the teaching methodology and pedagogical practices but in the informational content as well.
4. How does CIS set itself apart? What approach are you taking?
The College of Islamic Studies has developed its curriculum and teaching methodology around eight fundamental pillars; these pillars were developed in response to common challenges faced by contemporary Muslims seeking to learn about their faith.
Start with the Basics: Each class is taught with the assumption that the student has no prior knowledge about the subject. No one will hear random Arabic phrases without there being a clear definition, or have certain information skimmed through because of the all-too-common assumption, “everyone knows that already.” There is nothing more frustrating for a student attempting to learn Islam than being told that they are already supposed to know something they were never taught before.
Avoid Sectarianism in Theology and Jurisprudence: One of the frustrating, and dangerous, trends in many Islamic educational institutions is the emphasis placed on following a particular school of thought in either theology [ʿaqīdah] or in the interpretation of Islamic law [fiqh]. Rather than forcing any particular school of thought, the College of Islamic Studies presents knowledge which agrees with the mainstream teachings of Islam while instructing students to respect the legitimate differences of opinion that exist between Muslim scholars. All teachings are based on the Qur’an and the authentic Sunnah [the teachings of the Prophet] together with an understanding that minor differences of opinion will always exist among Muslim scholars.
Utilize a Pedagogical Approach: There are two extreme trends in Islamic education. The first emphasizes rote learning, making the student memorize minute details without teaching them to think critically or analyze the subject matter. The second encourages the student to criticize the different aspects of an Islamic subject before actually undertaking a comprehensive study of that subject. At CIS, we strive to teach our students to be academic and critical after they have a firm grasp of the subject.
Focus on Relevant Information: Prolonged discussions on matters that are not necessary for understanding and practicing Islam are avoided. If an issue is not practical but may have some theoretical benefit, it is usually summarized without spending too much time on it. CIS aims to focus on the practical, beneficial knowledge for Muslims living today, and emphasize learning the core subject matter in every course rather than focusing on minute details.
Follow a Comprehensive Approach: A balanced Islamic education requires areas such as Theology, Islamic law, History and the Principles of Islamic Law to be studied as separate subjects in order to equip students with the necessary tools to understand and connect with the Qur’an and Sunnah on a deeper level. The absence of comprehensive study causes the Islamic sources to be understood within a vacuum and makes them seem irrelevant to the present age.
Provide Targeted and Comprehensive Exams: Testing your knowledge solidifies it in your mind, gives you the confidence needed to convey it to others, and corrects any misunderstandings you might have had. Many students attend classes and listen to lectures but have no way of measuring how much they actually learned. Therefore, the examinations at the College of Islamic Studies are both comprehensive and focus on understanding the subject matter, rather than merely memorizing arbitrary facts and names of people.
Academic Practices and Rigor: Professionalism is a key component of the College’s methodology. When it comes to appearance, style, source referencing, transliteration, etc. the most up-to-date academic practices will be utilized.
Spiritual Emphasis: There is little benefit to a scientifically dry study of Islam which will only dull one’s senses. Instead, each subject will be taught with an aim to inspire and motivate the student, be relevant to the present day context, and most importantly, have an emphasis on spirituality. CIS does not ascribe to the idea that religious conviction and objectivity must be mutually exclusive.