A case for the teaching of Islam in English


Abdar Rahman Koya, The Malaysian Insider

The recent parade of ignorance about Islam and its history, beamed from the cushy sofas in the polished halls of Putrajaya, calls for a rethink of the way Islam is taught at our schools.

Such official ignorance on Islam as we have seen the past two weeks is not new in Malaysia. I have always blamed this state of affairs on the fact that Islam in Malaysia has been narrowly studied, defined, taught, practised, and of late, defended, all through a racial perspective to serve a communal purpose. But the bigger explanation to this lies in the fact that our Islamic discourse has been limited by our dependence on Malay sources on the subject.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a great proponent of the Malay language as a national medium. Which is why I have never been really convinced by arguments in support of the Teaching of Science and Mathematics in English, or PPSMI, but that is another matter.

But I am all for English to be used in subjects such as history and geography, and Islam, not only because these subjects force students to expand their vocabulary and think in English in order to explain and analyse. In the case of Islamic studies, many of the major sources of Islam are available in English, rather than in Malay.

The media debate on Shia Islam only underscores the need to teach Islam in English. The media’s coverage on the issue reveals a Malayised understanding of Islam, even subscribing to a very localised system of orthography (or spelling) for Islamic-Arabic terminology. The English dailies’ coverage on Islam, for example, uses Malay Roman spellings such as “Syiah”, “syariah”, “doa”, “akidah” – a tell-tale sign that our traditional media workers are still hostage to the official interpretation of Islam as understood by our salaried bureaucrats.

This situation is further compounded by our closed door policy on Islamic scholarship, made worse by the existence of well-funded government institutions which want to take over God’s role of protecting Islam till Judgement Day, as if to ensure Malaysian Muslims would crowd God’s heaven.

There are more books on Islam, whether classical or contemporary, written in English by English-speaking scholars, Muslim and non-Muslim. The size of English Islamic scholarship is simply immense, and this is made possible by the fact that English is now considered a major language of Islam, even replacing Arabic.

It is unfortunate that many Malaysians’ exposure to English works on Islam only borders on the so-called controversial books by hitherto unknown writers. So we see ourselves always kicking up a fuss about people like Irshad Manji or even that third-rate scholar Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

The fact is that the English Islamic publication industry has been thriving since the end of World War 2, with many quality original English works on Islam coming out from Western capitals, especially London.

The serious Muslim reader of English has been exposed to a plethora of interpretations, schools of thoughts and backgrounds on the subject of Islam, which are not necessarily controversial. Some of the greatest works on Islam are available in English, including those by al-Tabari, Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn Khaldun and al-Ghazali, all of which have complete translations in English long before the summarised Malay versions appeared.

Then we have works of some of the greatest Muslim scholars of the 20th century, representing different schools of thought, such as Abul Ala Maududi, Sayyid Qutb, Ali Shariati, Muhammad Asad, Gai Eaton, Yusuf Qaradawi, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Muhammad Hamidullah, Martin Lings and Tariq Ramadan, who are household names to the serious  Muslim reader.