Teaching Religion in the Foreign Language Classroom

Teaching Religion in the Foreign Language Classroom

Jermaine Butler, Indiana University Bloomington


The Al-Hussein Mosque, originally built in 1154, is located in Cairo, Egypt. It serves both as a mosque and the mausoleum of Husayn ibn Ali. Photo by author.

It is somewhat ironic that I am writing this piece about religion since I am rather reserved in my personal life when it comes to issues of faith and spirituality. I have no harrowing stories of traumatic inter-religious dialogue gone awry which have caused my reluctance to discuss this subject, but I often find myself genuinely uncomfortable and on-edge when the topic is brought up, even with my closest friends.

That being said, as an Arabic instructor, discussing religion is an unavoidable part of the job, so I often find myself in the difficult position of being a language instructor tasked with teaching religion, particularly Islam. While I am certain that teachers of many other languages have found themselves in a similar position, I believe that the Arabic language, due to its historically intimate relationship with the religion of Islam, is in a league of its own when it comes to the necessity of including certain aspects of religious studies in the curriculum. With regard to the language itself, I would wager that students of Arabic use more religious terminology in their everyday speech than students of any other language. You would be hard-pressed to find students of, say, Russian, French, or Chinese who use phrases such as alhamdulillah (“Praise be to God”), mashallah (“God has willed it”), or inshallah (“If God wills it”) with even a fraction of the frequency that Arabic students do. Since the abundance of religious terminology in Arabic is such a central aspect of the language, teachers often have to elucidate the religious provenance of these terms, which in turn often leads to deeper, more nuanced religious discussions that can quickly become fraught depending on the mood of the class.

Aside from the smaller religious discussions that pop up as a by-product of learning the Arabic language, changes in second language pedagogy over the past few decades have resulted in increasing importance being placed on the inclusion of culture in curricula. For most language classes, “culture” often includes topics as varied as music, food, and clothing, and the same holds true for Arabic. The main issue lies in the fact that many (if not most) aspects of Arab culture are influenced by Islam in some way. Merely taking into consideration the three aspects of culture I just mentioned: the permissibility of music has always been a hotly debated issue within Islamic society; food consumption, fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, and issues of whether are not certain foods are halal are timeless issues in Muslim society; and articles of clothing such as the niqab and the hijab continue to be politicized both in the Middle East and in Western countries. Added to these religiously-charged aspects of everyday culture are the more specifically religious aspects of culture found in Arabic textbooks. In the second-year Arabic class that I usually teach, students learn about the Islamic prophet Muhammad’s family tree, Imam Khomeini’s daily schedule, and the Al-Hussein Mosque in Egypt, to mention a few. In enumerating these features, what I hope to show is that Arabic instructors often find themselves filling the role of religious studies educators in a class setting quite different from that of religious studies classes.

There was an incident regarding the aforementioned Al-Hussein Mosque which transpired during my first year as an Arabic instructor and has remained with me to this day, largely due to the fact that I had no idea how to handle the situation as it was unfolding. Some years earlier, I had the good fortune of visiting the Al-Hussein Mosque in Cairo several times while I was studying there, so I had a few personal pictures to add to that day’s lesson, as well as a few anecdotes and additional background information about the site. While detailing the mosque to the students, I mentioned how it was also the location of a mausoleum where Hussein’s (the prophet Muhammad’s grandson) head was buried. There is some dispute regarding the validity of this claim, and I explained to the students that other mausoleums in cities such as Damascus, Karbala, and Najaf also claim to house the head of Hussein. Upon saying this, one of the students decided to make a joke about how the head of Hussein was at their house. At that moment, I was actually stunned…speechless. I had no idea how to respond to what I perceived to be an incredibly disrespectful and offensive comment. My one saving grace was that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all classes were online during that term, so I was able to gather my thoughts and fix my composure with the help of Zoom obfuscating my inner turmoil. After what seemed like the longest four seconds of my life, I decided to just brush the comment off with a chuckle and continue with the lesson as originally planned.

In reflecting on the incident later, one of the conclusions that I came to was that our (language instructors in general and Arabic instructors in particular) classes are markedly different from those classes that focus on religion. As an instructor, I actively work to ensure that my class is free from stress, anxiety, and tension, which often means that classes are characterized by a sense of playfulness and humor that I ultimately find to be beneficial to the students. As a result, students do not enter my class with the same mindset that they would have for a religious studies class. Likewise, since the focus of our curricula is language acquisition, we do not have the time to explore the historical intricacies of why a comment like “I have Hussein’s head at my house” is so controversial. If that student had been in a course that focused on Islamic history, maybe they would have been more sensitive to the perennial issues that plague the ummah.

But without the time and materials to engage in an extensive discussion of religious taboos, what can we do? Alongside the cultural sensitivity that we stress in the language classroom, we must also include a religious sensitivity so as to prevent situations like the one I’ve recalled here. There is a general laxity in American popular culture with regard to depictions of religion, especially Christianity, and many students may feel that this laxity applies to other cultures as well. For instance, the number of comedy sketches featuring Jesus are endless, as are the variety of t-shirts branded with slogans such as “Jesus Is My Homeboy.” Taking this cultural environment into consideration, the onus is on instructors to clearly explain the reverence with which different cultures view religion and religious figures. And make no mistake, these cultural discussions are an indispensable part of language acquisition, lest students find themselves abroad making irredeemable faux pas.

If my experience as an Arabic teacher has taught me anything, it’s that you can never fully anticipate what is going to come out of students' mouths. While most days are filled with harmless, run-of-the-mill grammar and vocabulary exercises, the occasional issue like the one I’ve mentioned here will undoubtedly arise. By establishing a foundation of sensitivity, open-mindedness, and respect from the start of our classes, students will hopefully interact with the material accordingly, and should someone err—and someone most definitely will—then we should use it as a learning opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the culture behind the language.

Jermaine Butler is a Ph.D. student in Ethnomusicology and Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures at Indiana University, Bloomington. He has also worked for several years with Indiana University's Summer Language Workshop as an Arabic Instructor and Tutor. His research currently centers around the relationship between race and musical performance in the Arabian Peninsula. Aside from his research, Jermaine also performs with the Bloomington Silk Road Ensemble.