A Weapon of Mass Instruction

Toronto Star
March 26, 2006

Islamic studies teacher addresses controversies – Muslim students surprised by her modern approach.

“When I was crossing into Gaza, I was asked at the check point if I was carrying any weapons. I replied, `Oh yes, my prayer books.”
-Mother Teresa of Calcutta

When Islamic studies lecturer Reem Meshal first walked into class at the University of Toronto, some male Muslim students gasped audibly.

I get different reactions,” laughs Meshal, who has been teaching Introduction to Islam for three years to eclectic groups of students, some older than she is.

“The non-Muslim students look relieved that I’m `normal’ and there are mixed reactions from the Muslim students. Some expect a man or at least a middle-aged woman covered in traditional garb!”

And when Meshal recently addressed Muslim youth on the origin and evolution of women’s rights in the economic, marital, educational and political realms of Islam, as well as the impact of modernity and the controversies it has generated, she saw astonishment on the faces of her audience.
“I see this all the time,” Meshal says. “Either because people come with pre-conceived notions about women in Islam or because they have difficulty with the origins, development and evolution of Islamic theological, philosophical and social thought … or understanding that the broad controversies that shape Islamic theology are outlined and linked to developments in the field of philosophy, law and mysticism.”

For Meshal, 34, this wisdom is her armour as she tries to pass on her intellectual heritage despite the challenges she faces as a Muslim woman.

“Without knowledge, it’s easy to become dis-enchanted (as a Muslim woman). It’s instrumental in helping me find a niche and claim my intellectual and spiritual heritage,” she explains.

Meshal remains unfazed because teaching is her passion. “Some students take this course expecting an easy `A’ because they’re Muslim, and think they know it all. That’s the first hurdle they have to overcome — that I’m not going to give instruction on how to practice their faith, but to teach them about art and architecture, law and philosophy, education and history. So while they’re surprised, once they settle in and begin to learn, they’re insatiable.”

One of her Muslim students said, “I love this class because we can’t ask these questions back home.”

In many Muslim countries questions on subjects such as interfaith marriage, sexual preference or domestic abuse are taboo. Many adults either don’t know the answer or their knowledge is determined by cultural norms rather than Islam, so the answers remain unsatisfactory from a religious perspective.

Meshal says some Pakistani students, for example, are thrilled to be in the class because religion was shoved down their throat back home, while here they can explore all aspects of the faith.

As for the non-Muslim students, many bring myths and stereotypes to class that must be dealt with before any valuable instruction can take place, she says. And sometimes non-Muslim students feel intimidated by the large numbers of Muslims who get into vociferous arguments with each other about interpretations of the scripture.

Meshal was born in Cairo to parents who she says “were culturally conservative but religiously liberal,” and studied in a Saudi Islamic School. But she learned early on that “it was mechanical education and there was no depth, so I had to expand my horizon.” She enrolled at the American University at Cairo where she studied political science and international development.

At 18, Meshal came with her family to settle in Halifax, and obtained a Bachelor’s degree in political science from Dalhousie University. “These disciplines still didn’t satisfy me because I had an avid interest in the Middle East so I thought that a study of Islamic history will certainly give me a good grounding.”

In 1997, Meshal completed her Masters in Islamic Studies at McGill University and this, she says, “was an eye opener and extremely important for me to understand both my faith and the Middle East in modern times.” She’s currently completing her Ph.D. on the interplay between custom and formal Islamic law and continues to work on women’s issues.

Meshal has also undertaken unusual research projects. As a research assistant at Carleton University, she helped research monetary compensation for women victims of war crimes in the 20th century under international law and United Nations conventions. The research, part of a U.N. initiative, was meant to bolster the claims of Palestinian refugee women seeking compensation for confiscation of their lands in 1948.

Obviously, with work like this and her project on the hijab in Canada for the Canadian Council of Women, which is part of a book called The Muslim Veil In North America (Womens Press), Meshal remains in the eye of the storm. What are some controversies she faces as an educator?

“Homosexuality is always a hot button,” Meshal says. “One student last year said `they (homosexuals) should be shot as they were in the past.’ So I tell them that the majority of jurists from the three Sunni schools of law (Shaafi, Hannafi and Maliki) ignored homosexuality, refused to legislate on it or make it the business of the state.

“It’s sad to see some youth are confused and don’t always accept facts. They’ll argue with me, `But Islam says …’ and I inform them that Islam is not a monolith. So, I ask, who said it? Where is it recorded? Which school of thought? And they’re lost — because they’ve been ingrained in one school of thought at home and never taught to question or read.”

Meshal understands where her students come from and helps them to see the light.

“I tell my students that in theory there can be five correct answers to every question because there are five legal schools in Islam,” she says.

“In essence, I teach my class about deen and daulat — state and religion. I present most of Islamic civilization, but let the tradition speak for itself so they can form independent, informed opinions.”

While teaching the origins of Islam, Meshal talked about its ties with Judaism and Christianity and discovered many Muslim students had no idea about the similarity of these traditions.

“It’s a challenge. I see students who come entrenched in stereotypes and prejudice about `the other’ and then I see these dislodged as the class progresses … so it’s a feeling of achievement.”

Meshal believes that religious education by itself puts people in a solitary tower, so the ideal is to combine it with secular education.

“Take the misconception about madrassas,” she says enthusiastically. “Few of my students know that the concept of the Western university, the idea of an educational institution on a campus, is based on the madrassah model in Islam.

“I try to empower them to pursue knowledge as a tradition of their heritage. I tell them that by the 7th century, Muslims had founded the house of wisdom in Baghdad. It was the centre of intellectual thought and a cumulative tradition of the Muslim world.”