Last week, I went to see a lecture hosted by the Middle East Center by a professor from Princeton who specialized in the historical study of the Quran. He was discussing the various men that Islamic texts say Muhammad deputized to oversee the oasis city of Medina on the various occasions upon which he made expeditions to nearby towns and settlements.
The lecture was well presented and would have been engaging, but I found myself struggling to keep up on account of my limited knowledge of the basic story of Muhammad’s life and other aspects of fundamental Islamic theology.
To have this gap in my knowledge of a major world faith so starkly exposed was unsettling. As a history major concentrating in Western Europe, I can tell you more about the various permutations of Christianity than you’d ever want to hear, and I went to enough bar mitzvahs as a kid that I can run through the basic tenets of Judaism off the top of my head. But as far as the foundational theology of Islam goes, I’ve got very little.
This initially surprised me, but when I thought back on how I got most of my knowledge of religion, it made sense. I’ve never taken a class in comparative religion. What I do know I picked up through personal experience or secondhand exposure.
Both my high school and Penn are nonsectarian and as such, I suspect, are hesitant to include a requirement that students study religion. Correspondingly, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that there are many other students who have wide gaps in their knowledge of major world faiths. Especially in the College, which aims to expose students to a broad range of disciplines and ideas, this is really inexcusable. I have another professor who is fond of saying that to be an educated person, there are certain things you just have to know. This is true, and basic familiarity with the elemental beliefs of the major world faiths is is one of those things you just have to have if you want to call yourself well-informed.
Take my own case as an example of why this maxim, which seems at first to be indefensibly categorical, actually holds water. The politics of the Middle East are undoubtedly among the most pressing and urgent issues of our time. They will continue to shape and define the world in which I live. My understanding of events in Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere may determine who I vote for in the next presidential election. And yet, though I understand that the politics of that region are often defined by conflict between groups with deep-seated theological disagreements, I find myself unable to summarize what the nature of those disagreements are in any but the most simplistic terms. This does not speak well of the value of my opinion in discussions I find myself having on a weekly basis.
The study of religion in an academic setting has something to offer even for those whose exposure to faiths before college was broader than mine. I went to an Episcopalian elementary school with weekly chapel services, and yet I think I gained a better understanding of Christianity in the 10-week New Testament seminar I took in my last semester of high school than I did in all those hours of chapel or any of the myriad history essays I’ve written about the Protestant Reformation.
I certainly agree that yet another curricular requirement to fulfill is the last thing that Penn students need. However, if the College aims to produce well-rounded, well-informed students ready to be good citizens of a democratic nation, a comparative religion requirement is called for — at least in the three major Abrahamic faiths which have shaped the world in which we live in ways too numerous to list. I, for one, think that Quantitative Data Analysis could be merged with Formal Reasoning and Analysis, especially given the notoriously sparse offering of courses which fulfill the latter, but that’s probably my own academic prejudices speaking more than anything else. The College Requirement system could do with a good top-to-bottom overhaul anyhow, but that’s a subject for another day.
ALEC WARD is a College sophomore from Washington, D.C., studying history. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Talking Backward” usually appears every Wednesday.
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