Islam in schools: What parents should know

Islam in schools: What parents should know


Seventh grade world history teacher from M.L. King Magnet school teaches about Islam and its contributions to world history.

George Walker IV / The Tennessean

In recent weeks, some parents and legislators have raised concerns about how Islam is taught in schools.

Some said there was an overemphasis on Islam, while others said that schools were indoctrinating students in Islam.

Educators and state education officials say it’s a misconception that Islam is emphasized more than other religions in social studies classrooms. And they want parents to know that teachers are not proselytizing for any religion.

As Tennessee seventh-graders finish a unit on Islamic civilization for the year, here’s what educators want parents to know:

World history at a glance

Students learn major world religions — Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Shinto and Islam — in the context of world history in sixth grade, seventh grade and once in high school. The focus on each religion depends on the context and influence of the time period, according to an email from Education Commissioner Candice McQueen addressed to school superintendents.

Here are the time periods covered:

  • Sixth grade: Early civilizations through the decline of the Roman Empire
  • Seventh grade: The Middle Ages to the exploration of the Americas
  • High school: The Industrial Revolution to the contemporary world.

These world history units fall under the state’s social studies standards, which are updated every six years and were last updated in July 2013. A committee of Tennessee teachers developed the standards. Additionally, the standards were available for the public and all Tennessee educators to review and provide feedback.

Teaching about religion

Facts have exact answers, Vanderbilt University religious studies professor Tony Stewart said. Belief is less concrete.

Stewart said there is a distinct difference between teaching Islamic religion and teaching about Islam. The questions that Tennessee teachers ask in their classrooms are rooted in historical facts, he said.

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“To ask if any of these beliefs are true is not an academic question, but a normative question that is defined by the norms and standards of a particular religion and therefore not neutral in any way,” he said. “In the academic study of religion, facts are learned, and questions are formulated that do not depend on belief for their answers.”

If a teacher asked, “What does Sunni Islam teach about how a Muslim should act to reach paradise?” that would have a demonstrable answer, he said.

“That does not require taking a religious position at all,” he said.

What is taught?

“We teach about history,” said veteran Metro Schools social studies teacher Kyle Alexander. “We are talking about origin.”

Alexander, a teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet, said the section on world religions is about putting into context the impact religion and culture has had on the world, including religions such as Islam, Hinduism and Christianity.

The class does use religious documents and text, Alexander noted, but they’re used to help guide students to understand the roots of why major religions believe what they do.

The tract on Islam might look at who Muhammad was and what were his teachings that led to practices, such as the Five Pillars. By looking at the origins, Alexander said, students can then trace historical influence.

“The reality is the Muslim world brought us algebra, ‘One Thousand and One Nights,’ and some can argue it helped bring about the Renaissance,” he said. “There is a lot of influence that that part of the world had on world history.”


At the local level, class tests and quizzes include state standard-aligned questions on world religions. Middle school students take an annual social studies state test. Few questions about world religion were on last year’s social studies field test.

State to review social studies standards

Parental concerns about how Islam is taught in schools have not gone unheard. Based on feedback from educators and stakeholders, as well as results from the field test, the Department of Education will review the social studies standards earlier than usual. A review of the standards begins in January.

Here’s how the review of standards works:

  • The State Board of Education will post the current standards online. The public can review and offer feedback.
  • Educator advisory teams then will use their expertise and the public comments to revise the standards.
  • A Standards Recommendation Committee will review the revised standards. The committee is made up of members appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House.
  • The SRC then recommends the revised standards to the State Board of Education.

Voice your concerns now:

  • Visit the state textbook collection site at Middle Tennessee State University or view the materials posted on the department’s website.
  • Submit comments to the Department of Education or request to speak before the state’s textbook commission. All public comments will be posted on the department’s website.
  • Local school districts may request a waiver to use a book not included on the state-approved textbook list.

Local input

Williamson County Schools: School officials say teachers treat all religious traditions respectfully. They do not proselytize for any religion in their roles as educators.

Franklin Special School District: School officials encourage parents to bring their concerns to educators. Upon parent request, students can leave the class during lessons on Islamic civilization. However, students are expected to learn the same material on their own.

Wilson County Schools: Parents are welcome and encouraged to contact the teacher and/or the principal of the school with questions regarding assignments, said Wilson County Schools Deputy Director of Academics Monty Wilson.

Reach Melanie Balakit at 615-926-1638 and on Twitter @MelanieBalakit.

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Source: Tennessean
Islam in schools: What parents should know


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