What the spring equinox means to Rufai Sufis

For people all over the world, the spring equinox is symbolic of renewal, rejuvenation and revitalization. For a group of Sufis in Kosovo, it is the mark of something much more. It is at this time that members of the Rufai branch of Sufism – Islamic mysticism – hold an annual ritual ceremony wherein they celebrate the birth of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and a revered figure in Islam. The ceremony also commemorates the celebration of the Persian New Year, Nowruz. The uniqueness of this ceremony is exemplified by music, chanting and dancing, fused with the clashing of cymbals and incantations of prayers in the languages of Arabic, Turkish and Albanian.

Photo Credit: Faisal Anwar

Photo Credit: Faisal Anwar

As men chant and sway in conjunction with one another, Sheikh Adrihusein Shehu, who presides over the practice today in Kosovo, removes an iron needle known as a zarf from the mihrab – the enclosed prayer space – behind him, blesses it with his lips, and inserts it slowly into the cheek of those taking partaking in the ritual.

The practice is said to be painless. Shehu’s eldest son, Sejjid Xhemal, expresses that “it is a good feeling, I feel spiritually stronger.” He also emphasized that those partaking are neither intoxicated nor in a trance, but that they are conscious of their practice.

During a tradition Nowruz ritual, a member of the Sufi sect pierces himself with a zarf - an iron skewer. [Credit: Ferdi Limani/Al Jazeera]

During a tradition Nowruz ritual, a member of the Sufi sect pierces himself with a zarf – an iron skewer. [Credit: Ferdi Limani/Al Jazeera]

The practice is rooted in an ancient tradition founded by a spiritual leader Pir Sejjid Amhed Er Rufai, whose practice is upheld until this day. “Our founder Pir Sejjid Ahmed Er Rufai made a miracle in his time to show others that God exists, and now we do this for tradition,” Xhemal said in an interview with Al Jazeera.

Friar Ivo, a celebrated Tanenbaum Peacemaker in Action and Catholic Franciscan interfaith worker in Bosnia, praised Sufism by stating that Sufi spirituality and practice is “very dedicated to peace and cooperation,” and that practitioners “are open to other religious experiences.” Friar Ivo expressed that despite Sufism having different branches, as a whole it should be should be celebrated.

In Kosovo, a relatively young country still recovering from political turmoil, Sheikh Shehu preaches a profound message of peace, tolerance and understanding, calling on his followers to look past incidental differences and to look towards transcendental commonalities.

“We all have faith, but in form we are different … one goes to church, one to synagogue, one to the mosque. But we are all going because of belief in God. We must turn toward love, who gives you the right to hate?” said Shehu in the interview with Al Jazeera.

Prior to the start of the Nowruz ritual. [Credit: Ferdi Limani/Al Jazeera]

Prior to the start of the Nowruz ritual. [Credit: Ferdi Limani/Al Jazeera]

In a world where we too often find the prevalence of darkness and hate, Shehu and his followers offer a radical and compelling message:
One of illumination and love.

Agree to (Respectfully) Disagree

Agree to (Respectfully) Disagree
by Marisa Fasciano

Overview: How to teach students to respectfully engage with peers of differing religious belief systems.

Most educators would agree that it’s important for students to respect classmates with different religious or nonreligious beliefs. But what if the doctrine or practices of the belief system in question contradict students’ values or marginalize or limit their identity group? Or what if a student has experienced microaggressions or harassment from peers of a different religious tradition? How do you respond when a student asks, “They don’t respect me, so why should I respect them?”

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) individuals make up one identity group that has experienced unequal treatment within certain religious traditions. According to a 2013 survey of LGBT Americans by the Pew Research Center, a vast majority describe Islam (84 percent), the Mormon Church (83 percent), the Catholic Church (79 percent) and evangelical churches (73 percent) as unfriendly toward them. This perception is corroborated by another Pew survey of the general American public. Although support for gay marriage continues to increase (just over half of Americans favor it), “opposition to gay marriage—and to societal acceptance of homosexuality more generally—is rooted in religious attitudes, such as the belief that engaging in homosexual behavior is a sin.”

If your students feel excluded or offended by faith-based rules and opinions, you can still encourage respectful conversations on religious diversity. Here’s how.

Distinguish People From Doctrines and Practices

Rather than asking your students to respect all belief systems, ask them to practice respecting all people, regardless of their belief system. Students don’t need to agree with their classmates’ religious or nonreligious beliefs, but they should be expected to interact with them in ways that are constructive and civil. In a previous blog post, we highlighted the multiple facets of a person’s identity. Pointing out similarities in some facets amidst differences in others can help students engage in these positive interactions.

Avoid Assumptions Based on Religious Identity

Just because an individual belongs to a particular belief system doesn’t necessarily mean he or she agrees with all of its tenets and practices. In fact, in some cases, a majority of adherents disagree with decisions of the leadership. For instance, a survey by Univision found that 59 percent of Catholics in the United States think the church should let women become priests, a belief that contradicts the current decision of church leadership.

Within Islam, vocal and active feminist movements aim to counteract misogynistic interpretations of Islamic texts by male imams. Rather than abandoning their faith in the quest for gender equality, many Muslim women combat oppression by appealing to Islamic texts and laws. For example, one of Tanenbaum’s Peacemakers in Action, Jamila Afghani, created the first holistic gender-sensitive imam training program in Kabul, Afghanistan.

By exposing your students to diverse perspectives within a particular faith, you help diminish the likelihood that they’ll incorrectly attribute specific attitudes and opinions to all individual members of a religion.

Keep in Mind That Emotional Reactions Have a History

Prior to walking into your classroom, students may have experienced bullying or negative comments about themselves and the belief systems to which they belong. In extreme cases, teachers have even made questionable or inappropriate comments to students about their religious traditions. An awareness of this potential history will put students’ emotional reactions into context and underscore the importance of creating inclusive, respectful learning environments where students are encouraged to abide by established rules of engagement.

Provide Tools for Respectful Disagreement

Educators can give students tools to respectfully disagree with people of different faiths, even if those in marginalized groups are the ones being disrespectful. By sharing these tools ahead of time, before conflicts based on religious identity arise, you will be better prepared to address and resolve such conflicts in the moment. You can refer back to what was already discussed, rather than having to come up with a response on the fly.

One tool that establishes a firm foundation for respectful disagreement is Tanenbaum’s Respecting Each Other lesson plan, which asks students to define what respect looks, feels and sounds like, and then to create their own rules of respect. If you spot any behavior that breaks these rules, you can correct it with greater credibility than if you had made up the rules yourself. Students can—and often do—take on the role of enforcer, holding each other accountable for honoring the agreements they’ve made together.

Krister Stendahl, an accomplished theologian, created another helpful tool that’s specific to religious differences. Here are his Three Rules of Religious Understanding:

  1. When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
  1. Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  1. Leave room for “holy envy.” (By this, Stendahl means that you should be willing to recognize elements that you admire in the other religious tradition or faith and that you wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith.)

If everyone obeyed these rules, what a more peaceful world it would be! The unfortunate reality is that, in spite of an individual’s best efforts to follow guidelines for respect, the reactions of others may be angry and intolerant. When a student asks, “They don’t respect me, so why should I respect them?” remind him to distinguish people from tenets and practices, avoid assumptions, consider the emotional history and remember the tools of respectful disagreement.

Fasciano is an education program associate at Tanenbaum.

Teaching Diverse Beliefs in Homogenous Classrooms by Sara Wicht

Here are some suggestions for teaching about diverse beliefs—religious and nonreligious—in classrooms where that type of diversity might not be present.

After our recent webinar, Religious Diversity in the Classroom: Applications for Elementary Educators, participants expressed concern about how to teach about a diversity of religious and nonreligious beliefs in a homogenous classroom. We feel this may be a worry shared by other members of the Teaching Tolerance and Tanenbaum communities and would like to make some recommendations.

Step One: Ask yourself, “What does diversity mean?” 

Our individual biases may include looking at diversity through a single lens. At Teaching Tolerance, we sometimes hear from teachers that it can be difficult to include multicultural representation in all-white classrooms. However, just because a classroom has only white students does not mean it is not diverse. Diversity goes beyond a single identifier.

Diversity includes multiple categories—race, ethnicity, language, gender, sexual orientation, ability/disability, religion/belief system—and consists of the characteristics we use to define ourselves as well those constructed by others. Educators can effectively teach about the diversity of religious and nonreligious belief by teaching this content with an eye toward the multiple facets of students’ identities, visible and invisible.

Pointing out these multiple facets establishes intersectionality* as a valuable lens for educators and students alike. Even in homogenous classrooms, a focus on intersectionality helps build awareness of the many categories of identity that make each person and his or her experiences unique. Doing so fosters a culture of respect and prepares students to be respectfully curious about beliefs similar to and different from their own.

Step Two: Point out the diversity within diversity.

Being aware of the diversity within religions and belief systems is critical to continued learning about one another and the world. For example, as illustrated by a 2013 survey conducted by the Pew Research Foundation, there’s tremendous diversity within Christianity. Christian traditions in the United States include mainline Protestant churches, evangelical Protestant churches, Catholic churches, Mormon churches, Greek Orthodox churches and historically black churches, among many others.

The diversity within Christianity extends even further. For example, the Pew study reveals 16 unique affiliations within evangelical Protestant churches and six within historically black churches. What we may have thought to be a homogenous belief system is, in fact, quite diverse.

Step Three: Point to the diversity of belief systems—nationally.

In addition to highlighting the diversity found within individual belief systems, it’s important to expose students to national trends and to the diversity that exists beyond their classroom. The students in our classrooms at large represent a variety of unique identities that are different from and more diverse than those of students even 10 years ago.

A 2014 Pew report indicates that, not only is the Millennial generation (the youngest adult generation, 18 to 33-year-olds) the most racially and ethnically diverse ever, but they are also less religiously affiliated than their older counterparts. Among religiously unaffiliated Millennials, three in 10 describe themselves as atheists or agnostics; the remainder say they practice no particular religion.

Step Four: Use texts as windows.

Another way to expose students in more homogenous classrooms to religious and nonreligious diversity is through texts. Texts can function as windows—opportunities to look into the lives of others, including the religious and nonreligious beliefs and practices of people outside their experience. As demonstrated in the webinar Religious Diversity in the Classroom: Applications for Elementary Educators, conversations spurred by the voices in texts allow students to engage with new and multiple perspectives and identities.

One example of a text that can offer a window for students unfamiliar with the Hutterite faith is A War on the Peaceful. This story describes a religious group emigrating from Germany to the United States in order to seek religious asylum and practice their way of life in peace, only to be met by continued persecution. Another window text option for students unfamiliar with Islam is Zahrah’s Hijab. This story illustrates how preconceptions about religion can lead us to behave cruelly but can also help us understand each other better.

Additional titles can be found in the after-session pack for the Applications for Elementary Educators webinar as well as in Perspectives for a Diverse America, Teaching Tolerance’s K-12 curriculum.

* the social, economic and political reality that identity categories and systems of oppression connect, overlap and influence one another

Wicht is the senior manager of teaching and learning for Teaching Tolerance.

Believe It or Not

By: Marisa Fasciano

Overview: Four ways to include religiously unaffiliated students in classroom content about religion.

Editor’s note:This is the third post of a three-part series that answers questions posed by participants in Fostering a Culture of Respect, a joint webinar with Teaching Tolerance that addresses how educators can help their students feel safe, supported and respected when discussing belief systems. The first blog post offered tips for promoting empathy during class discussions on religious and nonreligious beliefs, and the second blog post suggested strategies for encouraging students to ask about different beliefs respectfully. 

A health teacher in Seattle made this thoughtful comment following the webinar Fostering a Culture of Respect: “Many of my students are from other cultures who highly value religion, and it has been a challenge for me to illustrate to my classes that everyone has a spiritual/values-specific identity, whether it is associated with an organized religion or not.”

The need to respect religious differences applies to the full spectrum of belief and nonbelief, from the most devout adherent of a religion to the most committed atheist. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion is rapidly on the rise, with one-fifth of the U.S. public falling into that category in 2012.

When developing learning environments that foster respect for religious diversity, it’s important to consider the experiences of religiously unaffiliated students. Here are four ways that educators can help such students feel included in classroom content about religion:

1. Explore How People Answer the Big Questions

Big Questions are questions that matter to all humans. They ask about the nature of the universe and the purpose of human existence. How did the universe begin? Why are we here? How do we decide between right and wrong? Are we alone in the universe? What happens after we die? Religion is one way that people have tried to answer such questions.  Science and philosophy are others.

By expanding upon religious content to include discussions of secular approaches to the Big Questions, educators can ensure that lessons are welcoming to all students. For example, in an elementary-level unit on the origins of the universe, educators can introduce creation stories from diverse religious traditions alongside the Big Bang Theory. Older students can balance research on religious beliefs with an exploration of secular ethical philosophies, like humanism.

2. Highlight Common Values and Morals

It is striking how religions with vastly different origins and practices, from all parts of the world, share many of the same values and morals. For example, several different religious texts contain a variation of The Golden Rule, or ethic of reciprocity. Tanenbaum has assembled Golden Rules from 12 different religious traditions, including the following:

• Islam: “Not one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” Fortieth Hadith of an-Nawawi, 13

• Hinduism: “This is the sum of duty: do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.” The Mahabharata, 5:1517

• Taoism: “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.” T’ai Shang Kan Ying P’ien

Other moral principles that are common to many religions include respecting life, helping those in need, forgiving each other and taking care of the earth. These principles can transcend their religious contexts and apply to secular living as well, so highlighting them helps increase the relevance of religious content to unaffiliated students.

3. Make Connections Between Religious and Secular Concepts

Students who do not identify with any religion can still relate to such religious concepts as ritual, symbolism and celebration. Educators can enhance discussions of religious rituals—formal ceremonies or series of acts that are always performed in the same way—with examples of secular rituals, such as graduation ceremonies or athletic events.

When teaching about religious symbolism, such as the meaning of foods served at a Passover Seder (e.g., bitter herbs=the bitterness of slavery) or what the ashes of Ash Wednesday represent (e.g., contrition and humility), educators can promote mutual understanding and include secular literary and metaphysical concepts.

When discussing how students celebrate different holidays, educators can reduce the risk of marginalizing nonreligious students by including secular holidays like Earth Day or Peace Day.

4. Point Out the Diversity Within Diversity

Just as all members of a particular religion do not practice alike, all religiously unaffiliated people do not define their relationship to a deity/deities or to religion in the same way. The Pew study found that 28 percent of unaffiliated Americans consider themselves atheist or agnostic, and the remainder describe themselves as “nothing in particular.” More than a third of unaffiliated Americans characterize themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious,” and two-thirds say they believe in God.

Tanenbaum refers to differences within a particular group as “diversity within diversity.” By making students aware of this notion, students are less likely to stereotype and make assumptions about their classmates, including religiously unaffiliated ones. For example, religious students might be less inclined to equate the lack of a particular religious identity with the lack of a spiritual or values-based identity.

So the same strategies that foster respect for students of diverse religions can be applied to students without religious affiliation. In short, educators can find common ground to create mutual understanding among students while still acknowledging and honoring the differences that enrich each student’s individual identity.

Additional Resources:

A K-4 lesson plan that helps students explore the Big Questions through the metaphor of a garden

A K-6 lesson plan about being unique and having things in common

A high school curriculum on the Golden Rule from Scarboro Missions

Fasciano is an Education Program Associate at the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.

How Do I Ask That?

How Do I Ask That?
Sara Wicht

Overview: Encourage students to respectfully ask questions and make statements about other belief systems.

Editor’s note: This post is part two of a three-part series that answers questions posed by participants in Fostering a Culture of Respect, a joint webinar with the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding that addresses how educators can help their students feel safe, supported and respected when discussing belief systems. The first blog responded to the question: “How can I coach students to respond to others with empathy and respect?”

In the webinar Fostering a Culture of Respect, one participant asked, “How can I encourage students to respectfully ask questions about identities different from their own?”

It’s important to remind students that identities consist of various characteristics, such as gender, ethnicity, race, language, sexual orientation, family composition, relationship status, religion/belief system and socioeconomic status. We use these characteristics to define ourselves, and others often use them to construct an impression of our identities. Yet, these impressions are also informed by what we don’t know and by our implicit biases.

Take, for example, a recent survey from the Pew Research Center measuring familiarity and warmness toward various religious and nonreligious groups in the United States. Jews, Catholics and evangelical Christians received the “warmest” ratings. We know, however, that our classrooms also include children of Mormon, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu faith, among others, as well as atheist children—children whose belief systems received “colder, more negative” ratings.

The Pew survey also reports that personally knowing someone from a religious group is linked to having more positive views of that group. The inverse is true, too. Not knowing someone can lead to more negative impressions and opinions.

These types of biases seep into classrooms, and it’s important to address them with students—through formal instruction and in moments when you observe students uncomfortably questioning or critiquing their peers’ belief systems. Consider the following three scenarios.

Scenario 1: Before class starts, you overhear a group of students talking about their weekend activities. One student enthusiastically shares that she had a great weekend at a church shut-in with her younger brother. Another student responds critically, “Weird! What would you do for a whole weekend at church?”

Scenario 2: In a unit on Mayan religion, you explain that native Mesoamerican people worshiped deities found in nature —the sun, rain and moon. A student in class shares that his family doesn’t go to church but are devoted to the Earth. The class laughs.

Scenario 3: Most of your students are Catholics or evangelical Christians. You have one Muslim student who wears a hijab. In class one day, a student asks her, “Wouldn’t you love it if you didn’t have to wear that?”

Asking questions about belief systems different from their own can be difficult for students. Insensitive questions or statements and defensive responses are neither entirely uncommon nor always intentional. But how might a teacher respond to the above scenarios?

Scenario 1: Tell students that, instead of leading with a judgmental word or statement, they can begin with, “That’s different from what I’ve ever done.” This type of reaction will help build sensitivity and respect and can prevent the questioned students from being on the defensive. Encourage students to follow up with, “Tell me more.”

Scenario 2: Deal with the laughter right away by stating that put-downs will not be tolerated in the classroom. Follow up with, “I think we can find many differences in our belief systems, but these differences add to the richness and diversity of our class.” Tell students that, instead of laughing, they could have asked, “What are some of your family’s traditions?” and “How do you celebrate the Earth?”

Scenario 3: Remind students that they can express their curiosity in a thoughtful and respectful manner. For example, they might say, “What’s it like to wear a hijab every day?” Or, “What is the meaning behind the hijab?” You can also encourage students to connect with their classmates by sharing similar experiences. For example a student might say, “I wear a St. Christopher medal around my neck because my family believes he protects us.”

Having in-class conversations about what constitutes respectful statements and questions can be a turning point for students. Not only do they offer students an opportunity to weigh in with any concerns or questions, but they also help build a respectful school climate—even when students find themselves in discussions about belief systems on their own.

Stay tuned for our third blog answering participants’ questions. It will address how to include nonreligious students in classroom discussions about religion.

Wicht is the senior manager of teaching and learning for Teaching Tolerance.

Responding With Empathy and Respect to Belief Systems

Responding With Empathy and Respect to Belief Systems
By: Sara Wicht
Senior Manager for Teaching and Learning at Teaching Tolerance

Overview: Tanenbaum and Teaching Tolerance share tips for coaching students during class discussions on religious and nonreligious beliefs.

This year, Teaching Tolerance teamed up with the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding to bring educators a webinar series called Religious Diversity in the Classroom.

The second webinar in the series, Fostering a Culture of Respect, offered ways for educators to help students feel safe, supported and respected when discussing religious and nonreligious belief systems. The webinar and after-session pack are available online if you have not had a chance to look at these resources yet.

Participants asked some great questions during and after Fostering a Culture of Respect, and we’d like to respond to a few we think are relevant to many educators. In this blog, we’ll address this question:
How can I coach students to respond to others with empathy and respect?

Hearing these prompts from you can help students engage more empathetically and respectfully during conversations about religious and nonreligious beliefs.

1. “Find out more.” Cultivate an inquisitive attitude in students by encouraging them to seek out information from a variety of voices within a given belief system. Ask students to formulate and pose open-ended questions. Here are some examples of questions that can guide research and in-class discussions:

  • What is the origin of the religious or nonreligious belief system?
  • In what parts of the world is the belief system practiced?
  • What are some texts that describe or include the belief system?
  • What are the foundations of the belief system?
  • How is the belief system perceived around the world?
  • Do you know anyone who practices this belief system? What do they say about what they believe?

2. “Be aware of the pitfalls of easy comparisons.” When dealing with academic content related to religion, students will encounter ideas about deities, time, the purpose of life, who we are as individuals and who we are as members of our communities, among others. These ideas may be hard to grasp or may feel foreign to students because they have developed out of many traditions, which are sometimes very different from students’ individual traditions.

Students may attempt to contextualize these new ideas by comparing them to concepts from their own traditions or cultural practices. Although this is a helpful practice in gaining a better understanding of ourselves through the exploration of the world around us, it is important they understand and discuss religious and nonreligious views without distorting or oversimplifying them. Comparisons not given thoughtful inquiry can lead to stereotypes and stereotyping. That means not making hasty comparisons between belief systems or using comparisons as the go-to way to discuss another belief system.

3. “Avoid generalized or simplified statements.” These types of statements imply easy answers such as “Islam is …” or “Hinduism means … ” or “Atheists think … ” Instead, when discussing religious and nonreligious beliefs with students, remind them that religions are internally diverse, dynamic and embedded in culture. Use sources that reflect and provide examples of these qualities.

Students can practice being more nuanced in their thinking by articulating the subtleties they see. For example, they might say, “This text presents Islam as …” or “The author here indicates that … ” Many religious traditions use storytelling to illustrate central concepts, such as parables in Christianity or Native American oral histories. These can also be great sources for literacy instruction on imagery, symbolism and allusion—and help students to point to nuances in meaning, interpretation and practice.

4. “See religious and nonreligious traditions as diverse and dynamic.” If students are critical of all or part of a particular belief system because it contradicts their values, ask them to find out more about how different adherents of that belief system criticize or propose changing the religion or practices in question. Emphasize, too, that religious and nonreligious belief systems are internally diverse. In Hinduism, for example, some have a personal god and others deny the presence of a deity. Find diverse voices from within the belief system being explored.

5. “Be honest about the limits of our understanding.” Acknowledge and help students to accept that there are limits to our understanding about belief systems. While we can learn a lot about them, we cannot completely understand the lived experiences of people or how their belief system influences their identity and daily lives. It’s also important not to turn individual students into spokespersons of particular religious or nonreligious beliefs.

Stay tuned for additional follow-up blogs that address participants’ questions. The next one will answer this question: How can I respectfully ask questions about identities different from my own?

Wicht is the senior manager for teaching and learning at Teaching Tolerance.