Teaching about Judaism, Christianity & Islam

A MiddleWeb Blog


history_logo-bWe welcome Lauren S. Brown as a regular contributor to MiddleWeb’s Future of History blog. Lauren is an experienced middle and high school history teacher and teacher educator. She has already contributed these posts over the summer: 3 Ideas to Better Prepare History Students and How Do We Teach about History’s Tragedies?

Teaching about Judaism, Christianity and Islam is a staple in many middle school world history and culture classes.

Often taught early in the school year in a unit on the Middle East, the topic affords teachers the opportunity to correct many stereotypes and misconceptions students have.

#1: Basic Vocabulary Confusion

painted_religion_signs 190 cresentStudents are often confused about the difference between the terms “Islam” and “Muslim.” Make sure students know that “Muslim” can be used as an adjective or noun, but that Islam is the name of the religion. (See differencebetween.net). This has now been complicated by the terms “Islamist” and “Islamism” which generally refer to extremist political ideology. (Note that there is considerable controversy about these terms, so read up a bit before explaining to students.) Students should also be clear that all Arabs are not Muslim and not all Muslims are Arabs.

painted_religion_signs 190 cross wSome students mistakenly believe that “Catholic” is a synonym for “Christian.” While you needn’t teach an entire lesson on the Protestant Reformation, some explanation should be given up front so students understand the essential differences among Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox branches. Wikipedia has a good chart that illustrates this, but also check out this one from a project at Macauley Honors College at CUNY. It includes a similar chart for Islam and Judaism (scroll down the page) that will be helpful in explaining the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims as well as Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism.

painted_religion_signs 190 starStudents sometimes question whether Jews are a race as well as members of a religious group. This is because for thousands of years, Jews have behaved and been treated as an ethnic or racial group, not just as adherents of a religion. This is an important, though complex, sociological point. While it is tempting to simply ignore this when teaching middle school, it is something that many students may already sense, though they don’t know how to describe it. Many of them know about Hitler and the Holocaust and that Jews were discriminated against as a race. Whether or not someone was religiously observant was irrelevant in that context. Address this head on. Jewfaq.org offers a clear explanation of this complicated issue and the Pew Research Center offers further insight about Jewish Americans.

#2: The Names for God

Below is a misleading chart, found in many commonly used textbooks.

Religion Name for God
Christianity God
Islam Allah
Judaism Yaweh

While some non-Jews and many textbooks refer to the Jewish God as “Yaweh,” Jews themselves do not use this word. And in English, Jews say, “God.” Similarly, the word “Allah” is the Arabic word for God. If you are a Christian who lives in Egypt and speaks Arabic, you would use the word, “Allah” not “God.” The first part of the Islamic creed, the Shahada, is often misleadingly translated in middle school textbooks as “There is no God but Allah.” This gives students the impression that Muslims have a different God than Christians do. To fully translate this into English, you would say, “There is no God but God.”

The key point that students should walk away with is that all three of these religions believe in the same God. To use the chart I gave above is completely misleading for students because it suggests that each religion believes in different ones. The God for all three is the God who created Adam and Eve, the God of Noah and the flood, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And the God of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt.

Christians also have the New Testament which describes Jesus as the son of God. And Muslims have the Koran, which is the word of God as revealed to the prophet Mohammed. We have an opportunity here to stress the commonality of the three religions.

#3: The Holy Books

generic holy man w text 250Similarly, textbook-related worksheets often have students fill in the blanks for the three different holy books: the Bible, the Torah and the Koran. Again, this is misleading and incomplete. Students need to understand that the Jewish Torah is the same text as the Christian’s Old Testament. While interpretations may differ, the text is the same. Filling in the blanks in such a worksheet (aside from being questionable practice in a history class) prevents students from making some significant connections.

#4: Geography & Islam

Many students (and adults) understandably link Islam to the Middle East. And when we teach these three religions as part of ancient history courses, we emphasize the point that all three have roots in the Middle East. But many students do not realize that Islam spread far beyond the Middle East, just as Judaism and Christianity did.

We should explicitly teach two key points:

  1. The geographic region we know as the Middle East has people of all different religions, not just Muslims.
  2. There are substantial Muslim populations in South Asia, East Asia and Africa, as well as quickly growing populations in Europe and the United States. Of course, if you teach in a community with a significant Muslim population, there will be far more awareness of this. The graph below from The Pew Research Center is illuminating, pointing out that there are three times the number of Muslims in South and East Asia as there are in the Middle East, as well as more in Africa and Europe combined than in the Middle East.

Regional-Distrib-Muslims-Pew#5: Islam & Terrorism

Unfortunately, I don’t think that it is possible to discuss Islam without directly addressing the issue of Islamism and terrorism. Whether you have Muslim students or not, it is imperative to teach students that being Muslim does not in any way define one automatically as anti-American or a terrorist. If you don’t bring this up, you are ignoring an elephant in the room and missing a teachable moment.

The following resources may be useful background for teachers to guide classroom discussions.

A final consideration

In the United States today, approximately 7 out of 10 Americans identify as Christian. Your classroom might have only Christians. But increasingly, this is less likely to be true. You may or may not know the religious identity of your students. Some may be atheist, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, or may have other beliefs. Be careful not to make assumptions about your students’ religious backgrounds, but do consider what you do know in your instructional decisions.

19_regionDistribution 570

My post only scratches the surface of a complicated topic. There are many more misconceptions and pedagogical concerns than can be addressed here. Please share any successes, questions, and resources in the comments below. Additionally, I have included some resources I hope are helpful.

Additional resources:

  • FirstAmendmentCenter.org – a pdf guide to teachers about teaching religion in schools in the context of First Amendment rights. (see chapter 9).

Lauren S. Brown

Lauren S. Brown (@USHistoryIdeas) has taught U.S. history, sociology and world geography in public middle and high schools in the Midwest. She currently teaches 8th grade U.S. history in suburban Chicago. Lauren has also supervised pre-service social studies teachers and taught social studies methods courses. Her degrees include an M.A. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her blog U.S. History Ideas for Teachers is insightful and packed with resources.

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