Did early Islam benefit women at the time? To anchor our HIST-100 in-class debate, our teacher provided us with historical sources that described the religion as it was centuries ago. At first, the class discussed interesting interpretations of ancient Islam’s messages on gender, but the conversation quickly turned to Islam today. Suddenly, we were in unknown territory. Classmates rushed to make broad, somewhat unfounded claims about the religion’s role in contemporary culture. My teacher quickly shut down the debate, because we had strayed too far from her provided sources. Frankly, we did not have the knowledge or perspective of different cultures to sustain an informed, productive conversation about this topic.
Perhaps a good question is not whether Islam has treated women well across the centuries, but why my classmates so easily jumped beyond the prompt, offering criticisms of a culture to which most of them do not belong, nor have ever experienced. My history class abandoned the central topic of our debate in favor of another that was not based on concrete evidence, but on unsubstantiated biases and misconceptions. It was impossible to ignore the dominance of one type of opinion in the classroom: the Western perspective.
Students too often evaluate different cultures by their own standards, without properly appreciating or understanding the contexts of these cultures. My class attempted to view Islam through Western eyes, praising behaviors and values that were familiar to us and criticizing foreign behaviors. As the debate proceeded, students magnified their differences and bred ignorance, rather than promoting any sort of educational front. To be clear, this is not a criticism of my teacher for hosting a debate in which students can learn plenty from well-researched discussion and the exchange of ideas.
The key term here is well-researched. My classmates and I had been studying the rise of Islam, but we were in no way prepared to leap from the past to the present day. Without researching the gender dynamics and community expectations of modern-day Islam, we made broad and unfounded assumptions. We evaluated these assumptions against Western values, ignoring the values upon which other cultures are structured. Such ignorance is always dangerous, especially within the study of foreign countries, religions and cultures as it denies the validity of other perspectives and beliefs; it asserts that a single, ill-informed perspective is superior to all others.
My teacher did a good job of halting the conversation before serious damage could be inflicted. Andover students, however, must attempt to understand cultural standards and how they may differ from the values of other cultures. We must prioritize mutual knowledge and understanding, especially in a community as diverse as our own. We need to stop imposing a Western perspective and learn to see from a more international and informed viewpoint. It is important to respect the multitude of cultural values that thrive at this school.