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Los Angeles County Teachers Explore Islam in the Contemporary World
Master Danny Kalanduyan leads a workshop on the kulintang, a traditional Filipino percussion instrument -- part of the rich cultural heritage of the Muslim minority in Mindanao and Sulu.

Los Angeles County Teachers Explore Islam in the Contemporary World

Workshop sheds light on the diverse forms and meanings of Islam in the daily lives of Muslims.

Jonathan Friedlander Email JonathanFriedlander

"Some of my Muslim students have been in crisis since September 11, 2001," one teacher wrote. "The tenor and teaching of this seminar will help me to ensure that I am part of the solution for them, and not the problem."

Sixteen Los Angeles area teachers had the opportunity this summer to spend two weeks in an intensive, for credit, workshop on the practice of Islam in daily life. The workshop, entitled "Islam in the Contemporary World," was held at UCLA July 27-August 8 under the sponsorship of four regional studies centers of the UCLA International Institute. The intensive series of lectures and discussions presented an interdisciplinary, cross-cultural exploration of the diverse forms and meanings of Islam in the daily lives of ordinary Muslims living in the United States, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and South and Southeast Asia.

Workshop leader and scholar Sherry Vatter (UCLA and California State University at Long Beach) assembled an able cast of presenters to discuss popular Islamic traditions from many perspectives, including those of religion, history, politics, anthropology, community health sciences, literature, art, and music. The workshop opened with a screening of Rainer Werner Fassbinder?s 1974 film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. This was followed by an introduction to the issues of unity and diversity in Islam. Over the next two weeks, participating teachers came to appreciate how different social and historical contexts give rise to popular Islamic practices and understandings that vary by region, class, and gender, and how parallel contexts and interregional connections sometimes produce similarities between different regions. The workshop concluded with a delicious lunch at a local African restaurant.

Topics examined by session leaders included:

  • Popular religious practices in West Africa, Iran, Pakistan, and Southeast Asia
  • Islamic influences on domestic practices in Central Asia
  • Music and Islam, highlighted by a performance of Islamic Filipino music and a demonstration of Islamic influences on the music of Southeastern Europe
  • Islamic influences on popular health practices in Africa and the Middle East
  • Islamic fabrics and garments from the Philippines
  • Islamic themes in African and Middle Eastern literature
  • The experience of Muslim immigrants to the West under post-9/11 conditions, explored in a roundtable discussion with three immigrants -- an Indonesian, a Palestinian, and a Senegalese -- living in Los Angeles

Each teacher participating was assigned to design an instructional unit to help their students appreciate the unity and diversity of popular Islamic forms across regions and understand the reasons for similarities and differences. An important practical focus was the use of internet resources. Two online sessions were devoted to critically evaluating web sites and modeling how to enhance critical understanding and the use of material available on the web.

In written comments after the close of the workshop, participants suggested that their experience would make a significant difference in the classroom:

"Some of my Muslim students have been in crisis since September 11, 2001," one teacher wrote. "The tenor and teaching of this seminar will help me to ensure that I am part of the solution for them, and not the problem."

One educator expressed disappointment at the limited coverage of radical Islamic movements:

"While the Arab/Islamic world was portrayed as being mostly composed of peace-loving souls, I would like to know what they are doing to take care of extremists in their ranks. The workshop did not come close to addressing this problem."

Yet participants praised the program?s overall relevance and gave it high marks for being interesting and professional:

"I appreciate the sense of professionalism and camaraderie nurtured in these sessions."

"I was impressed by the global approach. It must have been a daunting task to bring together these different academic disciplines to provide such an expansive view of Muslim communities and cultures. It was particularly interesting to learn about the variety of religious and cultural observances. And it was useful to have a contemporary context to understand the problems and social issues that Muslims confront.?

"I enthusiastically recommend this course for educators who are interested in the rich diversity of the Muslim world"

The program was sponsored by the UCLA International Institute-affiliated centers for Africa, Europe, Middle East, and Southeast Asian Studies. For an outline of the workshop and information on other precollegiate outreach programs offered by the UCLA International Institute, contact Outreach Director Jonathan Friedlander, jfriedlander@international.ucla.edu, telephone: 310-206-8631.

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