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Discovering Religion In The Classroom


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Discovering religion in the classroom
By Brandon Davis
Published: Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

There are eight students in the class, some Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Sikh and Hindu. On the table in front of us are our three, 500-page Pequod packets, compilations of the major Sufi teachings and their contemporary commentators. The name of this course is NES 324: Introduction to Later Sufism, the second in a two-semester series on mystical Islam.

Our professor Michael Barry ’70 rushes in five minutes late but wastes no time getting started. We immediately delve into the previous week’s reading with Barry explaining every sentence in detail, sometimes relying on diagrams on the chalkboard to convey incredibly complex philosophical theories. Though the readings are short, they are so dense that class often feels unfinished. I always leave with at least one lingering question.

Though I am Jewish, Barry’s class is the most intense religious education I have ever received. Judaism in my household was an ethnicity or culture more than religion; it separated us from other Americans, bound us in a tight-knit community and reminded us of a collective history. We identify as Jewish, but our values might be broadly defined as “Western.” It is in Barry’s class on Islam that I have begun to see the significance of Judaism.

With this upbringing, I have gone through my schooling assuming that religion and academia are totally separate realms — and it is true that blind faith and acceptance of dogma does not fit with post-Enlightenment models of scientific inquiry and reason. I went to Hebrew school with the understanding that I was there to learn what religious and “Old World” Jews believed and to become aware of a religious heritage that had become so secular in my community. We occasionally challenged texts and rabbinical writings, but it was ultimately nothing more than an intellectual exercise. Talmudic attention to detail on, well, the Talmud seemed futile. There was little purpose in analyzing so intensely a text that was foreign and irrelevant.

But Sufism is different. The class readings hardly ever attempt to interpret specific Quranic verses. One might claim that the Sufis are directly inspired by the Quran, but go far beyond it; they say what the Quran does not reveal explicitly. These writers do so through elaborate and convoluted allegories and essays. In Barry’s class, we analyze these writings as one might a great novel — monumental and relevant but not prophetic.

Perhaps it is this unique nature that allows me to engage with Sufi ideas without the skepticism I usually feel toward religious scholarship. I treat their ideas as I would any “secular” philosopher — neither immediate acceptance nor revulsion. My previous religious education focused on Jewish jurisprudence that seemed totally irrelevant in my secular, American world. But the Sufis deal with a more personal approach to religion, one that transcends the laws or ethics of one particular society to achieve a more universal understanding of the world and one’s self.

The discovery of mystical Islam naturally includes some brief tangents into Judaism as well. Jewish mysticism, like its Islamic counterpart, is inspired by scripture but extends to ideas that supersede religious code or dogma. My own Jewish religion becomes a personal philosophy that grapples with the ancients in a modern context, a system of thought that can take into account secular scholars as well as religious scholars of other traditions.

It is in these tangents that I begin to recognize the significance of my own religion and its mystical branch. Words from Hebrew I distantly remember, such as “nefesh,” meaning soul, and “ruach,” meaning spirit, take on new meanings. As Jay Michaelson said in his book on Jewish mysticism, “Everything is God,” “There is little separating the non-dualistic philosophies of Judaism from those of Hinduism, Buddhism and other traditions ... [but] with my background and accidents of birth, the Jewish way continues to resonate in my heart.” Though I am intrigued by the Sufi tradition, it is ultimately not my own. Approaching my own religion through another, however, allows me to appreciate it in a new light.

These classes on Sufism have taken me on an ironic journey, in which a secular study of Islam has led me to an appreciation for Judaism. By placing Judaism alongside Sufism and other religions in an academic setting, I can accept concepts that were previously too foreign to understand. My religion is not just ancient material, the stuff of the “Old World”; it is totally relevant to the way I view the world and myself. These religious scholars can, after all, stand among the great intellectuals of the secular Western tradition. Rather than contradicting that secular tradition, religious scholarship — Jewish, Muslim or otherwise — adds to it. I feel fortunate to have learned both at Princeton.