November 18 2017

Using Group Work and Case Study to Teach about Islamic Law

by Nahed Artoul Zehr, Western Kentucky University

 

 

Introduction

Though I have only been teaching college students for a few years, there are a number of lessons that I learned within the first few days of being in the classroom. The first was that students are more likely to be attentive and active learners when they feel connected to the material or when they can understand the relevance of the material being presented. In particular, students are keen to understand how it relates to their own lives, to their understanding of their neighbors and communities, and to their understanding of current events that peak their interest. The second is that students are more likely to be attentive and active learners when the course culture and atmosphere encourages them to connect to their colleagues in the classroom. These two points were reified when I spent a semester reading and discussing pedagogy with my graduate students (the books we read are listed below), and they have led me to incorporate small group activities and large and small group discussions into as many of the course meetings that I can.

While I still devote a significant amount of time to lecture, my students spend at least part of one class session per week, and sometimes part of every class session per week, in small group activities and discussions. Providing these types of facilitated activities has significantly increased student interest, enthusiasm, and engagement with the material. Moreover, my students have consistently expressed that these types of classroom activities have led them to deeper and richer understandings of the issues at hand. In fact, it has been student enthusiasm about group work and facilitated activities that has kept me motivated to continue to design and construct these types of assignments even though it often requires significantly more prep time on my part.

Teaching Strategy

In my three years of teaching at Western Kentucky University, I have taught an Introduction to Islam course four times. Each iteration of this course has included a section on the development of Islamic law and its relevance to contemporary Muslim life. The details of this history are nuanced and complex, as the development of Islamic law was a grassroots and community-led process in its early stages, eventually culminating into a more formal system with specific methods and schools of law. Most of my students were unfamiliar with the various types of legal reasoning employed by Islamic jurists, and I was having trouble explaining the abstract concepts in concrete terms. For this reason, I developed an Islamic law simulation for my students. In this assignment, students worked in their usual groups. (I assign students to groups at the beginning of every semester, and the groups do not change. That way students develop working and sometimes social relationships with their group members, helping to create an atmosphere in which they become increasingly more willing to share and test out their ideas, as well as contest the ideas of others.) Within their groups, the students divided themselves into jurists (judge), defendants, and claimants. I hand out a “case” which describes the positions of both the defendant and the claimant, as well as a series of Islamic texts that are relevant to the ruling. The point is to simulate a theoretical case that could be brought up before an Islamic judge and to have students attempt to deliberate through the evidence with judge, claimant, and defendant each presenting the facts of the case and adding details as they see fit.

The specific case that I gave to students involved a married couple that had come before the court. The wife was asking for a divorce, stating that her husband was neglecting his duties towards her: of love, affection, and providing material comforts as agreed upon in the original marriage contract. The husband, disputing the wife’s position, did not want a divorce. The facts were simple because I wanted students to be able to fill in the details so that the circumstances of each “couple” were different. I gave the groups a series of Qur’anic verses and hadith (narrations about the Prophet Muhammad and the early Muslim community that have become authoritative sources for piety, morality, ethics, and law within the Islamic tradition) related to marriage, and I asked the groups to both make their cases (defendants and claimants) and to adjudicate (judges) based on these texts and their relevance to the details provided by the “husband” and “wife.”

I used this assignment in two Islam courses: a regular section of Islam (forty students) and an honors section (twenty-two students), and it was exceptionally well received by both classes. The students had so much fun! They deliberated, conversed, and elaborated on the facts in order to influence the judge’s ruling in light of the texts provided. They came up with all kinds of scenarios—some realistic and some far-fetched—regarding why the husband and wife might want or not want a divorce. They enjoyed the role-playing aspect and commented on how it helped them better understand the points we had been discussing in lecture.

More specifically, they learned a set of foundational ideas regarding the execution of Islamic law. In particular, they learned that the judges interpreted the details of the case and the relevant textual sources on marriage in very different ways even though they were all using the same material. This is a key point in understanding the way that Islamic law works, as the judge’s discretion and opinion are a significant part of the equation. If they elaborated on certain facts and did so differently than another group, the judge’s ruling changed significantly. They noted the bottom up approach of Islamic law, with judges often taking the immediate circumstances of the people in front of them into consideration when attempting to make a ruling. They were able to see first-hand the critical role that human reason plays in the interpretation of religious texts. And they were able to better understand the idea that Islamic law often tries to provide justice to both parties—a concept that is somewhat foreign to those who are accustomed to the American or European systems of law. Lastly, it helped them to better understand the way that someone from a religious tradition, in this case Islam, might think through moral, ethical, and legal questions in light of their religious commitments. In short, it was a hands-on activity that gave them a much better feel for the various ways that Islamic jurisprudence works and Islamic law is produced.

This assignment, by chance, was buttressed by a real-life example in my honors Islam course. My students, as a part of their presentations, wanted to interview an Egyptian Muslim who worked at the university in order to ask him questions regarding Egyptian culture and its influence on Islam in Egypt. I asked students to prepare and turn questions in ahead of time, to make sure that the presenter’s time was used effectively. One of the questions was, “Have you ever posed a question regarding Islamic life or piety to a mufti (a legal specialist who is tasked with providing legal opinions on a variety of questions related to Islamic life, ritual, piety, etc.)?” Our speaker then launched into a story regarding a friend of his who had married a woman who, he argued, had misrepresented herself at the beginning of their relationship. Due to this misrepresentation, his friend was seeking a divorce. The speaker described the conversations with the mufti, whose advice advocated for prudence, discernment, and warned against a quick or hasty judgment in light of the gravity (but permissibility) of divorce. Most importantly, his advice was based off the same textual sources that my students had used. It was a terrific, and fortunate, teaching moment that helped students see the real-life relevance of what they had been learning in the classroom. Of course, not all assignments turn out this way, but it’s certainly great when they do!

Conclusion

Pedagogical research is consistently demonstrating the point that professors ought to facilitate ideas in the classroom. Learning, according to this ground-breaking research, happens best when students not only listen to lectures and take notes (a skill that I strongly maintain is important to develop), but also when they are allowed to talk, discuss, deliberate, and generate ideas. My pedagogical methods and techniques are based on this idea. My goal is to help students learn course material, but more importantly, my goal is to help them to learn how to think critically and in multifaceted ways. Group work and class discussion are key elements in this task.

Resources

Bain, Ken. 2004. What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fink, L. Dee. 2013. Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


photo of Nahed Artoul ZehrNahed Artoul Zehr is an assistant professor of Islam and religious studies at Western Kentucky University, where she teaches courses in Islam, the just war tradition, comparative ethics, and religious violence. Professor Zehr’s research lies at the intersection of religion, ethics, and international relations, with a particular emphasis on the Western and Islamic just war traditions. She has published in a variety of academic journals, including the Journal of Religious Ethics and the Journal for Military Ethics, and she is completing a book manuscript titled Responding to the Call: Just War, Jihad, and the War against al-Qaeda. She is on the board of directors for the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics.

 

Image: Guanyin, pictured in this statue in Dali, China, is a key heavenly bodhisattva who embodies the virtues of compassion and mercy important in Mahayana Buddhism. Picture by Fred Glennon.