July 19 2024

Educating Students as Immanent Critics of Religious-Moral Traditions

by Rosemary B. Kellison, University of West Georgia




As a teacher of religious ethics, I am regularly asked by students to explain such things as “what Muslims believe about abortion” or “what Islam teaches about torture.” I used to answer this sort of question with a disclaimer about the range of opinions on any given moral problem within any particular religious community, but I found to my dismay that such a response tended only to elicit a further question: “Okay, but which of those different opinions is the right one—in other words, what does the Qur’an say?” There are a lot of assumptions built into that question: that the Qur’an gives one simple answer to any of these questions, that the Qur’an dictates the positions and actions of contemporary Muslims, that there is a consensus among Muslims on how to interpret the Qur’anic text. As Talal Asad (2003) has pointed out, these assumptions are shared by many Westerners. In my interactions with students, I have found that these same assumptions are often made of any religious community. It therefore became important to me to adapt my pedagogy to give students the tools necessary to shed these assumptions and ask more critical questions about religious ethics.

I am very pleased that the title of this edition of Spotlight on Teaching refers to teaching the moral traditions of others, because this emphasis on traditions reflects the direction I have taken in my teaching. In earlier attempts at teaching religious ethics, I took an issue-based approach; for instance, I might assign students two articles by Muslim thinkers, one defending capital punishment and one against it. However, this approach fit too well into the paradigm expressed by the sorts of questions recounted in the previous paragraph, leaving students with the impression that one or two individuals could adequately represent the entire community.

Traditions-Based Approach

In an attempt to do a better job of challenging my students’ assumptions, I took a new tradition-based approach in a semester-length upper-division philosophy course on Islam. I devoted a full unit of the course to ethics, but rather than treating several different issues, I instead chose one broad theme—sexual ethics. In order to encourage contextualization of these issues within a tradition, before beginning this unit we worked through units on the interpretation of the Qur’an as well as on the historical development of the sharia tradition, including both the ways in which decisions are made and how these methods have been developed and debated over time. We also read a sampling of translated primary sources and secondary analysis of the colonial period and the related Islamic reform movements. Once we turned our attention to sexual ethics in particular, this background empowered students to capably make use of sources from a variety of genres and historical periods. What they now saw was not one or two dehistoricized opinions on polygamy or adultery, but instead several contributions to a centuries-long conversation—each of which claims, implicitly or explicitly, to be offering the best interpretation of that tradition.

In the context of Islam, one of the valuable lessons students learn through exposure to the history of colonialism and Muslim responses to it is that the aforementioned assumptions of what might be called Qur’anic literalism and determinism are in fact made not only by Westerners, but also by many contemporary Muslims themselves who deploy particular interpretations of scripture to defend certain constructions of orthodox, legitimate “Islam” (see Kecia Ali’s [2014] comments on the “Protestantization” of Islam). Thus, when students seek to identify one moral position as the authentically “Islamic” one, they are themselves making a political move. Teaching traditions as traditions thus supports the achievement of several different learning objectives. At the most basic level, students learn (a small percentage of) the range of answers Muslims have given to some ethical question. At a more critical level, they learn about the different strategies Muslims use and the traditional and other sources on which Muslims draw to craft and justify their answers. Finally, students learn something about the ways traditions are constructed and reconstructed by interested individuals and communities. One thing that quickly becomes clear to students when learning according to this model is that it is very rare for any Muslim—whether clergy, jurist, scholar, or layperson—to justify one’s moral position, no matter how radical or innovative it might seem, as a rejection of or as independent of Islamic tradition. Instead, some attempt is almost always made to legitimate one’s argument as a faithful reading of that tradition.

The move toward tradition-based ethics in my teaching reflects a similar development in my scholarship (Kellison 2014), reflecting the influence of a particular strand of pragmatist philosophy. This body of work builds on Hegel’s insight that the content of concepts is not fixed, but rather is constantly changing over time as individuals and communities use and apply concepts in new ways. Over time, the history of applications of a given concept within some community forms a tradition that is taken as authoritative for community members. Contrary to my students’ initial expectations, this does not mean that there is some single “right” way to use a concept, as dictated by a tradition. Rather, traditions are long and diverse, offering many different precedents to which one may appeal in support of one’s own interpretation. There will be, within the long and varied history of Islamic writing and practice, precedents for almost every method of Qur’anic interpretation, almost every position on some moral problem, almost every way of understanding central concepts and terms, and almost every perspective on how one should go about attempting to understand such concepts or formulate such positions. Therefore, at any moment there are likely to exist several different applications of any given concept, each of which is presented as if it is alone the legitimate and proper use. Of course, the tradition is still relevant; there is good reason to devote significant time to teaching its resources to students. Not only is the tradition the wellspring of precedents from which one will choose in crafting one’s own contributions, but the success of those contributions depends in part on how well one is judged to have interpreted the tradition. Hegel interpreters Robert Brandom (2002) and Jeffrey Stout (2004) argue that other members of the community grant authority to some use of a concept when they treat it as a legitimate interpretation of traditional precedents. I would add that other factors, including the social status of the speaker, the relationship between the speaker and listener, and the political and cultural debates into which a given argument is intervening also have a strong effect on which arguments are taken as authoritative.

My hope is that by equipping students with an understanding of both traditional sources and traditional strategies of argumentation, along with basic knowledge of some of the most significant historical and political context, I have given them the tools to begin to work as immanent critics of the tradition under study. That is, students now can act as others in the community would when confronted with some argument claiming authority based on tradition, as most religious arguments do. They can more critically examine religious ethical arguments, looking not just at the bare logic of an isolated argument but instead at the wider context in which that argument was made. They are able to identify patterns of reasoning typical to a given community, to assess arguments as more or less likely to succeed within that community, and to begin to reflect on why particular arguments might be made by particular persons at particular times. For their final research papers, students engaged in the immanent critique of Muslim arguments, producing some of the most critical scholarly work I’ve received from undergraduates.

Conclusions and Extensions

The strategy of teaching tradition-based ethics was made much easier in the case described above by the fact that the course was focused only on Islam; given limitations of time, instructors of comparative courses might find it harder to achieve such a holistic approach. In my own world religions course, for example, while I still emphasize the structure and form of traditions and the ways in which they are constructed and reconstructed by various parties, I am unable to provide nearly the amount of content that would enable students to perform sophisticated immanent critiques of their own; I instead attempt to provide scholarly examples of such critiques. Additionally, the focus on argumentation and justification characteristic of this course was shaped in part by the fact that I teach in a philosophy program; instructors in other departmental settings might choose to focus on traditions of practice rather than of thought. One potential downside of this approach is the loss of the breadth of topics I used to be able to cover in a single course. My choice to focus on the specific area of sexual ethics came at the expense of analyzing other equally interesting conversations going on among Muslims about such issues as the morality of war, political ethics, and biomedical ethics, for instance. However, it is my hope that receiving preliminary training in just one of these areas develops in students some of the capacities needed to become skilled immanent critics of arguments made in any tradition.


Ali, Kecia. 2014. The Lives of Muhammad. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Asad, Talal. 2003. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Brandom, Robert B. 2002. Tales of the Mighty Dead: Historical Essays in the Metaphysics of Intentionality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kellison, Rosemary B. 2014. “Tradition, Authority, and Immanent Critique in Comparative Ethics.” Journal of Religious Ethics 42.4: 713–41.

Stout, Jeffrey. 2004. Democracy and Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Twiss, Sumner B. 1998. “Four Paradigms in Teaching Comparative Religious Ethics.” In Explorations in Global Ethics: Comparative Religious Ethics and Interreligious Dialogue, edited by Sumner B. Twiss and Bruce Grelle, 11–33. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Schilbrack, Kevin. 2002. “Teaching Comparative Religious Ethics: A Review Essay.” Journal of Religious Ethics 30, no. 2: 295–312.

photo of Rosemary KellisonRosemary B. Kellison is assistant professor of philosophy and religion at University of West Georgia, where she teaches a range of undergraduate courses in comparative religion and ethics. Her research focuses on feminist moral philosophy in relation to religious ethics; her current project, for example, engages the Christian just war tradition from a feminist perspective.


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.