I grew up in a Christian family and studied Christian theology. I also studied Islam at university. For five years, I have lived between Melbourne and Lahore in Pakistan. In Lahore, I taught a subject called “world religions” at a Muslim university.
I named my course “The Wisdom of the World’s Religions” and it covers Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. The course lasts approximately 16 weeks. All my students are Muslims.
My first duty as a teacher is to respect the religion of my students by showing them that my knowledge of Islam is consistent with what they believe; it is not limited to my personal vision of Islam.
The next challenge is to teach the religions of the world in such a way that my students are drawn to learn more about them. If my students do not have the desire to learn more about other religions, they end up seeing the study of other religions as pointless and useless.
I spend a lot of time trying to eliminate misunderstandings, assumptions and misconceptions. I do this by suggesting possible connections and parallels between the subject of my lectures and the Islamic beliefs of my students. For example, all religions say that human beings continue to live after death in one way or another. So I’m looking for connections between what each religion says about death and the afterlife.
Sometimes I come across a particular scripture verse or doctrine that is difficult to understand. When this happens, I have to find a reasonable way to explain its meaning. For example, the title “Son of God”, which Christians use for Jesus Christ: I explain to my Muslim students that this title does not refer to any kind of physical relationship between Jesus and God. On the contrary, by calling Jesus “Son of God” in the Gospels, Christians were saying something about the unique and intimate relationship that Jesus experienced in his relationship with God.
One thing I learned from this experience is that there is no point in discussing and debating religious beliefs. It is much more important to continue to listen to the other’s point of view. Each person brings their own understanding and experience of religion, so there is always another perspective to consider. I am also discovering that the truths of the world’s religions contain aspects that may never be fully explained in human words. Sometimes we just need to accept what others believe without fully understanding why they do so.
Learning about other religions has helped my students and I reflect more deeply on our own religious ideas and traditions. Perhaps the greatest benefit I find in studying other religions is that this type of study brings me back to my own religion and makes me reflect on my beliefs and practices. This is what keeps the project of learning about other religions alive and interesting.