Interpreting Rightness at a U.S. Islamic School: A ____ Adventure Tale
Author(s)Weiss, Aaron Jonathan
KeywordsReligious education; Education; Islamic studies;
education; interpretation; Islamic; Muslim; school; United States
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This study took place at Tafsir Islamic School (TIS), a mid-sized K-12 Islamic school in a metropolitan area in the Midwestern United States, and seeks to answer two questions: (1) by what means are specific versions of orthodoxy and orthopraxy constructed, maintained, and challenged in the Tafsir community?, and (2) how could the general interpretive climate corresponding to these processes be described in theoretical terms? Qualitative ethnographic field work was conducted at TIS over an 18 month span involving extensive participant-observation and semi-structured, one-on-one interviews with 20 adult participants–including teachers, administrators, and community members–a flexible and collaborative research design strategy, and an iterative, grounded theory approach to data analysis. The findings suggest that orthodoxy and orthopraxy are constructed and contested through a complex network of corroborating and competing factors, including (a) executive decisions, (b) rogue pedagogy, (c) theological dialogue, (d) peer discipline, (e) community reinforcement, (f) sanctioned associations, and (g) vigilante policing. The distribution of interpretive power within the school community results in a de facto system of checks and balances, as disputes within and between sects (e.g., Sufis, Salafis, conventional Sunnis) prevent any one group from gaining unchallenged prominence. Colliding hermeneutical processes result in a normative balance that fluctuates over time with changing community members and socio-historic circumstances. This balance, referred to as a dynamic interpretive equilibrium, characterizes the general ideological climate of the school. In examining the diversity of interpretive orientations at an Islamic school, this study demonstrates the active role Muslims play in shaping the character of their faith. It likewise undermines popular one-dimensional depictions of Muslim schools, portraying Islamic education as a living, active and contested phenomenon.