ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Non-Muslim educators from all over New Mexico are making pilgrimages to St. John’s College in Santa Fe this month to study the message of the Prophet Muhammad, including interpretations of what jihad means to Islam and its adherents.
The goal, in addition to a greater understanding of Islam itself, is to learn more about a religious and political development that has embroiled much of the world in a controversy that harkens all the way back to seventh-century contemporaries of the Prophet himself and continues to this day around the world.
“This is particularly relevant because of the recent attacks in Paris, but also because it speaks to how education and, specifically, SJC’s model of learning through talking with one another, can help us begin to understand and cope with events that are so difficult to come to terms with,” said spokeswoman Lisa Neal, referring to the college’s “spring” classes.
The four Saturday classes – part of a St. John’s teacher-training program called Tecolote (“owl” in Spanish)
that has supported nearly 1,000 New Mexico educators since 2002 – offer free training and support to pre-kindergarten through college-level teachers and administrators.
“The project this year is in many ways uncharted water for Tecolote,” said the program director, Steve Van
Luchene, in a message to participants. “Tecolote has never addressed a set of current issues quite as hot as Islam and the recent political developments in Egypt.”
This year’s spring – as in spring semester – sessions follow up on last fall’s classes on basic elements of Islam, Egypt and the Prophet Muhammad. The focus this month is primarily on the concept of jihad, with readings from scholars and the Hadith tradition to illustrate how the concept of militant Islam developed and its historical context.
Hadith is a record of the traditions, actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and contemporaries. It is revered as a source of religious law and moral guidance, second only to the Quran, Islam’s holy book.
The classes include various readings from the Hadith tradition, the Quran and reputable newspaper articles on the highly charged issue of jihad. Speakers include SJC President Mike Peters, a retired Army officer with an extensive background in foreign affairs, and Hugh Horan, a professor in the University of New Mexico’s Religious Studies Program.
Horan teaches courses in religion, and a seminar on terrorists and how they use – or abuse – their religious traditions. He has lived and worked in Tunisia, Tanzania and Malawi, and has spent considerable time in several other African countries. He has also traveled in Israel, Jordan and Palestine.
Horan was highly critical of terrorists who act in the name of God, but said the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – have all contributed to a “dark, merry-go-round image … when it comes to political and religious viciousness.” Religious wars seem to be an Abrahamic faith problem, he noted.
In one seminar last month, led by St. John’s Professor Mike Wolfe, the conversation centered on the essential meaning of jihad. Is it, Wolfe asked the group of 16 or so participants, a call for a holy war? Or does it refer to the inner and personal struggle to achieve the ultimate in devotion to God?
Various interpretations of the words of the Prophet proved inconclusive and Wolfe’s group could not pinpoint a precise meaning. While Muhammad did seem to suggest that fighting for God is indeed a noble and worthy endeavor for any devout Muslim, he also talked about the inner, personal struggle.
Horan, for one, dismissed the term “holy war,” replacing it with the altogether different “religious war.” More than anyone, Osama bin Laden is behind modern interpretations of jihad, he said. “No sensible Muslim today would speak of a ‘holy war.'”
This year, 55 women and 15 men are attending Tecolote. Most are elementary, middle and high school teachers, but the group also includes four college-level instructors and a few administra-tors. Most come from
Santa Fe and Albuquerque, but others make the journey to St. John’s from Angel Fire, Farmington, Jemez Pueblo, Roswell, Taos, Shiprock and even El Paso.
Bill Wasp is in his first year of teaching at Gonzales Community School in Santa Fe. Previously, he served six years in the Air Force, then spent 35 years in banking. When he applied to Tecolote, he knew next to nothing about Islam or jihad. Now he can’t learn enough.
“I had no interest before, but I do now,” he said. “Friend or foe, you want to know them.”