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Islam class for older adults is a big draw at St. Thomas

Do you want to know more about Islam?

It’s a subject that’s grabbing people’s attention, judging from the crowd of people flocking to a continuing-education class on Islam this semester at the University of St. Thomas. The class’s 440-head count is more than double the number of people who typically enroll in classes offered in the university’s Center for Senior Citizens’ Education, said Sister Marie Herbert, the center’s director. “When enrollment tops 200,” she said, “we know it’s a real winner.”

Herbert said she fielded requests for a class on Islam, and when it showed up on the center’s schedule potential students “looked at the topic and said, ‘This is something I need to know about.’ “

While pleased by the course’s popularity, instructor Noreen Herzfeld isn’t surprised by appeal of the class, titled The Spirituality and Politics of Islam. “It’s a pretty timely topic,” she said. “Islam is always in the news.” A professor of theology and computer science at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Herzfeld designed the seven-session class, which will wrap up later this month.

Misunderstandings fuel fear
Educating people about Islam is important for understanding many world issues that are complicating politics and human relations – “certainly to understand what’s happening in the war in Iraq,” along with differences between the Sunnis and Shiites, she said. “An understanding of Shiism is crucial to understand what’s going on in Iran.”

Along with that, Islam is the fastest-growing religion in America. Islam has often made the local Twin Cities news. A taxi-driver dispute over transporting riders carrying alcohol is an example, along with workplace issues over dress and time out for prayer.

Myths and misunderstandings contribute to the problem, Herzfeld said. “There’s a lot of misinformation floating around out there about Islam.” She appreciates the chance in class to correct misperceptions in the media and elsewhere. The extent of religious extremism within Islam is one of the biggest. She assures her class that “a very small percentage of Muslims are extremists and engage in violent activities,” she said. “Just as there’s a very small percentage of Christians who join the Ku Klux Klan.” 

A steep learning curve
Hearing that may calm fears of Islam; some in the class have admitted misperceptions about the religion, Herzfeld said. Some had misinformation about the prophet Muhammad, how many wives he had and his relationships. Some said they had believed Barack Obama is a Muslim. Herzfeld has demonstrated the Muslim prayer position (arms and forehead on the floor while crouched on one’s knees) to make the point that a custom of men praying in the front of a room with women in the back is respectful and practical, rather than sexist. Most students in her class “have known very little about Islam,” Herzfeld said. “They’re starting from ground zero.”

That’s despite a perception that people who sign up for classes in this University of St. Thomas program are a pretty enlightened bunch. Mary Cunningham of St. Paul is a career teacher of high-school and college-level world studies and American government who retired nine years ago and has been “taking classes ever since,” she said. “This is really good!” she said about the class. She describes students in the St. Thomas program’s classes this way: “They read, and they’re engaged. Many are college-educated and have a world view.” The program offers lecture classes and lunchtime presentations that require no tests and no papers. “You have people who want to be there,” she said. “You become a sponge.” 

Rollie Sullivan, a St. Paulite and retired banker who continues work half time for a computer company at age 89, said the class is giving him new insights. He suggests it be repeated at St. Thomas or elsewhere. “I know a lot of people are interested in Islam,” he said. “We have to know more about it.”

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