Islamic Education in Britain: New Pluralist Paradigms

by Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor and Alison Scott-Baumann

Review by Haroon Ibn Ebrahim Sidat

Grounded in empirical research, this book moves beyond the meta-narratives of secularisation and orientalism to demonstrate the importance of the teaching and learning of classical Islamic Studies for the promotion of reasoned dialogue, interfaith and intercultural understanding in pluralist British society.

Give the current socio-political climate; training of the next generation of Muslim leaders is of immense importance. However, there is a strange bifurcation in the British pedagogical landscape where students wanting to enhance their studies in Islam are confronted with two choices. They may choose a traditional seminary, which provides a warm and spiritual fellowship, nurtured in centuries-old Indian theological syllabus. As Tim Winter reminds us in the foreword: “Modern Britain offers few environments as deeply refined as the darul-ulooms.” Alternatively, students may pursue Islamic Studies in a secular British University, “dominated by an ‘area’ studies paradigm of little relevance to the needs of domestic Muslims…” (Ibid). Having said that, both forms of education are necessary aspects of pluralist Britain and there has never been a greater case for mutual interaction.

Islamic theology as taught in British seminaries include subjects that enable students to achieve a detailed and in-depth understanding of Islam followed by that particular community. But how much of the curriculum prepares students for life in pluralist Britain? Moreover, there is the perception that the Classical Islamic Theology as taught in the seminaries is confessional, non-critical and outdated. This is nothing new and as Ebrahim Moosa (2015) recently lamented that despite knowledge of the tradition being a highly valued trait, excellence in knowledge is seen as being secondary to moral formation and ethical excellence. Before any foray is to be made into this arena, it will be worthwhile looking at what the raison d’être are of the seminaries in Britain.

Perhaps the answer is to be found, as with many other religious institutions in that they are seen as particularist rather than pluralist; in other words, they seek to protect their religious traditions and hand them on in a form that is not weakened by modern trends or other belief systems. The question then is, is there a place for particularism in a pluralist society? Can we depart from secular religious dichotomies and create educational provision where both the secular and religious co-exist?

So where can we begin to bring the two worlds together? Perhaps language can act as a paradigm for tolerance. Thousands of British Muslims are learning Arabic in madrassas and darul ulooms everyday – in a rich and complex environment. If we accept that Arabic has enormous practical, cultural and spiritual importance for Muslims, then we need to look for it in Islamic Studies courses. This will enable students to relate personally to their faith, to develop critical understanding of texts and for career development. Ultimately, this may way go a long way in creating “an epistemic bridge between worlds; worlds of belief and secularism, worlds of East and West and worlds of old and new” (Pg. 104).

Scott-Baumann and Contractor are honest to demonstrate the difficulties of developing collaborative partnerships between UK universities and Muslim institutions in Britain. There are certainly a number of ‘roadblocks’ that require dismantling. One challenge is what is known as the neoliberal approach to education in the West; with financial and skills targets, and the need to improve the long-term state of the economy. One wonders how a system insistent on commodifying educational practice can collaborate with a tradition of reverence built on “understanding the will of God and to lead one’s life according to it” (Sikand, 2005)

Of more immediate concern, is the belief that “Islam has been nominated to be the alien other” (Pg. 149). This requires attention since there is the mistaken view that it is unwise and unsafe for Universities to develop partnership with Muslim institutes (yet there is no causal evidence – nothing suggesting that attending university radicalises Muslims). In fact, research by Scourfield, Kashyap and Lewis (2013) may suggest that the experience of university can moderate, not intensify Islamic belief systems. All of this so far makes the case for building bridges all the more important. We are told that there is “evidence for strong synergies between the two possibilities of collaboration, as long as different groups can accept that each group has a contribution to make that is culturally, religiously and historically important” (Pg. 154). Muslim colleges and community groups are keen. Are the universities willing to move closer?

This book offers a refreshing conclusion. It makes a compelling and timely argument towards the need for new partnerships between Higher Education and Islamic institutions. Such partnerships could be of great benefit for both university and seminary where the academic study of Islam could be substantially enriched. One ought to remember that Islamic thought and practice has a habit of thriving in periods of intellectual and cultural cross-fertilisation.

Kashyap R and Lewis VA 2013 ‘British Muslim Youth and Religious Fundamentalism: A Quantitative Investigation Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 35, No.12. pp 2117-2140.

Moosa, Ebrahim. What Is a Madrasa? Dev Publishers and Distributors. 2015.

Scourfield et al, 2012. pp 91-108

Sikand, Yoginder. Bastions of the Believers: Madrasas and Islamic education in India Delhi: Penguin. 2005.

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