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Review of "A Fresh Look at Islam in a Multi-Faith World: A philosophy for success through education" by

This book is based upon extensive empirical research with Muslim and non-Muslim pupils. It develops an intellectual framework for thinking about Islam and Muslims in a multi-faith world which is both grounded in the Islamic sources of the Quran and the Sunnah (the words and deeds of the Prophet) and is also academically rigorously theorised using the tools of critical realism. It then applies this framework to education with particular reference to history, citizenship and religious education.


Posted 4 May 2015 Updated 16 May 2015 to mention Cheryl Frank Memorial Prize

I have been closely involved with the Curriculum for Cohesion project since its inception. As explained in my speech at the 2014 Curriculum for Cohesion Annual Dinner I was the first significant donor, and have also given it major amounts of my time.

This book is one of the project’s most important outputs so far. Accordingly I am not in a position to be objective about it. Conversely, as I am not one of the academics involved with the project, I did not see the text until after the book had been published, so came to it much as would any other reader, except that I was already familiar with some of the underlying ideas due to my regular discussions with the author.

The author

I met Matthew Wilkinson for the first time on 20 June 2010 at a reception after the Muslim Council of Britain AGM. We met again towards the end of that year to discuss the findings of his PhD research and how they could help young Muslims. Since then he has become a friend, and I regard him as one of most exceptional Muslims in Britain.

I have reproduced below his biography from the Curriculum for Cohesion website:

“Dr Matthew L N Wilkinson is the founding Director and Principal Researcher of Curriculum for Cohesion and Visiting Research Fellow at UCL Institute of Education and Research Fellow at Cambridge Muslim College and Affiliated Lecturer at the Woolf Institute. He was a King’s Scholar at Eton College and won a scholarship in Theology & Religious Studies at Trinity College, Cambridge.

He embraced Islam in 1991 and thereafter studied the Qur’an and the related Islamic knowledge for ten years. Matthew taught History, Citizenship and Religious Education in mainstream, supplementary and faith schools in a senior capacity for fifteen years in the UK and abroad.

In 2007, he was awarded an Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) Scholarship to undertake his PhD at King’s College London. He is the originator of the philosophy of Islamic Critical Realism, building upon the work of Roy Bhaskar, which underpins the work of Curriculum for Cohesion. He is the author of A Fresh Look at Islam in a Multi-faith World: a philosophy for success through education (Routledge, 2014). Dr Wilkinson also acts regularly as an Expert Witness in Islamic theology and law.”

Since a short biography like the one above has to be selective, it omits some significant information. In particular:

Overview of the book

The book is relatively short, 278 pages including the index. It is part of the series “New Studies in Critical Realism and Education” from the publishers Routledge.

Cheryl Frank Memorial Prize

The Cheryl Frank Memorial Prize is awarded annually for a book or article that constitutes, motivates or exemplifies the best and/or most innovative writing in or about the tradition of critical realism, including the philosophy of metaReality, in the previous year. It was announced in May 2015 that nine books altogether had been shortlisted for 2014, and that this book had been awarded the prize.

Advance Praise

The book opens with “advance praise” from some very distinguished people:

As well as providing advance praise, each of the above individuals has supported the project, either as a member of the academic team or as a patron, or by providing a video testimonial.


It is relatively rare to find blurb inside a book instead of on the back cover. However as it describes the book quite well in four paragraphs, I have reproduced it below:

A Fresh Look at Islam in a Multi-Faith World: A philosophy for success through education provides a comprehensively theorised and practical approach to thinking systematically and deeply about Islam and Muslims in a multi-faith world. It makes the case for a contemporary educational philosophy to help young Muslims surmount the challenges of post-modernity and to transcend the hiatuses and obstacles that they face in their interaction and relationships with non-Muslims, and vice versa.

It argues that the philosophy of critical realism in its original, dialectical and meta-Real moments so fittingly ‘underlabours’ (Bhaskar’s term) for the contemporary interpretation, clarification and conceptual deepening of Islamic doctrine, practice and education as to suggest a distinctive branch of critical realist philosophy, specifically suited for this purpose. This approach is called Islamic critical realism.

The book proceeds to explain how this Islamic critical realist approach can serve the interpretation of the consensual elements of Islamic doctrine, such as the six elements of Islamic belief and the Five ‘Pillars’ of Islamic practice, so that these essential features of the Muslim way of life can help Muslim young people to contribute positively to life in multi-faith liberal democracies in a globalising world.

Finally, the book shows how this Islamic critical realist approach can be brought to bear in humanities classrooms by history, religious education and citizenship teachers to help Muslim young people engage informatively and transformatively with themselves and others in multi-faith contexts.”


As with most academic books, there is a very detailed table of contents which provides an excellent overview of the structure of the book.

List of figures
List of tables

Part I    Historical background and sociological context

Introduction: a tale of two young Muslims, a spiritual quest, a book to be used

  • An enlightened student; a misguided classroom assistant
  • The issues of this book
  • The author’s story
  • The book’s intellectual heritage
  • Defining the key terms
  • The structure of the book

Chapter 1 - From sacred civilisation to secular confusion: why does Islam need a philosophy?

  • The collapse of the sacred — civic balance of power that sustained Islamic civilisation
  • The Protestant West shapes the conditions of modernity
  • Difficulties faced by Muslims in the embrace of modernity
  • The theological crisis and the Reformers’ response
  • The 'new' Muslim diaspora: a significant ‘out-group’
  • The ‘other/counter-other’: the hostile reception of Islam by elements of non-Muslim European society
  • Two default positions of faith set up the Unhappy Muslim Consciousness
  • The need for a philosophy of Islam in the multi-faith world

Part II    The Philosophy of Islamic critical realism

Chapter 2 - Shared meta-theoretical premises: ‘underlabouring’ and ‘seriousness’

  • A shared commitment to ‘underlabouring’
  • A shared commitment to ‘seriousness’
  • Philosophical seriousness: seriousness(p)
  • Seriousness and Islam: seriousness(r)
  • Seriousness in Islamic philosophical theology
  • The implications of seriousness

Chapter 3 - First Moment (1M): original Islamic critical realism

  • Ontological realism
  • Epistemological relativism
  • Judgemental rationality
  • The Qur’an as a critical realist text
  • Establishing the conditions for rational re-enchantment

Chapter 4 - Second Edge (2E): dialectical Islamic critical realism: the life of the Prophet Muhammad

  • Introduction: dialectical critical realism
  • Second Edge (2E): absence
  • Third Level (3L): totality, partial totality and sub-totality
  • Fourth Dimension (4D): transformative praxis
  • Dialectical Islamic critical realism in the life of the Prophet Muhammad
  • The lessons of Muhammad: the dialectics of re-enchantment

Chapter 5 - Islamic metaReality: the Articles of Faith and Pillars of Islam

  • The philosophy of metaReality from difference to identity
  • Islamic critical realist transcendence: a hierarchy
  • Demi-reality, unbelief (kufr) and the meanings of Jihad
  • The dialectics of transcendence: the exemplar of marriage
  • The philosophy of metaReality, Islamic ethics and Shari’a
  • The Islamic Articles of Faith
  • The Five Pillars of Islam

Part III Generating success with humanities education

Chapter 6 - Towards an ontology of educational success: Muslim young people in humanities education

  • Introduction: from theory to research to practice
  • 1M: who are young Muslims in education?
  • Hegemonic masculinities and femininities
  • History, identity and Muslim young people
  • Methodology: the fulcrum of ICR [Islamic Critical Realism] underlabours for social science
  • A laminated ontology of educational success
  • The dimensions of young British Muslims’ success at history
  • In summary: who are Muslim young people in humanities education?

Chapter 7 - History education: from absence to emancipation

  • Introduction: ontological monovalence in education
  • 2E: the absent curriculum
  • 2E: the absent pedagogy
  • 2E: the absent parent
  • 3L: the ontology of inclusion
  • 4D: transforming communities of learners
  • Conclusion: reimagining the nation through history education

Chapter 8 - Religious education: learning about, from and for religion-for-life

  • Introduction: delineating the spiritual dimension of Muslim young people
  • 1M: who is the Muslim learner in religious education?
  • 2E: absences of ‘seriousness’(e), of governmental support, of pupil respect and of buy-in from the Muslim community
  • 3L: the fulcrum of ICR in the classroom, the embrace of difficult issues and the use of transcendence
  • 4D: a transformative nexus of religious education: school, home, madrasa and peer group/internet
  • Summary: religious education – a return to ‘seriousness’(e)

Chapter 9 - Citizenship education: a pathway to full critical engagement

  • Introduction: the complexity of civic identification for young Muslims
  • 1M: who is the young Muslim citizen?
  • 2E: the absence of seriousness(e) in citizenship education
  • 3L: a serious(e) citizenship education
  • 4D: transformative praxis: taking citizenship education out of the classroom
  • Conclusion: a pathway to full civic engagement

Chapter 10 - Conclusion: a call for existential seriousness(r+p+e) to regenerate the Happy Muslim Consciousness

  • The philosophical and political preconditions of seriousness
  • Removing absence to transform educational praxis
  • The opportunity for and of Islam
  • From the terrors of performativity to serious(r+p+e) transformativity

Appendix: possible reasons for differences in empirical findings about Muslim boys’ identities


Intellectual level

As can be seen from some of the vocabulary used in the table of contents, this is an unashamedly academic work. I suspect two reasons for the use of technical philosophical vocabulary:

  • It allows the book to be shorter and more precise in its arguments. Using “ordinary language” would require far more words since it would mean omitting terms which are concise and have a standard meaning, for example “praxis.”
  • To succeed in changing the way that key target groups of readers (philosophers of education, trainers of teachers, education policy-makers) think, the book needs to be seen as a serious academic work. Part of that is achieved by having an academic publisher (Routledge), part by inclusion in a series of philosophical works (New Studies in Critical Realism and Education) but it is also important to use the vocabulary expected in such texts.

However I had no difficulty following the exposition. The book should be accessible to any university graduate, not just those who have studied philosophy formally.

Some of the key concepts discussed

There are some key concepts mentioned in the table of contents whose meaning will not be immediately obvious to non-specialists.

The Unhappy Muslim Consciousness

The author makes use of a phrase and concept developed by Hegel:

“As a result, many Muslims today continue to perceive a mismatch between the practices of their professional lives in non-religious contexts and the articulation of their religious beliefs (Imtiaz, 2011). This act of rational compromise with the secular at the expense of the sacred is a process of dialectical disenchantment that has generated in many Muslims in the West a phenomenon closely akin to the Hegelian idea of the Unhappy Consciousness. According to this idea, the life of the spirit through connection to God, which is essential to the identity and life-purpose of the Muslim believer (Mahmutcehajic, 2011), is denied expression and even existence, while remaining acutely conscious (or semi-conscious) of its own thwarted reality.

“Itself [the Unhappy Consciousness], because conscious of this contradiction, assumes the aspect of changeable consciousness and is to itself the unessential; but as consciousness of unchangeableness, it must at the same time, proceed to free itself from the unessential, i.e. to liberate itself from itself”
(Hegel, 1807 trans. 1977, p. 208)

Within this understanding, ‘successful’ Muslims have often ‘succeeded’ in life in spite, rather than because, of their faith by distancing themselves literally and ideological from the Muslim community, while remaining uncomfortably aware that something important is missing.”

Critical realism

The philosophy of critical realism underlies the entire book. There is a brief explanation in the section discussing ontological realism:

“As we saw in the previous chapter, the primary function of original critical realism (OCR) [a term used by the author to keep distinct his concept of Islamic Critical Realism (ICR)] was twofold: the ‘revindication’ (reclaiming) of ontology (the philosophical study of being) from its reduction to epistemology (the philosophical study of knowing and knowledge) and the establishment of a new ontology of deep structures, causal mechanisms and real change. A basic understanding of critical realist ontology, the philosophical study of being, is, therefore, that being exists independently of our knowledge of it and, in particular, our ability to describe it, so that it cannot be reduced to discourse, nor is it merely contained or constructed in the semiotics of our speech (Sewell, 2005).

For practical everyday purposes, being and knowing are often deeply mutually implicated. For example, the measurement of a mile (knowing) is rarely, if ever, disconnected from the geographical space (being) that it describes. Nevertheless, the fact that being does not equal knowing is shown by the fact that the globe did not suddenly change shape when it was discovered not to be flat, and neither did the experience of living on it (Bhaskar, 2000). Nor did the sun rise, set and shine in a different way once it was discovered to be, and was described scientifically as, the centre of a heliocentric solar system. An extension of this fact of the independence of being from knowing is that beings, entities and phenomena can exist without being known, or even if there is no possibility that they can ever become to be known (Bhaskar, 1975). This is, of course, pertinent to the possibility of the existence of unseen immaterial realms as described in the Qur’an and in the belief systems of other faiths. These are philosophically equivalent to scientific fields, such as gravity, whose effects can be experienced but not directly perceived.”


This word is not used in everyday vocabulary.

“Bhaskar, the originator of the philosophy of critical realism, has written about ‘underlabouring’ (Bhaskar, 2013):

‘Philosophical under labouring’ is most characteristically what critical realist philosophy does. The metaphor of ‘underlabouring’ comes from John Locke who said, ‘the Commonwealth of learning is not at this time without master-builders […] but everyone must not hope to be a Boyle or a Sydenham; and in an age that produced such masters as the great Huygenius and the incomparable Mr Newton, with some others of that strain, it is ambition enough to be employed as an under labourer in clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge’ (An Essay concerning Human Understanding, ‘Epistle to the Reader’).

Critical realism underlabours for (a) science and (b) practices of human emancipation.’
(p. 1)

The range of sciences and human projects for which the philosophy of critical realism has underlaboured is wide and varied. It has ‘underlaboured’ for natural science by demonstrating, inter alia, the natural necessity of causal laws and deep natural structures for the intelligibility of experimental activity and by the disambiguation of the philosophical study of being (ontology) from the philosophical study of knowing (epistemology).”


This is another key concept that runs throughout the book. He classifies seriousness into different types.

Philosophical seriousness: seriousness(p)

‘Seriousness’ in the critical realist and philosophical sense, hereafter called seriousness(p), means that your practices and behaviour are consistent with your knowledge and belief. It is built conceptually out of a critique of the Enlightenment philosophy of David Hume (1711 – 1776) as ‘unserious’. Bhaskar has effectively critiqued Humean actualist orthodoxy and thus much modern and contemporary philosophy as ‘unserious’ in its denial of deep ontological structure in favour of an actualism whereby natural (and social) phenomena are explicable only in terms of constant conjunctions of events. This empiricist actualism in its denial of deep structure took Hume to a position where he could not philosophically sustain the rational belief that to leave a building by the ground-floor was better than leaving it by the first-floor window because he believed that nature had no underlying causal laws or structures. This was an ‘unserious’ philosophical position, because if he really believed it, he should have left buildings by the first-floor window on at least 50% of occasions. It also meant that Hume had excluded himself and his philosophy from participating in the totality of the world.

“Similarly, when Hume says that there is no better reason to prefer the destruction of one’s little finger to that of the whole world, then again he cannot be ‘serious’ – because if he were to opt for the destruction of the whole world, then surely he would lose his little finger too! What Hume is tacitly doing, of course, is… extruding himself (and philosophy) from the totality of the world.
(Bhaskar, 2013, p.1)”

This lack of seriousness(p) and the extrusion of philosophy from the world is manifest in much contemporary philosophy and social theory. Postmodern statements that have become commonplace, such as ‘There is no such thing as the truth’, but which exhibit basic category contradictions are unserious because they are themselves categorical truth-statements. Similarly, a social-theoretical statement such as ‘There are no grand narratives’ is itself a categorical grand narrative. Post-structuralist thinking that denies, for example, the reality of ontological truth presumably operates at least with the desire to be found truthful. Such positions have flouted the hermetic principle of serious(p) philosophy that the theories and principles of philosophy should be consistently applicable in the real world (Bhaskar, 2013).”

Religious seriousness: seriousness(r)

The author explains that seriousness(r) is fundamental to Islam.

“Islam (authentically understood) is ‘serious’ in this philosophical sense in that it demands an a priori consistency between a statement of belief and a commitment to act in daily life. This type of philosophical seriousness in religion I hereafter will call seriousness(r).

The most elemental characteristic of Islam as a faith and the basic requirement of the Muslim believer is seriousness(r). The moment a Muslim has committed to doctrinal belief – the witnessing that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the Final Messenger from God – he or she has also committed to a practice of the four other ‘Pillars’ of Islam – the Daily Prayer (Salat), the Social Welfare Tax (Zakat), the Fast of Ramadan (Sawm) and Pilgrimage (Hajj). All these commitments plays the individual squarely and seriously before a Living God within the natural and social structures imposed by a real world. That is why Islam is so named: it is both ‘submission’ to God and ‘submission’ to the way that He has created the Universe.

The outcome of the serious(r) interpenetration of belief/knowledge and practice – this praxis – ought to be a relationship with and guidance from God and peace and harmony with oneself and fellow humankind; in other words, becoming Muslim (Mahmutcehajic, 2011). This is notwithstanding the fact that God’s guidance and the signs in the universe and in the self may at times be opaque, and harmony with other humans contingent upon a range of variable factors. In other words, seriousness(r) entails the dialectical movement away from the Unhappy Consciousness referred to earlier to a condition of realised essential (concretely singularised) selfhood in which the individual destiny is in tune with the Divine Decree (Qadr) to greater and lesser self-consciousness.

Along with the likes of al-Ghazali and Hegel, ICR posits the primary characteristic of the Unhappy Consciousness as a lack of ‘seriousness’(r+p) in the formation and enactment of the human-divine relationship. It would not, in fact, be overstating the case to claim that ‘seriousness’ in this profound philosophical sense is Islam’s defining characteristic, and the splitting of knowledge-practice unity is the primary source of the Unhappy Muslim Consciousness. This is because seriousness(r) is the foundational principle of both of Islam’s core primary sources, the book of the Revelation from God (the Qur’an) and the recorded sayings and behaviour of the Prophet Muhammad (the Sunna), and the pillar of Islamic practice, the Obligatory Prayer.”


The concept of absence is a key part of the author’s philosophical framework. In the curriculum, decisions about what is not taught can be at least as important as decisions about what is taught.

He explains the philosophical concept in some detail, parts of which are reproduced below.

“For Hegel, this process of self-realisation was primarily an epistemological process that is generated by the positing of identity, which is then subject to negativity in the form of a negative critique, and then incorporated in the resolution of a rational totality; or, put another way, the famous expression thesis → antithesis → synthesis (Norrie, 2010). However, while Hegel understood this process of dialectical change as primarily an epistemological one, Bhaskar (1993), as one might by now expect, places dialectical change squarely in the realm of ontology. He radically alters the phases of dialectic into non-identity → absence → totality → transformative praxis in an extension of the ‘revindication’ of ontology and the positing of a new ontology of original critical realism.

For critical realists, as we have seen in the previous chapter, the opening phase of being-as-such (at 1M) is a phase of non-identity and of being as ‘stratified and differentiated’: men and women are not the same, nations and tribes are different; different religions are not same and nor are the objects of their veneration of worship. All these things exist and can be studied at the level of the empirical, the actual and the real, and at different ontological layers of ‘stratification’. However DCR [dialectical critical realism] adds to the account the fact that stratified, differentiated being inevitably entails gaps, hiatuses and absences which are themselves essential to being.

Being necessarily entails the absence of being. In this regard, critical realist thinkers, e.g. Norrie (2010) and Hostettler (2012), following the lead of Bhaskar (1993) have argued that the tradition of Western philosophy is ontologically monovalent in excessively privileging the positive aspect of being to the exclusion of non-being or the negative aspects of being, which are part of our normal understanding of change. Thus, in our normal understanding, to say that something has changed is to say that something that was there is no longer there and/or that something that was not there is now there. Both these normal understandings of change involve both absence and negativity.

Critical realists claim that this ontological monovalence has its origins in the resistance of ancient Greek philosophy, initiated by Parmenides, to the idea of real existential change (Bhaskar, 2000). According to critical realist thinkers, absence, negativity and change are essential parts of the duality of presence and absence in being (Norrie, 2010). For example, silence is the precondition of speech, rests are indispensable to musical sound, and, as we know from natural science, empty space is a necessary condition of solid objects. In the experience of selfhood, a sense/knowledge/belief that ‘I am this’ necessarily entails a sense/knowledge/belief that ‘I am not that’ (Mahmutcehajic, 2011).

In the dialectical critical realist account, ‘absence’ is not only integral to being; crucially, it is also transformative. Indeed, dialectical change is understood by critical realists as the process of remedying or removal of absence (Bhaskar, 1993/2008), the ‘absenting of absence’. Recovery from illness involves, among other things, the removal of the disease. Positive change is often not so much the application of something positive as the removal of something negative. The essential property of political and social freedom is the absence of servitude. Winning freedom is the process of abolishing (i.e. absenting) the conditions of slavery.

Real determinate absence

Crucially, therefore, absence has been understood by critical realist thinkers as ‘real determinate absence’ (Norrie, 2010). Most absence is not indeterminate nothingness; it is causally efficacious, effecting real natural and social outcomes. Clearly, natural absences can effect social outcomes: for example, the absence of natural resources can provoke war. But social and intellectual absences can also effect natural outcomes: for example, inadequate environmental and ethical education can effect climate change. Such absences, experienced as indicative that something is wrong, also contain within them the potential to be positively transformative. A drought may, although it does not necessarily, lead to improved systems of irrigation, better farming techniques and more efficient habits of human water-use. Absence in this positive transformative sense is somewhat akin to the Avicennan idea of created perfection: creative being has within itself the power to perfect itself and come into wholeness; the role of human free will, delegated by God, is in bringing this about (Ormsby, 1984).

The removal of absence is, thus, conducive to the development of greater epistemological consistency and ontological wholeness. Thus, the role of absence in a dialectic of social or natural transformation can be described as follows:

“Absence (e.g. omission) → incompleteness → inconsistency (contradiction, etc.) → transcendence → to a more comprehensive and inclusive totality.
(Bhaskar, 2000, p. 55)”

According to dialectical critical realism, this process of the dialectical ‘absenting of absence’ is part of the movement or process of overcoming hiatuses and obstacles to greater ontological wholeness of being, which dialectical critical realism calls ‘totality’.

Towards an ontology of educational success: Muslim young people in humanities education

In this chapter the author starts to use the theoretical framework constructed in the earlier parts of the book to understand issues regarding young Muslims in education. The chapter reviews in some detail existing research.

I have quoted a few snippets below:

“Since the early 2000s, when Asian British Muslims became the topic of intense academic interest, a broad characterisation of Muslim young people as ‘believers’ whose powerful religious identities ‘trump’ a commitment to ‘secular’ education, in contrast to Sikh and Hindu ‘achievers’, who have higher educational aspirations, has often informed educational attitudes to Asian youth in British schools (Alexander, 2000; Archer, 2003; Hussain, 2008; Shain, 2010).

In contrast to the relative institutional absence of Islam, the Muslim faith has consistently been shown to be of high emotional and intellectual significance in the lives of young British Muslims. Islam as a faith and an identity has in recent years typically been observed to be important to c.90% of Muslim young people (Alexander, 2000; L. Archer, 2003; L.J. Francis & Robbins, 2005; Mondal, 2008, Shain, 2010; Wilkinson, 2011a). This persistent prevalence of faith-based identity ‘appear[s] to confound social psychological and social cognition theories of ethnic identity…, which assume that adherence to minority belief and practices, such as language and religion, declines with each new generation’ (L. Archer, 2003, p. 48).

Given the gap, therefore, between the official lack of educational recognition of Islam in foundation and core subjects and its seminal importance to the lives and identities of many young British Muslims, it is perhaps unsurprising that both national statistics and qualitative academic research suggests that young British Muslims are not fulfilling their educational potential. When taken in comparison with non-Muslim boys and Muslim girls, Muslim boys can be viewed as part of an (albeit contested; D. Epstein, Elwood, Hey & Maw, 1998; B. Francis, 2000) trend of comparative male educational failure in which girls are identified as outperforming boys in public exams on a regular basis, especially in English and the humanities subjects (L. Archer, 2003; Head, 1999; Richardson, 2011).

Muslim girls tend to perform significantly better than Muslim boys both in education generally and in the humanities subjects in particular at primary and secondary levels. Indeed, their measurable attainment runs only slightly beneath national averages for girls (UK Gov., 2008, 2011b). However, although many Muslim girls are actively encouraged by their parents to attend university (Tryer & Ahmad, 2006), there still remain significant cultural obstacles to the participation of Muslim girls in higher education (HE): c.30% fewer Muslim Bangladeshi and Pakistani girls than Muslim boys attend university, in an inversion of the national picture of higher female than male HE participation.”

In this chapter the author goes on to describe in detail the research underlying his PhD thesis which he carried out in four schools with high proportions of Muslim boys.

History education: from absence to emancipation

In this chapter the author further develops his views on history education after first going into greater detail about the concept of the absent curriculum.

“Gordon L. Brown (2009), drawing on the philosophy of critical realism, has made an insightful typology of the concept of curriculum as comprising:

  • The formal curriculum, which consists in the published syllabus together with related policy documents;
  • The enacted curriculum that is actually taught;
  • The hidden curriculum of unintended learning;
  • The null curriculum of what is not included in the formal curriculum but could have been.

To this typology this chapter adds both the selected curriculum, which is the formal curriculum as selected by school management for their school-based departmental schemes of work, and the absent curriculum.

The absent curriculum is the totality of the curriculum that could have been, but has not been, taught. It has three component parts, which we conceived and illustrated by this chapter (see Figure 7.1 [reproduced below]):

  • The absent null curriculum at the level of national policy comprises those topics that could have been included on the formal curriculum but are omitted by policy-makers and curriculum planners.
  • The absent unselected curriculum at the level of school management comprises those topics that are available for selection from the formal curriculum for school departmental schemes of work but which are not selected for the school-based curriculum.
  • The absent unenacted curriculum at the level of the classroom comprises of those topics or elements within topics that are available for teaching from school departmental schemes of work but in practice are not taught by teachers in the classroom.

This chapter will articulate and illustrate the concept of the absent curriculum in its three component parts and demonstrate that the absent curriculum as well as the present curriculum affects the lives of children in a variety of ways by looking at the impact of elements that were absent from the National Curriculum for History in England at Key Stage 3 (ages 11 – 14) on our sample of 307 Muslim young people in English schools (aged 13). [These are the children in the schools where the author’s PhD research was carried out.]

The author goes on to discuss how the National Curriculum for History was taught at the schools he studied and in particular how the optional (under the curriculum at that time) modules of Islamic history that might have appealed to the Muslim pupils were never taught in practice and the impact this absence had on the education of the boys. The chapter also discusses how the boys’ home environment did not provide a substitute for the history that was missing in school.

Religious education: learning about, from and for religion-for-life

In this chapter the author outlines his views on Religious Education (RE) based on the philosophical framework developed earlier. It contains a fascinating short summary of the recent history of RE in England and Wales, parts of which are reproduced below:

“Although the 1944 Education Act specified that RE was to be ‘non-denominational and non-catechistic’ (Ipgrave, forthcoming), in its early post-Second World War days the subject was entirely Christian and predominantly biblical. This was to change radically in the 1970s and 1980s as RE policy and practice began to respond to the presence of large numbers of British children in the RE classroom whose religious background was not Christian. To place multicultural RE in its more general educational context, the birth of multicultural education in the late 1970s and early 1980s was occasioned by a growing consensus of activist-led educational opinion that the assimilationist model of education, whereby children from migrant communities were expected to slough off their home languages, culture and religion at school and become absorbed into white-majority cultural norms, had damaged the educational and life chances of children from minority culture British groups.

Thus, the multicultural turn in RE education might, broadly speaking, be labelled as a move towards the respect for and study of the phenomenon of religious experience both in universal essence and manifest in diversity. It was based upon the underlying philosophical and phenomenological assumption, itself derived from Hegel’s distinction between the essence (Wesen) of a thing and its manifestations (Erscheinungen) to consciousness, and influential texts such as Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy (1923/1950). This approach, broadly speaking, was premised on the idea that all religions share an underlying essence and that religious experience and religious knowledge often transcend conceptual knowledge and linguistic articulation (Barnes, 2001). It was largely, although not universally, as we will see, welcomed by Muslim community groups, such as the Muslim Council of Britain, since it appeared to afford greater epistemic and ethical parity between Christianity and the other major UK faiths such as Islam.

This multicultural, phenomenological approach to RE was enshrined legally in the landmark 1988 Education Reform Act, which stated that the new agreed syllabuses for RE must ‘reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian while taking into account the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain’. Thus, for the first time, locally agreed RE syllabuses had to take a statutory inclusion of Muslims and Islam within their embrace.

Criticism of the phenomenological approach and backlash

However, both the official endorsement and the philosophical grounds of phenomenological RE were soon to suffer a backlash. Philosophers of RE, such as Philip Barnes (2001) critiqued the phenomenological approach’s ‘liberal Protestant’ privileging of the interior, emotional experience of religious essence over the truth-claims and forms of religion and, using the philosophy of Wittgenstein, reinstated the indivisibility of the outward forms and symbols of religion from the inner experience of it. Barnes also claimed that the notion that religious experience was essentially opaque to linguistic expression had facilitated a lazy sidestepping of the controversial, but essential, aspect of religious literacy: ‘that of assessing religious claims to truth and adjudicating between rival (conceptual) claims to truth’ (2001, p. 455). Others criticised the phenomenological approach to RE as taking a smörgåsbord approach to religion that had privileged learning about a smattering of the major world religions. This smörgåsbord approach had all but eliminated the possibility of learning from the wisdom of different religions for empowering children to be able to make up their own spiritual minds and to lead religiously literate lives in which they were able to develop a coherent religious world-view (Ellis, 1997; Wright, 2007). In the view of such critics, there was now an inappropriate power balance in favour of knowledge about over knowledge from religion and knowledge for religion.

The fact that the multicultural turn in RE had allowed the incorporation of the views of ‘religionists’ and the fear that the input of ‘religionists’ had both compromised the necessarily non-confessional secularity and constrained RE within a world religions approach also resulted in a policy backlash for the RE educationalist community led by John Hull. This backlash contributed to the 2004 non-statutory National Framework for Religious Education, which acknowledged a range of possible RE pedagogies above and beyond the phenomenological world religions approach that had underpinned multicultural RE.

Before the RE community had been able to respond effectively to this body of opinion, events in the Muslim world or related to it had once again forced RE policy-makers, thinkers and teachers to reassess the role of RE. The race riots of 2001 in Oldham, Bradford and Birmingham involving Muslim Asian and white British opponents, followed by the attack on the Twin Towers in New York on 11 September 2001, followed on 7 July 2005 by the attacks on the London Transport network, prompted a growing and vocal reaction against multiculturalism and its educational initiatives. This was generated by an increasingly consensual belief that multiculturalism had untied the necessary bonds of community cohesion built on shared values and a shared public culture, which meant that, in the evocative words of Trevor Phillips, then chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), Britain was ‘sleep-walking into segregation’ (Casciani, 2005).

Where once multicultural policy-makers had co-opted RE to celebrate ‘diversity’, policy-makers now co-opted RE to create ‘community cohesion’ in a way that, according to some, implicitly focused on the Muslim community as the source of the problem. A series of high-profile television programmes between 2005 and 2010 also reinforced a national suspicion that the Muslim community and, in particular, its faith school ‘system’ was among the principal culprits in undermining British social cohesion (Ahmad, 2011; Siddique, 2010). The 2007 government inspection (Ofsted) report on RE announced: ‘RE cannot ignore its role in fostering community cohesion… Current changes in society give this renewed urgency’ (Ofsted, 2007, p. 40 cited in Ipgrave, forthcoming). The problem here was that everyone ‘knew’ that the ‘current changes’ and the ‘renewed urgency’ referred above all else to the possible threat of ‘home-grown’ violent Islamist extremism, for which the ‘doctrines’ of multiculturalism were often blamed (Ipgrave, forthcoming). This reaction ignored both the fact that 96% of British Muslim children were and are educated in mainstream non-faith state schools and the fact that these mainstream state-educated non-faith schools had educated all the 7/7 bombers, none of whom had been educated in Muslim faith schools.

This community cohesion approach in RE placed increasing emphasis on developing the ‘healthy’ horizontal axis of RE of relating positively to others as social beings, but increasingly ignored or problem advised the vertical metaphysical dimension of religious beliefs and truths. Religious beliefs and absolute religious truth-claims were, as the source of ‘the problem of Islamist extremism’, to be subjected to the light of intense rational criticality rather than be considered as a possible source of wisdom in their own right, within a paradigm of RE that was increasingly in the 2010s described as Philosophy and Ethics, rather than Religious Education (Conroy et al., 2013). The Religious Education Council (REC), for example, put forward a ‘problems and issues’-based approach (Ipgrave, forthcoming), and the problems and issues that increasingly appeared in classroom discussion and on examination papers appeared to some to have Islam and Muslims increasingly in mind. Children are now exposed to a range of highly complex and emotive issues before they have the necessary religious knowledge or literacy to answer them with any properly critical depth of sophistication. Ipgrave (forthcoming), for example, draws up an interesting list of these types of GCSE examination questions:

  • ‘Faith schools are inappropriate for the twenty-first century.’
  • ‘Anyone who takes their religion seriously has got to be a fundamentalist.’
  • ‘Religious believers should be involved in politics.’ Do you agree?
  • ‘Religious identity should be more important than national identity to a religious believer.’ What do you think? Explain your opinion.
  • ‘Religious believers should marry someone their parents approve of.’ What do you think? Explain your opinion.

In all these questions, Ipgrave feels that the Muslim is quite clearly the archetype of the stereotypical and ‘problematic’ religious believer.

This critical rational, ‘philosophy and ethics’ approach, underpinned by a strong liberal secular hidden curriculum (Wright, 2007), and which avoids the study of religion qua religion (Conroy et al., 2013), is likely to be detrimental to the spiritual and religious education of Muslim young people and other young people of serious faith. For, as we have also seen in Chapter 3, the Islamic religion as deen – the complete life-transaction – necessarily also exists at the level (c) of irreducible institutions and forms in that its rulings are part of a totality pertaining to the civic and institutional life of the believer, as well as the levels (b) of interpersonal relations and (d) of the embodied personality. Furthermore, the recent shift towards philosophy and ethics underpinned by a critical orthodoxy, driven in part at least by a securitisation agenda post 9/11 and 7/7, can unwittingly create a dangerous environment in RE for young Muslims, for whom the faith of their family may be one of the few stable elements in their lives. There is a danger that with both ‘social cohesive’ and ‘philosophical’ RE, Islam may become unwittingly synonymous with backward-looking and illiberal forms of faith.”

The author goes on to discuss how RE could be taught in a way that avoided these problems and was consistent with the worldview of the believer.

Citizenship education: a pathway to full critical engagement

In this chapter the author outlines how challenging the issue of citizenship has become in the modern world:

“Both globalisation and intensified individualism (Ball, Maguire & Macrae, 2000), channelled through consumer outlets and habits and, lately, through social media, have challenged collective, national citizenship identifications, especially those in which citizenship is coterminous with a specific ethnicity. This has contributed to an increase of localism with globalisation (Easton, 2014) and even in some cases has threatened the existence of traditional nation-states. As I write, an upcoming referendum on Scottish separation from the United Kingdom challenges the 300-year-old constitutional structure of the United Kingdom – a political framework in which all Britons, young Muslims included, exist. The rise and/or decline of a composite national British, as opposed to more monolithic ethnic English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish identities, maybe particularly meaningful for young Muslims who did not have an ethically English, Welsh, Irish or Scottish identity to fall back on, with the weakening of ‘Britishness’.

Nationhood and citizenship may be neither givens nor simple for young Muslims; rather, they are often highly contested, both within their peer groups and elsewhere. Nevertheless, research shows that it would be quite wrong to suppose that all or even most adult Muslims reject their British nationality and citizenship entitlements, and that their national citizenship is not important to them. Recent popular surveys have shown that, contrary to assumptions and stereotypes, adult Muslims tend to value their British citizenship as much as, if not more than, other groups, including white Britons (Binyon, 2007). As far as young Muslims are concerned, we saw in Chapter 7 how the civic dimension of success in the sense of institutional knowledge and knowledge for transformative belonging in Britain was the core raison d’être for the study of history at school for my sample for young Muslims: they wanted history to create a sense of informed critical attachment to their country. Therefore, in Chapter 6 I made the claim that at the level (c) of social relations and irreducible structures, institutions and forms, history in a past-oriented mode and citizenship education in a present-oriented mode (Barton, 2012) can complement each other to help to develop less alienated and more internally and externally integrated Muslim young people.

In this chapter, I am going to explore how citizenship education in this present-oriented mode can help young Muslims become informed and both transformed by and transformative of the civic and political worlds that they inhabit, especially those characterised as liberal democracies. I will indicate how citizenship education can help them successfully to negotiate a range of potentially dichotomised, Manichaean socio-political positions and move successfully towards critically integrated, ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’, approaches to their social and political lives in contemporary, multi-faith society. I will argue that these positions, which I characterise as positions of civic unity-in-diversity, will enable young Muslims both to participate in and transform shared public cultures and to be more authentically and seriously(r+p) Islamic.”

After discussing the findings of his research amongst Muslim boys, the author points out how lowly regarded citizenship education is today.

“However, this task of developing this informed and transformative civic dimension of Muslim and other young people in Britain and elsewhere is hampered by the state of the school subject, which at present, even more than religious education, evinces an absence of seriousness(e). That is to say, there is a gulf between the importance of citizenship, together with the actual quality of the engagement between the individual citizen and the structures of society, and the status and nature of the subject of citizenship in schools. Since its introduction as a statutory school subject in English schools in 2002, citizenship has had to fight for its status as an independent subject; it has received marginal status on school timetables (Davies, 2010b); it has seldom been taught by specialist citizenship teachers (Jerome, 2012) and thus is likely to be looked down upon by pupils (Chamberlin, 2003). The lack of seriousness(e) in relation to citizenship education entrenched in the English educational establishment was most clearly demonstrated by the recent decision of the Expert Panel of the recent National Curriculum Review in England to downgrade Citizenship from a Foundation (second-tier) Curriculum to a Basic (third-tier) Curriculum subject, i.e. as a non-subject ‘to be added to other subjects’, since ‘we are not persuaded that study of the issues and topics included in citizenship education constitutes a distinct “subject” as such’ (UK Gov., 2011a, p. 24).”

The author goes on to describe how in his view citizenship could be taught properly.

Concluding comments

There are two common failings which I regularly encounter in writings proposing policy changes:

  • An absence of empirical research.
  • An absence of detailed critical thinking.

What distinguishes this book is the way that it avoids both of those failings. The author has carried out a very extensive literature search to add to his own research findings amongst Muslim boys in English schools. Furthermore his ideas have been rigorously challenged by the other academic members of the team and significant parts of the book have previously been published in top-quality academic journals after being subjected to peer review.

The short extracts quoted above can only provide a short introduction to the book.

As explained above, the book requires concentration to read and is unashamed in its use of academic language. However it is accessible to the average university graduate. I strongly recommend anyone who is interested in the future of Muslims in Britain, and indeed the future of Britain itself, to read it since how we educate young Muslims is absolutely fundamental to this future.

The book will also help readers to better understand Islam.

Kindle edition above


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