Safinatun Najah School - In the class

A Cambridge conference is set to reveal how Islamic faith schools, and other educational institutions, are adapting to far more than political pressure under the intense international scrutiny of the post-9/11 era.

Islamic education is engaged in a whole range of different reforms, which are not driven simply by Western concerns about radicalisation.

Yasir Suleiman

The education of young Muslims is becoming a central arena for Islamic reform, as Islamic scholars attempt to negotiate an increasingly complex relationship between Islam and western culture, an international conference will hear this weekend.

Specialists from more than 15 countries will gather at the University of Cambridge’s Centre of Islamic Studies on Saturday (9 April), for a two-day event examining reforms that are affecting Islamic education in different ways around the world. Their papers, and a summary of their findings, will also be made available to the public through the Centre’s website:

Since the horrific events of 9/11, Islamic faith schools have been the subject of intense scrutiny, provoked by the fear that some have become potential breeding grounds for radicalised extremists.

Organisers of the Cambridge conference, however, believe that the state of Islamic education is more complex. They argue that longer-term trends of modernisation and globalisation are continuing to shape the way that students are educated about Islam, and the development of faith-based education, and are doing so in different ways.

The conference, which features delegates from both Muslim-majority and minority countries, will attempt to unravel how and why Islamic education is changing around the world, and what the results have been.

“Because of the demonization of Islamic education post-9/11, there is a general presumption that it is purely shaped by political pressures and political concerns,” Professor Yasir Suleiman, the Centre’s Director, said.

“In fact, the way in which Islam is taught and learned – and the impact that has on young Muslims - is driven by much more complex factors. Muslims often use the word tarbiya, which does not mean simply education, but refers to holistic moral and ethical formation. That process of character formation is rooted in debates and ideals that are much more subtle and diverse than headlines in the media sometimes suggest. And it is of great interest today in the context of debates about citizenship and contributions to civil society.”

The conference organisers define Islamic education as “all forms of teaching and learning that are based on the principles and values of Islam.” This includes not just Islamic faith schools and tertiary education institutions, but less formal institutions, outside any recognised school system.

The countries represented will range from the United Kingdom, the United States, Denmark and Canada, to Morocco, Egypt, Indonesia and Iran. In each case, delegates will be asked to reflect on how and why Islamic education is changing and what the consequences appear to be for the development of Muslim students. Organisers hope that one result will be the exchange of good practice between the different countries involved.

In one sense, Islamic education worldwide is affected by common concerns. The growth in human scientific knowledge, for example, raises questions about the relevance of faith to the way that individuals and societies understand and interpret the world.

How those problems are handled by individual education institutions, however, depends on local or national context. The way in which young Muslims are taught about faith and citizenship, for example, will vary depending on whether or not they live in a country in which Islam is the majority religion. In the Middle East, a growing demand for democratization has changed people’s expectations about what education is supposed to deliver. Elsewhere, faith schools are expected to teach Islam as part of a broader religious education in an avowedly secular national curriculum.

The conference will attempt to explain how Islamic education is responding to these different problems in these different settings, and how that is changing the way students are taught about their religion.

“Islamic education is engaged in a whole range of different reforms, which are not driven simply by Western concerns about radicalisation” Professor Suleiman added.

“If we understand its development simply as a response to international politics, then the other influences shaping the education young Muslims receive will be overlooked and the consequences will not be addressed. We hope that this conference will explain the bigger picture, for the benefit of Muslims and non-Muslims, as well as those involved in faith-based education of whatever tradition.”

The conference is organised by the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge, in association with the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for the Study of Islam in the Contemporary World at the University of Edinburgh, and by Dr Charlene Tan, Singapore, who was a Visiting Fellow at the Centre of Islamic Studies in Cambridge in 2009.

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