Islamic Religious Education and Education About Islam in Sweden

Jenny Berglund

State-Church Relations and the Muslim

Communities in Sweden

State and Church in Sweden

Sweden’s population stands at approximately 10 million, and the country is often characterised as a welfare state, meaning that the state sponsors a variety of social services with tax money. Apart from Sweden’s social welfare programs, there is no charge for university attendance, and religious organisations are able to obtain financial support for some of their activities. Prior to the year 2000, the Evangelical Lutheran Church was Sweden’s official state church. Today, however, its status is that of a national church, meaning that it is no longer directly tied to the Swedish state. Membership in the Church of Sweden has decreased in recent decades, but around 60% of the Swedish population are still members (Willander, 2019).

The Muslim Communities in Sweden

There are no reliable statistics regarding the number of Muslims in Sweden since registration by religion is not permitted. However, with well over 100 established communities, Islam has clearly become the largest non-Christian religion. According to the Pew Research Center (2017), Muslims make up 8.1% of the Swedish population. Most Swedish Muslims can be understood to be secularised, with only a third visiting a Muslim congregation more than once a year (Willander, 2019, 48) and only around 150,000 said to belong to some kind of registered Muslim organisation (Willander, 2019). Compared to other European countries, the presence of Muslims in Sweden is relatively new, with the Tatars having been the first to arrive at the end of the 1940s. The 1960s marked the beginning of Muslim labour migration, but when the need for labour decreased at the end of the 1970s, immigration policy became more restrictive. Today’s Swedish Muslim population is comprised of

Islamic Religious Education in Sweden 213 individuals from a wide variety of national, ethnic, and religious origins, many of whom arrived as refugees and many of whom were born in Sweden (Sorgenfrei, 2018). Despite the fact that all Muslims share certain fundamental customs and beliefs, Islam is articulated and practiced within a diversity of Islamic traditions - a diversity which becomes even more heterogeneous in combination with various national, social, and individual characteristics (Waardenburg, 2003, 208).

Religion and Education in Sweden: General Overview

The Swedish school system has a long history of Christian education related to the former Lutheran state church. Although schooling was made compulsory for all children in 1842, “Swedes [had been] a reading people” long before that - a result of the Ecclesiastical Act of 1686, which charged parents and masters with the domestic responsibility of teaching their children and servants to read (Hartman, 2007, 260). At that time, the most important school subject was religious instruction (RD in Lutheranism, and this remained the case until the occurrence of a major curriculum adjustment in 1919, the starting point of the secularisation of Swedish schools. Thereafter, RI was reduced to 50%, other subjects were introduced to balance the difference, and “[postering for national citizenship instead of the Lutheran faith became the task of the school system” (Hartman, 2007, 260).

In 1962, school reform required the subject of Christianity to maintain a “neutral” profile with respect to questions of faith (Skogar, 2000, 29) and in 1969, the subject’s name was changed from Christianity to Knowledge About Religion, which is a direct translation of the Swedish word religionskunskap.- This change in name signified the move from a confessional to a more non-confessional school subject that prioritises teaching about religion - including different non-Christian religions -from a Study of Religions perspective.

Today, non-confessional religious education (RE) is an obligatory school subject taught from primary level to upper secondary school in all state-funded schools. This means that the goals stated in the national syllabus also have to be reached in state-funded faith-based schools. Hence Swedish Muslim faith schools also teach non-confessional RE (cf. infra). In primary school, the focus is on the local community and storytelling, while at higher levels there is a greater emphasis on key ideas within the major world religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, according to the syllabus) as well as on secular worldviews, or “outlooks of life” as they are called in the English-language documentation from the National Agency for Schools (Skolverket, 2011)-3 In upper secondary school, one RE course is obligatory. Students can add a second course, but they can also take a more extensive course of specialisation if they want. The obligatory course in upper secondary school builds on the knowledge acquired during the previous nine years of obligatory schooling. The first sentences in the syllabus clearly show its departure point: “The subject of religion has its scientific roots primarily in the academic discipline of religious studies, and is by its nature interdisciplinary. It deals with how religions and outlooks on life are expressed in words and action, and how people formulate and relate to ethical and existential issues.” (Skolverket, 2011)

The syllabus is goal-oriented and does not give any instruction on how much time a teacher should spend on each topic; this is left to each teacher’s professional discretion and judgment. The syllabus was, in the same way as the syllabus for all other school subjects, written by an expert group consisting of both scholars in the study of religions and teachers led by the National Agency for Education.

Islam in Swedish Religious Education (Religionskunskap)

Religious Edication and Swedish Values

In the general Swedish curriculum, the so-called fundamental values are stressed:

The national school system is based on democratic foundations. The Education Act (2010, 800) stipulates that education in the school system aims at pupils acquiring and developing knowledge and values. It should promote development, learning, and a lifelong desire to learn in all pupils. Education should impart and establish respect for human rights and the fundamental democratic values on which Swedish society is based. Everyone working in the school should also encourage respect for the intrinsic value of each person and the environment we all share.

The inviolability of human life, individual freedom and integrity, the equal value of all people, equality between women and men, and solidarity between people are the values that the school should represent and impart. In accordance with the ethics originating in a Christian tradition and Western humanism, this is achieved by fostering in each person a sense ofjustice, generosity, tolerance, and responsibility. Teaching in school must be non-denominational.

The task of the school is to encourage all pupils to discover their own uniqueness as individuals and thereby be able to participate in the life of society by giving their best in responsible freedom (Skolverket, 2018, 5).

These fundamental values should be imparted in every school subject in both state and independent schools. This includes extracurricular subjects, such as Islamic religious education (IRE) in Muslim schools or instruction in football in the elite sports schools. Much discussion

Islamic Religious Education in Sweden 215 has centred around the fact that Christian tradition and Western humanism are emphasized while at the same time teaching in school should be non-denominational. The use of the term non-denominational (icke-konfessionell) is meant to imply that in the Swedish school system, education is to be presented in such a way that no particular worldview is prioritised and that pupils from all cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds would feel comfortable. This neutrality, however, does not extend to the realm of what is described as society’s “fundamental values”,4 the mediation of which the national curriculum considers a primary task of Sweden’s educational system. This is one reason why RE (Knowledge About Religion), which is organised and controlled by the Swedish state through the National Board of Education, is taught in terms of a study of religions approach and, in 1996, was made obligatory for all pupils.

However, in spite of the fact that Swedish education in state schools is supposed to be non-denominational and non-confessional, it can also be understood to be “marinated in Lutheran Protestantism”, not only in terms of its history but also in terms of how religion is taught and how holidays are celebrated in schools (Berglund, 2013, 165).

Islam in Religious Education: Curricula

When it comes to the teaching of Islam within RE, we start by taking a look at what is directly or indirectly related to Islam in Swedish non-confessional RE, the obligatory subject in all regular schools (including faith-based schools, such as Muslim schools). In the lower years of primary school (grades 1-3, ages 7-9), pupils should learn “some ceremonies, symbols and narratives in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism” (Skolverket, 2018, 220). All Abrahamic religions are treated in the same way. However, at the next stage a distinction between Christianity and “the other world religions” is made; pupils in grades 4-6 (ages 10-12) should, for instance, learn:

  • • Rituals and religiously motivated precepts, and also holy places and locations in Christianity and the other world religions of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism
  • • Key ideas behind rituals, precepts, and holy places in Christianity and the other world religions, such as those expressed in religious narratives in the Bible and other records
  • • How different life issues, such as views on love and what happens after death, are depicted in religions and other outlooks on life
  • • What religions and other outlooks on life may mean for people’s identity, their lifestyles, and group affiliation
  • (Skolverket 2018, 220-221)

In the last three years of compulsory school (grades 7-9, ages 13-15), teaching about Islam can also be included in coverage of the following topics:

  • • Key ideas and documents in the world religions of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism
  • • Varying interpretations and practices in world religions in today’s society
  • • The main features of the historical evolution of world religions
  • • The relationship between society and religion in different times and places
  • • The role of religion in some political events and conflicts from a critical perspective
  • • Conflicts and opportunities for dialogue in secular and pluralistic societies, such as over issues concerning freedom of religious expression, sexuality, and views on gender equality
  • • How different life issues, such as the purpose of life, relationships, love, and sexuality, are depicted in popular culture
  • • How religions and other outlooks on life can shape people’s identities and lifestyles
  • • Ethical questions and the view of people in some religions and other outlooks on life
  • • Ethical concepts, which can be linked to questions concerning sustainable development, human rights, and democratic values, such as freedom and responsibility
  • (Skolverket 2018, 221-222)

The syllabus is not very detailed, and it gives RE teachers quite a lot of freedom to formulate the content of their instruction. As a consequence, pupils in different schools or in different classrooms can be taught quite differently about Islam, as well as about other religions. Not surprisingly, the chosen textbooks as well as the level of education of the teacher are important, in particular because the time spent on the study of Islam varies considerably between universities and teacher education programmes.

Islam in Religious Education Textbooks

A number of publishing houses produce textbooks for non-confessional RE. Each school and teacher decides what books or other kinds of teaching materials (e.g., web pages) to use. School textbooks are a complicated genre. In very few pages the author is supposed to present a religion, its basic creeds, its rituals, narratives, major figures, and other topics. Kjell Harenstam (1993) and Jonas Otterbeck (2005) have both analysed textbook chapters about Islam. In Harenstam’s

Islamic Religious Education in Sweden 217 study, the manner in which Islam has generally been represented in textbooks is contrasted with the manner in which it has been represented from the perspective of Muslim self-understanding/’ One of his findings was that an understanding of Islam from the adherent’s point of view is nowhere to be found in many of these textbooks, even though this standpoint is one that Sweden’s national syllabus considers important for pupils to learn (Harenstam, 1993, 9-23). Harenstam shows, among many other things, that throughout history the choice of words and events for describing Islam has often been a negative one, although not wrong. To illustrate this, he has presented a paragraph on Christianity:

Christianity was founded by Jesus the Jew, who was deeply inspired by messianic expectations in late Judaism. Christianity’s holy book is the Bible, which among other things teaches that the unrighteous will go to hell. The Christian religion has been propagated through crusades and through European colonisation and oppression of people in Africa and Asia. The Christians believe in one God and Jesus as his son. Christians go to church every Sunday. Dissidents have frequently been persecuted in Christian church history. In Northern Ireland there is a war between members of various Christian churches. (Harenstam, 1993, [my translation])

Although this quote is from a study performed more than 20 years ago, its findings are still relevant, as shown, for example, in Otterbeck’s more recent study of secondary-level textbooks for Knowledge About Religion. In a manner similar to Harenstam, he concludes that the choice of content in the chapters about Islam is sometimes “tendentious”, marked by an insensitivity to the matter of power relations (since many Islamic traditions are not represented) and misleading (since Islam is often depicted as if it were “Islamism” 6 instead) (Otterbeck and Bevelander, 2006, 801-802).

In my own studies of textbooks, I have shown that Swedish textbooks follow the format of “the man, the book, the faith” when presenting each of the five “world religions” teachers are required to cover in compulsory RE. This could be understood as a very Christian Lutheran perspective (Berglund, 2013). Another problem that is not specifically related to Islam but to all religions presented in Swedish textbooks is that persons representing a religion in textbooks are often “maximalists”, i.e., those who are most devout within a specific tradition. This might have two negative consequences: (1) students belonging to a specific religion feel that they are not good adherents since they do not live as the maximalist person presented, and (2) students not belonging to the religious tradition presented might think that all adherents live like the maximalist representative.

Islam in Religious Education Teacher Training

Because RE in Swedish schools is not connected to any specific religion, teachers need an education where they study different religions from a religious studies perspective. In Sweden, this kind of teacher training takes place at the university. The program for the diploma required for RE in the Swedish school system thus includes courses from Study of Religions departments, where Islam is also taught and studied. This means that Islam is studied from a historical, sociological, or anthropological point of view. Short introductory courses can be found in many universities, but at a number of universities it is possible (from BA to PhD level) to enroll in study of religions with a particular focus on Islam. Triggered by the present media attention on Islam, an increasing number of teachers request further education about Islam at the universities. In order to respond to this request, Stockholm University, as well as some other universities, established start-up courses on Islam, which are specifically directed towards teachers and school personnel on both basic and advanced levels.

Muslim Schools in Sweden

Sweden has no private schools in the sense that parents or other actors pay for education. Privately run schools (often called independent schools) do exist, but they are funded by the state. There are a few private boarding schools where parents pay for accommodation, but education is also free of charge, paid by the state. It is the municipality that is responsible for the organisation of education, both in its own municipal schools and in the independent ones. Fifteen percent of all students in grades 1-9 (ages 7-15) attend independent schools, as do 27% of upper secondary school students. Less than 1% of all students attend a faithbased independent school in Sweden, the vast majority of which are Christian. In 1993, Sweden’s first state-funded Muslim school (a state-funded independent faith-based school) opened in the city of Malmo, and to date the number of Muslim schools has increased to around 15. Some of these are classified as “Islamic” by the Swedish National Agency for Education and others as “Swedish-Arabic”.

One of the reasons why these Muslim schools were established in Sweden in the early 1990s is related to the fact that in 1992 the Education Act was amended so that it became less difficult to establish independent schools. Although education offered by independent schools (including faith-based schools) must have the same basic aims as the education offered by municipal schools, an independent school is permitted to have a profile or mission that distinguishes it from a municipal school. This profile consists of a specific school ethos as well as additional curricular subjects (such as IRE in the case of Muslim schools), which are incorporated into the weekly schedule. The nature of one Muslim school may be extremely different from that of another, and a distinction is often drawn between schools with “strong” and “weak” profiles. These classifications pertain to the degree of impact that a specific religion has on the profile of the school (Roth, 2007, 280-283).

Several studies show that the choice for Muslim schools is not primarily based on the existence of IRE or even on the Islamic school ethos. Mohme, for example, shows in her study that parents’ choice for a Muslim school for their children was mainly done to enable them to receive a good academic education - a type of education that, in the parents’ view, was not possible to get in the suburb they lived in, where the municipal school’s standard was perceived to be bad (Mohme, 2016). Other studies of school choice indicate that parents choose to send their children to Muslim schools for purposes of security and well-being, i.e., as a way of avoiding discrimination and obtaining acceptance of difference (Bunar and Kallstenius, 2006; see also Berglund, 2010).

Although RE or RI may not be the most important factor in parents’ decision to send their children to Muslim schools, these schools do provide an environment in which children can be educated not only about Islam via textbooks based on a secularised study of religions approach, but also into Islam via confessional lessons in which Islam is the norm and the child learns about the “good life” from an Islamic point of view. Notably, choosing education into Islam could, in conjunction with the preceding arguments, also be understood in terms of opposition to an education into secularism, which is the “neutrality” that municipal schools are believed to uphold. It is surprising that there are currently no available statistics comparing the performance of Muslim pupils in Muslim schools versus those in other schools, which would be interesting for the present discussion. Although the decision to send one’s child to a Muslim school is not usually based on the fact that it offers IRE, the appearance of this extracurricular subject in the school syllabi is nonetheless significant in terms of drawing a formal distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim schools in Sweden.

Islamic Religious Education in Swedish Muslim Schools

Islamic Religious Education and Swedish Values

In Sweden, IRE only exists as a subject at Muslim schools. It is a subject that differs from what is often called Islamic religious instruction (IRI), which is taught in mosques and Islamic organisations. The difference lies in the fact that IRE is governed by the same fundamental values (stated in the national curricula, cf. supra) as all other subjects taught in a state-funded school. This makes content selection different from IRI. On top of IRE, all Muslim schools, like any other school, have to teach regular non-confessional RE. At Muslim schools, the teaching of these two subjects is often (but not always) done by two different teachers.

Islamic Religious Education: Curricula and Textbooks

In accordance with Sweden’s Education Act, the general goals and so-called fundamental values outlined above are meant to be achieved in all schools (including faith-based schools) and all school subjects, and thus the “objectivity” of education is not to be intruded upon by indoctrination or tendentious modes of discourse, regardless of a school’s profile (Johansson and Persson, 1996, 22).7 In pursuit of these aims, most faith-based schools schedule only a small number of hours per week for education in and about their own religious tradition. In the specific case of Muslim schools, this number ranges from one to three hours per week for IRE. Since there are no national syllabi for this subject, local syllabi, which must also adhere to the above-described fundamental values, must be developed instead. This is done by each school or group of schools separately.

Similarly, there are no national textbooks for IRE, and it is up to each school to purchase textbooks suitable for their specific form of IRE. This is done quite differently in Muslim schools. While some schools import textbooks from, for example, the UK, France, or Jordan, others create their own teaching material (Berglund, 2010).

Islamic Religious Education: Content and Methodology

In my studies of IRE in Muslim schools through classroom observations and teacher interviews, I have previously shown that the few IRE hours were occupied by teaching of the Qur’an, Islamic history, and Islam-related songs (Berglund, 2010). The remainder of the school’s general schedule consisted of the standard subjects prescribed by the Swedish national syllabi, although some schools also provided for general assemblies with an Islamic ethos - for example, a morning gathering where the children sang children’s nasheed [songs about Islam] or where a teacher talked about a specific Muslim character and his or her deeds.

In all the studied schools, IRE was viewed as a subject that guides pupils into Islam by showing them the best possible way to live their lives as Muslims. The teachers described the overriding aim of their teaching to be enabling pupils to become “good Muslims” in Swedish society, to become acquainted with Islam’s history and religious texts, and to become familiar with Islamic practice. Moreover, teachers expressed similar concerns about the negative image of Islam in Swedish society. They also believed that learning about the Quran and Islamic history as well as learning and singing Islamic songs was essential to their pupils’ future as Swedish Muslims.

With regard to teaching the Qur’an, for instance, both traditional recitation and understanding of meaning were conceived as being related to Muslim life in Swedish society. The ability to recite the Qur’an was considered important because it enabled pupils to use this skill in various practical spheres of Swedish Muslim life, for instance in the performance of rituals (Berglund, 2010; 2018; see also Gent, 2018a,b). Along somewhat similar lines, the ability to understand the meaning of the Qur’an’s words was considered important because it enabled pupils to make their own judgments about what is right and wrong for a Muslim living in Sweden. Another example of relating Muslim life to Swedish society can be found in the teaching of Islamic history or narrative. Here the emphasis was on the moral message, especially as it related to how good Muslims should conduct themselves in various societal spheres - e.g., using pedestrian crosswalks, considering the needs of neighbours, respecting the beliefs of others, greeting relatives on holidays, and so forth (Berglund, 2010).

It is important to remember that despite the fact that the general content of the IRE classrooms studied was similar (i.e., the Qur’an, Islamic history and songs), specific content variations were evident. For example, there were very different approaches to how or whether the recitation of the Qur’an should be taught. The way narratives were recounted varied; some used direct translations of what can be found in Hadith or Sira literature, whereas others supplemented with details from other sources. In addition, several differences were found with respect to singing within the IRE lessons: Some schools kept to songs classified as children’s nasheed, while others taught madih (panegyric poetry), and some also included not only children’s nasheed but also those from the contemporary halal-pop and positive hip-hop genres (Berglund, 2014).

The various differences were primarily related to the fact that teachers adhered to different interpretations of Islam. For example, some schools used narratives to support what could be called specific Sufi practices (e.g., the veneration of “saints”) or to promote an allegorical understanding of certain verses of the Qur’an. This approach was seen by teachers as an important means of protecting pupils from the perceived risk of falling under the spell of extremist groups (here meaning Wahhabism/ Salafism). In this case, the teaching of the “right faith” through narratives was perceived as one way of avoiding extremism, an effort that was presented as being in accordance with the aims and values of Sweden’s national curriculum. Other schools were closely aligned to the words of the Qur’an in order to promote and establish the link between scientific theory and Islamic thought - an endeavour that could be understood as more in keeping with a reformist interpretation of Islam. Representing yet another perspective were teachers who expressed a desire to avoid politically charged questions and to conceive Islamic practice in more private terms. This can be regarded as a way of adapting to the secular discourse on religion in Sweden (Berglund, 2010).

Islamic Religious Education Teacher Training

There is no training available for teachers who teach IRE in Muslim schools. Instead, these teachers have often received their higher Islamic education in Muslim majority countries or have no formal higher education but have studied Islam privately. These teachers might also be regarded as having influence and thus having a significant position in Muslim society, in their home countries, or within the Swedish Muslim communities. Despite having received their education in other countries, such teachers of IRE are not considered accredited teachers according to the protocols of Sweden’s National Agency of Education (that is, if they don’t have a diploma to teach some other subject than IRE). For many IRE teachers, this lack of officially recognised education is problematic.

Uppsala University has recently started courses in Islamic theology, which in the future could be used to accredit IRE teachers. Another interesting initiative (in Stockholm) is Kista folkhogskola, which is a college established and run by a Muslim community. The college offers courses for adults who need to complement their secondary and/or upper secondary education (this can be education from the respective home countries, or secondary education in Sweden) in order to fulfil the qualifications required in the Swedish education system. The college has a Muslim ethos, but it also offers complementary courses in Islamic studies, which makes them also suitable for those who teach IRE in Sweden (Abdullah and Berglund, 2018).

Improving Islamic Religious Education and Education about Islam in Sweden: Initiatives, Improvements, and Future Prospects

IRE teachers stricto sensu have important multipronged objectives: They must remain relevant to modern European Muslim youths while conveying certain Islamic understandings; they must be able to represent the modern as well as the more ethnic-based interests of the students they teach; and they must earn the trust of both the majority and the Muslim minority populations. By providing IRE teachers with a solid higher educational foundation and involving them in general educational and pedagogical discussions, Sweden, like other European countries, could equip them with the best tools for achieving such complex aims. Here it must be noted that the responsibility for the success of IRE teaching rests not only with the state, but also with the teachers themselves. They are strongly encouraged to participate in teacher union activities and to form their own IRE teacher associations, which would give them the opportunity to share their pedagogical knowledge within a national educational context. IRE teachers can of course also attend the types of academic courses that institutions such as Uppsala or Stockholm University provide for Islamic theology or the history of religions.

The provision of appropriate textbooks for IRE and for nonconfessional teaching about Islam are essential for Muslim and non-Muslim pupils alike. To assure a largely unbiased presentation, textbooks for teaching about Islam and other religions should be written from a strict academic perspective. There are many examples of nonconfessional textbooks which do not meet minimal academic standards. While some publishing houses ask Muslim organisations to check the content of textbooks prior to publication, this may not be enough if the check has been performed only in accordance with the interpretive tradition of the organisation involved. Another way of addressing the matter of inadequate textbooks is to engage, as publishers, authors who are trained in the academic study of religions and know how to present knowledge to specific age groups. In addition, teachers themselves should critically scrutinise the books they purchase.


  • 1. Parts of this chapter have previously been published in Berglund, 2018.
  • 2. In English, Religion Education has been suggested as a more suitable term for the type of non-confessional RE that is provided in Sweden. This is also a term that is increasingly used for non-confessional education about religions. See for example Jackson, 2014, on terminology.
  • 3. "Outlooks on life” is the terminology that is used in the official translation of the National Syllabus. An alternative would be to use “Worldviews”.
  • 4. On the one hand, the teaching about religion in Sweden is meant to be neutral with respect to religious values; on the other hand, it is meant to be partial with respect to society’s “fundamental values”. This raises the question of whether such an approach, while proclaiming neutrality, merely promotes the “religion” of secularism instead. For a discussion regarding a possible secularist bias in Swedish education, see, for example, Osbeck and Coster, 2005. For a similar discussion concerning RE in Britain, see, for example, Wright, 2004.
  • 5. According to Harenstam, the Muslim perspective is comprised of various Muslim researchers, philosophers, and authors who are knowledgeable not only about the Islamic traditions, but also about the “Western cultural climate” and the state of affairs of Islam in Europe (Harenstam, 1993, 74).
  • 6. Islamism is generally explained as being a political interpretation of Islam, based on literal and conservative interpretations of the Qur’an and hadith.

I. Throughout the history of Swedish education, "objectivity” has been conceptualised in a variety of ways. See, for example, Englund, 1986, 198, 315; Berglund, 2013.


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