Teaching and Learning About Islam in Educational Terms

Geir Skeie

Educational Perspectives on IRE

Given the different national and sub-national contexts of education and (DRE in Europe, IRE needs to be approached with sensitivity to these contexts. When approaching the manifold and complex issue of IRE, the question of definition immediately comes to the fore. The introduction of this book discusses what IRE is by referring to several possible approaches without preferring one in particular:

  • • Berglund: Islamic instruction as supplementary/IRE as (confessional) subject in state schools/Teaching about Islam in non-confessional courses
  • • Panjwani and Agbaria: religious instruction/education inspired by Islamic tradition/(non-confessional) education about Islam
  • • Maussen and Bader: governmental schools (neutral)/non-governmental schools (confessional) - including Islamic schools

These definitions or dimensions seem to lean towards the institutional-legal perspective and to draw on a distinction between secular, public, and non-confessional on the one hand and religious, private, and confessional on the other. However, while these opposing models can help us to understand the institutional-legal setup, they do not necessary cover the educational issues at stake.

In order to assess the educational aims, content, and approaches, I will employ a different set of concepts, borrowed from Gert Biesta (2006; 2010; 2012; see also Miedema’s contribution in this volume), who has argued that education should be seen as an enterprise consisting of three interrelated ambitions: qualification, socialisation, and subjectifi-cation. Qualification refers to providing knowledge that gives access to further studies and work life; socialisation includes fostering the abilities and knowledge to participate in society; and subjectification has to do with individual development and emancipation as human beings. In the following, I discuss IRE in the light of these dimensions. The aim here is

Teaching Islam in Educational Terms 255 not to evaluate national systems towards a normative framework based on Biesta’s categories, but rather to map a series of issues raised in the reports and to relate them to dimensions of education.


The variety of ways Muslim schools choose to teach (about) Islam, as documented in the contribution on France, may suggest that this is not their main aim. They seem more preoccupied with developing good schools by qualifying for further education. Further, the interest in some French IRE schools for alternative pedagogies is interesting, since this seems to be going in the direction of more emphasis on subjectification.

Cyprus is another example of how qualification, socialisation, and subjectification are political as much as educational. It is shown how difficult it can be to achieve consensus regarding a certain minimal common commitment to all three dimensions of education and then negotiate what can be achieved. If this is not possible, one option is that the idea of education becomes dominated by the aims related to qualification (and measurement?), and that religion is seen as having a marginal place in this.

The case of Denmark shows that conflict over Islam in the public sphere can be a challenge to qualification - even if RE in state schools is multi-faith - because of tendencies to picture Islam in an essentialist way, e.g., as more conflict-oriented than Christianity. In this way, the qualifying aspect of education (“knowledge”) suffers.

The recent history of RE in Norway also illustrates the challenges of establishing a common RE, including qualifying teaching and learning about Islam. If this is done without ensuring that it is sufficiently objective, critical, and pluralistic, it may not be accepted by all religious and worldview organisations. In order to have a public RE for all, there is a need for democratic support. This cannot merely be achieved through parliamentary decisions but needs a sufficient group-based justification. This precondition is of course also necessary for the socialising dimension of education to be fulfilled.


Socialisation is an educational aim which has to be affirmed by society at large. The Finnish example illustrates a model where IRE is anchored in the university through regulations regarding teacher training and certification, in a dominating state school system offering public RE of a “soft confessional” type, but oriented towards group needs. While there is an emphasis on subjectification in the curriculum, the organisational model focuses on socialisation into groups. Given the diversity among

Muslim students, the “general Islam” taught in Finland and in other nations needs to present a more diversified form of IRE (see also Boe and Panjwani in this volume).

The situation for IRE in Cyprus is an example of how socialisation becomes a problematic issue when it is either excluded from secular education and left for the “in-group” education or used for certain top-down aims without taking account of all religious and worldview groups.

Germany has national regulations about the required goals and content of IRE curricula, which may be seen as an instrument of (national) socialisation. However, the many provincial sub-models, the lack of legal and official recognition of Islamic organisations, and the increase of private schools means that the character of this socialisation is difficult to grasp. It is even unclear what kind of outcomes can be expected. Further, the lack of inclusion of Islam in the legislative system for (confessional) RE communicates that it is marginal to the socialisation of Germans.

In Belgium, the privatisation of RE happens by emphasising the rights of recognised communities to have RE in state and denominational schools, but with less emphasis on broader social cohesion and communality across religious and worldview communities. There seems to be a critical situation for RE and at the same time pressure from churches to keep it unchanged. According to the report, the lack of adaptation to widespread secularisation and religious diversity creates a need to socialise not only into religious communities, but also into a common diverse society which has to include religious literacy as a qualification.


In the Danish context, some may see the development of IRE in Muslim schools as a part of the subjectification dimension of education, allowing children and young people to develop their own faith. This is not necessarily the case. Often, parents mainly seem to prefer these schools for their qualifying aims (“good schools”), not because they are a shelter from diversity in state schools (Ihle, 2007). If so, Islamic free schools could have a potential to develop a broad discourse about the aims and content of Islam in education, balancing subjectification with Biesta’s other two dimensions.

Some reports from countries with confessional models, including some kind of optional IRE, seem to show that this type of education is not always chosen by parents and students. One example is the situation in Bulgaria, with cooperation between state and religious communities and a system with confessional, but state-run IRE. Apparently, many students do not sign up for this IRE, for instance due to general secularisation, a lack of trust in the state, and a feeling that Islam is a marker of exclusion from society, rather than part of a diverse Bulgaria. This may indicate that students find IRE lacks potential for subjectification. While for some Muslims, Bulgarian IRE is perhaps not close enough to their conception of Islam (hence the growing support for mosque-based IRE), for other Muslims it is lacking critical distance. The discussion about a new IRE curriculum may point in the direction of a more objective, critical, and pluralistic IRE. The question is whether this common and inclusive RE will be capable of offering students the opportunity to explore existential issues and beliefs, and not only objectified and essentialist versions of religions - as mentioned in some other chapters.

The report from the Netherlands gives an interesting example of a “cut” where IRE is explored across the different school types of the country and in different subject frameworks. The overall picture is quite complex, and this probably reflects the complex (institutional) history and present state of the Dutch school system. For young people growing up in the Netherlands, this may communicate that religion is marginal and potentially difficult to include in societal institutions, even if it may be of great subjective importance to individuals. This would suggest that the dimension of subjectification is the “difficult” one that education tends to avoid. Teaching and learning about Islam in this situation seem particularly vulnerable, given prejudice and a lack of resources. The increasing amount of Muslim schools is one answer to the situation, and it will be interesting to see how the dynamic between different approaches to teaching and learning about Islam is being played out in these schools.


It seems difficult, but still urgent, to ask to which extent IRE in all its forms and shapes across Europe contributes to the education of children and young people (Meijer, 2006; Sahin, 2018). The educational aims of qualification, socialisation, and subjectification are addressed in different ways and to different degrees, depending on the national frameworks and organisational solutions. These seem full of contradictions and institutionalised power mechanisms, and they often place IRE in a marginal situation. This, in its turn, communicates messages of exclusion to young Muslims. In the light of this, it is important to investigate critically and build on existing national IRE structures while at the same time searching for solutions which move IRE into the centre of the discourse about what education is for, drawing on all three dimensions.


Biesta, G. (2012). Becoming World-Wise: an Educational Perspective on the Rhetorical Curriculum. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 44 (6), 815-826. DOI: 10.1080/00220272.2012.730285

Biesta, GJJ. (2006). Beyond Learning. Democratic Education for a Human Future. Boulder, Colo., Paradigm Publishers.

Biesta, GJJ. (2010). Good Education in an Age of Measurement: Ethics, Politics, Democracy. Boulder, Colo., Paradigm Publishers.

Ihle, A.H. (2007). Magt, Medborgerskab og Mtislimske Friskoler i Danmark. Traditioner, idealer ogpolitikker. Copenhagen, University of Copenhagen.

Meijer, W. (2006) Tradition and Future of Islamic Education. Münster, Waxmann.

Sahin, A. (2018) Critical Issues in Islamic Education Studies: Rethinking Islamic and Western Liberal Secular Values of Education. Religions, 9 (11), 29. DOI: 10.3390/rel9110335

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