Democratic Education on Religion and Ethics in Islamic Religious Education Contexts

Olof Franck

Pluralistic Conceptions of Islam

At present, there seems to be a vast range of publications on a subject described as “Islam and democracy”. When intending to develop teaching on Islamic approaches to democratic issues, however, one has to be careful which words one chooses (cf. Stenberg, 2013). The reason for this is that Islam, like all religions, grows and develops through human thought, reflection, and action, and the results express and explore a variety of interpretations, arguments, and positions. This being the case, it is impossible to answer the question of whether “Islam” can be combined with democracy. Rather, one has to approach the theme of democratic ideals and values in religious contexts without referring to these contexts as if they were some kind of fixed and completed paintings.

Pictures of Fundamentalism

A processual, pluralist conception of Islam may open the way for a more nuanced and responsible approach to IRE. Not only does this conception allow an examination of individual and collective opinions and positions on issues regarding democratic values; it also allows the deconstruction of a conception according to which all Muslims are religious, even in the same way perhaps, and share a common theological, existential, and ethical ideal.

As is mentioned in the introduction to this book, Mark Hodgson’s term “Islamicate” was coined in order to problématisé overly general pictures of Islam and persons with affiliations to Islamic contexts (Hodgson, 1974). It is important to challenge any claim to the establishment of strict borders between religious and secular arenas. So, focusing on Islam, what could be done to develop democratic teaching on religion and ethics in IRE contexts?

A breaking up of dichotomous mappings, where binary understandings of Islamic theologies and traditions are challenged, is a prerequisite for dealing with issues on democratic education in religion and ethics in IRE contexts. Such an approach demands a careful and well-founded methodology when developing teaching strategies on Islam. There is a need for teachers to be creative and constructive, and to meet challenges arising from ignorance and from an unwillingness to try to understand the dynamic life within religions, such as Islam.

Democratic Ideals and Praxis in Islam

Teaching about Islam seems, like RE teaching in general, to be often focused on the task of transmitting a congruent map, a fixed picture, where a standard model of basic themes is used without space for critical reflection. As an alternative to this “lazy pedagogy” and as a path to a more nuanced and dynamic understanding of religions, one might consider a study of internal arguments, according to which theological and ethical interpretations of religious texts such as the Bible or the Qu 'ran and other sources are challenged with regard to democratic values. Perhaps one could even argue that teaching on religions where such arguments are neglected or excluded is not adequate, and not wholly professional.

There are, in Islamic arenas, internal critical voices which could contribute to a dynamic understanding of Islam. Take, for example, the sociologist Fatima Mernissi (1991), who presents a critical analysis of restrictions of women’s rights in Islamic Sharia laws, and emphasises a need for norm-critical reading of Quranic texts. Another example is the Iranian philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush (2000), who has discussed a need for a scientific approach to religious perceptions and beliefs in Islamic thought, making space for critical analysis with regard to the tension between traditional Islamic views on, for example, the roles of and relations between men and women, and modern interpretations of equality. Another, and perhaps more recent example of interesting thought to highlight in this context is presented by Professor Ebrahim Moosa (2003).

These authors have published texts which could be useful in classroom teaching, or seminar discussions, where the students have the opportunity to read excerpts or longer sections in order to broaden and deepen their understanding of Islam. In IRE as well as in RE more generally, these kinds of discussions can contribute to a more comprehensive (and less oversimplified) understanding of Islam, as well as on its challenges and possibilities, related to perspectives on religion and democracy.

The Democratic Right to Be Intellectually Challenged

The abovementioned approach, which makes space for highlighting internal critical voices and arguments, may not be generally accepted. There are, however, reasons for supporting a defense for highlighting religious criticism within RE contexts, where students may become aware that the religious community to which they belong is not uniform but diverse.

I am certainly not willing to question the safe-space theorists’ position that classrooms ought to be an existentially safe arena for students to express and to discuss personal views of whichever kind. But this is not the same as saying that classroom arenas should be free from intellectual challenges (cf. Callan 2016). On the contrary: students representing more conservative as well as more liberal religious traditions have to be met as developing subjects, who share with other subjects in the democratic community the right to be respected as reflecting agents, who may widen and deepen existing views and frames of references by engaging in mutual critical dialogue. This holds for every child or young adult who participates in education, be it IRE or not.

Teaching on Non-Democratic Interpretations of Islam

What follows from such a conception of education is that no student in democratic societies should be hindered from the process of subjectifi-cation, which allows “those educated to become more autonomous and independent in their thinking and acting” (Biesta, 2016, 22). Indeed, the right to be intellectually and existentially challenged (cf. The Beautiful Risk of Education [Biesta 2013]) is universal. Therefore, it is fundamental that young people, regardless of religious or secular affiliation, participate in intercultural teaching on religion and ethics. “Intercultural teaching” here implies teaching which, in the words of Byram, Nichols and Stevens (2001, 5), aspires “to relativise one’s own values, beliefs and behaviours, not to assume that they are the only possible and naturally correct ones, and to be able to see how they might look from the perspective of an outsider who has a different set of values, beliefs and behaviours”.

Such an aspiration is not equivalent to a striving for getting believers to give up their faith, but rather to make them reflect upon it, with a look that can both deepen and widen various perspectives. Certainly, it may still be highly demanding - not only for students, but for anyone who has a religious or, for that matter, philosophical affiliation. An intention to try to look upon one’s own beliefs and values from an outsider’s perspective, may, however, be fruitful with regard to reflection on these beliefs and values, as well as being supportive when trying to understand and respect other people’s corresponding perceptions and convictions.

A prerequisite for such intercultural teaching-learning processes is that people are free to search for knowledge, truth, meaning, and moral guidance. The participants in such processes are to be invited to join in a common development of an objective, critical - and inclusive - IRE, where mutual respect is continuously in focus, and which demands that democratic rules for deliberative intercultural teaching on religion and ethics are clearly stated and defended (cf. Franck, 2020). At the moment, this approach seems mainly to be present in non-confessional teaching about Islam, but given the general importance of democratic education, this emphasis on critical thinking, curiosity, and creativity could also be relevant in contexts of confessional teaching.


Biesta, G. (2013) The Beautiful Risk of Education. Boulder, Colo., Paradigm Publishers.

Biesta, G. (2016) Good Education in an Age of Measurement: Ethics, Politics, Democracy. London, Routledge.

Byram, M., Nichols, A. and Stevens, D. (2001) Introduction. In: Byram, M., Nichols, A. and Stevens D. (eds.). Developing Intercultural Competence in Practice. Clevedon, Multilingual Matters, pp. 1-8.

Callan, E. (2016) Education in Safe and Unsafe Spaces. Philosophical Inquiry in Education, 24 (1), 64-78. DOI: Available from: index.php/pie/article/view/945 [Accessed 7January 2021].

Franck, O. (2020) Ethics Education in Democratic Pluralist School Contexts. Educational Theory Special Issue: Education and Risk (Wiley), 70 (1), 73-88. DOI:

Hodgson, M.G.S. (1974) The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization. 3 vols. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Mernissi, F. (1991) The Veil and the Male Elite: a Feminist Interpretation of Women 's Rights in Islam. Massachusetts, Addison-Wesley.

Moosa, E. (2003) The Depths and Burdens of Critical Islam. In: Safid, O. (ed). Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism. Oxford, Oneworld Publications, pp. 111-127.

Soroush, A. (2000) Essential Writings of Abdolkarim Soroush. Translated, edited and with a critical introduction by Mahhmoud Sadri and Ahmad Sadri. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Stenberg, L. (2013) It is wrong to ask oneself if Islam can unite with democracy [Det ar fel att fraga sig om islam kan forenas med demokrati], Sydsvenskan 2013-09-30, [Accessed 14 October 2019].

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