Islamic Education Within the Muslim Minority Context of Europe: Pedagogy, Politics, and Future Directions

Abdullah Sahin


Education is a complex concept that touches all aspects of human life but often gets easily reduced to a few taken for granted assumptions. In today’s increasingly plural European societies, the presence of diverse “educational cultures”, the product of post-WW2 immigration and globalisation, generated diverse perceptions and expectations associated with the phenomenon of education. A rigorous analytical method is vital for exploring how education is imagined and articulated across different cultures inhabiting the same social space.

I. Scheffler (1983) discerns three distinctive approaches to education: stipulative, when certain understandings of education are explicitly stated; descriptive, when several possible definitions of education are suggested; and programmatic, whereby certain ideals of what education should be are asserted. J.M. Hull (2004), the UK’s first professor of religious education (RE), reflecting critically on the possible meanings of RE in secular and religiously plural Europe, took this conceptual analysis of educational language a step further. Hull notes significant differences between the concept of education and education-like notions such as training, instruction, and indoctrination. Hull suggests that when some fundamental dimensions of the educational process, such as time, are taken seriously, these often-unnoticed differences become apparent. For example, in indoctrination, certain doctrines are transmitted in an ahistorical form which tolerates no change or development. On the other hand, education as a process of facilitating human flourishing helps learners to develop over time. Hull draws attention to the significance of a theology of education when identifying various modes of RE that could be formed within the specific context of faith communities. In Christianity, catechism (in Catholicism) and nurture (in Protestantism) are two common educational approaches intended to deepen faith among members of a religious community. Hull defines education as a process of maturing into critical openness, a mode of learning that makes further learning possible. He argues that in plural Europe, non-confessional RE within the mainstream schools could

IRE in the Muslim Minority Context 277 facilitate such a critical, educative process, taking religions as its distinctive content. Facilitating religious literacy and an empathetic appreciation of diverse faith traditions and non-religious value systems constitute the ethos of such an inclusive RE. This would further complement the religious nurture that takes place in the faith communities, providing that the nurture remains educational in character, i.e., it does not become a form of rigid, coercive transmission or indoctrination where learners have no freedom over what, why, and how they learn.

Politics of Islamic Education in Culturally/Religiously Plural Europe: Negotiating Expectations

Hull’s critical insights on inclusive RE and the theology of education continue to be relevant to contemporary discussions on the social and educational significance of religion in Western European societies. They are also relevant to Muslim educators and wider secular educational policy-makers who are considering the role of Islamic education (IE)1 for Muslim minorities in Europe. The following questions remain central for examining the theory and practice of IE:

  • • How is education understood in Muslim tradition and across its diverse historical and contemporary cultural articulations?
  • • What kind of educational good is intended by IE?
  • • Whose interest is served through this provision: that of parents, secular states, or European Muslim children and young people?
  • • Can Islamic nurture be contextual, open, critical, and capable of responding to the changing needs of European Muslim children and young people?
  • • Is education in Islam a rigid form of cultural transmission, instruction, and indoctrination incapable of generating a theological language of faith and personal development?
  • • Can Islamic ethos education promote intra-faith diversity and enable interfaith/intercultural understanding while sharing the broader ideals of Western civic and democratic education?

The ethnographic work of the late Bill Gent helped Western educators to appreciate the embodied features of traditional Islamic educational practices, particularly the pedagogy of learning by heart (hifz). However, Gent was also aware that traditions of education in Islam emphasised reflective, critical pedagogies (tadabbur/tafakkur) that are often missing in the life of British madrasas (Gent and Muhammad, 2019). A “teacher, text and instruction/transmission-centred” IE largely defines the community-based education (maktab/madrasah}, state-funded Islamic schools, and traditional Islamic higher education institutions (Daral-Ul-uums). This suggests incompatibility, if not a conflict, between Islamic and Western secular education and dramatically reduces the relevance of these instructional activities for the integration of Muslim youth into European societies. Such a narrow IE is hardly a resource for young Muslims to explore their faith heritage and inspire them to forge a distinctive European sense of Islamic belonging. It might instead, unintentionally, push them to adopt a rigid religious identity or be assimilated into a secular life.

However, a close examination of how education is imagined in core Muslim sources and Islamic traditions of spiritual, intellectual, and scientific learning reveals a deeper perception of education as human flourishing (tarbiyd), supporting a learner-led, pedagogic practice; hence, its capacity for engaging in a critical dialogue with Western education (Sahin, 2017, 2018). This indicates the need to rethink critically the relevance of certain culturally specific assumptions as to what constitutes IE in modern plural Europe. The task of rethinking is urgent if European Muslim educators are to respond to the religious and spiritual identity needs of Muslim children and young people, before their religious agency is exploited by various transnational Islamic revivalist networks. Nurturing such critical voices of educational and religious leadership remains crucial for IE to become a transformative force for European Muslims.

The analytical engagement with education described above needs to register the embeddedness of pedagogic practice within the wider political, socio-economic, and cultural dynamics of a given society. In this regard, exploring IE within the Muslim minority context of Europe requires an awareness of the impact of the colonial experience on the Muslim communities’ collective memory, their vulnerabilities to Islamophobia, and the internal dynamics of intergenerational change, class, and gender inequalities that inform intra-community affairs. Muslim educational self-understanding(s), conflated with inherited cultural practices, can generate suspicion amongst proponents of secular education. There is little sympathy for Muslim stress on Islam as offering a holistic perceptive on life. This includes seeing education as both embedded within their faith and embodied in their everyday life. Too often, secular approaches to education forget their own valueladen perceptions, naively assume their universal validity, and insist on the supposed incoherence of, for example, Christian or Islamic education. Secular educators can easily reify IE as a form of implicit religious socialisation, irrational instruction, and even indoctrination. As a result, Muslim educational activism, including their democratic right to faith-based schooling and involvement with the education of their children and young people in the mainstream schools, can come under deep suspicion and scrutiny.

The epithet “Islamic” in the expression “Islamic education” can be interpreted in two opposite ways: as an essentialised Islam, or as an

IRE in the Muslim Minority Context 279 arbitrary nominalism that deems the concept irrelevant and instead prefers a more secular, elusive depiction like “education in Muslim contexts”. Diverse models of church-state separation in Europe have led to different patterns of accommodation regarding the right to education in one’s own religious/cultural values and to the provision of religious education within mainstream schooling. Naturally, such templates have been evoked when responding to the faith-based education demands of Muslims in Europe with little attention to the significant differences that exist between theological self-understandings of Islam and Christianity and their divergent perception of religious authority and its articulation in personal and social life. Moreover, addressing Muslim affairs within an overwhelmingly anti-democratic, securitisation framework has obvious limitations but has been increasingly extended to all aspects of Muslim civic life.

Within this highly sensitive political context, state intervention in regulating the teaching and learning of Islam through organising the training of Muslim faith leaders and educators appears to be aimed at engineering a secular European Muslim identity. In continental Europe, an interesting official policy on IE has been unfolding for over a decade now. The secular states have begun to establish “Islamic Religious Pedagogy” centers to train teachers to teach Islam in mainstream schools and Islamic theology departments with a view toward training European Muslim faith leaders. The expectations of the secular state and to some extent the rights of the religious community seem to have met. However, the role of Muslim communities in this state-led IE policy, when compared to the existing participation of established Christian denominations, seems much less visible. For example, the appointment of chairs to the Islamic theological positions can be made where candidates have a nominal cultural association with Islam, a practice that seems unthinkable in appointments to similar Catholic or Protestant chairs.

This indicates two distinct political framings of IE represented by the secular state and the Muslim communities, respectively. The states naturally value IE as a tool for preventing extremism, for promoting social cohesion, and for inculcating the values of secular liberal citizenship. Muslim communities appear to value IE as an instrument for the transmission of cultural values and as a protection against what they perceive as a morally corrupting secular culture. Both approaches, however, seem unwilling to recognise, let alone respond, to the changing needs of European Muslim children and young people whose lives are informed both by Islamic and wider secular reality. Both have forgotten that the first task of IE is to facilitate a critical, reflective study of Islam and an intelligent faith development. Confined to an ahistorical, decontextualised and non-critical transmission of a revered set of texts, the exclusivist, narrow mode of IE can be exploited by extremist recruiters in both majority and minority Muslim societies.

Is there an alternative to overcome this coercive politics of IE and the assumed binary choice between Islamic and Western approaches to education? What is needed is to help build a research-based reflective and critical IE that will be able to provide young Muslims with an Islamic literacy that integrates reflective thinking and inter-cultural and inter-religious understanding (Sahin, 2016). IE needs to become an interdisciplinary field of study, embracing empirical research and professional development (Sahin, 2019). Achieving this goal largely depends on constructive, collaborative partnerships between Muslim educational institutions and mainstream universities with a view to bridging the pedagogic gap between the cultures of traditional Islamic and Western education.


By way of conclusion, I would like to reflect briefly on my work over the last two decades, which aimed to develop a model of research-based critical and reflective IE within the Muslim minority context of Britain. The central question animating my research has been to ask what it means to be educated Islamically in the modern world. I have been fortunate to carry out my work in close collaboration with a community of researchers and practitioners in Education Studies, Religious Education, and Empirical and Practical Theology. Recently I have been part of a model university-community collaboration launched at the University of Warwick to integrate IE within mainstream Education Studies, enabling a constructive dialogue between Muslim educators and practitioners in RE and mainstream schooling. I explored how stagnant Islamic education practices nurtured a “foreclosed” religiosity both within Muslim minority and majority contexts. My empirical research (Sahin, 2013) revealed three types of religiosity. The first is an “exploratory” religious identity, mostly observed among female and younger age groups, who wanted the relevance of Islam to be demonstrated rather than merely asserted. The second is a “diffused identity” where Islam only functions as a cultural attachment. The third is a “foreclosed” religiosity, rendering individuals vulnerable to radical voices - the third being the dominant of the three.

As a Muslim educator, this finding has reinforced my belief that we have to encourage reform in IE so that it becomes a transformative experience capable of nurturing what I term “reflective and exploratory” Muslim religiosities. Over the last decade, diverse groups of Muslim faith leaders and teachers have undergone a critical and open IE programme, a model of transformative Muslim paideia, that I have developed. The evidence shows that it offers a practical model for teaching Islam reflectively, motivating learners to discover diversity within Islam and to engage with the plurality of wider society (Sahin, 2018).

IRE in the Muslim Minority Context 281

My work on the philosophy and the theology of education in Islam has demonstrated that IE can facilitate human flourishing (tarbiya), can foster values of “critical openness to learn from one another” (taaruf), and can promote active citizenship within secular democratic polities (Sahin, 2017). The future of Muslim teacher education and theological education vital for forming a religious leadership contextualised within Europe depends on the availability of such a research-based reflective and inclusive IE.

We need to bear in mind that religions remain an important historical and cultural foundation of modern Western education, and therefore RE should not be excluded from contemporary academic provision of Education Studies in the mainstream universities. Religions can generate distinctive approaches to education by drawing on their core narratives of being human and pedagogically significant wisdom traditions. Inclusive, critical IE needs to be embedded within humanities and social sciences. In today’s interconnected world, secular and religious perceptions of education do not need to be mutually exclusive but could engage in a fruitful, reciprocal, reflective dialogue focused on enriching all students as they develop the competences and confidence to negotiate religious and cultural diversity. Such an inclusive educational vision will help nurture values for peaceful, just coexistence and build trust to address sensitive issues such as a willingness to decolonise education in contemporary European mainstream schooling as well as in higher education.


1. The expression “Islamic education” (IE) as noted in the introduction to this volume is open to diverse interpretations. I discussed elsewhere in detail (Sahin, 2013 pp.177-178; 2019 pp.13-14) how ideological assumptions shape the attempts to define or deconstruct the concept. They invariably show lack of awareness about the fundamental level differences between notions of education and training, instruction, nurture, socialisation, etc. referred to in this short paper. IE could mean a distinctive interpretation of education, i.e., defining education Islamically, as Islamic ethos schooling; or as a focused curriculum subject facilitating the teaching/learning about Islam and Muslims often recognised as Islamic Studies. The educational context in which the expression is issued also makes a difference. In various formal/informal Islamic settings it will have qualities of deepening faith (nurture), while in the mainstream secular settings it could mean education about Islam and Muslims (Islam/ Muslim literacy). In continental Europe the expression Islamic Religious Education or Pedagogy seems mostly invoked. I find this latter depiction to be narrow, referring to a curriculum subject and mostly implying religious instruction or nurture. This is perhaps due to the denominational character of religious education in continental Europe. Moreover, the expression 'Islamic Religious Education' implies a secular bifurcation of educational process into religious and non-religious categories, which is something Muslims might consider as a misrepresentation of theirfaith and its holistic vision on education (tarbiya). I think we need to go beyond nominalism and focus on the pedagogic dimension of the activities implied by these various depictions, i.e., how learning and teaching of Islam are organised and delivered - be it in Muslim settings, including state-funded Islamic schools, or in mainstream secular schooling. I argue that a critical, reflective, and inclusive Islamic Education is what is urgently needed in the Muslim minority context of Europe. Such a model of reflective Islamic pedagogy requires having a critical theology of education that is at ease with plurality within Islam and diversity of the modern world. It is vital that such inclusive readings of education in Islam are offered by European Muslim educators working within the faith tradition itself.


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Sahin, A. (2013) New Direction in Islamic Education: Pedagogy and Identity Formation. Markfield, Kube.

Sahin, A. (2016) Let’s tap into Islam’s heritage of critical education to defeat extremism in schools. The Guardian. Available from: https://www.theguardian. com/education/2016/jan/12/islam-education-extremism-schools-muslim-prevent [Accessed 9 July 2020].

Sahin, A. (2017) Education as Compassionate Transformation: The ethical heart of Islamic pedagogy. In: Gibbs P. (ed.). The Pedagogy of Compassion at the Heart of Higher Education. Cham, Springer, pp. 127-137.

Sahin, A. (2018) Critical Issues in Islamic Education Studies: Rethinking Islamic and Western Liberal Secular Values of Education. Religions, 9, 335. DOI:

Sahin, A. (2019) Islam, Muslims and Education: Framing an Interdisciplinary Field of Research, Critical Scholarship and Professional Practice. The Muslim World Book Review, 40 (1), 7-29.

Scheffler, I. (1983) The Language of Education. Springfield, Ill., Thomas.

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