Monday, 30 March 2015

Conference Reflections [2015]: Waqar

Jihad, ISIS… and Jesus

I was privileged to be at the first London RE Hub conference at the beautiful Ismaili Centre on Saturday. Organised by the brilliant Andy Lewis and his excellent team, the event was attended by teachers, faith leaders and professionals with an affiliation to RE from in, around and beyond the capital.

The day aimed to provide “authentic, useful subject knowledge” on faiths and non-religious worldviews. With an impressive line-up of scholars and speakers for each of the workshops, this objective was most certainly achieved.

The session on Islam, jointly led by Imam Monawar Hussain (Oxford Foundation) and Deborah Weston (NATRE Executive), addressed common misconceptions about jihad and the distinction between its various forms. This was very timely in the context of the growth of ISIS and Boko Haram which has presented classroom practitioners with a huge and unenviable challenge, particularly when dealing with the subject of Muslims and conflict.

What drives believers who identify themselves with a religion whose very name denotes ‘peace’ to cause maximal death and destruction in the name of God? It is a question that troubles subject specialists, students and Muslims themselves. Little wonder most of the delegates were seen sitting in this workshop!

Imam Hussain traced the roots of Islamist terrorism to puritanical Wahhabism in the late 1700s, that was inspired by a vision of Islamic hegemony that bullies everyone into submission. However, this only goes so far.

There is a deeper, and therefore less apparent, cause for the unspeakable horror we are witnessing in Iraq, Syria, West Africa and elsewhere. Is it Western foreign policy, or failed peace efforts in the Middle East? Not quite.

The origins of this modern savagery are actually linked to Jesus. Perplexed? Then read on.

Muslims, like Christians, expect Christ to revisit the earth - a belief based on prophecies contained in both traditions - to usher in an era of universal harmony and justice. Yet the image some have painted of the returning Messiah (who would be joined by the Mahdi) would make Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appear benign.

According to a literalist understanding of some hadith, when the son of Mary reappears, he will carry a sword, smash every crucifix in his sight and kill anyone rejecting Islam – liberating the ummah and making real the goal of an invincible global caliphate.

Of course, to all who know and love Jesus as one who personified meekness and turned the other cheek, such a thought is intolerable. It is also a gross misreading of texts intended to be understood allegorically, and contrary to the Qur’an’s guarantee of freedom of conscience: “There is no compulsion in religion” (Ch 2: V 257).

But for the young, impressionable and theologically illiterate, the idea of a ‘Jihadi Jesus’ is attractive, and to help pave the way for his second coming, some feel they must be ready to offer their lives. It is the highest form of sacrifice they believe will earn them eternal bliss.

This deadly doctrine was challenged head on by a 19th century reformer, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who warned about the perilous consequences of belief in a bloody-thirsty Christ that was (and still is) prevalent among some sects.

In his book ‘Jesus in India’, Ahmad lamented: “From their very childhood, stories, anecdotes and false ideas about jihad are dinned into their ears and inculcated into their hearts, the result being that gradually they become morally dead and cease to feel the heinousness of their hateful actions.”

He predicted: “The beliefs of some… known as Wahabbis, regarding a bloody Mahdi and a bloody Messiah, are affecting their morals very badly, so much so, that on account of their bad influence their dealings with other people are not based on honesty and good will, nor can they be truly and completely loyal to a non-Muslim government."

“The ultimate result of a principle like this is that hearts become devoid of the quality of human sympathy and that mercy and justice, which are great human moral qualities, take leave of men.”

Ahmad emphasised that the Qur’an’s permission for armed struggle was solely for self-defence, at a time when persecution of Muslims had reached an extreme and the very life of Islam was under threat. In the 23 years of Prophet Muhammad’s ministry, approximately three months were spent in battle – illustrating how minor jihad bis saif (striving with the sword) was when conditions necessitated it.

Those conditions do not apply today. This age, Ahmad explained, is for jihad bin nafs (striving with the soul) and jihad bil qalam (striving with the pen).

Ahmad’s own claim as a divinely commissioned reviver of faith might not have been accepted by all of his co-religionists, but he was the first to directly address violent jihadist narratives. He cautioned other Muslim scholars and leaders that unless they did so too, movements like ISIS would inevitably flourish.

So it was great to learn last Saturday that more than a hundred prominent Sunni figures worldwide, including Imam Hussain, are doing just that. They have engaged in an important jihad bil qalam and written a comprehensive open letter to al-Baghdadi to expose the theological baselessness of ISIS. The letter can be read here - - and will also feature at a ‘United for Peace’ event at the University of Birmingham in May. It is a small yet significant step. And it is a jihad well worth supporting.

Find Waqar Ahmedi on Twitter <here> 

Conference Reflections [2015]: Becky

The importance of subject knowledge and lived religion

So here goes my first blog….

Yesterday was the inaugural London RE Hub Conference held at the Ismaili Centre in South Kensington. Its aim was to support RE teachers subject knowledge and give practical examples of how lived religion might be taught within in the classroom. This is certainly what it did. I have come away feeling inspired, and have been reminded of the importance of rooting all I do in the classroom in the day to day lived faith of so many believers within our local communities and around the world.

The conference also reminded me of concepts and information which took me back to my university days. However, in my 6 years of teaching I feel like I have too often just skimmed the surface of some religions. Part of me has come away feeling guilty, that I have let the busy nature of school life mean that my students haven’t had the depth of knowledge needed to truly understand the importance of faith to so many people. However despite my guilt, I have come away feeling empowered to make a change to the way I teach and always ensure my teaching is rooted in depth and challenge for my students.

It was brilliant to hear first-hand from members of the Sikh, Jewish, Buddhist and Muslim faith but also to be given practical ideas for the classroom. I was particularly inspired by the session on Sikhism with Kate Christopher and Onkardeep Singh, perhaps because I know I am about to start teaching Sikhism to my Year 7s, but also because Onkardeep Singh gave me a genuine, authentic insight into Sikhism. He spoke of the importance of seeing God as your best friend within Sikhism and the role of mindfulness within Sikh worship, something which I don’t think I had really considered within my teaching of Sikhism.

I also can’t wait to try out Kate’s idea of bringing in fairy cakes and icing them in the classroom and then giving them out for free at break time and getting students to reflect how this felt for them. This seems like such a fun and practical way for students to learn about sewa but also to discuss the value of this generous behaviour for individuals and as a part of worship.

The day also reminded me of the importance of covering the diversity of religious faith; it was an excellent networking opportunity and it rekindled my love for RE. I’ve come away wanting make sure my students have a depth of religious knowledge which is rooted in the lived faith of so many individuals and communities around the world.

Becky Shah, Lead Teacher RS Teacher in Hertfordshire @BeckyShahRE

Conference Reflections [2015]: Laura

Today I was an RE teacher, and a pretty passionate one too. It was hard not to be when there are so many of you gathered in one place exchanging intellectual wisdom and teaching gems. After all as Andy Lewis reminded us “if not you then who, if not now then when?” So I filled in my postcard with promises to implement new ideas and lead a hub of my own in the East of England but after battling the wind to get home I couldn’t help but feel a little deflated. Let me tell you why.

I have always been told that I would be a good teacher encouraged to take that route from a very young age. Being able to talk to both the popular kids and the unpopular kids and being in the top sets but not excelling as always led to me being chosen to be a guide to new students or interview prospective teachers and as my mother bought me up to be polite I did. My mum teaches in primary schools and for much of my life I have helped. So I am an expert at putting up displays, labelling drawers and telling stories using voices. But how did I end up as an RE teacher? 

I studied Religious Studies at university or at least that’s what my records say. I never was a very good student, any work that needed to be completed on my own time was rarely done, I hated to read and was lazy. (Turns out that I am dyslexic and need a coloured overlay but that’s just me trying to excuse my laziness) So I become a waitress and was quickly promoted to management but suffered with depression and had money issues. This was after I had already been offered a place on the Cambridge PGCE and turned it down. So one sunny day in May, near my birthday, my best friend and my mum sat me down and told me to go and be a teacher. Mum said that she would help with money and Rachel said she would help with my confidence. So I applied and failed to get onto the SCITT course and I then I made the big decision; I applied to Cambridge again. Interview went well and I exuded and air confidence and readiness for the classroom. 

Fresh faced and eager I moved in to Hughes Hall taking one of the last places due to my late application and I began my PGCE. I very quickly realised that my subject knowledge was poor and that I couldn’t remember anything I had learnt in the past. I didn’t study A Level Philosophy and Ethics, I didn’t go to a Russell Group university and I didn’t get a first. Feeling very unworthy I fought on. Socially it was a fantastic year, being a student again really suited me and I even managed to just get by financially. I met Ian, my now boyfriend and he has helped to change my life completely. 

Having worked in schools previously I found that I had a natural presence in the classroom, not the best with behaviour management but which young, new female teachers are. My first placement was awkward, my mentor and I did not have the best relationship and the students perceptions of RE were not good, I was glad when it was over. My second placement came with its own issues. This time my mentor was second in command in RE PGCE course and was kind of a big deal. However he was absent a lot and feedback was not always helpful. I started to struggle and I saw a counsellor. With support for lack of sleep and ocd tendencies I got an extension on a deadline. Despite it all I made it and got a job quite last minute. 

My first day in September, not too sure where I was supposed to be but I was excited. I had my own classroom and varied timetable. But it turns out I was not just an RE teacher in fact I wasn’t even that. Teacher of Religious Studies was my title but GCSE law and GCSE humanities filled half of my timetable. Excited to finally have resources and sow to use I logged on to the computer, opened up the shared file marked ‘RS’ and was bitterly disappointed. 

My NQT year had many struggles, I was the only trained RS teacher in the school (the other RS teacher being trained as a music teacher), the other main RS teacher was a head of year, the head of RS was a law teacher and on maternity leave for most of the year, there were no SOW or resources, the respect for RS in the school was minimal and I felt alone. But I was determined not to give up.

In my NQT year I wrote SOW for most of the GCSE RS course, the ethics AS and A Level, GCSE Humanities and ordered and organised the KS3 SOW. I completed an NPQML training course which changed the way we assess students in KS3 RS. I helped to ensure that our numbers grew for GCSE RS and AS Philosophy and Ethics. I did a pretty darn good job reforming my badly behaved, poor attendance, disengaged Year 8 form. Finally I got a promotion to joint Head of the House System. 

Now I am in my second year of teaching, my old Head of department has left so for two terms I have been promoted to Head of RS with no extra time and very little extra money. I now only teach RS and have no form group due to the House System role. I run sessions for all staff and assemblies for the whole school. I manage a group of sixth form House Leaders and am responsible for all charity fundraising. I have 13 different classes and manage five non-specialist teacher for RS. I am also completing a TLDW project looking at Enquiry Based Learning. I am an active member of the RE teacher world attending CPD, consultations about the proposed changes and spend a fair amount of time on twitter. Three weeks ago I filled out an application form for a non-teaching job, I am still struggling with money and my depression has returned. I have told SLT that I am considering stepping down from the House System role next year in order to have the time to re-write the SOW again for the changes to the syllabus.

So today I was an RE teacher passionate about my subject and fighting the fight for academically rigorous and consistent RE across all schools and Key Stages. On Monday I will be a fundraiser, a moral guide for students not comfortable enough to talk to other teachers in the school, a mentor for 5 teachers who know little about religion, a SOW writer and resource maker, a researcher for enquiry based learning, a person battling with ocd and depression, a motivator for extra-curricular activities, a collator of house points, an example of a passionate teacher who uses new ideas in her classroom but I will definitely not be an RE teacher. 

That is not where this story ends as after a cup of tea and a biscuit and re-read the above and realised something new.

Today I realised that every person in that room was fighting and it was all for the same cause. Fighting against the haters and the ignorance about religion, fighting the idea that we are just a version of PSHE, fighting the idea that we are restricted to comparing names of holy buildings, fighting the issue of inclusion of all ideas including other world views, fighting to teach meaningful content in one hour a week, fighting to teach students the ability and skill to make informed decisions and grow as members of society, fighting to battle pre-existing prejudices, fighting to be academically rigorous and above all fighting to remain a subject in the curriculum.

So why did I become an RE teacher? Because I think it is a fight worth fighting. Do not view today as a day on its own, do not forget the things you have learnt or shared, do not be afraid to stand tall and say ‘I am an RE teacher’, build on those social connections because together we can succeed.

Follow Laura on Twitter <here>

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

How could the teaching of Islam be improved in schools? [Extended Project]

By Razwan Ul-Haq

With Jade McVeigh, Sophie Torr and Heather Essadiq

In this blog, we will have a look at teaching of Islam, with a particular focus on how to make it interesting.

A more cross curricular approach

I really believe that when information is presented in a multitude of different ways and give pupils lots of diverse experiences in the classroom, it makes the subject really come alive. Cross curricular RE can make themes enjoyable too. And when Art is involved, it can add a dimension of creativity. I have blogged about it here.


Resources are all important.

Artefacts have always been a great way to make religion come alive. Most Local Authorities still have RE boxes with artefacts on the Five Pillars of Islam.

Muslim pupils

It’s surprising how many schools do not use the resources they have. Of course sensitivity is important. Some pupils may not wish to talk about the faith, however the vast majority are only too keen, and in some instances parents or Imams of children are happy to come into school. It’s always best to have a private conversation with the Muslim pupil in schools were there is not an overabundance of Muslim pupils. Diversity of opinions is also good with this approach.

Mosque Visits and Speakers

Mosques vary widely in England, from small converted houses that only cater for a small population to purpose-built Mosques that include services for the community that it serves.

But what if my school does not have a Muslim population or a Mosque?

Heathfield Community School Case study.


Let’s take an example from Heathfield Community School, a largely mono-cultural school in Taunton, Somerset. I came into the school to work with pupils and introduced myself as an Artist and the ideas behind my Islamic Art. Although I visited each class and helped kick-start the projects, the teachers took over after I left and took ownership of pupil learning. It’s really empowering to take a project where you want to. One class for example focussed a bit more on tiles from Morocco and the RE department did a whole module on Islam.

Heathfield Community School is a large Comprehensive in Taunton. Sophie Torr, Head of RE with Jade McVeigh wanted to do a joint project combining the RE and Art Departments through Islamic Art. The Art Department was just as enthusiastic as RE.

From the outset it is important to know what the teaching focus is in each lesson. Cross-curricular working does not mean losing sight of subject specific goals. Be clear about what the goals are going to be.

The following are the aims from each subject:

Objectives in RE:
  • Introducing the Five Pillars of Islam
  • God in Islam
  • Expressing Faith in Art
  • Sacred Writing – the Qur’an
  • Meeting a Muslim
Similarly the Art Department had clearly defined objectives.
  • Research skills: a tonal drawings.
  • Resource skills: Collecting Calligraphy and Islamic Patterns
  • Critical Studies: Create a double spread about me as an Artist by “Annotating” (Own thoughts) B: Biography C: Copying one of my images
  • Development: Mirrored calligraphy
  • Media: Using clay and a maximum of three layers to create their design. After firing, apply paint and varnish.
  • Evaluation: Writing an evaluation of the overall project.

Pupil Work

 Above: Part of the Display from the RE Corridor. We showed pupils working, had photographs of pupil work, and included some photographs from a parent’s workshop too. Letters were sent to parents informing them of the upcoming workshops which also extended an invitation to a parent’s workshop that was held in the evening. This not only helped with learning but went some way to foster principles of mutual respect and understanding in the wider community.

Above: We felt it was important for parents to know and celebrate the project and the response was very good and very positive! It also provided an important opportunity to allay any concerns they may have.

Above: Pupil work is displayed opposite the offices of the Senior Management Team. We had full support of the Head and the SMT. Projects like these really help put RE at the forefront and become a feature to celebrate! Being proactive works!

Above: Detail of pupil work. A tile designed by a pupil using colours she researched on the web (Mosque colours from Isfahan). The Arabic also follows rules of mathematical symmetry. There was also a mathematical element to the cross curricular project!
Above: Many pupils were so enthused, they went out and did some research on the internet.

Above: Pupil sketchbook from Art

Above: Some Art Classes did a study of my work and the above shows a page spread from one pupil. She has decorated her work by using different calligraphic designs for the Arabic word for God “Allah” and has added some of the 99 Names of God onto the page.

 Above: Art Teachers took ownership of the project by extending the project into exciting areas. One Art teacher got pupils to do creative designs with letters and patterns onto cloth.

Jade McVeigh liaised with the various different departments and many parts of the school community came on board, which included the schools Cedar Centre for Autistic Pupils and there was an opportunity for non-specialist teachers and student teachers to visit whilst the project was taking place, thus raising the profile of Religious Education. Pupils themselves were instrumental in raised

What we learnt and the changes for the follow up Project.

The Project was so well received that we decided to go for a bigger project in 2015. We are currently in the middle of a follow-up Project in 2015.
  • We wanted to make it more cross-curricular by adding another subject. In conjunction with the English department we added a Writer’s Workshop session where Razwan would share his fiction but also have an Art element too through the poetry on Truck Art of Pakistan.
  • This was also an ideal opportunity for the Gifted & Talented Cohort to really get involved.
  • The Art Department has a policy of doing new projects and new approaches and media are being explored for 2015.
  • The RE Department felt that it would swap some dates around and begin studying Islam earlier in the year so that pupils could foster questions before Razwan came in and thus engage in the work at a deeper more enquiring level and also feel more confident in the lessons.
  • We decided to hold a Teacher’s INSET and invite teachers from schools nearby.
  • Pupils were able to follow me on social media and see that I am a normal human being as opposed to the media portrayals!
  • The Enterprise Education department this year is on board. Pupils will be creating a podcast for the local radio station which will be featured on the school website.
  • As a whole, the project reflected the schools principles of Citizenship, respect and tolerance.

​"Raz's visit to our school created a buzz of creativity and reflection. The impact of his workshops is felt across the whole school." Jade McVeigh, Teacher of Humanities

"As part of our Art curriculum here at Heathfield we are always developing projects and links that celebrate and teach our students about the world in which we live. Promoting a tolerance, understanding and respect in young people, who are the future. By teaching Islam through Art the students are able to learn and creatively engage through a medium that allows all students to access and create. It is not just about the final product, even though beautiful pieces are produced, it is about the journey to that point, using the creative process as a learning tool. And through this an understanding of Islam can be taught." Heather Essadiq,  Acting Head of Art
“Razwan time at Heathfield was inspirational. He manages to cross curricular borders and create discussion on Islam, with students, through creative processes. Open dialogue happens with the students about a religion, Islam, that is talked about so much but misunderstood by many. Razwan creates an environment where students feel free to ask questions and investigate ideas whilst making, without fear of judgement. Razwan has a kudos that is unique and the students respond to his teaching with a respectful curiosity. ” Natasha Rand, SLT Enterprise & Careers Education.

“Razwan, through his work with students shares his culture and involves them in an exploration of Islam. The students relate to him really well and feel comfortable about asking questions about his faith and culture. He talks to them about the traditions and values of Islam and involves them in producing fantastic art work and encourages wide discussion. It certainly addresses some of the key issues facing British citizens today in a very positive way.” Kim Woodward, Teacher of Maths and Citizenship Coordinator

"Raz’s workshops are the highlight of the RE year at Heathfield. I totally agree with everything said above" Sophie Torr, Head of RPE

Razwan is on Twitter as @Islamic_artist