Every Muslim Child Matters

Author(s) Maurice Irfan Coles
Publisher Trentham Books Ltd
Published 2008
Pages 186
Price £17.99
ISBN 9781858564210
Reviewed by Dr Stephen Bigger
University of Worcester
Review published 8 September 2008

This book is essentially reading for teachers, administrators, professionals and governors who have responsibility for Muslim children yet have little knowledge of Islam. The author is a practising Muslim, a convert to Sufi Islam who is also Chief Executive of School Development Support Agency, founder of the Local Authority network of schools with significant numbers of Muslim pupils, and a national adviser on Muslim matters. The book is based on detailed discussions with a range of Muslims involved in education so that it is not just one person’s point of view, or indeed the view of a particular group within Islam.

Chapter 1 is called ‘Towards a strategic approach’. This examines educational policies from the point of view of the Muslim child. It offers information about Muslims in Britain, which emphasises that it is complex and should not be over-simplified or stereotyped. It traces race relations and the rise of severe Islamophobia (as ordinary prejudice against Islam has been around for a long time). It explores issues of low attainment, and community cohesion. In the detailed examination of Muslim perspectives, Coles explains about the ummah (community of brothers and sisters) and the expectation of unity that this creates. It covers social and peer pressures on Muslim young people, and stresses the difference between cultural points of view, and Quran-based pure Islamic teaching. Then it shows how learning is regarded as important for boys and girls, and that negative views of the treatment of women is a cultural issue, since the Quran presents very positive and empowering guidance. A new national strategy is proposed which gives voice to all aspects of Islam and develops dialogue.

Chapter 2 examines the school curriculum from a Muslim point of view, stressing that Muslim pupils need to feel included by learning about their own history. This ranges from the intellectual contribution of medieval Islamic universities (for example in science and philosophy) to where Muslims live in Geography. The general guidance is that it only takes thought and planning to make most modules relevant. A particularly useful feature is the lists of resources relevant to the Muslim experience for each subject. For education professionals to understand the religions and cultures they encounter has profound implications for training.

A chapter (3), written by Robert Bunting, is devoted to the arts since these have been sources of conflict and unhappiness in the relationship between schools and Muslims. It emphasises that there are rich Muslim arts traditions which are well worth exploring in their own right. With western arts activities, modesty expectations mean that dance should not be sexually suggestive. Music is favoured by some Muslims but decried by others as trivial; again it should not be sexually suggestive. In Art, representation of people or animals may be suggestive of idolatrous worship so is not encouraged, but art around plants and geometrical design has been developed into a beautiful art form. In drama also, representing other people directly is not favoured; particularly forbidden are representations of God or the prophets.

Chapter 4 is devoted to the five outcomes of Every Child Matters. In ‘Being Healthy’ it is pointed out that Muslims are more likely to have life challenging illness than others and so it is important to encourage them to become fit. They need to be able to participate in PE and dance without immodesty. Particular issues around sex and relationships education are discussed, for example the complete ban on sex outside marriage, and the prohibition of active homosexuality. The chapter includes emotional well-being, insisting that Muslims feel included in the curriculum rather than excluded. In ‘Staying Safe’ emphasises racial bullying and Islamophobia, and also being safe from exploitation. Some examples of ‘feeling safe’ by working in a happy school ethos are rather more indirect. In ‘Enjoy and Achieve’ Coles observes that Muslims tend to underachieve; in finding a solution to this relevance to linguistic background at to Islamic culture is required. This section places great emphasis on enjoying learning. ‘Make a positive contribution’ emphasises teaching on almsgiving in Islam, but notes disaffection among Muslim youth in some quarters. This suggests support for Muslim youth to contribute to the community. ‘Achieve Economic Well-being’ recognizes the problem of many Muslim young people and families being poorly employed and emphasises the need for good careers guidance as well as for encouraging suitable qualifications.

The book ends with guidance for governing bodies, which includes the idea of twinning with Islamic schools or schools with substantial numbers of Muslim pupils. It emphasises tackling Islamophobia, bullying and strong links with the community. In all this is very strong guidance, more explicitly to schools than to children’s services though these are in the title. Of course to be balanced, schools have also to cater for other ethnic and religious communities, so this is just part of a very big agenda which will limit the extent Muslims can be privileged. One improvement in this book would be to explain the use of PBUH after mentions of the prophet Muhammad. It is done without explanation and many potential readers will be puzzled. But over all, a very useful and timely book which implies training needs that will be difficult to provide in a balanced way. Educational institutions may for example meet unreasonable expectations in the name of Islam which are in fact cultural, and staff may need to have the confidence to differentiate between the truth, half-truths and errors that both children and parents tell them. This book may be for them the first step on this journey.