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Experiencing Islam

A permanent exhibition in Birmingham gives children an opportunity to explore Islamic religious rituals at first hand. Diana Hinds reports.

Two eight-year-olds from Stirchley Community School in Birmingham are dressing up to go on the Hajj. Aliya Hanif, a theology student, helps to drape the boy in loose white towelling - "white symbolises purity", she informs the class - and gives him an umbrella to protect him from the Saudi Arabian sun. The girl dons a long white skirt and flowing headscarf - or "hejab" - which gives rise to more discussion. "Why do Muslim ladies put this on?" Aliya asks, and a (non-Muslim) boy volunteers: "because you shouldn't let the men see your hair."

This is the Islamic Experience, an exhibition in Small Heath, Birmingham.

At no cost to their school, these children and their teachers are spending the morning here. Funded by the Iqra Trust, the exhibition has toured the UK for some years, and is now permanently housed in the Rex conference centre, spacious premises owned by the Trust. Since moving here in 2003, the exhibition has been visited mainly by school parties from the Birmingham area, with an age range of six to 16. Teachers have also attended workshops, and the organisers hope to attract schools from further afield, as well as any interested professionals - "such as police cadets working in a mainly Muslim area," suggests exhibition co-ordinator, Adib Qasim.

Islam has been no stranger to controversy in recent years, but the chief aim of the exhibition is to be informative, rather than proselytising. As Safia Bashir, one of the exhibition stewards, explains: "It is not like a conversion project. It is more to clear misconceptions and break down barriers between communities."

The exhibition is divided into topics on Islamic faith and history - the Five Pillars, family and social life, and Islam and science. Each is well laid out, with plenty to look at, including copies of the Qur'an, models of famous mosques and the cave where Mohammed once hid, and video clips of pilgrims on the Hajj. The section on the Five Pillars goes down well with the Year 4s, who are intrigued by the notion of using clean sand to wash yourself before praying (they sample this in a tray, fingers only), and practise the series of actions involved in praying towards Mecca.

In the section on the family, the children are attentive to the Islamic prohibition on drink and drugs, and enjoy the opportunity to dress up in brightly coloured clothes from around the world. Over juice and biscuits, they cheerfully copy their names in Arabic script. But the section on science is less convincing: too young to appreciate the Islamic contribution to algebra, the children listen to a story retelling the water cycle from the point of view of "a tiny water droplet which obeys Allah".

The exhibition goes out of its way to avoid argument. Adib Qasim, who converted to Islam after September 11, says he prefers not to deal with "jihad", evolution or inter-faith issues: "Teenagers will say, 'Is Islam better than Christianity?', and we say: 'that is not something we discuss here'."

But the danger is that the exhibition runs the risk of becoming blandly descriptive. Teachers will perhaps need to couch their visit, back in the classroom, in a more rigorous context - getting pupils to think, for example, about the power of world religions, why faith matters so much to some people and why it is important to find out what others believe.

Nicky Griffiths, Year 4 teacher from Stirchley Community School, is pleased to find the exhibition so "practical and hands-on". Presenting Islam as part of the religious education curriculum can be tricky for the non-specialist, she says: "You can feel quite scared of getting it wrong, and offending people. This exhibition takes the pressure off teachers. For the pupils, it's about finding out and being aware - I think it will help them to be more tolerant in school."

About one quarter of the pupils in Nicky Griffiths' class are from a Muslim background, but these children can be "embarrassed" to talk about their culture in school, she says. However, as the morning progresses, the Muslim pupils climb out of their shells and are increasingly happy to demonstrate and share their knowledge with their classmates. One boy who, according to his teacher, "often switches off during lessons", becomes animated during a session on the family, and recites for the class a prayer that is whispered into the ear of a new baby.

The non-Muslim children, too, gradually ask more questions as their curiosity is aroused: "I liked it when we watched the people pray on the screen - probably because I haven't seen all the people pray like that before," says Nathan, nine.

Rowanne, also nine, can now recite all the five pillars - or "pillows", as she calls them - of Islam: "I quite like finding out about it. I think it's really fun if you learn something, and you can take it home and explain it to your parents."

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