Learning the message of Islam

Teachers and school managers are taking courses on Muslim culture being held across Scotland, writes Douglas Blane.

There is no single source of religious authority in Islam. This is sometimes seen as a weakness, since it appears to let local leaders, no matter how erratic, claim that their interpretation is the will of God.

But Na'eem Raza sees it as a strength: "You have to understand the dynamics of modern life. What might apply to me, living in Glasgow, would not apply to a Muslim in Pakistan or in Saudi Arabia."

The former civil servant, who now delivers courses on Muslim culture across Scotland, gives an example: "Earning interest on your money is not allowed in Islam. But in Britain, scholars have ruled that we can take out a mortgage - since it's the only way to get decent housing for our families.

Now suppose you had one guy in Saudi Arabia who had never lived here. How could he make a judgment about that?"

From earliest times there have been Islamic scholars who could provide jurisprudence, explains Mr Raza. "The rulings are all applicable - provided they promote respect, tolerance, love and dignity. They are not acceptable if they say you can harm the innocent. The Qu'uran is very clear about this: you cannot take innocent lives. Full stop. Terrorists take life because they are terrorists, not because they are Muslims."

Having already found receptive audiences for his courses in the health, police and prison services, Mr Raza recently began working with education consultancy AOK to deliver to school staff.

Anna Connor is one of a dozen teachers and school managers taking part in a full-day workshop - the second to date - at AOK's offices in the centre of Glasgow.

"We've learned a lot about what you need to be aware of when working with Muslim pupils," she says. "I've been teaching English at St Andrew's High, Clydebank, for years. Just in the last few we've been getting children from all over the world. We need to learn about their different cultures.

"One thing that struck me during the morning session is that the basic issues, the teachings about human decency, are the same for all faiths. I like that. It's distortions of faith that cause the trouble."

Hillpark Secondary in Glasgow now has around 70 Muslim pupils, says depute head John Philbin: "Until now I've been learning about the culture and religion from the kids. But there were simple things I didn't know, such as shaking hands: that's a fairly natural thing to do."

But any physical contact, he has learned, is not allowed between Muslim women and men outside the immediate family. "So we could be making kids feel very uncomfortable, which you need to know when you're trying to support them. I'll be going back to school and explaining all this, with the help of the course notes, to my colleagues."

Mr Raza concludes: "We all have to face similar problems in our lives. The message of Islam is not different from the message of other religions. If I had to choose one verse from the Qu'uran to sum it up, it would be this one: "'O Mankind, we created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into tribes and nations so that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other)'."

* www.aokonline.com

In the know

* There are two million Muslims in Britain.

* The word Islam comes from an Arabic word meaning surrender.

* Jihad means striving, not Holy War.

* Muslims regard Jesus as one of the greatest of God's messengers.

* The consent of both girl and boy are necessary for marriage.

* Muslim men and women are equal in rights and duties, but have different roles.

Recommended websites: www.iaw.org.uk; www.muslimheritage.com; www.isb.org.uk; www.emelmagazine.com

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