Textbooks must turn the page with Islam

20th July 2012 at 01:00
Nobody benefits when awkward issues are glossed over, a new book reveals

RE textbooks ignore contemporary stereotypes of Islam, divorcing the religion from its context and glossing over awkward issues of race, women's rights and immigration, a new book claims.

In Islam and Education, Lynn Revell, senior lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University, investigates the ways in which Islam has been adapted by textbook writers to fit in with RE messages of tolerance.

"Islam bears the burden of being the focus of numerous international conflicts, as well as the locus of a perceived international network of terror, extremism and violence," she says. "On a domestic level, the fear is of Islam as an unchecked flow of immigrants."

However, little of this is apparent in contemporary textbooks on Islam. Instead, almost every textbook covers the history and origins of the religion: the revelation of the Koran, the life of Muhammad and the five pillars of Islam.

Textbooks from earlier eras dwelled on these topics, too. But they also addressed other aspects of the religion. Revell cites two books - one from 1976 and one from 1980 - that complement doctrinal information with a discussion of the status of Muslims in Britain. Both follow the experiences of two Muslim children as they arrive in England as immigrants, and adapt to British life and culture.

"Many of the prejudices against immigrants are explored: why do many immigrants live in the same areas? Why do they dress and eat differently? Are they contributing to the economy?" she says.

By contrast, she points out: "If one were reading just the text of a contemporary book on Islam, without seeing the images, one would never guess that the majority of Muslims in the UK are from Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Indian subcontinent ... The only differences between Muslims, Buddhists or Christians ... are in the buildings they visit and the beliefs they hold."

Some contemporary textbooks, she acknowledges, do refer to the immigrant heritage of many Muslims. But even then, there is no reference to Islamophobia, discrimination or even the fact that some Muslims speak a language other than English with their families and friends.

Similar trends can be seen in textbook depictions of the status of women within Islam. In books published between 1978 and 1988, Revell says, Muslim women's lives were explicitly acknowledged as being different from those of their white English counterparts.

The wearing of a niqab, or veil, was placed into religious and cultural context. One 1983 textbook described the wearing of the veil as an "old" custom, which "has almost disappeared" in many countries.

Such textbooks, she says, "are more likely to make a connection between the underdeveloped nature of these societies and the use of the veil or niqab... The idea that there is a conflict between the West and the traditional status of women is a common theme in these books."

Contemporary textbooks also explain the different types of Muslim dress. But their coverage is notably different. The niqab is described as part of religious observance and books quote passages in the Koran emphasising the importance of modest dress for both sexes. Textbooks frequently draw a link between the amount of a Muslim's body that is covered and the extent of her faith: the burka as signifier of absolute devotion.

"Textbooks ... describe Muslim traditions in relation to dress in the same tone as they describe differences in mosque architecture," Revell says. "You would never know from textbooks... the degree of hostility that exists in the West towards women wearing a veil."

Most modern textbooks are reluctant to pass judgement in other areas, too. In the past, the customs associated with arranged marriages were depicted as coming from another culture.

Today, textbooks for key stages 3 and 4 describe arranged marriages in studiedly neutral terms, drawing comparisons with Western dating agencies and lonely-hearts adverts. There is an assumption, Revell says, that "arranged marriages are merely cultural variations on marriage customs found anywhere in the world".

While the authors of these textbooks often intend to present a positive view of Islam, she concedes, this is not the ultimate effect: "They do so at the cost of casting light on Islam as it exists and is experienced."


Revell, L. Islam and Education: the manipulation and misrepresentation of a religion (2012).

Trentham Books


Lynn Revell is senior lecturer in religion and education at Canterbury Christ Church University


Going further

RE teachers looking to take classroom discussion beyond a basic itemisation of the religious beliefs and practices of Muslims would do well to turn to citizenship textbooks, Lynn Revell says.

Revell points out that, in contrast to RE, the citizenship curriculum allows for discussion of the social and cultural context in which many Muslims practise their religion.

Although, like RE textbooks, citizenship books are positive about the contribution of religion to society, the latter are more likely to allow for discussion and questioning of some religious claims. And there are opportunities for pupils to examine controversial issues around religion and stereotyping.

"Because citizenship education focuses on the public and political aspects of issues, pupils are often introduced to religion through a range of subjects scarcely considered in RE... such as identity, community, difference, diversity, prejudice, the media, discrimination and racism," she says. "Islam is rarely considered as the focus of these topics, but pupils are frequently asked to consider the role of the media in portraying different groups."

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