Education is both the most lamentable reflection of the conditions across Muslim contexts and the most important element requiring attention if the situation is to be improved. While teaching about Islam is only an aspect of educational landscape in Muslim contexts, it has much wider ramifications given the continued centrality of religion in Muslim societies. Not surprisingly, Muslim reformers from the Egyptian thinker Rifaa al-Tahtawi (1801–1873) to American Pakistani scholar Fazlur Rahman (1919–1988) have engaged with Islamic educational thought and practice, seeking rapprochements between the received Muslim traditions and modernities of their time. During this period much has been changed, much has been achieved and been lost. Still, some fundamental questions about education remain. A recent conference at St. Anthony’s College, University of Oxford, held on 22–24 April 2014, for example, was organised around the question: ‘What are the aims of education in Islam?’ From Arab Human Development reports to the so-called Trojan horse row in Birmingham, there are both internal and external concerns about teaching Islam. Clearly, a new pedagogical approach to the ‘teaching about Islam’ is needed that would seek to reconcile the seemingly contesting aims of identity formation and the development of personal autonomy in students. We can witness the problem in Muslim faith schools in Britain, but the issues have wider relevance wherever Islam is taught.
In Britain, certain schools, about a third, officially have a religious character. In informal parlance these are known as faith schools, rooted as they are in many different religious traditions, including Islam. In some traditions, these schools are along denominational lines, such as Roman Catholic Schools, Church of England Schools and Evangelical Schools. In others, such as Islam, they are called Islamic or Muslim schools, when in fact these too are often divided along denominational lines such as Deobandis, Barelwi, Shi‘a and Salafi.