Dr Farid Panjwani Keynote address abstract “Religions as ‘work in progress’: reflections on reconciling the aims of belonging and autonomy”

By | 6th July 2015

Association of University Lecturers in Religion and Education

Belief in Dialogue, AULRE Annual Conference, 

1 – 3 September 2015, St. Mary’s University Twickenham


Keynote Address



Dr Farid Panjwani

Director, Centre for Research and Evaluation in Muslim Education (CREME)

Institute of Education, University of London

Religions as ‘work in progress’: reflections on reconciling the aims of belonging and autonomy

A few years ago, I was involved in a research project about Muslim parents’ expectations from religious education. A central finding was that many parents struggled with the issues of belonging and individuality with regard to their children – they wanted their children to chart their own course in life and also to remain attached to community, its traditions and faith. Educationists know this tension between individual and community well. It can also be situated in the contemporary educational history of Muslims going back to the middle of the nineteenth century when large parts of the world with Muslim population fell under European domination. Since then the issues of identity, heritage and relevance of Islamic religion have remained a source of creativity and contestation.

Not surprisingly then educational reform has been a constant feature of Muslim contexts in modern times. These include reforms in madrasa education, new curricula in state education and many online resources. Even a long established institution such as the Al-Azhar University in Cairo went through several reforms and is currently undergoing another one. And yet, the question how education can help make community a springboard, rather than a straightjacket, for the individuals remains elusive at best.

By and large, teaching about Islam in Muslim contexts – be it madrasas, state controlled mainstream schooling in Muslim countries or the faith schools in the West – is community centered whereby the primary aim of education is the induction of children into a particular denomination of Islam with a view to make them good Muslims. The concerns about developing children’s autonomy in religious sphere are absent, or at best peripheral.

It is in the context of the above that the talk will examine how teaching of Islam might benefit from considering some theoretical developments in philosophy of education and in pedagogies of religious education. I would like to draw upon two such developments. First is the philosophical debates between liberal and communitarian perspectives. New conceptions of autonomy which seek to bridge the chasm between its classical individual centered accounts and the communitarian stress on the encumbered nature of the self was one of the outcomes of these debates. Second is the well-known distinction between teaching about religion and teaching religion. The former is often seen as the domain of secular educational settings while the latter is reserved for confessional settings. I would propose that this dichotomous assumption needs to be revisited.

It will be argued that the way internal diversity of Muslim tradition is approached is central to any reconciliation of the values of belonging and autonomy. A key element here will be the proposal that religions, in this case Islam, should be viewed as ‘work-in-progress’ rather than a finished product to be passed on to the students. This conception of religion has the potential to see the students as potential co-constructors of tradition and thus reconcile the demands of belonging and quest for autonomy.