Religion in recent times is being seen as almost irrelevant in many European countries, but the religion of Islam has become a hot topic for various reasons. Religious literacy, particularly of Islam, even in our highly educated country is indeed poor. Lazy journalism, or in some cases cheap populism, may be partially responsible for this.
Knowledge about one's own background is essential, but knowing others is no less important in our modern globalised world. The truth is the more our children know traditions other than their own, the more they become confident and mature; they grow up with tolerance and respect for others which is vital in a pluralist society.
With the so-called Trojan Horse 'Islamist takeover' issue creating a huge misunderstanding in our education sector, the debate on teaching GCSE Religious Studies in our schools keeps on going. The Department for Education proposed that, from September 2016, pupils who take a religious studies GCSE will have to study at least two different faiths (from Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism) for the first time "to better prepare them for life in modern Britain".
This was agreed by all major faith groups. But the Roman Catholic Church surprisingly ordered their schools to teach only Christianity and Judaism, ruling out teaching Islam and other faiths in GCSE religious studies. This obviously drew criticism from Muslims. However, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis proved to be different; he recommended that Jewish school should teach Islam as a second faith, saying that "teaching Islam will give children the opportunity to learn about a poorly understood religion". This is a bold decision in the current political climate.
In spite of common perception about the hostility between Muslims and the Jews, mainly due to the Palestine-Israel conflict in our time, the two religious communities have been together in their good times and difficult periods in history. It was in Muslim Spain where Jewish culture flourished along with the Muslim one during the age of religious pluralism. Maimonides, a preeminent Sephardic Jewish philosopher, physician and astronomer from Cordoba was an intellectual giant in the 12th century. When both Muslims and Jews were subjected to unparalleled persecution by an intolerant Church, many of them left Spain and were warmly welcomed in Muslim countries, some in the Ottoman Empire.
History must repeat itself if we want to overcome the depth of ignorance and fear from our midst. When people are equipped with the power of knowledge about themselves as well as others the fear factor plummets; their collective humanity outshines their weaknesses. When ignorance about one another is allowed to prevail the outcome is the ugliness of intolerance and often outright hatred amongst people.
Not all powerful nations on earth were able to produce civilisations in the past. The Mongols created the largest contiguous land empire, stretching from Eastern Europe to the Sea of Japan in the 13th and 14th centuries; but they left a legacy of butchering scholars and burning books that created havoc in the land of Islam. On the contrary, when their descendants accepted Islam they created art, architecture and a rich culture in India during the Mughal Empire.
Knowledge was synonymous with Muslims in their better days. Within one hundred years of Islam's arrival, a sophisticated and highly integrated book industry emerged in the Muslim world. Knowledge gradually became the mass property of all. Cities like Baghdad, Cordoba, Damascus, Ghazni and Delhi used to have libraries in most of their streets. Muslims became the ardent lovers of books.
A strong reading habit is one indicator of success for any nation and a hallmark of civilisation. Reading empowers an ordinary person, enriches a scholar and gives confidence to all. Reading stimulates our brain by giving it food for thought. It empowers us internally to take on the challenges of life and take us to a higher level. Reading gives us humility, inner strength, the pride and confidence to move ahead. It enhances critical thinking and bestows us with the gift of understanding and wisdom. A balanced diet keeps us physically active, so good reading keeps us mentally agile.
British Muslims would be far better off if only they invest in knowledge and turn much of their energy into reading, learning, thinking, reflecting and reasoning. Revisiting the history of a pluralist Spain would be useful, as that would help them in comparing their better past with the thorny present.
Britain's education system is one of the best in the world and its universities are globally acclaimed in terms of preparing young adults with life skills. It is promising that the educational achievements of Muslim children have significantly improved over the past few decades from a lower position but it is more vital than ever that this is reflected in their higher aspiration and ambition in all areas of public life.
Let us all fall in love with books and heal our fractured world.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, author and parenting consultant.