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3 Background to IRE Within the Framework of the Swedish School System

3 Background to IRE Within the Framework of the Swedish School System

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J. Berglund

private matter rather than a public one. In a secular country like Sweden, this coincides with the view of religion as a private concern. For sceptics of religious schools,

this reasoning only covers the fact that some parents want to deny their children the

right to a pluralistic education (Englund 1996: 107ff.). Others argue that religious

schools are needed primarily because students and parents from ethnic or religious

minorities feel excluded in municipal schools. In this case the reasoning is based on

a view that municipal schools are run according to a hegemonic-majority view of

life, and therefore they offer minority students only “heteronomy and submission”.

Examples that have been used to justify such a view show that minority students are

sometimes classified as “students with special needs” and are thus excluded from

the “normal” instead of being offered the “autonomy and community” they are entitled to according to the curriculum (Ajagan-Lester 2001). According to this reasoning, minority schools, such as Muslim schools, give parents greater opportunity to

feel involved and to avoid being constantly regarded as different or alien. A study

concerning the matter of “choice of school” (skolvalfrihet) supports this view: parents who choose to send their children to Muslim schools do so for purposes of

security and wellbeing rather than for the purpose of religion. Thus their choice

might be seen as one way of avoiding discrimination and obtaining acceptance of

difference—i.e. as primarily involving concerns over power of influence and democratic rights (Bunar and Kallstenius 2006).5

The restructuring of the school system is also visible in terms of what is understood as equal rights. There are studies that show that while the variety of schools

and school programmes give pupils and parents a greater choice, segregation and

social exclusion have also increased (Kallos and Lindblad 1994; Lindblad and

Popkewitz 1999, 2001, 2004). Others argue that the “market adjustments” and the

competitive situation between different schools, despite earlier showing segregating

effects, can also be understood from the perspective that for many families from

so-called multicultural and segregated areas this includes “an opening in their integration aspirations” and thus an opportunity to get away from areas that are branded

as “ethnic” (Bunar 2009: 230). The presence of Muslim schools in Sweden also

needs to be understood in relation to these arguments.

Some brief background facts about Muslims in Sweden, Muslim schools and

religious education is also necessary for an understanding of the reasoning that will

follow. In Sweden today there are approximately 450,000 people who have a

Muslim background and there are 14 schools that can be defined as Muslim schools

(Larsson and Sander 2007: 71). What distinguishes a Muslim school from other

publicly funded schools is that some form of Islamic religious education (IRE) is

taught as an extracurricular subject for 1–3 h a week in addition to the compulsory

subjects listed in the national curricula.6 There is no teacher training for those who


See also Ihle (2007:50), who indicates that the choice by Muslim parents to send their children to

Muslim schools in Denmark may be based upon the perception that the state school system is

inclined towards secularism, promoting it as an ideological norm.


Of the schools that I choose to call “Muslim”, nine are classified as Islamic in the National

Agency of Education’s statistics, and thus belong to the category of religious schools. The other


Islamic Religious Education in Muslim Schools: A Translation of Islam…


wish to teach IRE in Sweden, unlike some other European countries such as

Germany and Austria (Aslan 2012; Yasar 2013). The IRE teachers who work in

Swedish Muslim schools are either trained in Muslim-majority countries or do not

have any teacher diploma at all.

Muslim schools are, like other independent schools, funded by the state. To

obtain state funding they must not only teach all the school subjects that are prescribed in the national curriculum (including non-confessional RE),7 but also “instil

and impart” the so-called fundamental values specified in the national curriculum.


Transmitting Islam to the Younger Generation?

A significant theoretical educational implication that emerges from the study of IRE

in Muslim schools is the way in which religious traditions change and adapt to the

context in which they are taught, including the role that teachers have in this process. One problem is thus that religious education is often described in very static

terms both by scholars and by representatives of religions. This easily gives the

impression that religions are static systems without potential for change. In the literature on Islamic religious education, for example, we find that the teaching of

Islam is often described in terms of Islam being “transmitted” from the older generation to the younger (Berkey 1992; Hefner and Zaman 2007; Larsson and Sander

2007; Wardenburg 1979: 360ff.). For example, medieval historian Jonathan Berkey

has done an excellent study about teaching and learning in medieval Cairo. In his

study, he shows that education was considered a very personal process that was

deeply dependent on the relationship between individual religious scholars and their

students, and that teaching, through the lack of official institutions, never became

locked into formal structures. There was no solid educational content, curriculum or

examinations, nor were special buildings used, but instead education was focused

on finding a suitable teacher, a religious scholar, who was supposed to pass on his

knowledge to the learner over a number of years. Probably much teaching took

place in mosques where students gathered around respected scholars in informal

five are classified as “Arab” or as having an “international profile”. Since many (but not all) of

these add subjects such as teaching of the Quran or Islamic culture, I argue that it is possible to

include at least some of them in the category of Muslim schools.


Non-confessional religious education—which is, as mentioned above, a compulsory subject in

Swedish schools—is, in a European but also global perspective, something rather unusual. In many

European countries it is the parents’ right to choose the kind of religious education they want their

children to get at school. In some countries, such as Finland and Germany, there is the possibility

to choose from a variety of subjects (various forms of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc., but in

some cases also a non-confessional option). In other countries (like Poland) there is only one confessional alternative (in Poland, Catholic Christianity). In these cases, parents who do not want

their children to get a confessional religious education can let their kids refrain from receiving

religious education. In some countries there is non-confessional religious education, and Sweden

is one among a few countries where students cannot be exempted from the topic.


J. Berglund

“study circles”, but other premises and natural surroundings were used (Berkey

1992: 42).8 Although Berkey’s work clearly indicates the importance of the

individuals and educational context in medieval Cairo and he shows changes in the

teaching processes, he uses the term “transmission” when he describes this process

(Berkey 1992). In my view, the impression that becomes entrenched in the reader

when encountering the concept of transmission in the title of his work (not the content) is that it is exactly the same Islam that is transmitted from the scholar to the

student in Cairo. Use of the term “transmit” is not typical of Islamic religious

instruction, but it is often used when religious education is being described and less

often in discourse about other subject areas. What appears to be typical, however, is

that when the term “transmission” is used, it is confessional religious education that

is being referred to.9 However, describing teaching in terms of transmission is problematic from both an educational and study-of-religions point of view for several

reasons, partly because it brings a static view of religion and education, but also

because such an expression tends to neglect the teacher’s responsibility and power

in this context.

To further illustrate this, there is reason to note how the term “transmit” is used

outside the educational context. The word “transmit” is, for example, used in medical or computer science contexts, and derives from the Latin word transmittere,

which means “to send over” (Smith and Lockwood 1976). This is also how the word

transmit, as well as the related “transmission”, are used within natural and technical

sciences. In computer science they refer to the sending of certain data from one

point to another and in medicine they refer to how nerve impulses are carried

through the body. In other words, “transmit” and “transmission” are often used as

technical terms that refer to moving a fixed entity from one point to another without

any other change taking place. In these contexts it is essential that, for example, the

transmitted files do not change. If files that have been shared through transmission

between computers would be changed, we would most certainly trash the software

or the computer, or at least indignantly call for support!

By studying IRE in Muslim schools, there is the opportunity to demonstrate

empirically that the teaching process does not involve the transmission of Islam

from teacher to student without change taking place and that a teacher’s educational

choices and didactic awareness are of importance to what is actually offered to the

students.10 As with any religious education, there are of course certain facts that are


The educational ideas, as emphasized, were based on pedagogical reasoning by well-known

Islamic scholars such as Al-Farabi (d. 950) and Ibn Sahnun (d.870), whose thinking is characterized by “individual centering” and “lifelong learning” (Günther 2007)—concepts familiar from the

current Swedish educational discourse.


Note however that in the Swedish national curriculum the word “transmission” is used for the

teaching of the “fundamental values” in a similar way that transmission is often used for the teaching of truth claims from a confessional point of view.


The examples are taken from the classroom ethnographic work that is the basis for my dissertation Teaching Islam (2010). In this context it involves classroom ethnography that I have participated in as well as observing IRE lessons and interviews with IRE teachers in three Muslim private

schools in Sweden. In addition to these three schools, where I have followed the instruction at


Islamic Religious Education in Muslim Schools: A Translation of Islam…


“transmitted” in their original sense from one generation to another. When it comes

to Islam, this can be the names of the prophets, the five pillars of Islam and, for

example, the words of the Quran, which are often memorized and recited in a certain way.11

Islam is what every IRE teacher relates to in her or his teaching, but whatever

meaning and significance they attribute to Islam is not expressed in the same way.

However, teachers often express their overall objectives of IRE in a similar way;

they want their pupils to become “good Muslims” in Swedish society, to have

knowledge about the history of Islam, to have knowledge about the Muslim religious texts and to know how to practise Islam. This is part of what may be described

as the common Islamic history (Berkey 2001: 8). The names of the most significant

prophets and what they are thought to have done and said according to Islamic historiography, the five pillars, and how to perform the prescribed rituals and articulate

the six articles of faith constitute parts of this history, as well as the recitation of

some suras of the Quran. What meanings are ascribed to these narratives, rituals and

concepts, however, as well as what social or societal impact they are considered to

have, differ between schools, between teachers or even between different classrooms. Sometimes these differences are large, and sometimes they are only concerned with details. Every single teacher whom I have observed and interviewed in

my research presents Islam with a specific content, function and meaning, but when

comparing the content of these teachers’ teachings, it turns out that Islam is attributed different meanings, and thus it has different meanings in different classrooms.

The reasons for this are, according to my understanding, the differences that exist

between interpretative traditions, but also the teacher’s didactical awareness and the

way in which they perceive their students’ situation in Swedish society. These conditions affect how different teachers make their educational choices in terms of

content for IRE.

A clear example of these differences can be seen in how teachers relate to popular music. There are teachers who believe that pop artists such as Yusuf Islam, Sami

Yusuf and Native Deen (Islamic pop artists who include Quranic verses in their

texts) should be used to teach IRE. These teachers justify their choice of making use

of this halal-pop in their teaching of IRE as a way to advocate Islam’s place in a

modern society in which popular music is part of young peoples’ culture.12 Other

teachers would never use any kind of singing that is accompanied by instruments

close range, I have also visited six other Muslim private schools. During these visits I interviewed

IRE teachers and/or principals and participated in individual lessons.


Here it is also interesting to note the importance given to the chain of transmitters, the isnad,

within Islamic sciences. It is, for example, of importance to know the names of the persons who

have transmitted the words of the Quran, since one of the aims of this is to guarantee that the words

have not been changed. Note therefore that teaching and learning the recitation of the Quran makes

up only a very small part of IRE in the schools studied here; in some schools it is not a part of IRE

at all. See Berglund (2010), for further discussions on the teaching and learning of the Quran

within IRE.


The term “halal-pop” comes from “halal”, which means “permitted” in Arabic. Halal-pop is

considered permissible because the lyrics deal with areas that include the key virtues of Islam, for


J. Berglund

other than hand drums because they believe that pop music is one of the problems

for the youth of today’s society. These teachers argue that students instead need to

learn ways of detaching from this kind of youth culture since pop music draws

young peoples’ attention away from God, but also because it is often played in

places where alcohol is present and there is a risk of meeting the opposite sex in an

unsuitable way (interview with IRE-teachers 061217). The perception of popular

music’s value varies depending on what interpretation of Islam the teachers adhere

to. To justify the choice of using music or not in IRE, both proponents and opponents not only use the theological arguments that are attached to each of these interpretations, they also use didactical arguments, as well as arguments that are related

to how they perceive the situation of their students in Swedish society. Both groups

also use arguments about music that are based on previous scholars’ interpretations

and on religious texts, but none of the teachers can thus simply be said to transmit

these teachings of Islam, since in both cases the context perceived by the teachers is

very much visible in their arguments (interview with IRE teachers 061207; see also

Berglund 2010, 2014).

Another example—which in my understanding makes it difficult to talk about

the content of the teaching of IRE as something static and also demonstrates the

teacher’s authority, responsibility and didactical awareness—concerns how IRE

teachers address the issue of the lack of teaching materials. There are no textbooks

produced for IRE in Sweden. Teachers must either import books or produce their

own teaching materials. Most IRE teachers whom I have interviewed import textbooks from Muslim-majority countries. However, many of the teachers also state

that it is not possible to use everything in these imported textbooks. Instead they say

that some books need to be censored, or at least modified, in order to become relevant for students in Sweden. One teacher told me that she cut out or copied parts of

different imported books and thus made her own teaching material, the reasons for

this being that she wants to present an equal number of pictures of women and men

for the pupils and that the imported books often had a much greater number of pictures of boys than girls. She uses a method of counting pictures of men and women,

something that has been discussed in the educational debate in relation to textbooks

for other subjects. This example also shows that it is problematic to describe the

content of teaching as something uniform because the teacher is not satisfied with

the versions of the books that she can get, but instead she presents images of Islam

in a way that she believes is better suited for the students’ situation in Sweden (interview with IRE teachers 2005/10/24).13

example, God’s love, love, the prophets, respect for fellow men, solidarity and so on. For how

music is used in IRE, see for example Berglund (2010) or (2014).


Please note that teachers of most school subjects do not use everything in the textbooks, but often

choose certain parts from them. See Berglund (2009) or (2010), for a more extensive discussion of

textbooks in IRE on Muslim schools in Sweden.


Islamic Religious Education in Muslim Schools: A Translation of Islam…



Problems with Transmission

The above examples demonstrate the problem of both describing religion as immutable and describing the content of IRE as something that can be statically transmitted to the younger generation. Teachers of IRE choose their educational content

from a rich variety of possibilities and, to varying degrees and in different ways,

they adapt the content to the context through their educational choices. Furthermore,

the empirical data from the IRE classrooms show that, through their educational

choices, the teachers are able to influence not only how the curriculum is implemented but also what kind of Islam and which aspects of Islam are presented within

the framework of the Swedish school system. Some choices are planned in advance

while others emerge in the classroom. These educational choices will, at the end of

the day, influence what form of Islam is ultimately offered to the students. These

choices lead to adjustments and even slight changes in interpretation in relation to

the students, as in the above example of teaching material where the choice could be

described in terms of gender quota since it aims to show an equal number of pictures

of boys and girls for the students.

One of the problems that arises when a religion is described in static terms is that

this forms presuppositions about how the people belonging to that religion think,

feel and act in today’s society. It brings about stereotypes that risk adding to existing

xenophobic ideas of how people from various religious are, just because of their

religious belonging, not taking into account other significant factors of identity such

as gender, social class, education and ethnicity. It should thus be noted that from a

confessional (inside) perspective, it is possible to understand the use of the term

“transmit” as appropriate, as it sometimes, but not always, lies in the believer’s

interest to argue that “God’s word” or “the message” is the same now as during the

time of Muhammad. From both educational and study-of-religions perspectives,

this is, however, not adequate.

The confessional use of transmitting Islam is thus also interesting to study from

a power perspective. When the concept of transmitting Islam is used for teaching

Islam from a confessional perspective, a hierarchical teaching order emerges. In

several European countries both Islamic theology and Islamic pedagogy are being

established at state universities. This theological subject is primarily targeted at

educating imams (i.e. prayer leaders, but they fulfil, in many countries, a church

leader and teaching function) and the pedagogical subject of training IRE teachers.

These are two professions that are both expected to teach and explain Islam to a

growing generation of European Muslims. However, the students of Islamic pedagogy are not attributed any religious authority as they are expected simply to transmit Islam to the younger generation. According to Ednan Aslan, Professor of Islamic

Pedagogy in Vienna, Islamic education is regarded as an applied science and not a

theological discipline (Aslan 2008: 427–443). This could be understood as denying

teachers the power, opportunity and responsibility they actually have when they

formulate IRE. Furthermore, if we adopt a gender perspective of the hierarchy that

exists between these different professions, it becomes clear that women are more or


J. Berglund

less restricted to professions that are not attributed any religious authority, despite

the fact that IRE teachers through their educational choices have great opportunities

to influence what form of Islam is presented to their students.


To Teach Is to Translate

What alternative ways are there then to describe the teaching of religious traditions?

How can we, from an educational and study-of-religions perspective, describe and

discuss both the processes and content of religious education in a way that does not

imply that religions are pre-packed, non-changeable units that are possible to send

from one generation to the other in a way similar to sending files between computers? The simplest answer to this is that we should stick to the idea of teaching, and

detach transmission from teaching, at least when we are not talking about learning

by heart, as is done with the words of the Quran, German grammar or the great lakes

of Sweden.

In my view, it would be beneficial if teaching instead could have a clear connotation of translating. The post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha uses the concept of

translating in a way that I would argue includes the aspects that are missing when

teaching religion is analyzed as transmission. Bhabha discusses, in several of his

works, the necessity of “cultural translation” and uses the concept of translation not

in the strict linguistic sense, but rather as an image. His use includes an aspect of

mimicry, but in a slightly subversive manner, which indicates that the original meaning is not given priority, but rather that a phenomenon can change, be simulated and

made into what he calls a “trope” in a positive sense (Bhabha 2004: 212ff.). The

reason why I claim that Bhabha’s use of translation is interesting in an educational

context is that it includes context as well as the teachers’ responsibility and power.

Responsibility and power are of importance since it is the IRE teachers who, through

their educational choices, translate, not transmit, Islam to the classroom context and

Swedish society. This is an important didactic aspect of teaching that risks disappearing if religions and religious education are described as static phenomena.

Using the concept of translation contributes to an understanding of teaching as a

process where you constantly have to choose and adapt, in a similar way to when

languages are translated and the translator must choose between appropriate words

to adapt the content to a specific audience. Hence, the concept of translating brings

forward the importance of the teacher and his or her educational choices and awareness. Moreover, it makes it possible to understand the different forms of IRE that are

offered to the students of the present study. Regardless of whether it is IRE or any

other school subject that is prescribed in the national curricula, translation signals

agency, responsibility and the power that teachers have when they teach a growing



Islamic Religious Education in Muslim Schools: A Translation of Islam…



The Importance of Educational Awareness

In this chapter, I have shown that the study of IRE can provide knowledge that is of

significance beyond the Muslim schools where the teaching is conducted. The study

of IRE in different Muslim schools shows that it is inaccurate to describe religions

as well as religious education as static pre-packaged systems that can be transmitted

from teacher to student without adaptation taking place. I have highlighted the

teacher’s role in this context because it is the teacher who ultimately chooses what

is taught and how Islam is presented to the students. The educational choices that

are made by the teachers have considerable significance for what type of Islam is

offered to the pupils, thus highlighting the importance of didactic awareness.

Awareness of the power of educational choices is important not only for individual

IRE teachers but also for teachers who teach other school subjects, such as teachers

who teach the mandatory subject of non-confessional religious education in Sweden.

These teachers’ choice of content also affects the image of religions that students

may have access to in classrooms around Sweden. Of great importance for both

teachers of confessional and non-confessional religious education is of course

teacher training. There is a risk that if teachers are not well educated in the history

and diversity that exist within religions, they might teach a static image of religions

that will actually only transmit their presupposed views. This is thus a concern not

only for teachers of any kind of RE subject but also for all teachers who teach about

religion in other school subjects, such as history, literature or art. No matter what

subject the teacher teaches, the teaching process involves opportunities and power

but also responsibility. This is a fact that quite clearly emerges when we now, in

accordance with the bill of education that was mentioned initially, have the opportunity to study alternative forms of education. The study of confessional school

subjects such as IRE can thus also contribute to didactical awareness and pedagogic

innovation, and thereby stimulate the development of schools.


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Interview with IRE-teachers 2005/10/24

Interview with IRE-teachers 2006/12/17

Chapter 8

Religion, Education and Religious Education

in Irish Schools

Áine Hyland and Brian Bocking

Abstract The character of religious education (RE) in Ireland is intimately linked

to the religious patronage (ownership) of most publicly funded schools by religious

institutions. Approximately 90 % of schools are run by the Catholic Church. This

tradition of religious patronage is increasingly at odds with Ireland’s contemporary

multicultural and multireligious society and raises pan-European questions of

human rights, especially children’s rights, in the sphere of taxpayer-funded education. The chapter outlines the education system in Ireland (little known outside the

republic) and discusses primary and secondary RE as well as current RE teacher

education programmes including the innovative “Religions and Global Diversity”

undergraduate programme at University College Cork. Progress towards the kind of

multireligious RE recommended by the European Council of Ministers has recently

slowed. The Irish Government exercises only limited control over what is taught in

schools’ RE, and there are still very few teachers properly qualified to deliver education about religions (plural).



In this chapter we look at religious education (RE) in Ireland at a systemic level

before describing some of the key features of the “Religions and Global Diversity”

undergraduate programme at our own institution, University College Cork, which

since 2008 has been equipping prospective RE teachers with the subject knowledge

This chapter has been slightly updated and adapted for this volume from Áine Hyland and Brian

Bocking ‘Religion, Education, and Religious Education in Irish Schools’ published in July 2015 in

the journal Teaching Theology & Religion, 18, 3: 252–261 (DOI: 10.1111/teth.12292). We are

grateful to the publisher John Wiley & Sons Ltd. for kind permission to republish the material from

the journal.

Á. Hyland

School of Education, University College Cork, Cork, Ireland

e-mail: ahyland@ucc.ie

B. Bocking (*)

Study of Religions Department, University College Cork, Cork, Ireland

e-mail: b.bocking@ucc.ie

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

J. Berglund et al. (eds.), Religious Education in a Global-Local World,

Boundaries of Religious Freedom: Regulating Religion in Diverse Societies 4,

DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-32289-6_8


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