On handling Muhammed with kid gloves in the classroom


On January 7th, like many others, I watched with horror the shaky mobile phone videos of masked gunman on the streets of Paris.

Since then I’ve read the blogs and commentary on religion and freedom of speech, and I’ve discussed the issues with my teenage children, as they have tried to make sense of it for themselves.  Salil Tripathi’s commentary is the best thing I’ve read; restating the principles that “freedom of expression is fundamental; that religion is an idea; that nothing, no idea, is sacred; that ideas don’t have rights, people do”. 

But on January 7th there was also homework to do and schoolbags to pack. Checking over my son’s bag I noticed his Religious Education (RE) homework on Islam and Mohammed. Each time Mohammed’s name appears on the printed worksheet it was followed by the acronymn ‘PBUH’ (Peace Be Upon Him) and at the bottom there was an instruction to remember not to use any images of Mohammed.

muhammad homework

This seems inappropriate. Writing ‘PBUH’ after Mohammed’s name is a sign of religious devotion used by some Muslims, in a similar way that some Christians refer to Jesus as ‘Him’ (with a capital H)  or some Jews write God as ‘G-d’. It’s not a general norm.

As for the question of images of Mohammed, there are different views and traditions about images of prophets within Islam. But in any case one person’s sacrilege can be another’s treasured religious and cultural masterpiece, as the celebrated picture of Allah and the first Islamic prophet below highlights.

God and Adam (Michelangelo, Sistene Chapel)

God and Adam (Michelangelo, Sistene Chapel)

Religious Education is valuable if it teaches students about different religions, and enables them to think rigourously about them whilst respecting that others have different beliefs and traditions. Too often though it seems to confuse respect for people, with respect for ideas, and in this case goes as far as requiring all students to demonstrate obedience to some of them.

I have asked my son’s RE teacher and other teachers about writing ‘PBUH’ and forbidding students from using images of Mohammed, and they say it is a general instruction, and is a fairly common practice in their experience of teaching RE. The reason given is ‘as a sign of respect’ and ‘to avoid causing offense’.

The Muslim parents I have chatted with they don’t expect other people to say ‘Peace be Upon Him’ when talking about Mohammed, and they they wouldn’t get offended by another person’s child including an image of Mohammed  in their homework.

Mohammed ascending to heaven on a horse, Persian Miniature (British Library)

Mohammed ascending to heaven on a horse, Persian Miniature (British Library)

Contemporary image of Mohammed from Iran

Contemporary image of Mohammed from Iran

The Muslim Council of Britain in its guidance to schools says  that teachers should avoid asking muslim pupils to draw pictures or make models of Gods from any religious traditions or to draw pictures or role-play any of the Islamic prophets. It does not demand that these prohibitions are applied to other students.

Handling Muhammed with extreme care in schools is motivated by concern for respect but instead reinforces prejudice – reflecting a  ‘better safe than sorry’ view that sees all muslims as extremist, intolerant people who might take offence easily.

Further, it encourages students to get used to seeing freedom of expression and  academic rigour as things that should be casually discarded in the face of any imagined potential for offence-taking.

I am sure that following the Charlie Hebdo attack, there were discussions in RE classrooms around the country about where we should draw the line between protecting freedom of expression and preventing incitement of hatred.  I wonder how many took place in classrooms where the line had already been drawn at its most restrictive point?

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