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Educating for personhood – personalised character education for young British Muslims

Written by: Fara Ahmed
11 min read
Farah Ahmed, Director of Education and Research, Islamic Shakhsiyah Foundation, UK

There is a growing presence of British-born Muslims who identify both as British and as adherents of a major world religion, with beliefs that are sometimes perceived as ‘other’ than British. According to the last census, over eight per cent of British schoolchildren are of Muslim heritage (Ali, 2015). Arguably, however, Muslims and Islamic thought have been part of British life for centuries (Matar, 1998; Pugh, 2019). This cross-cultural discourse has benefited both cultures and can continue to do so. Nevertheless, young Muslims face many challenges as they navigate the schooling system and contemporary society (Hamid, 2016; Khan, 2013). Compounding the well-documented underachievement of Muslim students (Abbas, 2004; Coles, 2008) is the embedding of PREVENT into schools, which has sometimes placed young Muslims under a lens of security as opposed to education (Miah, 2017). Moreover, a substantial majority of Muslim children attend Islamic supplementary schools, where they experience an educational approach that differs from mainstream education. In some sense, this dual experience generates a liminal existence that can be best understood as double-consciousnesses (Dubois, 2014). British Muslims and wider society perhaps need to face the aporia (inherent contradictions or irreconcilable differences) that occur in multicultural contexts and consider what these might mean for character education. Moreover, young Muslims, like all other young people, are very conscious of the pressing issues of our time; the climate catastrophe that we are all potentially facing, and artificial intelligence and the questions that it poses for what it means to be human are just two of the existential questions that generate anxiety, no doubt heightened during the COVID-19 crisis. Clearly, there are many layers to the challenges that educators face in supporting the personal and character development of learners in our care.

In this article, I offer my personal perspective as a British Muslim educator who has been working with the theory and practice of ‘character’ education for over 25 years (Ahmed, 2018a). My work has been driven by trying to determine how best to meet the challenges listed above. In my theoretical work, I argue that by centring a notion of personhood that has the capacity to enable hybrid cultural identities, educators can facilitate a strength of character that enables authenticity and mutual respect within our increasingly diverse society. In doing so, I draw upon classical Islamic philosophies of education that consider personal character and growth to be the ultimate aim of education (Nasr, 2016). I will first talk about what I mean by authenticity, then discuss the term shakhsiyah Islamiyah as an authentic form of Muslim selfhood for a multicultural society. Finally, I will outline how shakhsiyah Islamiyah might be achieved through enhancing dialogic practices in Islamic educational settings, using a case study of Shakhsiyah Schools.

Personhood and authenticity

The reason for beginning with concepts of personhood and authenticity is that they are at the core of my response to the vexed questions of what exactly is character and how could we possibly educate for it? Whilst character has been approached in a range of ways, including values, virtues, personal qualities or prosocial attitudes and actions, the philosophical question remains as to what makes each learner a unique individual with a unique character. Whilst in our liberal society we are somewhat effective in supporting young people with the skills to make ‘good’ choices, we are less clear on how we might support them to have a sense of selfhood. How might we enable them to have the agency to think carefully and act on who, and what kind of person, they might want to be? This task, I argue, involves some fundamental questions about life, its purpose and what might be considered to be the ‘good life’. A classical pedagogue might have seen this as the purpose of education (Salkever, 2007), yet in our mass-schooling culture, this has been relegated well behind measurement and testing of ‘learning’. Authenticity is a term taken from existentialist philosophy, which in our context means being true to yourself. The authentic self is essentially sincere to its beliefs and worldview. The authentic self has the capacity to navigate being in a material world and encountering external views, pressures and influences that are very different from, and other than, itself.

I contend that any attempts at character education that don’t centre around an authentic personhood as the ultimate aim of education are tinkering around the edges of ‘character’. Whilst they may be successful in some respects, as shown in many of the articles in this volume, they are nevertheless dealing with aspects of character, as opposed to providing a personalised approach for self-development, which is the ultimate aim of character education. Such practices, whilst noble endeavours fully deserving of our support, are essentially sticking plasters attempting to generate wellbeing in a system that actively threatens it.

I concede that the view I have presented here is idealistic, unrealistic and unpragmatic; nevertheless, it offers a vision against which we can reflect on our current practices. I am also claiming that such an argument will resonate with many educators, of all faiths and none. In the next section, I will outline an Islamic concept of personhood that may be useful in beginning to think about these challenging questions.

Personhood and shakhsiyah Islamiyah

For my PhD study, I began some theoretical work to conceptualise shakhsiyah Islamiyah as an Islamic notion of personhood. I was driven by the double-consciousness of British Muslim lives and a desire for wholeness and authenticity, as well as a recognition of the importance of character as a central aim of education. The traditional words for character, such as akhlaq (ethics), did not completely capture the individuality of experience that I was seeking to centre; neither did they fully capture a sense of self, which is essential to the Islamic worldview, yet not often central in educational discourse. I therefore turned to a more contemporary word. Shakhsiyah is an Arabic word that can be translated as personality, figure, character, persona/personage, individuality, spirit and subjectivity. In contemporary Muslim discourse it is often combined with the word Islamiyah to construct a meaning of a strong, committed person/individual, but one who is authentically driven by their Islamic beliefs. I theorised that this conceptualisation allowed for embracing the double-consciousness of British Muslim experience to generate a wholeness in a developing selfhood. I hope that this approach can resonate with educators who are conscious of the uncertainty of a changing world and the anxiety that this sometimes creates for young people. A conscious sense of selfhood creates the capacity for deep, ongoing reflexivity, which can help to support young people to be authentic to themselves whilst respectfully engaging with others around them. 

Shakhsiyah Schools – a case study

In my practical work, I lead two small independent Islamic-faith primary schools based in the wider London area. The schools are called Shakhsiyah Schools because they aim to provide a personalised education that facilitates the development of shakhsiyah Islamiyah. It is important to note that the schools grew out of the home-schooling initiatives run by Muslim mothers, who, in the late 1990s, set out to ask themselves the question: what does it mean to educate a Muslim in 21st-century Britain?

Through organic growth, research and development, the schools have formulated seven principles to guide their work (Ahmed, 2016). These principles derive from an Islamic worldview and draw on classical Islamic educational thought to meet 21st-century challenges. They are complex and cannot be summarised in this short piece. This article focuses on the principle of halaqah (dialogic pedagogy), which draws on a classical concept of three dialogic relationships of a human being: relationship with self, relationship with others and relationship with God. This Islamic conceptualisation of a threefold relationship bears a remarkable similarity to the Cambridge Primary Review’s headings for their agreed aims of education, namely ‘the individual; self, others and the wider world; learning, knowing and doing’ (Alexander, 2010). Alexander’s work on dialogic teaching is well known (Alexander, 2008), and it is interesting to me that he also recognises children’s relationship to self, others and the wider world and supplements this with learning, knowing and doing. Of course, the Cambridge Primary Review did not include a relationship with God; however, it could be argued that this relationship is an important aspect of the lifeworld of many schoolchildren and cannot be discounted entirely. For Muslims, the presence of God (Allah) is central to all three relationships, as relationships with self and others are informed by the relationship with God. Thus, growing towards Allah through ‘learning, knowing and doing’ becomes the ultimate aim of education. This is achieved through a developing sense of selfhood and of a conscious reflexivity about one’s personal character, which includes a person’s relationship with herself and with others. In this understanding of Islamic education, all other aspects of learning – literacy, numeracy, sciences, aesthetics and so on – are framed within this holistic notion of personal growth towards Allah. Thus, the flourishing of the human individual (Reiss and White, 2013) is at the core of Islamic educational aims; however, it is also intertwined with service to others. The Islamic concept of individual human flourishing is different from secular ideals of human flourishing, in that it is always in the service of God.

A dialogic circle of learning for personhood education

In Shakhsiyah Schools, character education is at the heart of all school life. It is centred through a daily dialogic circle of learning known traditionally as halaqah (Ahmed, 2019). Halaqah provides a daily dialogic space that acts as the core of a thematic curriculum. It incorporates the study of Islam, other religions, PSHE, citizenship, Fundamental British Values and history. Through halaqah, children are supported to develop a sense of agency, criticality, openness and reflexivity about themselves, their faith, their learning within and outside school, others’ beliefs and views, wider society and contemporary issues. The worldview employed in halaqah is that of Islam; however, it is often in relation to other ways of thinking and almost always in relation to the specific contexts of children’s lives in multicultural 21st- century Britain. This contextualisation of ideas and concepts discussed in halaqah allows for the juxtaposition of contradictory perspectives, to develop criticality and reflexivity as well as empathy and understanding of other worldviews. As halaqah is at the core of a thematic curriculum, ideas discussed in it are developed in other subjects. For example, in the theme Ancient Egypt, children learn historical enquiry skills by examining objects from the era; they explore the Qur’anic and Jewish narratives of Musa (Moses) in relation to Pharaoh and his court. They look at what it means to be a refugee in the contemporary world and relate that to the family of Yusuf (Joseph) seeking refuge in Ancient Egypt and the people of (Musa) Moses fleeing Egypt centuries later.

This central plank of the Shakhsiyah Schools’ approach to character education is supplemented by a range of other activities similar to those outlined in other articles in this volume. However, the unique nature of cumulative dialogic halaqah offers something different. Some evidence of the success of dialogic halaqah can be found in my small-scale doctoral research (Ahmed, 2018b). Further research is planned. The argument presented here is that the theorisation of shakhsiyah as personhood goes beyond discourses of British Muslim identity and character education, to a deeper sense of selfhood. Moreover, dialogic halaqah offers a more culturally coherent and positive approach to supporting Muslim children through the challenges of a post-9/11, post-COVID-19 world than the blunt tools of Fundamental British Values (FBV) and PREVENT, which have connotations of control and policing.

Halaqah has its parallels in mainstream education; many educators may be reminded of Philosophy 4 Children (P4C). Wroxham Primary School holds regular democratic dialogic circles, and some leadership programmes have incorporated similar practices (Higham and De Vynck, 2019), but these activities are, at most, once a week and are often a short-term intervention. The scope and continuity that a daily dialogic circle provides could transform character education in mainstream schools. It can be used as a vehicle for PSHE, citizenship, P4C, FBV and even RE. Ultimately, however, the dialogic space itself supports learners’ reflections about their selves, their relationships, their worldview and their personhood.


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