Wednesday, 15 May 2013


At Madani High School and Community Centre, Evington Valley Road, this evening, for a meeting of the Christian-Muslim Dialogue Group. The topic is "Learning for Life: How Islam is taught to children in a multi-faith society".
There are 11 attendees. Fliers were produced six weeks ago which said that it was intended that at this meeting, "Members of Leicester's SACRE (Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education") join us for a discussion on the theme". However, when SACRE met last week at Quaker Meeting House, it turned out that no invitation to this meeting had been received. I forwarded the flier with details of the meeting at Madani to SACRE's officers, and it was circulated to members on Friday morning.
Allan Hayes and I are here, both Co-opted Members of SACRE without voting rights (there's no place in the structure of SACRE for full representatives of Secular Humanism or any inter faith organisation). Later on, Stephen Thompson (Methodist representative on SACRE) joins us. We three found out about this meeting through independent channels, not at the SACRE meeting last week or through the last-minute mailing by SACRE. I'm sure that we can report to the next SACRE meeting, say what a good opportunity this evening presented for addressing such an important topic and that if the chance arises to cover this topic again, it would be hoped that SACRE members would support in numbers. I should say that the non-communication about this meeting was not the fault of anyone here this evening or any member of the Dialogue Group.
Revd Pete Hobson (Joint Co-ordinator of the Christian-Muslim Dialogue Group), Sheikh Shafi Chowdhury, Daud Sameja (Joint Co-ordinator of the Christian-Muslim Dialogue Group)
Apparently this is the first meeting of this group outside St Philip's Centre (although the April meeting, co-hosted with Leicester Council of Faiths, at which Bruce Kent spoke, took place in St Philip's Church Hall - though that would be splitting hairs). There was a short discussion about whether this evening's venue might have put off potential attendees, but I hope that's not true. This is the middle of Christian Aid Week, which might have drawn away some interested people, compounding the problems of lack of promotion.

The speaker this evening is Sheikh Shafi Chowdhury. He is an Imam, a qualified and experienced teacher, currently working in a multi-faith prison chaplaincy. He speaks for 20 minutes or so with compassion, humility, humour, knowledge and reflection. His talk is peppered with authoritative references to the Qur’án, Hadith and incidents from the life of the Prophet, his companions and early followers of Islam. He mixes personal experience with a historical overview of the meaning and role of education for the Muslim community (worldwide, in England and in Leicester), set within the broad sweep of the historical development of Islam in general.

Key to an understanding of this topic is the inescapable fact that Islam does not differentiate between the "sacred" and the "profane", nor does it categorise experience or phenomena as "spiritual" and "material" in terms of being complementary or oppositional. Such differentiation could be said to be central to the western idea of humanist, liberal, secular education. In classical terms, this meant that those figures whom we might identify as religious scholars in the Muslim world were also scholars of "natural philosophy", leading to innovation in the arts, humanities and sciences alongside insights in matters of faith, belief and religious practice. Of course there are many examples of the same thing happening within other faith communities, but it could be said that this was such a distinctive quality of Islam that when it became the exception rather than the rule, some 300 years ago, it exemplified  a radical change in the expansive and inclusive nature of Islam that had driven its success up till then.
Our speaker says many things that are worth mulling over beyond this meeting. Here are just two of them (quoted here with his permission):
"The curse of superficiality of faith is to be challenged by everything and to be frightened of everything. We cannot be fully Muslim unless we reach out and engage with our neighbours."
"Today all our communities are brought up with a heightened awareness of difference, of consciousness of the Other."

This is the first time I've attended a meeting of the Christian-Muslim Dialogue Group proper. I'm sure it won't be the last. I found it a stimulating, thought-provoking occasion in which a variety of view were welcome. With better promotion, I'm sure more people would enjoy these meetings and contribute to this important ongoing conversation.

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