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Muslim Childhood: Religious Nurture in a European Context

  • Book Title:
 Muslim Childhood
  • Book Author:
Jonathan Scourfield, Sameh Otri, Sophie Gilliat-Ray
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Islam and Middle Childhood

To many people, a typical British child in the primary school years may spend her time, when not in school, playing computer games, watching television, playing with toys or playing outside (though not enough of that, many would think) but she does not read religious texts, or learn a classical language she is unlikely to ever converse in, and does not have a strong sense of the presence of God.

We begin the book on this note, because this is probably the main reason why the religious upbringing of Muslim children should be of interest to non-Muslims.

There is a risk that any idea of ‘typical’ childhood falls into stereotyping of course, but the idea of a child being socialized into a monotheistic world view from birth and then, when old enough, attending classes several times a week to learn to read the Qur’an in classical Arabic is certainly outside the mainstream of secular Western childhood.

Although it is about the specific topic of the religious upbringing of Muslim children, the book tackles some questions of wider interest. How do we learn to be religious? To make sense of this process should we emphasize the habitual reinforcement of bodily rituals or the active role of individuals in making decisions about faith at key moments?

Or should we turn to cognitive science to explain the universal structures on which religiosity is built? And how does a relatively devout minority pass on religion in a generally secular Western context? What significance does religion have for family life in this situation? And how does a religious identity interact with other kinds of collective identification, for example with a nation, ethnic group or a locality?

Olivier Roy (2004: 8) has noted that there is a ‘glaring need’ for studies of ordinary Muslims because, as he puts it, ‘the key question is not what the Qur’an says, but what Muslims say the Qur’an says’ (Roy, 2004: 10). This book is about ordinary British Muslims’ everyday religious social- ization of children in early and middle childhood.

It provides a detailed description of how Muslim families in a secular Western context attempt to pass on their faith to the next generation. Most of the book is rooted in detailed qualitative research with a relatively large sample (for a qualitative project) of 60 Muslim families in one British city. The families whose stories appear in the book are diverse in terms of ethnicity, language, social class and ‘school of thought’.

1 There is therefore depth in the data but also breadth of social location. The book includes children’s own perspectives, but also a considerable amount of data from parents as well. Our own analysis of survey data, presented in Chapter 2, suggests that Muslims in the UK more effectively pass on their faith to the next generation than other religious groups. This book is in part an attempt to explain why that might be.

After an explanation of how we understand ‘everyday lived religion’, this first chapter begins with an introduction to Islam in the UK, with material about the history of Muslims in Britain, the key demographics of the Muslim population and the cultural context of Islam in the UK in the 21st century. The second major section describes the wider social and cultural context of secularization and discusses the role of religious transmission in this context.

 The third section introduces theories which have explained how religion is learned, with particular mention of cogni- tive science, habitus, minority defence and the role of religious organ- izations. The fourth main section of the chapter introduces the study of childhood and the fifth explains some of the terminology used in connection with children’s learning of religion.

 Finally, a sixth main section summarizes the traditions of religious nurture in Islam. Although primarily sociological, the book will be informed by inter-disciplinary debates and there will be reference from time to time to concepts from psychology and anthropology.

A Note on Everyday Lived Religion

In recent years, there has been a developing academic interest in every- day religion (Ammerman, 2007) and lived religion (McGuire, 2008). Attention to the place of religion in everyday life is, arguably, nothing new within anthropology, where the ethnographic method depends on the immersion of a researcher in the ordinary routines of a community.

However, within sociology there has perhaps been less research on what goes on outside of religious organizations (Cadge et al., 2011). We have attempted with the qualitative research featured in this book to encompass the mundane routines of everyday life, beyond the formal occasions of collective worship and religious festivals. Religious organizations are discussed (see Chapter 5), but the bulk of the research took place in the family home and not the mosque.

 It would be mistake, however, to separate out mundane, everyday, routine religious practice from what people believe and from the life of religious organizations, since these different domains depend on each other (Woodhead, 2012).

Therefore in the book we ‘major’ on the place of Islam in everyday childhood. In order to understand everyday religious nurture we need to look at family routines and family homes. We also need to consider the wider social context of children’s lives in school and their social networks. We need to keep belief in mind as well as practice and part of what parents and children believe is what kind of collective identities are appropriate.

This question includes the possible intersection of religious identity with nationality or ethnicity. And the role of religious organizations cannot be ignored. This is especially so for Islam when there are important traditions of formal learning via mosque schools or respected local teachers. The qualitative empirical chapters (4–8) therefore cover all these aspects.

Woodhead (2011) has recently written an impressive overview of the study of religion, identifying five different uses of the term ‘religion’ in the social sciences. Of the five concepts that Woodhead outlines, our approach comes closest to what she calls ‘religion as practice’, with an emphasis on ritual, embodiment and the quotidian. We return to Woodhead’s paper in concluding the book, however, since we argue that multiple concepts are needed to understand religious nurture.

It is often assumed that the presence of Muslims in Britain is a relatively recent phenomenon, confined almost entirely to the post-Second World War period. This is far from the case; the British Isles have a long history of both temporary and more permanent settlement by Muslims (Gilliat- Ray, 2010).

Although the decades after 1945 were certainly distinctive in terms of the scale of Muslim settlement in Britain, historical records indicate that Muslims have been coming to the British Isles as traders, students, seafarers, and explorers from as early as the 9th century (Ansari, 2004).

However, many of these early Muslims coming to Britain were transient settlers, and they were usually unaccompanied single men who eventually returned to their countries of origin. It is question- able as to whether they would have regarded themselves as ‘Muslims in Britain’ in any meaningful sense, such was the temporary character of their residence in most cases.

 Furthermore, over the centuries there have been important changes in both the self-description and identity of Muslims in Britain, as well as changes in the way they have been perceived and described by others.

For example, terms such as ‘Moham- madans’, ‘Moors’, ‘Saracens’ are now recognized as antiquated and disrespectful, while in the later decades of the 20th century, British Muslims themselves began to place less emphasis on their ethnic origins (e.g. as ‘Pakistanis’), stressing instead their distinctive identity as ‘Muslims’. These changes in ascribed and assumed identity sometimes mask the significance of a distinctive and well-established Muslim reli- gious presence in the UK.

From the late  19th century, a distinct Anglo-Muslim community began to evolve in Britain, stimulated by Britain’s colonial links, and especially those with the Indian sub-continent. The first registered mosque was established in Liverpool in 1887 and, later, the first purpose-built mosque was founded in 1889 in Woking, Surrey.

 The maritime port cities of South Shields, Cardiff and Liverpool were espe- cially important at the turn of the 20th century. Muslim seafarers, especially from the Yemen, Somalia, and India, were recruited to work on colonial shipping routes.

Having completed their passage on one ship, they would reside in dockland boarding houses, awaiting work on the next outbound vessel. But some of these seafarers became permanent residents in Britain, and the first embryonic ‘British Muslim’ com- munities were established in or near these port cities.

If the availability of employment was a determining factor influencing where these early Muslims settled in Britain in the 19th century, much the same can be said about the post-Second World War period also. With the need to re-develop towns and cities damaged by the War, and the expansion of manufacturing industries in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a demand for unskilled and semi-skilled factory workers. Britain looked to those countries with which it had colonial ties in order to meet the labour shortages.

As a consequence, many relatively poor, uneducated migrant labourers came to Britain, especially from the Indian sub-continental countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India. They were once again mainly single men and, like many of their earlier seafaring counterparts, they envisaged a time when they would return to their countries of origin. Having earned the social status and economic wealth associated with temporary migration to Britain, they looked forward to eventually returning home.

 This intention meant that relatively little was invested in a long-term future in Britain. Being a Muslim in Britain at this time was therefore primarily a matter of belonging to a particular ethnic group or kinship network. Referring to this generation of South Asians, Anshuman Mondal has noted:

. . . for many Muslims of the older generation, the observance of Islam was less about piety and more to do with participation in communal life. Whether sincerely undertaken or not, the performance of rituals, the attendance at mosques and the undertaking of fasting during Ramadan were aspects of a social life which established a semblance of community for the older generation of South Asian migrants, and the dense network of relation- ships that such activities helped to sustain would provide them the stability and support they needed in an unfamiliar environment.

 It seems that this collective observance is what motivated the older generations in their adherence to Islam rather than any particular sense of personal religiosity. (Mondal, 2008: 4–5)

Important legislative changes in the 1960s and 1970s had a dramatic impact on the nature of Muslim settlement in Britain. The new legislation was designed to place strict limits on further large-scale immigration to Britain.

 This meant that among those Muslims already in the UK, the new policies were seen as obstacles to any possible reunification of families. In order to ‘beat the ban’ of the new immigration laws, many South Asian men in Britain sent for their wives and children from their villages and towns in the Indian sub-continent, to join them in the

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