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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

UAE's Islamic studies teachers 'failing to engage students over fear of offending'

Study finds teachers are unsure of themselves and avoid being creative in case they cause offence

Dr. Naved Bakali, research analyst at the Tabah Foundation. Victor Besa / The National 
Dr. Naved Bakali, research analyst at the Tabah Foundation. Victor Besa / The National 

Islamic studies teachers in the UAE are failing to adequately engage with their students over fears they may cause offence or stray into politically sensitive areas, experts have warned.

A small-scale study found some pupils were showing a worrying lack of interest in the subject, despite newly revised curriculums aimed at promoting religious tolerance and understanding.

The research conducted by the Tabah Foundation, an Abu Dhabi think tank, found teachers were often reluctant to “stray” from the specifics of a religious text.

But avoiding a more open discussion of the subject was damaging, according to researchers, and represented a failure to innovate in the classroom.

“People found the curriculum did a decent job in providing foundations for Islamic values and Islamic culture," said Naved Bakali, an analyst at Tabah, which promotes the teaching of moderate Islam.

“But given how much religion has become politicised, many children will ask about conflicts which teachers don't want to address in order to avoid saying the wrong thing.

“Because of the huge risk they feel, they are not doing anything to make the classroom creative – they’re too scared to say anything that may get them into trouble.”

The non-profit Tabah Foundation conducted 15 in-depth interviews with academics, teachers and parents across the UAE over the past year.

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Their aim was to attempt to access views on how Islamic studies was being taught in schools in the Emirates.

Presenting their findings this week, researchers found many of the parents surveyed claimed their children were not interested in the subject at all.

Analysts also found the often overbearing workload of teachers left them too little time to be creative in the classroom.

“Parents and other stakeholders all agreed on the importance of an Islamic education,” said Abdulrahman Sayed, an Islamic education consultant.

“As parents, they said they relied on this for the values which they held dear. But while on the one hand religion is a great resource, on the other it’s a subject where teachers are afraid to stray from the text.”

Dr Mohammed Bassam Al Zein, who headed the team asked to review the UAE’s Islamic studies curriculum by the Ministry of Education in 2013, argued a certain amount of rigidity was required when it came to teaching Islamic studies.

He said the religious diversity of classrooms in the Emirates was such that allowing teachers too much room for manoeuvre could lead to some schools contradicting the UAE's approach.

"The teachers here come from different countries and diverse religious backgrounds and we want the curriculum to be taught as per the UAE's religious tone,” he said.

“If we open the door for teachers, each will follow their religious school's background.”

Addressing the issue of a lack of creativity during Islamic studies lessons, he said teachers were undergoing courses to improve their techniques.

The research by the Tabah Foundation also found many teachers were struggling with significant workloads and long hours.

Their ability to teach effectively was affected by the length of time they were able to give to specific subjects. Short or infrequent class times left them less able to be innovative.

"Everyone we spoke to felt that Islamic education was very important but it’s only been allotted 90 minutes a week, which barely gives teachers enough time to cover the curriculum,” said Dr Al Zein.

Mustafa, an Islamic studies teacher at a private UAE school, agreed that time constraints had to be taken into account when accessing teacher performance.

He said a major challenge he faced was that pupils’ parents were often not religious and therefore not interested in the subject.

“Non-Arab speakers come from different backgrounds and may not share the same religious values that Arab children are brought up with,” he said.

“Additionally, there are translation errors in the English version of the Islamic curriculum making it unclear and less easily understood.”