Islamic Religious Education: Negotiating, Adopting and Adapting a new Subject

For decades, one of the key issues in debates surrounding Islam in Germany has been the religious education of young Muslims. There is now broad consensus that Islamic religious education (IRU) should be introduced as an official subject in state schools in accordance with Article 7. Para. 3 of the German Constitution. The state of Lower Saxony has been one of the pioneers in this case; introducing IRU in the 2013/14 academic year. The current debate no longer centres on whether IRU should be introduced, but rather how it should be designed and structured: What should be its aims? Which problems should it address? What exactly should lessons contain? While the controversy rages on, lessons have already begun. This project is the first in-depth, systematic study of IRU in primary and secondary schools and uses interviews, lesson observations and an analysis of curricula and teaching materials in Lower Saxony.

Conflicting political, religious and pedagogical expectations surround the subject and the question of how to implement it in practice therefore becomes ever more relevant, and more pressing. In addressing this question the project team must navigate these conflicting demands in the same way as authors of curricula and textbooks are required to, and indeed teachers and pupils in their daily school lives. The over-arching objective is translated into three research questions:

1.      What content should Islamic religious education convey – according to the central figures in the debate?

2.      What content will actually be taught in lessons, how will pupils acquire it, and why will it be organised in that way?

3.      Which interpretations of Islam will be expressed in curricula, syllabi and in the classroom?

The first study to be conducted as part of the overall project is a doctoral research project examining the first question: Taking curricula (‘policy curriculum’) into account as well as textbooks and other teaching materials (‘programmatic curriculum’), this sub-study involves the analysis of materials and interviews with education policy makers, commission members, authors and religious representatives. The second study is also a doctoral research project, and addresses the second question: Using ethnographic lesson observations in four schools, interviews with teachers and pupil focus groups, the study explores what actually occurs in the classroom (‘enacted curriculum’). When consolidating the two sub-studies the project heads will investigate the significance of Islam in the policy, programmatic and enacted curricula. With recourse to the heuristic ‘theory of change’ method the project as a whole will systematically investigate which problems IRU should address from the perspective of the various participants, how the individual problems can be translated into objectives and concrete recommendations for action and what happens when these recommendations are implemented in practice.

The project offers substantive and methodological innovations: (1) Both sub-studies will contribute to an expansion of the wider knowledge of the proceedings in current IRU lessons. (2) They will reveal how the enacted curriculum relates to the expectations and objectives of the policy und programmatic curricula. (3) The project focusses on the perspectives of pupils, largely neglected in studies until now. This approach will stimulate new responses to the central research questions as well as giving realistic and practical impulses for further developing IRU. (4) In addition the project is developing and testing an innovative methodological approach designed by an institute in Lower Saxony, which will not only produce results for this project but will be used for further research projects throughout Germany. As the state of Lower Saxony introduces IRU as an official subject and publishes the first curricula and teaching materials, this is a unique opportunity to accompany the process, to gain academic insights and to generate substantiated impulses for education practice.