GCSE Shia Textbook
05 September, 2023, Zameer Hussain
Our Resource of the Month is a FREE textbook about Shia Islam for GCSE. This is tailored to the GCSE specification, but would be useful for all teachers to gain useful information about Shia Islam.
In this blog, co- author Zameer Hussain talks about the inspiration for writing the book, along with scholar Dr Ahab Bdaiwi.
With the GCSE reforms in 2016 that required diversity to be explored, we felt it was an opportunity to equip and educate teachers about the Shia perspective before teaching about it. For the first time, an in-depth understanding of Shia Islam was required on the GCSE specification, along with Sunni Islam. We had found that Shia Islam wasn’t always accurately portrayed in resources nor was it given much space in textbooks. Therefore we felt such a book was necessary.
The book was authored by myself and Dr Ahab Bdaiwi. Dr Bdaiwi is a well-respected academic in Islamic scholarship and I am a teacher and member of the RE community, with experience in training teachers about Shia Islam. We felt that between us we had the knowledge and credibility, as well as the right balance between academic rigour and understanding of the classroom, to offer a book to teachers.
We consulted with well-respected Shia scholars, such as Ayatollah Fadhil Milani, as well as academics with a specialism in Islam, such as Dr Chris Hewer. We wanted to ensure our writing is accurate and represents Shia Islam in an authentic way. Their feedback was invaluable for our work.
We had a very clear aim that the book should be accessible to teachers and students. Throughout the writing process we constantly asked ourselves the question; can someone pick this book up and feel confident in teaching about key beliefs and practices of Shia Muslims? As well as covering the requirements on the GCSE specification, we wanted to give some background detail to ensure a rich, complex understanding.
As Shia Muslims we are only too happy to help and support teachers in this way. All over the UK teachers will find Shia mosques which welcome school groups and individual teachers as visitors. Tours can be arranged and questions can be asked to scholars. I myself have supported teachers in understanding Shia Islam more for many years and am always interested to hear about teachers’ questions or ideas. Feel free to contact me if you ever want to ask questions about Shia Islam!
Over the years, in training teachers, I have come to a couple of points of understanding for non-Muslim (and non- Shia) teachers. It is important not to pitch Shia Islam as an off-shoot or breakaway from ‘mainstream Islam.’ Shia Islam has its own traditions and history that shouldn’t be framed through a Sunni lens. Of course, it shares much with Sunni Islam but the Shia worldview should be given the same credibility as other traditions. For example, there may be only a Sunni narrative taught around the life of Prophet Muhammad that overlooks a Shia perspective. Shia historians reject the idea that Muhammad didn’t know he was a prophet until the Angel Jibril visited him, for example. I also advise that knowledge about Shia teachings come from credible sources such as literature or websites written by Shia scholars or experts. A good website is https://www.al-islam.org/ which contains lots of Shia literature translated into English and reflects the diversity of opinion within the Shia tradition.
Unfortunately, whether intentional or not, there is a lot of false information online about Shia Muslims. This includes inaccurate claims that Shia see Ali as a prophet, that they worship the Imams and believe the Quran is incomplete and has been tampered with. There are also generalisations that depict the whole Shia community as performing blood-letting during Ashura, when this is not the case.
Some aspects of Shia Islam are not on the GCSE specification that would be great for students to learn about. For example the Ziyarah pilgrimages to the mausoleums of the Imams are very important to Shia Muslims. The spirituality that can be found in Shia Islam is also profound. This can be seen when studying the psalms and supplications that have been passed down from the Imams. Through the study of this prayer literature, there would be an excellent exposition of the way Shia Muslims are taught to conversate with God which gives an insight into Shia theology.
When it comes to learning about Shia Islam, there are some key figures, events and ideas. For example, Imam Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, is one of the most inspirational figures due to his stand against injustice. His life and death are very important to learn about to gain an authentic understanding of what is important in Shia Islam. Additionally, a grasp of the historical events before and after the death of Prophet Muhammad that led to Muslims going in different directions is essential to understand why there are Sunni and Shia Muslims. In modern Shia Islam an exploration of the altruism and servitude displayed on the pilgrimage to Karbala, Iraq, during Arbaeen would offer an excellent understanding; it reflects Islamic ethics and social justice in a profound way. It would also be worthwhile exploring the tradition of Shia poetry that teaches us so much about Shia history.