ASSESSMENT OF THE BOOK FOUNDATION
Dear members of the Charity Commission:
I was first introduced to The Book Foundation and its educational projects at a meeting last May in Oxford with its Director, Dr. Jeremy Henzell-Thomas, and two other key collaborators for its curriculum development project (Dr. Kabir Helminski and Mrs. A. Gouverneur, founder of the famous 'Islamic Texts Society' of Cambridge) whom I have met occasionally at professional meetings and international conferences in Islamic, Religious and Middle East Studies over the past two decades.
To begin with, the most important, ambitious and potentially far-ranging project of The Book Foundation is its effort to develop an entirely new curriculum (and associated teaching methods) in English designed to communicate the spiritual teachings of the Qur'an-for students of different ages and cultural backgrounds-in ways directly related to contemporary young peoples' lives and living experiences in nature and society, rather than on the extremely narrow, ineffective and historically outdated range of inherited teaching materials that are currently available in English and other European languages. Given the desperate need for properly adapted pedagogical materials oriented to the actual situations of contemporary young people in the West, it would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of The Book Foundation's efforts in this regard. In order to accomplish their goals in this area, the founders of The Foundation have enrolled a wide range of internationally experienced educators and consultants, drawn from the experts and practitioners in the specific fields related to each curricular area (e.g., science, nature, social life, spirituality, etc.), and they have begun to involve concerned local educational institutions and teachers not only in the UK, but on a truly international scale.
As a professor of Religious Studies having already devoted several decades to developing appropriately adapted, effective contemporary means of spiritual teaching relating to Christian and Jewish (as well as Islamic) scriptures and religious traditions, and to forming properly trained students who have often gone on to teach in these fields both at other universities and in the new 'Religious Education' programmes in the schools (GCSE and earlier), I can honestly say that I have not seen anything comparable to the seriousness and comprehensiveness of The Book Foundation's efforts in this field: they have not left out any of the indispensable ingredients for this kind of creative educational reform, and they have a highly competent and realistic conception of the long-range processes of testing and 'feedback' in the schools, with students of different countries and cultural backgrounds, which will be necessary to translate their new curricular efforts into effective pedagogical instruments.
Given the host of misleading popular stereotypes and media images about Islam that are rampant these days, I believe it may be helpful to emphasize that Dr. Henzell-Thomas and all of the staff and creative collaborators of The Book Foundation known to me are NOT in any way connected with any 'Islamist', essentially political movements or sectarian currents of any stripe. On the contrary, their efforts are based on and constantly guided by the serious, centuries-old and quite universal spiritual teachings and traditions of Islamic civilisation which are shared not only by the other Abrahamic faiths, but by the wisdom traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism and Confucianism. Given their far-sightedly universal perspectives and concrete practical intentions and experience, I would expect many of their curricular materials and pedagogical approaches to be quickly adapted by spiritual and religious educators working in other faith traditions as well, since most of the pedagogical obstacles and challenges they are grappling with are shared quite specifically by teachers working in other traditions.
Finally, I would simply point out that The Book Foundation's two other areas of activities involving (a) the Islamic visual arts, and (b) supporting the translation and accessibility of M. Asad's very effective and authoritative translations of the Qur'an should be seen as more particular, specific small steps in the same direction of relating traditional Islamic forms and teachings to the full spectrum of human concerns and spiritual dimensions which are too often neglected in 'religious education' efforts these days. In particular, I can personally cite almost three decades' teaching experience in support of the central importance (and pedagogical effectiveness) of the Islamic visual and musical arts in communicating the deepest dimensions of Islamic tradition to modern Muslim and non-Muslim audiences alike-a phenomenon that no doubt inspired Prince Charles to establish his now world-famous Institute of Visual Islamic and Traditional Arts (V.I.T.A.) in London. The guiding aims of The Book Foundation closely parallel those of V.I.T.A. on a wider scale, with the intention of making those same foundational spiritual principles of the Islamic humanities accessible to a far wider audience of young Muslims growing up in the cities of the UK and other Western countries, who have unfortunately too often lost touch with the more traditional forms of pedagogy and spiritual development from their cultures and countries of origin.
This is only a brief overview and explanation of the importance and seriousness of the projects underlying The Book Foundation, and I would be quite happy to elaborate on these summary remarks or to answer any of your further questions, if you would like, either in writing or by phone [see bottom of page 1].
(Prof.) James W. Morris