I have always wanted to write books. As a former journalist, and my father himself being an author, that probably shouldn’t come as any surprise. It has simply been about waiting for the right opportunity at the right time.
That finally came when I went to the first national religious education conference, ‘Strictly RE’, organised by the National Association of Teacher of Religious Education (NATRE), which was attended by more than 170 professionals and subject specialists. It was an important inaugural event, held at a time when the RE community was preparing itself (rather nervously) for reformed Religious Studies courses at GCSE and A level, designed to be more rigorous with the aim of improving religious literacy in schools.
It was announced that representatives from Oxford University Press at the conference wanted to speak to anyone who might want to help with their new series of student textbooks as part of these reforms. I jumped at the chance and expressed my interest.
Within a few days, two of OUP’s commissioning and development editors came to meet me in Birmingham to discuss the project. They also observed me teach a lesson, and asked me to write a sample unit. I was delighted when I received very positive feedback and was offered a contract to write three 144-page textbooks to match the new Edexcel GCSE RS specification, exploring various themes in relation to Islam, namely Religion and Ethics through Islam, Religion, Peace and Conflict through Islam, and Religion, Philosophy and Social Justice through Islam.
All this took place in early 2015 – and the work was completed exactly two years later. The reason for this length of time was due largely to me initially having to write manuscripts based on Edexcel’s draft syllabus, which changed four times before finally being accredited by the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulations (Ofqual)… in the summer of 2016! But even while a draft specification is undergoing review, the author’s work needs to continue. This is mainly for the purpose of ensuring teachers are not waiting for resources longer than necessary once specs are approved and endorsed, and also to try to stay ahead of competing publishers.
I took on the project while working as a full-time head of department. I had already anticipated how extremely demanding writing not just one, but three textbooks would be, and it was a huge challenge trying to balance this with my day job and home life.
Despite this, and frustrating as every change to the spec was (often necessitating in significant adjustments, including replacing whole units with new ones), none of that put me off. Like many other colleagues, I’ve been disappointed with a number of textbooks published about Islam, including their tendency to oversimplify and even misrepresent aspects of Muslim beliefs, teachings and practices, and to reinforce particular stereotypes, notably through images of women covered from head to toe, and Pakistani families sitting around curry dishes!
Here was a unique opportunity given to me to bring a fresh look and feel to the new series. And it isn’t every day the world’s largest university press calls upon your services – I felt immensely honoured, and was therefore committed to doing my absolute best to fulfil the trust put in me.
Among so many things, I wanted the books to capture Islam’s universality and celebrate its rich diversity, and this was helped by the new content requiring a better understanding of Sunni and Shi’a traditions, and a recognition of denominations existing both within as well as outside these two main branches.
As one would expect, OUP’s checking process was (and is) unapologetically thorough. With its outstanding global reputation, quality matters. Through many meetings, hundreds of emails and countless hours on the telephone, the editors worked closely with me to review every key term, sentence, reference, photo and caption for relevance, accuracy and clarity. They had also brought on board two leading Islamic scholars in Britain – Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra (Sunni) and Shaykh Dr Mohammad Saeed Bahmanpour (Shi’a) – to scrutinize the manuscripts. I had become accustomed to receiving first, second and occasionally third proofs in the post for my own checking and rechecking, before the books were signed off for the printers.
In addition to prioritising sufficiently detailed religious content, the books provide other important features, including suitable stretch and support tasks to cater for all abilities, ‘build your skills’ activities to develop and hone the skills needed to answer exam questions, and revision and exam practice pages providing sample answers and tips on how to achieve maximum marks.
Words cannot describe the feeling when something you have dedicated yourself so long to finally sees the light of day. My excitement at opening those large parcels when they arrived was very much like an exuberant child unwrapping their Christmas or Eid presents! It is a special moment indeed.
Of course, it is impossible for any single book to satisfy everyone teaching and learning a particular course. However, I have been delighted with the overwhelmingly positive response of teachers, and very favourable reviews posted on Amazon, including by those who teach a different qualification but have found my books helpful for their own knowledge, understanding and planning. It is a great feeling when you’re told what a difference you’ve made, which makes the whole journey so worth it. Examples of feedback are provided further below.
None of this would have been possible without so many people, whom I had the enormous privilege of working with:
- the fantastic team at OUP – especially Minh Ha, Lois, Sarah and Abi – for their unfailing support and faith in me throughout
- the faith reviewers, scholars and other teachers, for their important advice and guidance (special mention must be made of the ever helpful Zameer Hussain, who is fast becoming the official Shi’a voice in the RE world!)
- everyone featured in the case studies, for their invaluable contributions
Crucially, I must also pay tribute to my better half, Wajeeha, and our three beautiful children, Anam, Roshaan and Yusuf, for their remarkable forbearance – and, more importantly, undiminished love – while I slogged (and frequently hid) away during the research and writing for this project.
This experience really opened my eyes to the fascinating world of RE publishing. Personally I have learned so much, from my own detailed exploration of Islam’s tenets and traditions, to the rigorous processes that underpin the printing press. Would I do this all over again? Absolutely. And I would recommend anyone else who similarly has a passion for RE and also loves writing – if they are given the opportunity – to do the same.
Since writing the textbooks, I have had the added privilege of contributing to The Oxford Teacher Handbook for GCSE Islam, and I am also helping to write a new GCSE RS revision guide (details to follow!).
Updates are made to this page.