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The recent high court ruling upheld the ban on prayer rituals at Michaela Community School in north-west London, deeming it lawful despite challenges raised by a Muslim student. The pupil argued that the ban violated her religious freedoms and discriminated against Muslim students. However, the judge sided with the school, stating that the ban was justified to maintain the institution’s ethos.

Yet, the ban seems to disproportionately impact Muslim students, raising concerns of indirect discrimination under human rights laws. This is particularly evident given the structured nature of Islamic prayer, which includes five prayers per day at specific times. The blanket ban on ritualistic prayer thus appears to target Muslim students more than others, potentially infringing upon their right to manifest their religious beliefs.

The denial of a modest request to engage in prayer at school prompts reflection on the freedom of religious expression within educational settings. This issue can potentially negatively impact the school community’s overall well-being and sense of belonging.

As educators, we are responsible for cultivating an environment that values and accommodates diverse religious beliefs. Students should feel empowered to practice their religion without fear of discrimination.

What is Salat?

Salat (ritual prayer) is the second pillar of practice to be performed as a form of worship. The importance of establishing regular prayer is repeatedly stressed in the Qur’an. There are many verses in the Qur’an which instruct every Muslim to uphold the ritual prayer, such as:

“Surely the ritual prayer at fixed hours (of the day and night) has been enjoined upon the believers.” (Qur’an 4:103).

And be steadfast in prayer; practice regular charity; and bow down your heads with those who bow down (in worship). (Qur’an 2: 43)

Guard strictly your (habit) of prayers, especially the middle prayer, and stand before God in a devout (frame of mind).
(Qur’an 2:238)

Several points need to be emphasised with regard to salat.

Firstly, ritual prayer is obligatory, not voluntary. Secondly, ritual prayer is primarily a prayer of worship and is not a prayer of supplication or of personal communication, which is called supplication (Dua), although as such, it takes a set form. Fourthly, there are five set times every day at which the ritual prayer must be said. In what follows, these points are briefly discussed.

(1) The ritual prayer is obligatory for every Muslim who has reached 10 years of age. However, there are certain exceptions to and modifications of this rule. Without going into in-depth, explanatory detail, it is noted that some are excused from, and in some cases exempted from, performing the ritual prayer.

These include the feeble-minded, the mentally insane, and those in certain states of ritual impurity (e.g., menstruating women, post-partum women, etc.)

(2) The ritual prayer is a prayer of worship. It is an act of worshipping God. For Christians, who are used to conceptualising prayer as a time of personal communication with the deity, ritual prayer may seem somewhat impersonal and lacking in personal gratification. In this regard, it must be re-emphasised that the ritual prayer is an obligatory act of worshipping God. However, it is not a substitute for personal communication with God, nor is it a replacement for supplicating to God. Such personal communication and supplication is known in Islam as supplication (Dua), and can be made at any time of the day or night.

(3) The ritual prayer is mandated for all Muslims five times daily. The Fajr prayer is to be said after dawn and before sunrise and consists of two units. Dhuhur is said just after true noon and consists of four units. Asr is said just after halfway between true noon and sun-set and consists of four units.

Maghrib is said just after sunset and consists of three units. ‘Isha is said after the true darkness of night begins and consists of four units. These five ritual prayers are obligatory and mandatory.

(4) It is preferable that the ritual prayer be performed in the mosque’s congregation (especially true for the Friday noon prayer). But the daily ritual prayer can be offered anywhere—work, school, park—as long as there is a place.

(5) Ritual prayer, performed five times a day at designated intervals, serves as a powerful tool for students to cultivate discipline, inner peace, and mental clarity:

A) One of the most striking benefits of ritual prayer is its ability to instill discipline in students’ lives. Students learn the importance of consistency and time management by adhering to the structured prayer schedule. This regularity in performing the ritual prayer fosters a sense of accountability and responsibility, essential for academic success and beyond.

B) The ritual prayer is a gateway to inner peace and calmness amid academic stressors. Engaging in prayer allows students to disconnect momentarily from their surroundings’ external pressures and distractions. Through rhythmic movements and mindful recitations, ritual prayer creates a sacred space for students to center themselves, promoting relaxation and reducing anxiety.

C) Ritual prayer has profound psychological benefits. Engaging in regular prayer practices, such as ritual prayer, can have positive effects on mental health, including reducing psychological problems and developing resilience. The structured nature of ritual prayer gives students a sense of purpose and meaning, offering solace during emotional turmoil.

D) Ritual prayer enhances students’ focus and concentration on their academic endeavours. The mindful engagement required during prayer cultivates cognitive skills such as attention control and task-switching, improving academic performance. By training the mind to block distractions and maintain concentration, salah is a valuable tool for enhancing learning and retention.

E) Despite its brief duration, each session of ritual prayer serves as a moment of mindfulness and introspection for students. The brevity of prayer makes it easily accessible, allowing students to integrate moments of spiritual connection into their daily routines without disrupting their schedules.

(6) In Islam, ritual prayer, as mentioned, holds a central place as a means of spiritual connection and devotion. Performing it at designated times throughout the day is fundamental to the Muslim faith and practice. However, there are instances where one may miss a prayer due to various circumstances, leading to the concept of Qada or making up missed prayers.

Qada refers to performing a missed prayer later when circumstances allow. For example, if someone oversleeps and misses the Fajr (dawn) prayer, they are expected to perform it as soon as they wake up and realise they missed it. This principle underscores the importance of fulfilling one’s religious obligations in a timely manner.

However, Qada is not applicable in some situations, particularly when there is an opportunity to perform the ritual prayer within its designated time frame. For instance, during school hours, there would normally be one ritual prayer mandated by religious practice: the noon prayer. This can be done during the lunch break (students’ free time) and would take around 5–10 minutes maximum, and as such, they are expected to perform the prayer at that time rather than delaying it.

This school ruling highlights a significant challenge to human rights principles, particularly the right to manifest one’s religion.

International and domestic human rights legislation guarantees freedom of religious practice, yet the ban on prayer rituals at Michaela Community School appears to undermine this fundamental right. The potential of the ban to foster a culture of discrimination and intolerance within the education system is deeply concerning.

The Education Reform Act of 1988 reaffirmed the necessity of a daily act of collective worship for all schools, while subsequent Education Acts have modified this requirement. Department for Education Circular 1/94, issued in 1994, offers comprehensive guidance to schools and SACREs on fulfilling this obligation. According to the law, schools must ensure that all pupils and students up to 19 are entitled to a daily act of collective worship.

Across the nation, children enthusiastically participate in various religious-based activities, from singing hymns and performing nativity plays to attending assemblies centred around festivals like Diwali and Hanukkah.

The targeting or banning of Muslim ritual prayer appears to contradict the guidelines for schools to fulfil a provision that is a legal requirement in the UK.

In diverse educational settings, it’s vital for schools to embrace and respect the religious beliefs of their Muslim students. Schools should consider providing quiet spaces during break times, away from public sight, where Muslim students can comfortably perform their prayers.

Schools should acknowledge and respect the sensitivities of Muslim students regarding religious acts of worship.

The BBSI recommends that the school reconsider its decision and cultivate a more inclusive environment where Muslim children feel they can freely express their religious beliefs without fear of being targeted.

The BBSI encourages Muslim parents and community members to collaborate with school leaders to advocate for inclusive policies and engage in dialogue to foster understanding. Educating the school community about Islam’s practices and traditions helps dispel misconceptions, while open communication channels ensure schools effectively address the needs of their diverse student body.