Burning issues in the RE classroom; morals & the murder Moaz al-Kasasbeh

The sadistic murder of the captured Jordanian fighter pilot is an example of a more general, symptomatic issue related to ISIS, which should be pointed out in classrooms and is useful for staging further enquiry into moral dilemmas.

First of all, specifically related to subject matter of Islam, ISIS claims to be fighting to establish the Sharia (Islamic law). However, killing people by fire is forbidden by the Sharia because of a clear narration (hadith) from the Prophet explicitly forbidding this practice.


Use the following evidence if needed: Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) sent us in a mission (i.e. am army-unit) and said, “If you find so-and-so and so-and-so, burn both of them with fire.” When we intended to depart, Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said, “I have ordered you to burn so-and-so and so-and-so, and it is none but Allah Who punishes with fire, so, if you find them, kill them.” (Source – http://sunnah.com/bukhari/56/225. )

Note to students that Sahih al-Bukhari is one of the so-called “Sacred Six” collections of narrations which, along with the Qur’an, is universally recognised by Sunni Muslims to constitute the textual canon of Islam; a fact which even ISIS would find it impossible to openly deny).

A benefit of showing this hadith in its entirety is that it does not negate the martial aspect of the Prophetic mission, but shows that there are rules to it. The connection here to Europe’s attempts at dealing with the reality of warfare through the Geneva Conventions should be obvious, and exploring the similarities and differences of the two systems would be an interesting way of ‘learning from religion’ while retaining a clear footing in  – and very likely discovering – one’s own intellectual heritage and history.

In relation to the actual event, the first question worth asking in class is how one may reconcile ISIS calling to religious law, while wantonly and publicly breaking it?

I’d choose either Think-Pair-Share or Word-Round for this, depending on the level of the class. With gifted students, Word-Round a 2 minute presentation per student with a 2 minute preparation (and notes to provide written evidence) is preferable.

For the Word-Round, teams should no bigger than four, and make sure listeners take notes. This means 10 minutes in total for four-member teams, i.e. 2 minutes preparation plus 4 students x 2 minutes. A benefit of the timed Word-Round is that 2 minutes mean 2 minutes, not 1 or one-and-a-half. The students need to be on, and on-target, in front of two or three peers taking notes: weak students don’t get away with a single sentence, strong students need to focus all that thinking into a few key points.

Aside from “because they are insane and violent religious fanatics”, it may surface that they are, in a sense, quite rational: The violation of the Sharia serves the purpose of making their enemy desist through terror. And having said this, we have said they have a higher purpose than the Sharia, i.e. their own all too human aims.

This begs the wider question of the classic moral dilemma: “Is evil ok if it serves a higher aim?”, which may then be used as a lead-in to relevant SMSC; use relevant  non-religious parallels, such as rendition and torture to prevent domestic terrorism, the fire-bombing of 25.000 civilians in Dresden to stop Hitler, etc.

Or directly related to the recent incident, discuss white phosphorous ordnance used extensively in Afghanistan and Iraq: “If it’s not ok to burn a single individual to death in a cage to achieve one’s goal, why is it all right to burn 20 to death in their own house?”

Then, moving up a level:

If both religious and non-religious people have their moral compass governed by expediency, what is the difference?”  and/or “Shouldn’t we expect a higher standard from religious people who fear an all-seeing God, than a man who only fears a war crimes trail in the Hague? Why, why not?”

This is where the real meta-level question of the role of religion comes in, which involves both ontology and epistemology, discussed in previous posts on the new role of RE and P4C. See links below.

And finally, more on the level of personal decision and individual responsibility, using an example of western violence against civilians most students should be familiar with: “Do you think that the pilots dropping the atomic bomb that burned 45.000 people to death in Hiroshima  did so with a good intention? What might it have been?” – “Do you think that the ISIS soldiers burning Moaz al-Kasasbeh did so with a good intention? What might it have been?”

Use the 3-way-Interview to draw out reflections among students themselves before discussing in open class and use your monitoring to pick out the best, most toxic or interesting topics for further enquiry. The interview format has the benefit of supporting weaker students through question gambits, allows interactive pursuit of topics, and mirroring of one’s own opinions.

This Cooperative Learning Interaction Pattern is outlined on page 7 of the lesson plan Charlie’s Angels or Sympathy for the Devils… RE Lesson Plan on Paris attacks. Full post and materials here.

For further investigation into Islam, this could also be tied to more general hadith such as “The merciful are shown mercy by the All-Merciful. Have mercy to those on earth, and the Lord of the Heavens will have mercy upon you.” (source link).

Some related links:

ISIS for Secondary RE teachers: A deeper look at Islamist/modernist reform

P4C? No, P4U!

What comes out of the Birmingham “Trojan Horse”? – Critical thinking to go

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werdelin.co.uk is the business end of cooperativelearning.works.

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