Catholic school puts Muslim pupils in isolation for growing beards, says there is ‘nothing in the Qur’an’ to justify this practice

Mount Carmel High SchoolTwo Muslim teenagers at a Roman Catholic school have been banned from lessons for refusing to shave off their beards.

The 14-year-olds have been in “isolation” at Mount Carmel High School in Accrington for almost a month, the school confirmed. It means they have not been allowed to join normal classes since the start of term, despite claiming they could not remove their facial hair on religious grounds. And they will not be allowed to go back until the matter is resolved.

The school said the rule was part of the schools’ dress code but a relative of one of the boys said it was “pure discrimination”.

Xavier Bowers, headteacher at the Wordsworth Road school, said governors had decided no exceptions could be made to the uniform policy which also prohibits false nails, fake tan, make-up, dyed hair and inappropriate jewellery.

The relative, who did not want to be named said: “Because these boys cannot shave their beards for religious reasons, they are being put in isolation for six-and-a-half hours every day.

“They are not being allowed to mix with anybody or speak to friends. It is pure discrimination. They chose that school because it is within their area and has good results. The school has to have an open policy and they have to take in people from all religions.”

According to a relative of one of the boys, the youngsters were put in a room on their own and made to study without the rest of their classmates. She said their parents sent the school a letter of complaint explaining they could not shave as their beards were symbols of their faith. The letter has since been retracted to allow for talks between the families, teachers and the Lancashire Council of Mosques, due to take place today, the relative said.

Mr Bowers said the rule had been in place for a while, but began to be strictly enforced at the beginning of the new term after letters explaining there would be no exceptions were sent out. He said:

“The rule in school is that all boys have to be clean shaven. Having said that, there were two year 11 boys last year who had grown a beard and because it was months or weeks before their GCSE exams, I spoke to the two boys, who explained that on religious grounds, they wanted to keep their beards. I felt it was an unfair pressure to put on them and I agreed to an exception.

“On the back of that, I made arrangements to speak to a number of other Asian boys who were also sporting beards to make them aware there would not be any further exceptions and, when they came back after the summer, they were expected to be clean shaven. All but two did.

“Children who turn up to school with red hair, inappropriate jewellery, false tan or make-up are isolated in a room until the matter is addressed and then they return to their normal day. These boys were given the option to do that and chose not to.”

According to a BBC report, Professor Muhammad Abdel Haleem, of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, said the matter of whether beards were compulsory for devout Muslims was open to interpretation. He said the Prophet Muhammad was believed to have had a beard and that men insisting on doing the same claimed they were emulating his actions. Many Muslim scholars now do not see the beard as compulsory and choose to shave.

Mr Bowers said the issue was not one of religion, but of upholding school rules. He said: “We have not taken this decision lightly. I have spent quite a lot of time researching the issue and speaking to Muslim elders. There is nothing specifically written in the Koran about wearing a beard. It is a choice those boys are making. However inclusive we are, we have standards to maintain.”

Chairman of governors Dennis Ford said: “The decision to uphold the rule was made by governors and it is a rule for everybody.”

Abdul Hamid Quereshi, chairman of the Lancashire Council of Mosques said: “The headteacher is co-operating and the school wants to learn about the issue and address them appropriately. Different people have different variations of understanding. Some are newly interacting with the Muslim community and it is our duty not to put people in awkward positions.”

Blackburn Citizen, 3 October 2013

See also Daily Mail, 3 October 2013

That a Catholic headteacher should think he is in a position to rule on what Muslims believe their faith requires of them shows a staggering degree of arrogance. The fact that the Qur’an does not specifically mandate the wearing of beards and many Muslims don’t accept that it is a necessary part of their faith is irrelevant. There is nothing in the bible prohibiting the use of contraception, and most Christian denominations these days don’t accept the view that renouncing artificial birth control is a requirement of their faith. This hasn’t prevented the Catholic Church from upholding a ban on contraception.