Teaching students about Islam at Cliff College

An interview with Cliff College’s Aaron Edwards

Solas; So, Aaron – introduce yourself to our readers!

AE: Hi, I’m Dr. Aaron Edwards, and I’m the MA Programme Leader; Lecturer in Theology, Preaching, and Mission at Cliff College in Derbyshire, and also the course designer/leader for the MRP3 module

Solas: What’s the MRP3 module?, and how does it work?

AE: MRP3 is a postgrad MA module called “Mission and Islamic Contexts” – and it’s this module that Solas has been involved in delivering.

The MA in Mission at Cliff College has around 90 students, and offers a broad range of over twenty different taught module options for our postgraduate students. Students need to choose just four modules plus a dissertation in order to complete all their credits for the MA, and usually students find it a difficult choice. MRP3 is more of a ‘niche’ module because it’s a more specialised topic than, say, ‘evangelism’ or ‘biblical theology’ or ‘mentoring’ but I was pleased that on this first run, 5 of our MA students took the module for credit, and a further 4 students came to ‘audit’ the module (which means sitting-in-on the teaching); so we had 9 in total, which is about average for a postgraduate cohort.

Solas: Why did you develop a module on this topic?

I’ve always had a keen interest in reaching Muslims, having had various contact with Muslims in different places over the last fifteen years. I’ve also spoken to many pastors and church ministry workers in urban areas of the UK who simply don’t have any idea how to think about reaching the growing Muslim populations in their neighbourhoods; so I made it a matter of urgency to design a course that would facilitate a way for Christians to both understand and engage with Muslims more effectively.

Solas: And you invited Andy Bannister from Solas to teach the course?

AE: Well, I first heard Andy speak on this topic at Keswick in 2017 and was very impressed by his heart for evangelism among Muslim people, his incredible knowledge of the subject, and his lived-out examples of engaging with them. Knowing he does so from a distinctly Evangelical perspective was also very important, as there are obviously many in the academic world engaged in inter-faith dialogue in unhelpful or confusing ways that don’t do a lot of good. I also signed up to the Solas newsletter and have since been further impressed with the work Solas are doing in engaging culture with rigorous, compelling evangelism and apologetics. So I was delighted to be able to bring Andy here to be our main speaker for the week. I anticipated there might be issues getting the unit approved by the University of Manchester, given the potentially controversial nature of the topic. However, knowing that Andy had a PhD in Quranic Studies was particularly helpful on that front as it showed we weren’t just trying to shoehorn an unreflective evangelistic approach into a postgraduate course, but that we had someone of real academic and practical expertise here. I honestly can’t imagine a more ideal speaker than Andy for this course.

Solas: Any surprises or highlights from the week?

AE: On the first night of any MA week, my wife and I invite everyone to our home for a meal, which my four young children particularly enjoy [!], as do the students. It’s a great way to break the ice. Anyone who might be feeling nervous or out of their depth on the first day here doesn’t usually feel that way for long when confronted by various toddlers serving you drinks, or asking you to read them stories, sing songs, whilst they carefully ask your opinion on each and every one of their favourite toys!

As expected, though it was an intense week! The students engaged really well with the content and found it incredibly stimulating theologically, pastorally and missionally. Many of them have said it has been their favourite unit on the programme so far, and have getting other students to sign up for it, within and beyond the college!

We had some lively – and often controversial – discussions around the clash of western and Islamic cultures, particularly the ways in which the western church has acclimatised to secular culture in ways that might actually make evangelism to Muslims more difficult (such as lax attitudes to Scripture, doctrine, prayer, modesty, etc.). Some students were discussing these ideas in order to prepare for a 6,000 word essay for the module – alongside others who were there just because they live on majority-Muslim urban housing estates and are trying to find ways to better connect with their neighbours.

I also led a text seminar on Dan Strange’s excellent book, ‘For Their Rock is Not Our Rock’ (IVP, 2014). It was a fairly challenging read, not what you’d call a page-turner! (…and I’m sure some of the students haven’t quite forgiven me yet for making them wade all the way through it!) but it was full of fascinating insights and led into some really rich discussions. By the end of the seminar most of the students were surprised just how much they had benefited from getting their teeth into some really important biblical, theological, and missiological issues that relate not just to Islam, but how we conceive of and engage with other non-Christian religions too, in light of the overarching themes of Scripture and God’s providence in history.

Having Andy McCullough here, with his cross-cultural church-planting experience, was a great way to break up the week (and perhaps gave everyone some brief respite from Andy Bannister’s puns!). Andy McCullough shared and reflected upon some incredible stories of what God did to open doors for them in Muslim communities. Though we often hear such stories of God using dreams, prophetic words, and incredible coincidences to bring people to faith, hearing about them never gets boring! It serves as an incredible reminder of the remarkable things God does with people out there on the front line, trusting Him in ambiguous or downright intimidating situations. He is always faithful, often in the most surprising ways.

Solas: What do you hope that students will have gained from the course?

Students will have gained not only from the expert teaching on the history and beliefs of Islam, and the theological reflection on mission in Islamic contexts, but they will also have been inspired to find ways to engage with Muslims in and around their own UK communities. Academically, of course many will have gained course credits, as well as personal theological development and been provided with a gateway into further study and a wealth of further resources to explore.

Solas: How will Cliff College and Solas be working together in the future?

AE: The ending to Casablanca comes to mind… ‘I think this is a start of a beautiful relationship!’ As I said, I’ve been very impressed with all that Solas have been doing over the years, and having now spent some good time with Andy whilst he was down here recently (which included sitting in a teashop window putting the world to rights over a Bakewell pudding!) I’m confident we’ll be able to partner together in various ways going forward.

One concrete way we’re hoping to do this will be co-hosting one of the Solas Confident Christianity conferences in Sheffield next year. We’re currently working out the details of that at the moment, but it would be a way to serve and equip the local churches in the area of apologetics and mission, whilst also acting as a kind of ‘taster’ promo for the MRP3 course. We were originally going to run the unit every 2 years but such has been the interest in it that we expect that numbers will increase next year and we’ll be having to turn people away…

Given that the DNA of Cliff College has always been evangelism and mission, I can envisage many other opportunities in which we might collaborate in other ways in future too, whether on our validated courses, short courses, or other outreach-oriented events. Watch this space… and Keep up the good work, TeamSolas! Soli Deo Gloria!

Solas: Thanks Aaron!

Cliff College has been providing Biblical and theological training for mission and evangelism since 1883.