by Prof. Sophie Gilliat-Ray
Director, Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK
It is with great sadness and a sense of real loss that we are recording the death of Dr Bill Gent (2nd May, 2020). He was a true friend of the Islam-UK Centre, supporting its community of scholarship and its many projects and activities for well over a decade. I had the privilege of first meeting Bill when I examined his EdD from the University of Warwick in 2006. His doctoral work was the culmination of his many years in professional education, as a secondary school teacher in Birmingham for 11 years, and then 20 years as a local authority advisor and inspector in London. Since completing his professional doctorate – something of a ‘retirement project’ – he was actively engaged in research, writing, and editing, not only in the UK, but also overseas. He remained energetic, productive, and enthusiastic about his professional work, until the COVID-19 virus left him unable to fight his other underlying illness.
His doctoral thesis explored the world of a hifz (memorisation of the Qur’an) class at a mosque in Redbridge, London. As a result of his sensitive ethnographic methods, his depiction of the rigours and outcomes of becoming a hafiz was outstanding. He brought light and clarity to an educational and religious world that is poorly understood by many. The very fact that he was able to secure access to his field site is a reflection of the kind of human being he was – gentle, thoughtful, collaborative, generous, empathic, and immensely respectful.
Although Bill’s research was undertaken some years ago now, there is a timelessness to his findings. This is partly due to the nature and historicity of the institution he explored. The practice of memorisation of the Qur’an stretches back to the very earliest days of Islam and will undoubtedly continue to be an intrinsic and fundamental dimension of Muslim religious life into the future. Grounding his study within an appreciation of this tradition, and yet exploring it through the methods of current social scientific research, enabled researchers to understand an historic practice in its contemporary guise.
Many educationalists disparage the practice of memorisation or ‘learning by rote’. But Bill gave us an opportunity to understand memorisation within religious communities as being more to do with ‘learning by heart’. This has an entirely different connotation, and speaks to the way that those who have acquired the title ‘hafiz’ often feel a profound sense of responsibility to reflect the religious virtues inherent in the texts they have come to embody through years of dedication and self-discipline. Bill’s ability to recognise and value the crucial difference between ‘learning by rote’ and ‘learning by heart’ reflects not just his academic insight, but the fact he was himself a person ‘of good heart’ and utter sincerity. Via his post-doctoral publications, my students were able to appreciate ethnographic practice at its best; his work is compulsory reading for students on our MA ‘Islam in Contemporary Britain’ programme.
Bill’s depiction of a British Muslim educational world was more than just an academic accomplishment. It reflected the work of a scholar and human being who had the rare ability to wholeheartedly appreciate and depict a religious worldview quite different from his own. For us at the Islam-UK Centre in Cardiff University, his work will continue to remain a ‘model’ for how to conduct research with and for Muslim communities in Britain, with integrity and a commitment to human flourishing.
When Bill joined us for our public seminar series in 2009, we also recorded a brief interview with him, led by Asma Khan – now a successful Jameel PhD Scholar graduate and Honorary Research Fellow with the Centre and Research Associate with the University of Sheffield. Here, Bill speaks personally about his journey into the topic from the standpoint of an RE teacher. (NB: Our video technology and editing has moved on significantly in the past eleven years, so please watch these archival videos with this in mind.)