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  You are in: Home > Biography > Cole Sahib  

Cole Sahib
The Story of a Multifaith Journey

W. Owen Cole

W. Owen Cole’s teaching career began in 1954 and has continued into the twenty-first century, a period of considerable social change but, in his opinion one of too little educational response. In England he has taught at all stages of education from primary schools to university and in India at universities. His principal interest has been in teacher training. His life has been one of opportunities gratefully received. Readers are encouraged to share his journey and pursue their own. All that is needed is vision, empathy and a willingness to accept the unexpected.


Owen Cole has taught at all stages of education from primary school to university. He began his teaching career as a very conventional Christian supporting the daily act of collective worship punctiliously and arguing with head teachers who did not observe the requirement that they were breaking the law. The content of Religious Education (RE) was Christian and its purpose to persuade children of its truth if not to convert them.

His dogmatic approach changed radically in the light of experience. The author is now of the firm opinion of a need to be pragmatic. He would abolish school worship whilst opening up RE further to a broad study of beliefs and values with the aim of enabling pupils to become religiate, in the same way that they should be literate and numerate. Schools should be places where diversity of culture and belief can be explored and celebrated.

Although religion is at the core of Owen Cole's journey it is clear that he believes that since the end of empire Britain has lacked vision and the religious and political classes are still clinging to the world of yesterday rather than recognising, embracing and cherishing our multifaith society. The year 1945, which saw the beginning of the end of empire, is far away and fast receding but parliament and the churches still behave as though it lies in the future. They give little place or attention to other faiths in Britain's national life, treating them often as guests who they wish would soon go home, even though their members are third generation citizens at least, or as children who should be seen but not heard at most of the national events to which they are invited. This tokenism is unacceptable and dangerous as it can result in alienation, especially of the young. A social and spiritual revolution is required. What is true of Britain is equally applicable to the rest of the West if humanity is globally to become a species worthy of its creator and of survival. We must also reconsider our views on the authenticity of other religions.

Owen Cole's journey has led to him being an interfaith consultant to Archbishop Runcie, visiting Pakistan, India, Canada, the USA and Australia, sharing the hospitality of people of faith in the UK and abroad, to being a founder member of the influential Shap Working Party on World Religions in Education, and also serving on many national and interfaith committees.

Foreword by Charanjit K. Ajit Singh

1 Setting Out
2 Getting There
3 National Service and Beyond
4 Harlow
5 Newcastle
6 Leeds
7 Setting foot in the Subcontinent
8 Pakistan
9 Back to India
10 Return to Leeds
11 Chichester
12 India Revisited
13 Patiala
14 Return to Chichester
15 At End Is My Beginning


“I have found Dr Cole’s journey immensely fascinating as a man of faith, showing us how he has done it while being faithful to his own and with deep respect for the other, a true witness to interfaith. I strongly hope that other readers also find his journey of spiritual fellowship as transformational as I have found it to be for me.” Charanjit K. Ajit Singh, author of The Wisdom of Sikhism

“What comes across strikingly is the unswerving faithfulness to his background and to his guiding insights. It is expressed over and over again in meeting creatively the challenges of changing circumstances and it is this that will inspire readers. Owen remains a ‘Bradford nonconformist’, whether embracing Anglicanism or Quakerism (like Paul Oestreicher and Terry Waite he embraces both), and one whose commitment is to respecting and nurturing the cultures and consciences of all. Owen’s accounts of initiatives and issues among Black, Sikh, Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish communities in Leeds are illuminating. So are his observations, such as: ‘Diversity is something to which most religions claim to aspire, but I have found that those who speak in favour of it have most difficulty when it comes to members of one’s own tradition or who are akin to it.’ Thus, as he points out, Christians can be affirming of Muslims and Jews, while being disparaging about Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so on.

The Yorkshire Welshman, Owen Cole, is a gifted communicator, with a direct, pithy style. In Cole Sahib readers of the Friend will find many resonances with their own journeys, as well as new perspectives and insights. The narrative resounds with Owen Cole’s hatred of class-based snobbery, with his championing of minorities and his faith in God’s love, and it is amply seasoned by humour and a delight in ongoing discovery.” The Friend

“This remarkable book, based on intensive first hand teaching experience – from primary school to the university level – is about the evolution of Religious Education (RE) in an increasingly multifaith Britain over the last 50 years. It gives significant policy guidance regarding the future direction of RE.

The author, Dr W. Owen Cole has been a much respected figure in multifaith education circles. He is a strong believer in teaching religion as a ‘broad study of beliefs and values’ so that by the time the student has completed education he or she is not only ‘literate and numerate’ but also ‘religiate’. He has written many well researched books and, even after retirement from service, continues to be an authoritative commentator and adviser on RE issues.
A most useful and thought-provoking publication for those interested in Religious Education in schools, for interfaith representatives and for policy makers in the field of multifaith education.” The Sikh Reviewp

“A venerable teacher in religious education, Cole has commented widely on multi-faith issues and practice and on Sikhism. He takes this opportunity in the window between retirement and failing health to write his memoirs. Beginning with his birth in Sheffield, England in 1931, he shares memories of national service and beyond, Newcastle, Leeds, Pakistan, back to India, back to Leeds, Chichester, back to India again, Paiala, and back to Chichester to wait for his life to catch up.” Reference & Research Book News

“It has been recognised, perhaps uniquely in the school curriculum, that the teaching of RE may lead to profound personal reflection and potentially life-transforming experiences. This was particularly true of the generation of RE professionals who lived through the revolution in attitudes to RE which began around the late 1960s and continued for the next 40 years.

Owen Cole is of that generation, and his personal memoir is timely. …The story of how he progressed from these beginnings to become a renowned scholar of Sikhism, widely respected and loved within the international Sikh community, can hardly fail to fascinate. Although best known for his expertise in Sikhism, Cole was active in promoting multifaith RE (he was a founder member of Shap) and in interfaith initiatives in Leeds and elsewhere, with friends among all the major faiths and humanists and atheists too. … What emerges very strongly is his absolute commitment to respecting others, whether as a member of another faith or the least able pupil in the school…. RE teachers may find this book fascinating because of the insights it gives them into what the pioneers of modern RE went through to achieve what they did.” RE Today

p“Life experience can change one’s vision and beliefs, even those held dogmatically. Such is the life of Cole, as depicted in this autobiography. He is a religious educator who is highly traditional in his views, and this is his story of the pilgrimage that takes him from his native England to the Asian subcontinent, where he eventually spent much time in India forming deep relationships and gaining invaluable insights.

His traditional view of religion began to expand as he embraced the breadth of interfaith experiences. This growth includes his understanding of “religious education,” which he ultimately defines as “the study of belief and values, many of which will be religious but which will also include Humanism and Atheism” (p. 179). He became an expert in Sikhism and so respected – thus the use of the appellation “Sahib” – that he contributed to the Encyclopedia of Sikhism.

The final chapter at last communicates the effects of his experiences and his evolution as a religious educator. His forward-looking insights sum up well his beliefs and his commitment to English interfaith religious education. Some of his conclusions are not new; some are brilliant, while others are quite arguable, from an academic, spiritual, and exegetical point of view. However, he does communicate openness to the nonexclusivist religious perspective. His insights are of value on a universal level but, methodologically, will be hard to implement except in an English education al context.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies


Publication Details

Paperback ISBN:
Page Extent / Format:
224 pp. / 228 x 152 mm
Release Date:
July 2009
  Illustrated:   No
Paperback Price:
£16.95 / $29.95

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