Working in Muslim Schools
By Yahiya Emerick
(Appeared in Religion and Education Journal, 1997)
It isn't easy to bridge two cultures. Sometimes pressure to conform to one leads to unqualified acceptance of the other. In most cases immigrant parents may accept that their child will inevitably follow the values of the wider society. After all, if the parents really cared about preserving an ethnic culture they wouldn't have left their country of origin to begin with. Thus we see cultural assimilation as a fact of life for those living in dominant cultures other than what they were raised in.
If we are talking about mere cultural and ethnic differences, however, few people will raise an eyebrow if one form of food or dress is favored over another. But there is another level which many people connect with their basic identity. It is not so easily given up nor is it taken lightly if a person's child rejects it. That higher level is religious and ideological orientation. Parents will fight harder to keep their child in the same spiritual tradition than in influencing the types of clothes they wear or the language they speak. This is another inevitability.
Any group of people who claim a spiritual tradition use that as one of the strongest ingredients for their sense of identity and place in the world. However, not every member of a religious community necessarily practices the tenets of their faith as much as they purport. For some, religion is something to rely upon in times of stress or upheaval. Others are consistent throughout in their faithfulness to their way of life. In this respect, the Muslim community is in much the same position as the Christian, Hindu or Jewish communities. There is a wide variance of religiosity within the veneer of group identity.
The last ten years have seen a virtual explosion in the growth and numbers of so-called "Islamic" schools in North America. (I use the term so-called to highlight the fact that the definition of what makes a school "Islamic" is still evolving.) Even conservative observers have been amazed at the seeming strength and vitality of this recent trend. On average, about ten new schools are being established every year with Islam as their raison d' etre. This is indeed a very significant phenomenon given that in almost all Muslim countries, the topic of Islam is either banned from public education or treated in a very rudimentary manner by secular-minded teachers who have a mandate from the state to deride Islam and make it appear foolish. In many so-called "Muslim" countries, even Islamic styles of dress are banned. (This would be the equivalent of banning crosses in America or yarmulkes in Israel.)
It seems that a good number of those involved in building Mosques and Muslim schools in this country come from quite secular, non-religious backgrounds in their home countries. What is the reason for this strange paradigm? How has living in the most secular nation in the world sparked such a tremendous spiritual revival among people who would have opposed Islamic education had they still been living in their countries of origin? This question will find its answer throughout this paper as we explore the need for Muslims to have a comprehensive education based on Islamic themes as well as the current experience and condition of the "Islamic" schools in North America.
People often describe their belief system as a way of life. This is also claimed by Muslims when speaking about the relationship between Islam and daily living. (Qur'an 2:143) Unlike Christianity which has splintered into many competing theological traditions, the Muslim community has conformity among its basic beliefs and teachings, the political-oriented Sunni/Shia debacle not withstanding. Also, unlike Christianity, which hasn't played any serious role in national politics since the Enlightenment, Islam, as a potent symbol at least, enjoyed political ascendancy well into this century, even as it is still a major issue in today's politics in Muslim countries. Therefore, the Muslim community has not been separated from Islam in the same manner as the Church/State divide has done.
The relationship of a practicing Muslim to Islam could be seen as more personal than say a Hindu to Hinduism or a Catholic to Catholicism. A Western writer, Bertrand Russell, once remarked, "There may be numerically more Christians in the world than Muslims, but the number of Muslims who practice their religion is far greater than that of Christians who do." The believing Muslim is required to perform regular rituals every day such as Prayer, Charity and other acts of devotion. Annual events such as the fasting of Ramadan and the Pilgrimage to Mecca provide other connections to the life of faith as well. In addition, Islamic holidays have not been transformed into a few commercial child-oriented traditions. There are no symbolic diversions such as the Easter Bunny, Valentine's Cherub or Santa Clause in any Islamic holidays or events. Therefore, even holidays promote the undivided awareness of spirituality.
Perhaps it is for this reason that secular-oriented people in Muslim countries have tried so hard to suppress Islamic growth and awareness. Islam bans alcohol, drugs, injustice, pre-marital relations and poor personal manners while encouraging abstinence, prayer, humility and spiritualism. That is hardly appealing to people who like to "have fun" or live "the good life." The natural trend of Islam is towards influencing all aspects of society to conform to the teachings of the Qur'an. Thus secular, worldly-oriented "Muslims" are the first to try and stifle Islam. In Turkey, for example, schools teaching the Qur'an are all but banned (the military made that announcement in June of 1997) and in Egypt, the Shari'ah, or Islamic legal code, has never been implemented despite decades of talk and promises. How is it then that otherwise secular people immigrating to the United States are becoming "religious" and wanting to establish schools and Mosques?
Freedom is a curious thing. In an oppressive society, people tend to keep their mouths shut and their eyes closed. In this way they hope the strong arm of the government will leave them alone. If the government of Syria or Algeria, for instance, suppresses Islamic democracy and Muslim concerns, few will challenge them because of the brutal consequences. Hence people, for the most part, grow up without much Islamic awareness. A citizen of such a country will tend to base his or her identity and sense of self on an ethnic feeling or on nationalism, which is quite common in the modern world. Islam, on the other hand, is the antithesis of racism (Qur'an 49:13) or nationalism. (The Prophet Muhammad forbade people from calling on Asabiyya, or Tribalism, in their dealings with others.)
Thus, for those who are interested in seriously passing the teachings of Islam on to the next generation, a secular education will not suffice. Islam has a world-view that is global in nature. It promotes a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood in humanity. (Qur'an 2:213) Islam teaches that all people are equal and that race, wealth, status, gender and ethnicity have no basis in comparing one person to another. Rather, the underlying principle of Islam is that only those who have the best Taqwa (spiritual orientation) are superior in God's sight. To facilitate the growth of this spiritualism in humanity, God has raised up Prophets at various times and at various places to teach people to revere their Lord. If a Prophet's teachings were lost or corrupted through the ages, then God would send a new Prophet later on. Every nation from the Aztecs and Jews to the Chinese and Bantu received Prophets. The last Prophet to the world was Muhammad, whose message would be protected from man's alterations until the Day of Judgment.
In addition, Islam, as a system, encompasses political, economic and social dictates. Even a cursory study of the life of the Prophet Muhammad shows that his entire motivation was towards societal improvement based on accepting God's guidance as revealed in the Qur'an. (Qur'an 30:30) This ideology cannot be passed on by merely producing more children. It must be taught, understood and practiced. Hence the need for a school grounded in Islam is the only alternative many Muslims in America are seeking. Contrary to the modern view of religious affiliation where people are considered to be affiliated with the religious tradition that is historically prevalent in the land of their birth or in their ethnic group, whether they know anything about their religion or not, Islam demands a minimum level of knowledge and practice for one to be able to identify with it.
Those people who immigrated to the United States from the Muslim world, like many other immigrants, came to America to attain the American Dream. The latest wave of immigration from the Muslim world began in the middle Sixties and is only now tapering off according to immigration statistics compiled by the Department of Immigration and Naturalization. A very large percentage of these Muslims have entered professional careers which encompass medicine, business, science, education, etc... Many have achieved a standard of living that is far beyond what they could have attained in their old countries.
It is often true that success breeds a sense of ease, but easy living also gives time for one to think. The immigrants who followed a financial dream and achieved it, for instance became settled enough in their lifestyles to begin to seek another type of affiliation, one rooted in a civic or religious identity. This is a natural inclination, especially the older one gets, as evidenced by the typical attendance patterns prevalent in any religious service.. Thus in the Seventies and Eighties many Muslim groups sought to build for themselves the type of structures that other Americans had: Christians had Churches; Jews had Synagogues, etc... The immigrants, recalling what structures they remembered from their old countries, naturally wanted Mosques. It would be "their" place to get married in, to have parties in and to gather in for camaraderie as expressed in either ethnic or spiritual ways or both.
To date there are over twelve hundred Mosques in America alone, according to statistics compiled by the Muslim Students' Association and dozens more are built every year. That being accomplished, many immigrants began to rediscover their roots and gain a greater appreciation for Islamic spirituality and values. For the most part, the core-values of all religions are similar and people often see that there is much wisdom there. (See Carl G. Jung, "Man and His Symbols.") In the case of Islam, the values are encompassed in the Qur'an, (the revelation from God,) and in the Sunnah (lifestyle and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as documented in his collected sayings.).
Another phenomenon also accompanied this rise of new Islamic awareness. Large numbers of African Americans were leaving Christianity and converting to Islam. These new converts added a dynamism and sense of urgency to Islamic growth that hasn't been seen in centuries. Immigrant Muslims began to see people who chose Islam and thus their own sense of Islam's worth began to peak. This brought a new realization in the minds of many Muslim parents which has given rise to the impetus to build separate schools dedicated to Islamically-oriented education.
Middle-aged Muslim parents, who became Mosque-going and religious in the sense of being practicing believers began to notice something very alarming. They had, like all other immigrants before them, taken for granted the fact that their children wouldn't follow the cultural customs of the old country. But what many parents in the Eighties found, much to their horror, was that their teenage children were not only devoid of Islamic knowledge, but that they actually rejected any Islamic identity and preferred to live as non-Muslims in their values, motivations and habits. If the family lived in the city, the children imitated urban youth culture. If the home was in the suburbs, the children were cool boys and society girls. Their children were dating, wearing revealing clothes, drinking or taking drugs and generally followed the negative cultural habits that modern society is guilty of promoting. They were everything but Muslims.
Thus, from the late Eighties until today, millions of dollars have been spent by parents and community organizations to try and get their wayward children into Islam. I intentionally did not say "back into" Islam because in most cases, the parents honestly failed to teach their children the beliefs, practices and values of Islam. Their children were never Muslims in the full sense of the word to begin with. As I have taught in full-time Muslim schools, Sunday schools, summer schools and youth camps for almost eight years now I have personally witnessed this phenomenon. Now many new parents, seeing the spiritual carnage wrought in the older children of their fellow community members, are vowing to put their children from the start in Islamic schools.
Muslims, as evidenced by a surge of articles in Islamic magazines, often lament that there is literally an entire generation of kids lost to Islam and enamored of the wealth-driven, fast-paced modern spiritually-barren lifestyle. Muslim parents are, of course, joined in their lament by parents from other faiths as well. Thus in the mid-Eighties, large numbers of Muslim parents began enrolling their children in Sister Clara Muhammad schools. These were the schools set up by African-American Muslims in the Seventies and Eighties as part of the whole program of separate education promoted by the then, Nation of Islam. Many people outside of the Nation of Islam, who knew the spiritual damage that a public (in many peoples' minds read: anti-values or permissive) school education would do to their children's identity, also supported these schools..
But these schools were not in every area and were often located in inner cities, thus lacking appeal for many immigrant Muslims, especially of the professional class. The next great phase of school building began in the late Eighties and continues to this day in which large numbers of Muslim professionals and religious leaders are banding together to start school projects. In some cases, a local Mosque would start a school, much like a Catholic Church might do. In other cases, schools were started independent of any religious organization. I have personally compiled a list of nearly one hundred and fifty schools which have opened in the last two to ten years.
Most of these new, immigrant sponsored schools have had a very humble beginning. Some began in houses while others as rented space in Mosques. A few had good funding from their inception and had the good fortune to start off with adequate facilities. The fail or success window for Muslim schools seems to be about five years. Almost all of these schools are totally dependent on student tuition. In the beginning of such school projects, local Muslim families are often resistant to send their children to the Muslim schools feeling that the level of education is low. Thus many schools seem perpetually in the red in their first few years. Ironically, after the parents lose their children from Islam they become more interested in the Islamic schools. There are countless inquiries in Islamic schools' offices about Islamic High Schools. But of course, because of lack of funding and support to begin with, most schools never get above sixth or eighth grade.
Salaries paid to teachers are extremely low. The starting yearly wage at the average school is between 10,000 and 18,000 dollars. Realistically, after taxes, this income is really not much to live on. Thus only those who can't find a job somewhere else are likely to apply, save the few stalwart activists (like myself) who dream of sacrificing in the cause of God and saving the next generation. Thus it is true, with the exception of a few, based on this and many other factors, that the level of education is sometimes lower than in the average public school, at least from the standpoint of teacher qualification. This is just a fact of life as I have personally witnessed it in almost a dozen schools I've either worked in, visited or where I've been invited to lecture.
Why Muslim Schools?
Then what is the advantage in sending a child to a Muslim school? I could discuss many other physical short-comings of the schools, but it would not add to the main point of this article. What we want to know is if there are any advantages to enrolling children in a school that claims to be based on spiritual motivations. Muslim parents have no real objection to enrolling their children in religious-oriented schools as substantial anecdotal evidence suggests that there are thousands of Muslim children enrolled in Catholic schools throughout the nation. In the latter situation, most of the children come out as irreligious as if they had attended a public school.
In relation, attendance in a Christian school may not always provide a values/moral education that is in alignment with the Islamic code of life. This is an issue that many Muslim parents seem to overlook when they make the initial decision to send their children to such parochial schools. To understand the problem on the flip-side, what would you think of Christian or Jewish parents sending their children to a Muslim school? The first thought that would come to mind is that those parents are not really committed to their own religious teachings.
Clearly, something must be fueling the tremendous rise in the numbers of Muslim schools. As was previously mentioned, large numbers of Muslim families have "lost" their children from Islam. Even as the parents were rediscovering the worth of Islam, they failed to realize that Islam, like Christianity, requires a personal realization experience. Thus, one is not born into the religion like Jews are born into Judaism. Islam is not an ethnically based phenomenon. This is the tragedy of growing up in a Muslim country. Even though few in one's immediate family practices Islam, all still say I am a Muslim. This dynamic doesn't work in an environment such as North America, which offers many lifestyle and identity choices.
Thus many parents have set aside traditional concerns about the financial goals oriented education in favor of building a solidly based Islamic identity in their children. I remember one student who came from a family of nine kids. She was the youngest and was the only one of her siblings to be enrolled in our Islamic school in Michigan. When she was asked in a class discussion why she was sent here, she replied, mimicking her parents, "They wanted at least one good one." After I met her older siblings and witnessed their crude urban behavior and roughness, I knew what she meant. Although her family was settled and wealthy, Islam, as a lifestyle, was absent and thus the children were lost.
Although management in most Muslim schools has not been perfected and funding is scarce, there is a unique process at work. Indeed, despite the financial and organizational difficulties, there is quite a special environment fostered in a setting where there are zero guns, drugs, alcohol and urban-pop-culture. There is order and civility. Not perfect order, mind you, as children will be children, but much more discipline is present in an Islamic school than in any public school, especially in urban areas. I have met so many teachers who taught in public schools and then left because of stress. When they came to work in the Islamic schools they had nothing but praise for the nice, friendly environment. Some Muslim schools hire non-Muslim teachers in times of need who also often comment on the order and friendly nature of the children. Remove fear and positive human values shine forth.
In fact, the biggest discipline problem every Islamic school faces every year, according to my experience, is in the enrollment of children who are coming directly from public schools. These children are often lazy, disrespectful, loud, unable to follow directions and foul-mouthed. They disrupt classes for up to three months until they are finally calmed into discipline and follow along with the positive peer pressure of order and congeniality. That's the biggest single advantage of a Muslim school: the environment is more disciplined and thus, although the level of education is sometimes perceived to be lower, the children are able to learn much more than their public school counterparts (given that many youthful distractions are absent.) Even dating is forbidden and classroom seating usually puts all the girls on one side of the room and the boys on the other from about grade five onward. Most Islamic schools score consistently higher on standardized state exams than their public school counterparts. Thus the educational level is in reality higher, not lower, as one would expect.
The main physical features which make the school Islamic revolve around dress, prayer and the addition of certain subjects. Most Muslim schools require uniforms, as many private schools do, with the addition that girls are required to wear the Islamic-style head scarf from about grade four and up. Afternoon prayers are held daily and every Friday the children gather to hear the weekly Friday sermon. This service is called Jumu'ah in Arabic, or the Friday Gathering, in which they hear a presentation about spirituality or some related topic. Finally, as a part of the academic schedule, children have classes devoted to Islam and Arabic. These daily classes are reinforced with actual practice throughout the day in interaction with teachers, other students and visitors.
So profound is the change in many students who have attended an Islamic school, despite whatever shortcomings there are, that I have personally witnessed amazing transformations. A teenage girl comes in the school with a history of boyfriends, smoking and disrespecting her parents. She leaves praying, being respectful and concerned with right and wrong. A boy comes in from public school cursing, fighting and causing enormous trouble. After six months he calms down, asks meaningful questions about God and right and wrong and restrains his anger even in tough situations.
Islamic awareness can transform even the most recalcitrant of children even as many inmates in prison accept it and turn their lives around for the better. Such is the healing power of a spiritual orientation. The responses of the students to such an environment can be quite startling. It is almost universal that all children dislike their school principals. In some schools more than others. That being the usual situation, what children desire is meaningful stimulation, the right to feel personal pride in their identity and integrity in those who are set in authority over them.
I worked for two years in a school which had a wonderful facility. But the administration was perceived by the students to be plagued with injustice and capriciousness. Therefore, the students were often in a state of rebelliousness. (The unique thing for me was that they were using Islamic principles as a rallying point.) I worked for two years in another school that was so financially strapped it was operated in a Mosque's basement. But the students were reasonably satisfied with the administration and thus there was general peace.
In addition, the first school mentioned above, although it had a soccer field, gym and real classrooms, the students always compared it to their old public schools and found it wanting in amenities. At the second school, there wasn't even a formal playground nor decent classroom. But because the local (urban) public schools were so violent and chaotic, no one complained that two grades were in every class or that office-style partitions were the only "walls" there. They were happy to be in a safe environment.
The Islamic schools in the U.S. are hardly perfect educational environments, yet they provide what is often missing in other schools. Mainly, they tend to have smaller teacher-student ratios, more discipline, a spiritual orientation and an environment conducive to learning. Muslims who wish Islam to become part of the permanent religious mosaic of North America need such schools to assist in this cause. That is not to say a Muslim child is automatically lost if he or she attends a public school, but it would make it much easier for a child to feel the "Muslim environment" a feeling that their immigrant parents might have tasted in their home countries. This is useful given that anti-Islamic messages bombard every moment of a child's interaction with the wider society, whether on TV, in print or by raunchy music videos, etc... In addition, defamation of Islam is a standard practice in movies, magazines and public school textbooks.
Islam is a faith that must be lived in a community even as it requires individual awareness. The same motivation which prompted Irish Catholics and Orthodox Jews to build Catholic schools and Yeshivas is what drives Muslim communities to want schools of their own. The identity and values of Islam are just as susceptible to outside assimilation as any other belief system.
As long as increasing numbers of Muslim parents begin to realize that their faith must be taught and lived to survive, Muslim schools will continue to grow and be built. Will most of them survive twenty years from now when the next generations, born and raised in America, assume their place? No one can say for sure. But if the track record of Catholic schools is any indicator, they will likely stabilize at some sustainable level and remain a constant in the educational fabric of North America for a long time to come. The key will be if they make a positive impact on future generations and in the society as well.
In the end, as with any belief system and world-view, Islam will only survive ultimately if the parents themselves practice in the home what their children are learning in school. Although Muslims come from a very multi-ethnic Diaspora in North America, the unity of the Islamic faith has demonstrated that Islam can make a valuable contribution to the societal ills which plague the modern world. Islam's firm stand against racism, for example, is best demonstrated by the children who attend Islamic schools. If such schools prosper, then there may be viable solutions to aid in the reconstruction of American society. Solutions which are unique to Islam, such as the abolition of racism, the banning of the scourge of alcohol and the emphasis on respect among all people, and from which the wider society may gain benefit.