How can we improve our Islamic schools?

By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.

This speech was originally presented at the 19th Annual ISNA Education Forum’s Celebration Banquet on March 31st, 2018 in Rosemont, Illinois. A modified version appeared in the July/August 2018 edition of ISNA’s Islamic Horizons magazine.

The United States has a network of at least 270 full-time Islamic schools, almost as many in proportion to the Muslim population in the US as Catholic schools in proportion to the Catholic population.[1] And 85% of these schools are 10 years old or less.

Now I want us to reflect on that for a moment, because this achievement truly is extraordinary. In one decade, our community has built a network of Islamic schools that, in relation to the US Muslim population, is roughly comparable to the 200-year-old network of Catholic schools.

Furthermore, at least 90% of graduates of these schools go on to college, according to a recent study.

This is a huge achievement that you should be proud of, especially because it plays a significant role in the survival of Islam in America.

Descendants of previous waves of immigration were not so lucky. And this speaks directly to the value and importance of Islamic institutions, such as full-time schools.

Now, contrary to the claims of some Islamophobes, Islamic schools don’t make their students foreigners in their own land. Quite the contrary. A research team from Boston University that studied Islamic high schools found that students were solidly confident of their identities both as Muslims and as Americans. As one Muslim student put it: “America is kind of like a melting pot. And to be able to blend in, you have to stand out, in a way. And I think faith gives you that edge.”

In other words, their Muslim faith, in the eyes of these students, makes them not less but more American.

What is interesting about that is that this sentiment agrees with what the sociologist of religion Will Herberg found over fifty years ago in his work studying American religious communities: “Today, unlike fifty years ago, not only Protestants, but increasingly Catholics and Jews… feel themselves to be Americans not apart from, or in spite of, their religion, but in and through it, and because of it.”

Islamic schools are making that true of Muslim Americans as well by solidifying their Muslim identity.

Having said all that, which is all good news, we know that only 2% of American Muslim children attend Islamic schools; the overwhelming majority are in public schools.

Public schools occupy the space in which I work. Our organization, ING and our affiliates around the country, deliver thousands of presentations a year in public schools about Islam and Muslims, where we supplement social studies curriculum relating to the study of religion. We do this through adult Muslim speakers that we train and certify.

More recently, and in the face of increasing Islamophobia, we decided to train Muslim teens in middle and high schools to present about Islam and answer difficult questions that they confront daily.

So we have a lot of experience, 25 years in fact, teaching about Islam in public schools and, more recently, working with Muslim students attending public schools to equip them with tools and skills to stand up for themselves and to define Islam for the public.

So for us at ING and for Muslims at large, afterschool and weekend educational programs should have an interest in teaching children to be solidly Muslim and solidly American, without any tension or contradiction between the two identities.

Do they do that? I don’t know the answer to that, nor can I cite any research on this question.

However, I do believe that the whole institution of Islamic schooling, including both full-time and weekend schools, should lead the way in developing education that produces genuine Muslim Americans, and thus helps to engender the distinctly ideal American and ideal Muslim that both America and the whole Muslim world badly need at this time in our history. And we have to be very deliberate about this idea of engendering ideal Muslim and ideal American characteristics in our children.

Islamic schooling, both full-time and weekend, should not be places where you drop off your kids to protect them from the so-called ills of society or for them to learn basic creed and rituals.

Islamic schooling has to have a vision for what kind of American Muslim we want to develop and then to be deliberate about making it happen through both curriculum and pedagogy.

Where can we go for help in assigning this role to Islamic schools? I think we should go to Catholic and Jewish schools to emulate their best practices.

In the interest of time, and in a very limited way, I am only going to cover Jewish education, which I am familiar with through my graduate studies and my work at ING.

Let me begin by telling you a story of a Jewish American teenager we had as an intern at ING last year. I’m going to give him the fictitious name Avraham, which is the Hebrew for Ibrahim.

Avraham is one of the most remarkable young men I’ve ever known, exemplary in his character and behavior. He took all his responsibilities seriously (but with a sense of humor), had a smile for every situation, and never spoke ill of anyone.

He was deeply grateful to be working for ING, though he had to take several buses to get to our office—which is not an easy task in the Bay Area. And he did an excellent job on every assignment he got, respecting the adults around him and never taking his position for granted, with the result that everyone, especially the other four interns, who were all Muslim, looked up to him and took him as an example. And I witnessed this repeatedly for the two months these kids were working at ING, which was striking. All of the Muslim kids were Islamically schooled. Two were or had been in full-time Islamic schools.

Avraham, like many Jews like him, is a product of Jewish education, which has over a hundred-year history here, starting with the arrival of the massive wave of Jewish immigrants in the nineteenth century.

It’s the story of immigrant Jewish educators who a hundred years ago described a vision for what kind of Jew they wanted to develop in America: someone who was fully integrated into American culture and embraced and lived by its ideals, while remaining connected to his or her roots and ethnic and religious identity and to the worldwide Jewish community.

The Jewish education they developed was solidly rooted in Jewish values, and that tradition continues: A Jewish day school I’m familiar with, for example, articulates its guiding values as “integrity, service, and kindness,” and includes in addition as “values undergirding its curriculum and pedagogy,” “compassion, mutual respect, intellectual curiosity, reflection, collaboration, and identity.” This same school respects the internal pluralism within the Jewish community, embracing students over the full spectrum of contemporary American Judaism from Orthodox to Reform and Renewal.

As is the case with Islamic schools today, only a minority of American Jewish children attend Jewish day schools.

However, the same vision and values are carried over to weekend and after-school Jewish programs, where, by both preserving their Jewish identity and being unequivocally American, Jewish kids realize the deeper meaning of a pluralistic American democracy that is not just a form of government but a way of life.

It is the Jews produced by this vision of American Jewish education that made the American Jewish community the great success that it is today. And I’m certain that it’s the Jewish and American values inculcated by that education that ensured that Jews would be the first to stand up against the refugee and Muslim bans, that inspired Jewish leaders to proclaim that they would declare themselves Muslims if ever the government tried to register Muslims, and that continue to produce statements and acts of solidarity with our community.

Do we have a similar vision of education for the American Muslim student attending full-time or weekend Islamic schools?

If we do, we need to go further.

We need to incorporate into our curriculum both what makes us Muslim and what makes us American—uncovering the values and ideals in each identity and the profound harmony between them and looking at ways to instill those values in the character of our children and in the culture of our mosques that run weekend schools.

Brothers and sisters, this won’t happen by itself, or suddenly materialize in the next generation of Muslims, without the articulation of a vision and of deliberately planned curriculum and pedagogy that reflect that vision.

From my experience, here are some things that we should emphasize to create the ideal Muslim, a Muslim that other kids could look up to as an example:

  1. Teaching not only creed or beliefs, but above all the value of loving Allah (swt) and the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and all the prophets (p) before him, including Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mary. Also, teaching how to love them through remembrance of God and the prophets by teaching Dua and Dhikr. Both are powerful tools for transforming personalities.
  2. Teaching not our differences from other religions, which are often used by Muslims to self-identify, but rather teaching pluralism as God’s Divine Will. If God had wanted us all to be the same He could have done that, but the fact that we are diverse is the Will of God. So what is God trying to teach us by that diversity, and what is God telling us to do? There are dozens of verses in the Quran that speak to that diversity.
  3. Teaching the goals and objectives of creed and rituals, which is the pursuit of good, virtuous character and excellence in all we do, and the values associated with each aspect of character and excellence, all of which constitute the concept of Ihsan. What are our teachings on that concept, and what does it look like to be a muhsin? We need to hold up examples for the kids to see, examples that demonstrate respect for all people, kindness, honesty, and so forth.
  4. Teaching not just the rituals but also the spiritual reasons for and the outcomes of all our ritual practices such as prayer, zakat, and fasting, to the point that our children race to do their prayers and feel that praying is as natural as breathing.
  5. Teaching the basic, universal principles behind some of our teachings and rulings. For example, it’s not the form of hijab we’re interested in. We’re interested in the principle of modesty, which can take many forms. The important thing about modesty is intention and behavior, not just the dress you wear.
  6. Teaching the language of the Quran, Arabic, so that students can unlock the meanings of the Quran themselves instead of relying on others to do it for them. Kids should not leave Islamic schools without fluency in Arabic.
  7. Teaching about our responsibilities towards anyone suffering in this world, as people who enjoin the good and forbid the evil, and, as people who care about the betterment of their local environment, inspiring commitment to social activism, engagement with our neighbors, volunteering and participating in civic organizations, and so forth.

To create the ideal American in our kids, the Martin Luther King, the Malcom X, or the Franklin Roosevelt Americans that other kids could look up to as an example, we need to teach:

  1. American history from the perspective of the people that built America—that is, not only from the perspectives of the diverse group of pioneers that have come from Europe, but also from the perspectives of native Americans, Black Americans, Chinese Americans, Mexican Americans and all the diverse peoples who have built this nation. I think Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States should be required reading for educators everywhere and for students of every age group.
  2. American values that are rooted in our form of democracy, such as freedom of thought and expression; pluralism in race, ethnicity, religion, and politics; and civility in debate and disagreement–even if we don’t always live up to all that those values demand.
  3. American culture, from holidays and celebrations to food and music over the centuries, including our unique and long history and place in that culture and the many contributions Muslims have made to American society.

And that’s just to start with.

If we look at this brief, sample list, we can see how all of these items fit seamlessly together.

I put this forward to add to conversations already taking place or, if necessary, to start a new conversation to decide what sort of Muslim American we want our Islamic educational system, both full-time and weekend, to produce, and, having determined that, to see what curriculum and pedagogical practices will lead us to that end.

We are, of course, concerned with much more than the imparting of knowledge; we are concerned with developing character, a genuinely Muslim American character and a genuinely American Muslim character. That is the character we will need to produce to follow in the footsteps of our Prophet (pbuh) and his companions in the past and in the present, and in the path of those who have come before us in the United States, such as the Jewish and Catholic communities.

What they have done we can and will do even better, insha Allah.

And we should remember that in doing this, we are following not only our fellow Americans but also our fellow Muslims who have time and again adapted Islam to many cultures and in the process enriched both those cultures and Islam.

The road is open before us; let us continue down this noble road of developing the best of what Islam has to offer and the best of what America has to offer.

God bless you all for the good and noble work you do. Both our ummah and our American communities are indebted to you.

[1] The data on Catholic population and Catholic schools are from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, The comparison between the relation of the Catholic and Muslim population in the US and their respective school systems presupposes the Pew Research Institute estimate of the US Muslim population as 3.45 million,