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Muslim Schools: A View From Inside
by Yahya Emerick
“Most parents send their kids here for reasons other than Islam,” lamented the principal of a large Muslim school. “A lot of our students have older brothers and sisters who have gone out of control. They smoke, use drugs, sleep around and disobey their parents.”
I knew from my own experience that what he was saying was true. In my first year of teaching I had the chance to meet the families of many of my students in the Muslim school. What I saw shocked me. The older siblings were completely and thoroughly non-Muslim in their behavior and demeanor. One girl had an older brother with an arm full of tattoos! The girl, who had seven older siblings that went through an urban public school told me that her parents were sending her to the Muslim school because they wanted “at least one good one.”
On another occasion, I happened to be standing in the school office talking to the secretary when a middle-aged, Indo-Pak couple came in with their teenage daughter. She was wearing tight jeans, no Hijab and a lot of make-up. Her face (and the words of her parents) said it all: she’s been around. Her parents, as it turned out, wanted to enroll her in the Muslim school because they didn’t want her to become “Christian.” Oh... the parents also mentioned that she had a boyfriend and that they didn’t want her to “get into trouble.” She was enrolled in the ninth grade and therefore would be in my Islamic Studies class. As it happened, she didn’t know how to pray, she never made Wudu in her life and she knew nothing of Islamic teachings. She was, for all practical purposes, a non-Muslim with a Muslim sounding name.
Do you see a pattern emerging here? After having been involved with Muslim education for the last seven years as a teacher in Sunday schools, summer schools and full-time Muslim schools, I have had the chance to observe the immigrant Muslim community very closely. I wish I could say the indigenous Muslim community, but the immigrants have not seen fit to spread Islam to native-born Americans. But that’s another story.
The idea behind Muslim education is simple: our children identify with those around them so they should be schooled with other Muslim children in an environment that is friendly to Islam. The theory goes that when they graduate they will be practicing and believing Muslims, ready to take their rightful place in society. This goal should be the first and foremost priority of every Muslim in the world. After all, what’s more important: being rich in this life but losing your soul to eternal punishment, or somehow getting by in this life and gaining Paradise in the next? In my voluminous experience, most Muslim families have chosen the first option. Muslim families are, by and large, more concerned with their child being rich than with them going to Paradise after this short life is over. The depth of this statement is sickening when I consider all the wealthy families I’ve seen who practice little to no Islam but go crazy if their child gets lower than a 95 percent on any test. Their child could be cursing, smoking, dating, fighting, cheating or whatever, but all that really matters is that the kid’s going to get into medical school.
So why have Muslims here and there opened Muslim schools? They usually provide a different level of education than most public schools and they’re sometimes not operated in a standard manner. (Remember, I’m speaking as an insider.) The answer is simple, the families are losing their children. Not losing them away from Islam, necessarily, because Islam is the first thing most families will do away with. It’s much worse.
The children are rejecting the ethnic culture of their parents and adopting the American culture they experience everyday. The mother and father want their child to be like them: eating kabobs, wearing a shalwar or jilbab, speaking Urdu or Arabic and identifying with the customs and ways of the old country with respect to marriage, family structure and social interaction. Who cares that the kid’s not praying or wearing Hijab, they’re not Pakistani or Indian or Arab anymore! Horrors! Of course, a few, a very few, families want to send their children to a Muslim school so the children will be staunch believers. Such families know what the most important ingredient in a person’s life is. Sure, their children will grow up to become doctors or engineers or whatever, but the main priority in the household is that whatever they do, they will do it as practicing Muslims. But such families are not the majority in a Muslim school project.
The vast majority of students who come to Islamic schools are from families where Islam is either not practiced or is mixed in with cultural ways and never fully explained to the children. By the time the parents notice their children have different values from them it’s too late. The children are thoroughly “Americanized” (whatever that means) and love pizza, Power Rangers, video games and alternative music. They date, disrespect their elders and dabble in alcohol or whatever. Perhaps the older siblings are so completely corrupted that the parents want that “one good one.”
Do you know how many parents have come to me in the last seven years begging me to “save their child?” One man enrolled his three children in my summer school and they were so wild and unruly that the teachers asked me to remove them, and they were all under nine years old! These monsters were cursing, throwing things and fighting with all the other children around them with no regard to any manners or respect.
When I called the mother to take them home she came in a mini-skirt and Mercedes. The father called me and when I told him that our small summer school program couldn’t handle this type of serious discipline problem, he sobbed that his wife, who was a non-Muslim, was turning his children into “Christians.” I suggested to him that he should spend more time with the children but he brushed that idea aside saying that he owned three businesses and was always away from home. He wanted the summer school to teach his kids the “Moslem religion.” Hey, we all dig our own graves and decide what really matters.
So what about the schools themselves? A typical Muslim school is started by a group of concerned parents who quickly attract big-name players who are eager to soothe their consciences over their haram business dealings. These doctors, businessmen, engineers and other professionals develop a project outline and raise funds. Usually they have to go outside to Arabia or other foreign sources for the bulk of the money because local donors are a bit scarce. (Abu Bakr donated all he had when the cause of Allah needed it. I’ve seen millionaires give less than a thousand dollars at fundraising dinners. Then they intone that being wealthy is allowed in Islam. But not if you’re not willing to part with the money when the cause needs it!) After the school is built, the original concerned parents are muscled out of the Board of Directors and the qualifying criteria for a seat on the board becomes tied to the size of a person’s bank account. (Don’t disagree with this statement because you know it’s true.) Then the school advertises for teachers and a principal.
The starting salary that the school is willing to pay is somewhere below the poverty level. Of course they could pay competitive wages but who wants to sell their Mercedes Benz or mansion just to augment the salary of a poor Muslim teacher?
There are two types of people who work in a Muslim school: those who care and are willing to sacrifice for the cause and then those who can’t find a job anywhere else. There are no exceptions to this rule. In my experience, the usual ratio between those who care and those who can’t find a better job is about three to ten. For every ten teachers, three will care about Islam and the other seven just happen to be biding their time until a better job opens up.
Many teachers are unqualified to teach according to local public school standards and most don’t know how to relate to American-raised children. In all my years of teaching I have only seen perhaps twenty out of a hundred Muslim teachers who knew how to teach kids. The rest would either bore the kids with lectures, yell and curse at them or stand mute in the class as the kids took over. (I guess the same holds true for public schools in inner cities.)
The administration of the school usually fares no better. Most schools are run in the drab, third-world methodology where one man dominates like a lord in his castle. No one is important but he, and nepotism and favoritism are rampant. If you’re just off the plane from the old country and you’re so and so’s cousin or aunt or brother-in-law, you’ve got a job. If you’re a true believer in Allah, behave as a sincere Muslim and love kids, you’re likely to feel like a misfit in this type of environment.
So with all these difficulties in Muslims schools, again, why are they popping up all over? Many parents look at the schools as the savior of their children after the children have embraced “American” values. But is this the way to establish Islam here? Reacting when it’s too late? Our communities are not even communities to begin with. For most Muslims, they are the only Muslims on their street or in their neighborhood.
The term “community” is used but how can we say “our local Muslim community” when all there is are scattered families here and there who happen to drive to the Masjid for dinner parties once a month? That’s the first level of danger. We’re isolated from each other and interact with non-Muslims most of the time. The second danger is that some of our Masajid are being operated by people who would be considered hypocrites in the Madinah of the Prophet’s time. They have haram earnings, they look for fame and status and they feel nostalgic surrounded by people of the same ethnic group as they. The Masajid are ethnic clubs by and large! Those of you who have accepted Islam know what I’m talking about! Therefore, our masajid are dead structures with next to no meaningful da’wah or community support being conducted.
The third problem then, becomes our children. Out of the six million or whatever Muslims that our foolish pollsters claim to be here in North America, perhaps only half a million fit the definition of a Muslim according to the Qur’an and Sunnah. Many of the second and third generation kids are gone. That leaves only a few hundred thousand Muslims who will take over when the older generation dies off.
Out of those kids, only perhaps two percent have any contact with a Muslim school where they can develop a sense of belonging to a community. What the immigrants fail completely to understand is that they grew up surrounded by Muslims so it’s much easier to feel like a Muslim, even if you don’t practice Islam very much. Our children are growing up with almost no Muslims around them and are therefore identifying themselves as non-Muslims!
Despite all the problems associated with a Muslim school, then, one fact remains. In my experience, it is the only place where you can give da’wah to the next generation and show them what it means to be a believer. I’ve seen problem after problem in the structure of Muslim schools, but at the same time, I’ve seen the awareness of Islam and Iman blossom in even the most lost of children.
I was telling a parent the other day that the only ones, by and large, who will be Muslims after us, are those who went to Muslim schools. He objected and said that the local Sunday school was providing all the Islamic education the kids needed. Well, I visited that Sunday School on numerous occasions and found the children to be more non-Muslim than the non-Muslims! The teachers were sincere but helpless, the children were noisy and disinterested and the principal ran from problem to problem like he was in a soccer game.
I just hope there will be a Muslim community twenty years from now when the old people, who grew up in Muslim countries, die off. In my experience, the only children who remain Muslim are those who had very strong Islamic tendencies in their family or those who went through Muslim schools. So while Muslim schools are not perfect, it’s the only way that many children will be saved from the Hell-fire. It would be nice if the Muslim community got serious about its schools and its future. In some places they are.
What about your neighborhood?
Published: August 2003
Last modified 08/12/05 09:25 AM - Iqra - ISSN #1062-2756