Community Domestic Affairs Education & Science

A Second Look at Islamic Schools

islamic schoolDisclaimer: The purpose of this article is to shed light on some overlooked positives of Islamic schools, not to claim that Islamic schools are a right fit for each child. Due diligence must be used by parents in determining whether their local Islamic school meets the needs of each of their children. In addition, no school can ever replace the parenting that a child receives at home. For any education to be worthwhile, parents need to be involved in the positive mental, social and spiritual development of their children.

To some Muslims, the words “Islamic school” immediately conjure negative connotations: backwards mentality, lower standards of education, strict supervision, unprofessional attitude, and so on. In fact, even supporters of Islamic schools for younger children would shun the idea of sending a middle-schooler or even a high-schooler to an Islamic school, saying, “I want to expose my child to the real world.” This article is written in response to the aforementioned points.

Offering “Real World” Experience in an Islamic Environment

There is a misconception that sending your child to an Islamic school completely alienates them from the rest of society. In reality, Islamic schools function just as public schools do, but offer the safety and comfort to children that is much-needed during their formative years. What part of sending our children to an Islamic school takes them out of the “real world?” Could it be our own subconscious feelings of inferiority that cause us to feel this way?

Shedding the “Mom and Pop” Image

Many critics of Islamic schools are locked in a time warp when most schools were run as family businesses.  Today, not only are many schools run by credentialed principals and administrators, but they also only hire credentialed teachers. In addition, many schools undergo a grueling evaluation process to become nationally accredited, eliminating the potential for sub-standard educational practices. The bar has been raised years ago to meet the community’s expectations and demands for quality education as well as a healthy, spiritual environment.

Developing a Positive Identity

In a book titled, “The Worried Child,” author Paul Foxman, PhD, addresses the issue of a lack of a religious/ethnic identity as a source of anxiety in children (p 94). The author also mentions that children who belong to a religious minority can feel “out of place, misunderstood, or even ostracized by their peers” when there are few or no other children of their religion in the same school. While some public schools have a sizable Muslim population, students may still feel the overwhelming effects of being in the minority. Foxman’s statement points to a positive aspect of sending our children to Islamic schools. There is a clear contribution to the positive development of a child when they have a strong sense of belonging. In addition, another study on identity and mental health states that belonging to and understanding one’s identity promotes an overall sense of well-being (see Erikson, 1968; Marcia, 1966).

Although understanding and feeling comfortable with one’s identity can be accomplished outside of an Islamic school, sending one’s child to an Islamic school can establish these feelings as part of a holistic approach. While children learn about Qur’an, its language, and the history of Islam, children also get to partake in Muslim celebrations and understand special events en masse, as part of a larger group. In this way, the child who attends an Islamic school will tend to develop positive self-esteem in a natural setting–one that does not seem forced or artificial.

Providing a Healthier Environment

Oftentimes, parents feel that by fifth or sixth grade, their children have received enough education in a Muslim environment, and so they want to send them to a public school, specifically to adapt to the “real world.” While Islamic schools do not shield children from the negative aspects of popular culture, there is a clear difference in the overall environment one’s child remains in for eight hours of school every day.

Those of us who attended public middle and high schools growing up can attest to the strong culture of dating, peer pressure to drink, to try drugs, to attend Homecoming and Prom, and so on. Despite being one of two Muslims in the entire school, I had an overall positive school experience. Nevertheless, the choice to constantly reject all the above was, at times, overwhelming.

To prepare our children for college and the workforce, we feel the need to ensure that our children interact with the “outside world” for experience. However, the years from middle school to high school feature the greatest hormonal changes. Being surrounded by scantily-clad students and couples of all types in extremely intimate situations is a very common, everyday occurrence in public high schools.

Increasing Pressures in a Sexualized World

Here’s something to consider: why knowingly provide an environment where a teenager is inundated with such temptations, if a viable Islamic school is a feasible option? With the popularity of Facebook and the ease of creating an online alter-ego, and the increasing pressure to have sex, to question one’s sexual identity, coupled with a teenager’s increasing hormonal changes, why not alleviate this pressure by sending your child to an institution that encourages and teaches the complete opposite?

While some may say, “well, get used to it,” let us instead realize that the middle and high school years are as intense as no other period in a student’s life. College campuses do have similar issues, but not to the same extent as in high school.  In addition, peer pressure is more avoidable in college, as students have a wealth of peers to choose from and class schedules are varied and staggered. Furthermore, in terms of their development, many students are more mature in college than in their earlier teenage years.

The Prophetic Example

Finally, let us look at the example of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (peace be upon him) on this last point.  Amina, Prophet Muhammad’s mother, made the effort to send her son to be raised in the desert, where the environment was more pure. Times have changed, but the idea of sending our children to a successful Islamic school to protect them should still be seen as positive and not negative.

Once during the Prophet’s youth, he had wanted to attend a wedding in Mecca with some other boys to see what such a festivity would be like. Just outside the place, Prophet Muhammad ﷺ could hear music and dancing. Before he entered, he suddenly felt tired and decided to sit. He fell asleep and did not wake up until the next morning. If there were any person who should keep up-to-date with what is going on in society, so that he may know how to give da`wah (to invite others to the path of Allah) or so that he could understand his people, it would be Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. Yet, Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exhalted is He) chose to prevent him from attending this event for his own protection.

Conclusion

After all is said, it is time to shed our old views on Islamic schools and take a fresh look at what they have to offer. As a mother of four children who went to four different Islamic schools since 2005 (the change of schools being due to moving), it is my experience that these schools provide quality education within a safe, moral environment. Are Islamic schools perfect? No, but do the benefits far outweigh the negatives, contributing to an overall positive, spiritual and educational experience? Yes.

About the author

Lobna Mulla

Lobna Mulla

Born to Egyptian parents, Lobna Youssef Mulla, along with her three siblings, was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley. She graduated from California State University, Northridge with a B.S. in Business Administration with a focus in Accounting. She was on the board of the Muslim Public Affairs Council for two years and worked for 10 years as an accountant before entering motherhood. In 2005, Lobna moved to Egypt with her husband, Shaykh Suhail Mulla, and her children for three years where she studied Arabic, Islamic Studies and Tajweed, before moving back to the States. Lobna has been working with the youth for the past 15 years in various capacities such as assisting with youth camps, leading halaqat, teaching tajweed classes, and leading a MAS Girl Scouts Troop. Currently, Lobna lives in Orange County with her husband and four children, where she is the Vice Chair for MAS Greater L.A.’s Tarbiya Department.

8 Comments

  • well said; agree for the most part; it is hard to be different and its hard to be alone. but in terms of tuition; not all families can afford the payments; so they are trying to balance between excellent public schools and excellent weekend language Islamic schools.
    why Muslim schools don’t attract ( Muslims) gate and A students from public schools by special discounts; why we cant see Muslims school all the way till 12 grade? in addition; Muslim schools must be able to compete with blue ribbon schools Academically ; why not? why not to be perfect; it should be.

    Thank you..

  • Salam

    Thank you Lobna Mulla for a necessary article.

    This is a topic that I have always thought about because I attended an Islamic school from Kindergarten to 8th grade, and then I went to public school for High School. So my comments are mainly from my personal experiences.

    I think Islamic schools in the U.S. have a great potential to harness the American and Islamic context as one cohesive whole , which also teaches the children how to live balanced lives in an unbalanced world of multiple identities (religious and social).

    I think the main question parents should ask themselves is why do they want to send their kids to a Muslim school? Is it to be raised in an educational Islamic context? If so, that’s not the correct way of viewing Islamic schools, however, that is what many parents think. They believe by sending their children to Islamic schools, these schools are going to raise their children and teach them Jurisprudence and Fard Al-Ayn. Where in reality, parents should be teaching and raising their kids in an Islamic context and the school should only reinforce those values.

    My biggest criticism of the school that I went to is it only taught “Do’s and Don’ts” without any of the Hikmah / Wisdom behind these rulings. Yes, they did say WHY things were Halal or Haram, but only at an exoteric level, not an esoteric or deeply meaningful or applicable way. The same with the Qur’an teachings, we memorized many Juz’a, but we only learned Tajweed, we never had any Tafsir / Exegesis of the Qur’an. Thus the entire curriculum of this particular Islamic school was rather exoteric and superficial, where I knew what was Halal and Haram, but never understood the VALUE of those rulings. I memorized many Sura’s of the Qur’an, but I really did not get to appreciate the technical, poetic, and literary nature of the Qur’an. There was never a dialogue of faith, which I believe to be extremely crucial in this day and age where many people have opinions that can be voiced through many mediums. The youth want to be heard, and their thoughts need to be tested, both in a religious and non religious context.

    A very important note is that taking your child to an Islamic School will NOT solidify their identity as a Muslim. Their identities will be realized once they leave a total vacuum of a specific setting and enter a completely different setting that test “who they are.” I never really read the Qur’an at a literary level, until I left the Islamic school and started attending public school and started reading more classic literature. I never really questioned the objectification of a woman’s body until I left Islamic school and had dialogues in my Theory of Knowledge Class in public school. I never was truly religiously transparent until I left Islamic school and started having more Christian, Atheist, Buddhist, Jewish, and Hindu friends in High School and in College.

    I never really knew about Tasawuf until I started researching more scholars in high school and in college. And I firmly believe that every Islamic school should have courses in Tasawuf and Character building. If there is anything that you want your child to take away from an Islamic school, it’s for them to understand the WISDOM of moral character. If you want Da’wa, it’s through good character. Good character is the only medium where an identity of a Muslim can passively AND actively be portrayed to Muslims and Non-Muslims alike, since good character relates to humanity as a whole.

    Muhammad Abduh (whether you agree with his views or not) once said, “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam.”

    And it’s true. The West, especially the U.S. with all it’s bigotry and social-class strife, still harbors great moral ideals that are hard to find in many places across the world. Sadly, the most corrupt countries in the world today, are Islamic countries.

    Thus Islamic schools in the U.S. (West) have a great opportunity to allow children and youth to harness the potential of Islam and apply it in such positive ways across all of Humanity. OR, we can just teach them Do’s and Don’ts in a social vacuum where once they leave, they are socially meek and do not know how to balance their social and religious identities. Islamic in America is a beautiful thing, but many of us do not realize it. The next time you go to a Mosque, take heed of all the different races you are sitting next to – it’s a beautiful thing. Yet, how many Muslims are fighting for Racial Equality or Women’s rights in the US? Malcom X first started out as a very frustrated and exclusive activist, then later in his life after his Hajj, he realized he needed to be more inclusive and transparent. Thus we need to teach children in Islamic schools to be both, very horizontal and vertical thinkers, not teach them to be finger waggers or preachers, because no one likes to be preached to.

    And if I sound like I am preaching, I apologize.

    Salam, and Thank You for such a great and necessary article.

    • Sister/Brother,

      Reading the lines of someone who is so explicitly aware of what worked and what did not was very eye opening to me. I am conducting research on professional development ought to be offered at Islamic schools and getting your input would be highly appreciated.
      Please reply if you have time.

      Best,
      M.A

  • Salam everyone and O.I

    O.I, I couldn’t agree more with what you wrote about the Islamic School. Parents should ask themselves why they want to send their children to Islamic school. If they think it is better for them to grow to be a stronger muslims or get less harass in a public school setting (temporary) , from my experiences, only the latter works and it is only a temporary solution. They will really enter to a real test when they are back to the “reality” – public school.

    I saw the worst behavior boys in my Islamic school – using swear words and taking about female all the time as they had been suppressed their desire at home and needed to be released in the school-; students have no intention to strive for academic excellence; muslim teachers only use harsh punishment (lack of professional training) and constantly emphasize haram or go to hell without explaining the meaning behind, administrators /principal behave like a dictator and tyranny, parents are mostly non-American whom seldom involve/help in school, and the board has no initiative inviting female community members to join after 15+ years’ establishment. Above all, the worst impact was there was no dialogue of faith. The teachers would behave very defensive or hostile when someone ask questions indicating the query of the Islam. Suffocating!

    I left and joined the one of the best public school in our district. Students were so much well behaved, boys respect the girls who respect themselves, everyone in the honor class were trying hard to get the best score, teachers were open-minded and respectful, parents were actively participated and the principal was humbled and approachable.

    I was constantly challenged as a muslim in my school. It pushed me hard to think seriously about my identity and my belief. After 8 years in an Islamic School, it left me behind were some surahs, scattering Islamic history, a strong practices of haram and halah, do and don’t and an unfair treatment by the faculty members. It took me sometime to compose myself and reestablish of who I am and what I am.

  • I’m glad to hear that there are Islamic schools in the US that seem to be good schools as well. Where I am, unless it changes, if I had children I would not send them to an Islamic school, because the risk to the negative culture in an ordinary school is less here, and I have the impression (substantiated by an actual example) that Islamic schools – especially boarding schools – are run in a way that purposely discourages independent reasoning and enforces blind obedience to authority (which is culturally perhaps too strong already, in Asia, without this emphasis).

    People come out of it with strange notions for how to deal with the opposite gender (unless one has close relationships with siblings of the opposite gender to mitigate this), judgmental of others who didn’t go to Islamic school, and insecure about one’s own ability to form opinions and generate new conclusions about matters without someone telling them the ‘correct’ opinion to hold.

    In the end, it really boils down to the school, and which one can give the best balance of outcomes for the child that you can afford. Labels don’t mean anything – just because something is labelled ‘Islamic’ doesn’t mean it can deliver a more healthy environment for a Muslim child. Islam is more than just memorising surahs and seerah and separating boys and girls, but is delivered in everything from whether the school is run well, whether the teaching inculcates good behaviour, whether the lessons encourage thought and comprehension, whether treatment is fair and kind, it is in everything subtle that surrounds the actual curriculum.

  • I did not understand the requirements and implications with marrying outside of my religion, culture, ethnicity etc. I had no idea what it was like to be an other or how to raise non-white children. I had no background in Orientalism, colonialism, race etc. I was from a middle class Republican family. I grew up inside the Mormon community which was exclusive.
    When I began to have children, I wanted them to be part of their father’s culture because we lived with my family and they got plenty of Americana (although I am Muslim).
    My husband over worked to support us and become established, so if the Islamic school was not there, I do not think my children would identify as Arab at all and I would be really concerned about their Islamic identity. They attended as toddlers up until junior high and were able to be nurtured, have happy memories of Eid and have a sense of pride and a foundational identity. There were problems and critiques and sometimes they share stories of trauma, but really, Islamic schools were very important.

  • Salam
    Timely and much needed article. However I am not convinced that all the hope and optimism expressed regarding the current status of “islamic” schools is well founded.
    My three children, two girls and a son went to an islamic school for five years from grades 1-5. My wife taught at the very same school for two years as a computer science instructor.
    First the positives
    1. My children did develop a sense of identity and by grade 4 were confident enough with their identity as muslims to be able to speak with non muslims in a self assertive yet non aggressive matter of fact manner.
    For example: I used to hand out halloween candies. My kids in 5th grade confronted me that we do not need to feel obligated to do hand out candies if we do no agree with the custom.
    They painted and hung sign on the front door stating We do not observe the Halloween Holiday and do not hand out candies. Best wishes.
    By sixth grade the girls had decided they wanted to wear hijab and they had learned some arabic and wanted to read the quran with its meaning/ commentary.
    All three of my children pray five times by themselves ( note each salah is completed in a record time of under 30 seconds. I listed to them reading/ revising quran and oh boy they could beat the auctioneers fast speech any day of the week!). Regardless this is on their own initiative without us having to wheedle or nag them.
    I do believe they grew up somewhat naive / not exposed to peer pressure in terms of keeping up with the latest child / teen / preteen celebrity songs/ fashion trends/ desensitization to the practice of ‘dating’ that I see in public school kids by casual/ joking references to boy friend/ girl friend talk eg. my mom’ boyfriend smokes so my mom says I should go to my room when he comes. etc

    On the not so good side
    Their secular/ scientific eduction was consistently way behind the grade level compared to my friends’ kids in public schools
    Parent’s consistently were not involved in their children’s education/ school activities.
    Most of such parents treated the school like a dumping ground for their kids. Non arab students simply were treated as second class muslims with the exception of doctors kids.
    Teachers consistently dressed in [inappropriately but in hijab.]

    We tried really really really hard to work with the administration. Every meeting was like pulling teeth and being a “prominent members” of the society and my wife being a teacher there, we got some nice words… we will try to do what we can talk. But nothing happened.
    We had kids coming home enraged and crying in tears daily.
    This had to stop.
    I guess if we really had “islamic” schools, we could make a lot of difference. We have arab schools, Quran schools, Indopaki schools. There are many catholic schools which are so good mulsims prefer to send their kids to such schools and have thin sit out on theology class.
    If any one knows of an “islamic” school which is so good non muslims want to send their kids there, please let me know.

  • I believe we need to take this case by case to be truthful. One cannot make a general statement about “islamic schools” as they are many and range from the worst to the best, in and outside the US. I find the islamic highschool of Averroes in Santa Clara, Bay Area to be exemplary in terms of curriculum.

    I suggest we switch perspectives here and before we focus on the word islamic, let’s reconsider what it is to be a good “school” for our children. Allah swt asks us to develop Ihsan, to do whatever we do in the most optimal way. What would be a school that follows this principle?
    – Advanced Curriculum
    – Advanced research
    – Personal Development (not only theories of science)
    – Activities
    – Much of the real world happenings integrated into organized discussions
    – Parental Involvement
    The list can go on and on; in summary, a school that performs with Ihsan is a school that achieves ultimate knowledge, skills, and character for its students by the time they graduate.

    Achieving religious education in such a school will be a wonderful addition, but it should come second in my opinion. If you build religious knowledge on top of a crooked foundation you will take nothing good from it.

    See, this goes way beyond teaching religion and takes on multiple facets that do not even have to have to islamic label on them.
    And when we have such schools, everyone will be sending their children there, muslims and non-muslims alike.

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