Disclaimer: 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.
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.