Muslim Schools Versus Public Schools
By Samana Siddiqui
Seven-year-old Zaahirah Abdullah has a passion for Spice Girls,
nose rings and bellybutton rings, thanks to her friends and a
favorite teacher at Pyrtle elementary school in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Shes really into style, says her mother Najla
Abdullah, who attended the same public school as a child. I
can see I really need to build Islamic fundamentals with her,
she adds earnestly in an interview with Sound Vision.
Zaahiras interest in the rock band and body ornamentation
through the influence of friends and her teacher speaks to the
power of public schools to shape the attitudes of most Muslim
children in North America.
Zaahirah will be starting grade three in September. She is one
of the 98 percent of Muslim children in the United States who
attend public schools. And its her generation over whom
the debate about sending Muslim children to Muslim or public
school currently rages.
BETTER ENVIRONMENT IN MUSLIM SCHOOLS
The strongest argument in favor of sending children to Muslim
schools is the surrounding environment. Muslim kids in most of
these schools pray, interact with other Muslim kids in classes
and during breaks, and generally have less exposure to drugs,
alcohol and violence. Its also a place to build identity
Had one [a Muslim school] been available in the city, they
[her parents] would definitely have sent me, says Abdullah.
I think they would definitely have wanted me to have that
sense of camraderie, and that strength of people around you who
are of the same faith and are there to support [you].
A Muslim school is the only place where they [Muslim kids]
will ever have the chance to develop an identity that says, Hey,
these are my people. I belong to an identifiable community,
writes New-York based Muslim school teacher Yahiya Emerick in
an e-mail interview with Sound Vision. He has worked full-time
in two Islamic schools, one in Michigan and the other in New
Apart from providing a community atmosphere, this
school environment instills certain values in Muslim children.
Muslim schools give Muslim kids a sense of self-worth, pride
and cultural identity they could never get in a public school,
says Sharifa Alkhateeb, president of the Muslim Education Council,
VA. The organization educates educators and administrators about
Islam, Muslims, Muslim families and Middle Eastern culture.
A sense of identity comes not just from being with other Muslim
kids but also with the memories of praying, hearing the Adhan
and discussing Islamic issues. For the child, thats
invaluable, says the mother of three.
THE PERCEPTION OF
MUSLIM SCHOOLS AS HOLDING TANKS
What usually happens is that when Ahmad Doe realizes his
kid is turning into a foul-mouthed wretch with bad values and
such, they look for a quick fix and toss him in an Islamic school.
In one school I worked in, fully a third of the kids fit this
description, writes Emerick.
This is the double edged sword of providing a comparatively better
environment than most public schools, especially a Muslim environment.
It has led to some parents whose kids have gotten out of control
in public school to dump them into Muslim schools.
Alkhateeb says this leads parents to seeing these schools as
holding tanks that will take control the bad influence
of public schools on their kids.
Emerick, who has experienced first-hand such casualties of the
public school system adds, to all who complain about Muslim
schools having bad
kids too, remember they didn't come in as good kids. They
came in as public
MORE ISLAMIC KNOWLEDGE IN MUSLIM SCHOOLS
Children are also also exposed to more Islamic knowledge in a
I know a lot of Canadian-born brothers and sisters who
have been to public schools [and] have a big problem learning
Arabic Duas and Quran, and sometimes there is also a difference
in the way they think about Islam or certain things, says
Taha Ghayyur, 19, national coordinator of the Young Muslims of
Canada, an Ontario-based youth organization.
But others, like Shabbir Mansuri, founding director of the Fountain
Valley, California-based Council on Islamic Education, see the
Islamic knowledge offered by many Muslim schools as limited.
Mansuri has three daughters. Muslim schools were not available
in his area for his two older when they were growing up. But
they were for his youngest daughter, now 18, who attended one.
While he acknowledged that, she was able to learn Surahs
[and] verses from the Quran, he adds, but did the
school make a difference in the thinking and understanding of
those Quranic verses? The answer is no.
MANY MUSLIM SCHOOLS ARE DISORGANIZED
Regardless of the comparatively healthier environment, Muslim
schools, in general have their problems with organization.
Alkhateeb says sticking to rules, starting and ending classes
on time, for example, are a problem for many Muslim schools.
Another difficulty is staff turnover which is due to two other
problems: poor wages for teachers and culture clashes at the
POOR WAGES FOR TEACHERS IN MUSLIM SCHOOLS
Alkhateeb point to the horrible wages teachers are
offered at most Muslim schools as part of the explanation for
Many Muslim schools, struggling to stay open and in some cases,
relying mostly on private donations apart from the fees they
collect, depend on the good intentions and the Islamic spirit
of Muslims like Emerick who are willing to teach at low salaries.
Explaining his reason for choosing to teach at a Muslim school
over a public one which pays better, Emerick writes:
I couldn't justify to myself going to a school every morning
in which I would
not be allowed to mention Islam and its truth. I couldn't bring
myself to go
to a school and teach a bunch of students useful worldly knowledge
know that later that day they will be getting drunk, dancing,
premarital relations, swearing, smoking and such. Who would
I be making
stronger? If I don't teach in a Muslim school, then someone
else will have
to be found and the children may not benefit from my experience
enthusiasm for the Deen.
AN OVERALL BAD ADMINISTRATIVE MODEL
A top-down leadership approach, imported from back home
versus a more team-oriented, North American-based horizontal
leadership approach are also cause for clashes in many Muslim
Alkhateeb explains that in the first case, the person in charge
thinks a good leader is someone who bosses everyone around, without
consulting anyone. This, in fact, is seen as a drawback. In the
second case, consultation is part of the process, and the head
of an organization engages in this with fellow workers.
This culture clash in leadership perception leads many Muslim
school teachers to quit in frustration, she says.
THE COST OF MUSLIM SCHOOLS-TWO VIEWS
One problem many parents complain about is the cost of Muslim
schools. In fact, cost is in some cases the defining factor in
whether or not a child goes to a Muslim school or not.
While there are families who cannot afford to send their kids,
Emerick argues that Most Muslims in the suburbs (where
most schools are located), own
houses, multiple cars, take vacations to Pakistan or Syria and
wear the best
clothes. Many Muslim schools discount their official rates for
true hardship cases. The school I work at has about 15 free
students out of a total population of 70 students!
What is more expensive? Paying a little and having a better
child will make it to Jannah, or saving a measly sum and crying
years when you realize your child is not a Muslim and doesn't
anything except what you did earlier, namely money? he
ACADEMIC STANDARDS: HOW DO MUSLIM SCHOOLS FARE?
Most of the Muslim schools have not developed to the point
of being comparable academically to a well-run Christian private
school or Jewish private school for that matter, says Alkhateeb.
But not all Muslim schools fit this description. Aqsa school
for girls in Chicago CHECK is one example. It offers schooling
for girls only from grades 4 until 12, and education for boys
at the elementary level.
According to Khawla Nassar, an Arabic and Religion teacher at
the school, their graduates have gone on to Harvard and Yale,
have pursued medicine, law, or have continued seeking higher
degrees even after getting married and having children.
Their experience at the Muslim school, instilled
in them the value of education, she explains.
DO MUSLIM SCHOOLS CREATE INSULAR CHILDREN?
Some parents fear their kids will become closed and insular if
they attend a school of Muslims only. A mother at one of Sound
Visions message board on Parenting writes: ...I have
seen many children who went to Islamic schools who cannot interact
with their American neighbors. They feel shy or feel like they
cannot talk to them. I don't want my child going through that.
I want her to be able to interact with all the children here
in the US.
But Emerick strongly rebuts this notion.
Do Muslim kids who attend Christian schools in Pakistan
have any danger of
becoming closed to their society? Are Jewish kids who attend
in America somehow socially stunted or unable to cope with American
society? he asks.
No and no, he answers.
PUTTING THE PROBLEMS IN MUSLIM SCHOOLS IN PERSPECTIVE
For all of their problems, and their different opinions about
this issue, everyone interviewed for this article expressed strong
support for Muslim schools.
Mansuri says parents must devote more than just money occasionally
to support Muslim schools. They must devote time and commitment
Alkhateeb says the problems are, a necessary element of
the eventual excellence of Muslim schools. I think the Muslim
schools are on the letter H on a scale of A to Z.
H stands for How To. Theyre still learning How To. And
The public school system is never going to be everything
that practicing Muslim parents want it to be for their children,she
adds. These parents want every aspect of a school to be Islamic:
its ethics, raison detre and the style in which teachers
Some of the problems in public schools include chronic misinformation
textbooks, the issue of food, clothing for physical education,
proms, dances and other unIslamic social events.
THE REAL ISSUE: IT ALL STARTS IN THE HOME-PARENTS RESPONSIBILITY
But what is often disregarded in the whole debate is the role
parents and the family play in a childs Islamic development,
which is much more important, many say, than which school the
Were asking Muslim schools to perform the tasks that
we as parents are supposed to perform, says Mansuri. The
Muslim schools are not supposed to be substitutes for parental
Muslim schools are not an answer., he adds. An
Islamic environment that incorporates all the principles of Islam
is an answer. If I succeed in doing that gradually then I would
have an option of sending them to Muslim schools and or public
With regards to the dangerous environment found in many public
schools, Alkhateeb says, the public school is not the reason
for Muslim kids getting into drugs, alcohol and wild dating.
The reason is that the parents of these Muslims kids have not
developed a secure relationship of knowledge and trust and humility
[with their kids].