Exploring Islamic Schools

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By Fizzah Jawed Akhter – Designer & English Language Teacher and

Binte Ruqqayah – Freelance writer

The Golden Age of Islam (750 – 1258 CE) – the apex of thought, reason, and discovery in the Muslim Ummah – resulted from a symbiotic relationship with religion. Thinkers, educators and researchers of that era made huge strides in many different areas because of their clear focus on the problem at hand.

The children of today will become the leaders of the Ummah tomorrow. Their upbringing and education are of utmost importance if we wish to see the return of the Golden Age.

In this article, we will take a look at the current educational system, focusing more closely on the Islamic schools. Although this is not a comprehensive analysis, we hope it will be a platform for thought about the future of the Muslim youth.

Islam holds parents responsible for the education and upbringing of their children. The decision about the schooling of your children is an important one, as it will affect their future. Abdullah ibn Umar (rta) reported that the Messenger of Allah (sa) said: “Every one of you is a shepherd and is responsible for his flock. A man is the guardian of his family and is responsible for them; a woman is the guardian of her husband’s home and of his children and is responsible for them.” (Bukhari and Muslim)

The schooling system in place today offers parents two choices: regular schools and Islamic ones. The crux of the matter is to educate children in a way that best prepares them for facing the challenges of their worldly affairs, while simultaneously inculcating in them values that will shape them into good Muslims. What the parents ultimately choose is mostly in line with their vision for their children.

  Regular School Islamic School
1. Arabic is not offered as a language. Basic Arabic is a subject, along with an explanation of the Quran.
2. Government-defined curriculum (Matric or O’Level) is followed. Government-defined curriculum with integration of Islamic concepts (e.g., creationism vs. evolution) is followed; some schools develop and follow their own curriculum till grade seven or eight.
3. Exposure to unacceptable lifestyle. Homogenous thought and lifestyle.
4. Focus on history as determined by the government/examination board. Focus on Islamic history with a critical analysis.
5. Staff retention is not a problem, as school has a favorable reputation. High rate of staff turnover.
6. Staff understands the mission/vision of the school. Hard to find teachers who understand the school’s values and are suitable role models for kids.
7. In an absence of Quranic education, time allotment of classroom instruction is manageable. Multiple classroom hours are required to balance secular and religious studies.
8. No issues of Hifz programme or staff. It is difficult to manage both.

Islamic Schools in Focus

The strongest argument in favour of Islamic schools is the presence of an Islamic environment and focus on building Muslim identity.

The goals of Islamic schools are noble and worthy; however, the road to achieving their targets is not easy. Elaborating on challenges faced by Islamic schools, Mrs. Shabana Ahmedani, administrator of Little Heaven says: “In today’s world, children are exposed to many temptations. Colourful cartoons, computer games and gadgets of all sorts are all very attractive for them. An absence of role models in the society and an emphasis on material things is confusing them also. We are trying to make Islamic education colourful and interesting, so children are not tempted by unacceptable behaviour and so that ultimately they will acknowledge the Prophet (sa) as their role model and the Quran as their book of guidance. Our method of teaching is giving them hands-on experience, which makes them independent in problem-solving and boosts their confidence level.” It is noteworthy that Little Heaven offers taekwondo classes for its students. In the Taekwondo Championships held at Bay View Academy earlier this year, students from Little Heaven won gold and silver medals in sparring and wood breaking.

Describing the structure of Fajr Academy in Karachi, and the way academic subjects are taught, Mr. Asim Ismail, founder and principal of the school, says: “We don’t teach Islamiat as a subject and we also do not teach anything other than Islamiat. We have developed our own curriculum for all subjects: English, Urdu, advanced knowledge, science, and Math. In Math, we do abacus for which we have received international training. Many schools are coming to adopt this system. There is one school opening in Lahore in August Insha’Allah which is adopting the Fajr model completely. Another will open in Karachi also.” Fajr Academy has a distinguished reading programme. It offers frequent educational trips and exceptional hard skills learning opportunities ranging from teaching kids to build walls to making clocks. Each classroom has 12 students and 2 teachers.

Naheed bintul Yaqeen, Founder of Faith Academy, elaborates on the efforts made by her school with regard to the curriculum. “What sets us apart is our education system that focuses on the effective upbringing of children through character building. We at The Faith Academy do that by synthesizing our own curriculum from the Quran and Hadeeth and incorporating it into the textbooks. We specialize in deriving science from the Quran rather than integrating the Quran into science. Our curriculum talks about Muslim scientists and philosophers whom our students can idealize and recognize as their heroes. Our curriculum focuses on sculpting students who have a very strong faith in Allah (swt) and believe completely in religion, are well-aware of their history and how they have ruled the world in the past, and know how to run the world according to the word of Allah.”

Reflections School is one of the very Islamic schools in Karachi which has a purpose-built campus for the students. It is also distinguished by its strong Arabic programme. One of the faculty members elaborates on some of its strong points: “We hold interpersonal and intrapersonal development workshop for students, teachers, and mothers on a regular basis. Moreover, there are inter-school debates and elocution contests for students. Our students also received A*, A and B grades in the first-ever Arabic CIE papers.”

Islamic schools that are not patronized by renowned figures admit that the main challenge is financial support: “We have so many ideas, and so much talent, but we cannot bring them to fruition, because of a low budget. Our aim is to provide quality education to everyone, and not just to those who can afford it. Some students at our institution are on scholarships, and we also have an old textbook exchange programme,” says a coordinator of an Islamic school. “It is heartening to note that the school does not produce religious robots, and instead, its students know how to critically analyze things.” Despite its budget constraints, the school organizes regular book fairs and sports’ competitions for its students, and gives them opportunities to engage in various activities during the Students’ Week. Its students also visited Tharparkar earlier this year for relief work.

Shazia Khalid, Princpal of Emaan Academy, feels that the mindset of parents who want the fee structure of Islamic schools to be as economical as possible is one of the major challenges. “Also, at times, people feel a mix of Deen and Duniya means that you teach the Quran, Arabic, Salah, etc, and at the same time, you also have music and other ‘modern’ subjects,” she explains. “Our plus point is that we have strong training programmes for our teaching faculty in line with the latest researches of education. Alhumdulillah, we see the results of our efforts in senior classes when girls start observing Hijab and Niqab, talk about and pen their views confidently about the common problems of today’s youth, and get engaged in giving Dawah to others.”

Mr. Atif Iqbal, director of Al Huda International School (AIS), Islamabad, says: “We realized that the existing education system provided no link between religion and the world we live in. The challenges we faced were numerous. Initially, and even now, it is a challenge to find qualified professional teachers with a true understanding of Islam, who can teach those virtues and values to students. There was no standard Islamic studies curriculum available in the market. AIS was a pioneer in developing an Islamic curriculum for the Montessori classes directly under the guidance of Dr. Farhat Hashmi, a renowned Islamic scholar.

We see our students actively and confidently facing the challenges of the real world head-on, Alhumdulillah. The curriculum at AIS incorporates students’ active participation in projects that involve critical thinking and teamwork. Students are encouraged to participate in co-curricular activities, which include competitions within school as well as those at a national and international level, along with sports activities like taekwondo, badminton, table tennis, horse riding, and swimming.”

Unfortunately, one gets the feeling that Islamic schools are working towards their goals independently; even though each school bears their own fruit and is a step in the right direction, joint efforts would do much more for the betterment of education for Muslim children.

Some schools try to remain affordable to the lower middle class while striving to maintain excellence in education. Others compete for elite students, who can pay tuition fees comparable to renowned private schools. Ultimately, it is the Muslim children who suffer.

Perspective of Parents

Let us hear what parents of children attending Islamic schools have to say.

Fozia Seraj, whose children attend Usman Public School, says: “Kids in my extended family, who go to a regular school, have no Islamic integration regarding their knowledge of science and language. Alhumdulillah, an Islamic school has given my kids confidence and they speak their mind. The kind of jobs offered to people graduating from regular schools leads them into a world of materialism. Insha’Allah, my kids will have a sense of accountability and Islamic morals, which will help them in leading a responsible life.”

Umm Hamza says: “My son is being taught Tafseer in a way that he enjoys. He knows when the particular Surah was revealed and its meaning. (An Islamic school) helps in improving a child’s overall behaviour. I, as a parent, feel that it is not only the school’s responsibility to inculcate values and impart knowledge – parents should reinforce them at home, too.” Her children study at Reflections School.

A parent of a 13-year-old Hafidh gives us his point of view: “He was at an Islamic school till grade four; then, he was in a Madrasah till grade six and finally in a public school in Canada for the past two years. I see my son is grounded in his identity as a Muslim, since his initial education was in an Islamic environment. Those early years helped establish his identity as a Muslim.”

Amna, whose four daughters go to an Islamic school, describes the difference between regular schools and Islamic ones: “My kids bring home Eid cards made in class, as opposed to Valentine’s Day cards. Also, it has been inculcated in my kids since kindergarten to make Salah at the right time – it is part of the school’s practice. I am ultimately responsible for them and will protect them as long as I can. As for the lack of extracurricular activities and English proficiency, I just supplement it privately; to me, the environment offered by this Islamic school is very important.”

A mother, who has three children at AIS Islamabad, says “My youngest one (obtained admission in) Al Huda International School through scholarship and it is the best thing that has ever happened. My son, who was extremely shy and an introvert, started coming out of his shell. His confidence level has increased; he no longer hides in corners when guests come around, and his English language skills have improved immensely.”

A mother of two students, who attend Fajr Academy, shares: “I can see strong leadership abilities emerge in my kids as young as 5 and 7: they speak fluent English, utter manageable Arabic, quote from the Quran, express opinions, and offer sensitivity towards the society with solutions accompanied.”

In conclusion, parents themselves have to decide what their ultimate goals for their children are. Instead of outsourcing the moulding of our children to someone else, we have to assume more responsibility ourselves. Allah (swt) has given children rights over their parents: to be raised as enlightened, responsible Muslim adults.

Spotlight on the Islamic School System in the US

By Humaira Khan

In a rapidly changing global society, where moral standards are in constant flux, is Islamic education a necessity, rather than a choice, for our children?

“Here in the USA,” says Ahsan Ali, member of the Huda Academy School Board, “we do not take Islamic education for granted. The whole purpose of an Islamic education is to dispel any identity confusion (so that) the children know they are Muslim and are not embarrassed about it. Rather, they feel proud of the fact and don’t pretend to be anybody else.”

This is a tall order for any Muslim community to undertake. The challenges are many and the road is long.

“Lack of funding is a major issue,” says Ali. “The public school system is often so good that it is very hard for families (to choose) to commit six to ten thousand dollars annually to a private school.”

On the one hand, there is a need for the Islamic schools to remain competitive with public and private institutions in terms of curricula and in meeting national and state standards. On the other, they have to deal with the critics of the Islamic school system: those who do not want an Islamic education and view it as unnecessary, or those who want it but generally consider the education being provided to be inadequate.

In a small Muslim community, this creates a vicious cycle: poor recruitment means lack of funds to run the school, which means foregoing certain essentials. This, in turn, leads to a struggle to maintain standards with inadequate resources, which becomes the reason for some people to give up on the school.

Abu Diab attended Huda Academy when it was a newly-established school. She is now a pre-medical student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

“Huda Academy provided me with a moral reference and an Islamic backbone,” she says. “It established a framework for my character that I often looked back upon when faced with challenges. Huda was not a very large school; yet it had a culture of its own, which I didn’t properly recognize or appreciate till I left. This culture entrenched in me a self-confidence that allowed me to be comfortable with my Islamic identity when I left the school.”

Parents and community members should find this testimonial eye-opening. It shows us the importance of being a part of Islamic education efforts in the West for the sake of our community’s children – with sincerity and a healthy dose of far-sightedness.

What is Guidance?

Narrated Abu Musa (rtam) that the Prophet (sa) said: “The example of guidance and knowledge (the Quran and the Sunnah) with which Allah (swt) has sent me is like abundant rain falling on the Earth, some of which was fertile soil that absorbed rain water and brought forth vegetation and grass in abundance. (And) another portion of it was hard and held the rain water and Allah (swt) benefitted the people with it and they utilized it for drinking, making their animals drink from it and irrigating the land for cultivation. (And) a portion of it was barren which could neither hold the water nor bring forth vegetation (then that land gave no benefits). The first is the example of the person who comprehends Allah’s (swt) religion (Islam) and gets benefit (from the knowledge) which Allah (swt) has revealed through me (the Prophet [sa]) and learns and then teaches it to others. The last example is that of a person who does not care for it and does not take Allah’s (swt) guidance revealed through me (He is like that barren land).” (Bukhari)

Guidance is of two kinds:

  1. Guidance of Taufiq: It is totally from Allah (swt), that is, He (swt) opens one’s heart to receive the truth (from disbelief to belief in Islamic monotheism).
  2. Guidance of Irshad: It has come via Allah’s (swt) messengers and pious preachers who preached the truth, that is, Islamic monotheism.

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