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Guardians of the Faith

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 20, 1999 12 min read
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It’s no wonder most scientists investigating the origin of the universe have come around to the big-bang theory, Noorie Banister tells her 6th graders at Crescent Academy International, a private Islamic school in this Detroit suburb.

The proof has been in the Koran, the holy book of Islam, for centuries, she says.

“‘Do not the unbelievers see,’” a boy reads aloud, “‘that the heavens and the earth were joined together as one unit of creation before we clove them asunder?’”

“I think all that’s happened is because Allah willed it to be so,” Banister, a native of India, says. “We already have everything in the Koran. ... The scientists slowly catch up with us.”

But Banister also teaches about evolution, even though it conflicts with Islam. Evolution is included in Michigan’s academic standards, and the students should be aware of “what’s out there,” Banister explains later in an interview.

Deciding what their children should accept and reject from Western culture is a dilemma faced by many Muslim parents living in this country. Increasingly, they are turning to private Islamic schools to help them sort it out.

In 1989, just 49 full-time Islamic schools were operating in the United States, according to the Islamic Society of North America. Today, while no organization keeps an official list, the Council of Islamic Schools in North America counts 180 full-time schools. Most of them are K-8.

“In the next few years, we believe there will be more parents who are either able to or interested in putting their children in an Islamic school,” says Hassan Qazwini, an Iraqi-born immigrant and the prayer leader for the Islamic Center of America, the oldest mosque in Detroit. The Shiite mosque, which was finished in 1961, opened a full-time, state-accredited school with 30 students last school year; enrollment jumped to 140 students this year.

Qazwini says the increase in full-time religious schools represents the growing realization among American Muslims that it’s not enough for their children to attend Islamic schools on the weekends if they are to keep their religious and cultural identity.

“The moral decadence, the quality of education in the public schools made so many of us concerned about the future of our children,” Qazwini says. “Some corruptive acts take place that we are ashamed even to talk about--drug use, swearing, using the ‘F’ word, improper sexual contact between boys and girls, harassing the older students, harassing the younger ones. It really makes you feel sick.”

“The minute you put your children in the public schools, they’re not Muslim anymore,” says Yamamah Sawalha, an immigrant from Jordan and the parent of a preschooler and a 2nd grader at Crescent Academy. In the public schools, Sawalha says, “they’re singing songs about Christmas, there’s Halloween and all this stuff, boyfriends and girlfriends--it’s not accepted by our religion.”

Other Muslim parents speak of more subtle problems in the public schools, particularly ignorance about Islam among Americans and peer pressure to conform to a non-Muslim culture.

Nicole M. Chambers, an African-American Muslim who has a daughter in kindergarten at Crescent Academy, says she’d teach her child at home before putting her in the public schools.

Being different is “rough on kids,” she says.

“She gets the foundation at home, but she needs the support group. ... I want her to feel comfortable being Muslim. I don’t want her to be the only one in school with hijab,” Islamic modest dress.

Islamic schools in the United States are not formed out of a single mold. They attract teachers and administrators from different ethnic backgrounds and reflect different levels of funding. The schools range from one with 40 students in Baltimore that relies on volunteer teachers to an academy with 1,300 students in Mount Vernon, Va., that is supported by the Saudi Arabian government--one Muslim educator calls it “the Neiman Marcus of Muslim schools.”

Generally, though, Islamic schools fall into two categories: those established by Muslim immigrants and those established by African-Americans who converted to Islam under the original Nation of Islam, and are now followers of W. Deen Mohammed, formerly Wallace D. Muhammad.

The latter schools, known as Sister Clara Muhammad schools, have become more “orthodox Islamic” and no longer teach black nationalist ideas, such as that God is black, according to Sulayman S. Nyang, a professor of African studies at Howard University in Washington.

“The immigrant schools are more numerous,” says Nyang, the author of Islam in the United States of America, published this month by Kazi Publications. “They’re growing faster because they are wealthier.”

The range of Islamic schooling options can easily be seen in Detroit. Now with nine full-time Islamic schools, Detroit and its suburbs have had a sizable Muslim population since the 1920s, when Arabs immigrated here to work in car factories. Virtually entire village populations in countries such as Yemen uprooted and moved to the Detroit area.

More recently, Muslims have come from war-torn Lebanon and Iraq, bringing the current Muslim population in the area to about 350,000, including American-born Muslims.

An example of a Detroit school founded by African-American Muslims is the 190-student, pre-K-12 Al-Ikhlas Training Academy located on the east side of the city. Established in 1991, the same year as Crescent Academy, Al-Ikhlas Academy also aims to give children a standard American education within a religious context. While most of the Islamic schools started by African-American Muslims are part of the Sister Clara Muhammad system, this one considers itself a “sister school” of that system.

The school’s poor funding is readily apparent. Al-Ikhlas Academy lacks accreditation and has some teachers who are not certified. It pays its teachers an average of $300 a week. Nadir Ahmad, the principal, earns $350 a week and works a second job taking reservations for Northwest Airlines to support his family.

Resources are so scarce that 1st graders are learning to read this winter from photocopies of books. Students in some classes wear their coats throughout the day because the furnace in the building--formerly a Roman Catholic school--heats unevenly.

Students come mostly from poor families. About half the students are American-born blacks. The rest, many also American-born, come primarily from the surrounding blue-collar community of Yemeni immigrants. Tuition is $2,000 per child, but discounts are available for low-income families.

By contrast, at Crescent Academy, all of the teachers of core subjects are certified and receive regular professional development. The 150-student, pre-K-8 school has tables and shelves spilling over with books and videos, and a television in every classroom. It is housed in a new building that is being expanded. The annual starting salary for teachers is $18,000 to $20,000, plus benefits.

Most of Crescent Academy’s students are American-born children of highly educated immigrants of the Middle East and South Asia, especially Palestine, Yemen, Iraq, India, and Pakistan. Tuition is $3,100 for the first child enrolled from a family and less for additional children.

Despite such differ-ences, however, the two schools are similar in how they weave together academic and religious instruction, uphold high standards for discipline, and integrate religious practice into the school day. Once a day at Al-Ikhlas Academy and twice a day at Crescent Academy, everyone gathers for prayer. With males lined up in front and females in the back--all facing toward Mecca--an adult male chants in Arabic as everyone moves in unison from one prayer position to another.

Both schools teach a basic curriculum recommended by the state and add required courses in Islamic studies and Arabic, the language of the Koran. The schools have small class sizes--the whole 12th grade at Al-Ikhlas has six students; the largest class at Crescent Academy is the 3rd grade class, which has 22 students.

Students and teachers observe strict dress codes, which emphasize modest dress for women and girls, including the covering of their heads, arms, and legs.

While boys and girls at some Muslim schools learn in separate classrooms, at these two schools they are assigned to separate areas of the same rooms. They are allowed to talk to each other but not to touch.

“We want to have a dividing line until they’re responsible enough to marry. They’re here to focus on their education,” says Ahmad of Al-Ikhlas Academy. At his school, a seven-foot gap separates the girls’ desks from the boys’ desks, and girls and boys use separate stairwells.

Eleven-year-old Amina Mustafa sees the separation of the sexes as a good thing. “In public school, they make you sit by the boys,” she says. “A boy might hit on you or something. That’s against our religion.”

While the separation eliminates obvious flirting or teasing between boys and girls, they don’t appear to be intimidated by each other. In one recent class, a girl calls across the dividing line to ask a boy about an assignment, as if he were conveniently seated next to her.

The atmosphere at both Islamic schools is peaceful. Students treat their teachers respectfully, and the teachers deal with the students in a straightforward, kind manner. Teachers and students address each other as “sister” or “brother” and extend to each other the Arabic greeting of Assalaamu Alaykum, or “Peace be unto you.”

The handbook for Al-Ikhlas Academy spells out punishments for everything from swearing to carrying a weapon. While many offenses result in suspension, a few, such as fighting, may bring expulsion. The principal of Crescent Academy says he will talk one-on-one with a student for as mild of an offense as saying “shut up” to a classmate.

Despite the disciplined environment, the children occasionally show their playful side. Two boys at Crescent Academy deliberately bump against each other as they assume different positions during prayer. When adults aren’t looking after classes have let out for the day, one child runs and slides across the gym floor on his sleek nylon parka.

Both schools have more girls than boys, particularly at Al-Ikhlas Academy.

“The Arabs tend to allow the boys to go and experience the public school system. They want to keep the girls in an Islamic-values environment ... to keep morals intact,” says Jamaaluddin Al-Haidar, an African-American Muslim who teaches science at Al-Ikhlas Academy. He adds that Arab parents are also more concerned that their sons rather than their daughters be able to do well in the American higher education system; most Arab girls marry right after high school if not before, and high school is the extent of their education.

Religious discussions at Detroit Islamic schools centered this last month on Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. During Ramadan, which ended this week, Muslims neither eat nor drink from sunup to sundown. They break the daily fast with family and friends after dark with special foods, such as dates. Children who haven’t reached puberty, people who are sick, and women who are pregnant or menstruating are among those exempted from fasting. Muslims view Ramadan as a time of self-cleansing, self-discipline, and charity.

“All those of you who are fasting, we pray that Allah will accept your fast,” Ahmad says after leading Al-Ikhlas Academy students and teachers in daily prayer. “Fasting is more than skipping a meal. Fasting is constraining yourself.”

At Crescent Academy, Islamic-studies teacher Ali S. Ali discusses with 6th graders some of the finer points of Ramadan. He questions the students on whether a fast during Ramadan is valid if the person who is fasting sleeps all day. His answer: Yes, but it’s better to be active during the day.

Then he asks them what they should do if they accidentally forget to fast and take a sip of drink or bite of food. The answer: Continue to fast, but consider the sip of drink or morsel of food a blessing from God.

At Al-Ikhlas Academy, 9th graders jokingly nag science teacher Jamaahuddin Al-Haidar to go light on their homework assignments, because they’re “exhausted” from fasting.

“Ramadan is no excuse for us to sit on our hands and do nothing,” Al-Haidar responds. “Ask your Islamic teachers--a lot of great things were done during Ramadan.”

A good share of students in Detroit Islamic schools have already attended public schools, and many of them will go back to the public schools for high school because most Islamic schools end at the 8th grade. At times such as Ramadan, students say they’re grateful they’re attending an Islamic school.

Amane Ismail, a Palestinian-born 13-year-old at Crescent, says she found it hard to fast when she attended public school.

Her classmates would urge her to eat as she sat with them in the cafeteria. “They’d say, ‘Eat lunch.’ They’d say nobody would see me except them. I’d tell them, ‘My God’s there and he’ll see me.’ ”

While both schools aim to preserve Islamic faith and culture, they also recognize that the children live in a country where most people are not Muslim.

That means preparing them for American universities and paying attention to standard curricula and standardized tests. Fourth graders at Crescent Academy, for instance, are using official guides to prepare for Michigan’s state standardized tests. Al-Ikhlas Academy teachers and administrators are pleased that all of last year’s eight graduating seniors went on to college.

Ahmad hopes that one day Al-Ikhlas Academy will be accredited-- something that’s been hard to achieve on the school’s shoestring budget of $250,000 per year.

“We’re not at the standards we want to be at. We’re working hard at it,” he says.

The school’s strength, he adds, is that it gives students a “value system.”

“For us, the priority is training their minds and having them understand being in the world also,” says Mirza Masood Rab, a board member and founder of Crescent Academy. He sent three of his four children to Islamic schools; his first son attended a Catholic school before the first Islamic school founded by immigrants in the Detroit area opened in 1982.

Once the children have a foundation in their faith, “you can set them free--and they will behave,” Rab says.

An Islamic education prepares children “to compete in the American system without being confused,” says Mirzafalz Zahid, an immigrant from Pakistan and father of a 7th grader at Al-Ikhlas Academy.

Some Muslims take a more isolationist view, but they are a minority, says Nyang, the Howard University professor. “You have them, the conservatives. They are in America, but they don’t want to be affected by secular America. You have [conservatives] with the Jews and Christians also. The oyster Muslims, I call them.”

Muhammad S. Akhtar, the principal of Crescent Academy, uses a story about the prophet Mohammed to explain to his students that Muslims should cooperate with people of all faiths, and by doing so can serve as an example to others.

After Mohammed and his followers migrated from Mecca to Medina in the 7th century, they were able to stave off an invasion from outsiders by cooperating with all the people in Medina--whether Muslims, Jews, or Christians, Akhtar tells the students at an assembly.

Cooperation, Akhtar continues, should be practiced everywhere, whether in the classroom or a shopping mall.

“We need you to practice it the whole year,” he says. “We want the people of Michigan to feel it: Who is this boy? Who is this girl?”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 1999 edition of Education Week as Guardians of the Faith


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