Lessons In Faith

By Hillel Kuttler — March 01, 2001 7 min read
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Evolution is out at the Islamic Community School, but the Koran and Huckleberry Finn are in.
—Allison Shelley

Zakia Amin sits on a metal folding chair between two adjoining classrooms, glancing back and forth at the boys in black skullcaps and blue school uniforms to her left and right. Amin—or “Sister” Zakia as she’s known to her fellow Muslims—plunges into the tasks ahead. First, she works with the six boys in the 7th and 8th grades, reading their compositions aloud and scowling at their errors, all the while ignoring the Koran chantings filtering in from down the hall. Next, she glances at her 9th and 10th graders to see what they’re up to. All four are reading silently from Huckleberry Finn, as assigned. She switches back to the 7th and 8th graders and gets the group into analyzing John Steinbeck’s The Pearl—conflict, setting, theme. That done, she’s back to the older kids, this time to dissect a bit of Twain.

This is a pretty typical routine for Amin at Baltimore’s Islamic Community School—shuffling between rooms, juggling books and subjects, teaching nine classes per semester, and serving besides as a vice principal. When she notes that in her school “a teacher definitely cannot be sedentary,” she’s telling the truth.

The 47-year-old woman with round plastic glasses, smooth enunciation, and a master’s degree in education from Temple University has labored thus for 21 years. And her salary, the payoff for the 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. days?

Well, actually—zero.

In fact, the storefront on Baltimore’s gritty North Avenue only hints at the modesty of this school of 36 kids. There’s the dark interior stairway, the several computers crammed together, and the teacher’s desk wedged in the back or side of each classroom so as not to block the chalkboard.

Forget about any extras: There’s no gymnasium, no front office, no teachers’ lounge, no cafeteria. Ditto the nurse, secretary, art and music classes, and science lab. And, for the past five years, there have been no science classes because the school’s had no teacher qualified to lead them.

This is the way it’s always been at ICS, which is one of approximately 200 full- time Islamic schools in the county. Ever since a handful of parents—mostly African American converts to Islam—banded together to form a day-care center and school 23 years and two buildings ago, ICS has run solely on volunteer power. Yet far from dwelling on what the place lacks, teachers emphasize what it offers them: a chance at a more celestial dividend in the next world. “We’re trying to get into Paradise,” explains Amin.

Asked how she makes ends meet, Amin exclaims: “How? By the will of Allah.” Practically speaking, some teachers get by on their spouses’ salaries, while others hold down evening and weekend jobs. But such staunch religious conviction may be necessary in the face of ICS’s improbable $20,000 annual budget. The school’s sliding-scale tuition averages $1,800 per family, and a $100 per-student book fee buys new textbooks every four years or so. Bake sales, donated items, and free labor—last year volunteers saved the place $2,000 by tinkering with repairs themselves—keep the school afloat.

When parents opened ICS in 1978 to preserve their cultural and religious values, “none of us were teachers,” recalls Maalik Abdussamad, now the school’s principal. But, he adds: “We had a strong commitment to Islam, and we did not want to see our children lose their faith [by going to] public schools. We believe it’s our responsibility to educate our children.”

Not long ago, there weren’t many full-time Islamic schools in the United States. But today ICS is part of a phenomenon: In just over 10 years, the number of such schools has more than tripled, reports Sulayman Nyang, author of Islam in the United States of America. Some, like ICS, are poorly funded, located in a city, and composed largely of African American converts to Islam. Others, made up mostly of a growing immigrant population, are nestled in comfortable suburbs and sometimes boast hundreds of students and halls brimming with educational goodies. Across the range, the schools share a common goal, says Nyang: raising kids “so they become Americans and Muslims at the same time.”

Islamic schools—in addition to offering Arabic and religious studies—also eliminate a number of awkward social situations. For example, students in ICS don’t have to explain their head coverings, wonder if the cafeteria is dishing out pork, or worry about Christmas parties. For Abdulmuhsiy Abdurrahman, making sure his daughter is shielded from adolescent flirtation—or, as he calls it, “the interaction and fraternization between male and female"—is also a considerable concern. At ICS he need not fret: Boys and girls rarely mix because the older girls’ classes end by noon, when the boys first arrive.

Aside from guarding against “fraternization,” this staggered arrangement fits in with ICS’s one-room-schoolhouse approach. Several age groups learn together—one can’t help but think of Little House on the Prairie—and grade levels disappear from time to time, depending on enrollment. This year, the school lacks 12th grade boys, and only two pupils attend the girls’ 4th to 6th grade class. Parents obsessed with teacher-student ratios should take note: Ten kids in a class are considered a lot. In fact, ICS is so much a family operation that, according to Amin, “any student can call any teacher at home any night regarding homework or class work.”

The school’s intimacy was a major draw for Abdurrahman, whose five children attended ICS. “They’re able to get individualized attention,” he says. “If Sister Zakia tells me something about one of my children, it’s like she’s telling me as a parent, not as a teacher.” While the school offers many benefits, “the main thing is the dedication of the teachers,” he says. “They do it out of love.”

It takes more than love, however, to teach a roomful of kids whose ages and grade levels vary. “It’s an art—a fine art,” Amin says, laughing. “Some things we can discuss together, like sentence structure. The 11th graders can write more complex sentences with clauses, while the 7th graders are just learning about clauses.”

Juggling duties doesn’t bother Zakia Amin (right). “We’re trying to get into Paradise,” she says.
—Allison Shelley

Most ICS teachers perform these pedagogical acrobatics with little formal training and no state supervision. Because Maryland does not monitor the curricula of religious schools, ICS teaches whatever and however it likes. Most teachers aren’t certified, either; in fact, a high school diploma is the most common credential. But Amin and the school’s other vice principal, Rehan Abdulillaha, who also has an education degree, conduct workshops for the teachers on such subjects as planning lessons and classroom management.

Can such an arrangement provide quality education? “The shortcomings are evident,” says Nyang. “People are teaching without proper credentials.” But there is a trade-off. “What [students] lose in knowledge, they are compensated with in compassion,” he explains. “You can go to the best public school, and if the teacher doesn’t care about you, . . . then you have a problem.”

Nyang feels, however, that someone at ICS should be teaching science. Even the theory of evolution, he says, could be taught in an Islamic context.

Amin doesn’t agree. “We definitely don’t teach that,” she says, “because it goes against our basic teachings of Islam. But students are made aware that it exists. . . . We might say that some people believe in [evolution] but not us. The same thing about premarital sex. We talk about it, but they know that we behave a certain way. And they live in the neighborhoods. It would be kind of ridiculous for us to think they didn’t know any of this.”

Abdussamad adds, “We try to insulate them from the negative influences of society, but we can’t isolate them.”

In some respects, at least, this approach has served students well. All ICS graduates go to college, according to Amin, and many alumni have returned to the school to teach a class or two in their chosen fields, such as computers or business. Abdussamad’s grandchildren attend the school, and his son, who graduated several years ago, leads two afternoon prayer services each day and teaches the Koran four times a week.

The school also fosters a sense of independence. Abdulillaha’s daughter, who is attending the University of Maryland at Eastern Shore, is determined to become a pediatric surgeon. Never having taken biology or chemistry classes seems to present no obstacle. “It boils down to discipline,” explains Abdulillaha. “Science is something she has to deal with. My daughter wants to become a doctor, so she has to learn science.”

“They know how to learn, and they don’t have a lot of social distractions,” pipes in Abdussamad. “They have these aspirations,” and they know that because of the school’s tiny staff, they have to learn independently and develop solid study skills. But, he adds, “we tell them it’s an asset, that when you’re in college, and the instructor gives you an assignment, you’re going to say, ‘That’s all there is?’ ”

Of course, the staff at ICS wouldn’t mind being able to offer students more educational amenities, as well as a shiny new building. But at ICS, “the concentration is on developing the student—his character and religious orientation,” says Abdussamad. Some American kids have many material possessions, but their lives are empty, he notes. “Here the kids don’t have everything but are full with the Islamic spirit. I’ll take that.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2001 edition of Teacher as Lessons In Faith


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