Once the fingers and toes have been counted, the initial medical evaluation completed, and the call to prayer recited in the newborn’s ear, every Muslim parent asks the question, “How do I teach this child all he needs to know? Muslim mothers and fathers across this planet have grappled with the question of how to educate their child in the matter of all things religious: How to teach them Arabic, how to teach them the proper way to perform the five daily prayers, and how to teach them the myriad of lessons and observances integral to the practice of Islam.
I started worrying about these questions while my first child was still in utero. I read Arabic in the same manner in which my youngest son cleans his room – both slowly and painfully. My Islamic history was shaky, and my knowledge of Islamic directives lacking. Not from a lack of teaching on my parents’ part, I should add. My parents were as involved and as diligent as they could be. They taught me at home, brought religious teachers into the house, and sent me to several different Islamic Sunday schools. None of it was fun. I wanted the experience to be different for my own children.
One of the options available to us was full time Islamic school, and there happened to be one conveniently located in our area—one that didn’t seem to be connected with the Taliban and was spoken of highly by friends. We sent in an application and were called in for an interview. I mentally interviewed the triumvirate of school officials in my head as they interviewed us. They asked a lot of good questions. How much T.V. did our children watch? How many times a week did we take them to the library and what books were their favorites? I filed all these concerns as positive ones in my mental checklist. They offered our daughter a spot on their kindergarten roster and we happily sent in our deposit.
The Islamic school brought many positives into our lives. Our school piloted a fabulous program that taught preschoolers and kindergartners the Arabic alphabet. In first grade, as they were learning to read English, they were simultaneously learning the Tajweed, or rules of learning to read Arabic. By the end of second grade, they had completed the Qur’an for the first time. To have your second grader finish the Qur’an is one heck of an accomplishment, since most Muslim children begin this formidable task when they are seven or eight-years-old and take at least three or four years to finish it. I felt a huge relief as I ticked off one more item off the “Things To Teach My Child” checklist. I was impressed by the diligence of the school when my children learned to recite a prayer of gratitude before eating as an integral part of every meal and snack. I loved the fact that My children were in a safe, loving atmosphere that celebrated their religious background and offered a learning environment filled with people that resembled them, could pronounce their names, understood their dietary restrictions and did not automatically connect them with terrorists.
The benefits were indeed enormous and wide-ranging. During the first week of school, my six-year-old daughter brought home Arabic homework that went right over my head. Frustrated, I contacted her Arabic teacher. This lovely woman proceeded to send home two sets of instructions every day for a year – one set in Arabic for my daughter and another set in English for me. Today she is one of my dearest friends and she still looks out for my baby 15 years later
But the school roller-coaster ride had valleys alongside the peaks. There was tremendous pressure for the little ones to fast during Ramadan. Every year I would send in notes that read, “My child is seven and will not be fasting. Please feed him lunch.” A little girl once innocently asked my son why his mother was not a Muslim based solely on her observation that I didn’t wear a headscarf. In her mind, a woman whose hair was exposed and a Muslim woman were two mutually exclusive things. Peers questioned my daughter’s attendance at ballet class. “Ballet is forbidden in Islam,” they assuredly informed her.
So the school’s values weren’t always my values. Other parents related their own stories about teachers propagating their personal cultural values as religious principles. One friend had to deprogram her daughter from believing that plucking her eyebrows would lead her down the path to Hell.
I could deal with all the nonsensical stuff if it meant my children were learning in a happy, loving environment. And they were loved, not just taught, at this Islamic school that unfortunately happened to have some of the worst bathrooms on the planet—picture 30 preschoolers, and then picture 30 Muslim preschoolers all trying to perform wudu. But, the straw that led to the eventual defection of my children to public schools was the administration’s belief that Muslims came in one size, shape and acted in one homogenous motion. Diversity in thought was not a concept encouraged at the school. This was brought home rather pointedly when having volunteered to chaperone a field trip, I was sent a contract to sign if I wanted to accompany the children. The contract stated that I would cover my hair, wear modest clothing and refrain from wearing make-up while acting as chaperone. The hypocrisy implied in the contract was stunning. I could roam the mosque grounds and pick up my children from the school wearing heavier make-up and tighter clothing than Kim Kardashian, but was contractually forbidden from accompanying the kids on a field trip wearing jeans and eyeliner.
It was time to leave. In making our decision I was cognizant of the fact that just as there is no perfect child there is no perfect school. But the disadvantages were starting to outnumber the advantages. My older two children left with regret and a sense of sadness for all the blessings they would be missing. My youngest son still refers to our leaving as “the Great Escape.” To me, it was a mix of both because I really do hate Islamic school…I mean love Islamic school.
(Photo Credit: IIOC)
Nausheena Ahmed was born in England, raised in Canada and is currently living in New Jersey. She is busy raising three kids whose names she never wants to see on a front page with the words “serial killer” or “psychopath” beside them.