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Wednesday, 12 September 2012 08:29

The Sad State of Islamic Schools

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Like many faiths, American Muslim parents are keen on ensuring that their children get a good religious education. Some prefer the full time Monday through Friday religious schools whereas others prefer the Christian model “Sunday’ school,” which provides young ones with the basic religious foundation for a few hours on a Sunday.

The problem for us Muslims parents is we are sometimes unaware of the type of religious education to which we are exposing our children. Religion is interpreted in a variety of different ways by different people and Islam is no different. And because Islam is not supposed to have an official theocratic leadership like the Vatican for example, some say there are as many ways of interpreting Islam, as there are Muslims. We are, according to the Quran, all vice-regents of God, here on earth.

I am a progressive Muslim mom who learned the hard way that what my daughter was learning in a Muslim Sunday school, was in direct opposition to what I was teaching her at home.

Here’s the story. For a few years, I sent the poor kid to the local Sunday school in Los Angeles. It seemed somewhat ‘progressive’ to me. Kids were not segregated by gender; girls were not forced to wear the hijab and the curriculum didn’t raise any red flags.

But it never failed, with each pick-up, there was always a religious lesson I had to “undo“- explaining why I was not completely in agreement with my child‘s teacher. I taught my daughter about the loving and compassionate God and at school she was learning to fear God. The loving Allah I was telling her about at home was being slowly replaced by something else. Here are two examples.

At age 5 a teacher taught, “you will go to hell if you hurt someone”. That afternoon my daughter playfully pushed a boy down and accidentally hurt him. Connecting the two dots, and after suffering from guilt, she said: “Mom, Dad, I don’t want to be Muslim anymore because I don’t want to go to hell.” My husband and I were shocked. Fortunately as parents we were able to defuse that trauma.

At age 7, the Sunday school teacher taught her that “If you eat pork you go to hell”. My daughter knew better and rebutted with the argument that if there’s nothing else to eat and if it was a matter of life and death, there was an exception and then yes, you may eat pork. The result? The teacher humiliated my daughter in front of her classmates, insisting she, the teacher was right.

In both instances there were missed opportunities in teaching about the Loving and Compassionate Creator - the one I teach at home.

The emphasis on hell “if you were to hurt someone” should have been instead replaced by an emphasis on compassion and good deeds for our fellow human beings.

Instead of teaching kids that consuming pork is a direct ticket to hell, how about teaching that God values life so much that it is permissible to break the rule if it is to preserve your life?

Instead of the beauty of Islam, an ugly dogma was taught in its place. I pulled my kid out of that school and she has never gone back. And I have since learned I am not the only Muslim parent in North America who has had issues with religious lessons and schools.

Religious schools naturally teach their own doctrines, not necessarily those taught to children at home. So we have to ask ourselves as parents - what are those doctrines and how do they differ from the values we teach at home?

At home I teach equality between men and women, as emphasized in the Quran and Hadith.

To me and to many progressive Muslim parents, the traditional practice of women praying behind the men, or men only permitted to lead the prayer, ingrained in our children that it is the men who have spiritual superiority over women, boys over girls.

Though there are hadith that provide that in the time of Prophet Muhammad a woman did lead the prayer in her community, there are less authentic hadith, describing a woman as being equivalent to an ass, and that your prayers will not be accepted by God if the prayer is led by a woman.

Which hadith should we believe? Which hadith should we teach our children? People must ask themselves.

Most religions teach the superiority of their faith tradition over others. Many Islamic schools are just as guilty. But many Islamic schools will argue that Islam’s superiority is attained from it being the last monotheistic faith, because Islam is ‘complete’. In the result, children are left with the attitude that they are looked upon more favourably by God, not because of their deeds, but because they are Muslim. Yet, this is in direct contradiction of the Quran.

Many Islamic schools draw narrow and distinct lines on what makes a good and a bad Muslim, a “real” Muslim and a “false” Muslim. Too often it is this indoctrination that nurtures arrogance of one’s Muslim-ness and that justifies threats toward Muslims they don’t agree with. Abroad, this animosity has resulted in hundreds of thousands of Muslim on Muslim killings.

Recently I learned that the teaching of what some call Islam, is rearing its head to a more extreme level. The Iqra book publisher, based out of Chicago, (please see image) is now introducing the concept that traditional scholars have considered jihad, both the war and the internal struggle, the 6th pillar of Islam for 5th and 6th-grade children. This is a book sold at the largest mosque in Silicon Valley and is the book children are assigned in the area.

Few mainstream Muslim scholars accept jihad as a sixth pillar. It is an extremist theology popular among only ultra conservative Muslims. Why introduce the concept of jihad, both the inner and the outer, at such a young age? It is a philosophy that requires mental and emotional maturity. By including it as a pillar of Islam it is giving our youth the license to go to war. How and why has this entered conservative Muslim schools?

Are conservative Islamic schools permitting Muslim extremists to teach their children?

I am proud to identify myself as a progressive Muslim and to have co-founded a progressive Muslim organization in America which is now international, nurturing progressive Islamic values to flourish and spread.

In response to the experiences of many like minded Muslim parents, we have developed a progressive Sunday school curriculum:

The goal is provide a solid Islamic education that is not antithetical to western society‘s ideals of inclusiveness.

Instead of learning of the decadence of the west and how Islam is so different and distinct from the world they live in, our children will learn that Islam helped to guide the Renaissance, which sparked modern western thought. They will learn that Islam is malleable and ever changing through the use of ijtihad - the traditional Islamic system of critical analysis and not a monolithic set of rules that cannot be broken.

They will learn to pray together without regard to gender, class, sectarian affiliation, race or sexual preference in an environment free of judgment and full of genuine acceptance, as originally taught by Prophet Muhammad.

They will learn that women have a role in every aspect of Islam, as did the women who played an integral role in the first Muslim community.

In essence, our children will learn to practice an Islam free of the intolerance that passes for orthodoxy, the gender inequality masked in the guise of protection and the violence against humanity some call piety.

Our children will learn to be Muslims who are at once pious, progressive, and free thinkers.

Our children will learn that as Muslims they are beholden, not only to themselves, not only to their community, but to humanity - one humanity, created by one Loving God.

By Ani Zonneveld, Aslan Media Columnist

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+1 # Katrina 2012-09-12 23:41
Amin!
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+1 # Molly Darden 2012-09-13 02:40
Good article, with refreshingly open ideology, Ani.
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0 # Avery 2012-09-13 04:00
Great article, but from the title, I was expecting a broader-based critique of U.S. Islamic schools in general or a view of many issues facing these schools. Though I did learn quite a bit (and saw my own experiences growing up Southern Baptist mirrored in the lessons being taught to your little one; sad sad), I was hoping to learn about the academic cirricula insofar as preparation for college exams or percentage of graduates compared to public schools. Also, how much freedom does an Islamic school has in choosing that cirriculum, what is taught (ex. evolution) and is there any sort of accreditation system for them? Are they also accredited by the state? I know that in Texas, private schools do not take the same state-wide tests for certain grades, but what is their criteria for passing or failing a student?

So, I would have named it something that better matched the narrower focus of the article. And hopefully, I've given you some ideas for your next topic????
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0 # Ani Zonneveld 2012-09-13 15:51
Avery,
Should I have called it 'radicalism in our Islamic Schools'? That would have REALLY painted all the Islamic schools unjustly. Thanks for your suggestion but no, I will not do a more in-depth piece as I am not an expert of Islamic schools and nor did I claim to be. Just speaking as a parent and from the direct communications I've had with parents across America.

What I described, the emphasis of 'hell' is so universal in Sunni teachings whether it is here in the U.S. or Malaysia.

As Pamela (see below) posted, full time accredited schools is much different than Sunday schools. Curriculum is one thing, but the outlook of the teacher is another.
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0 # Avery 2012-09-14 08:17
Ani: I feel that I need to be a bit brunt in this response because your reply to my post was jarring to put it lightly.

I thought this piece was great. I told you I learned new things. I like the way you write and was just elaborating on the theme with questions that your piece brought to mind. Maybe you could work with them, maybe not. And Ani, I never stated in any way that you were in some fashion. I don't know how to even respond to the part of claiming you were somethiong you were not.

The top of the comments section says "We only welcome and encourage constructive and respectful comments". I genuinely learned from your article, I compllinented it, liked your style of writing so much that I just suggested (I mean, just thinking aloud and anyone could have jumped in and I'm glad you did, Pamela. I just thought the title was broad. That's it. This was not a consttructive discussion, Ani. I hope this article gets widely shared and I enjoyed it.
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0 # Gustavo Gutierrez 2012-09-16 11:25
Sunday School curriculum in mosques deals with religious topics. It's like when children attend Sunday School or Vacation Bible School at their local Southern Baptist Convention congregation.

Remember, my Twelver Shia grandfather married a Southern Baptist, he never coerced her to convert. In fact, I attended Sunday School and VBS at the Southern Baptist Church my grandmother attended.

I never considered the curriculum hateful. My curriculum focused on the stories found in the Old Testament, the parables of Jesus in the New Testament, and details of the biography of Christ.

I was taught that there was two destinations, Heaven and Hell in the After Life. I was taught there was a Judgment Day. I was taught that faith, not good works (Catholic notion) would save me through belief in a Triune God.
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-1 # Muslim Parent 2012-09-13 12:07
What a terrible article that generalizes all Islamic schools based on the poor curriculum at one program. Is this what progressive Muslims have become, dabbling in anecdotes and hearsay. Parents often send their children to Sunday school to teach them things they can't teach themselves. Suddenly when you don't like what you hear, you complain that it is extremist. You know who else does that? Parents who want creationism instead of evolution taught in school. This author is the mental equivalent of a deep south GOP supporter. This non-intellectua l discussion is exactly what people who run hate sites do. Astaghfirullah.
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0 # Ani Zonneveld 2012-09-13 15:42
Muslim Parent,

I call things out as I see them, whether they are Muslim or not is irrelevant. If you want to ignore the radicalism that is being taught as in the photo of the book, by all means, but to accuse me of being a GOP supporter etc.shows your insecurity about this issue and an intentional mischaracterisa tion of me, especially when I just wrote an article calling the Republicans "Taliban-lite".

Muslims need to be self-critical of themselves and of our own community. If not others will criticize and happily redefine us, inaccurately.
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+1 # Gustavo Gutierrez 2012-09-16 11:15
Muslim Parent believes in evolution by natural selection. Clearly she or he is not an extremist if she or he can reconcile science with their faith.

But the issue is, you generalized ALL Muslim schools on the basis of one program in Los Angeles and one masjid bookstore in Silicon Valley. There are 49 other states where Muslims reside and several US territories like Puerto Rico which have Muslims.
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+2 # Pamela 2012-09-13 13:24
1) Where can people get the progressive Sunday School Curriculum?

2) Avery, there is no single system. My kids attend(ed) an Islamic school which was part of the charter school system. Their curriculum in all but religious classes has to meet state standards, and they follow state-mandated testing. Their graduates have gone on to do very well in public school and college. They participated in sports leagues and the choir performed at Disney, much like other schools. They also have partnered with a local Jewish school to teach important lessons on interfaith tolerance and peace. My kids would not have been sent there, if the school was any less. Has there ever been a lesson on religious doctrine I didn't agree with? Yes. But guess what, there are lessons in the general public school system I don't agree with either. That's part of life. Are all Islamic schools wonderful -- heck no. Are they all horrible -- not by a long shot.
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+1 # ali abbas 2012-09-13 22:24
Hi Pamela

I have taught Sunday Schools in Communities like VA, MD and now in NJ. I have lived in 3 different Continents over the last 30 years, from Singapore, to Indonesia to Pakistan and now the US, so I bring a full fledge Pluralistic bent to my Class-rooms

I use specific authors that are either Converts or muslim Scholarship that is entrenched in the academia. Since I taught the Senior most Class, I used texts from these authors

1. Fathi Osman (Themes of the Quran a must)
2. Jeffrey Lang (Losing My Religion, Cry for Help)
3. Joseph Lumbard (Islam Fundamentalism and Betrayal of Tradition)
4. Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Sufism and the Inner Heart)
5. abu Hamid Sulayman (on Quran 4:34)
6. Poetry from Rumi on Spiritual Life

Reflections on Key Quranic Chapters
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0 # Ani Zonneveld 2012-09-14 10:09
Ali,

The books you use indicates you are a liberal minded person. That is one reality and the comment you made about Mawdudi below is an example of another reality. I get emails from all sorts of people, but the emails from the Mawdudi influence is extremely hateful. They also hate the books about Prophet Muhammad by converts.

Ani
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+1 # ali abbas 2012-09-13 22:29
One way to develop a progressive Curriculum is to actually work with like minded individuals, read books that are being considered, and share that cumulative experience with other Communities like your-self.

I am fortunate, that I have a personal library of over 2,500 books that I have accumulated over the last 25 years, I have muslim friends who are in the academia and I have leaned on them for advice and suggestions.

i also have friends in Seminaries like Qum, al-Azhar, and i usually also refer to them for traditional perspectives. even though the discussion here is within the ahlal sunna wal jama'ah paradigm, it is refreshing to read works that are now being produced by Converts, translations of Key Islamic Texts that ought to form the back-bone much of our Sunday school curriculum.

i am limited by space here, we can take this discussion off line, i can be reached at



regards, Q
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+1 # ali abbas 2012-09-13 22:38
one lesson learnt, that each Community, whether it is a Convert Community, a Group of Convert Scholars, or Ethnic Groups, they tend to form their own Publishing houses

how-ever, many Ethnic Groups, i will take the example of Pakistanis as an example, are more inclined to use Syed Abul Ala Mawdudi, primarily because he earned his fame with the Commentary to the Quran, Tafhim ul Quran, available in english as well. by sticking to their ethnic Scholars make-up, it has arrested their development, of these students in the Sunday Schools, since they are taught a certain understanding of Islam that is shaped and formulated from within the Indo Sub Continent experience, read context is lost

conversely, the Turkish, have their own Publishing Houses, the hall mark of this tradition, is a deep sense of Islamic Spirituality (i.e Sufism). they have cut across religions lines (Ibn Arabi / Eckhart) promoting Pluralism. Gullen's writings also imbue Sufi Poets, thus Spirituality
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0 # Daayiee Abdullah 2012-09-14 13:01
Great article, Ani. I appreciate your comments and those who also agreed. Yes, due to context and the society one is living does make a difference as to what books give a clear understanding of what is Islam. I am also of the mind that a global understanding of Islam is needed and relying upon books that hold a particular cultural stance are not the ones that will help bring about a global understanding.
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-1 # Scott 2012-09-16 02:34
"At home I teach equality between men and women, as emphasized in the Quran and Hadith."

How anybody can read Chapter 4 of the Quran, particularly a woman, and come away with notions of equality is sad and absurd

Please take off the rose tinted glasses Ani. It's great to see a progressive Muslim woman speaking out but your refusal to characterise your religion honestly just makes you look silly and untrustworthy. That you may wish for your creator and religion to be "loving and compassionate" and justifying it by quoting verses that encourage compassion and love doesn't negate the contempt and hatred of numerous verses that espouse the exact opposite.

Could you please explain how you reconcile the notion of a compassionate and loving creator with the relentless references to punishment and hellfire in the Quran? Is God going to be compassionate and loving towards apostates, non-believers and polytheists?
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+1 # Gustavo Gutierrez 2012-09-16 11:04
Scott,

Both the Qur'an and Bible are filled with violent passages.

In the Old Testament, the ancient Hebrews are commanded to engage in genocide of the indigenous peoples of Canaan (modern day Israel/Palestin e).

The Bible records brotherly betrayal between Abel and Cain. The Bible records King David coveting his best friend's wife. The Bible records Moses engaging in murder of an Egyptian. The Bible records Abraham abandoning his son Ishmael - along with his Egyptian slave Hagar into the wilderness.

In the Old Testament, the Jews engaged in warfare like the early Muslim community.

Most of the violent verses in the Qur'an need to be contextualized during the time of revelation.

However, unfortunately, some Muslims today are vocal, get media attention, and use violence to get their way. However, Islam does have a progressive tradition. Sadly, some in the global community don't adhere to this.
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0 # Scott 2012-09-17 06:56
Gustavo

I wasn't really referring to the references to war in the books, but rather to the consistent contemptuous and hateful attitudes running through them. Ani's point was that her creator is loving and compassionate. Mine was that that is impossible considering first, the relentless references to hellfire and torment that await those who aren't of the book, and second the call to commit acts of violence against homosexuals and apostates. These attitudes aren't consistent in any with compassion and love, but rather pettiness and bigotry.

The God of the OT and the Quran are the same are they not? Surely any objective reader would agree that the God of the Pentateuch is the most evil, reactionary character ever to appear in literature.
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0 # Ani Zonneveld 2012-09-16 15:32
Scott, If you're referring to Quran 4:34 as in the traditional interpretation of 'beat it', well guess what, that's what Prophet Muhammad did NOT do. He walked away, and coincidentally that is another translation.

As for the violence passages, Gustavo answered that eloquently.
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-1 # Scott 2012-09-17 06:41
Ani

You’re right, I was referring to 4:34, but also to 4:11 wherein a man inherits twice that of a woman, 4:15 and 4:16 where it states that lewd women should be kept in the house until death but lewd men should be set free if they repent, 4:57 where it says that those who believe will have virgins awaiting them in heaven.....

There are many more And on top of all this, the entire book is written for men. It is a manual for men on the correct way to live to live.

You might answer that most of the above can be explained in a 7th century context. But these books are supposed to be the perfect, unchangeable word of God, are they not? What makes you think God is cool with your picking and choosing which parts to follow and which to ignore?

OK, Muhammad didn't beat his wives. But 4:34 is God's word and surely trumps Muhammads actions, no?
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0 # Gustavo Gutierrez 2012-09-16 10:56
Your article is a bold blanket statement that could be perceived as demonizing all Islamic schools. First and foremost, your "evidence" is based on anecdotal information. You base your assumption on personal experience, but how do you know that your experience is characteristic of other Muslims?

Public school teachers are villified by conservatives who say that they don't do enough to address the lackluster results in lower socio-economic schools. However, education is a partnership between schools, parents, and the community.

Did you ever take a pro-active step and speak to this teacher about her lesson plans, alleged statements, and curriculum?

Furthermore, while I am not denying that some institutions may have less than progressive content in their lesson plans, your article consists of libel against all Muslim schools and Iqra. Did you seek a comment from them before publishing this highly biased article?
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0 # Ani Zonneveld 2012-09-16 15:30
Gustavo,

I was president of PTA at my daughter's Sunday school and yes I and others advocated for change, for more diversity in the ethnicity of the teachers who taught there as we are such a diverse community. 98% of the teachers at that school at that time were Egyptian. I was entrenched in this traditional community for many years with hundred of hours of volunteer time.

I am writing from my personal experience and the many parents who have contacted me. I was clear about that in my piece so don't twist it out of context.

I am appalled at your benign reaction to the idea of 'jihad' being introduced to 5-6th grade children as a possible pillar of Islam.
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+1 # Gustavo Gutierrez 2012-09-16 16:48
Due to events happening in the world today, children will have to be exposed to the concept of Jihad in Islam at an earlier age.

Jihad as the sixth pillar of Islam is the line the Islamophobes love to peddle at their various press/speech engagements. Islamophobia is a profitable and lucrative industry for the "merchants of misinformation."

Iqra was vague on their stance concerning Jihad, they mentioned "some scholars believe," leaving room for interpretation.

Jihad simply means "struggle" and the publication did differentiate between the "greater" and "lesser" Jihad.
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-1 # Ani Zonneveld 2012-09-17 16:27
Gustavo,

Islamophobes use what we offer them to make their point. And they sure have a lot at their disposal.

The introduction of jihad to young children is not that simple. "Kids we have 2 jihads. One is internal and the other external." If a kid grows up angry, well guess what, they will feel empowered to act upon the external jihad since that is now 'the 6th pillar'.

Just because 'some scholars' believe makes it acceptable?
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-1 # Abdel 2012-09-24 18:20
Ani Zonneveld,
could tell us where it says in the koran women have the same rights as men?
And what exactly do you consider the 'beauty of the koran'? Killing apostates and adulterers? Hate speech against kuffar and forcing islamic believes down their throats or else...?

What about the fact that the prophet PBUH killed Jews and many others, enslaved, tortured and lied? Is that your 'beautiful islam'?

I keep getting the impression that you and many 'liberal' muslims are creating their own islam which has nothing to do with real islam.


I am looking forward to your reply.
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0 # Ani Zonneveld 2012-10-01 16:09
Abdel, the Islam you are describing is not the Islam I was raised on, and I come from a very traditional Muslim family. So I cannot relate to your understand of Islam because it is completely alien to me. That said, I am also now seeing so much of the radical teachings that you are highlighting, such as killing apostates, kuffars, etc. This exists but this is a distortion of Islam. I think maybe you need to reread Islam from the many scholars who are pushing back against these radical theologies. If you go to this link, Muslims for Progressive Values has many books you can start with. http://www.mpvusa.org/womens_rights.html

And this is how I look at Islam:
"Some Muslims force people to fit into a box called Islam whereas I look at Islam as lifting people out of their boxes."- Ani

Thank you for posting.
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0 # SAM 2012-12-12 13:32
Thanks for the beautiful article which tells us to pay attention to what is being taught to our kids at some of the Sunday schools. I am sure at most of the schools - there are people who do understand what is right to be taught at what age -but there must be exceptions and that is where correction is needed. The books which are being used needs to be read by every parent. I am over 55 years of age and had come from a family where we were living our lives to some extent according to the teachings of Islam - and I have never come across anything, anywhere which gives Jihad or anything else as the 6th pillar of Islam. There are 5 pillars (I have some reservations about using the word pillar) of Islam - period.
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