The Paradox of Islamic Schools

The Paradox of Islamic Schools

One of the greatest paradoxes of the institution of Islamic Schools is that the Islamic Studies department is weak and uninspiring. Hence, Islamic Schools lose credibility and marketability. Why else would parents send their kids to Islamic Schools? In fact, the Arabic and Quran departments are also considerably lacking in inspiration, direction and efficacy. In this post, I attempt to address a few underlying issues that are worth considering:

Business & Marketability – Over the past 30 years, hundreds of Islamic schools have popped up all over Canada and the US. In fact, major cities boast numerous Islamic schools jostling for Muslim families. As a result, so many schools use the “Islamic environment” and the presence of “Islamic Subjects” to bring families into the door. If schools really focused on making their Islamic Studies department a cornerstone of their identity and its incorporation into other subjects, more families can benefit. But when this doesn’t change, Islamic studies will be used as a marketing ploy and not as a social and educational tool to educate families.

Family Perception – Many Muslim families are weary of public schools. I do not wish to get into a debate of whether families should educate their kids at home, public or private schools. The question is not about which one is better. Rather, how can parents make the best of these options is the real question. Hence, many families who find a local Islamic school automatically feel at ease when they see a school name with a “seemingly Islamic name” without investigating deeper. So long as there is Quran and Islamic Studies, the parents proceed to examine other aspects of the school. I do not believe that this cursory glance is proper. In fact, many parents who do investigate further do not really know where to begin. This is partially caused by their own upbringing. Many of them do not know what standards within Islamic studies curriculum are adequate for their child or are not familiar with Islamic subjects and its practice. Hence, their own upbringing, be it cultural, irreligious, or secular, prevent them from making an educated decision.

Additionally, some do not really care for Islamic studies. So long as their kids are in a “safer environment,” they drop their kids off thinking that they’ve done their Islamic duty in the eyes of God. The child is expected to learn salat, wudu, seerah and other routine sub-subjects. I witness this challenge every day in my classes. I have students who are eager to learn but their families do not help facilitate what is taught in the class.

Cultural Perception – Many parents want their kids to succeed in medicine, science or other secular fields. When these kids do not “make the mark,” some parents regretfully send their kids to Quran memorization schools relegating the study of Islam to those who are “not bright” or “failed.” This is not only incredibly insulting to the Quran and Sunah, but in extreme cases, it causes many kids to view the subject as a reminder of their failures.

Communal Perception – Many people encounter the study of Islam either growing up attending Sunday schools, through their families, or, their local masjid. Because so many people talk about Islam anecdotally, or, unfortunately, experience uninspiring boring “Islamic events,” causing their brains to automatically shut off when they hear the word, “Islamic Studies.” There is no panacea for this. It can be improved when communities improve their local institutions, hire dynamic Imams, encourage people to seek knowledge, and fundamentally change the way how people and the community obtain Islamic knowledge.

Inspiring Teachers – Finding a dynamic, young and competent Islamic Studies teacher is a formidable challenge for all schools. Many schools hire teachers who are not properly trained in Islam and pedagogy. Hence, you will find certain people filling in for these positions. They will lecture the kids with their foreign way of thinking. They teach based on what they learned back in their home countries and expect the kids to lap up the information with big smiles and behave like angels. As a result, this combination causes students to be bored, act out and not care for the subject. In similar fashion, the teacher might be angry with the students for not responding to their teaching and behave in a way that might cause the students to dislike Islam as a whole. For more information on the fundamental characteristics an inspiring teacher should have, read, I.S. Teacher’s Got Talent Part 1 & 2.

Curriculum & Instruction – Most Islamic schools use a variety of different books. Some of them are noticeably old and written to an audience removed from our time and social constructs. Other books are updated and colorful. However, the books do not reflect the current trends of thinking among teenagers. Moreover, the books are very didactic, dry, uninspiring, borderline offensive in some instances, and simply require students to parrot anecdotal and perfunctory aspects of Islam without deep critical thinking. Homework is simply a test of the knowledge presented and not connected with deep thinking. Instruction, for the most part, has stayed within the confines of lecturing. As much as I love lecturing, students need to be exposed to creative activities. I incorporate news reporting, art, debate, games, writing, speech, crossword puzzles, brochures, cultural studies and other related areas to keep the kids interested and inspired.

Standards – Islamic Studies needs standardization. Without them, students are simply taught certain areas and miss key foundational aspects. This is part of a bigger discussion. At what age does a child learn aqeedah? At what level does a child learn about Islam’s condemnation of terrorism? This is all up in the air. Additionally, the lack of standards also means that teachers cannot be adequately evaluated. Without accountability, this subject slips through the cracks.

Students – You never find students with the same level of Islamic knowledge. Alhamdulillah, some students have engaging families that learn proper Islamic teachings and practice them at home. Yet, you will find some students who have families that do not practice Islamic teaching and worse, behave counter to what is taught in the Quran and Sunnah. You will find angels among the fallen and the fallen among the angels. It is this reality that makes teaching Islam challenging. Teachers do not know how to help those falling behind or continuously challenge those who are ahead of the class.

Inquiry – For the greater part, many of my students, prior to me joining the faculty, felt afraid to ask without being judged. This is not an indictment of my predecessors. However, it is telling. This can be remedied by a teacher who is emotionally mature and able to take into consideration the child’s background and circumstances. Too often, the question is either dismissed. Other times the teacher gives a dry academic answer and not connect it back with what’s going on. But when these problems are eliminated, students will begin to question, learn and feel safe to ask without being judged or humiliated. In my class, I always want my students to think outside of the box. If you don’t allow them to think outside of the box, they will seek inspiration from elsewhere when they grow up. To help students shape their line of inquiry correctly, students, parents and teachers alike must know what is the end goal for Islamic Studies. For more information, click here to read, “The End Goal.”

Now what? I do not want to end off this post leaving you with a slew of complaints. While some of the aforementioned problems are not entirely solvable immediately, some solutions will be examined in future posts. Again, this blog aims to foster discussion and open up the community’s eyes on this matter. It does not aim to solve everything. However, bringing these issues to the forefront will help educate families and the public.