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The Miseducation of Muslim Kids

By Pamela Taylor


So my daughter comes home from her new, Islamic Sunday school the other day.

“How’d it go?” I ask.

She rolls her eyes.

“Just great. We learned all about what types of water you can use to do wudu’.”

“Types of water?”

“Yeah,” she says.  “Very useful… if you’re ever stranded in the desert with nothing but a humming bird feeder.”

“Humming bird feeder?”  I am beginning to feel like a dolt. I hadn’t been aware there were any types of water, other than salt and fresh.  And I can’t for the life of me figure out what a humming bird feeder has to do with wudu’, the ritual ablution prior to prayer, nor why anyone would be wandering around in the desert with one.

“The water’s not pure.  It’s got sugar in it,” my daughter explains, with only a trace of teenagerly patronization in her tone. “And in a desert there isn’t any other water.”

I am dumbfounded.  We live in suburbia.  In our house, at all times, fresh, processed, purified water is available within fifteen steps.  If our pipes burst, the neighbor’s house is only twenty-five steps further.  If our whole neighborhood were to lose their water, we could go to a public bathroom in the city park, either one of two public schools, the convenience store or the McDonalds, Arbys, Hardees, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Bob Evans, Subway, or Wendys, all of which are within no more than a ten minute bike ride.  Even if the entire city were to suddenly be without water, there is bottled water in every store, with more where that came from waiting to be shipped in on trucks and trains.

Maybe, I think, the teachers are under the impression that my daughter and her fourteen and fifteen year old classmates might be preparing to embark on a relief mission to Darfur, the West Bank, or perhaps Tajikistan, places where there are genuine problems finding clean water.  Of course, in those places the purity of the water for making wudu’ has got to be a minor concern – compared with, say, are you going to get shot today, or where will the next meal come from. 

Try as I can, I can come up with no reasonable explanation as to why my daughter’s teachers would consider the fiqh of the purity of water for wudu’ to be so vital that they devoted an entire lesson – indeed, the entire first lesson of the year – to the subject.

Indeed, I am dumbfounded. With all the ills of our umma – with violence and corruption, bigotry, intolerance, stagnation, and reactionary extremism being hailed as the hallmarks of modern Muslim society, with Muslim women struggling under oppressive customs and laws in both the East and the West, with extravagant materialism marking our “elite” and narrow-minded conservatism marking our “scholars,” with the near total lack of mercy and compassion and commitment to social justice evidenced in our communities – you would think her teachers could find something more relevant to discuss in class.  Something more significant and germane to Muslim life today.

I am also bitterly disappointed.  We abandoned her previous school because the teachers had more interest in how many jinn lived in my daughter’s nose, and how many hairs were sticking out from beneath her scarf, than in substantive discourse on what it means to be a Muslim and to have taqwa, God-consciousness; how to live a life of character and integrity; how to cope with the endless bombardment of evil coming from people who claim not only to be Muslim, but to do these acts with the inspiration and blessing of Islam; how to ward off the pressure – and the temptation – to engage in acts the Qur’an names as sins, but which are part and parcel of life in the West.  There are dozens, if not hundreds, of pressing issues which are largely ignored by our Islamic education system in preference to a myopic concentration on arcane minutiae.

In conferences and conventions, halaqas (study circles) and dars’s (lessons), we bemoan the fact that we are losing many, many of our children to non-Muslim culture.  Certainly there are a number of factors contributing to that, but our educational focus definitely isn’t helping.  The antidote to poor practice, to low self-esteem, to a weak identification with Islam and a feeble connection to Allah lies not in inculcating ever more esoteric legal trivia, but in spiritual and emotional development, of the individual and of our communities.  Until our Islamic education addresses essential issues and works to help our children achieve a closer relationship to Allah, we will continue to lose them. 

Even more, we will be perpetuating the evils that currently beset the Muslim umma.  With our intense focus on legalisms and the “right way” to do things, we are teaching our children to concentrate on trivialities rather than equipping them with the tools to address various social and economic ills that afflict Muslim and/or American society.  We are encouraging them to develop a mindset where miniscule differences become divisive, rather than imbuing them with an expansive and inclusive worldview.  We are telling them that individual adherence to behavioral norms is more important than activism, philanthropy, or spirituality.  We are advising them that they should be concerned about the details of other people’s practice, rather than the state of their well-being.

Part of this failure stems from the fact that the vast majority of our teachers are parent volunteers, not professional religious educators.  They have received no training on how to teach spirituality and religiosity to children.  Part of it is due to the fact that the resources that are available to them focus on legalism to the exclusion of all else.  (Think Fiqh al-Sunna, The Halal and the Haram in Islam, My Little Book of Fiqh, and so on.)  If a teacher wants to help her or his students develop their spirituality – it is up to him or her to develop the idea, the lesson plans, the homework – everything – him or herself.  And, no doubt, to contend with parents who are not happy their children aren’t being taught yet one more time the particulars of salaat (ritual worship) and sawm (fasting).

Why, you may ask, and it is a valid question, if I am so unhappy with the schools, do I put my kids in them, or why don’t I volunteer to teach myself. 

One, I want my children to be around other Muslim children. They are the only kids (other than the ones too young to go to kindergarten) who come to jum’a, the Friday congregational prayer.  At our halaqa, they are older than all the other kids by 4-8 years.  There are one or two other Muslim kids in each of their various schools, but none in any of their classes.  There is one other Muslim family in our neighborhood, but one friend sometimes isn’t enough, and when they are gone on vacation, or busy with homework or other activities, one friend becomes no friend. Sunday school, then, represents a golden opportunity for my children to be around other Muslim children, to develop a network of Muslim friends, and to see a Muslim community in action. 

I dream of Sunday school as a warm welcoming place where my kids could relax and simply be Muslim – indeed where they could celebrate being Muslim – without worries of what people will think of them based on how much or how little they are wearing or the actions of people in other countries.  A place where they are encouraged to live up to the ideals of Islamic character – kindness, mercy, compassion, honesty, integrity, justice.  A place where differences between Muslims are acknowledged and embraced.  A place where love of Allah and joy in His creation is the norm.  A place where they can see everything that is wonderful about Islam, everything that made their mother choose to follow Islam, put into practice.

Two, my husband and I teach our kids on a daily basis how to live Islam – by our example and by direct instruction.  We have made sure they know how to pray, to fast, that they are aware of the restrictions on the behavior of a Muslim.  We model for them the character we hope they will develop (ok, we do this most of the time!) as well as the reverence for Allah, His universe and His umma that we believe is essential to human peace of mind.  We work to nurture their devotion to Allah, their sense of awe and gratitude, their hope for a better future, their commitment to making the world a better place. At Sunday school, I hope they will find role models beyond my husband and myself, role models that reinforce the lessons we are trying to teach, who model those character traits we are not so good at, who offer reasonable alternatives to our view of Islam. I want them to have access to other adults, especially the older children, since teenagers often find it easier to confide in an adult companion who is not also their mother or father.  I want them to feel they belong to a community of caring adults; that at any time there are many people they could turn to for help.

Obviously, we have a long way to go before that is going to happen.  In the meantime, here are some suggestions for making relevant and meaningful adjustments to the typical Sunday school curriculum:

1) Read the Qur’an.  I’m not talking about memorizing some short chapters.  And I’m not talking about working on vocabulary for those chapters (although there is benefit in both).  I mean read large sections of the Qur’an in the language the children understand.  And discuss it!  Not just the teacher dictating what the kids are supposed to think about the passage, but let the kids explore their reactions to it. Talk together about what Allah wanted us to get out of the selection, what the kids actually got out of it, which parts seem most relevant to their lives, how what they have read might change something in their life.  Think about how the people in the Qur’an felt and thought and reacted to the events that they lived through.  Discuss how the Prophet and his companions reacted to the revelations, what impact it had upon their lives.  Many of our kids never read anything outside of juz ‘amma, the final one-thirtieth section of the Qur’an.  The Qur’an has A LOT more to offer than that, and by focusing on memorization and vocabulary, we have missed the chance to let the Qur’an touch our kids’ hearts.

2) Read Hadith, the reported traditions of the Prophet Muhammad.  Not a book of laws with one or two hadith to support each ruling, but a book of hadith.  Riyadh Us Saliheen, Sunan Abu Dawood, selected books from Bukhari, the Muwatta.  A book which has pages and pages of hadith, a book which shows the width and depth of the hadith literature.  And, again, don’t just read them, but discuss the hadith you’ve read.  Talk about the character displayed by the Prophet Muhammad and his wives as the underpinning to many of the hadith. Talk about the flexibility and variation shown in hadith, how all these different hadith can be synthesized into a coherent whole. Talk about how these hadith intersect with the lives of the kids, how the thought process, the problem solving methodology, the character displayed in them can be borrowed to make our lives better.  Talk about where the hadith come from, how they were collected, acknowledge issues in ascertaining the authenticity of hadith, and reinforce that hadith are always second to Qur’an.

3) Read the Sira, the history of the Prophet and the early Muslim community.  Not the twenty page saccharine sweet version of Prophet Muhammad’s life, but a serious biography.  Some might think, you got this in the hadith, why bother with a biography?  Because a biography gives a chronological account.  Talk with the kids about the development of Islam during the Prophet’s life.  Does this have implication in our lives as Muslims?  What was revealed first, what was left till the end of the Prophet’s mission?  Does that have implication regarding our priorities in this life?  What can we learn from the Prophet’s life about character, statesmanship? About being a child, a spouse, a parent, a human being?

4) Read the Prophet’s prayers and speeches.  I’m not talking about lists of du’a (supplications), the pages of when you do this, say that which kids are often required to memorize, but the full texts of his prayers and his sermons.  This should be part of the sira, but is often left out.  Prophet Muhammad had an incomparable manner in prayer, and his speeches are incredibly uplifting and inspirational.  Read the sermons he gave in Ramadan; read his final sermon.  Talk about how he prayed, how he structured his prayer, and the kinds of things he prayed for. Try reading the prayers out loud to one another as well as reading them in print.    

5) Study Islamic History.  I don’t just mean a triumphal account of the successors to the Prophet or neo-messianic accounts of great warriors, but a serious study of the entire span of Islamic history.  They sure as heck aren’t getting it in public school!  It is a shame that many of our young people have no knowledge whatsoever of the course of Islamic history, the amazing, wonderful diversity of Islamic cultures, and the darker elements of that history.  Look at how minority Muslim cultures adapted, how they managed to thrive in different countries. Look at how the political system developed.  Talk about the directions Muslim cultures have taken.

6) Read Islamic Literature.  Modern and classic.  Don’t just tell the kids the best selling poet in America is Rumi.  Read some Rumi!  (Gasp!)  Read some modern Muslim writers, too. Talk about the issues raised in the poetry, stories and novels.  Discuss how characters grapple with the problems they face, and how their struggles can inform our own struggles to deal with the same problems.

7) Engage in dhikr, remembrance of God.  Leave some quiet time (5-10 minutes) for the kids to contemplate Allah, the world, their heart.  It doesn’t have to be formalized. It doesn’t have to follow any pattern, or use any formulas.  It should be a time for personal reflection, prayer, and recollection of Allah.  Obviously, there is no way to compel compliance, but we should show our kids that we consider self-reflection and reflection on Allah and His Creation an important part of being a conscientious Muslim.

8) Encourage the kids to be involved in designing the curriculum.  Ask them what they want to learn about or to talk about.  Maybe they have questions about ritual prayer.  Maybe they’d rather discuss how to deal with feeling like they don’t want to have anything to do with an umma that seems to be increasingly polarized by violence, political manipulation, extremism, and intolerance. Maybe they want to talk about spiritual issues such how to resolve the apparent tension between human free will and Divine omnipotence, or why a good and merciful God would allow bad things to happen to good people.  Maybe they want to talk about hot button issues – polygamy, slavery, domestic violence, women’s rights and dress codes, jihad, gay rights.  Avoiding trouble spots, pretending that Islam has nothing anyone could ever find objectionable, is only setting our children up for shock, disillusionment and rebellion when someone hostile to Islam confronts them with those issues.  Addressing those issues, and at times admitting we don’t always have the answer, will give them confidence in our sincerity.  Kids don’t expect perfection, they expect, and deserve, honesty, authenticity, dedicated effort and hard work. 


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