Why do parents choose Islamic day schools for their children?
To answer this question, it helps to first consider the macro level, by which I mean the social and religious context in which Muslim families live. In North America, the Muslim population continues to increase and so does the spread of Islam. Thus, we can expect that the demand for Islamic full time schools will likewise continue to increase. But why the need? What is the advantage?
There are many benefits to be reaped by living in North America: freedom of speech, freedom of religion and opportunities for wealth. At the same time, there is often a desire, or perhaps even a felt necessity, for Muslim families to be involved and connected with the larger Islamic Ummah in their country. Of course, Islamic centers and mosques are the mainstays for accomplishing this connection. Not surprisingly though, Muslim full time day schools can be especially important in this endeavor as it relates to young Muslim learners.
For families who choose to forego the opportunity, or who are not able, financially or logistically, to send their children to Islamic day schools, there are some quality weekend schools to help fill the void of missing out on a more meaningful Islamic education and being full time in the company of Muslim peers. Some weekend programs are well organized and taught by qualified instructors, but unfortunately not all programs are adequately funded or professionally taught. As disparity does exist from one such program to the next, it is incumbent on parents to do adequate research to ensure that their children are taught properly and have a quality learning experience.
Compared with the benefits of a full-time Muslim day school, Islamic weekend schools are limited to a few hours of instruction a week. For learners who attend public, full time day schools during the week, both parents and children can potentially face commitment challenges posed by trying to attend weekend school if schedules become hectic and busy. As such, attending a full time Islamic day school, when possible and if context allows, may perhaps be the best option for our youth to learn about and to fully embrace Islam, be connected to the Ummah, and receive a balanced academic and religious education. Other options to accomplish said objectives are there, but it does require more time, assurances, and effort.
Knowledge in general and knowledge of God’s revealed guidance in particular is essential for Muslims:
It was narrated from Abu Hurairah that:
The Prophet (ﷺ) said: “The best of charity is when a Muslim gains knowledge, then he teaches it to his fellow Muslim.” (Sunan Ibn Majah 1.1.243)
It was narrated that ‘Abdullah bin ‘Amr said:
“The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) came out of one of his apartments one day and entered the mosque, where he saw two circles, one reciting Qur’an and supplicating to Allah, and the other learning and teaching. The Prophet said: ‘Both of them are good. These people are reciting the Qur’an and supplicating to Allah, and if He wills He will give them, and if He wills He will withhold from them. And these other people are learning and teaching. Verily I have been sent as a teacher.’ Then he sat down with them.” (Sunan Ibn Majah 1.1.227)
Abu Darda reported:
The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said, “He who follows a path in quest of knowledge, Allah will make the path of Jannah easy to him. The angels lower their wings over the seeker of knowledge, being pleased with what he does. The inhabitants of the heavens and the earth and even the fish in the depth of the oceans seek forgiveness for him. The superiority of the learned man over the devout worshipper is like that of the full moon to the rest of the stars (i.e., in brightness). The learned are the heirs of the Prophets who bequeath neither dinar nor dirham but only that of knowledge; and he who acquires it, has in fact acquired an abundant portion.” (Abu Dawud and Al-Tirmidhi)
Islamic day schools, if set up effectively, provide for young people the opportunity to learn about their religion and to embrace their faith against the backdrop of Western society. An “us” versus “them” mentality is not a rational position for Western Muslims to take. Rather, it is important for Muslim youth to feel comfortable in who they are and to build confidence in living out their faith in their Muslim-minority country. While our youth learn to accept the good which their country has to offer and to shun the bad that goes against Islam, it is perhaps most important that they learn to function and thrive within the North American social and political system in such a way as to meet their own personal needs and to advance their Muslim community.
As we move into the second, third, and fourth generations of Muslims born in North America —not to neglect the reverts to Islam— the topic of authentic Islamic education becomes of paramount importance to families. While younger Muslims may feel strong ties to mother countries, for many of them, North America is home. For these newer generations of Muslims, whose primary home is the U.S. or Canada, if they are not supported, nurtured, and taught how to embrace Islam in their birth country, the Ummah runs the risk of “losing” quality young people to other commitments or interests. For Muslim families who have these concerns, the role and function of Islamic schools serve an important purpose for their children and the larger Muslim community. A good number of Muslim families choose to send their children to Islamic full time day schools for the reasons explained here.
Another important reason why many parents choose to enroll their children in Islamic schools is for authentic religious education to complement academics, and for the Islamic environment in general. Public schools by law and design cannot teach about Islam specifically. It is also hard, if not impossible in a public school setting, to carry out the daily prayers and other practices deemed important by the religion.
Needing to take time off from school for religious holidays and not being in an Islamic environment during Ramadan, on an Eid, and for other events are common reasons why public schools may not be ideal for Muslim youth. By contrast, if administered effectively, the social milieu of Islamic schools allows the students to learn about their religious faith, create a dynamic sense of community, engage in daily prayers, and participate in the religious events and holidays with peers.
In addition to religious education and the Islamic environment, it is also important to address typical challenges impacting Muslim youth in Western society. In any school setting, public or private, students will be exposed to behaviors and discussions that go against Islam. Often mentioned, high profile examples include issues of sex, drugs, and alcohol. Others include the general orientation to one’s purpose in life: attitude toward parents; personal morals, commitments, responsibilities and work ethics.
The usual justification for Islamic schools used to be that they could shield Muslim students from having to wrestle with the temptations and ills of contemporary society. Not true at all. In today’s world, especially with the influence of technology and social media, Muslim students are exposed to and are forced to have thoughts on such topics. Denying this reality, or worse ignoring it, can have detrimental effects on Muslim youth. So, while Islamic schools cannot prevent Muslim learners from exposure to harm, in fact they provide a suitable setting in which to take on such issues proactively in the context of a safe, Islamic environment.
Using age appropriate instruction, students can be taught how Islam handles such matters (and any other challenge deemed important by parents and the school community). In an Islamic environment our youth can be given a foundation and the skill sets to address hot topics confidently, appropriately, and effectively as Muslims living in a minority Muslim society. It should be noted that some Islamic schools are progressive in taking on such topics, while others have some catching up to do.
Coming back full circle regarding Islamic education, the purpose of such a dedicated endeavor is to uphold our core values by means of direct instruction guided by committed Muslim professionals and through collective participation in religious practices. As a result, more and more Muslim families are electing to send their children to Islamic day schools. With the growing success of newly established Islamic schools over the past two decades, this trend of families opting for Muslim full time day schools as viable options for their children will probably continue for the foreseeable future.
While religious education and the Islamic environment are main factors influencing Muslim parents to send their children to Islamic schools, the issue of academics cannot be ignored. Academics is paramount and a key to career success in the Western world. In the past, and to a lesser degree today, some parents have rejected Islamic schools due to a suspected weakness, or perceived defects, in their academics. Because of such criticisms, many Islamic schools are now taking active steps to upgrade academic instruction by going through an official accreditation process. Organizations such as the Council of Islamic Schools in North America (CISNA) and the Islamic School League of America (ISLA) have been influential in advocating for, and highly encouraging, Islamic schools to undertake the accreditation process. These organizations also offer programs and assistance in such efforts.
When going through accreditation, the entire school team is involved in a school improvement plan (SIP); they must undergo an arduous process to ensure that students are learning, while upholding their school’s mission and vision. Once accreditation is earned, the development journey is not over. Rather, it is a long-term commitment. These schools must continue to submit yearly updates and reapply for accreditation after a period of years as defined by the accrediting agencies. With the seal of accreditation, parents can be assured that at least a respectable level of effort is put into academics. With more savvy parents expecting excellence in both religious and academic instruction, accreditation is one important tool, among others, through which Muslim educators can earn the trust of their stakeholders.
Surveying the Islamic day school mind set, we find an encouraging transition taking place. Slowly being phased out is the concept that Islamic schools exist only to educate students in the Qur’an, Arabic, and Islamic studies. The pendulum has started to shift toward a middle ground approach as more Muslim students have been born in the West —including reverts to Islam— and as more come to school already acclimated to mainstream Western society than was the case a generation or two ago. There is an increasing desire on the part of Islamic school leaders and families to teach the future generations of Muslim youth the tenets of Islam alongside academic subjects, and to train them to be active participants and leaders in civic life.
As a result, manifesting notably in the 1990s and carrying over to today, the theory and practice of Islamic education in North America has blossomed and become forward-thinking. The Qur’an, Arabic, and Islamic studies are now taught in aggregation with conventional academic subjects. The focus is no longer on “one” or “the other,” but rather a holistic blending of the two to properly prepare future Muslim leaders in America.
To advance their institutions professionally, many Islamic school administrators adopt local public school district curricula as a model for teaching academic subjects. Furthermore, many Islamic schools are choosing to join organizations like ISNA (the Islamic Society of North America), as well as ISLA and the CISNA (mentioned above) for networking, for collaboration on common initiatives, and for school accreditation services. Such efforts have not gone unnoticed by Muslim families. With such improvements taking place, and with more innovations on the horizon, Islamic schools are becoming en vogue for more and more Muslim families.
The reasons why Muslim families typically choose to send their children to full time Islamic schools include organized religious instruction, an Islamic social environment, participation in laying the foundation to embrace Islam in North America, and improved academics.
It was narrated from Jabir that
The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: “Ask Allah for beneficial knowledge and seek refuge with Allah from knowledge that is of no benefit.” (Sunan Ibn Majah 3843)