Growing up as an Islamic school student, I was always defensive about criticisms of the Islamic school model brought up by community members. “It’s simple and obvious: Our Islamic schools are the pathway for Muslim children to become good Muslim adults,” I thought. As an adult, I now realize that I was wrong.
To preface, I am not saying any of the following:
1) Islamic schools are never good
2) Islamic schools can’t produce good Muslims
3) Public schools are better than Islamic schools
4) All those who work at Islamic schools are unintelligent or unqualified
5) Everything is bleak and there is no hope for the future
My thesis is that, with the exception of early childhood education, Islamic schools routinely fall catastrophically short of the goal of teaching and nurturing young Muslims to become conscientious, critically-thinking Muslim adults.
The prevailing sentiment sorrounding Islamic schools is that if you simply throw together Muslim students (and staff) into an enclosed space, this alone cultivates an “Islamic environment.” Whether done deliberately or not, this sentiment erroneously emphasizes the physical presence of Muslims over the cultivation of Islamic civilizational values. The caveat to this lies in early childhood education, where the goals for excellence in instruction are a bit different and this “environment” is less complex. To be sure, early childhood education for Muslims is a critical yet altogether different challenge and conveying an epistemological approach is not a primary goal at that age.
Instead, the major failures of Islamic schools often begin around adolescence, when students are first able to process and reckon with realities of theology, metaphysics, and moral responsibility (taklīf). Many schools do not have a coherent epistemological framework upon which they base their Islamic studies curricula, and thus fail to furnish students with the tools to understand these concepts within an Islamic framework. Organizational failures compound the issue: When I was a student, the turnover rate of teachers and textbook series was alarming and the methodological approach was wildly variable. This is why schools produce students who may know some rules of tajwīd and have memorized a good portion of the Qur’an but are woefully unprepared to deal with the theological challenges posed by modernity. Many students will study 10 or more years of Arabic and remain unable to understand the Qur’an.
When combined with poor infrastructure, a frequent inability to adequately pay teachers or recognize talent, and rampant complacency amongst institutional leadership, the result is abject mediocrity and a failure to raise the floor of spiritual and general education. These Islamic schools have largely produced large swathes of students who cannot articulate basic points about aqīdah or answer basic questions about their fard ayn. An Islamic school which instructs students over 12 or more years and fails to teach the fiqh of worship has failed.
One of the primary arguments in favor of Islamic schooling when I was growing up was that it would keep kids out of trouble the public school kids were getting into. Sadly, this is frequently untrue. An alarming number of Islamic school kids get involved in illicit sex, drug use, and heedlessness even before graduating from the schools purporting to protect them from these evils. At that point, the main difference between them and the public school students is that they are engaging in haram with Muslims and are better at hiding it from their naive parents. Furthermore, because this lack of a coherent vision — and resulting inadequate upbringing (tarbiya) — is systemic, the ones who stay in line out of fear of their parents frequently fall apart once they reach the unregulated environment of a college campus. Of course, as a former public school student, I recognize that the situation at public schools is oftentimes catastrophic from a tarbiya standpoint. I do not think it is a viable solution in the long-term, but I also acknowledge that it is also the only option for many families. However, this is not the focus of my article. Instead, I want to emphasize that abject failures at Islamic schools and noxious public school environments often converge at similar results.
Nevertheless, a critical examination of the issue reveals that, even in the ideal case, Islamic school is never enough. Even if an Islamic school is able to offer 8 daily hours of excellence Monday through Friday, it must be complemented by excellence in the abundant remaining time. Many parents who barely practice believe that sending their child to Islamic school (or weekend Islamic school) is enough. It is not. I knew an Islamic school student who came from a family that openly struggled to adhere to basic Islamic practice but wanted better for their kids, who went to an Islamic school for many years. The student did well for some time. However, not long after leaving the school, he had a child out of wedlock and now owns a liquor store. This story fills me with sorrow: A family recognized they needed to do better for their kids, but pinned unrealistic hopes on a school which was incapable of rectifying their shortcomings at home.
I do not believe the function of an Islamic school is to generate scholars, nor is it to generate “the leaders of tomorrow.” I believe it is to primarily generate a body of thoughtful Muslims who seek to uphold Islamic civilizational values and follow the lead of upright scholars. These graduates should be prepared to excel in numerous vocations, spanning from medicine and technology to the arts and journalism. Those suited to Islamic scholarship should pursue it at the best possible institutions. All graduates should be proud of the rigor and elegance of the Islamic intellectual tradition and its transformative impact on their lives. Such an outcome would yield a generation of individuals who are fit to support the apparatus of Islamic institutional development with vigor and conscientiousness. Instead, ironically, many former Islamic school students lack any respect for Islamic institutions or masājid, which they feel are inevitably destined to fail.
The solution to this issue requires intense time, commitment, and consultation from those wiser than me. The problem we have at the moment is that this sort of consultation is not even taking place. Institutional leadership — often embarrassingly bereft of even a single person who has studied pedagogy — is prone to dismissing criticism as “negativity” and unwilling to invest in professional and scholarly consultation. Many Islamic schools remain a bridge to nowhere, let alone a place to learn Islam, Iman, and Ihsan. As a community, we need to reckon with the extraordinary challenge of how we will educate Muslim children in a society that grows increasingly complex. May Allah give our communities the humility to recognize our failures, the wisdom to amend them, and the tawfīq to build something better.
About the Author: Abid Haseeb (Brown University ‘16, University of Illinois College of Medicine ‘21) is a resident physician in Chicago. His interests include Islamic bioethics, language, and poetry in praise of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.
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