The Dilemma of Islamic International Schools

By Dr Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips

From the late seventies in the USA when the first Islamic schools appeared, there was a clear vision among indigenous Muslims that Muslim kids needed to be in their own environment. Muslim kids in government schools were faced with huge obstacles and implementation of the basics of Islam like prayer, hijab etc, were extremely difficult. Even though these rights were protected by constitution, Islam was new and ostracised on all fronts.

Muslims of foreign background/immigrant Muslims who had come to America for its economic and educational benefits readily put their children in government schools, while a few afro-American communities connected to home-grown Islamic movements or created around charismatic leaders struggled to establish the first Muslim schools. The Elijan Cult (Nation of Islam/Black Muslims) had from its inception established its own schools wherein a racist reactionary and garbled view of Islam was taught along with the American national/state curriculum. Indigenous American Muslims who put their children in these schools as an alternative, were obliged to remove them to avoid the Elijan indoctrination and misinformation. The few schools which were started during this era, like that of Ali Ahmad in Philadelphia, crumbled under mismanagement, lack of trained professionals, and financial constraints. But the candle was lit; a vision of the Muslim school was born.

A series of meetings and conferences were held in Makkah during this period in which Muslim educators from all over the Muslim world gathered and presented papers and wrote articles and a virtual encyclopedia on Islamized education was produced under the auspices of the World Muslim League. However, the recommendations and guidelines were not translated during the 80’s into practical realities on the ground. Instead, Afro-Americans continued to struggle to set up their own schools. However, this time a number of first and second generation immigrant-American Muslims joined them, providing finances and academic and administrative skills which helped a number of these schools to be established and continue in some of the major cities across the USA and in Canada.

In Saudi Arabia during this period, remnants of the Egyptian Ikhwan movement had set up Arabic private schools, like the Manaret Schools of the Al-Shawis, mainly for Arab foreigners wherein Islamic movement consciousness and Qur’anic memorization was emphasized. By the end of the 70’s the first English medium version, Manaret ar-Riyadh, was born and headed academically by my parents, Bradley and Joyce Philips who were non-Muslims at the time, but sympathetic to Muslims. This new branch sought to cater for foreigners of other backgrounds, mostly professionals trained in the US and the UK who were pouring into Saudi Arabia and who were forced to put their children in British and American Embassy schools, or the Embassy schools of their original nations like Pakistani, Indian, Sri Lankan, etc, which were mostly un-Islamic.

The experiments of the 80’s began to take root in the 90’s, and a number of Islamic schools were born like that of al-Madeenah school in LA, and the movement for the establishment of schools mushroomed across the US and Canada. In the UK during this period, Yusuf Islam established his own school in London, and fought for a number of years with the UK governments, until he finally gained government recognition and support for Muslim schools there, as Catholic and Jewish schools were supported.

This recognition spurred the efforts of immigrant Muslims who were setting up Muslim schools in different Muslim pockets across the country, like al-Hijrah by Saqib in Birmingham. In South Africa large Muslim schools, like Al-Islamia of Maulana Ali appeared and in a short time produced some astounding academic results. Likewise in Nigeria, Aisha Lemu and others created curriculums of Islamic studies in English to be included into school curriculums.

A lot of the obvious academic benefits from Muslim schools were the consequence of their being sex-segregated. Later educational research conducted in the UK during the late 90’s showed conclusively that male and female students learned better when segregated. Less distractions; better results. This played a bigger role in their academic successes than the fact that they were “Muslim”.

In the late 90’s and early 21st century Muslim schools in local languages or in English began to spring up all around the Muslim world. Outstanding examples of purpose-built Muslim schools, like the School of Creative Science founded by Salah Bukhatir in Sharjah, UAE and others were established in the Gulf states and other countries with Muslim minorities like the Philippines. However, all of this development was mainly focused on creating schools for Muslim children, where the school was owned by Muslims, the administration and teaching faculty consisted of Muslims, the children were Muslims, and Arabic, Islamic Studies and Qur’an were taught as part of the curriculum or along with the curriculum. The graduates from these schools mostly aspired for the same things that their parents desired. Virtually all of them sought to be doctors, engineers, lawyers, dentists, and scientists. The books they used throughout their 12 years of study were either produced in the USA or the UK and were loaded with the same materialist messages taught nationally in these developed countries of the West.

I remember attending a series of meetings, conferences and seminars organized by IBERR and Yusuf Islam during the 90’s with educators representing various parts of the Muslim world, all seeking to further the cause of Muslim schools. However, when it came to the curriculum, the full focus of discussion and workshops was always on “Islamic Studies”. We spent countless hours going over the “Islamic Studies” curricula used in various schools as well as those produced by educators of that era. A few of us felt that we needed to go beyond these confines. What was happening in the other subjects of English, Maths, Science, Social Studies, and others, was actually more critical. For in these subjects Western philosophy and ideology was being poured into our childrens’ minds unhindered. But in the conferences and meetings the stress remained on “Islamic Studies”, and continues until today. The latest Islamic Studies series produced by Darussalam and the ICC of Riyadh — “Beautiful Works”, are 21st century examples.

In the mid 90’s I took it upon myself to create an alternative in order to demonstrate what was needed, and in 3 years time, with the backing of IBERR, I produced 56 books of English readers for pre-K to grade 3 modelled after the British Ginn readers which my children were exposed to in Manaret ar-Riyadh during the 80’s. Since I was the founder and director of the English wing of Darul Fat’h Islamic Press in Sharjah, UAE at the time, I utilized the opportunity to print these books in the highest quality I could, and distributed them around the world, from Australia, Philippines, Malaysia, South Africa, India, the Gulf, South Africa, UK, Canada and the USA.

The books were well received and educators clamoured for more. However, my intended message was not understood. My message was that, this example needed to be translated into all subjects of the curriculum. What I did, virtually singlehanded, in 3 years could be done for the complete curriculum if approached in an organized fashion. Actually, it wasn’t single handed, because without my trusted assistant, Sister Kamila Abdullah from Philadelphia, an early childhood educational expert, and the many authors and artists Muslim and non-Muslim who contributed, it would not have been possible.

With no one I knew or met since then to join me on this quest, I turned my attention and focused on university education, having been a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the American University in Dubai for almost 10 years. Where that led me is another story. But I never forgot the need for truly Islamic Schools as opposed to Muslim Schools or schools of and for Muslims. From the late 90’s and 2000’s I gave a series of lectures and conducted workshops on the Islamization of education — different from the Islamization of Knowledge as proposed by the late Ismail Farooqi in the States during the 80’s. In my view, the Islamization of knowledge is an intellectual pursuit of philosophers and theoretical educationalists,while the Islamization of education is a practical, on the ground, approach to teaching modern knowledge from an Islamic perspective or in an Islamic package. For, as it has been said by different educators, “Education is primarily the transfer of culture and values of a civilization from one generation to the next.”

Which is why I should not have been astounded when some years ago, I requested Imam Abu Muslimah to direct some of the graduates of the Islamic School of New Jersey, which had been functioning for over 15 years, into my Islamic Online University’s accredited BA program of Islamic Studies in English medium. He responded by saying that the graduates of his school had no such interests. They all wanted to be doctors, dentists, engineers, lawyers, etc. No one was interested in pursuing Islamic studies. At that time, I had told him that in my view the school was a failure, if after 12 years of education in a Muslim school run, taught and attended by Muslims, no one wanted to be an Islamic scholar or teacher. The bottom line was, there was no money in it!!! Students were geared to the professions that paid the highest salaries and had the greatest prestige in Westernized globalized society. In spite of the school having dedicated, qualified Muslim teachers, many of whom were converts who tried to impart their values and experience in their various classes, the graduates were completely Westernized or secularized in their thinking.

What I and others propose, is that the Islamization process must start in the classroom itself. Of course there are necessary prerequisites for the process to work. The administration of the school has to be truly Islamic. Meaning that they see the school primarily as a service to the Muslim community, a means of ‘Ibaadah (worship of Allah), and not merely as a business. Many of our Muslim schools were merely shrewd investment avenues for Muslim businessmen looking for a profit. They see the community’s need and desire for Muslim schools as a great business opportunity. Consequently, their administrators and boards of governors will of necessity compromise Islamic principles to maintain and increase profits. They may cut corners to increase profits by hiring, for example, the cheapest teachers without regard for their qualifications or Islamic consciousness. On the other hand, the Islamic school creates an institution of learning dedicated to raising Muslim children; a school which is prepared to compromise profits for Islamic principles. Its teachers have to be dedicated to the Islamization process, whereby they will spend extra time to Islamize their daily lesson plans.

This will be done by the addition Islamic elements into the subject matter which will not be so overwhelming that it turns the class into an Islamic Studies class. Instead, the integrity of the class topic is preserved, but the children will be made aware of its connection to Islam from the Farooqian view of divinely revealed and acquired knowledge all being from God to practically connecting everything taught to Islam in one way or another — and yes, Fundamentalist Christian schools have been successfully doing something similar to it for quite some time now in the West. This is how the Islamization process can begin on a solid foundation.

In each and every class, links are made in the children’s minds between modern knowledge and Islam. In most subjects, Muslim scientists and scholars have made great contributions, so the connection is made by informing the children about that great Muslim thinker, letting that name become as familiar to them as Sir Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein. In other lessons, there are Qur’anic verses or prophetic hadeeths on the subject of the lesson which can be mentioned in passing, during the class. This triggers thoughts in the children’s minds and creates subconscious links. In yet others, examples used to explain abstract concepts can be taken from a Muslim perspective where familiar elements of Muslim culture and religion are mentioned like prayer, the mosque, wudoo, fasting, etc.

Finally, and most importantly, an age-appropriate moral message should be imparted in each and every class, in every period of the day. Bringing morality back into the classroom after the age of secularization will change the whole atmosphere and direction of the school. The biggest prize given annually to the children from the administration of the school should be one for outstanding moral behaviour rather than a purely academic one. Children graduating from such a school after twelve years of Islamized education should be Islamically conscious of their role in life and their debt to the ummah, morally upright to a degree rarely seen among people today, and academically equipped to further their education in gender-appropriate fields beneficial to humanity. They will be capable of ushering in a new era or renaissance in the Muslim world and the global human community.

– Dr Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips,

Founder and Dean Islamic Online University