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Muslim in America

by Diana L. Eck

Diana L. Eck is professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University. This article is adapted from A New Religious America, published this month by HarperSanFrancisco. © 2001 Diana L. Eck. All rights reserved. Printed by an arrangement with HarperSanFrancisco It appeared in The Christian Century, June 6-13, 2001, pp. 20-25. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


"If you lose your children, no number of mosques will help you." These words of Jamal Badawi are repeated in one form or another by Muslims all over America. Speaking at an annual meeting of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), Badawi continued:

Establishing of Islamic schools, in the environments in which we live, takes precedence over building mosques. You can have a huge decorative expensive mosque and lose your children and end up having no one in the mosque to pray. I have seen it in Australia, where the early Afghan immigrants built mosques like monuments, some of which are now museums. Many of their children have already been lost.

In a gymnasium-turned-mosque in Houston or a mall storefront in Atlanta, young Muslim children are studying Muslim history, learning their Arabic letters, reciting verses of the Qur’an in Arabic and raising their hands to describe the five pillars of Islam in weekend Islamic schools. On the whole, American Muslims have placed a priority on a solid educational program for young Muslims, even before buying or converting property for a mosque. Every mosque has a weekend school of one sort or another, with programs on Saturdays, Sundays or both. As Mian Ashraf of the Islamic Center of New England puts it, "We have a tendency to take Islam for granted, especially those of us who grew up in an Islamic environment before coming to America. But here you have to work at it. We’re scared that we’re going to lose our identity. Our kids are going into this melting pot, where they might not be able to maintain their religious values, and we’ll lose them."

On a Sunday afternoon in 1993, I parked in the lot at the Islamic Foundation of Chicago, in the Bridgeview area. I entered the prayer room and found about 75 high school boys seated in the middle of the carpet under the dome. I took a seat at the back and listened. The speaker was a young journalist from Oak Lawn who had grown up in America. He was eloquent, and everyone seemed attentive. "When I was growing up, what did I know of Islam? There was Allah, the Prophet Muhammad. But mostly what we heard as kids was, ‘Don’t eat pork. Don’t date. Don’t be like the Americans.’ It was all a list of don’ts. Islam was, for us, one series of stop signs. But this is not enough, this is not Islam. We were ripped off. Islam is more than a no."

I felt I was listening to the Muslim version of some of the great Methodist youth ministers whose passion and commitment had widened and changed my own vision of Christianity. He continued:

When I left home and got a job, when I started to travel, I had to ask myself, "Who am I?" There is no running away from this question. You have to answer it. You can’t run to the military or to college. You have to ask yourself this question.

I was in Japan 10,000 miles from home when I opened up the Qur’an one night and asked myself, "Am I going to believe this or not? Is this going to be in the least relevant?" And when I look into the Qur’an, I find that there is nothing else that is relevant.

So I want to challenge you. I want you to do two things. First, sit for five minutes with yourself every single night. Ask yourself who you are and who God is. Just five minutes a day. And second, I want you to open this book. Read it, just a verse at a time, a verse a day. I guarantee, it will change you. And you will change the world. The world needs changing too. Two-thirds of the people dying of hunger in the world, in Somalia and Ethiopia, are Muslims. Two-thirds of the world’s refugees are Muslims. No one else is going to do this, but we are asked to do it. We are commanded to do what is right and to forbid what is wrong: that is what the Qur’an says.

He fell silent, and a question-and-answer session began. I wondered if I would ever hear anything quite so persuasive at a Hindu youth group in Chicago or at a Buddhist temple. In these traditions there is nothing that resembles the concept of daw’ah, the mission invitation to one’s own community and others to follow this path of faith. There are knowledgeable and engaging swamis and monks, to be sure. And there is certainly a deep concern about the younger generation. But a riveting focus on Islamic education characterizes the Islamic communities of America.

I was impressed with the young man’s articulation of the negative identity young people so often deplore. The leaders of the Islamic Society of Southern California address the issue of young people in unequivocal terms in a book they have prepared for American Muslim communities, In Fraternity:

One of the most detestable actions that could be conceived is to make coming to the Islamic Center an unpleasant experience to the young people. We hear it time and time again from parents across the country: "Our children hate to come to the Islamic Center." Some parents force their children to go to the Islamic Center. How shortsighted we are! Our children have to be convinced and motivated if we want them to make use of the institutions set up in the name of Islam for the future generations of Islam. This is the United States of America, and everybody knows parental authority ceases to function beyond a certain age.

The philosophy is that if the youth do not want to come, something is wrong with the center.

Our youth group is autonomous and enjoys its own self-government through an elected board and an elected chairperson from amongst themselves. Not pressured by the elders, the youth find no reason to feel animosity or reservation against them. Many of them find in the center the comfort they lack in their own homes.

The youth group in L.A. does not strictly segregate its activities by sex. It is clear, they say, that the marriage crisis among young Muslims is, in part, because Muslim girls and boys get to know non-Muslims better than Muslims when mosque activities are separate. As the leaders of this mosque see it, segregating Muslim boys and girls simply means that young people arrive at the age of marriage without getting to know other Muslims of the opposite sex at all. The summer camps in the San Bernardino Mountains, the weekend conferences in Orange County, the social service activities -- all are undertaken by young women and men together. So far, they say, dozens of successful marriages have come from the youth group alone.

Both the Islamic Center of Southern California and the Mosque Foundation in Chicago are associated with full-time Islamic schools. Across the country, there are more than 200 full-time schools, according to the Council of Islamic Schools of North America. A 1998 New York Times article reported 23 Islamic schools in New York City alone, and more in the planning stage. At Al Noor in Brooklyn, the student body capped at 600, and 400 more had to be turned away. The noted Islamic Cultural Center of New York in Manhattan is in the process of building a school in the lot next door that will accommodate a thousand students when it is completed. The American Muslim community is keenly involved and interested in the possibility of vouchers, for an Islamic education system is clearly in the making.

Dawub Tauhidi, founder and principal of the Crescent Academy International in a suburb of Detroit, is a Euro-American convert to Islam with a Ph.D. in Islamic studies from the University of Michigan. Tauhidi describes how the school began. "There were three of us, myself and two doctors, who all had fifth-grade kids. We wanted our kids to have an education that respected Islamic values and enabled them to become grounded in Islam, so we started a small Islamic school in Ann Arbor. It grew quickly. After two or three years, I realized that we had put our hand on something there’s a real need for." Among the goals of the school is "to provide the Muslim students of the U.S. with an environment where they can practice their Islamic rituals and where they can find role models for Islamic behavior and attitudes."

After the Ann Arbor school was flourishing, the group bought land for another school in a suburb of Detroit. "The most we could scrape together was $500,000. In the end we spent more than $2.5 million." Doors opened in 1991 for kindergarten through fifth grade. By 1995, sixth through ninth grades had been added and plans for a high school were quickly developing. "When we started back in 1985 there were probably 15 Islamic schools in the country. Now there are about 200 full-time Islamic schools."

Yellow school buses bearing the name Crescent Academy International were parked in the lot when I arrived on a March morning. In the classrooms, boys wore white shirts and girls wore plaid jumpers, some with scarves. In the second-grade room, the teacher was sitting in slacks on the front table, a scarf wrapped around her head, reading a story to the class -- everyone paying eager attention except the two who were cleaning the hamster cage. The middle school was housed in a set of prefabricated buildings next door. The English and the literature classes would be familiar in any junior high school, but Arabic class is also required three times a week, Islamic studies three times a week and the study of the Qur’an three times a week. Do they study other religions as well? I asked. Tauhidi responded, "We have a hard enough time getting a good curriculum in Islamic studies together. Students have to feel secure about themselves first. Because of the history of the modern Muslim world, most are insecure."

A domed prayer room has a tall window that looks out to the fields, indicating the direction of Mecca. The early afternoon prayer is part of the school day, and, depending upon the time of the year, the late afternoon prayer is also included. This school prayer room is also the local mosque for about 100 families in the area, and adults join the children for prayers at noon on Fridays.

The public-private school debate is lively within the Islamic community today. Tauhidi takes his place in a long historical debate on parochial education in the U.S. when he says, "Muslims have to wake up and realize that they have to take care of their children. As the community gets stronger, we can make a contribution to society. But first the community, including the younger generation, must get stronger." Many Muslims despair of the drugs, the dating, the entertainment-saturated culture that are so much a part of the public school experience. Muslim parents have responded by supporting full-time Islamic schools that create a stronger environment of support for Muslim faith and practice.

Others in the Muslim community oppose this trend. A panel on the public-private school debate at a 1993 ISNA convention in Kansas City drew hundreds of participants. "Will two or three hours of weekend school do it, when 70 hours a week are spent in the non-Islamic environment of the public schools or the TV?" asked Aminah Jundali, the mother of four children. "You put children in school eight hours a day five days a week, and then you expect them to come out of that with an Islamic personality and Islamic values? That’s almost an impossible task." A young high school girl responded in favor of public schooling. "It is even harder for us as girls, because we wear hijab to school and we stand out as different. Still, I want to go to the public school, because if we are not there as Muslims, how will other kids ever understand anything about Islam?"

Both sides in the debate realize that it is not an either-or issue. Full-time schools are being established, one after another, year after year. But it is also important to focus on issues critical for Muslims in the public schools. To this end, ISNA published a brochure that is sent to public school teachers and administrators. "You’ve Got a Muslim Child in Your School" spells out some of the basics of Islam and specifies some of the restrictions. One section reads:

On behalf of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest organization of Muslims in the United States and Canada, we would like to request that in view of the above teachings of Islam, Muslim students in your school system should not be required to:

1) sit next to the opposite sex in the same classroom;

2) participate in physical education, swimming or dancing classes. Alternative meaningful education activities should be arranged for them. We urge you to organize physical education and swimming classes separately for boys and girls in accordance with the following guidelines:

• separate classes for boys and girls in a fully covered area

• only male/female instructors for the respective group

• special swimming suits that cover all the private parts of the body down to the knee

• separate and covered shower facilities for each student

3) participate in plays, proms, social parties, picnics, dating, etc. which require free mixing of the two sexes;

4) participate in any event or activity related to Christmas, Easter, Halloween or Valentine’s Day. All such occasions have religious and social connotations contrary to Islamic faith and teachings.

We also urge you to ensure that the following facilities are available to Muslim students in your school:

1) They are excused from their classes to attend off-campus special prayers on Fridays (approximately 1:00 to 2:00 P.M.).

2) They are excused for 15 minutes in the afternoon to offer a special prayer in a designated area on the campus. The prayer is mandatory for all Muslims and often cannot be offered after the school hours.

3) All food items containing meat of a pig in any form or shape, as well as alcohol, should be clearly labeled in the cafeteria.

4) At least one properly covered toilet should be available in each men’s and women’s room.

5) Muslim students are excused, without penalty of absence, for the two most important festivals of Islam: Eid Al-Fitr and Edi Al-Adha, in accordance with the lunar calendar.

Such requirements may strike the Muslim student as precisely the list of "don’ts" that constituted the young Chicago journalist’s negative experience of Islam when he was a child. Most of what children end up telling their classmates and teachers is what they can’t do. For school boards and principals, a brochure such as this may be received as a welcome and educational set of guidelines for a new situation. On the other hand, it might be received as an unwarranted intrusion into the secular atmosphere of the school. What is clear, however, is that church-state issues in public education have changed forever and that such issues as school-sponsored prayer, the posting of the ten Commandments and the teaching of creation science are the arguments of yesterday.

Shabbir Mansuri is a pioneer in Islamic participation in public school curricula. He was an engineer in California when he entered the 1990 debate over the California state guidelines for the teaching of Islamic history and religion in social studies. As he tells the story, his sixth-grade daughter had come home giggling over the portrayal of Muslims at prayer in her textbook: e.g., Bedouins who rubbed their faces in the sand before praying. "Daddy, should we get some sand in the living room?" she said. Mansuri laughed with her but was disturbed by the textbook. Before long, he had organized Muslim participation in textbook hearings. One text had a unit on Islam that began with a picture of a camel; he got it thrown out. "I looked at all the other units and the pictures were of people. But with Islam, a camel. The human element was completely missing. Why a camel, when most Americans already think of Muslims as remote, and therefore faceless?"

Mansuri founded the Council on Islamic Education and has organized a wide range of Muslim scholars and teachers to work with textbook publishers as they revise social studies and world history texts. The scholars, both Muslim and non-Muslim, examined the new textbooks. Finally, the notorious camel was thrown out. "I felt so proud to be an American," Mansuri said in a subsequent interview "That an individual like me, an immigrant, a concerned parent, went through the textbook adoption process and that changes were made because I participated -- this is amazing. Nowhere else in the world does this happen."

The committee continues its work. "I’m not interested in just bringing an Islamic perspective, but an academic perspective, to all these studies. . . . We are not looking for an ethnocentric curriculum. We want only that schools accurately portray the cultural and racial diversity of our society. . . . We need to participate in a positive way, with a contributory approach. . . . Once you make schools understand that you are part of the solution, not part of the problem, they will listen to you.


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