بسم الله الرحمان الرحيم
This has become a popular topic of discussion among Muslims in my local community, with some very impassioned perspectives. I want to offer a more nuanced perspective that I think gets lost in the process. Since I’m a parent, I also have my own opinion which I will explain as well. Please note that this article will mostly be applicable for North American Muslims, as that is where most of my experience is situated.
But before I discuss this, I want to mention that I am a teacher at an Islamic school (and coincidentally although where I work is not perfect, I do think its one of the best Islamic schools in Ontario, if not the best), and I send my daughter to an Islamic school. If you think that makes me biased, that’s your call, but please read the whole article before you dismiss me entirely.
Like many Muslim parents involved in this discussion, I think about this subject constantly, as I don’t earn a lot and thus devote a significant amount of my pay to send my kid to Islamic school. It would be very easy for me to send my daughter to public school and save a small but significant amount of money for savings or luxuries.
So, should you send your kid to an Islamic school? Most discussions on this issue seem to revolve around two points:
Is my child being too insulated from social pressures that they will have to eventually face in university and real life anyway? In this discussion parents think that their children will ‘suddenly’ be exposed to an intellectual and social culture they are not prepared for.
Is the cost worth it? Islamic schools are expensive, and the amount of money dedicated to school fees can be utilized in many ways. There is also a perception that Islamic schools are overcharging for their services.
I want to demonstrate how these two issues ‘miss the point’.
The real answer to our question of whether we should send our kids to Islamic school or not is: ‘It’s complicated’.
Here is what I think the discussion should involve:
Firstly, It depends on the teachers. Teachers make a school, not the building. An awesome teacher can raise an intelligent generation in the middle of the desert. You can have terrible teachers in public schools, you can have them in Islamic schools too. You can have awesome teachers in public schools, you can have them in Islamic schools too.
Observe carefully the management and board of the school you are sending your kids to. Do they prioritize having excellent teachers and treating them well? This is a critical issue that is at the heart of an excellent school (Islamic or otherwise).
If they do prioritize teachers, then chances are they’re going to attract teaching talent that may stick around for longer than usual. If not, teacher turnover can be quite high – although be careful, because teacher turnover can be high regardless if public schools disproportionately more, as is the case in Canada. At minimum, teachers should be qualified by their local ministry of education to teach.
Secondly, It depends on the school. What is the management of the school and the board like? Does the school and its management have a growth and progression mindset, or are they set in their ways? What are their priorities? Are you able to communicate your concerns to the school or its board effectively? What kind of staff and student culture does the school have? What courses do they offer? What kind of extracurricular school activities and programs do they have in place? What do you observe in the graduates from the school? Do they excel academically and preserve their faith later in their academic lives? Or do they end up being weak students and traumatized Muslims after they move on?
Does the school emphasize mental health and good digital citizenship? Is there a mental health counselor available to them in the building? Does the school facilitate students getting involved in volunteer activities outside the Muslim community? Does the school have basic resources that are necessary for students to not just excel as students, but as young people? At the minimum, I think a playground, field or gym is a must. You can’t have a school without them, although the building should NOT be the main issue. There are many factors to consider, and you really must do your research.
Thirdly, It depends on the student body. This is a bit controversial, but if a school chooses to become a hospital for the spiritually or mentally troubled – which is often a stereotype that most good Islamic schools have transcended – then that’s not a good environment for your kids. If the students going to the school are themselves driven to excel in academics and are passionate about Islam, then that will rub off on your kids too. An essential component of choosing a school for our kids is the people they will be around, which I think consists of around 80-90% of their interactions in school. Friends who excel academically and spiritually may even overcome the lack of a good teacher in some circumstances.
Fourthly, It depends on what the school understands by their label ‘Islamic’. Remember that ‘Islamic’ is half of what makes an ‘Islamic school’. Does the Islamic school have a good Islamic Education program? Does it have a dedicated Islamic Studies teacher? How qualified is the Islamic Studies teacher? Unfortunately, most parents seem to ignore this, not realizing how critical this is to their kids’ experience, as well as their intellectual and spiritual development.
I’ve seen schools advertising themselves as emphasizing intelligent Islamic education and fostering a respect for traditional Islamic values in their students, but not having an Islamic Studies teacher. Does it have an extracurricular program for improving students’ knowledge and spirituality outside of class beyond just reading and memorizing Qur’an? If a school’s definition of being ‘Islamic’ is just reading Qur’an, wearing hijab and stopping kids from dating each other, then that is going to fail miserably. Although its important, the focus should not just be about helping kids to ‘love Islam’, but should extend into helping kids to internalize an intelligent and effective Islamic ontology for the culture they live in. Therefore, its important to have qualified Islamic studies teachers.
If its just the local religious uncle or auntie (which is surprisingly common), or the local hafidh or qari teaching Islam at the school, or some religious zealot with a sectarian agenda that isn’t geared at taking your kids Islamic education and spiritual development serious then that program isn’t just going to fall short, it may even be damaging for their spiritual development.
Lastly, It depends on the parents sending their kids there. Are the parents of the school constantly bickering with teachers or criticizing them? Are they over-involved or overbearing on the school? Or are the parents supportive of the teachers and willing to work together with them to help their kids? For the most part, most schools and communities cannot control the type of parents they bring into the school, but parents should be wary of this.
This is all I can think of and articulate for now. But is it possible to find an Islamic school that hits every mark? I don’t think so. You have no choice but to settle for less at times, it’s impossible to find a perfect school. In fact, even in public school it is impossible to find a school that has everything. I still remember how I never understood chemistry for most of my life because my high school chemistry teacher never bothered to write new tests. As for the initial two concerns that most people seem to mention, here are my two cents:
My personal views:
In general, even adults need to insulate themselves from their environments to survive and thrive spiritually in the West. It is no secret that even you as a parent need to sometimes get away from the intense materialism, secularism, Islamophobia and various social mores that you will often encounter in first world societies. You might already be doing this by having a certain circle of friends that you realize the importance of keeping consistent company with. It’s also why so many discussions revolve around making mosques more welcoming, functional and spiritually healthy spaces for Muslims to retreat to. It’s why MSAs exist.
So just like you need that as an adult, so do kids, and perhaps even more because of how impressionable they are. And with the mores of social media, technology and popular media, for most people the home is not enough for that (which is why coincidentally, there is so much pressure on mosques to have programs for kids and youth). So don’t act like the environment your kids spend their time in isn’t important. I mention this often, but If you do a bachelor’s degree you’ve spent 17 years of your life studying secular subjects in a secular environment. What effect do you think that will have on you? Many of us parents grew up in Muslim countries for a significant portion of our childhood, or at the least had immigrant parents, or grew up in immigrant-concentrated neighborhoods. To a certain extent, we have been conditioned to think in a certain way by our cultural roots.
A good Islamic school CAN provide that healthy environment for a child to grow up as an intellectually and spiritually healthy Muslim (if we make sure we choose a good school of course, not just by name but in substance). Now I know a lot of parents will disagree, saying that the lack of exposure will pose a greater risk once their kids do eventually have to enter ‘the real world’. I respect that, but if you are going to take that option, then a greater burden falls on you to provide your kids with a strong Islamic Education and spiritual tarbiyah at home.
It’s not enough for your child to have an Islamic ‘identity’. They must have a native Islamic ontology to be able to sustain, and that takes education, environment and in the West, a lot of willpower. Sunday school doesn’t count. I’ve taught Sunday school and the inconsistency of attendance and sparsity of qualified teachers renders it ineffective for the most part. I only know of one effort in my area that has taken serious steps to formalize their Sunday school program. For the most part, the parents I know who are pulling their kids out of Islamic schools do not have the resources to do that, whether in intellectual or social capital. I still remember how few people I know from high school who remained Muslim (and this was a high school that had a noticeable majority of immigrant Muslims). I don’t think we should forget the lessons we learned from that experience. It’s easy to forget how impressionable we were at that time.
As for the cost, then I will be the first to say that yes, the cost is a lot. Islamic and private schools are expensive. I myself am not particularly wealthy and really have to squeeze my budget to afford paying for my daughter’s fees. But consider that in Canada, it takes the public-school system around $12-14 thousand dollars per student every year to fund their education. We often complain when our Islamic schools charge around $8-10 thousand a year. And private schools simply cannot hire talent if they cannot afford to pay them. I know many parents simply can’t afford it, but for those who can, I think that if you consider your child’s religious upbringing a serious priority, you will put your kids in Islamic school. I know that’s harsh and a massive judgement call, but I sincerely believe it. There is a difference between wondering whether or not Islamic schools are overall effective or useful, and fulfilling our responsibilities as Muslim parents and doing the best we can.
Of course, given all this, there is still a good discussion to be had about whether it is worth it to put our kids in Islamic high schools, or whether it is enough to send them to an Islamic elementary/middle school. The main benefit of an Islamic high school, I feel, is fulfilled especially when it can provide a strong Islamic education. Otherwise spiritual tarbiyah at the high school level, although important to address, is difficult, unless your high school has group dhikr sessions or something similar – which I have never seen. Teens are generally too preoccupied by the emotional pain of biological adulthood and pressure of grades to be able to focus on spirituality. Public schools don’t even have any mention of spirituality, so I imagine the effect there is worse.
But I’ll tell you from personal experience that there is no better place to learn Islam in a structured way than a course in which students have to attend, pay attention, and do coursework. No halaqah or Sunday school program can ever top that. But if an Islamic high school has no Islamic studies program or dedicated and qualified teacher, the benefit is very little. For myself, I’m not sure if I’ll keep my kids in Islamic school at the high school level. But I know I can easily provide a high-level Islamic education and spiritual tarbiyah at home, so my example is not applicable to everyone.
I could talk about the ‘gender interactions’ issue here too, but I know that problem is overemphasized. I’ll avoid it for now, although I do feel it is important. Islamic schools are not perfect in this regard, but if done right, they can be excellent mediums in which to teach teens how to have healthy relationships with the opposite gender that respect Islamic boundaries but still don’t neuter them in being able to work with the opposite gender.
As for the elementary & middle school level, I think its critical for kids to be in a good Islamic school at that point. Many parents who are not in education don’t know this, but public education is essentially institutionalized indoctrination, especially at this level, whether we are talking about worldview, ethics, akhlaq or citizenship. So, who are we allowing to indoctrinate our kids? Or what system are we utilizing to do that? Teachers are like second parents. Who would you feel comfortable being a parent of your child in your absence? As long as the school has no serious problems like abusive teachers, terrible facilities and educational quality, I’d imagine that even something as minor as daily exposure to the Qur’an, group dhikr and learning duas can have a great effect on a child’s spiritual psychology.
My views here should not be taken out of context of the points I’ve mentioned above, as a bad Islamic school is worse than a public school. But a good Islamic school needs to be supported, and the best way to support it, is to have good parents who can afford it and take their kids religious upbringing seriously send their kids there.
I know this article will rub some people the wrong way, but so far this is the conclusion I’ve come to. And Allah knows best.