New research offers a look into the structure and culture of Islamic schools in America, adding to similar analysis by the University of Virginia’s Institute of Advanced Studies in Culture and others.
California Lutheran University School of Management professor Sabith Khan, and Shariq Siddiqui, executive director of the Association for Research on Nonprofit and Voluntary Action in Indianapolis, collaborated to survey more than 230 Islamic schools in the U.S., and interview over two dozen principals and board members, according to their recent editorial in the Ventura County Star.
They discovered that most of the Islamic schools resemble other religious schools, and focus about 10 to 25 percent of their curriculum on religious studies. All Muslim-American schools are nonprofits, which allows for tax benefits and legitimacy. Many Islamic schools are started through philanthropy and are later supported through fees or other means, Kahn and Siddiqui wrote in the Star.
They also looked at civic engagement.
According to Khan and Siddiqui:
One of our most counterintuitive findings was that Islamic schools have been instrumental in helping their students develop a greater sense of civic awareness and, hence, become better citizens.
Islamic schools help produce community leaders. They have produced a bulk of the civic leaders in the Muslim-American community. This should not come as a surprise, given that Muslim institutions in the U.S. generally encourage their members to be active members of the local, national, and international civil society.
This messaging is reinforced in many ways, including through service-learning activities, interaction with local communities and the formation of education boards. Amaney Jamal with Princeton University has shown that participation in mosque activities is directly correlated with greater political and civic engagement. This also ties in with work by Robert Wuthnow of Princeton and Robert Putnam of Harvard University showing that social capital is higher among those who participate in religious institutions than among those who don’t.
Boston University Professor Charles L. Glenn and several graduate students conducted similar interviews with officials, students, staff and parents, and observed the daily practices at Islamic schools at as part of a study designed by James Davison Hunter, University of Virginia sociologist and founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.
Glenn pointed out in the April 2016 article in First Things, “America’s Most Influential Journal of Religion and Public Life,” that the shared value system and expectations among those in Islamic schools provides the atmosphere for deeper conversations about character, morality, faith, and other topics typically avoided in public schools.
“The willingness of teachers to engage in discussion of issues of faith and conduct makes a strong impression on their students. ‘Basically the thing [the Islamic-studies teacher] did is that he is so approachable and he does not talk about the textbook Islam,’ one student told us. ‘He’ll talk about real-life Islam, like he’s always giving us real-life examples, real-life situations. He makes us do these plays in class where one of us is a non-Muslim and the other is a Muslim, and so the non-Muslim asks all the questions that a kid ever wants to ask but is too afraid to.’ This constitutes a form of mentoring that the students find important,” Glenn wrote.
These teenagers experience something that has been observed in other religious schools as well. The shared worldview of a faith-based school provides a margin of safety for discussions on a deeper level than is often possible in a public school where such a common perspective does not exist. David Campbell, a sociologist of religion, has noted that in religious schools “an ethos of trust opens space for teachers to feel comfortable introducing contentious issues into their lessons and allowing debate and discussion of those issues among the students.” This contrasts with the climate of American public schooling as described by sociologist Anthony Bryk et al. in Catholic Schools and the Common Good (1993, 2009): “Mirroring the spiritual vacuum at the heart of contemporary American society, schools now enculturate this emptiness in our children . . . The problems of contemporary schooling are broader than the ineffective use of instrumental authority. At base is an absence of moral authority.” The Islamic secondary schools that we visited unquestionably possess moral authority, which, paradoxically, is why they allow students more intellectual freedom.
The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture hosted Glenn for a public panel titled “Islamic Schools in America: Questions of Faith, Assimilation, and Character” at the University of Virginia’s Watson Manor on October 17, 2017.
The event, moderated by The Hedgehog Review editor Jay Tolson, featured Glenn; Boston College political science professor Peter Skerry; Sufia Azmat, executive director of the Council of Islamic Schools in North America; and Safaa Zarzour, attorney and former principal at a large Islamic school.