Islamic Schooling in the Western World – Part 1

In this 2-part blog series, we have decided to ponder upon the assumed existential crisis of Islamic schools in the West while also highlighting the intentions behind Al Manarat Islamic Schools. We’d also like to take this opportunity to renew our intentions with regards to our vision as well as our commitments to the Muslim community of the Greater Toronto Area. 

Islamic schooling and the attempts to balance Islamic education with conventional education are not new to us in the West. However, when we look for the basic definition of it in the communities, we are still able to elicit a diverse range of thoughts and explanations for it. In this part 1 of the blog, we shall attempt to candidly explore all the diverse thoughts on the topic of Islamic schooling from the existing viewpoints in the community.

One segment of the Western Muslims seems to understand that almost all Islamic schools in the West are some forms of ‘madrasas’ from ‘back home’, where parents send their children to get educated solely in the Islamic scriptures or ‘deeni taaleem’. They believe that only the relevant religious knowledge is taught at these schools, such as the Arabic language, recitation and memorization of the Holy Quran, a basic understanding of hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH), as well as broader topics of Islamic creed and jurisprudence. In other words, these Islamic schools are merely seen as an extension of the “Sunday School”. 

The other segment of Muslims who live in the West understand that these Islamic schools are not quite simply ‘madrasas’ or religious-oriented schools; rather they are schools that go the extra mile of incorporating the conventional standard syllabus within broader strokes of an Islamic educational framework. In this rendition of an Islamic school, apart from the typical worldly education, a decent amount of focus is given to the teaching and learning of the deen (in terms of producing better adherents of Islam) as well as on the programs that include reading and memorization of the Holy Quran.

While both these Islamic schooling models exist in the West, the concept of an Islamic School in the West predominantly follows the second concept explained above. It mostly assumes a hybrid educational model, covering the conventional syllabus approved by the state/provincial government, as well as an Islam-oriented syllabus consisting of most of those Islamic focus areas mentioned in the examples above. Unfortunately, there is no centralized Islamic education governing body for the Islamic schools in Canada that can provide highly structured guidance on the Islamic syllabus and course development for schools to implement. This lack thereof, provides a lot of autonomy and independence to the various Islamic schools in the country and pushes them to build their own unique syllabi according to their imagination and Islamic expertise. However, just as with any other school system (including public schools, charter schools, or catholic schools), each Islamic school produces a wide range of graduates with an equally diverse set of skills, aspirations, community engagement levels, and a varying affinity to attain professional success as well as model citizenry.

Time and time again, Muslim communities in the West have found themselves on both sides of the Islamic schooling debate and have challenged each other to imagine what an ideal Islamic school would be like. While it sounds like a complex debate, it is the dire need of the hour for our communities to retain their religious identity and heritage. There are some opinions that claim the existing Islamic schools in their communities are a far cry from what they ideally should be and hence they’ve given up hope in the concept all together. They cite issues such as unqualified teachers or high teacher turnover rates, lack of funding for the schools to maintain quality, dogmatic approaches to teaching and learning religious or non-religious syllabus, learning devoid of critical thinking and reasoning, and a general lack of methodological or epistemological educational frameworks, etc.  In contrast, there are those who have no doubt in their minds that their children will irreversibly cast away all aspects of their religious and cultural identities if they don’t attend an Islamic school. Hence, these Islamically conscious yet worried parents, despite knowing all the supposed flaws of these Islamic schools, still find themselves supporting the Islamic schooling narratives as they consider them the best option available out there. Unfortunately, they are rarely in any power or capacity to address or rectify the issues plaguing these schools, as these problems are broadly systemic.

Interestingly, when we look back more than a thousand years ago, we see that education, scholarship, and academic research played a huge role in the expansion of Islam out of Arabia and into different parts of the world, including Spain. At the height of the Islamic civilization in Andalusia in Spain, countless prominent Muslims of that society were first scholars of the deen and huffaz of the Holy Quran, before they were also highly renowned physicians, astrologists, navigators, mathematicians, chemists, poets, and philosophers. It was no secret that all these historical Muslims were exceptionally good at possessing Islamic knowledge along with their field specializations. Muslims of that time went on to teach Europe several scientific concepts and findings on the universe. When Europe was going through the Dark Ages, the Ottoman Empire was thriving and expanding its borders. With such a glorious history and heritage, why then are Muslims in the West finding it hard to establish decent Islamically purposed schools? Why do we find ourselves picking and choosing between Islamic knowledge and the worldly knowledge? Why are we so unsure of our place in the modern world, when our predecessors were at the forefront of advancements in their lifetimes?

To be continued in Part 2.

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