Working Class Muslim Families Series Part 5: The Mainstreaming Option, Education and Selective Engagement

At this point in time there will be many reading this who are thinking one of two things (or both). First, they are thinking the issues I am discussing and the dreams and aspiration of working-class Muslims in America I speak of are in my head and do not really exist on a wide scale. I can assure you that I am not making this up. If you think that I am, email me personally and tell me where you live and I can either put you in touch with people in your city or tell you where to go to meet people in the predicament of which I speak.

The second thing people are thinking is, and I think perhaps maybe this opinion may be the majority in many circles, is why am I making a fuss? Hey, we are in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave. Muslims are dying to come here and raise their children and you are complaining about having to raise your children here? America is the land of opportunity. If you work hard and get a good education here you can succeed materialistically no matter your race, religion or ethnicity. And, finally, they will not see what I see. Maybe they are cloistered in immigrant Muslim communities, or maybe they see the American-Muslim community and approve of the direction it is heading too. Their goal is the “mainstreaming” of Islam in America and they see this as achievable. More mosques are open and more Muslims are visible, so what is the fuss? A mainstream Islam for a mainstream America is being created!

Well, I am sorry, but if I waned to be in the mainstream of America I would have never became Muslim. When I took shahadah, I was embracing a faith that offered me a radical alternative to the American way of life.  A faith not at one with liberals or conservatives or any other religion or political ideology on this planet. If I believed in religious pluralism, in the sense that all religions are the same and no one should profess the exclusivity of the correctness of their faith, I would have never became Muslim.

It is the belief that Islam is the Haqq, The Truth, which sustains me and guides my plans for my family. I am an extremely flawed Muslim and human being, and I am not setting myself up as a role model by any means, but the brothers I have met and loved in this deen have struggled because we are trying to get closer to Islam and live the Sunnah in our lives. Those who seek the mainstream struggle to get farther away from Islam, and closer to an American or secular humanistic model.  So, when you talk about unity in the Muslim community, between the immigrant and the indigenous, you have to take these things into consideration, many of us are on the same highway but we are headed in different directions and I want to take my family in the direction that brings them closer to attaining Jannah and not the one that brings them closer to a suburban McMansion.

Jews are a model for Muslims in America. I have found that almost every shade of Muslim I have encountered who has discussed some future model for the Muslim community has invoked the Jewish experience as a model. Progressive Muslims invoke the Reformed model which basically means you can believe anything and still call yourself a Muslim. The model is based on modern humanist thought and anything in Islam that violates the edicts of global secular thought has to go. For them, Islam becomes just some empty traditions made modern and cute. The word Muslim has a cultural meaning and not a meaning of submission to Allah and adherence to the Sunnah of His Messenger (s.a.s.). Socially, this will lead to failure and will die within a few generations (just like Reformed Judaism now is looking at a dire future) and religiously you can call this Islam, but in fact it is not Islam. You can call me the King of England, but that does not make me a king, and you can call a butterfly a mocking bird but that does not make it a mocking bird. You can invent your own Islam out of the words and thoughts of humans, but it will not be – and will never be – al-Islam.

The model the progressives have for our children is a model that will take them out of Islam. And, as the beliefs of the progressives gain momentum – and they can be found in most of the major Muslim organizations and in Muslim schools throughout America – the ascendency of this thought must be taken into consideration when thinking about what kind of Muslim future there is in America for your children. These organizations may not call themselves progressive or reformed Muslims but many in them hold those beliefs.

At this stage in America however these reform minded Muslims do not define the mainstream.  The mainstream of Muslim organizations is the alphabet organizations that directly deal with the lives of Muslim children in America: ISNA, MAS, and ICNA.  You can also say that Zaytuna and al-Maghrib are organizations that are central to Muslim families and children in their unique ways as well (but are not operating schools).

ISNA and MAS have the most Muslim schools attached to them and in some areas operate the only schools. Therefore, the direction these two organizations are headed, and their definition of the mainstream (which they both seek to be in) is crucial in analyzing a future for Muslim children.

No organization has a greater effect on the identity of more Muslims and the religious and scholastic education of Muslim children than ISNA. This is particularly the case for Desi Muslims; but the reach of ISNA is wide and ensnares the entirety of the American-Muslim community. In many cities, such as St. Louis, the only school operating full-time for Muslim children is a school at an ISNA-affiliated masjid. Therefore, if you want your child to be professionally educated by Muslims and socialized with Muslim children, you have no choice other but to send them to an ISNA school.

There is good in ISNA and their efforts to move American-Muslims into the mainstream if that means that Muslims are not looked at funny or what have you can be positive. But, if that means that the uniqueness of Islam, the Sunnah, Dawah, and the fundamental truths of Islam will take a backseat in terms of effort and emphasis to the need for moderation, mainstreaming, and image-making to the non-Muslim society, then I do not see ISNA-related schools as those where it is safe to entrust the future of working-class Muslim children or their Islamic education too. If interfaith comes before aqeeda and PR gimmicks to gain support or sympathy comes before the Sunnah then I do not think Muslim children are in the best environment to grow.

With regards to the ISNA educated children, we have tens of thousands of examples to look at to see how it turned out. An entire generation has graduated from ISNA schools and is now in young adult hood. Financially, most of these young Muslims are doing well. Educationally, the majority have received college degrees. Politically, most are voting and moderate. So, by the standards of American society these young Muslims are doing great and their educational model should be one that working-class Muslim would be ready to accept for our own children.

But, there is more to the story. There are no figures, but go to city after city and masjid after masjid, and you will find that the community has lost the bulk, if not the majority of those educated in Muslims schools. It is not that most of these young Muslims do not still indentify themselves as Muslims – they do – but they are absent from the life of the Muslim community and living lives that are not distinguishable from their non-Muslim peers. For those who are still practicing – and there are many but I would venture to say they are  a minority – there is a strong propensity towards an Islam that is diluted in order to not conflict with modern American society.

I do not blame these young Muslims; rather I blame ISNA and the social thought of those around that influenced their direction. These schools were largely opened in middle to upper-class suburbia in areas that were not heavily populated by Muslims. Indeed, if you look at writings in many Muslim publications in the 1990’s there were Muslims writers, somewhat bizarrely, writing that it was a plus that the Muslim community was spread so thin and not geographically concentrated.  In real life what did this mean?

It meant that young Muslim immigrant kids would grow up in areas surrounded by non-Muslims. Non-Muslim kids would be their neighbors and friends and later their lovers and spouses. When they went to the mosque or Muslim school they felt out of place because they felt they could not behave as they wanted to. That is why when you go to an ISNA masjid or school and see the youth they normally have no outward signs of being Muslim nor do they have the speech of Muslims; rather they have the speech and dress of their non-Muslim neighbors.

The working-class Muslim family is largely shut out from this suburban Muslim school situation. Most of these schools are too far out of the way in suburbia to attract working-class Muslim families in the event a family chose to send their children to such a school. If the decision was made to send the kid to that suburban ISNA school next there is the issue of finance. Many working-class Muslim parents, knowing the imperfections of these schools but seeing no alternative, they still desire for their kids to attend, but are thwarted by the high-tuition rates that are set up for parents who are doctors and engineers.

Some working-class Muslim families scrape up the money to send their kids to the ISNA school. Some of these schools, to their credit (and may Allah reward them) offer scholarships so that working-class families can send their kids to the schools. Your children may overcome the issue of them being the poorest kids in the schools with the fewest toys. They may overlook the fact that they do not celebrate their birthdays and other Muslim kids are celebrating their birthdays in the schools. However, as a parent can you overlook the fact that they are being educated amongst kids who quite plainly and obviously are rebelling against their parents and Islam? Their parents may have come from Pakistan but these kids are driving 100MPH on the road towards full American assimilation. They are heading for what you have given up. Do you want your kids to stand on the road as hitchhikers? Will you sign the permission slip for the field trip to tour the church? Will you look the other way as the female teachers treat their hijabs like convertibles? Will you ignore it when they look at you – the father – as an extremist because you grow your beard long? If your greatest priority is ensuring the Islam of your children and the future generations I do not think an ISNA-style masjid is advisable.

I will say without hesitation that MAS schools are better than ISNA schools and that is the case all around the country. The atmosphere is more Islamic, the deen is taught in a more serious way, there is an attempt to have the Muslims cluster, there is a separation of the sexes, and Islam is taught as a complete way of life while not avoiding any aspect. Second-generation retention rates, again without data, seem to be substantially higher although the same problems exist in MAS schools as ISNA schools.

If I were an Arab, I would not hesitate or think twice to send my children to a MAS school. But I am not an Arab. Do not get me wrong, I know a number of working-class Muslims who send their kids to MAS schools, and seem to be doing relatively well. But, issues still exist. MAS schools tend to be located in neighborhoods the MAS members feel comfortable living in. These may not be the same neighborhoods that working-class Muslim can afford or desire. These may not even be areas where it is advisable for African-American Muslims to live given the history of anti-black bigotry in some of these areas. The tuition problem still remains as well. If you are struggling to get by you more than likely cannot afford to send your children to the same school a Palestinian entrepreneur or engineer can. Then, if your kids get in the school, and they are not Arab and the school is set up to deal with Arab children and their issues and later on advocate for Arab-Muslim causes, how exactly does your child fit in at such a school?  I’m not so sure they do (but I would be more much willing to take the chance with MAS schools over ISNA schools).

If you take ISNA and MAS schools out of the equation what is left for Muslim children from working-class families short of hijrah? Well, back to the Jewish model which I will now use; you can home-school or send your children to schools, which in a very similar way to that of Orthodox Jews, are not closed off from this society, but rather practice selective engagement with the society.

What is selective engagement, who practices it, and where does the working-class Muslim fit in with this?

Selective-engagement means that we are living in this society but we are not of this society. Its norms are not our norms, its politics are not our politics, and its social models are not that of ours. Muslims involved in selective-engagement set up masjids, schools, and communities based on this principal. It says we will be a positive force in the greater society and we will enjoin the good and forbid the evil. We will vote, obey the law (unless it conflicts with Islam) and be a positive force in the society. We will be educated about what is going on in the society and fully engage when necessary. But, we are friends with one another, we marry one another, we hire one another, do business with one another and we support one another. There is a recognition that we have to do for us and what is going on in the greater society does not dictate our pace.

Schools set up in such a community do not put an emphasis on moderation, the mainstream, or being accepted by the greater society. When you walk into these schools you do not see boys with baggy jeans and clean-shaven faces bopping their heads to something they are listening to on the iPod. No, not at all, when you walk into these schools there is an Islamic environment, and when I say “Islamic”, I mean something that could have been recognized as Islamic a millennium ago. The sexes are strictly separated and there is a strong emphasis on teaching Islamic knowledge in a serious manner. The pupil will not only know that they should believe in the Oneness of Allah; but they will be instructed in the vast knowledge of tawheed. The Sunnah is not taught as history; but as the model for our lives. When our daughters are taught in these schools to shoot for the stars, the stars are the Mothers of the Believers (r.a.) and not Hillary Clinton or some kafir actress on Grey’s Anatomy or Lost.

These schools also have the best record for racial and ethnic diversity and retention of Muslims and are disproportionately located in the inner-cities. There is no name for these schools and communities and they are not all on the same page. But, all of these communities have in common that they are traditional-minded Muslims not operating in the mainstream.

I am talking about schools such as Madressatul Ahlis-Sunnah in East Orange, NJ operated by the African-American Imam Abu Muslimah from a Salafi background. The al-Aqsa Academy in Philly that is run by conservative Arabs but has a diverse school population is another example. So is the al-Nur School on the North Side of Chicago which is ran by Deobandi Hanafis but is open to all. The school ran by the African-American Sheikh Abdul-Rahman Basheer in Norman, OK where he implements a daleel- based curriculum unflinchingly to a diverse group of students. Dar as-Salaam in College Park, MD is led by Sheikh Safi Khan, a Desi Salafi, and has a diverse school with a religious emphasis and high academic standards.  The Islamic School in Sunset Park, Brooklyn may be another example although not quite to the same extent. These schools, and there are many others that I did not name, are focused primarily on bringing about the next generation of Muslims. If you are going to send your children to any Islamic schools in America these are the best schools to send them to. If you have to move to these cities and uproot your family in order to do so it would be worth the hardship if the other option is staying in an inactive Muslim community or sending your children to dodgy schools.

However, while I am a fan of most of these schools and the communities they are in they are also not without problems. They may be good, but there is no silver bullet to cure all that ails the working-class Muslim families of America.

While the immigrant-run schools in this category are generally more diverse and affordable (and have created a greater level of bonding between Muslims of different races than many of those working on bridging the gap today even realize); they are still too costly for a lot of struggling working-class American Muslim families. A single Muslim mother working at a low-paying job may not be able to afford a private Muslim school no matter how low they set the tuition. There is also the issue that while the Sunnah is preached and taught at these schools there can often time still be racial and ethnic divisions within the student body. And no immigrant ran school, no matter how good, will be able to address some of the specific social issues that are prevalent in the lives of many poor Muslim kids.

The African-American schools in this category, such as the ones I mentioned in New Jersey and Oklahoma, socially offer a better environment for working-class American Muslim schools to develop in. But, as has been painfully demonstrated time and time again, particularly with African-American Muslim children, our children are not immune to what ails the ghettos. If you raise your child in the ghetto – even a ghetto with a lot of Muslims – they may be sucked into the streets of the ghetto and not only be lost to the Muslim community, but robbed of their lives at an early age. While, for many I will recommend these schools, they are not for everyone.

A problem African-American and immigrant ran schools in this category mutually share is at times they cloister the Muslim kids too much from this society and they do not give the children recreational activities. As an example, boys need to be raised in places where there physicality can be developed. The young man has that brewing young masculinity in him, the warrior-spirit, and it must be channeled in a positive way. This can be done through sports and exercise (particularly, as is the Sunnah, teaching him the arts of physical combat and self-defense so that he may be the protector of his home); but go to most of these Muslim schools and there is very little physically activity offered for the boys and many of them have the physicality of Jewish yeshiva students. Others, with hormones and masculinity raging, who have been given no positive avenue for what is naturally within them will rebel in negative ways and that is why you have gang-bangers with perfect tajweed and dope-dealers who can quote Ibn Kathir.  Girls have different needs and desires; but sending them to these schools is not the cure-all, it is just the beginning, because there have been many girls who have came out of these schools and went on to get pregnant by non-Muslim boys or to live otherwise troubled lives. Many who were sheltered went crazy as soon as they got the opportunity to rebel. So, I do not think sheltering Muslim children is the answer, no you need to teach them what is out there and teach them why Islam is the solution for what ails this society.

Socially, there is also the question, that while we want our children to be first and foremost Muslim, and there Islamic education and upbringing is the main priority, we do not want them to be awkward geeks who cant hold their own in a non-Muslim workplace or place of business. This is something I have seen from conservative Christian kids who were home-schooled and we do not want this for our children and steps have to be taken to prevent this.

For those who cannot make hijrah, and cannot get their children into the schools practicing selective engagement, there is one more option: home schooling. What are the benefits of home schooling? Well, for one, you will have a much greater influence on the development of your children because they will spend more time with you growing up. There will be no need to complain about the Islamic education or curriculum they are receiving because you will be the one selecting it. There is also the issue of tuition: it is free.

Yes, there are benefits to home schooling, but it is not for everyone, or even most people (unless they have help). I say this with no disrespect towards anyone; but I know Muslim parents who home school who are high-school dropouts and have a very limited understanding of the world. They claim to be home schooling but on many days their kids spend no time at all doing anything remotely educational. If you don’t know anything, you can’t teach anything. So, if you are intelligent, educated, and dedicated, as is the case with my mother-in-law, then you can home school, but if not then you should not exercise this option unless you live in areas with a small Muslim population (and you need to be thinking about relocating).

However, if you live in areas where there is a concentration of Muslims, or are moving to such a place, the option of “group home schooling” exists. That is where a number of families who home school teach from the same text books and the children can hold informal classes and study sessions together. So, if some of the parents are not that educated, that is fine if there are others in the group who can pick up the slack. This is ideal for Muslims living in areas either without good schools or who cannot afford the schools in the area.

While there are a few Muslim boarding schools in the West, there are not enough to merit a serious discussion in America at this time because there are so few. But, I firmly believe that the need for Muslim boarding schools in America has come and because it is an expensive endeavor and one that will be disproportionately used by working-class Muslims if it comes into fruition the movement towards Muslim boarding schools will have to be led by those with access to money and with widespread support. A boarding school movement could be a very logical and rewarding progression of the work of those such as Imam Suhaib Webb, Sheikh Yasir Qadhi, or the relatively large number of recent African-American graduates of the Islamic universities in Mecca and Medina.

Because, I have went on too long with this topic I will only briefly discuss college and how it relates to working-class Muslim families. I am not anti higher-education, contrary to what some believe. A college education is a wonderful thing that can open up many doors for people. But, unlike what you will hear from an ISNA or MAS styled masjid, I do not believe that a college education is necessary, or desirable, for everyone.

The college experience and the experience of the young professional are almost inherently un-Islamic by their nature. It would be a good deed to spare your child from these hardships if you can. The ulama have said that there is a benefit in going to the university to study those things that are beneficial to the Muslims: medicine, the law, technology, science, engineering, architecture, journalism, irrigation, etc. If your child is studying those things, and can be kept in an Islamic environment in college (preferably married or at home with parents) that is a good thing. But, if the young Muslim is going to the university to major in fields in the humanities or the liberal arts, they will be studying, and graded on, concepts that are not just un-Islamic, but are in complete contradiction to Islam and often being promoted in a neo-imperialist way in the Muslim World by the cultural-left. So, instead of their education giving them success in this dunya, if they run with the ideas they have been taught in college, they may be doomed in this life and the next.

Not only are these liberal arts and humanities fields almost entirely atheistic and un-Islamic (with a few exceptions such as for historical fields, literature, and a few others), but even if you graduate, they do not pay well. So your child will have a head full of secular humanist nonsense and will also be broke, what is the benefit?  For young Muslim brothers from working-class families interested in these fields it would be much better to learn a skilled-trade where they can make a higher-paid living (construction, plumbing, electrical work, masonry, carpentry, sprinkler installation, roofing, auto mechanics, etc.) and if they have a thirst for knowledge send them to the Muslim lands to study with the ulama where they can learn these fields from an Islamic perspective ( and they can always read books on these topics as well). They will come back with a greater knowledge of this deen and with a job that pays well with benefits that there is no haram attached to and this will also open the door for future entrepreneurship (unlike the vast majority of those who now go and study with the ulama and come back with no skilled trade and in destitute poverty…they can quote 100 fatawa off the top of their heads but can’t pitch in $100 for the rent).

For our young sisters, and I say this because I am not scared to be labeled a misogynist; because I reject the lie being propagated that the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) was the “first feminist”. Our daughters, including my daughter that is in the womb of my wife now, would be better off studying the nurturing professions such as education, Islamic studies, pediatrics, obstetrics, nursing and those things that will benefit the community and keep them away from evil. Those things that will give them undue contact with men should be avoided and we all know the reasons why and we all know young Muslim girls married or knocked-up by kufar. However, aside from these professions and entrepreneurship (sisters opening businesses that cater to the community), the ideal place for the sister is at home caring for her children and catering to the needs of her husband and ensuring the virtue of the household. Without the nurturing of the Muslim woman there is no future for the community. It is the Muslim woman today that is holding the working-class American-Muslim community together while a large percentage of our males are dysfunctional, irresponsible or just plain trifling. In order for our community to prosper we need to ensure a generation of pious young women emerges and their role can never be diminished.

Of course, in the working-class American-Muslim community, there may not be enough eligible men to go around who are worthy of a young woman’s devotion who has been raised correctly by her struggling Muslim parents; but I will address this in the next post inshaAllah.

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2 thoughts on “Working Class Muslim Families Series Part 5: The Mainstreaming Option, Education and Selective Engagement

  1. The historical and literature fields are just as problematic bro. Any Muslim going into non-Muslim Uni is going to get a generous portion of Secular Living in EVERY course they take. Here is my frustration-which I already voice at Ummadam before you wrote this—The Ulema will encourage us not to attend these “mixed” schools-yet every position available to make hijrah by requires a degree from said schools. I’ve read too many posts that specifially want a degree from US or Canada.
    Though I agree that sisters are desperately needed in fields of social work, education and healthcare (as our believing mothers contributed too) I am would like to point out that “catering to the needs of her husband ” is some unfortunate choice of wording that robs from the idea of an ideal situation by making it look more like one’s personal fantasy.

  2. I have mixed feelings of college education for girls. I can’t believe I am saying this. I have debt, and can’t pay it right now with little ones—and wonder when I will be able to. And, my degree is Art History–sooo…..Not Good. If I could do it over I would go straight to marriage and family, and avoid the debt.

    If you want to take care of your family and kids, then how does that factor into the cost spent on college? Is it worth the cost/debt? Somehow I feel that a very good education and maybe some college would be better than preparing for a “career” that will be set aside during the child rearing years. I am very supportive of mothers going back to college after their kids have grown. There is no blanket solution. I would even contradict myself suggesting that it would be helpful to have a profession should any thing happen to her husband, or in the case of divorce or death. We are not set up to support women in these situations.

    I am very happy that you are bringing up these painful, but necessary, topics. I would love to see this as a series of discussions at our local masjid. Ha!
    Boarding school scares the pants off me. And given the track record of the masjids I’ve been to (excluding one in the bay area), I am not sure I”d be comfortable leaving my child there.

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