By Laila Hasib

March 2, 2016


Working as an elementary school teacher for twenty-five years, ten of which were in Muslim schools in America and Canada, was a fulfilling experience. Teaching children the basics and how to think critically, make inquiries and build character is rewarding and perhaps the most worthwhile occupation, except being a parent. Many Muslim parents question whether they should enroll their children in the public school system, a Muslim school or home school. Ultimately, most opt for public school for many reasons, one of which is it’s free (although really their tax dollars pay for it whether they utilize it or not).


“Free” may not be the sort of environment that is best suited to Muslim children. The old sayings, “Nothing in life is free,” “If it’s free, it’s for me,” “Or there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” or the more recent saying, “If you’re not paying, you are the product,” encapsulate the truism that “free” education is a falsity. Muslim parents should investigate this “free” education to explore what’s behind it, the dangers it poses and why their children are the manufactured products from start to finish.


Government-supported schools started, albeit slowly, in the US after the American revolution, which ended in 1783. These included mostly parochial schools, run by Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists, and common schools. Public education began in Massachusetts in 1827 and slowly spread amid much opposition across the country. Starting in 1876, thirty-nine states passed constitutional amendments or laws forbidding the use of public tax money to fund parochial and sectarian schools. However, only white children were educated in public schools for most of US history. Native people were almost exterminated by US government policies and wars. Those that survived were forcibly removed and relocated to reservations far from their territorial lands. Native children were not allowed to attend public schools. Some native children were educated by Christian missionaries, learning rural agriculture and American culture and language, in the hopes of “civilizing” them and “saving souls,” either near settlements, on reservations or in boarding schools. From the late 1800’s through the mid-1900’s, native children were rounded up and sent to government- and church-run boarding schools for harsh assimilation and training as labourers, often through violent methods, in an effort to “kill the Indian” by forbidding cultural and spiritual practices and languages and by destroying their family life and relationships. During slavery in the US, enslaved black people were not allowed to attend school. If any limited reading instruction was given it was to Christianize them, while writing instruction was against the law. In the northern states, black children had more access to education, but they could not attend public schools. By 1836, public education of all black people was against the law in the slave-owning states. After slavery, segregation was in force – black and white children were taught in separate schools. Even after the 1954 supreme court ruling against school segregation, many states did not begin to desegregate their school systems until 1968, many not obliging until the 1970’s, including Mississippi in 1970 and the northern city of Boston, Massachusetts in 1974, amid violence, and some school districts not even bothering to integrate ever. Today, due to persistent residential segregation, a 1990 supreme court ruling that lifted court oversight of adherence to integration, white private schools and black charter schools, resegregated schools, with black and Hispanic majority schools receiving limited funding and resources and an emphasis on blue-collar employment, have become the norm in many US cities, the top two states being New York and Illinois.


In Canada, as early as 1615, schools were run by the Jesuits, the Catholic Church and the Recollets, and later Protestant schools became common. Public schools began in Ontario in the early nineteenth century and, after much heated debate and opposition, public schools opened elsewhere in the country. In 1997, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador withdrew government support for separate, including Catholic, schools. Today, both separate, mostly Catholic, and secular schools are sanctioned by the government in three provinces – Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta – and three territories – Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut. Like the US, only white children attended Canadian public schools. And like the US, Canadian government policies and wars were instrumental in attempting to exterminate the First Nation (native) people. Beginning in the 1600’s, Catholic mission schools operated to civilize and Christianize First Nation children. In the late 1700’s to early 1800’s Protestant mission schools, partially funded by the government, cropped up to provide Christian teaching along with some literacy and math skills. The First Nation people were victims of unfair treaties, land surrenders, bribery and theft as the Canadian government’s aggressive expansion and encroachment took over more and more of their land. This, along with policies of assimilation and segregation, forced First Nation people onto small, remote, infertile and often isolated reserves. (Reserves were established as early as 1637 in an attempt to force the First Nation people into an agricultural and sedentary lifestyle.) Residential schools, funded by the government and administered by the Catholic Church, Anglican Church and United Church of Canada, were set up, beginning in the 1830’s, to provide manual, vocational and religious instruction. The Indian Act of 1876 formally codified native reserves and made clear they were owned and governed by the federal government. The government funded schools on the reserves in an effort to assimilate the First Nation people. Attendance in day school, industrial school or residential school became mandatory for all First Nation children. In 2008, prime minister Stephen Harper apologized for the residential schools, which forcibly removed children from their families, brutalized them, extinguished their cultural and spiritual practices and languages, sterilized them, sexually abused them and caused untold and long-lasting mental, physical and emotional damage, essentially cultural genocide. At least 6,000 children died of disease while attending residential schools. Canada enslaved black people as well and they were not allowed to be educated. After slavery, some mission schools and private schools were established to educate black children in Canada. The School Act, which had created separate schools, added a provision in 1850 that effectively segregated schools for black and white children. Segregated schools continued well into the 1960’s in many parts of Canada.
Throughout the Muslim Ummah, children attended maktabs, beginning during Prophet Muhammad’s, peace be upon him, time, which were attached to masajids, to learn the Holy Qur’an, ahadith, the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, Arabic reading and writing, math and fiqh, instructed by Muslim scholars and imams. By 900, nearly every masjid had a maktab connected to it. Adults attended madrassahs, such as Al-Zaytuna in Tunis, Tunisia, established in 737, La Mezquita de Cordoba (Great Masjid) in Cordoba, Spain, from 784, Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) in Baghdad, Iraq, established in 833, Al-Karaouine in Fes, Morocco, established in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri, Al-Azhar in Cairo, Egypt, established in 970, Timbuktu in Mali, founded in 982, and Al-Nizamiyya in Baghdad, Iraq, established in 1066, and also other branches in various Iraqi, Iranian and Syrian cities, and Islamic seminaries in Medina in the Arabian peninsula, as early as the seventh century, Qum, Iran, established in the tenth century, Basra, Iraq, established in the tenth century, and Najaf, Iraq, established in the eleventh century, among others. Students learned religious sciences, including ethics and philosophy, Arabic, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, history, geography and other subjects. Only later, during the nineteenth century, was religious education removed from most Muslim state schools, not madrassahs, and a European curriculum installed.
What is important, I think, is that the first schools around the world were religious ones.


It is unfortunate that Muslim children who attend western public schools are molded into secular, non-spiritual, materialistic adults. The only Islamic instruction they receive is at home and in after-school and weekend classes at private homes and masajid. They cannot escape the narrow confines of secular education. Look at the French public school history as a good example where religious symbols, including hijab, are banned because they are “an infringement of the separation of church and state and a discrimination against atheist, agnostic and non-religious people.” Secularism, first coined by the agnostic British writer George Jacob Holyoakein in 1851, separates government institutions from religious institutions, asserting the right to be “free” from religious rule and teachings. The practice is against the imposition by government of religion or religious practices upon people and demands that public activities and decisions, especially political ones, should not be influenced by religious beliefs and/or practices. Secularism is a movement toward “modernization” and away from traditional religious values, replacing laws based on scripture with civil laws, while claiming it protects the rights of religious minorities.


Secular humanism, a similar force Muslim students in the public school system must contend with, is the idea that society should function with the exclusion of God and His moral principles. Their main targets are the children in the public school system. Humanist Charles F. Potter wrote in his “Humanism: A New Religion” of 1930: “Education is thus a most powerful ally of humanism, and every American school is a school of humanism. What can a theistic Sunday school’s meeting for an hour once a week and teaching only a fraction of the children do to stem the tide of the five-day program of humanistic teaching?”


Muslim children need to develop their Islamic identity to ensure a positive sense of self. This can hardly be accomplished in a public school setting. Muslim parents desire the teaching of moral instruction to ensure the formation of the social and religious character of their children in the Islamic spirit, the teaching of the role of various Islamic cultures in shaping the world’s ideas, the integration of learning through an Islamic point of view, a place and time for salat, an Islamic dress code and the provision of halal food and discipline. As well, they value high academic achievement and the belief in collective responsibility for educating the next generation.


The public school system is rampant with permissiveness, racism, inadequate and inaccurate representation of Muslims, the undermining of faith, sex education, music and dance. Western public school systems, through their interpretation of the doctrine of separation of church and state, do not allow religious education. Some question whether religious education and civic education are even compatible. In the west, religious people are “asked to keep their religious beliefs, identities and norms private so that they do not disturb the…modern, secular, enlightened” society.


Doret de Ruyter and Michael Merry propose that religious ideals – values “that acquire meaning due to a belief in something transcendent or a divine being” – rather than religious dogmas and rules, should be taught and explored in public schools because it will enable students to understand what inspires people and motivates their actions, allow them to flourish by providing a variety of ideals to consider so they can decide if there is value in religious ideals for them to pursue and build bridges between people and communities. Such ideals are considered as superior, perfect and valuable and have high importance to one’s life. They are excellences to which people aspire, which they are intrinsically motivated to pursue out of belief in the supreme qualities the ideals encapsulate. De Ruyter and Merry believe the belief in ideals tell us more about a person than their practice does.


However, I believe it is doubtful that the teaching of religious ideals will ever be sanctioned in western public school systems. Moreover, Muslim parents may feel that such instruction could “confuse” their children and send them on a wild goose chase. It is interesting to point out that in twenty-four (almost half of) European countries (except France, Albania, Belarus and Macedonia) religious education is a compulsory subject and is influenced by the dominant church there, while in other countries it is offered, in public schools.


Education includes the transmission of values which shape the conscience of students and determines how they will think and behave. “Neutrality in education is a delusion,” says Carmen Garcimartin, writing from Spain. Teachers teach from their own perspective, beliefs, culture and knowledge base, essentially indoctrinating their students. In a 2000 Spanish court case, the court ruled that “the State must fulfil its obligation to educate children, even if the parents do not agree, because, in any case, they can educate them ‘before and after school, as well as at weekends.’”


Be extremely careful, then, about which principles and attitudes you prefer to be poured into your child’s heart and brain when contemplating the school they will attend. Don’t put all your hopes into believing that your teachings at home will effectively neutralize the ones your children receive at public school.




Alkhateeb, Firas. Education in Islamic History. December 8, 2012.


De Ruyter, Doret J. and Merry, Michael S. Why Education in Public Schools Should Include o Ideals. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 2008.


Garcimartin, Carmen. Education in the Secular State: Whose is the Right? La Coruña University, Galicia, Spain.


Khoshku, Rasoul Imani. A Glimpse at the Major Shi‘a Seminaries, Part 1. Message of Thaqalayn,  Vol. 14, No. 1. Spring 2013.


Merry, Michael S. Advocacy and Involvement: The Role of Parents in Western Islamic Schools. Religious Education, Beloit, Wisconsin: 2005.


Parochial School.


Secular Education.


Secular Humanism – Excluding God from Schools & Society.




Separate School.