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Revitalizing Islamic Education for Children

The Aqeedah syllabus in some high schools where I have taught or studied is no different from that of the primary levels. Nothing interesting, new or even important is taught which the students have not already learned. When the syllabus is too simple and students feel they already know a subject, their minds switch off and they lose interest. Islam is so vast and so deep, why is it that we underestimate our children and teenagers and limit their access to knowledge to only the basics?

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Can we organize an Islamic syllabus that gets children to enjoy the Qur'an?

In grade 7, I asked my Islamic studies teacher why we were studying Seerah again. He replied that we are studying it with a bit more detail this time. It was the fourth time we were studying Seerah since grade one and I could not see the benefit in the repeat syllabus. Reflecting back now, no one took Islamic Studies very seriously when we were in school.

A good example was when the teacher told us to memorize the 99 names of Allah for a test. I was the only boy in my class who did so, and even that I forgot a few months later. I am not proud of this but it shows something about the Islamic studies syllabus and how much students cared about it in a renowned Islamic school.

Many years later, I would discover that Islamic knowledge is beautiful and exciting to learn and my life would begin to revolve around it. This raises the question as to why the Islamic studies syllabus in school did not have the same effect on me?

I have identified some of the problems and proposed some solutions. Feel free to add your own:

Problems:

1. The syllabus is too basic

In terms of Arabic, from grade 1 till 12, we only studied an amount which we could have learned in one year outside of school. In fact, the children whom I teach Arabic to privately are way ahead of their classes in school and get an average of 99-100% on school tests. This shows that children have the potential to learn a lot more Arabic in a shorter space of time. The Arabic syllabus in schools needs to be revamped and it should not downplay the potential of students to grasp the language.

It is not just Arabic. The Aqeedah syllabus in some high schools where I have taught or studied is no different from that of the primary levels. Nothing interesting, new or even important is taught which the students have not already learned. When the syllabus is too simple and students feel they already know a subject, their minds switch off and they lose interest. Islam is so vast and so deep, why is it that we underestimate our children and teenagers and limit their access to knowledge to only the basics?

2. Content is not relevant

The Seerah and stories of the other prophets (peace be upon them all) are a great way to teach young Muslims valuable lessons and provide them with role models. Sadly, many institutes teach these stories as historical facts without delving into any significant lessons. The Seerah, in particular, is taught with  a focus on the wars and battles, while not much time is spent on the issues of relevance to Muslim youth in Western countries.

There is so much potential to bring these stories to life and make them relevant. Many scholars today like Abdul Hakim Quick and Tariq Ramadan have done this for adults, it’s time we did this for children and teenagers as well. Not only would it make them more interested in history but it will increase their love for the prophets and companions.

3. Uninspiring teachers

Many Islamic studies teachers whom I have met just don’t seem motivated to make a difference. Teaching Islamic studies is their job, their source of income and that’s all. Such teachers cannot have an inspiring impact on their students. It is only those who teach Islam with passion, love, enthusiasm and the desire to ignite change that can motivate students and get them to love Islam and want to practice it. Parents and schools need to focus on such qualities when looking for teachers, and institutes need to work at training teachers who possess these qualities.

4. Teachers not being role models

Too often, I have seen Islamic studies teachers that make me cringe. Whether its  a sister who wears hijab in class but you spot her at the beach dressed in the most indecent of manners, or the Moulana who smokes with his students and makes inappropriate comments about their sisters. I have encountered many Islamic studies teachers whose practice is the opposite of what they preach.

Now nobody is perfect and everybody has their faults, and I also understand that there is a difference of opinion on some issues, but when a teacher openly teaches one thing in class but his/her practice in front of students is opposite to this, it causes students to lose respect for the teacher and the subject. As Islamic teachers, we need to be very careful regarding what we say, do or post on the internet.

Proposed Solutions

1. Choose the right syllabus

My favorite Islamic studies syllabus for teenagers is the four-part series written by Dr. Bilal Philips. However, this series is for Grade 7 onwards, I do not know of any syllabus for the grades below that which I am happy with, yet. That is why when I teach, I make my own syllabus as I go along. Any suggestions on a good syllabus for children?

2. Change of attitude

Teachers and parents should not look at Islamic education as a chore, job or burden. Islamic education is our chance to inspire a new generation to love, learn and live Islam. We cannot do this unless we are passionate about what we teach and the students feel this passion in our classes.

An average teacher imparts information, a true teacher inspires a generation!

3. Do not be afraid to do something different

Many times, teachers are discouraged from making any changes. They are put in a position in which, if they change something, it is seen as finding fault with their elders and their methods. Truth is that times change and our methods need to change in order to engage a new generation. Islam allows for such change and there is no one method of teaching which Islam restricts us to follow. As long as the means are permissible, it should be used as a tool in education.

Children and teenagers (even adults) enjoy lessons presented with nasheeds, videos, jokes and slideshows far more than straight up lectures. Teachers need to use their imagination and creativity and invent fun methods to impart their knowledge to others.

4. Goals need to be set

Islamic education should not be done just for the sake of it. There need to be goals in place, both short term and long term. Teachers and parents need to decide what they want children to accomplish by the age of nine, thirteen, seventeen, etc.

A lot of thought needs to be put into the priorities, objectives and purpose of Islamic education. When such goals are made, it becomes easier to see a bigger picture and thus formulate a syllabus that works towards such goals.

These are just some problems which I have observed as well as potential solutions. Feel free to add to this list or politely disagree.

Ismail Kamdar, a.k.a Abu Muawiyah, is the Head Tutorial Assistant of the Islamic Online University, and the host of Living Islam on Radio Al-Ansaar. He began his study of Islam at the age of thirteen, and has completed both the Alim course and a BA in Islamic Studies. He is the author of multiple books including Having Fun the Halal Way: Entertainment in Islam, Getting The Barakah: An Islamic Guide to Time Management and Best of Creation: An Islamic Guide to Self-Confidence.

42 Comments

42 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Arif Kabir

    November 1, 2010 at 12:06 PM

    JazaakumAllahu Khayran for sharing this with us. I can empathize with you; growing up in an Islamic school, I thought that Aqeedah was just knowing about the six pillars of Iman (which we were taught several times). I now see that it’s so much more after reading up and studying more on the topic.

    It would be cool if you could write the books for people under the 7th grade :)
    MM.org would then be making Muslim children matter lol.

    • Avatar

      Ismail Kamdar

      November 1, 2010 at 11:37 PM

      That is actually a good idea, but I do not have the time currently.

      Perhaps I should add it to my long term list of books to write, inshaa Allah.

      • Avatar

        abu Nusaybah

        November 3, 2010 at 2:35 AM

        barak Allah fiikum and may Allah preserve you.

        If I may suggest, the following link speaks to unity, which I think needs also to be foundational, as well as how to understand and conceptualize differences – based on the practices of Uthman, ibn Mas’ud and AbdurRahman ibn Awf (may Allah be pleased with them).

        http://www.alhamdulilah.info/2010/11/unity.html

        InshaAllah the actions of the companions gives us much food for thought regarding the unity of Muslims, and how we and are to deal with one another when we face differences – in particular as educators!

  2. Avatar

    Umm Zayn

    November 1, 2010 at 12:09 PM

    Check this out, http://www.islamicteachereducation.com/

    Amazing new program for teachers of Islamic studies, to raise our standards of excellence and give our children better!

    “The Islamic Teacher Education Program is a one-year online certificate program designed specifically for teachers in Islamic schools. With support from University of Toronto’s OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education), a world-renowned leader in education research and development, the program aims to fuse modern day classroom philosophies with Islamic Pedagogy”

    • Avatar

      Abdul Quader

      November 1, 2010 at 4:46 PM

      Woo UofT! I’m “studying” in our library right now!

    • Avatar

      M

      November 2, 2010 at 11:52 PM

      thanks for the link bro!

  3. Avatar

    anonymous

    November 1, 2010 at 1:43 PM

    another good series is the south African tasheel series. heres a link where you can buy them http://www.albalagh.net/bookstore/?action=view&item=0207

    • Avatar

      Ismail Kamdar

      November 1, 2010 at 11:40 PM

      Actually this is the same series I was teaching and found too basic and repetitive for High School.

      • Avatar

        Alizah Ali

        February 5, 2011 at 9:55 PM

        It is a very good syllabus. It does lack “appeal”. I have taken the same syllabus and added other enrichment activity to make it interesting for my son. For example, hadith on salat, we made a poster with craft on it, story of Ibrahim (AS) we made a fold out craft with clay, hajj ritual we acted out the hajj with little passports etc.
        The Islamic Studies teachers can learn a lot about hands on method of teaching from home schooling parents as well as a lot of the Christian based Sunday school lessons.

  4. Avatar

    Wael - IslamicAnswers.com

    November 1, 2010 at 3:12 PM

    As I was reading this I was agreeing with you completely and thinking that I was fortunate Alhamdulillah that I got a good Islamic education in high school, as my teacher was committed to making the material relevant and challenging. Then I got to where you said, “My favorite Islamic Studies syllabus for teenagers is the four part series written by Dr Bilal Philips.” That made me chuckle, because he was my high school Islamic studies teacher.

    • Avatar

      Ismail Kamdar

      November 1, 2010 at 11:43 PM

      Subhanallah!

      You were fortunate to have such an amazing teacher!

      I know, because it was when I studied Islam under him that I finally began to enjoy studying and appreciate Islam. :)

  5. Avatar

    ummi

    November 1, 2010 at 3:27 PM

    After watching the children from dr. zakir Naik school, i believe he has an excellant syllabus for islamic studies. I wonder if Dr Naik would be wiling to share it? Does anyone know how to contact him?

    • Avatar

      Ismail Kamdar

      November 1, 2010 at 11:44 PM

      No, I am also trying to get in contact with him as his school and the young Da’ees they produce are very impressive. I am hoping to learn some effective techniques from him one day, inshaa Allah.

    • Avatar

      abu Rumay-s.a.

      November 2, 2010 at 12:37 AM

      indeed, you took the words out of my mouth!! I was going to make the same comment.
      Those kids are masha`Allah another breed of Muslim youth, simply amazing, if you haven’t seen their abilities, you have to check out some of their yearly programs… The kids are speaking Fus-ha arabic in an amazingly natural dialect, plus english and their native languages.

      It’s very important to review their complete syllabus and their teaching methods. Some of it is on their website:
      http://www.irf.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=156&Itemid=168#

      If someone has more information on their program, please do share it.

      jazakum Allahu khairun..

  6. Avatar

    Abu Bilal

    November 1, 2010 at 5:26 PM

    Having taught Islamic Studies in different Muslim primary schools a think there are two good programmes which I would like to recommend:

    1-IC series: http://www.educatingmuslims.com/

    2-Darussalam series: http://www.darussalam.com/product_info.php?cPath=71_74&products_id=1064
    and http://www.darussalam.com/product_info.php?products_id=1408

    Barak Allahu feekum

  7. Avatar

    Kate

    November 1, 2010 at 7:04 PM

    For homeschoolers, Ad-Duha Institute (www.ad-duha.org) has good aqeedah books that read like stories (for the K-4 set).

  8. Avatar

    Sabour Al-Kandari

    November 1, 2010 at 7:32 PM

    Jazak’Allah khair for writing this bro.

    You know, a lot of what you say is true for what’s wrong with the public education system too. All my life in school and university, and even in my experience helping to teach high school and tutoring, I’ve been trying to figure out what makes a teacher brilliant.

    If I could sum everything I’ve learned into a couple of words, it would be the “coolness factor”. When you’re a positive role model, you’re cool. When you’re interesting and passionate, you’re cool. When you understand how your kids’ brains work and connect with them, you’re cool. When you have good aklhaq and adab, you’re cool. When you can cut through the fat and effectively get people to understand what they’re learning, you’re cool. When you’re smart, know your stuff and are respectable, you’re cool. Essentially, the people who you always want to hang around should be the ones leading the classroom. It’s so simple but so crazy powerful and works with everything from public speaking to counseling.

    Another huge contributing factor to the slump is the idea of “those who can’t do, teach” and people who choose teaching as last resorts. In reality, it’s such a fun, relaxing and powerful job that the most brilliant students should be aiming for it.

    Moral of the story: Find the coolest and most intelligent faculty, experience doesn’t mean squat if someone spends their whole life doing something wrong.

    • Avatar

      Ismail Kamdar

      November 1, 2010 at 11:48 PM

      If there was a ‘like’ button for comments, I would have pressed it for this one! :D

    • Sarah S.

      Sarah S.

      November 2, 2010 at 8:26 PM

      100% agree =D

  9. Avatar

    ummousama

    November 2, 2010 at 12:28 AM

    Assalamu alaikum,

    Two comments:

    1. Arabic: It amazes me how, for the sake of dunya, it is so easy to set up schools that will teach you English and you will end up bilingual or even trilingual. Look at Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE. They have set up language schools where part of the curriculum is in English and part in Arabic. Why can’t we teach Arabic in Islamic Schools in the West?

    2. When my kids went to an English Islamic School, they had a very hard time with Islamic Studies. Why? Because we taught them Arabic at home and they had to learn the translation of difficult Qur’anic words into English. They understood the Arabic word but not the English word. If you teach Islamic Studies from Day 1 in Arabic, they will again be able to become bilingual. Why do you want them to learn ahadeeth in English instead of Arabic?

    • Avatar

      Ismail Kamdar

      November 2, 2010 at 1:03 AM

      Good point, although the Islamic schools in my country teach Arabic as part of the syllabus, but the Arabic is really weak and honestly, I learned more Arabic in one year at a Darul Uloom or University than they do in the entire twelve years at school.

      It seems that many schools are just going through the motions and offer Arabic to please parents, but they lack a goal and genuine desire to get their students to speak and understand the language.

      It should not take twelve years to learn what a Mubtada and a Khabr are!

  10. Avatar

    Yousuf

    November 2, 2010 at 1:11 AM

    Assalam O Alaikum,
    Totally agree with all of the points mentioned. Even in university level (General Islamic course), only the basics are taught that is the same we are being taught over and over again. Astonishing thing is even non-muslims who are studying about Islam (in muslim countries) get good scores in Islamic Studies, yet no influence on them.
    Bilal Philips’s style of teaching is truly incredible, learning 3 courses from him has been like ‘Why was i not taught about Islam like this for 20+ years?’ We need more motivated, exemplary (in and outside school) teachers like him, Inshallah.

  11. Avatar

    Fatimah

    November 2, 2010 at 1:42 AM

    Assalamu Alaikum.

    An excellent set of books designed for children are available at this site below. They are wonderful. Full of colour, activities etc. The kids will enjoy. Check it out here: http://www.iconetwork.com

    Fi Amanallah,
    Fatimah.

  12. Avatar

    Olivia

    November 2, 2010 at 1:56 AM

    from a very young age, children need to learn a love for God, his Prophet, and their religion. They need to feel connected to Allah and his Signs, appreciative and awe-struck. i think this is a very important foundation and it’s something that generally cannot be achieved in a school setting. its a sort of way of looking at the world and thinking about Allah that is developed from the cradle.

    personally, i think we need to remove the academic aura of Islamic studies for the beginning years, until the child needs to start learning fiqh and things like that. aside from learning how to read the qur’an and arabic, i think subjects like aqeedah are best taught through discussion and reflection. i think relegating religious knowledge to textbooks and worksheets often develops an immediate aversion or attitude toward Islam that is not desireable. the Prophet spent his young years as a shepherd amongst Allah’s signs in the desert, and i think there is a valuable lesson in this. this is just my opinion but really is the parents’ responsibility. not the school’s.

    • Avatar

      Algebera

      November 2, 2010 at 12:47 PM

      Aslamu-alaikum:
      I CONCUR with you OLIVIA. GREAT OBSERVATION!!!!!!MashAllah
      salam

  13. Pingback: Revitalizing Islamic Education for Children : MuslimMums

  14. Avatar

    Nayma

    November 2, 2010 at 9:40 AM

    Assalamu alikum. I too believe the teacher has to be “cool” and interactive with the children. They have to try their best to relate to the kids. I’ve always tried to find teachers for my children who they can emulate.
    I too am looking for good Islamic curricula for my children. In the meantime, we listen to lectures online and study tafsir. We love lectures by Muhammad Shareef, Nouman Ali Khan and Yasir Qadhi. They are very educational and inspirational at the same time.
    I also have them write summaries about what they have learned so I know that they have understood it.

    My eldest, Nur, has started her own website to share with kids things that she has learned. Please share with kids who are interested in reading and listening to Islamic stories:

    http://www.nurkose.com

    Nayma

  15. Avatar

    mms

    November 2, 2010 at 10:08 AM

    As-salaamu alaikum,

    MashaAllah very good pointers and solutions/suggestions.

    The prime problem in some this is the ‘parents’ themselves. I think [I have been a volunteer teacher at Islamic weekend schools for more than a decade] parents need to remove the notion that once they drop off their kids at the masjid, the teachers there have a magic wand that will turn their kids into angels.
    They need to ask their kids what was taught, help them in the HW usu memorization of du’as or Surahs as well as in practicing what was taught. Instead, they pay greater importance to the worldly matters [which is okay but not at the expense of Islamic teachings] and are more regular with Public school extra-curricular activities rather than leaving the weekends for Islamic studies, in case their kid does not attend regular Islamic schools.

    Also, as someone else commented here, most people look at teachers as someone inferior to other professions [Doctors, Engg etc … by the way, I am a medical doctor], when I must say that teaching is one of the noblest professions… a good teacher is the one who can instill the desire to learn in a student, who will inspire a student to be a teacher himself/herself which should not be discouraged by parents. Most parents want their kids to be doctors or engineers and never does one come across a parent who will say ‘I want my child to be a teacher’.

    I am glad that Alhumdulillah we have some really good teachers/scholars/imams – those mentioned in the comments above – who have made a difference in many of our youth and elders in terms of inspiring them to yearn for more knowledge. May Allah Protect these teachers and those who are seeking to study more and all of us. aamin

    That said, keep up the good work that you are doing. JazaakAllahu khairan

    • Avatar

      Mansoor Ansari

      November 2, 2010 at 10:22 AM

      I agree with most of the points mentioned here.

      I too teach at Islamic Studies (grade 2) at the masjid’s weekend school & we (the teachers) arrive at the masjid at 10 AM for the class that starts at 10:15 AM

      The 1st few student strolls (25%) in at 10:20, 50 % of them come in around 10:30 & rest manage to come in at 11:00… the class ends at 11:15 AM

      The attendance rate is horrible too… we started 75% minimum required attendance this year & 3 late absences = 1 absent but there’s no improvement. I will not blame the teachers or the students here but the parents, they treat weekend school as a day care center not a place of learning. If they even half the attention they pay to their kids secular education then we would be better off! If one underperforms or is tardy when it comes to secular education… there will negative worldly effects which no parents wants their kids to go thru but when it comes to deen, the loss is not immediate so they don’t care at all.

      • Avatar

        Ismail Kamdar

        November 3, 2010 at 4:20 AM

        I agree with you both that parents too can cause problems. I know of too many parents who are obstacles in their children’s spiritual growth, others who only care if their children excel in academics, and others who prefer to keep their children ignorant and cultural.

        Yet a good Islamic education can sometimes overcome these problem. If the syllabus and teacher are exciting, stimulating and engaging, children will want to learn more and be punctual.

        However, their parents can still be an obstacle, that is why I say we need to educate the parents as well.

        • Avatar

          mms

          November 3, 2010 at 10:05 AM

          Very true… educate the parents!

          Alhumdulillah, I have always done an inter-active teaching, combined with LOTS of powerpoint presentations/audios and the students loved my classes. Adding a hint of medical knowledge to most of the lessons [wudhu, tahara, eating habits etc] along with personal stories or experiences at various places always made the class interesting and students would love to attend. However, these very students depend on their parents for their attendance. AND they are confused about what is taught at Isl schools and what they se being practiced at home!

          Anyway, something HAS to be done and add adult classes alongside the youth, because most adults/parents come with a huge baggage of culture from their countries of origin, and misrepresentation and misunderstanding of Islamic Fiqh and other practices.

          Jazaakumullahu khairan

  16. Sarah S.

    Sarah S.

    November 2, 2010 at 8:34 PM

    Great article masha’Allah… and a very necessary topic for further discussion. One other aspect that I have found works well with children and adolescents goes along with the “coolness” factor: Having candid, open relationships and discussions with students. Casual conversation goes a long way- often farther than many other techniques. When students hear a personal story regarding their teacher’s experiences with salah, hijaab, living life as a Muslim, etc. their ears perk up and they usually retain more than they would if information was being directly handed to them. Allowing students to discuss their doubts and misconceptions while maintaining a safe and non-judgmental environment are essential if Islamic Studies is going to become a subject that students are excited and passionate about.

    • Avatar

      Ismail Kamdar

      November 3, 2010 at 4:37 AM

      Thats the approach I take with kids. Sometimes people tell me I get too personal and soft with them, but I find it very beneficial, as the relationship changes from just being a subject teacher to being their role model/personal advisor and big brother.

      In this environment, children and youth tend to openly discuss with me any aspect of the Deen and ask advice on issues, they don’t usually discuss with others. Alhamdulillah!

  17. Avatar

    Azhar

    November 2, 2010 at 11:19 PM

    Salam alaykum.

    Masha Allaah good discussion. Being Islamic studies teacher for the past two years, I found that parents, school, children, including the school environment plays a vital role in shaping the children in an Islamic way. The best curriculum which i have found that iconnetwork are rich in content. It may suite or may not particular children because of the background of the children. I came across one curriculum which has mixture of Dr.bilaphilips islamic studies, iconnetwork, moulvi abdul aziz’s islamic studies, dr.Jibaly’s eeman series etc. i.e Burooj curriculum. One unique thing is that, it has included lessons based on Multiple intelligence theory and activity based on that.

  18. Avatar

    Azhar

    November 2, 2010 at 11:25 PM

    Check it out

  19. Avatar

    Ismail Kamdar

    November 3, 2010 at 4:42 AM

    I would like to thank everybody who provided links to the various curriculum which they found beneficial. It is really heartwarming to see so much effort being put in by so many people to try and improve the curriculum.

    However, even with a good curriculum, it is equally important to have a dynamic and charismatic teacher who practices what he/she preaches.

    For this, I think guidelines need to be written and teacher training workshops need to be held.

    A combination of both a good curriculum and a great teacher can make Islamic Studies truely memorable for a child and leave a lifelong (and afterlifelong) effect on them. :)

  20. Avatar

    Azhar

    November 3, 2010 at 12:07 PM

    Burooj curriculum concentrates on teachers training & parents workshop & teens worshop which especially helpful in developing islamic character. check it out

  21. Avatar

    Blessed

    February 15, 2011 at 8:34 PM

    MashaAllah. Very beneficial article and much needed in this day and age. Islamic Schools need to stop being centers in which parents reluctantly send their children, and Sunday Schools need to be more than just a Day Care Center. We need teachers who can relate to the youth, are friendly, approachable, and confident. Some examples that come to mind are Wisam Sharieff and Nouman Ali Khan. The youth are just WAITING for words to come out of their mouth so they could be inspired and follow it. As soon as a video of either of them is uploaded on Youtube, it goes viral on Facebook with emoticons such as “:D” or “Awesome!”. Even if the video is 1 minute long. We need more inspirational teachers, detailed curriculum, and encouragement to both parents and students alike, inshaAllah.

    Jazak Allah Khair for the article.

  22. Avatar

    Saif

    March 25, 2011 at 2:22 AM

    Checkout http://salaamlearning.com/

    It is a wiki-based lesson plan repository, and the lesson plans are relevant and clean.

  23. Avatar

    Mohamed sheik Meeran

    March 27, 2011 at 9:58 AM

    Assalamu alaikkum. I see your writings. What you wrote is absolutely write. My native also muslim populated region but without any islamic school. I am completed B.E. Work as system engineer. i am also conducting research on combined islamic and secular studies. Please help me.

  24. Avatar

    Umar Shariff

    July 24, 2011 at 8:09 AM

    Maashaallaah very good article that refreshed my zeal towards teaching children in an Islamic School. Baarakallaahu feek Shaikh Ismail.

    In my observation, Islamic schools need to focus on the management process and their administration skills. Keeping things in appropriate places is essential for running the institution smoothly. It is not just the teachers who are involved in shaping the generation. It is the watchman who guards the premises, the drivers who pickup and drop the children, the maids who clean the washrooms etc etc, who contribute to the standards of the school. It’s a total team work; a total system that works towards building a moral nation. It is not just about knowing things, but it is about making a difference with the things that one knows.

    If we didn’t have good noteworthy teachers, it’s fine. But, we must aspire to nurture noteworthy leaders for the next generation…….

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#Life

Advice To Students Starting A New School Year

Ammar Al Shukry

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students

I remember driving to college orientation over the summer with my father, may Allah have mercy on him. I was going to be going to school out of state, and at the age of eighteen, this was the first time that I would be living away from home. 

We talked about a lot of things, and nothing in particular but one of the stories he shared stayed with me. There was an Imam who had a close circle of students and one of them became absent for an extended period. Upon that student’s return, the Imam asked him where he had been, to which the student replied, 

“Egypt!” The imam said to him, “well how was Egypt!” 

The student replied, “Egypt is where knowledge resides.” 

The Imam responded, “You’ve spoken the truth.” 

Sometime later, the imam had another student who also was absent and upon his return, the Imam asked him where he had gone to which the student replied, “Egypt!” The imam said to him, “Well, how was Egypt?”

The student said, “Egypt is nothing but amusement and play!” 

The Imam responded, ‘You’ve spoken the truth!” 

There were students who had witnessed both conversations and asked the Imam later why he had borne witness to the truth of two antithetical statements to which the imam replied,

“They both found what they were looking for.” 

I got the message. University could be a place of incredible learning, engagement with ideas, and can push you and challenge you in the best of ways. It can also be a non-stop party. A blur of heedlessness and hedonism that will bring about remorse and regret for that individual in the Dunya and Akhira. 

I think back to that car ride fondly, and I appreciate the predicament of parting advice. A person who will be bidding farewell to someone so dear to them and wanting to give them something powerful that they can hold onto or wisdom that will guide them. Many students in the past weeks have been receiving similar parting advice from their families, and so in this article I wanted to share one of the advice of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) that he gave to a companion that he loved so much. 

عَنْ أَبِي ذَرٍّ جُنْدَبِ بْنِ جُنَادَةَ، وَأَبِي عَبْدِ الرَّحْمَنِ مُعَاذِ بْنِ جَبَلٍ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُمَا، عَنْ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه و سلم قَالَ: “اتَّقِ اللَّهَ حَيْثُمَا كُنْت، وَأَتْبِعْ السَّيِّئَةَ الْحَسَنَةَ تَمْحُهَا، وَخَالِقْ النَّاسَ بِخُلُقٍ حَسَنٍ”

رَوَاهُ التِّرْمِذِيُّ [رقم:1987] وَقَالَ: حَدِيثٌ حَسَنٌ، وَفِي بَعْضِ النُّسَخِ: حَسَنٌ صَحِيحٌ. 

On the authority of Abu Dharr Jundub ibn Junadah, and Abu Abdur-Rahman Muadh bin Jabal (may Allah be pleased with him), that the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said

“Have Taqwa of Allah wherever you are, and follow a bad deed with a good deed it will erase it, and treat people with good character.” (Tirmidhi)

The advice is comprised of three components

  1. Fear Allah wherever you are 
  2. Follow a bad deed with a good deed it will erase it 
  3. Treat people with good character 

Have Taqwa of Allah wherever you are 

Taqwa is the crown of the believer. And it is the best thing that a person can carry with them on the journey of this life, and the journey to meet their Lord. Allah says, 

“And take provision, and the best provision is Taqwa.” 

عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ، قَالَ سُئِلَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم عَنْ أَكْثَرِ مَا يُدْخِلُ النَّاسَ الْجَنَّةَ فَقَالَ ‏”‏ تَقْوَى اللَّهِ وَحُسْنُ الْخُلُقِ ‏”‏ ‏

The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) was asked as to what admits people into Paradise the most and he said, “Taqwa and good character.” (Tirmidhi) 

And so what is Taqwa?

Talq ibn Habeeb gave a beautiful definition and description of Taqwa when he said, 

“Taqwa is to act in obedience to Allah, upon a light from Allah, seeking the reward of Allah. And it is to avoid the disobedience of Allah, upon a light from Allah, fearing the punishment of Allah.” 

And so he describes taqwa as having three components; the action, the source for that action, and the motivation for that action.”

To act in the obedience of Allah..

To do the things that Allah commands you to do and to stay away from what Allah prohibits you from doing 

Upon a light from Allah..

The source for the action or inaction must come from revelation, a light from Allah. And this should stir us to seek knowledge so that our actions are onem guided by a light from Allah. You’ve made it to University, you are bright, gifted, intelligent and committed to education.  Do not let be the one thing that you remain uneducated about be your religion. 

Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) says, 

يَعْلَمُونَ ظَاهِراً مِّنَ ٱلْحَيَاةِ ٱلدُّنْيَا وَهُمْ عَنِ ٱلآخِرَةِ هُمْ غَافِلُونَ

They know what is apparent of the worldly life, but they, of the Hereafter, are unaware. (Al-Room v. 7) 

The prophet (S) said, “Allah hates every expert in the Dunya who is ignorant of the hereafter.” (Saheeh Al-Jaami’)

Make sure that you carve out time to attend halaqas on campus, seek out teachers and mentors who will guide you in learning about your religion even as you are pursuing your secular studies..

Seeking the reward of Allah..

The third component of Taqwa is the motivation:  that these actions that are being performed and that are sourced authentically in revelation must be performed for the sake of Allah, seeking His reward, and not for any other audience. That they not be done for shares, or likes or retweets. That a person does what they do of worship, that they abstain from what they abstain from of sin, seeking the reward of Allah and fearing His punishment. 

Fear Allah wherever you are..

Meaning in public and in private, online or offline, and when in the company of the righteous as well as when in the company of the wicked, in all circumstances a person must be mindful of the presence of Allah..

 عَنْ ثَوْبَانَ عَنِ النَّبِيِّ صلى الله عليه وسلم أَنَّهُ قَالَ : ( لأَعْلَمَنَّ أَقْوَامًا مِنْ أُمَّتِي يَأْتُونَ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ بِحَسَنَاتٍ أَمْثَالِ جِبَالِ تِهَامَةَ بِيضًا فَيَجْعَلُهَا اللَّهُ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ هَبَاءً مَنْثُورًا ) قَالَ ثَوْبَانُ : يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صِفْهُمْ لَنَا ، جَلِّهِمْ لَنَا أَنْ لاَ نَكُونَ مِنْهُمْ وَنَحْنُ لاَ نَعْلَمُ ، قَالَ : ( أَمَا إِنَّهُمْ إِخْوَانُكُمْ وَمِنْ جِلْدَتِكُمْ وَيَأْخُذُونَ مِنَ اللَّيْلِ كَمَا تَأْخُذُونَ وَلَكِنَّهُمْ أَقْوَامٌ إِذَا خَلَوْا بِمَحَارِمِ اللَّهِ انْتَهَكُوهَا

It was narrated from Thawban that the Prophet ﷺ said:

“I certainly know people of my nation who will come on the Day of Resurrection with good deeds like the mountains of Tihaamah, but Allah will make them like scattered dust.” Thawban said: “O Messenger of Allah, describe them to us and tell us more, so that we will not become of them unknowingly.” He said: “They are your brothers and from your race, worshipping at night as you do, but they are people who, when they are alone with what Allah has prohibited, they violate it.” 

This hadeeth is a warning for the person who is quick, eager and ready to violate the limits of Allah as soon as the door is locked, or the curtains or drawn, or as soon as they have arrived in a new place where no one knows them. We will sin, but let our sins be sins of weakness or lapses of taqwa and not sins of predetermination and design. There is a big difference between someone who sins in a moment’s temptation and the one who is planning to sin for hours, days or weeks! 

And follow a good deed with a bad deed it will erase it..

When we fall, as we must inevitably due to our being human, the prophet (S) instructed us to follow a sin with a good deed to erase it. 

Commit a sin, give charity. 

Commit a sin, perform wudhu as beautifully as you can and pray two rak’ahs. 

Commit a sin, seek Allah’s forgiveness and repent…

Our sins should not suffocate us from doing good deeds, they should fuel us to doing good deeds. 

Allah says,

وَأَقِمِ ٱلصَّلاَةَ طَرَفَيِ ٱلنَّهَارِ وَزُلَفاً مِّنَ ٱلَّيْلِ إِنَّ ٱلْحَسَنَاتِ يُذْهِبْنَ ٱلسَّـيِّئَاتِ ذٰلِكَ ذِكْرَىٰ لِلذَّاكِرِينَ

And establish prayer at the two ends of the day and at the approach of the night. Indeed, good deeds do away with misdeeds. That is a reminder for those who remember. (Surat Hood v. 114) 

A man from the Ansar was alone with a woman and he did everything with her short of fornication. In remorse, he went to the prophet (S) and confessed to him. Umar said to the man, “Allah had concealed your sins, why didn’t you conceal it yourself!” The prophet (S) however was silent.

The man eventually left and the prophet (S) had a messenger go to him to recite the aforementioned verse.  A man said, “Oh Messenger of Allah is it for him alone?”

The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “No for all people.” 

And so for all people, sin plus good deed equals the sin is erased. That is a formula to be inscribed in our hearts for the rest of our lives.

Al-Hassan Al-Basri, the master preacher of the Tabi’een was asked,

“Should one of us not be ashamed of our Lord, we seek forgiveness from our Lord and then return to sin, and then seek forgiveness and then return!” 

He said,

“Shaytan would love to conquer you with that (notion), do not grow tired of seeking forgiveness”

But know that these sins that are erased by good deeds are the minor sins, as for the major sins they require repentance for the many verses in which Allah threatens punishment for those who commit major sins if they do not repent, and so repentance is a condition for the erasing of the effect of major sins. 

And treat people with good character 

And if Taqwa is the crown of the believer, then good character is the crown of Taqwa, for many people think that taqwa is to fulfill the rights of Allah without fulfilling the rights of His creation! The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) in many hadith highlights the lofty stations that a believer attains with good character, for example: 

عَنْ عَائِشَةَ، رَحِمَهَا اللَّهُ قَالَتْ سَمِعْتُ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم يَقُولُ ‏ “‏ إِنَّ الْمُؤْمِنَ لَيُدْرِكُ بِحُسْنِ خُلُقِهِ دَرَجَةَ الصَّائِمِ الْقَائِمِ

The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: By his good character a believer will attain the degree of one who prays during the night and fasts during the day. (Tirmidhi)

عَنْ أَبِي الدَّرْدَاءِ، قَالَ سَمِعْتُ النَّبِيَّ صلى الله عليه وسلم يَقُولُ ‏ “‏ مَا مِنْ شَيْءٍ يُوضَعُ فِي الْمِيزَانِ أَثْقَلُ مِنْ حُسْنِ الْخُلُقِ وَإِنَّ صَاحِبَ حُسْنِ الْخُلُقِ لَيَبْلُغُ بِهِ دَرَجَةَ صَاحِبِ الصَّوْمِ وَالصَّلاَةِ 

Abu Ad-Darda narrated that the Messenger of Allah ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him)said:

“Nothing is placed on the Scale that is heavier than good character. Indeed the person with good character will have attained the rank of the person of fasting and prayer.” (Tirmidhi)

Let no one beat you to the taqwa of Allah and let no one beat you to beautiful character. 

You’ve come of age at a time in which the majority of our interactions are online, and in that world harshness and cruelty are low hanging fruit seemingly devoid of consequences. 

The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “Whoever lives in the deserts becomes harsh.” (Abu Dawood) 

And social media is a desert, it is an experience where we are all alone, together. 

So choose gentleness over harshness, choose forgiveness over vindictiveness, choose truth over falsehood and protect people from your harm. 

For the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “I am a guarantor of a house in the highest part of Jannah for whoever makes their character good.” 

May Allah make us from them. 

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Challenges of Identity & Conviction: The Need to Construct an Islamic Worldview

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islamic online high school

He squirmed in his seat as his Middle East history professor–yet again–made a subtle jab about Islam, this time about the jizyah.  This professor claimed to be pro-Arab and pro-Islam and was part of a university department that touted itself for presenting history and narratives that are typically left out of the West’s Eurocentric social studies sequence. Still, she would subjectively only present an Orientalist interpretation of Islam. Ahmad* sighed. He felt bad just thinking about what all his classmates at this esteemed university thought about Islam and Muslims. He was also worried about fellow Muslims in his class who had not grown up in a practicing household-what if they believed her? He hated how she was using her position as the “sage” in the room to present her bias as absolute truth. As for himself, he knew deep down in his bones that what his professor was alleging just could not be true. His fitrah was protesting her coy smile as she knowingly agitated the few Muslims in her class of one-hundred-fifty. Yet, Ahmad had never studied such topics growing up and felt all his years of secondary education left him ill-equipped as a freshman in college. He tried to search for answers to her false accusations after class and approached her later during office hours, but she just laughed him off as a backward, orthodox Muslim who had obviously been brainwashed into believing the “fairy tale version” of Islam. 

***

Asiyah* graduated as class valedictorian of her Islamic school. She loved Biology and Physics and planned to major in Engineering at a top-notch program. While both family, friends, and peers were proud of her (some maybe even wishing they were in her shoes), they had no idea of the bitter inner struggle that was eating away at her, tearing her up from the inside out. Her crisis of faith shook her to the core and her parents were at their wits’ end. While she prayed all her prayers and even properly donned her hijab, deep down she felt……..sort of….……atheist.  Physics was her life–her complete being. She loved how the numbers just added up and everything could be empirically proven. But this led to her greatest anguish: how could certain miraculous events during the time of the Blessed Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) have occurred? How could she believe in events that were physically and scientifically impossible?  She felt like an empty body performing the rituals of Islam.

*names changed

***

An Unwelcome Surprise

Islam is a way of life. Its principles operate in every avenue of one’s life. However, English, History, Science and Mathematics are often taught as if they are beyond the scope of Islam. It is commonly assumed that moral teaching happens, or should happen, only in the Islamic Studies class. Yet, if we compare what is being taught in the Islamic Studies class with what is being taught consciously or unconsciously in other classes, an unwelcome surprise awaits us. Examining typical reading material in English classes, for example, reveals that too much of the material is actually going against Islamic norms and principles. Some of the most prominent problems with traditional English literature (which directly clash with Islamic moral and ethical principles) include: the mockery of God and religion, the promotion of rebellion against parents and traditional family values, the normalization of immoral conduct such as lying and rude behavior, and the condoning of inappropriate cross-gender interactions. Additionally, positive references about Islamic culture are either nonexistent or rare. Toxic themes of secularism, atheism, materialism, liberalism, and agnosticism are constantly bombarding our young Muslim students, thus shaping the way in which they view and interact with the world.

Corrective Lens: The Worldview of Islam

We need our children to develop an Islamic worldview, one that provides a framework for Muslims to understand their world from the perspective of the Qur’an.  It is impossible for the Islamic Studies classes alone to successfully teach Islamic behavior and nurture moral commitment unless the other classes also reflect the Islamic worldview- an outlook that emphasizes the idea that all our actions should be focused on pleasing Allah and doing good for ourselves and others. Therefore, the majority of what is taught in all academic disciplines should be based on Islamic values, aiming to improve the life of the student by promoting sublime ethical conduct. The unfortunate reality is quite the opposite: a typical child in a school in the West spends a minimum of 576 periods (16 periods of core classes/week * 4 weeks/month * 9 months) of classroom instruction annually on academic subjects that are devoid of Islam and contain minimal teaching of morality that aligns with Islamic principles. How much Islam a child learns depends on whether their parents choose Sunday school, Islamic schools, and/or other forms of supplementation to provide religious knowledge. However, rarely does that supplemental instruction undo the thousands of hours of the atheistic worldview that children soak in by the time they finish high school through the study of secular subjects. By not having an Islamic worldview and not having Muslims’ heritage and contributions to humanity infused into the teaching of academic subjects, we witness the problems experienced by the likes of Ahmad* and Asiyah*–problems that plague modern Muslim youth.

Identifying the Unlikely Suspect

This realization is perhaps the missing piece in the puzzle when it comes to our bewilderment: how are large swaths of youth from some of the kindest, sweetest, practicing Muslim families going astray and getting confused? When we shepherd our flock and find one or more of our “sheep” lost and off the beaten path, we think of the likely suspects, which include negative influences from peers, family, movies, social media, etc. We may even blame the lack of inspiring role models. We are less likely to suspect that the very literature that our children are consuming day in and day out through our well-intentioned efforts to make them “educated” and “sophisticated” could cause them to question Islam or fall into moral abyss.

Ibn ‘Umar reported that the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, “All of you are shepherds and each of you is responsible for his flock. A man is the shepherd of the people of his house and he is responsible. A woman is the shepherd of the house of her husband and she is responsible. Each of you is a shepherd and each is responsible for his flock.”

Islamic Infusion in Academic Study as a Solution

There have been efforts across the globe to infuse Islam into academic study of worldly subjects. Universities such as the International Islamic University of Malaysia(IIUM), which has a dedicated “Centre for Islamisation (CENTRIS),” is an example. At the secondary school level, most brick and mortar Islamic schools do offer Arabic, Qur’an, and Islamic studies; however, few Muslim teachers are trained in how to teach core academic subjects using principles of Islamic pedagogy.

How exactly can educators infuse an Islamic perspective into their teaching? And how can Muslim children have access to high quality education from the worldview of Islam, taught by talented and dynamic educators?

Infusing Islam & Muslim Heritage in Core Academic Subjects, According to the Experts:

  • Dr. Nadeem Memon, professor of Islamic pedagogy, states that for a pedagogy to be Islamic, it should not contradict the aims, objectives and ethics contained in revelation (Qur’an) and should closely reflect an Islamic ethos that is based on revelation, the sunnah of the Prophet(pbuh), and the intellectual and spiritual heritage of his followers. It should also effectively develop the student’s intelligence (`aql), faith (iman), morality and character (khuluq), knowledge and practice of personal religious obligations (fard ain) and knowledge, skills and physical abilities warranted by worldly responsibilities and duties (Ajem, Ramzy and Nadeem Memon, “Prophetic Pedagogy: Teaching ‘Islamically’ in our Classrooms”)
  • Dr. Susan Douglass, expert in Social Studies, promotes a panoramic study of the world by global eras–emphasizing the interdependence of nations–rather than an isolationist civilizations approach (which in Western societies focuses only on Western civilization). Such study includes Islamic history and Muslims’ contributions to humanity throughout the ages.
  • Dr. Freda Shamma, pioneer in promoting culturally inclusive and ethical literature, emphasizes that English classes should carefully select literature aligned with Islamic moral values and include works by both Western authors and those from other cultures, i.e. literature that 1-features Muslim main characters and 2- is authored by Muslims.
  • Dr. Nur Jannah Hassan at CENTRIS, stresses that Science classes should be designed to awaken the student’s mind, to inspire a complete awe of and servitude towards the Creator and Sustainer, to instill the purpose of creation, vicegerency and stewardship of the earth and its inhabitants, to enable students to decipher God’s Signs in nature and in the self, to infuse responsibility in sustaining balance and accountability, and should include Muslims’ legacy in the field.
  • Dr. Reema alNizami, specialist in Math Education, advocates that Math classes should instill creative thinking, systematic problem solving and an appreciation of balance; include a survey of Muslims’ contributions to the field; and utilize word problems that encourage charitable and ethical financial practices.

Technology Enables Access to Islamically Infused Schooling for grades 6-12

Technology has now enabled this Islamic infusion for middle schools and secondary schools to become a reality on a global scale, alhamdulillah. Legacy International Online High School, a college preparatory, online Islamic school serving grades 6-12, whose mission is “Cultivating Compassionate Global Leaders”, offers all academic subjects from the Islamic worldview. Pioneered by leading Muslim educators from around the globe with background in Islamic pedagogy and digital learning, Legacy is the first of its kind online platform that is accessible to:

  • homeschooling families seeking full-time, rigorous, Islamically infused classes
  • Public school families looking for a part-time Islamic studies or Arabic sequence
  • Islamic schools, evening programs, and Sunday schools that are short-staffed and would like to outsource certain courses from the Islamic worldview
  • Schools and entities needing training/workshops to empower Muslim educators on how to teach from the Islamic worldview

Alhamdulillah, Legacy IOHS is an accessible resource for families with children in grades 6-8 who are seeking curriculum and instruction that is Islamically infused.

Strengthening Faith & Identity in College and Beyond

For those seeking supplementary resources to address the most prevalent hot topic issues plaguing young Muslims of our times, Yaqeen Institute, whose initial publications were more targeted towards a university audience, is now working to make its research more accessible to the general public through both its Conviction Circles initiative and its short videos featuring infographics.

Another online platform, California Islamic University, offers a comprehensive course sequence which allows college students to graduate with a second degree in Islamic studies while simultaneously completing their undergraduate studies at any accredited community college or university in the United States. Qalam and AlMaghrib Institute also offer online coursework in Islamic studies.

What We Hope to Avoid

While volunteering at his son Sulayman’s* public school with ten student participants, Ibrahim* was saddened when he met a young boy named Chris*. When Chris met Ibrahim, he piped up and eagerly told Ibrahim, “my grandparents are Muslim!” Through the course of the conversation, Ibrahim realized that he knew Chris’ grandparents, a very sweet elderly couple (and currently very practicing) who had not made the Islamic worldview a priority early on in their children’s lives. A mere two generations later, Islam is completely eliminated from their family. *names changed

Our Resolve

Legacy IOHS recommends the following to Muslim families/educators and Islamic schools:

  1. Instill in our children a strong grasp of the foundational sciences of Islam, while preparing them with the necessary contemporary knowledge and skills
  2. Teach our children in their formative years to view the world (including their “secular” academic study) through the lens of Islam
  3. Follow this up with relevant motivational programs that assist them in understanding challenging issues of today and coach them on how to respond to the issues in their teenage years.

We pray that with the above, we will have fulfilled our duty in shepherding our flock in a comprehensive way, with utmost care. It is Allah’s help we seek in these challenging times:

رَبَّنَا لَا تُزِغْ قُلُوبَنَا بَعْدَ إِذْ هَدَيْتَنَا وَهَبْ لَنَا مِنْ لَدُنْكَ رَحْمَةً ۚ إِنَّكَ أَنْتَ الْوَهَّابُ

‘Our Lord, do not let our hearts deviate after You have guided us. Grant us Your mercy: You are the Ever Giving. [Qur’an 3:8]

 رَبَّنَا هَبْ لَنَا مِنْ أَزْوَاجِنَا وَذُرِّيَّاتِنَا قُرَّةَ أَعْيُنٍ وَاجْعَلْنَا لِلْمُتَّقِينَ إِمَامًا

‘Our Lord, give us joy in our spouses and offspring. Make us good examples to those who are aware of You’. [Qur’an 25:74]

يَا مُقَلِّبَ القُلُوبِ ثَبِّتْ قَلْبِيْ عَلَى دِيْنِكْ

“O turner of the hearts, keep my heart firm on your religion.”

Freda Shamma has a M.A. from the University of California, Berkeley, and an Ed.D. from the University of Cincinnati in the area of Curriculum Development. A veteran educator, she has worked with educators from the United States, South Africa and all over the Muslim world to develop integrated curricula based on an Islamic worldview that meets the needs of modern Muslim youth. She serves as Curriculum Advisor for Legacy International Online High School.

An avid student of the Islamic sciences, Zaheer Arastu earned his M.Ed from The George Washington University and completed his training in Educational Leadership from the University of Oklahoma. his experience in Islamic education spans over 15 years serving as both teacher, administrator, and dean of innovation and technology. He currently serves as the Head of School for Legacy International Online High School.

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Grit and Resilience: The Self-Help vs. Islamic Perspective

Omar Usman

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I don’t really care about grit.

Persevering and persisting through difficulties to achieve a higher goal is awesome. High-five. We should all develop that. No one disagrees that resilience is an essential characteristic to have.

Somehow, this simple concept has ballooned into what feels like a self-help cottage industry of sorts. It has a Ted talk with tens of millions of views, podcasts, keynote speeches, a New York Times best-selling book, and finding ways to teach this in schools and workplaces.

What I do care about is critically analyzing if it is all that it’s cracked up to be (spoiler alert: I don’t think so), why the self-help industry aggressively promotes it, and how we understand it from an Islamic perspective. For me, this is about much more than just grit – it’s about understanding character development from a (mostly Americanized) secular perspective vis-a-vis the Islamic one.

The appeal of grit in a self-help context is that it provides a magic bullet that intuitively feels correct. It provides optimism. If I can master this one thing, it will unlock what I need to be successful. When I keep running into a roadblock, I can scapegoat my reason for failure – a lack of grit.

Grit encompasses several inspirational cliches – be satisfied with being unsatisfied, or love the chase as much as the capture, or that grit is falling in love and staying in love. It is to believe anyone can succeed if they work long and hard enough. In short, it is the one-word encapsulation of the ideal of the American Dream.

Self-help literature has an underlying theme of controlling what is within your control and letting go of the rest. Islamically, in general, we agree with this sentiment. We focus our actions where we are personally accountable and put our trust in Allah for what we cannot control.

The problem with this theme, specifically with grit, is that it necessitates believing the circumstances around you cannot be changed. Therefore, you must simply accept things the way that they are. Teaching people that they can overcome any situation by merely working hard enough is not only unrealistic but utterly devoid of compassion.

“The notion that kids in poverty can overcome hunger, lack of medical care, homelessness, and trauma by buckling down and persisting was always stupid and heartless, exactly what you would expect to hear from Scrooge or the Koch brothers or Betsy DeVos.” -Diane Ravitch, Forget Grit, Focus on Inequality

Focusing on the individual characteristics of grit and perseverance shifts attention away from structural or systemic issues that impact someone’s ability to succeed. The personal characteristics can be changed while structural inequalities are seen as ‘fixed.’

Alfie Kohn, in an article critical of Grit by Angela Duckworth, notes that Duckworth and her mentor while studying grit operated under a belief that,

[U]nderachievement isn’t explained by structural factors — social, economic, or even educational. Rather, they insisted it should be attributed to the students themselves and their “failure to exercise self-discipline.” The entire conceptual edifice of grit is constructed on that individualistic premise, one that remains popular for ideological reasons even though it’s been repeatedly debunked by research.

Duckworth admitted as much in an interview with EdSurge.

There was a student who introduced himself having written a critical essay about the narrative of grit. His major point was that when we talk about grit as a kind of ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ personal strength, it leaves in the shadows structural poverty and racism and other things that make it impossible, frankly, for some kids to do what we would expect them to do. When he sent me that essay, of course, I wanted to know more. I joined his [dissertation] committee because I don’t know much about sociology, and I don’t know much about this criticism.

I learned a lot from him over the years. I think the lesson for me is that when someone criticizes you, when someone criticized me, the natural thing is to be defensive and to reflexively make more clear your case and why you’re right, but I’ve always learned more from just listening. When I have the courage to just say, “Well, maybe there’s a point here that I hadn’t thought of,” and in this case the Grit narrative and what Grit has become is something that he really brought to me and my awareness in a way that I was oblivious to before.

It is mind-boggling that the person who popularized this research and wrote the book on the topic simply didn’t know that there was such a thing as structural inequality. It is quite disappointing that her response essentially amounted to “That’s interesting. I’d like to learn more.”

Duckworth provides a caveat – “My theory doesn’t address these outside ­forces, nor does it include luck. It’s about the psychology of achievement, but because psychology isn’t all that matters, it’s incomplete.” This is a cop-out we see consistently in the self-help industry and elsewhere. They won’t deny that those problems exist, they simply say that’s not the current focus.

It is intellectually dishonest to promote something as a key to success while outright ignoring the structures needed to enable success. That is not the only thing the theory of grit ignores. While marketing it as a necessary characteristic, it overlooks traits like honesty and kindness.

The grit narrative lionizes this superhero type of individual who breaks through all obstacles no matter how much the deck is stacked against them. It provides a sense of false hope. Instead of knowing when to cut your losses and see a failure for what it is, espousing a grit mentality will make a person stubbornly pursue a failing endeavor. It reminds me of those singers who comically fail the first round of auditions on American Idol, are rightly ridiculed by the judges, and then emotionally tell the whole world they’re going to come out on top (and then never do).

Overconfidence, obstinance, and naive optimism are the result of grit without context or boundaries. It fosters denial and a lack of self-awareness – the consequences of which are felt when horrible leaders keep rising to the top due, in part, to their grit and perseverance.

The entire idea of the psychology of achievement completely ignores the notion of morality and ethics. Grit in a vacuum may be amoral, but that is not how the real world works. This speaks powerfully to the need to understand the application of these types of concepts through a lens of faith.

The individual focus, however, is precisely what makes something like grit a prime candidate to become a popular self-help item. Schools and corporations alike will want to push it because it focuses on the individual instead of the reality of circumstances. There is a real amount of cognitive dissonance when a corporation can tell employees to focus on developing grit while not addressing toxic employment practices that increase turnover and destroy employees physically and emotionally (see: Dying for a Paycheck by Jeffrey Pfeffer).

Circumstances matter more than ever. You’ve probably heard the story (of course, in a Ted Talk) about the famous marshmallow test at some point. This popularizes the self-help version of delayed gratification. A bunch of kids are given a marshmallow and told that if they can avoid eating it for 5 minutes, they’ll get a second one. The children are then shown hilariously trying to resist eating it. These kids were then studied as they grew older, and lo and behold, those who had the self-discipline to hold out for the 2nd marshmallow were far more successful in life than those who gave in.

A new study found that a child’s ability to hold out for the second marshmallow had nothing to do with the ability to delay gratification. As The Atlantic points out, it had much more to do with the child’s social and economic background. When a child comes from a well to do household, the promise of a second marshmallow will be fulfilled. Their parents always deliver. When someone grows up in poverty, they are more attuned to take the short term reward because the guarantee does not exist that the marshmallow would still be there later. The circumstances matter much more than the psychological studies can account for. It is far easier to display grit with an entrepreneurial venture, for example, when you have the safety net of wealthy and supportive parents.

Valerie Strauss writes in the Washington Post that grit discourse is driven by middle and upper-class parents wanting their spoiled kids to appreciate the virtues of struggling against hardship. Unfortunately, this focus on character education means that poor students suffer because less money will then be spent on teaching disadvantaged students the skills they need to be successful. Sisyphus, she notes, had plenty of grit, but it didn’t get him very far.

Strauss asks us to imagine if a toxic dump was discovered near Beverly Hills, and our response was to teach kids how to lessen the effects of toxins instead of fixing the dump.

The grit discourse does not teach that poor children deserve poverty; it teaches that poverty itself is not so bad. In fact, hardship provides the very traits required to escape hardship. This logic is as seductive as it is circular. Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is seen as a virtuous enterprise whether practiced by Horatio Alger’s urchins or Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs (bootstrapping is a common term in technology finance circles). And most importantly, it creates a purported path out of poverty that does not involve any sacrifice on the part of the privileged classes. -Valerie Strauss

This approach is a way to appear noble while perpetuating the status quo. It provides the illusion of upliftment while further entrenching the very systems that prevent it. We see this enacted most commonly with modern-day Silicon Valley style of philanthropy. Anand Giridharadas has an entire book dedicated to this ‘elite charade of changing the world’ entitled Winners Take All.

The media also does its fair share to push this narrative. Stories that should horrify us are passed along as inspirational stories of perseverance. It’s like celebrating a GoFundMe campaign that helps pay for surgery to save someone’s life instead of critically analyzing why healthcare is not seen as a human right in the first place.

Islamic Perspective

Islamically, we are taught to find ways to address the individual as well as the system. Characteristics like grit and delayed gratification are not bad. They’re misapplied when the bigger picture is not taken into account. In the Islamic system, for example, a person is encouraged not to beg. At the same time, there is an encouragement for those who can give to seek out those in need. A person in debt is strongly advised to pay off their debts as quickly as possible. At the same time, the lender is encouraged to be easygoing and to forgive the debt if possible.

This provides a more realistic framework for applying these concepts. A person facing difficulty should be encouraged to be resilient and find ways to bounce back. At the same time, support structures must be established to help that person.

Beyond the framework, there is a much larger issue. Grit is oriented around success. Success is unquestionably assumed to be a personal success oriented around academic achievement, career, wealth, and status. When that is the end goal, it makes it much easier to keep the focus on the individual.

The Islamic definition of success is much broader. There is the obvious idea of success in the Hereafter, but that is separate from this discussion. Even in a worldly sense, a successful person may be the one who sacrifices attending a good school, or perhaps even a dream job type of career opportunity, to spend more time with their family. The emphasis on individual success at all costs has contributed to the breakdown of essential family and community support systems.

A misapplied sense of grit furthers this when a person thinks they don’t need anyone else, and they just need to persevere. It is part of a larger body of messaging that promotes freedom and autonomy. We celebrate people who are strong and independent. Self-help tells us we can achieve anything with the right mindset.

But what happens when we fail? What happens when we find loneliness and not fulfillment, when we lack the bonds of familial solidarity, and when money does not make us whole? Then it all falls on us. It is precisely this feeling of constriction that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), give good news to those who are steadfast, those who say, when afflicted with a calamity, ‘We belong to God and to Him we shall return.’ These will be given blessings and mercy from their Lord, and it is they who are rightly guided.” (2:155-157)

Resilience is a reflex. When a person faces hardship, they will fall back on the habits and values they have. It brings to mind the statement of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) that patience is at the first strike. He taught us the mindset needed to have grit in the first place,

“Wondrous is the affair of the believer for there is good for him in every matter and this is not the case with anyone except the believer. If he is happy, then he thanks Allah and thus there is good for him, and if he is harmed, then he shows patience and thus there is good for him” (Muslim).

He also taught us the habits we need to ensure that we have the reflex of grit when the situation warrants it –

“Whoever would be pleased for Allah to answer him during times of hardship and difficulty, let him supplicate often during times of ease” (Tirmidhi).

The institution of the masjid as a community center provides a massive opportunity to build infrastructure to support people. Resilience, as Michael Ungar writes, is not a DIY endeavor. Communities must find ways to provide the resources a person needs to persevere. Ungar explains, “What kind of resources? The kind that get you through the inevitable crises that life throws our way. A bank of sick days. Some savings or an extended family who can take you in. Neighbours or a congregation willing to bring over a casserole, shovel your driveway or help care for your children while you are doing whatever you need to do to get through the moment. Communities with police, social workers, home-care workers, fire departments, ambulances, and food banks. Employment insurance, pension plans or financial advisers to help you through a layoff.”

Ungar summarizes the appropriate application of grit, “The science of resilience is clear: The social, political and natural environments in which we live are far more important to our health, fitness, finances and time management than our individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. When it comes to maintaining well-being and finding success, environments matter. In fact, they may matter just as much, and likely much more, than individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. A positive attitude may be required to take advantage of opportunities as you find them, but no amount of positive thinking on its own is going to help you survive a natural disaster, a bad workplace or childhood abuse. Change your world first by finding the relationships that nurture you, the opportunities to use your talents and the places where you experience community and governmental support and social justice. Once you have these, your world will help you succeed more than you could ever help yourself.”

The one major missing ingredient here is tawakkul (trust in Allah). One of the events in the life of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) that epitomized grit, resilience, and perseverance was the Battle of Badr. At this occasion, the Companions said, “God is enough for us: He is the best protector.

“Those whose faith only increased when people said, ‘Fear your enemy: they have amassed a great army against you,’ and who replied, ‘God is enough for us: He is the best protector,’“ (3:173)

This is the same phrase that Ibrahim 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), while displaying the utmost level of resilience, said when he was thrown into the fire, and it was made cool.

There is a core belief in Islam about balancing between fear and hope. Scholars advise when a person feels despair, they should remind themselves of the traditions that reinforce hope in Allah’s forgiveness. When a person feels themselves sliding further and further into disobedience to Allah, then they should remind themselves of the traditions that warn against Allah’s punishment. The focus changes depending on the situation.

Grit itself is a praiseworthy characteristic

There is no doubt that it is a trait that makes people successful. The challenge comes in applying it and how we teach it. It needs a proper level of balance. Too much focus on grit as a singular predictor of success may lead to victim-blaming and false hope syndrome. Overlooking it on the other hand, enables a feeling of entitlement and a victim mentality.

One purpose of teaching grit was to help students from privileged backgrounds understand and appreciate the struggle needed to overcome difficulty. Misapplied, it can lead to overlooking systemic issues that prevent a person from succeeding even when they have grit.

Self-help literature often fails to make these types of distinctions. It fails to provide guidance for balancing adapting the advice based on circumstance. The criticisms here are not of the idea of grit, but rather the myopic way in which self-help literature promotes concepts like grit without real-world contextualization. We need to find a way to have the right proportionality of understanding individual effort, societal support, and our reliance on Allah.

Our ability to persevere, to be resilient, and to have grit, is linked directly to our relationship with Allah, and our true level of trust in Him.

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