Putting faith in schools

Religion: Muslim parents fulfill a dream with the opening of the Aleem Academy in Sykesville.

October 15, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Five-year-old Sadiq Asad used to resist his mother's attempts to teach him the Arabic songs she learned as a child. He was too shy or embarrassed to try pronouncing the Arabic words of the prayers that his parents and older sister recite five times a day. And he began every morning of his first year of preschool in tears when his mother dropped him off.

But all that has changed.

Now, Sadiq is a kindergartner at the Aleem Academy in Sykesville. It's the most recent of a handful of Muslim schools to open in the Baltimore area and in the Maryland suburbs of Washington as more families strive to combine the top-notch academics of traditional private schools with the Islamic teachings and values typically reserved for religious classes.

These days, Sadiq comes home singing the Arabic songs he learns at school. He is comfortable leading his classmates in their morning recitation of the sayings of Islam's prophet, Muhammad, and in parts of their midday prayer. And there are no more tears when he says goodbye to his mother each morning.

"I just like it here," the youngster said one recent morning. "I like everything in here."

Looking around the cozy, one-room school, which opened last month, it's not difficult to see why.

The area devoted to the three preschoolers and two kindergartners is brimming with library books and art supplies, puzzles and pint-sized furniture, colorful artwork and crates of costumes for dress-up time.

On the other side of the school room, teacher Munazza Bashir divides her time between two pupils -- second-grader Sabrina Asad and third-grader Adeel Malik -- flitting between their desks as she guides them through math and grammar lessons that seem more like tutoring sessions than school.

Posters of the Kaaba, the sacred Islamic shrine at Mecca, hang alongside displays of American presidents, and pupils just as eagerly crack open brand-new copies of the holy book of Islam, the Quran, as they do their new math and language arts workbooks.

The seven pupils attend daily classes in Islamic studies, Arabic pronunciation and the Quran, and pupils and faculty alike break every afternoon for their midday prayer in the salat, or prayer room.

But the Muslim faith seeps into far more than just the time set aside for Islamic studies.

It's there after snack time and after lunch, when the pupils thank Allah -- in Arabic -- for feeding them, quenching their thirst and making them Muslim.

It's there in routine interactions between pupils and staff, when children are encouraged to say jazakallah -- which means "all thanks are due to Allah" -- in place of "thank you."

It's there during the most ordinary of school activities, such as drawing and playtime.

"Who created the sky?" asked Islamic studies instructor Shahina Bashir during her morning lesson with the preschool and kindergarten pupils.

"Allah," the children responded.

"And who made the grass?" she asked.

"Allah," they said while coloring a paint-by-letter giraffe to practice their recognition of the Arabic alphabet.

"That's right. He made us, too," the teacher added.

"And he made our crayons, too," offered one pupil.

"Allah didn't make the crayons," chided 4-year-old Sulaiman Asad, before dissolving into giggles.

"No, he didn't," Bashir said. "But he taught the humans and gave them brains so they could make the crayons."

The blending of religion and academics -- which has occurred in Christian and Jewish schools for decades -- makes for the faith-infused learning environment increasingly sought by Islamic communities across the nation.

From Orange County, Calif., and Omaha, Neb., to the Boston and Chicago suburbs, more than 300 Islamic schools have sprung up as Muslim parents choose for their children an education free from the swearing, drugs, alcohol and other negative influences typically associated with large public school systems. In doing so, they willingly give up the sprawling gymnasiums, auditoriums, computer labs and libraries that parents in public districts have come to expect.

Two other Islamic schools are in the Baltimore area, where the Muslim population has grown to about 50,000, and at least three others are in Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

Al-Ramah Islamic School in Catonsville opened in 1987 with about 25 pupils in prekindergarten through second grade and now has 250 pupils through eighth grade.

The 24-year-old Islamic Community Day School at the As-Saffat mosque in Baltimore has 37 pupils and students in first through 12th grade.

Housed in a former day care facility near the town hall, a hair salon and tanning studio and an antiques store on Sykesville's Main Street, the Aleem Academy began a decade ago as a dream for Musa Asad and several friends and relatives who attend the Baitur-Rahman mosque in Silver Spring.

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