Through a Glass, Darkly
”We have an Islamic school in Rockford?” my friend said in surprise. His reaction was typical. Rockford, as the local Gannett paper never ceases to remind us, is stubbornly average—in population, ethnic composition, income level—with a few notable exceptions, particularly astronomic property taxes and abysmal public-school test scores. The idea that there is a sufficient Muslim population to sustain a school out here in the middle of Middle America seems inconceivable. But here, on a cold, clear January morning, Chronicles’ assistant editor, Aaron Wolf, and I are pulling into the parking lot of the Rockford Iqra School.
The building, owned by the Muslim Community Foundation of Rockford, which rents half of it to a private Montessori academy, is a former public school, shut down in the round of school closings that triggered Rockford’s 12-year-long desegregation suit. The Muslim Community Foundation, founded in 1985, purchased Vandercook Elementary School from District 205 in 1989 and converted the administrative offices into a mosque. For several years, they used it simply as a meeting place, but a growing desire among local Muslims to provide their children with a better education—both academic and moral—than the public schools could provide led the foundation to start the school four years ago.
We are met just inside the front door (adorned with an American flag, printed on newsprint and distributed by the Rockford Register-Star in the wake of September 11) by Atteya Elnoory, a native of Egypt who is in his first year as principal of the school. A short, energetic man, Elnoory welcomes us with the traditional Islamic greeting, “Assalamu ’Alaikum” (“Peace be with you”). As we introduce ourselves in the hallway, Elnoory keeps one eye on the arriving students, occasionally stopping one to tell him to walk, not run, and to get ready for the daily assembly in the mosque at 8:45.
After a brief tour up and down the main hallway, we remove our shoes and enter the mosque. The floor is covered with two colors of carpeting, arranged in diagonal rows, and as the male students come in from the main hallway, they align themselves on the rows. It takes a moment for Aaron and me to realize that the carpet swaths orient the students toward Mecca. Some students begin to chant prayers, and the chanting swells, becoming louder, more in unison, but the purpose of the assembly is not to pray—the first of the five appointed daily prayer times has already passed. Because the mosque is not being used for organized prayer, the female students and teachers are allowed to enter. They must, however, pass through a long hallway that brings them to a doorway at the rear of the mosque, where they seat themselves on the floor, two or three rows behind the male students.
The school covers kindergarten through fifth grades; every year so far, another grade has been added. At the beginning of the school year, 33 students were enrolled; since September, Elnoory proudly informs us, that number has risen to 49. Kindergarten and first grade swelled from seven students to 15.
As the last of the children file in, the principal turns on the loudspeaker, and the feedback and echo give the proceedings an otherworldly feel. He begins the assembly by introducing us, and the children turn and greet us warmly. Elnoory calls a young girl forward to read a short essay she has composed for the “Super Muslim of the Month” contest. Her subject is responsibility, and both her reading and composition abilities seem well beyond those of the average public-school student her age. After she finishes, Elnoory asks the other students to provide examples of responsibility. They mention turning their homework in on time, being prompt to class, helping their fellow students—all actions that center on the school. It is a pattern we will see throughout the day, proving the importance of the school to these childrens’ lives.
After the assembly, Principal Elnoory takes us back to his office to get acquainted. “Tell me something about your magazine. I tried to look it up on the internet, but I kept getting disconnected.” I tell him that we are usually characterized as a very conservative magazine, closer to Pat Buchanan than to George W. Bush. At the mention of Buchanan, he grins. “I’ve followed his career for a long time, from back when he was on Crossfire—the original show, with Tom Braden.” He wants to know whether we have any insight into why Buchanan fared so poorly in his presidential bid—is it because of the media? “Do Americans just get their understanding [of the world] from the 5:30 news?” When I tell him that many do, he shakes his head. “The world is getting smaller, and unfortunately, when Americans with this mentality go abroad, they are in for a shock.”
We walk down the hall to Miss Stacey Swick’s kindergarten and first grade class. This year, all classes are split-grades: K-1, 2-3, 4-5. While the students remain in their classrooms (except for gym class, lunch, and prayers), the structure of the school day is closer to junior or senior high school, divided into seven hours with short breaks in between. The three teachers and Principal Elnoory swap classes throughout the day, so that all of the students can benefit from each teach-er’s strengths. Elnoory, for instance, teaches Arabic and Islamic studies; one of the two young, unmarried Christian women teaches English and reading; the married Muslim woman teaches math and science.
Miss Swick divides the class into small groups and gives each one an activity to complete. If the children were not so well dressed and well behaved, the classroom would resemble thousands of kin-dergarten classrooms around the country. Once she sets the students on their first exercise, she comes back to talk to us. A 23-year-old Catholic who graduated from Boylan Catholic High School and Illinois Wesleyan University, this is her second year teaching at the Iqra School, where she finds more religious and cultural similarities with her students than differences. When Aaron mentions the modest dress of both the teachers and the students, she claims never to have noticed.
The school’s dress code is fairly minimal and very similar to that of most private schools—dark pants or skirt, white shirt or blouse. Still, there is a definite variation between grades that runs coun-ter to most schools: As the children get older, the mode of dress becomes more modest. Most of the girls in K-1 have their heads uncovered, while all of those in second grade and above wear some form of head covering. The older boys are more likely to cover their heads as well. The decision to dress older children in a more traditional manner, the fourth- and fifth-grade teacher tells us later, is made by the parents, not the school.
As the day draws on, the influence of the parents and the broader Muslim community in Rockford becomes obvious. The Muslim families seem to regard the school as the logical extension of the religious life of their homes. Several parents show up for noontime prayers in the mosque, and both Christian teachers note the number of Muslims (several hundred on average) who fill the hallways on Friday and Saturday to worship at the mosque and share meals in the gymnasium. Several of the students tell us that their parents moved from Chicago or even New York City to place their children in the school.
At the end of the first period, we move on to Mrs. Rukhsana Shamim’s second- and third-grade classroom. An attractive woman who continually pulls her sleeves down and tucks her hair back into her hujab or chador, she is preparing the class for a week of testing in math and science. Today, she is drilling them on problems involving money and multiplication. Many of their answers are clearly guesses rather than calculations, and Mrs. Shahim seems somewhat frustrated by the number of incorrect responses. Still, for a second- and third-grade class, the subject matter is relatively advanced.
During a 15-minute break for a snack, we move over to the library, where Principal Elnoory assembles six students of varying age and nationality for us to interview. He leaves us alone with the children, taking evident pleasure in the knowledge that they will perform well. Among the six is Cody, the only Christian child enrolled in the school. Elnoory had proudly told the Chicago Tribune in November that, after four years at Iqra, Cody regards himself as a Muslim. Today, however, Cody, a third-grader, tells us a somewhat different story.
His parents (who are divorced and share custody of Cody) are Christian, he says, but “I’m half-Muslim and half-Christian.” By the time he leaves Iqra—which he hopes will continue to expand so that he can attend high school and perhaps even college there—“I’ll be fully Muslim.” When I ask him what denomination his parents belong to, he seems confused. “What kind of church do they go to—for instance, Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist?” “They don’t go to church,” he replies. Aruba, a third-grade girl, helpfully interjects, “They’re American Chris-tians,” and Cody readily agrees.
Maaz, a first-grader, wants to know what Aaron and I do, and I tell him that we publish a magazine. “Is it Superman?” he asks. No, I tell him, but I do have a sizable collection of comic books.
For more than an hour, the children talk about their lives—their friends, their brothers and sisters (most come from families of four or more, and any siblings in fifth grade or lower either attend Iqra or will, once they turn four), their pets, the music they listen to, the books they read. They watch very little television, mostly educational cable—Discovery, Animal Planet, some PBS. They are all very fond of a series of videotapes called Adam’s World, featuring Muppet-like characters who, in the course of their adventures, learn the lessons of Islam—sort of a live-action Veggie Tales for Muslim children.
The school and the Muslim community in Rockford form the center of their lives. While Cody praises the school for allowing him to learn about a different religion, Zaid, a fifth-grader, likes it because he can learn Arabic, Islamic studies, and the Koran. “We learn about other religions,” Zaid says, “so that we can explain our religion to others.” Still, with the exception of Cody, the children do not seem to know many non-Muslims their age—“All of our friends support the Islamic way,” Zaid says, and “brothers and sisters are the best friends.” The school and the Muslim Community Foundation sponsor activities, including talent shows, at which the children perform traditional and contemporary Muslim songs. Zaid and Nabia, a fourth-grade girl whose ninth-grade sister is the only sibling in a public school in Rockford, start to sing a “Muslim rap” that they learned for a recent show.
Give me, ya-Allah, Give me Iman and victory.
Give me, ya-Allah, give me strength to set us free,
As we struggle on your path,
Grant us, ya-Allah, the eyes to see your light,
And show us, ya-Allah, what is wrong and what is right
As we walk along your path, Siratul Mustaqeem . . .
The word mujahideen is jarring, especially coming out of the mouths of nine- and ten-year-old children. Zaid translates it as “people who struggle in the way of Allah,” giving it a spiritual twist that initially seems appropriate, since Iman means “faith” and Siratul Mustaqeem is “the straight path” or “the path of righteousness.” The next verse, however, calls to mind a more common definition:
Help us, ya-Allah, to spread this blessed deen
And help us, ya-Allah, help the Muslimeen
And help us, ya-Allah, overcome the Mushrikeen . . .
Make us, ya-Allah, fighters for your deen,
And make us, ya-Allah for ever Mumineen
And do this, ya-Allah, despite the kafireen . . .
According to the glossary of Islamic terms compiled by the International Islamic University (www.iiu.edu.my/deed/glossary/index2.html), deen is “Usually translated as ‘religion’, but in fact mean[s] ‘life-transaction’, the transaction being between Allah and each of his created beings. The life-transaction . . . is universal. It is the way of Islam . . . ” The Muslimeen and Mumineen are Muslims, while the Mushrikeen are, literally, “idol worshippers”; in common usage, however, the latter term means “People who associate partners with Allah Ta’ala, such as the Christians, who have raised the Prophet Isa (Jesus, Son of Mary) . . . to the level of Allah.” Kafireen (or kuffar) means “unbelievers.”
The song comes from a tape entitled The Next Level, produced by the Muslim Youth of North America (MYNA), “an organization dedicated to promoting Islamic awareness in Muslim youth.” The lyrics to their songs can be found on their website, www.mynaraps.com, and the tapes are available in Muslim bookstores across the United States. The second song on The Next Level is “Jihad of the Nafs,” an anglicization of Jihad an-Nafs, which the Islamic glossary defines as “fighting against one’s own evil wants and trying one’s utmost to be a better person in the sight of Allah.” But the lyrics, presented in the style and idiom of gang-sta rap, leave a different impression:
This is my Jihad, Jihad of the Nafs,
Battle of the soul against Shaytan and the rest.
I got my uzi of Iman, bazooka of Qur’an
My M-16 of my deen of Islam,
Dropping bombs on Shaytan with Islam as my main gun,
He telling me to do wrong, I say “ain’t gonna have none
of that.” Grenades, yo, of Taqwa on my back,
Bayonet of regret, if I ever get trapped.
I got the Sunna of the Prophet as my fully automatic.
I’ve been beaten by the devil many times and I’ve had it. . . .
Shaytan and his friends they be actin’ diabolical
Yah, they be slick in the way they be calling us.
TV, CD, even on the PC,
Shaytan and his friends, yo, they keep us busy easy
Crazy, if you think you’ll win without a plan
But Allah has a plan and this plan is Islam
Hey yo, Shaytan, yo I know that you’re slick,
But Islam is the bomb, and now I got some tricks . . .
While some might argue that these lyrics recall St. Paul’s admonition to the Ephesians to “put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand” (Ephesians 6:13-18), St. Paul is clearly urging the Christians of Ephesus to defend themselves against spiritual forces, while “The Jihad of the Nafs” seems to encourage warfare against the human “friends” of Shaytan (Satan), in violent language that has taken on added meaning in recent months.
With the possible exception of Cody, all of the children—ranging in age from six to ten—are familiar with the tapes released by MYNA. As they sing, I sense no animosity toward Aaron and me personally; while we find the lyrics disturbing, they see the songs as reflections of their religious duties and their desire to be good Muslims.
As I continue to talk to the students, Aaron examines some videotapes on the wall of the library. Many of them are from the Islamic Propagation Centre International, founded by Muslim scholar Ahmed Deedat and based in Durban, South Africa. On September 16, 2001, the Sunday Times of South Africa revealed that Deedat has received millions of dollars from Osama bin Laden’s family and has named his headquarters, bought with those donations, after the bin Ladens. Osama bin Laden himself has met several times with Deedat and his son, Yousuf, who, the Sunday Times reported, “triggered a storm when he distributed thousands of anti-Semitic handbills featuring a picture of Adolph Hitler during the World Conference Against Racism in Durban . . . ” The videotapes sport such titles as Should Salman Rushdie Die? (the text on the case makes viewing the tape unnecessary: “The Holy Qu’ran says that any such blasphemer should be killed or crucified, and his hands cut off”) and Crucifixion or Cruci-FICTION? (Muslims believe that Christ not only did not rise from the dead but was not even crucified).
The children are animated now. Zaid, the son of two doctors who moved their family from Grayling, Michigan, to Rock-ford so that their children could attend the Iqra School, tells us that his first desire is to memorize the whole Koran and know the meaning of every word in it. The others quickly agree, adding that this is more important than their choice of vocation—though most of them already know that they want to be a doctor or an engineer or a teacher, another striking contrast to their cohorts in public and Christian schools.
Principal Elnoory returns to take us to Miss Erin Felts’ fourth- and fifth-grade class. As we bid the children goodbye, Maaz asks us to come visit them again. “And bring some Superman comic books with you,” he says, dark eyes twinkling.
Miss Felts is in her first year of teaching at Iqra. A graduate of East High School and Judson College, she is 22 years old. A Covenanter Christian, she is more aware than Miss Swick is of the cultural differences between herself and her students. Miss Felts admits that her family and friends were somewhat surprised by her decision to teach at a Muslim school. But, she says, it has been a wonderful experience. “I’ve learned a lot about Christianity, Judaism, and their religion, and how similar they are,” she says. “The same stories show up in all three.” While she is not responsible for teaching the children Islamic studies, Islam permeates her classroom. During writing lessons, the children bring up Islamic topics to use as examples, and she tells them that, while they are learning about paragraphs, she is learning about Islam. And while those who run the school have made no attempt to convert her, “I feel like I’m a part of the Muslim community.” The children tell her that they would like her to become a Muslim “so that they can see me in their heaven”—an indication, perhaps, that they find far less similarity between Islam and Christianity than she does.
Shortly after noon, the call to prayer is broadcast over the p.a. system, and we assemble in the mosque. This time, the female students and teachers must stay in an anteroom off of the hallway, where they can hear the prayers but cannot be heard or seen by the males. Aaron and I are joined in the chairs along the wall by three young men in their late teens or early 20’s, who—with their long hair, scraggly beards, and stylized “grunge” clothing—look rather out of place. Before the prayers start, young Maaz comes over and tugs on my pant leg. “Who are those guys?” he asks. I tell him that I have never met them before. “Oh,” he says, crestfallen, “I thought maybe they were the ones who write Superman.”
After prayer, we reconvene in the library for lunch—a vegetarian pizza from Papa John’s, Mountain Dew, and Coca-Cola—with Principal Elnoory, Magdy Kandil, one of the founders of the Muslim Community Foundation of Rockford, and Khalid Siddiqui, the chairman of the board of the school and the assistant director of the neonatal intensive-care unit at Swedish-American Hospital in Rockford. The three young grungers join us briefly: They are visiting the mosque for the first time, seeking knowledge of Islam, and Kandil is happy to oblige, explaining to them that Muslims believe modern scientific knowledge validates the divine inspiration of the Koran. Flattered by Kandil’s attention, they listen attentively, with an openness they likely would not extend to a similar argument about the Bible. Motioning in their direction, Elnoory proudly proclaims that, since September 11, the mosque and school have received quite a few visitors interested in Islam.
After the grungers leave, having prom-ised to return soon, Aaron and I explain that, as a practicing Lutheran and an active Catholic, we believe in the necessity of integrating of faith into every aspect of life. But this, Elnoory and Kandil argue, is where Islam has a structural advantage over Christianity in the West today, because, as Elnoory puts it, “Islam is a way of life.” In America, where Muslims of all nations have come together, “You get to see more of the life-aspect of Islam”—the universality of Islam and of God. The Muslim community in Rockford “is not a Pakistani community, it is not an Indian community, it is not an Arab community . . . Everyone is on an equal footing.”
The school is central to this universalist conception of Islam. Dr. Siddiqui applies his experience as a neonatologist to the school: “To give [the children] self-confidence, you have to give them a structured and sheltered environment.” Diversity, he believes, is only good after the brain quits growing, around the age of seven.
Kandil turns the discussion to the role of Muslims in America after September 11. Muslims, he believes, have only recently begun to feel that they can fully participate in American political life, but now “they are a little bit confused about the new laws” and are unsure whether it is safe to exercise freedom of speech. Since September, he argues, there has been a backlash against Islam, which came “from some minority in the U.S. who now feel threatened by a new minority.” When I ask him whom he means by the older minority and add that politicians and religious leaders have seemed unusually eager to embrace Islam, Kandil looks at me in disappointment—and, perhaps, with a touch of annoyance. He knows that I know that he means Jews.
Aaron broaches the subject of radical or fundamentalist Islam, and rather than disavow it, Elnoory takes the opposite tack: “We don’t even deal with radical Islam, because we do not know what it is.” Dr. Siddiqui, who represented the mosque at an interfaith memorial service in Rockford for the victims of the September 11 attacks, uses the image of a pendulum, which can “swing to the extremes and come back to the middle, but you are still within the boundaries” of Islam. Any discussion of radical Islam also depends on your perspective: “You can believe someone is a terrorist, and I don’t.”
To illustrate his point, Dr. Siddiqui tells us the story of a young Saudi Arabian, who, in the late 70’s and early 80’s, recognized the dangers of atheistic communism and “went [to Afghanistan] and used his whole wealth to fight.” (He is speaking, of course, of Osama bin Laden.) When, as Dr. Siddiqui puts it, this unnamed Saudi was able to do what the United States could not and the Russians were forced to withdraw from Afghan-istan, “the CIA interfered and created a very unstable government.” Finding themselves “still oppressed by Israel . . . the only way to get out is to fight. Experience says that.” With the demise of the Soviet Union, the United States began to look like the oppressor. Attacking America is “a freedom movement from their perspective. When a bomb destroys a man’s family, and he returns from work to find a fragment that says ‘USA,’ how can he think that there is anything good in this country?”
Dr. Siddiqui contrasts America’s actions as a superpower with those of Islam: “For 1,000 years, the only superpower in the world was Muslim, but did anyone complain of oppression?” When I mention that Christians in the Balkans might tell a different story, he demurs. “If you have two powers, there is always conflict,” he replies.
But what about Muslims in the United States today? If a jihad were declared against America, what would they do? This question, Dr. Siddiqui says, has been discussed by Muslim scholars since September 11, and they say that there are two options: Muslims must either renounce their citizenship and go over to the other side, or they must become conscientious objectors. “It may be better to go to jail,” Siddiqui argues, because, despite Muslim infighting throughout history, “you cannot kill a fellow Muslim. That is a fundamental of Islam.”
Finally, I ask Dr. Siddiqui what he thinks the future of Islam in the United States will be. For instance, do Muslims want to see Islamic law (sharia) instituted here? He does not answer the question directly. Law, he says, is supposed to be “beneficial to mankind,” but “human history from Adam to now is about the concentration of power. Who has the power made the laws.” Since Islam views all men as equal in the sight of Allah, it is wrong for the powerful to make law to their advantage. “Who is superior to us? Only God. If He made the laws, then He can be unbiased.” Because of that, he claims, Americans should not fear sharia; in fact, “If you look at the Constitution, it is a pure Islamic constitution,” restricting the power of men and leaving room for the imposition of sharia.
The sun is low in the sky as we say our goodbyes. Dr. Siddiqui give us each a copy of the Koran, and Principal Elnoory shows us to the door, inviting us to return whenever we wish.
On the way back to the office, neither Aaron nor I can think of a comparable Christian school—certainly not one that forms such a central part of a Christian community or prepares young Mushrikeen for a coming struggle against the Muslimeen. In fact, if there were such a school, how likely is it that there would be an Islamic school in Rockford? Its very presence here is as much an indication of a failure of nerve on the part of Christians as is the more visible mosque that has been erected in Rome. Yet the Rockford Iqra School is only one of over 400 schools in the United States associated with the Iqra Educational Foundation of Chicago (www.iqra.org). While mainstream Christianity has beaten a hasty
retreat in America for at least the last half-century, Islam has gained a solid foot-hold—and the Muslims we just spent the day with intend to expand that ground.
As I drive home in the dark, the strains of “Give Me Ya-Allah” keep running through my head, and as I pass Swedish-American Hospital, I flip on the radio to drown them out. The country twang of Alan Jackson fills the car:
. . . I know Jesus, and I talk to God,
and I remember this from when I was young.
Faith, hope, and love are some good things he gave us,
and the greatest is love.
And the greatest is love . . .
Warning against false prophets, who “come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves,” Christ told his followers that “by their fruits ye shall know them.” As I pull into my drive-way and Alan Jackson’s voice fades into the ether, I reflect that fruits are a reliable measure, not only of prophets, but of musicians and teachers as well.
This article first appeared in the April 2002 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.