What Role Do Religious Institutions Play in Education?

world religions - major religions group

Sabith Khan PhD and Shariq Siddiqui PhD, JD discuss religious schools and the role they play in the US.  

Education is a multifaceted topic that involves the government, private sector as well as nonprofits. We contend that the freedoms guaranteed by the constitution should be used by all groups, and it seems like religious schools in the US are doing so, adopting the nonprofit form in many ways. When it comes to religious institution building in the US, there has been a focus on how these institutions create silos, in which students are unable to interact with those who don’t belong to their religious groups. The argument that they isolate these minority communities is valid, though to a small degree and varies from one group to another. We have found that on the contrary, religious institutions among Muslims integrate them in a more robust manner and there is empirical evidence that involvement in religious institutions among Muslims leads to greater civic engagement. The goal of public schools is to integrate all Americans and they do an excellent job, in that regard. However, some religious institutions aim to preserve and protect certain religious ideals and values. Islamic Centers and Islamic schools, Sunday schools and full time Catholic and Jewish schools are examples of such institutions.

While madrasas (Islamic seminaries) have received a lot of attention from academics around the world, including the recent book Islam is a Foreign Country by Zareena Grewal, which examines how American youth travel the world to study Islam and how the flow of ideas through mosques, seminaries form part of a global discursive tradition of learning. However, the role of Islamic fulltime schools in the US (fulltime K-12 schools) that offer secular education has not been explored in much depth. One of the most counter-intuitive findings is that Islamic schools have been instrumental in helping their students develop a greater sense of civic awareness and hence, becoming better Americans. Also, the manner in which these schools have evolved as institutions says much about how Muslim American communities have adopted the nonprofit form in the US, as a form of legitimizing their missions and also gaining credibility, both within and outside of the communities in which they exist. Previous studies have looked at the curriculum and identity aspects, but there hasn’t been a project that has looked comprehensively at the role of philanthropy, leadership and public policy towards these schools.

What is surprising is that most Islamic schools resemble other religious schools. This means that like the Catholic of Jewish schools, in their emphasis on religious education (ranging from as little as 10% to 25% of the curriculum) while the rest being devoted to other subjects. Our research in the survey and interviews that followed also demonstrates that Muslim American institutions are evolving in ‘relation’ to other institutions – borrowing from the best practices and norms of other mainstream institutions. While there is direct collaboration in many cases, when it comes to issues of interfaith dialogue etc., in other cases, the influence of other ‘mainstream’ or secular institutions is subtler. For instance, all Muslim American institutions have adopted the nonprofit form, which allows them to benefit from the system through deductibility on income tax filing. Philanthropy plays a key role, only at the founding stage of the schools. While it is true that philanthropy plays a key role in founding of most of the Islamic schools, we have seen that in the long run, the role of philanthropy diminishes – often with other sources of revenue playing a bigger role. For instance, revenue from fees takes an upper hand and this is true in most cases.

Also, these schools have produced many of the leaders in the community. How can we claim that Islamic schools help produce community leaders? One simple way is to look at the number of community leaders, who are products of Islamic schools.  Islamic schools have produced a bulk of the civic leaders in the Muslim American community. This should not come as a surprise, given that Muslim institutions in the US in general, encourage their members to be active members of the local and national (and international) civil society. This messaging is reinforced through service learning activities, interaction with local communities and education boards etc. Prof. Amaney Jamal’s work is helpful in this regard. She has shown that participation in Mosque activities etc. is directly correlated with greater political and civic engagement. This also ties in with work by Prof. Robert Wuthnow, Prof. Robert Putnam who have shown that social capital among those who participate in religious institutions is often higher than those who don’t. Here are two salient aspects that are worthy of attention, given the debates around private education in the US.

As other scholars have pointed out, Islamic schools foster the values that are at the root of any educational endeavor: teaching children critical thinking, discipline and also fostering character development.

While the discourses around Islamic education and Islam in the recent past have almost always involved national security issues, we contend that there is a need to move away from this narrow focus. While Islamic institutions in the US engage in debating, discussing and also participating in global civil society, through direct participation – as part of the Muslim diaspora – most of Muslim Americans are ‘Middle class’ and ‘mainstream’ as a recent Pew Research study pointed out.  What this translates into is also an education system that promotes inclusion, tolerance and mainstreaming of voices.


Sabith Khan, California Lutheran University, US and Shariq Siddiqui, Muslim Philanthropy Initiative, Indiana University–Purdue University, Indianapolis, US


Pre-order Islamic Education in the United States and the Evolution of Muslim Nonprofit Institutions now.

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