Muslim Students' Needs in
Can public schools accommodate the
religious needs of students?
Update on law-Related Education, 22.1, 1998
pp. 17-21 c 1998 American Bar Association.
There are now millions of American Muslims.
Within the next 20 years, Islam will become the second largest religion, after Christianity in the United States. Worldwide, there are over one billion Muslims. Many American educators are finding it necessary to overcome the common lack of familiarity with Islam as growing Muslim communities across the nation express their needs and make their contributions in the public school environment.
Islam in America
There are records of Muslims in America as early as the 18th century, and there is evidence that settlers from Spain may have included persons of Muslim heritage before that. Archival materials indicate that many slaves brought to Americas were Muslims. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, significant numbers of Muslims began to migrate to the United States from the Middle East, despite restrictive and discriminatory immigration laws. From the middle of the 20th century on, Muslim immigrants arrived from other Muslim regions, such as South Asia, Africa, and Arab countries. Today, by some estimates, 14 percent of all immigrants entering the United States are Muslims.
According to the American Muslim Council in Washington, D.C., as many as 40 percent of the Muslims in the United States are African Americans whose families converted to Islam in the 20th century. This growing Muslim community is adapting to and flourishing in the American environment. Its vitality can be seen in more than 1500 mosques and Islamic centers across the country. American Muslims face a variety of challenges as they practice their faith in this pluralistic society, and they are meeting these challenges by becoming more organized and visible. Highly supportive of education and cooperation between parents and the schools, local and national Muslim organizations nevertheless have important issues to address regarding their communities' effective participation in public schools. Among these organizations is the Council on Islamic Education, a national, scholar based resource organization that provides information to teachers, education officials, and textbook publishers.
Islamic Beliefs and Practices
Islam means "peace through submission to God," and a Muslim is "one who submits to the will of God." Muslims recognize a continuous line of prophets and revelations, beginning with Adam and extending through Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, ending with Muhammad as the last prophet, who completed God's message to mankind. The Qur'an is the sacred scripture of Islam, which Muslims hold to be the literal word of God revealed to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel. Muhammad's role, in addition to being the vessel of revelation, is viewed as providing a model behavior in accord with the guidance given in the Qur'an. Thus, the two sources of the principles and practices that make up a Muslim way of life are the Qur'an and Muhammad's example of precedent, recorded in various authentic sources. Interpretation and application of these two sources constitute the evolving body of Islamic law.
This includes guidelines affecting prescribed modes of worship, family, social and financial relations, diet and dress, among others. The basic practices of Muslims are identified as the "Five Pillars," acts of worship with broad implications for individual and communal life:
1. Acceptance and repetition of the creed:
"There is no god but God, and Muhammad
is the prophet of God." This confession of
faith and its repetition constitute the first
step in being a Muslim. The concept of unity
stated in the creed is central to the Islamic
model for spiritual and social life.
2. Prayer: Every pious Muslim sets aside time
each day for five acts of devotion and prayer
at dawn, at midday, at mid afternoon, at
sunset, and after nightfall Friday is the special
day of community prayer. The faithful assemble
in the masjid (mosque) for prayers.
3. Almsgiving: Muslims who have the means to
do so are required to give to those who are
less fortunate. Almsgiving is considered an act
of worship both for offering thanks to God for
material well being and as purification of wealth.
4. Fasting during the sacred month of Ramadan:
During Ramadan, all healthy Muslims are
required to abstain from food, drink, and
conjugal relations from dawn to sunset. The
first day of the next month is Eid Al-Fitr, the
Festival of Ending the Fast." This festival is
5. Pilgrimage: Every Muslim hopes to be able to
make the Hajj (pilgrimage) to the holy city of
Makkah, in Saudi Arabia, at least once in a
lifetime. Pilgrimage takes place during Dhu
al-Hijjah, the twelfth month of the lunar Islamic
calendar. The pilgrimage rites commemorate the
Abrahamic heritage of Ka'bah and other sites.
The Ka'bah is the focal point of Muslims' daily
prayer and a symbol of unity and continuity
of faith. On the tenth of Dhu al-Hijjah, Muslims
celebrate Eid al-Adha, the Festival of the Sacrifice.
Muslims around the world observe this holiday
simultaneously with the pilgrims at Makkah.
Among the practices required by Islamic law that distinguish Muslims wherever they live are teachings concerning modest dress for Muslim men and women in public, as well as required decorum concerning mixing together of the two sexes and standards of personal hygiene. The Muslim diet excludes alcohol and pork products in any form and requires certain procedures in the slaughter of animals.
Students' Religious Needs
and the First Amendment
The Council on Islamic Education (CIE) and other organizations have identified the basic needs and requirements of Muslim students in public schools, as they seek to uphold their faith. They also raise vital church-state issues public schools are now struggling to resolve. These organizations appeal to religious freedom. In the American context, of course, this is a reference to the free exercise clause of the first Amendment. Local and national organizations have urged public schools to make accommodations for Muslim students so that they may practice their faith. These accommodations, already implemented to some degree in many states, help practicing Muslims attending public schools meet very real religious needs. However, some schools as state sponsored institutions, may find some of the identified accommodations difficult to make. At issue is a question that runs through public education history: To what extent may the state accommodate the needs and requirements of religious communities represented in schools? Or, in a broader context, when does the establishment clause of the First Amendment prohibit the state from accommodating free exercise claims of religious groups? The requirements of religious belief protected under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment can come into tension with the establishment clause when the practice of one's belief is conducted in a state institution such as a public school. The requirement not to hinder belief must be balanced by a sensitivity not to provide inadvertent state support for a particular belief. Some Americans argue that state support is valid if it is non preferential, while others argue that no state support is allowable. Many accommodations may be easily made by sensitive and thoughtful public school administrators without raising constitutional questions. Muslim students should be able to wear modest clothing or refrain from attending social activities without violating school policies, for example. Students in most public schools are routinely allowed excused absences for religious holidays. Such a policy is generally considered a reasonable accommodation to the religious needs of a religiously diverse school population. Accordingly, several state and local districts with large Muslim populations have placed Muslim holidays alongside other religious holidays on the school calendars for teachers' information and planning.
Many schools have excusal policies that allow students to opt out of limited portions of the curriculum that offend their religious beliefs. If focused on a specific discussion, assignment, or activity, such requests should be routinely granted in order to strike a balance between students' religious freedom and the school's interest in providing a well rounded education. The easiest requests to grant are accommodations focused on activities connected with such holidays as Halloween or Valentine's Day. If opt out requests cover significant academic portions of the curriculum, however, schools may be unable to excuse students on educational grounds. Physical education presents a number of difficulties, especially in school districts that require coeducational P.E. classes. Here the public school's interest in developing a particular physical education curriculum may come into conflict with religious practices of Muslims and others.
More difficult still is the question of whether the state should construct separate, private showers or provide enclosed toilets. Since such accommodations would involve spending tax money to meet the needs of a particular religious group, some will argue that the public schools are prohibited by the establishment clause from making these changes. Others might appeal to the free exercise clause, claiming that by not providing these facilities the state is forcing Muslims to choose between public education and obedience to the strictures of their faith. Here again, a third position might be that the schools are not required to provide such facilities but may do so without "establishing" religion, especially if schools provide a secular reason for doing so that benefits many students, such as recognizing the possible benefit of a privacy option for any student who so chooses. For schools with large Muslim populations, this last position may prove the only practical alternative.
Religious dietary restrictions have led to requests concerning the labeling and preparation of feed. Meeting these requests may raise First Amendment as well as practical questions for some school officials. Schools, especially those with few Muslim students may resist investing the time and money required to make these accommodations. And it is unlikely that the courts will compel school cafeterias to take into account the religious requirements of all students. Nevertheless, some schools do label food and provide a variety of selections in an effort to accommodate the health, dietary, and in some cases, religious needs of their students.
Two accommodations concern the obligation to pray. Excusal for Friday prayer off campus may present some practical problems for class scheduling, but there should be no legal barrier if it is construed as a "released time" program. In Zorach v. Clausen (1952), the Supreme Court ruled that schools may release students during school hours to participate in off campus religious programs. Schools may find it more difficult to excuse students for 15 minutes of afternoon prayer in a designated area. Since the time for prayer is somewhat flexible (mid afternoon), schools may expect students to find time in their schedule to pray without interrupting class time (this may be possible only at the high school level).
Public schools will certainly be challenged on constitutional grounds is a particular area of the school is designated as a place for prayer. The most an administrator may be able to do is to indicate what rooms. If any, are available to students for study or other activities between classes.
As reflection shows, questions involving religious needs are challenging but not insurmountable, especially if practical and constitutional solutions are sought in light of the promise of American pluralism and the principles that lie behind the American system of religious liberty.
Muslim Students' Religious
Those who practice the faith of Islam are known as Muslims, literally "those who submit" to God. The spelling Muslim is considered more accurate than Moslem, and the term is preferable to Islamic when referring to people. The terms Muhammadanism and Muhammadan are inappropriate as references to the faith and its adherents, respectively. The adjective Islamic should be used only for what pertains to the religion itself (Islamic beliefs, Islamic law, etc.), while Muslim should be used to denote the works and acts of Muslims or groups of people and their institutions (such as Muslim women or men, Muslim population, Muslim countries or civilization, Muslim art, etc.).
Fulfilling Religious Obligations
Muslims become thoroughly accountable for fulfilling religious obligations upon reaching puberty, although many Muslim children learn and perform various duties at an earlier age. Muslim students in public schools may express a desire to adhere to certain religious needs outlined here can be met through the individual initiative of students and/or their parents in which the main accommodation by the school lies in creating a supportive atmosphere of tolerance and respect for freedom of individual choice. Over the past 10 years, many schools and school systems have found practical and mutually acceptable solutions to meeting the needs outlined below.
Daily Worship (Salah)
Muslims engage in formal worship or prayer (salah in Arabic) five times daily. Depending upon seasonal time changes and school schedules, one or two of the worship times (midday and afternoon) may fall during typical school hours, and thus some suitable arrangement should be made for students who wish to fulfill this obligation. Teachers should provide Muslim students who are conscientious about observing their prayers with an unused area for a few minutes during lunchtime or afternoon break for this purpose.
Suggestions: Allow students to conduct their daily prayers in an empty room on campus during lunchtime and/or breaks.
Friday Congregational Worship (Jumah)
For Muslims, Friday is a day of congregational worship.
The Friday prayer takes the place of the midday worship performed on other days and occurs close to most students lunch hour. The sermon and worship typically requires 30-45 minutes to complete. Some Muslim students may wish to make arrangements to leave campus temporarily to attend congregational prayers at a local masjid (mosque), while others may ask to use an empty classroom to conduct the worship service themselves.
Suggestions: Allow students to perform the Friday worship in an empty room on campus during lunchtime. Allow students to be excused for the time required to attend a local masjid and to make up any missed work.
The Qur'an specifies which foods are lawful and unlawful for Muslims to eat. Islam prescribes a particular method for slaughtering lawful animals. The meat of lawful animals, such as cows, goats, and chickens, among others that are slaughtered in this prescribed manner is commonly designated halal, or lawful. Seafood is commonly designated halal, or lawful. Seafood is exempt from rules for slaughter.
The Qur'an states that the food of Jews and Christians is lawful for Muslims, provided that certain conditions of method, cleanliness, and purity have been fulfilled. Some Muslims eat meat of lawful animals available commercially in American society, while others, believing the above mentioned conditions have not been met, eat only meat from animals that have been slaughtered in the prescribed way by a Muslim butcher. The meat of swine is prohibited in Islam. Muslims do not eat pork or foodstuffs made with pork derivatives such as gelatin, lard, and certain enzymes. Examples of such foods include pepperoni pizza, pork hot dogs, and certain brands of refried beans, tortillas, gelatin desserts, candy and marshmallows, unless these contain kosher gelatin. Consumption of alcoholic beverages is prohibited in Islam. Muslims avoid foodstuffs prepared with alcohol as well.
Suggestions: Muslim students can be asked to bring halal meat dishes for parties, picnics, and potlucks. Vegetarian alternatives can be provided for Muslim students who only eat meat available directly from Muslim sources. Baked goods made with vegetable shortening should be requested for such events in order to avoid products or foods containing lard or animal shortening. Teachers should be made aware of gelatin as a source of pork derivatives when they provide treats.
During the Islamic month of Ramadan (a lunar month of 29 or 30 days), Muslims abstain from all food and drink from dawn to sunset. This religious duty is known as sawm in Arabic. Many Muslim students observe the fast. Consequently, they will be unable to participate in meals or refreshments during the daylight hours. In addition, they will not be able to engage in heavy physical exertion often required in physical education classes during this time.
Suggestions: If students eat lunch in a common cafeteria, Muslim students should be allowed to spend lunchtime during Ramadan fasting in an alternative location, such as a study hall or library. Physical education teachers should provide alternatives to rigorous physical exercise during Ramadan.
Mixing of the Sexes
As a general principle, Muslim men and women minimize casual mixing of the sexes in society, emphasizing strong adherence to the marital bond. Dating, mixed sex dancing, or any form of premarital intimacy are not allowed in Islam. Consequently, conscientious Muslim students are likely not to participate in proms and dances or similar events. In terms of mixing in physical education classes, segregated sports and activities are preferred by Muslim parents. This is especially true for swimming classes.
Suggestions: Well meaning school personnel should avoid putting unnecessary stress on youngsters by encouraging them to participate in what they consider "normal" socializing activities such as dances or giving the impression that a student who is not involved in these activities is antisocial or socially immature and need to be coerced into participation.
Modesty and Muslim Modes of Dress
Islam places great emphasis on modesty in dress and behavior for both sexes. Men and women are expected to dress in clothing that does not reveal the features of the body. As part of their Islamic dress, many Muslim women and girls wear what is termed hijab, commonly used in reference to a scarf or head covering, but more broadly meaning appropriate covering of the entire body except for hands and face. Physical education classes can pose certain problems for Muslim children, since such courses typically require students to wear shorts and tank tops. Such attire is not permissible for Muslim women and girls, and men and boys must wear shorts that reach at least to the knees.
Muslims of both sexes are required to be modest even in front of persons of the same sex. Therefore, situations requiring nudity in front of others, such as using the toilet and taking showers in an open area devoid of partitions or curtains, present serious problems for a Muslim child.
Suggestions: During P.E. activities allow female Muslim students to wear long sleeved T-shirts and sweat pants, instead of tank tops and shorts, and male students to wear long shorts. Also, Muslim girls who observe hijab must be allowed to wear appropriate modest attire and head covering in mixed classes. Moreover, swim wear that covers more of the body than most swimsuits should be allowed for Muslim students.
Muslims observe two major religious holidays during the year. Eid al-Fitr (Festival of Ending the Fast) is the celebration that occurs after Ramadan, while Eid al-Adha (Festival of the Sacrifice) is the celebration that coincides with the end of Hajj. On the day of Eid, a worship service is held in the morning at a local masjid or designated site. Afterwards, Muslims visit each other's homes to celebrated, share meals and exchange gifts. These Muslim holidays are of similar importance and significance to Muslims as are Christmas and Easter to the Christians and Hanukkah and Passover to Jews. Eid celebrations (like other important dates in Islam) occur within the Islamic lunar calendar and thus take place roughly eleven days earlier each year in relation to the standard Gregorian calendar. Schools can consult a local masjid for information on the Eid dates each year.
Suggestions: Muslim students should be given excused absences to participate in the two major religious holidays in Islam. School officials and teachers are requested not to schedule standardized testing or exams on these holidays and to allow for makeup time on important assignments so that Muslim students can avoid any adverse effects upon their academic efforts.
From Teaching About Islam and Muslims in the Public School Classroom: A Handbook for Educators, 1995
Council on Islamic Education
Teaching About Religions
Instructional materials and classroom activities should adhere to the civic framework and approaches to teaching about religion. As it is very common for such materials to contain major errors and misconceptions that contradict the guidelines for accurate and authentic portrayal of Islam, Muslim students should be allowed the opportunity to prepare research reports and state their opinions regarding errors they have identified in mandated material. (These guidelines are described in detail in Chapter 7, Haynes and Thomas, eds., Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Education. The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, 1994.)
Some aspects of Western culture are viewed with reticence by Muslims, as they differ from Islamic values and principles. For example, much of Western art focuses on the human form, and nudes are a prominent component of paintings. The concept of modesty in Islam makes viewing such works a strange exercise for some Muslims, though doing so may seem quite ordinary for others. Moreover, the emphasis on the human form appears to reflect human centered view of the world rather than the God centered one found in Islam and to contradict the injunctions against representative art to which many Muslims adhere.
After the age of puberty, classes necessitating mixed dancing are not appropriate for Muslim students, whether cultural or other types of dances are involved. There are varying viewe among Muslims about single sex folk or cultural dancing for older children. Some Muslims also disapprove of music. It is desirable to give Muslim students the opportunity to opt out or participate in an alternative activity if they so choose.
Drama classes or exercises involving performance of scenes from the Nativity or acting as deities, gods, or goddesses of mythology may be objectionable to Muslims. Other dramatic roles and classroom role are generally acceptable, as long as the concerns regarding modest dress, mixing of the sexes, and physical contact are taken into consideration.
Regarding school outings, Muslim parents may not allow participation in overnight mixed sex outings, though some would permit single sex of similar nature. Day long field trips typically meet with approval. Organizers of such events should keep in mind the needs of Muslim students, such as allowing time for worship during breaks (Islamic worship accommodates travel with increases flexibility), allowing them to gracefully opt out of communal experiences involving prohibited foods, the need for privacy in showers and bathrooms, and appropriate forms of interaction between boys and girls.
Council on Islamic Education [CIE]
American Bar Association [ABA]
United States - Constitution - Amendments
American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU]
Council on American-Islamic Relations [CAIR]
Letter of Religious Expression to all Public Schools