Types of Muslim Schools in the United States

By Dr. Hassan Elannani

Modern Muslim Schools

With the first waves of Muslim immigration to the US in the1960s, there grew a need to provide Muslim children in public schools with an instruction in Islamic teachings after school hours and on weekends. However, these programs were deemed insufficient to impart a strong Islamic education and protect Muslim youth from negative influences. Hence Muslim communities across the country set out to establish full-time schools in the early 1980s to educate their children according to Islamic teachings and state academic requirements. The main reasons for setting up these schools were religious, academic, and cultural according to Omran (1997), Layman (1993), and Merry (2005). Parents’ negative views about public schools were an important factor behind the full-time school movement.

Islamic education represents the core aspect of the mission of Muslim schools. Secular subjects and citizenship activities assist in the assimilation of students into society and in adapting them to the American way of life without jeopardizing their Islamic beliefs and practices. However, Muslim schools are very diverse in terms of their ethnic backgrounds and the quality of their programs and facilities. Some schools are staffed by certified teachers and fully accredited while others are not.

In Layman (1993), the directory of the Islamic Society of North America listed 87 schools in 1992. This number rose to 219 in 2005 according to the Islamic Foundation of North America [IFNA]. In his survey of American mosques, Bagby (2012a) put the number at 138 full-time schools that were affiliated with mosques. The Private School Universe Survey undertaken by Broughman, Swaim, & Hryczaniuk (2011) identified 232 schools as Muslim while Keyworth (2008) provided a very close number of 235 schools. These statistics show a significant growth in the number of Muslim institutions over two decades, especially middle and high schools. Bagby’s estimate of 25,000 students in mosque-affiliated schools is not significantly different from NCES and Keyworth (2008) figures of 30,000 and 32,000 respectively. By taking into consideration the estimated Muslim population of seven million, the number of students in these schools represents only a tiny fraction compared to Muslim students in public schools.

The figures presented by IFNA and Islamic Schools League of America (2013) suggested that California, New York, Texas, and New Jersey were leading other states in the number of Muslim Schools. The numbers also suggested that more schools are located in the most populated states, and that states bordering the Atlantic seaboard have more schools than states alongside the Pacific.

Quranic Schools

The traditional Quranic schools, also referred to by Azmi (2001) as Madrasalike schools, are one of the most informal educational models available to Muslim children. Bagby (2012a) indicated that the rapid growth of such schools is directly linked to a large increase in the number of mosques where many of these schools are located. The author conducted observations in one Quranic school in the Midwest where fifty boys from different age groups were enrolled in a structured Quran memorization program under the supervision of two teachers. Students were required to learn Arabic letters and sounds before starting to read the Quran independently. After they complete the memorization of short chapters (Surahs) of the Quran, students are encouraged to commit two pages to memory every day. Review of previously memorized pages with the teachers or more advanced classmates is an important daily activity of all students. After the teacher conducts oral testing, the student then moves to next pages, until completion of the whole Quran and graduation with the most honored title of Hafiz. It generally takes 3 to 5 years of full-time memorization to become Hafiz.

In a typical traditional Quranic school, hours of operation extend from early morning to late afternoon with breaks for prayers, lunch, and recess. The school closes its doors on Fridays and Muslim holidays, and its daily schedule changes during the month of Ramadan to accommodate fasting students and teachers. Students in such a Quranic school wear traditional clothes and adhere to strict rules of conduct.

Modern Quranic schools, on the other hand, seek to attract teenage students who want to memorize the Quran while learning secular subjects, so that they can resume their formal education in Islamic or public schools after becoming Hafiz (Azmi, 2001). Some of these schools include residential facilities to accommodate students from distant locations. The author visited a modern Quranic school for boys in a Midwestern state, which was well equipped with classrooms, library, gym, and cafeteria. The students’ daily schedule included Quran memorization circles, lessons in mathematics and English, congregational prayers, and physical fitness.

Weekend Schools and After-School Programs

The Muslim weekend schools’ movement began in the 1960s and is considered as the precursor of full-time Muslim schools. The programs in a weekend school where the author was teaching constituted of Quran memorization and recitation, in addition to learning about Islam and Arabic language. Teachers were mainly volunteers who taught classes based on age groups or grade levels. Due to large numbers of students, lessons were offered in English on Sundays and in Arabic on Saturdays depending on the linguistic and ethnic backgrounds of students.

In his comprehensive study of US mosques, Bagby (2012a) found that weekend schools for children were the most frequent type of educational activity in mosques and that 76% of US mosques offered weekend schools for children. The average attendance at weekend schools was 107 children as compared to 50 a decade ago and the median attendance was 73 compared to 50 (Bagby, Perl, & Froehle, 2001). An overwhelming number of Muslim leaders felt that weekend school was the top priority for their mosques.

For some parents of Muslim students in public schools, weekend programs were not sufficient to provide extended opportunities to learn more about Quran and Arabic. Thus, some mosques established after school classes by salaried teachers to provide more instructional time in Islamic studies and Arabic. These programs have become popular in Muslim communities across the country because students can receive daily instruction in Arabic and Islam while benefitting at the same time from an academic education in public schools.

Online and Home Schools

A growing number of Muslim families administer their own home-schooling programs in order to impart Islamic knowledge with some emphasis on practical application at home (Kuttler, 2001). These programs usually include academic and Islamic subjects. Some families that cannot offer religion classes at home seek weekend or after-school programs that supplement with Quran, Arabic, and Islamic studies (Bagby, 2012a). With the availability and affordability of internet and information technology, more Muslim families have combined home schooling with online education to provide their children with wider access to educational resources such as online courses, podcasts, webinars, and digital workshops on Islamic studies in addition to secular subjects needed to fulfill state requirements.

Moes (n.d.) noted that state compulsory attendance laws could hinder the right of Muslim parents to educate their children at home even if some Fourteenth Amendment rights are at stake. The U.S. district court ruled in Null v. Board of Education of County of Jackson that parents’ rights to maintain home schooling are subject to reasonable state regulations when no fundamental rights are involved. Some states require parents to submit records of parents’ academic qualifications, students’ attendance and grades, and proof of standardized testing in order to issue certificates of completion or graduation. Few states provide homeschooling families with personal computers, access to online curricular materials, and annual assessments. No one can determine how many Muslim homeschools exist, but the number of US homeschoolers is growing rapidly, along with their support networks such as faith-oriented curricula and conferences (Jackson, 2012). According to Ray (2011), there were an estimated two million American home-educated students in grades K to 12th grade during 2010.


This article is an excerpt from a review study titled “Educational Choices of Muslim Students in the United States”, which examined the various schooling choices (religious and secular) available to American Muslim children.