- Topics & Settings
- Browse Sites
Religious Education and Authority
Religious education is deeply valued at the masjid both for its own sake and as the path to religious authority. People told me how important it was to learn more about the Qur’an, the hadith, Islamic morals and other parts of religion, as well as to learn Arabic, the holy language of the Qur’an and hadith, to facilitate these other kinds of learning. The masjid offers formal classes on two levels of Arabic, the Qur’an, the hadith, and how Muslims should conduct their daily lives. Much of the masjid’s physical space is given over to classrooms, and every day of the week, classes are held there. Saturdays and Sundays are days for dugsi, Qur’an school, which includes classes in Qur’an memorization and recitation, and classes in which students learn more about specific suras (or verses).
Most people were working on memorizing the Qur’an, and many thought that everyone should do so. Even children, people told me, had memorized it, so what was to prevent a teenager or an adult from doing so? Bashir, a young man at the mosque, explained how he had memorized the whole Qur’an between the ages of 5 and 12, but had since forgotten some of it:
I finished it when I was 12 years old…I memorized it. This whole book. And if you [had asked me], “What is this aya [verse]?”, I could read it, not looking at the book. And then you come here to America and you work every day and you are busy, and you forget…So that’s another problem.
But, Bashir noted, memorization is the easy part. Understanding the meaning of the Qur’an is both harder and more important, especially when faced with others who use Islam wrongly:
To memorize this book, it’s easy…We tell students and other people, and I tell myself, to learn what’s the meaning of it. I have to use these verses in the right way. Some people are taking the Qur’an out of context and using it against [Islam]…Learning the context and the meaning is more important than memorizing…I don’t know the meaning of the whole Qur’an. But…I always learn it now, all the verses…You have to get context from the Qur’an, or the hadith. You have to learn both of them.
On one Saturday morning in May 2014, during the Qur’an-memorization section of dugsi, the women’s prayer room was filled with a soft buzz as people recited Qur’an to themselves. A group of women sat on the floor in a corner, facing all different directions, each softly reciting Qur’an. Young men and young women sat in two separate groups of folding chairs, staring off into space or at the ceiling as they practiced reciting. Teachers sat at a table in front of the youth, and from time to time someone would finish memorizing a section and go up to recite to the teachers. Sagal, a high-school girl, explained:
The kitab [Qur’an] has everything, nice and neat, and it’s easy to memorize, because a child can memorize it. Qur’an is the most basic. Even the little kids, like three, four years old, they can memorize the whole entire Qur’an. And later, if you memorize it, it will be easier for you to know the meaning of it. That’s the class I take in the morning [on weekends], unless I have my period and then I can’t touch the Qur’an.
Another reason to value memorizing the Qur’an, Sagal pointed out, was that if people have it memorized, it can never be lost. She said:
I don’t think the Qur’an would be lost somehow, but if it were, people have it memorized, so it wouldn’t be lost. Christians are different…They might have some, but not the whole thing…[while] everything in Islam, there’s someone who knows it, someone you can go to and ask.
On Friday evenings, a program aimed at youth teaches about the hadith, Qur’an, and sunna, or the right Muslim ways to live. On an evening in May 2014, the theme of the program was from one of the hadith: la tahzan, or “don’t be sad.” A teacher told the students that “a true Muslim can never be depressed,” because Allah is always there to help him or her. He told them, “you may die any day—live for today. Pray, recite the Qur’an, and remember Allah. Live at peace, and be content with your life.” Classes are conducted in a mixture of Somali and Arabic, and sometimes also in English.
Religious education confers the authority to teach, and for men the ability to become an imam. It takes a lot of education to become an imam or a teacher. Sagal told me that a teacher, or maalim, should have memorized the Qur’an and know something about the hadith, and preferably have studied at an Islamic university. Imams and sheikhs at a masjid then test the teacher before he or she can teach.
An imam at the masjid said that he had pursued Islamic education because he felt it was his religious obligation:
Since I was born naturally as a Muslim, I have to learn my religion, and that’s why I became an imam…It’s obligatory to learn what’s your religion…[To] become educated in Islam, you have to go to a lot of education…you have to learn the din, the roots of the din, and…spread the din. …Also to teach others, like our children…how to respect their teachers when they go to school, how to respect their neighbors, and how to become a good person in life.
Most of the masjid’s teachers are older men, deeply respected and referred to as sheikhs. Women, as well as men, can gain the authority to teach at the masjid through education, although only one woman currently does so. One unmarried young women spoke of motherhood as an alternative to formally becoming a teacher at the masjid:
I want to learn more about Islam…so I can teach…my kids, teach them the Qur’an and the way it is, and teach other children...If your parents are Muslim…[they teach you about] what’s right and what’s wrong.
To learn more about the Qur’an, please see Qur’an memorization and recitation.