Islamic School       

   CITY OF KNOWLEDGE ISLAMIC SCHOOL: POMONA

John Adams

In Pomona, 35 miles east of Los Angeles, California, there is an Islamic school called the City of Knowledge School. The school was founded in 1994 by “a group of Muslim parents who wanted their children to receive not only a sound academic education, but also proper grounding in the precepts of the Muslim religion.” [1] Dr. Haleema Shaikley, the principal and one of its founders of the school, elaborated upon the reasons for the founding of the school: “the [public] schools did not provide a good understanding of Islamic culture or what the students could learn about their heritage.” [2] The school is accredited for pre-school through 12th grade in the state of California, and collectively the one hundred and seventy students and twenty-four faculty represent twenty-seven different nationalities. [3]

It is clear that the school has as its major purpose the enculturation of the students into (a particular construal of) Muslim culture, situated in the United States. It seeks to accomplish this goal through the teaching of texts, especially the texts called “scriptures.”  For this group that understands itself as minority group within U.S. culture the engagement of  “scriptures” is understood to be necessary in order to facilitate a process of identity de-formation, formation and re-form(ul)ation. [4]   Instead of being assimilated into dominant culture, with its “scriptures” as centering texts, the minority group may turns to its own different “scriptures” text in order to create a new center around which identity is maintained.  In the case of the City of Knowledge School, the challenge of identity maintenance has to face the enormous threat that living in the midst of the world’s dominant power represents. It is an experience that “forges as well as forces a new Muslim identity born out of both the quest to belong and the experience of being permanently ‘other’.” [5]   According to principal Shaikley the biggest ongoing challenge for her and the teaching staff  has to do with the negotiation of the different competing cultural backgrounds, orientations and impulses:

    [We are] trying to create a new culture. The children bring their own cultural background . . . and then there is their Islamic culture and…American culture. We tell the children that this is their jihad: trying to live Islam within these three cultures together to form a new culture which incorporates the best of each culture. [6]

The term jihad simply means “struggle.” The struggle the children face is the creation of identity, a new Muslim identity in the United States. A recent study of Muslims in Los Angeles reports that the prevailing attitude, immigrant and indigenous, towards U.S. culture is one of ambivalence. [7] Fifty-one percent of immigrant Muslims and forty-nine percent of indigenous Muslims surveyed stated that “the popular culture and values of the United States have caused” them to be more religious. [8] To the statement, “The educational system in the United States offers, at the level of high school and junior high school, a fair and unprejudiced view of Islam,” 47% disagreed, 22% somewhat agreed and only 11% agreed. [9] Muslims across the Los Angeles area do not trust  U.S. culture and society and respond by establishing institutions such as The City of Knowledge School. The mission statement of the City of Knowledge school emphasizes the de-formation or flight of the community away from the public schools and the formation or settlement in a new site of learning as the school works “to create an environment in which the intellectual and spiritual principles of human beings blossom.” [10]

Scripturalizing Practices and Textual Spaces  

The central text in the school’s educational process is the Qur’an. The foundation for its centrality is established as early as kindergarten, which focuses on reading and writing both English and Arabic. [11] The teaching of Arabic to all students irrespective of ethnic background is done “so that [the students] can read and understand the Qur’an.” [12] From the earliest age students learn Arabic, the language of a set of texts that is an-other set of  “scriptures,” a centering text of cultural formation in the context of still dominant Christian culture with its “scriptures.” For the immigrant families, the Qur’an holds the central position in the field of texts as traditioned by cultures dominated by Islam. According to Islamic tradition families should instruct their children to read and understand the Qur’an in Arabic. [13] They also are challenged to place emphasis upon the authority of the Shi’ite imams, beginning with Imam ‘Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet. [14] Dr. Shaikley does not agree with labeling of her school as Shi’ite, and argues that “Sunni” and “Shi’ite” have been used to divide Muslims politically. The City of Knowledge School intends to be inclusive of all Muslim traditions. [15] The school’s religious practices, however, demonstrate that Shi’ite religious views are the overriding force in the educational process. [16]  

In the higher grades of 9th through 12th students participate in an ethics class where Qur’an and the writings of the Shi’ite Imams are studied for learning Islamic values and moral instruction. [17] The curriculum was designed by the ethics teacher, Sister Shahrastani, principal Shaikley, and by other local Islamic leaders. Sister Shahrastani identifies her instruction and the tradition of the school with the Ja‘fari School, a Shi’ite school of law. [18] Imam Qazwini, the Imam of the City of Knowledge School, is an Iraqi Shi’ite cleric from the Ja‘fari tradition. So it seems to reasonable to conclude that his affiliation and orientation is one of the primary reasons for the choices made regarding curricular texts. [19]

In the 9th grade classes Sister Shahrastani uses two books: the first is called Simplified Islamic Laws for Youth and Young Adults: According to the Fatwa of Hadrat Ayatullah Al-Uzma As-Sayyid Al-Hajj Ali Al-Husaini as-Seestani (1999). [20] Ayotolla Seestani is their current marja’taqlid or religious authority on Islamic law. The marja’taqlid of Shi’ite tradition claims authority as the transmitter and codifier of the traditions of the Imams who are the ultimate interpreters of Qur’an. [21] Shi’ite tradition requires believers to perform taqlid or ‘emulation’ of the fatwa or ‘rulings’ of a marja’taqlid. The believer should follow or emulate the precepts of an authoritative interpreter of Islamic law. The work by Ayotolla Seestani covers a variety of subjects from prayers, fasting and marriage to handling a corpse and touching the script of the Qur’an. [22] The text explains each practice in an instructional manner rather than through exegesis. The second text used, A Divine Perspective on Rights by Imam Sajjad, Ali ibn al-Hussein (b. 660 – d. 711 C.E.) the fourth Imam of Shi’ite tradition, is not a textbook, but a type of primer on the traditions of interpretation. [23] In this text the layers of interpretation are presented on each page. On the practice of fasting, Imam Sajjad quotes a passage of Qur’an on which he then comments to state his primary point. He describes the primary purpose of the practice of fasting as the encouragement of self-restraint. [24] Ghodratullah Mashayeckhi, the commentator, then exegetes the commentary of the great Imam often using more Qur’anic verses, the words of other Imams and other historical sources. Mashayeckhi quotes Arabic versions of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament to provide a perspective on the deviations and similarities of fasting as a practice in Judaism, Islam and Christianity. [25] The student is taught not only to emulate the practice but also to use a form of textual logic. Qur’anic injunctions bring clarity to earlier views of fasting in other scriptural traditions and thus critique the narrowness of other scriptures.

In the 10th through 12th grades, Sister Shahrastani focuses on the works of Imam ‘Ali in the highly influential Nahjul Balagha, which she describes as having “a higher level of thinking.” [26] Imam ‘Ali lived during the 7th century and is believed by many Shi’ite Muslims to be the ultimate interpreter of Qur’an. [27] The publication provides the Arabic text on the right and an English translation on the facing page with no modern commentary. Instead, only the words of Imam Ali are read in order to comprehend the practices of Shi’ite piety which are to be emulated. [28] The student engages the words of Imam ‘Ali and absorbs views on practices that are foundational to a Shi’ite identity.

Scriptures and the Reform(ul)ation of Identity

The center position of the Qur’an in the City of Knowledge School emerges or more precisely reemerges from a curriculum which points to the Qur’an, beginning with learning the original language of the text. The student is progressively exposed to more complex interpretations of Qur’an through the traditions of the Shi’ite Imams. The ninth grade first engages the interpretations and emulates the rulings of their marja-taqlid, which is required in Shi’ite tradition. The student then engages A Divine Perspective on Rights, which recovers both a view of the Qur’an as the ultimate textual authority and guidelines on proper Shi’ite behavior. The highest grades engage the ancient and formative voice of the Prophet’s son-in-law Imam ‘Ali for the foundations of the Shi’ite tradition. Maturity in the community is measured in part by the ability of the student to engage the near-center authority of the Imams of Shi’ite tradition.

This Muslim community as school has taken flight (de-formation) from the public school system of the larger culture and initiated settlement (formation) in their own site of enunciation around their imported scriptures. The proposed alternate identity, to be Muslim (in the U.S.), is part of the process of re-form(ul)ation. The practices and orientations of reform(ul)ation in the context of the U.S. remain complicated and complicating. The evolution of Islamic jurisprudence causes some fluctuation among the marja-taqlid, but assertions of infallibility and the principle of emulation set authoritative limits on any kind of innovation. The school’s scripturalizing practices socialize the students in appropriate Shi’ite behaviors and set limits on the application of Qur’an through the near-center-texts of the Shi’ite Imams. In the situation in which Muslims although rapidly growing are yet religious and cultural minorities, the Qur’an re-emerges as the center-forming text with and through the writings and interpretations of the Imams, which occupy a liminal space as near-center-texts and endow the Qur’an with identity-forming power through increasing citation, reference and deferring of authority to the Qur’an.

[1] City of Knowledge School, “About Us”; http//www.cityofknowledge.com; accessed November 1, 2003.
[2] Principal Haleema Shaikley of the City of Knowledge School, interview by investigator, October 22, 2003, transcript from notes, City of Knowledge School, Pomona, CA. Relevant portions of interviews can be found in the appendix to this paper.
[3] Principal Haleema Shaikley of the City of Knowledge School, interview by investigator, October 22, 2003, transcript from notes, City of Knowledge School, Pomona, CA.
[4]  Vincent L. Wimbush, “Reading Darkness, Reading Scriptures,”, 23-26. Wimbush describes three movements in a cycle of identity formation beginning with de-formation as the flight or escape from a system or situation of being dominated. The second is the formation or the settlement of a new site for articulating identity. Third is re-form(ul)ation or the work of self-naming, self-making, and re-formation within the group and negotiation with the outside world.
[5] Yvonne Haddad, “The Dynamics of Muslim Identity,” in Muslims in the Americanization Path. (editors Yvonne Haddad and John L. Esposito; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 29.
[6] Principal Haleema Shaikley of the City of Knowledge School, interview by investigator, October 22, 2003, transcript from notes, City of Knowledge School, Pomona, CA.
[7] GhaneaBassari, Competing Visions of Islam in the United States: A Study of Los Angeles. (Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1997), 43-45.
[8] GhaneaBassari, 46.
[9] GhaneaBassari, 71-72. In addition to these findings Muslims reacted strongly towards the media. When asked for a response to this statement, “the United States’ media presents a prejudiced and unfavorable view of Muslims,” 60% agreed and 30% somewhat agreed.
[10] City of Knowledge School, “Mission”; http//www.cityofknowledge.com; accessed November 1, 2003.
[11] Sister Heba Amarragy of the City of Knowledge School, interview by investigator, November 18, 2003, transcript from tape recording, City of Knowledge School, Pomona, CA.
[12] Principal Haleema Shaikley of the City of Knowledge School, interview by investigator, October 22, 2003, transcript from notes, City of Knowledge School, Pomona, CA.
[13] Islam traditionally holds that the revelation of God to humanity can only be fully understood in Arabic as the Qur’an is considered to be the “Speech of God”, and thus translations cannot be the actual Qur’an, merely translations of the message (Farid Esack, Qur’an, Liberation and Pluralism: An Islamic perspective of Interreligious Solidarity Against Oppression, Oxford: Oneworld, 1997, 53).
[14] The writings of the Imams are given a near-center status in Shi’ite tradition because an Imam represents the authority of God. According to tradition ‘Ali was the sole successor to Muhammed both in spiritual and political authority. From Ali a line of Imams are traced through his descendents, who inherit this authority, and are considered by many Shi’ites to be sinless, infallible and to posses a divine light within them (Fazlur Rahman, Islam, 2nd ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966, 81 and 179).
[15] Principal Haleema Shaikley of the City of Knowledge School, interview by investigator, October 22, 2003, transcript from notes, City of Knowledge School, Pomona, CA.
[16] Faleh A. Jabar argues that the terms Shi’ite, Shia and Shi’ism should not be used in sociological or political discourse because the terms unfairly group Shi’tes into one, compact and monolithic group. Shi’ites are in fact diverse in both political and religious views. Therefore the references to Shi’ite used in this paper mark points of connection between the school’s practices and some Shi’ite traditions (Faleh A. Jabar, The Shi’ite Movement in Iraq, London: Saqi, 2003, 20).
[17] Principal Haleema Shaikley of the City of Knowledge School, interview by investigator, October 22, 2003, transcript from notes, City of Knowledge School, Pomona, CA.
[18] Rahman, 81 and 179. The classic schools of Islamic law emerged in the 8th and 9th centuries and continue to this day. The Ja‘fari School, named for the sixth Shi’ite Imam Ja‘fari al-Sadiq, traces its roots to the Imam but was not recognized by Sunni leaders as a school until the 18th century.
[19] Sister Laila Shahrastani of the City of Knowledge School, interview by the investigator, November 18 2003, transcript from tape recording, City of Knowledge School, Pomona , CA.
[20] Sister Laila Shahrastani of the City of Knowledge School, interview by the investigator, November 18th 2003, transcript from tape recording, City of Knowledge School, Pomona , CA.
[21] Jabar, 161.
[22] Hadrat Ayatullah Al-Uzma As-Sayyid Al-Hajj Ali Al-Husaini as-Seestani, Simplified Islamic Laws for Youth and Young Adults: According to the Fatwa of Hadrat Ayatullah Al-Uzma As-Sayyid Al-Hajj Ali Al-Husaini as-Seestani. (trans. Saleem Bhimji; Qom, Iran: Imam Ali foundation, 1999), i-vi.
[23] Sister Laila Shahrastani of the City of Knowledge School, interview by investigator, November 18 2003, transcript from tape recording, City of Knowledge School, Pomona , CA.  Imam Sajjad Ali ibn al-Hussein, A Divine Perspective on Rights. (Commented by Ghodratullah Mashayeckhi and trans. by Dr. Ali Peiravi and Ms. Lisa Zaynab Morgan; Qum, Iran: Ansariyan Publications, 2002), 21. Imam Sajjad, the fourth Imam, was the grandson of Imam ‘Ali, the son-in-law to the Prophet Muhammed, and lived from 660 C.E. to 711 C.E. He originally composed the work in the late 7th century under the title The Treatise on Rights.
[24] Imam Sajjad Ali ibn al-Hussein, 174.
[25] Imam Sajjad Ali ibn al-Hussein, 174-177.
[26] Sister Laila Shahrastani of the City of Knowledge School, interview by the investigator, November 18th 2003, transcript from tape recording, City of Knowledge School, Pomona , CA. The Nahjul Balagha is a collection of the sermons, letters and sayings of the first Shi’ite Imam ‘Ali, son-in-law to the Prophet.
[27] Rahman, 176-177.
[28] Imam ‘Ali, Nahjul Balagha: Sermons, Letters and Sayings: vols. I and II, trans. by Syed Ali Raza. (Qum, Iran: Ansariyan Publications, 1971), xi.

About ISS

ISS facilitates research on the work we make scriptures do for us.

Donate to ISS

Please support our Programs and Initiatives. To donate, click here.

News

2010 Claremont Graduate University Institute for SIgnifying Scriptures 1017 N. Dartmouth Ave (909)607-9676