The Islamic Schools League of America conducts new research on sense of belonging in Islamic schools
By Lisa Khaler
A student’s sense of belonging is crucial for academic success. Are Islamic schools developing this crucial component? A new research study by the Islamic Schools League of America (ISLA) is addressing this topic.
“Students’ Sense of Belonging at Full-Time Islamic Schools in the United States: A Phenomenological Study” is an ISLA-conducted academic study. Led by primary investigator Dr. Seema Imam (professor, National Louis University; former board chair of ISLA) and Dr. Shaza Khan (executive director, ISLA), it was published recently in The Journal of Education in Muslim Societies (JEMS). This study was supported by a grant from the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT)
Currently, approximately 300 full-time Islamic schools serve an estimated 50,000 students nationwide (ISLA, 2021). Their demographics reflect the community’s diversity: students from African American, Hispanic, Caucasian and immigrant backgrounds with diverse linguistic, sectarian and socioeconomic backgrounds.
ISLA, a nonprofit organization established 20+ years ago to support full-time Islamic schools, maintains a nationwide registry and database of Islamic schools. It strives to elevate Islamic education by providing a platform for professional networking and resource sharing, and through its research and professional development.
Dr. Imam relates, “It was an exciting experience to hear from 37 alumni of full-time Islamic schools. I have always wondered how our alumni experiences could inform us in understanding the strengths and challenges at our schools.”
As a former founding principal of one of the country’s oldest Islamic schools, Dr. Imam’s commitment is long-standing. She’s been involved with teacher training at the university level for nearly three decades, and with ISLA for about two decades. Up until the pandemic, she also served as the principal of a weekend Islamic school in Indiana. In short, she has unique insights into the broader context of Islamic schools in the U.S.
The desire of Dr. Khan, whose expertise focuses on Muslim American identity development, is to research Islamic school alumni — a desire fueled by the acknowledgment that their voices are often underrepresented. “Every focus group interview that we conducted with the alumni of Islamic schools was eye-opening. These former students were deeply impacted by their Islamic school experiences,” she says.
Participants and Demographics
ISLA’s alumni study is the first one to examine the factors contributing to, or hindering, students’ sense of belonging within full-time Islamic schools. The qualitative study used focus group interviews with 37 Muslim alumni who had attended a secondary Islamic school and graduated high school within the past decade — the majority had graduated in the past four years — and were either attending college or working professionals when the study was conducted.
Why a Sense of Belonging Matters
Feelings of school connectedness and a sense of belonging are particularly important for middle and high school students. Sirin & Rogers-Sirin contend that feelings of school belonging help increase academic performance, promote student motivation and well-being and, according to the CDC, act as deterrents for unwanted and/or destructive behaviors. A variety of research indicates the importance of a sense of belonging as a vital part of the socioemotional well-being of an individual’s life.
Maslow’s 5-stage pyramid of needs contends that one’s basic physical needs must be met before one can begin striving to reach the next level. After obtaining food, drink, shelter and clothing, one seeks safety and security, which a family and schools can provide. After those are obtained, one seeks love and belonging via interpersonal and group relationships, and then esteem for oneself and acceptance by others. Cognitive and aesthetic needs, which are also goals at this stage, lead toward self-actualization, whereby an individual becomes “everything one is capable of becoming.” This sense of self-actualization or sense of self is what we want for ourselves and our students.
While a sense of belonging is foundational to future success, research on Islamic schools has rarely looked at this. ISLA’s research focused on, “Do Muslim students of diverse backgrounds feel that they belong in their Islamic school environments?”
Anecdotal accounts are useful, but research is powerful. Insights from these 37 alumni helped shed light on their lived experiences. The interviews were analyzed using phenomenology to identify themes from across the interviews in a manner that sought to explore and describe the essence of students’ experience through these alumni’s perspectives.
Major Findings: Teachers Matter and School Community
Three major themes that emerged from this study stand out in terms of how schools seek to nurture their students’ sense of belonging: the importance of teachers, creating a school community and being a minority in an Islamic school.
Participants overwhelmingly attributed a strong sense of belonging at their Islamic school to their shared identity as Muslims. They identified the teachers and their long-lasting positive impact as the most important element of this sense. The teacher–student relationship transcended academics and reassured participants, as it also helped create a support network for various spiritual, career and personal issues. However, they noted that some staff behaviors — perceived racist, sexist or ethnocentric behavior and speech — negatively impacted this sense of belonging.
The majority of alumni described their school communities as comfortable and supportive due to shared norms and values. However, some alumni reported bullying and the exclusion of new students. The theme of shared struggles and shared Muslim identity resonated with many participants, especially those who had attended public schools.
Students who joined Islamic schools later on noted that it took time to gain a sense of belonging. For them, this became easier when staff members or fellow students clearly explained the school’s norm and culture. But a few of them never felt that they belonged.
Alumni mentioned several negative factors in this regard, such as using Arabic or Urdu phrases colloquially between staff and/or students, thereby excluding various ethnicities, as well as sectarian beliefs and the unequal application of rules. Differences were mitigated when students spoke up and/or managed to educate the school community about their particular beliefs.
African American students mentioned race, particularly female students, who cited common racist actions and micro-aggressions from fellow students, staff and administrators.
The factors enhancing and hindering a sense of belonging informed the researchers’ recommendations on how to create an environment in which all students feel that they belong, thereby helping them achieve their fullest potential.
Based on the insights from the research as well as Islam’s two primary sources, Imam and Khan recommend the following: have students and staff emulate the Prophet’s (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) character, help teachers create caring classrooms, foster teacher–student bonds, intentionally welcome and include new students and pursue inclusive and anti-racist behaviors. Their primary recommendation is to encourage teachers to study and follow the Prophet’s life example, as doing so will help improve all aspects of the school community.
Developing a caring environment grounded in the love of Allah and His Messenger is another key recommendation. Prophet Mohammed conveyed empathy via active listening, such as turning his whole body to listen to the speaker. Teachers who become active listeners in terms of picking up on both verbal and non-verbal cues will enable students to feel safe and be seen, heard and included.
The alumni and related research indicate that strengthening positive student–teacher relationships is key to creating a sense of belonging. Participants noted many opportunities for Islamic educators to develop relationships, such as teachers praying with students, attending communal activities and encouraging the use of “sister” and “brother” when addressing fellow students to build a familial relationship.
The research shows that intentional student orientation with embedded structures for including new students increased their sense of belonging. The Prophet provided the best example of this by partnering the Ansar with the Muhajirun until the latter could support themselves. The “buddy system” is actually an Islamic tradition.
Islam forbids racist and discriminatory acts. In his last public sermon, the Prophet said, “All people are from Adam and Eve. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also, read “a white has no superiority over a black, except by piety and good action” (“Sunan al-Tirmidhi,” hadith no. 1163).
Islamic educators must follow the prophetic model, as they bring together individuals united only by Islam. Teachers should focus on the merits of each student and their families to validate each student’s intrinsic merit and value. According to Dr. Imam, “The alumni revealed how urgent it is for schools to prepare them for life after Islamic school graduation. They also need us to nurture every student as an individual and be inclusive of racial and ethnic differences.”
Anti-racist training is also recommended to reveal unconscious biases and reflect on how their staff’s thoughts, language and behavior contribute to an anti-racist environment. Muslim ARC training is specifically recommended.
Alumni indicated that they developed and strengthened their sense of belonging by attending a full-time Islamic school. While there are areas for growth, Dr. Imam reminds us, “In Islamic schools’ short lives, a few decades, we have alumni telling us how pleased they are with the relationships that they have with their teachers. As an educator, I believe building relationships are the most pivotal in building student success.”
This article is based on “Students’ Sense of Belonging at Full-Time Islamic Schools in the United States: A Phenomenological Study” by Seema Imam & Shaza Khan.
Lisa Kahler is program manager at The Islamic School League of America.