Islamic School


LUCKY SEVERSON, correspondent: The first thing an outsider might notice at the Universal School in Buffalo is how well behaved the students are. The chaos that sometimes erupts between classes at public schools is not to be found here. Universal is an Islamic school for students in pre-K through eighth grade. It’s one of 240 private Islamic schools in the country and is supported through tuition and fundraising. Kathy Jamil is the principal.

KATHY JAMIL (Principal, Universal School, Buffalo, NY): We hope to instill in our children what it takes to be a responsible, caring and giving person who is God-conscious, and we believe we can only do that if we develop a whole child. So we focus on academics, but it’s just one small part of everything else, because we actually feel if we can hit the other realms, we feel like the academics just skyrocket.

SEVERSON: God-consciousness, they say, is meant to be a constant state of awareness of Allah throughout the day. Tamer Osman directs the Islamic studies program.

post01-muslimschoolTAMER OSMAN (Director of Islamic Studies, Universal School): There are times when students are traveling in the hallway that maybe an adult’s eye may not be on them for just that moment. If they remember that God is watching, they may not do those type of things that we find in other schools, whether it is ridicule other students or bullying. We have a lot less of those types of things at the school here, and I think part of that reason is because we are trying to inculcate the idea of God-consciousness in the children.

SEVERSON: They are reminded of God five times each day during prayer. Universal is a state-accredited school so the students are taught the same curriculum as those in public schools and their test scores are on grade level or above. But here they’re also taught Arabic and Islamic studies, including the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. They learn about values from the teachings of the Prophet.

JAMIL: The Prophet, peace be upon him, as we believe, is the best of all mankind, and he embodied all the beautiful qualities and characteristics that we want to work on in our lives.

OSMAN: One of the wisdoms in Islamic schools today is that if you look at our core American values, they coincide with a lot of our Islamic values.

post03-muslimschoolSEVERSON: Those shared interests apparently include the love of sports, like soccer, which is popular in many of the different countries these kids’ families emigrated from. But one of the challenges at Universal is to separate the religion from the attitudes of the culture they left behind—attitudes, for instance, detrimental to women.

JAMIL: I work with some domestic violence clients here in the US on relation to immigrant families and Muslim families and with the conversations that I have with the court systems, you will hear a man walk on, sit on the stand and say “I have the right to,” from a religious perspective, and we are there saying you absolutely do not. You clearly don’t understand your faith tradition.

SEVERSON: Islam considers homosexuality a sin, and in some Muslim countries the punishment is severe.

ALET SIAM (Eighth Grade Student, Universal School): Being gay is forbidden in Islam but you cannot make fun of that group or people who are like that. You’re supposed to be nice to everybody, but it’s still forbidden. You can’t do that.

OSMAN: As Muslims, we shouldn’t be judgmental. Just like in many of the other faiths it is frowned upon. It’s not seen as something that’s praiseworthy. But at the same time, it’s not—we don’t see it as if the person does that then that’s it, they are condemned forever.

post04-muslimschoolSEVERSON: The school found its home in an unlikely place—a former Catholic church and convent. Students from Universal and St. Monica Catholic School share interfaith programs throughout the year. Nancy Langer is with St. Monica.

NANCY LANGER (President, NativityMiguel Middle School of Buffalo): What I’ve noticed is that they don’t seem to look at each other and see any differences. They seem to accept each other for who they are, and they’ve become instant friends. It’s really wonderful.

SEVERSON: Universal opened its doors three days before the 9/11 terrorists attacks. Suddenly there were bomb threats. Police were patrolling the school—not a good time to be a Muslim in America, and it was perhaps the worst time to open an Islamic school.

JAMIL: That evening we had an emergency board meeting. There was just silence. Everyone was quiet. We didn’t know what to say. We didn’t know what to think. We didn’t know what to do.

SEVERSON: Ultimately they decided that keeping the school open presented an opportunity to reach out to the inner-city neighborhood that surrounds the school. Ray Barker teaches social studies. He’s not a Muslim but is impressed with the mission of the school.

RAY BARKER (Social Studies Teacher, Universal School): It is really looking at developing the whole person through a moral structure set up by the religion. It very much is creating a strong foundation for them for these years and the rest of their lives.

post07-muslimschoolMIRIAM AHMED (Eighth Grade Student, Universal School): You just do good in school.

SEVERSON(speaking to students): So are you good all the time?

For some parents, learning good values was only one reason they wanted their children in a religious school. Even before she gave birth to her three kids, Maha Zaatreh didn’t care whether they went to an Islamic school or a Catholic school as long as it wasn’t a public school.

MAHA ZAATREH: Discipline, really—that was my concern. Discipline, respect to their parents, respect to older people. That was my first goal.

OSMAN: Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessing be upon him, he talked about how important gentleness was—that God is gentle, and he loves gentleness. At our school you would find it very rare that you’d have a teacher raise their voice.

SEVERSON: They may not raise their voice but they do achieve discipline. Listen to Alet and Hakim.

ALET SIAM: You know that room downstairs right before you come up here, the library? In there you spend the whole day with the guy at the desk downstairs, Brother Jabor. Oh, man, he can give some punishments.

post06-muslimschoolSEVERSON: Like what?

HAKIM ARMAN: He gives us all this writing to do. Sometimes, like last year, there was the other hall monitor. They’re kind of strict. If you walked down the wrong way, they make you walk up and down like 80 times.

ZAATREH: It gets me worried to know the fact that when my daughter is a teenager, she’s going to start thinking, “I want to date, I want to go here, I want to go there.”

SEVERSON: She needn’t worry about Universal. Dating is not allowed here for a host of reasons. Some are found in the Quran’s views on chastity when it refers to Miriam, whom Christians call Mary, the mother of Jesus.

OSMAN: In the Quran God uses Miriam as the example for our young girls, on how he had so much love for her because of her chastity, because of her modesty before God, because of her purity and her internal beauty, and that’s all part of it. We don’t want to necessarily come down on them and say dating is bad, dating is bad. Rather, we want to tell them how positive a healthy family is.

SEVERSON: Why do you think it is that they don’t want you to date?

ALET SIAM: Because you don’t want any like diseases. Like because of the STDs going around.

post08-muslimschoolSEVERSON: Values are enforced and behaviors like gossip and bullying strongly condemned. Bullying is a very real and personal concern for these students. Some come looking for a safe environment.

(speaking to student): Why were you bullied?

HAKIM ARMAN: I was bullied because I’m Muslim. I got like punched a couple of times.

SEVERSON: Girls who wear the head scarf, the hijab, often feel the insecurity of being the object of stares, of being different. Some wear their hijabs only at school. Others wear them as a badge of honor.

KHADIJO ABDULLE (Eighth Grade Student, Universal School): I started wearing hijab when I was little in first grade. I have been wearing it since then, outside even, and people just used to look at me, and then I used to have to act like them and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be me.

SEVERSON: So it made you feel bad.

(speaking to students): Do you think Muslims get a bad rap in this country?

FADUMO MOHAMMED (Seventh Grade Student, Universal School): Because they don’t know who we are.

MIRIAM AHMED (Eighth Grade Student, Universal School): If they see the truth, it’s very obvious that we are good people.

SEVERSON: Universal started with 17 students. Today they have over 100. The eventual goal is to expand Universal to include high school.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly I’m Lucky Severson in Buffalo, New York.

  • Channah

    I think this would be a great school to go to.

    Instilling beliefs and good ideals is the way to raise children. I think of a friend of mine, a Muslim friend, who made a comment that was a little out of the realm of who and what she was and believed. Her nearly 5 year old son heard her and quickly spoke to her, ”Uma, Allah would not like what you said”. she smiled, and you could see the pride for her son-all over her face.

  • Qaiser chaudhry

    Thanks for this well put together story. I firmly believe that people everywhere are good and given half a chance, we would code together in peace. Please keep up the good (unbiased) spirit of reporting!

  • Susan

    I love your program. It presents the best in people. However, as a Christian who has read the Koran, I am very sad for the children who attend the Universal School. The Koran is in two parts and these children are being taught the peaceful part. There is another side to the Koran which calls for the death of all Christians and Jews who do not convert to Islam. I am wondering what these lovely children will do when they become adults and are told that the time for jihad has arrived. Will they have the courage to say “no” and face death for being apostates, or will they commit violent or stealth jihad? Will the young ladies question why they must cover their heads? Will they accept their second class status? Will they seek to impose their second class status on the culture at large? I love the fact that a school promotes God awareness. I went to a public school and I was miserable there. I hope that all religions will do away with the notion of apostates and allow all adult people to choose the religion that gives them the greatest sense of peace.

  • Joseph

    In reply to Susan’s posting; Nowhere the Koran calls for the death of any Christians or Jews who do not convert to Islam. No-way-no! Only if you are reading a mistranslation or hearing someone taking things completely out of context “defamation”. Koran very clearly explains that killing one person is killing the humanity. Please refer to a speech by Lesley Hazleton, who explores the Koran and finds much that is quite different from what is reported in commonly cited accounts. …
    TEDxRainier is an independently organized TED event held in Seattle Washington. A psychologist by training and Middle East reporter by experience, British-born Lesley Hazleton has spent the last ten years exploring the vast and often terrifying arena in which politics and religion, past and present, intersect. Her most recent book, After the Prophet: the Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split, was a finalist for the 2010 PEN-USA nonfiction award. She lived and worked in Jerusalem for thirteen years — a city where politics and religion are at their most incendiary — then moved to New York. She came to Seattle to get her pilot’s license in 1992, saw the perfect houseboat, and stayed. By 1994, she’d flown away all of her savings, and has never regretted a single cent of it. Now her raft rides low in the water under the weight of research as she works on her next book, The First Muslim, a new look at the life of Muhammad.

  • Diana

    I would like to reply to Susan : Please provide the proof where it states death to all Christians and Jews who
    do not convert . The Prophet PBUH forbid this . When Saaladin took over Jeureleum he treated the Christian
    King at that time with honor and allowed them to depart back to England . Saaladin won the respect of Richard the Lion heart . Saaladin became a celebrated example of the principles of chivalry.

    As for the head scarf have you ever seen Mary ,Jesus mom without a scarf ? . The headscraf existed for all women from the time of Prophet Ibrahim . My Jewish neighboor till today wears the scarf , long skirt and long sleeves . Why is that Christain Nun wears the scarf ? Why is it every picture of Mary in every Church has the scarf or the viel ? Its important that you question it ?

  • Osman

    thats my uncle Tamer up there!

  • Zia

    Susan, you should stop listening to Fox News and right-wing Islamophobic hate groups. The majority of atrocities in history have been conducted by Christians. The inquisition, the crusades, first world war, second world war, hitler’s death camps, Bosnian and Kosovo massacres by Serbs, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and of course the “WMD” Iraq war, and many others besides. I don’t see any Muslim nation that has historically done what “Christian” nations have done. In fact, historically we know that wherever Muslims ruled, other religions were allowed to practice their religions freely, and their places of worship were protected. Palestine was ruled by Muslims for hundreds of years, and yet the places holy to Christians and Jews are still standing after hundreds of years. The same in Spain, until the Inquisition of Queen Isabella. So read up on history, don’t rely on Faux news to get educated!

  • Naba

    Susan, I understand your concern. I haven’t fully read the Quran. I am not sure of everything written in there. I wanted to mention that it is not in people’s nature to hurt others. They may feel a need to protect themselves if need be. Islam teaches “peace”. It’s in the name. Many Muslims are deeply upset and appalled when they hear about crazy things that happen to others at times. If someone were to take anything negative into heart, they must have a mental disorder and/or had a really bad experience in life. I hope this puts your mind at ease. If I were to encounter anyone who speaks negatively about others (esp. people of other faiths), I would do what I can to counteract this way of thinking. In this school, the kids intermingle with kids of other faiths. Just fyi.

  • Ivan

    I’m concerned not for the curriculum, but for the underlying cultural beliefs which flourish in such an environment. It’s the sort of place where comments akin to ‘gentle subjugation of other religions’ is taken as a kindness.

    “In Muslim dominated countries, Jews and Christians are offered religious freedom and very special place”. There is a whole set of sayings like this that are at the ready …arranged in sequence to justify and convince that Christians and Jews have had their time, in the long ago past…but now they are wrong and mustn’t be in charge because they aren’t to be trusted.

    It’s actually quite remarkable how the contradictory lines of thinking survive in parallel without triggering more questioning.

  • Ann

    Please, Susan! Christians are supposed to be truthful. Nowhere does the Qur’an call for the death of Christians and Jews. Second-class citizens? Ask yourself why so many educated women convert to Islam. I too hope that all adult people will be allowed to choose their religion, but I also wish that there were not so many others like you spewing lies about my own religion of choice.

  • Susan

    I didn’t expect so many responses to my post. I don’t think there is enough space to answer all the questions but I will try. Where does the Quran call for the death of nonbelievers (Christians and Jews and others who are not Muslims). Quran 2:191-193 “And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter.” 9:5 “So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captives and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush, then if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free to them.” In other words, convert or die or repent and pay more tax than a Muslim. From the Hadith Bukhari (52:177): “Allah’s Apostle said, The Hour will not be established until you fight with the Jews and the stone behind which a Jew will be hiding will say, “O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, so kill him.” Tabari 9:69 “Killing Unbelievers is a small matter to us.” These are just some of the verses in the Quran and the Hadith.

  • Hasan

    Susan: i understant your concern but like someone said above; you are quoting things Out of context to prove islam as a hateful religion. The first part is actually about fighting the people who drove newly converted muslims out of thier home, towb and city and tortured them unless the converted back to idol worship. That’s why it says,”drive them out of places they drove you out”. I am not going to keep going and tell you why you everything is out of context but please do your research and read/learn from a proper source. Most of the time when we don’t like something we do anything to find a flaw in it. Please try to pick up the book again without any previous opinion and maybe you’ll think differently. I hope one day maybe all of us can live in leace and find peace within ourselves.

  • Mohammad

    My cousin goes to this school

  • Rana

    Thank you for writing this article. I hope the environment and philosophy this school tries to create spreads to other schools too. Just imagine what a peaceful world this world will be!

    To Susan: I have a couple of questions for you. So, are you saying that when the “time has come for jihad”, only you have the right to bear arms (which includes using illegal chemical and biological weapons) and fight, but not the Muslims??? According to you, the Muslims should just let others kill them and exterminate them from the face of the earth.

    But as a Muslim, I am obligated to respect people of all faiths and treat them with dignity. GOTTA LOVE ISLAM!

  • Susan

    It is not possible to have honest discourse with an ideology that practices gross dishonesty. As far as Western Civilization’s addition to the carnage that has afflicted the world since the beginning of time, all I can say is “guilty as charged.” So now that Western Civilization has plead guilty of crimes against humanity, is Islam willing to do the same or do you still not value truth? The point being, where do we go from here? The past is dead. The future requires a love of truth in order to maintain peace in the world. Why so many lies coming from Islam? How does this help? It takes courage and conscience to speak the truth. From what I am hearing from many of the individuals who have made comments on this blog, truth has no value–only power. So long as Muslims worship power, there is no hope of a peaceful solution to this clash of civilizations.

  • Vickii

    I was intrigued by the title-UNIVERSAL Sch.?, but it is a Muslim sch., which I find quite contradictory to the word. It was quite interesting what the principal was trying to convey to the public Having read all comment,. I would like to congratulate Susan for standing strong voicing her opinion with opposition trailing behind and Ivan, who simply explain without malice.I, as a person studying Islam,
    In Islam (which means Submission), it is normal to be dis-honnest and lie under the law of TAQIYYA. The law of DAWAH meaning to persuade and to reason must be used to try to reach out to Infedels, the unbelievers/non-Muslims., and Dawa an Islamic tradition of converting non-Muslims into Islam., quite interesting, highlighting verses in the Koran 8:39, 9:5, 47:4 etc.
    I believe for the one’s who living in U.S. & E.U., are blessed to live in a democratic country with all the benefits and freedom of speech.

  • gofaq yussef

    I have a Muslim neighbor who immigrated from Pakistan. When we first began to talk, he told me he did not blame suicide bombers. He said that is the only option they have to defend themselves and promote their cause. I told him I did not understand anyone who would condone the killing of innocent people. He was very demeaning of America and Americans. I told him since we are so distasteful, why is he here? He said because he can get a better job and doesn’t have to worry about his family. I like his wife very much and became friends with her. Through her I got to know him better and found that he is a very devout, good hearted, hard working family man, and he has been a good neighbor to me. I do not understand this paradox, and after many heated discussions we have come to an agreement. He knows I am a Christian and a patriot and will not tolerate any disrespect to my country or the American people in general, so we do not discuss politics or religious beliefs. He certainly isn’t a terrorist, but he will never speak out against Muslims no matter what the circumstance. It is ingrained in his beliefs. I share this because it is one instance where what could have been an adversarial disaster became peaceful existence through tolerance and kindness on both sides. One person at a time, one day at a time. That’s all anyone can do.

  • Dayanna

    I am now 13 and as a former attending student to this school I believe it is amazing!! It teaches you valuble things in life that you will always treasure. With a numerous amount of family who have attended this school they feel the same way. My brother currently attends this school, it is a challange and a bit advance but as a role model I tell him it is worth it in the end, your knowledge will expand and you will soon be greatful. The comments that I have read are not all positive, but then again everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but when stating your opnion please be able to find “factual” information. Vickii yes everyone is Muslim, but it is a diverse school with people from all around With different ethnicities, whether born or convert into Muslim.

  • Susan

    I like what gofaq yussef said. “One person at a time, one day at a time.” Also, I thank Vickii for the kind words. I must admit that I am not hopeful at this time regarding our world. I get the sense that we are on the edge of disaster. Something is terribly wrong when a woman has to go into hiding because of cartoons published in a newspaper. I cannot imagine that Americans will tolerate this madness for much longer. As a Christian I do not expect non-Christians to abide by my beliefs under pain of death. I cannot see anywhere in history that Muslims have co-existed with other religions without subjugating them. This makes me deeply sad. I am very frightened for the future.

  • fatima

    i am a student at this school and what i have learned is that i will find people who hav esomething negative to say and that the beauty of islam may not get to everyone athough many of these replies have a point mainly Hasan. and as for Susan i will make duaa for her and inshallah you will open your mind to this beautiful religion

  • Barbara

    I have some association with people at these schools and I am a non-Muslim. They could not be any more peaceful or moral. The Bible is also full of violence in places. The basic message in all holy books is the same: love your neighbor as yourself and seek the path of God. How we get there is personal and unique to culture and religion. Respect is the answer. Let’s raise everyone up instead of tearing down.

  • Palutena

    @ Susan Really? I respect your opinion and all but really? Is this what Christianity really teaches you? To ridicule other religons for your benefit? I think not! Christianity is a loving religon and it doesn’t say anything about lying about other religons! I love Christians and I love my religon,ISLAM! And if you think about it that way, the only people bombing stuff(*cough* people*cough*babies and childern*) are the American military (mostly not all). And please, don’t go making up information (though the ayat were true) you didn’t know the meaning, therefore you were making it up. You don’t see us doing that to you guys, and by us I mean true believers, who truely believe in Islam, because some people can call themselves muslims, when in reality, they’re not.