Is Islamic Sunday School Worth It?

A Real Education
HijabMan’s Note:  This article was previously published at Patheos. 

At the age of 12, my father decided to put me in Islamic Sunday School at our local mosque. Since I was new to Sunday School, the teachers put me in the kindergarten class. Within one year, I was skipped to second grade and then to fourth grade, before I was ultimately promoted to instructor in an alternative Saturday school. Can you say, “lowered expectations?”

It is not uncommon for mosque Sunday Schools to be staffed by volunteers as young as 13 who just parrot what they’ve heard. As for the content, I learned about how birthdays are prohibited in Islam, that only prostitutes pluck their eyebrows, and how a one-eyed monster will come and get me on the Day of Judgment. In short, I left Islamic Sunday School with the perception that God was a big scary being that was going to throw me into hell.

The experience, however depressing, did inspire me to read the Quran for myself. It was only then that I realized that the vast majority of fairy tales they teach you in Sunday school are not in the Quran—which, by the way, is what Muslims believe is God’s message to humankind. In fact, the lessons taught in my Sunday School growing up didn’t come close to capturing the spirit of the holy book.

It is with that background that I struggled last weekend, wondering whether or not I should send my 5-year-old daughter to the local Sunday School. On one hand, I knew I could do a better job at teaching her the core of religion. On the other, as my friend Shabana stated, Islamic Sunday School is seriously discounted babysitting.

In the end, I decided to sit in on all of her classes to see what would be taught. It turns out that the first two classes are Arabic language and Quran recitation. While I wasn’t impressed with the teachers, the subjects they teach are fairly harmless and straightforward; you can’t really teach alternative viewpoints on language and recitation. The added bonus was that WarriorPrincess (the nickname I have given my daughter) has a friend in both of those classes, and the classroom provides some time to socialize.

The final class of the day was “Islam,” and honestly, I didn’t even want to bother with the possibility of some sort of nutty teaching. I can’t be there every day to monitor everything she hears, so I’ll teach her the basics at home. Simple: One God. Do Good.

Happy that I found a middle ground to my Sunday School dilemma, I asked the principal if WarriorPrincess could attend the first two classes and not the third. I’m still waiting to hear back.

Do you have any crazy Sunday School stories? Please share in the comments!

Update:  We’ve taken her out of the Sunday school.  MrsHM helps her with her Arabic letters and Memorizing Chapters.  I teach her stories from the Qur’an in English and the basic message of Believe, Do Good, And A Day of Judgment.

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  1. Naila says:

    Wow, I thought I was the only one who had a very bad experience at the same Sunday school. I felt completely isolated and alone at Sunday school because everyone knew that my mother was white and my dad Pakistani. I believe that I was treated much differently because my I did not speak arabic and was having a hard time picking it up. The teachers would not help me, nor excel me in any class. I was probably in kindergarten for 3 years and they moved me up because they felt sorry for me (or just wanted me out of their class). When they did move me up it only made me feel even worse and resent going to mosque even more because the whole class would be taught in arabic and I couldn’t understand what they were saying.

    The worst experience that I had at Sunday school is that I had a favorite jean jacket that I wore all the time and had different buttons and patches. On the back of the jacket I had made a peace sign out of safety pins and the teacher thought that it was a pentagram and scolded me in front of the class for having the sign of the devil on my clothing. I argued back with him saying that it’s a peace sign and that everyone knows the difference between the two. He even had a parent/teacher conference about it but my parent’s didn’t do anything about it at the time because my father was very involved with the mosque. I knew they were angry about it but we kept going because it made my dad happy. There finally came a point where I would skip class and my mom and I would sit in the car and wait for my father. We did this out of love for him but both my mother and I felt completely rejected from the religion. I believe that had the teachers been certified to teach and were not biased in some way then I would have had a different experience.

    Being half white and pakistani has had it’s ups and downs. I understood at a young age what it was like to be on both sides of the fence but at public school I was still seen as someone “different” and that my god was different from theirs (little did they know I was being rejected every Sunday). I had a hard time finding my place with god or with any religion. As I got older I realized how and why things happened the way they did but I felt that it did more harm to me than good during my formative years.

    If Sunday school is taught by volunteers then you are putting your child at the mercy of someone who could be completely biased and not have the same view on the world as you. This world has changed so much that it is crucial for every child to have an open mind and allowed to be curious and ask questions and not be damned for asking because they are going to hell if they do. Which seemed to be my case, I was going to hell no matter what I did!

  2. hijabman says:


    Thanks for commenting. Don’t you miss ISCJ? ;-P I think we were all pretty traumatized.

    Hahaha, my dad had a parent/teacher conference set up too. Eventually he was just as disgusted as I was, and let me get out of there!

  3. Naila says:

    Hahah! Oh I miss it so much!!! :P~~~

    Well, I’m glad that your dad saw through it and got you out of there. Isn’t it sad that it was that bad that it didn’t do any justice for the religion. But then yet, it’s not like we had any choice in which mosque to go to as there weren’t many. We don’t have the luxury like other religions where each town has more than one church or temple so if you don’t like how that preachers preaches, you can go to a different one.

  4. Faiqa says:

    Mashallah… this is why I heart the Internet. I went through the same exact thing and am going through the same. My daughter is six. I wish I could better articulate how thankful I am that you made me feel so much *less* alone on this. I think I’ll just subscribe instead.

  5. bingregory says:

    It isn’t worth it when protesters are there handing out Christian literature, I gather.

    But to respond more directly, I think there is a great deal of value in myth or fairy tales. Sometimes the old stories of the ancient prophets are disregarded because they’re apocryphal, we don’t have isnad on them, etc. But as long as the stories are in line with the Islamic spirit and are not presented as revealed knowledge, I think they can stimulate the imaginations of children in positive ways. There is a great series of books written by the late Hajjah Aminah Atun called Lore of Light that collects oral legends of the prophets from Turkey/Central Asia and they are delightful: David and Goliath, Shamyl, Sulaiman’s Kingdom etc. I am hearing your broader point about the quality of Sunday Schools – just had to speak up for fairy tales :-)

  6. hijabman says:

    @Bingregory: good call :-) I just wish they’d differentiate between revealed knowledge and ‘stories’

  7. zufash says:

    I’m so glad to read this! Sorry about your experiences, though!
    When my parents first decided to “enroll” me in “Sunday School,” I was 18 years old 😀 I hated the idea, since I’d heard horror stories about what they teach you in mosques, but I finally agreed to go. In the long run, now that I look back, it contributed significantly to the ideas I hold of Islam, although much of what they taught me was what you’re describing. I had an argument with one of the teacher over the issue of women plucking their eyebrows, and my younger sister had an argument with another teacher (or same? I don’t recall) about blood and organ donations being haraam unless ONLY to Muslims and even that in extreme cases (because, duh, non-Muslims don’t deserve to live). What repelled me most was their lack of reasoning skills, and I eventually quit going, although I’d been “promoted” to the teacher-level a couple of classes after my decision to go.

    I was 18, but as a Pakistan, I was always taught that the woman’s ultimate role is that of a mother/wife and she is Islamically obligated to cook for her husband, clean, take care of him and everyone else in the family, and other such typical stuff. Then one day, my Qur’an teacher, who’s highly respected in the Muslim community and who actually appreciates my critical and questioning nature even though she disagrees with me (which is fine with me), told us ladies (it was an all-women and -children Sunday class) that “Did you know that you’re not Islamically obligated to cook for your husbands, or to clean or do any other domestic activities? You should do them out of the goodness of your heart and if not doing so will have negative consequences on you and your family, but otherwise, it’s not an Islamic ruling. In fact, you don’t even have to take care of your kids, and your husband’s supposed to provide a nanny/sitter for you if you demand such a thing.” And she went on, and I was shocked, just like all the other ladies were. And right then and there, I started studying Islam and women’s rights/roles. Back then, I accepted all the traditional things (like wife-beating, impermissiblity for women to work unless absolutely necessary, n shouldn’t work unless they HAVE to, men as leaders of women, forbiddance of the idea that women may lead men in prayer, etc.) without question. And I relied entirely on the Internet, regardless of the oft-contradictory information it provides its users about any idea, to “study” Islam.

    Still, as now a student of Gender Relations in Islamic law, I am where I am today mostly because of those classes, the arguments I had with my teachers, the apparent absurdity of what I was being taught (though I don’t see it as absurdity anymore and understand that there’s something much deeper there), and their insistence that I, a woman, had no right to question what the “scholars” had determined my roles and rights to be.

  8. Dana says:

    My husband and I have debated the same thing as I think many parents do. Although we loved our full time Islamic private school in Colorado. We find ourselves questioning wether or not to send our children to Sunday Islamic school here in VA. The kids do not want to attend the majority of the time! Many times we ask ourselves why don’t they care to go and have sat through the classes. We found that they stick to the Arabic, Quran, and islamic studies, but because they are children, they want something to look forward to! If there was some kind of competition or something to encourage the kids to learn as much as they are able. The children want to have fun in their learning, and are getting this in their public school education. Having them in Islamic school does foster the relationships between the younger Muslim generations, it also reminds our children that spending time at the masjid is important. I feel that if you can agree about what is being taught you might want for your child to attend if just to practice their suras, and spend time with their fellow Muslim brothers and sisters their age! Inshallah if you have any suggestions to make it a better learning experience for the children you can share and we can work together to make it better for our children!

  9. Nadia says:

    DUDE, because I live in a ‘Muslim’ (haha!) country I had “Islamic School” for 3 hours every afternoon after ‘regular’ school. For 5 years. The top three things I remember learning were (1) You can’t cut your nails and hair while menstruating unless you keep the cuttings and wash them while performing ghusl; (2) any part of my body that a non-mahram apart from my husband saw apart from the palms of my hands and face would be burnt crisp in hellfire; and (3)tajweed (do you call it something else – it’s the rules for recitation of the Qur’an). The only one I really hold on to is (3) because I like to recite the Qur’an nicely when I’m reading it in Arabic. The ‘official’ syllabus were Qur’anic recitation, Fiqh, Aqeedah, and Adab, then you had Munakahat and Muamalat in Grades 4 and 5.

    However, because the Malaysian education system trains you to be such a good drone, I was a really good student at religious school because I memorised so well. Forget Revelation, forget what the actual meaning of believing in One God and Doing Good was, forget all of that. In my head for a very long time, being a good Muslim was about the same as being a good student in an especially regimented military school. You don’t ask why, you just follow the rules, even if there was no basis and didn’t make any sense.

  10. Aichah says:

    We don’t have sunday schools but ‘madrassah’ classes are held everywhere in the country. I changed loads of madrassahs, I learned arabic alphabet in urdu and arabic with so many different accents. At all those madrassahs except one, I felt like someone who wasn’t suppose to be there. None of the kids ever put their feet in a churh, it was HARAAM. There would be these constant reminders that I came from a family with different faiths and that so many things were not allowed. If it weren’t for my excellent memory and pronounciation of arabic, I’d still be the converts daughter. I’ve learned very early to take words of supposedly knowledgeable people carefully. My aunty is christian and her daughters are muslims, they hate madrasahs even more than I did. Their dad does not practice but his family believes that a full night prayer once on a special occasion can erase it all. I learned about faith from my grandma and I wished when I was a kid that these teachers would talk of the Almighty like she did; with love. All I learned in madrassah was that Islam had loads of ‘you must not’, fun outings were reserved for boys, sex was no-no subject even less gays.

  11. Rabiya says:


    Being a Saturday School teacher myself, I am offended, lol, just kidding. You make a lot of sense, I started out teaching when I was no where near qualified, but after teaching for 5 years (I am now 21), I feel like I am somewhat qualified now and I’m not volunteering because I need easy volunteer hours for school but because I do think Muslim kids need a community. Someone has to create that community for them.

    The point is, if you don’t like the system change it, you don’t like what they’re teaching, tell them how you feel. Stories can be taken out from the Tafsir of the Quran. There are tons of workbooks and textbooks made only for Islamic weekend school learning. We had to change our system, we’re only focusing on legit sources to teach our kids, instead of finding random stuff online to teach. It’s a little hard now, but it’s worth it.

    I like your writing style, but save the time to make things happen, instead of complaining about them =)

  12. Minari says:

    Man, How I hated Sunday school! Plucking eyebrows, wearing bright colors, piercing your nose, wearing jeans etc was ALL Haraam -___- Also the lessons that we little girls are eventually meant to be wives and nothing more was a bummer, esp. for a young science-driven girl like me.
    I was so happy when I went to a teacher just for Quràn recitation and another for Islamic history, No more talking about burning in hell, you will be hung by your hair strands that are shown to non-mahram`s will, sex is HORIBBLE and disgusting and punishable by death if you do it when your aren`t married BS (they man me a frighten little girl…).

    Muslim parents really need to pay attention to their children when they go to these school, since their aren`t any regulations you don`t know what they are being taught or how they are being treated. It took me 12 years to get out of my first, HORRIBLE sunday school bc my mother wouldn`t listen to me. SO happy when my friends stopped going to the classes (literally it was me, my sister and two young children of the teachers left talking the course until my mother let me switch schools).

  13. Hajra says:

    OMG! I’m going thru this right now! I’m trying to convince my parents into not going but they’re still making me go! The teacher teaches Arabic. I’m Pakistani I speak Urdu so I have no clue what she says or writes! It’s not fair because all the kids in my class are Arabic except me and my friend. I’m okay with Islamic studies and allah’s (SWT) 99 names too. And plus I came a little later in the year so I don’t know all the suras she’s teaching us but she still expects me to memorize like 10 suras in a week! I hate it so much and it’s not fair because my best friend isn’t on it. And Sunday school doesn’t help you because kids in Sunday school steal things in the classrooms (not me).

  14. LULU says:

    Maaf Rabiya, but I think HijabMan is making things happen by providing an Islamic education to his children at home – one that is focused on ‘legit sources’, as you say. What better teachings than directly from the Qur’an!

    Our community has Islamic Studies everyday for children after school- also staffed by volunteers. Here we were taught that Islam punishes and shows no mercy to children who break its laws!

    I am too faced with the dilemma of sending my kids to these Islamic Schools when they are older. I do not discount the good being taught here in Arabic and Tajweed, but I wish that they could instead teach our children to love our beautiful, merciful religion instead of to fear it.

    InshaAllah, I too hope to provide these lessons at home. One God, Do Good <3

  15. Nadia says:

    Interesting post. I used to be a sunday shool teacher in a small town. We had about 10 muslim families and about 20 kids on good weekends, over half of them were cousins though! Imagine the horror of trying to teach siblings or relatives in one class, not fun, and not condusive to learning. Especially when you have older and younger kids put together because of having two or three teachers. I know this isn’t the ideal situation, but its the best we could do at the time. The goal for us was to give these kids something they could learn about Islam (since they weren’t getting much at home) and also build community amongst the kids to where they would enjoy coming to the mosque and continue while growing up inshallah. I hope that ten yers down the line my kiiddos will have some positive experience of sunday school. It wasn’t ideal, but it was something and did more good than harm (inshallah!)
    Flash forward to years later when I taught Sunday school at a slightly bigger mosque during my college years. The decrease in teacher student ratio was refreshing and having more teachers to bounce ideas off of and thankfully more involved parents was nice. But then I slowly became aware of the vices mentioned in your post and in some comments. There was one sister, bless her heart, who was really nice, but took the ‘hell approach’ I call it now, reminding the kid they should pray and be good etc otherwise Allahs punishment is severe. The other teachers and I would flinch, as we would prefer to teach our kids about love and Allahs mercy, and only start teaching deeply about hell to the older kids whose foundation had been well set. We had conversations about making sure we were on the same page about this but I dint think we got through to her. One day we brought it up to a brother on the board and he listened thoughtfully but Im not sure if anything was done about it. Thinking back I wish I had taken it upon myself to do more to make sure we were all more aligned philosophically in our teachings.
    My sunday school teaching days are gone for now due to family responsibilities. But looking back mostly it ws positivie experiences, with smiling kids who looked forward to our classes.

  16. Zeba Siddiqui says:

    You all should look into the Weekend Learning Sunday school textbooks. Our Sunday school switched to them a couple of years ago, and we have been very happy with it. Very timely topics that relate to what kids in America are going through.

  17. Moonman says:

    “What do you expct from Sunday school is a school full of fun and activities, and what you get is three classes of strange language, unkown religion and boring teaching”.
    So for the first one who would like to learn a language that is not important, why not Spanish or French? The facts are the Arabic language is a language of beauty and poetry. Do not learn it because you have to but if you want to.
    As far as the religion; we the so called Muslims are occasional Muslims; Ramadan, Eid, and when we go to the Masjed. Although a Muslim should be Muslim at all times we do not see Muslim parents during the week and we notice the double standards that some Muslims practice. This should be the reason to go nd learn so we can decide if it is the religion or the people we know?
    As for the Quran; Read it and recite it. Go and spend time understanding it. And do remember after all and in over 1600 years it has been intact, and every day some scientist find another fact that had already been mentioned there.
    Just remember you want the best for your children walk the talk.

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