Muslim Children at 'Al-Fatemah' Mosque Taught Charity

Interview By RAY FELICIANO

Q: What are students taught at the Al-Fatemah Islamic Sunday school?

“We have three main subjects other than Qur’anic teachings, which is learning Arabic Reading, Writing, and Pronunciation. The right Arabic pronunciation is emphasized a lot because one small change in the pronunciation and the meaning of the word completely changes. So we emphasize that, but the three other subjects that we have are ‘akhlaq’, ‘fiqh’, and ‘tareeq’. ‘Akhlaq’ is basically manners, behavior. ‘Fiqh’ is rules and regulations [jurisprudence], about prayers and about cleanliness and all those things. ‘Tareeq’ translates to history, and that is Islam history.”

Q: How many students attend? What ages?

“We have seventy enrolled. From age five we have kindergarten, to senior year in high school. We have preschoolers who are interested, but have discouraged it at this point because we don’t have room and lots going on with that age group.”

Roxanna Saifi - Principal of the Al-Fatemah Islamic Sunday School

Roxanna Saifi
Principal of Al-Fatemah Islamic School
(Photo by Kimberly Feliciano)

Q: Is the school for both Sunni and Shi’a?

“Well, anybody is welcome, really. But we do follow the Ja'afari school of thought, which is Shi’a. When we first came, the only Islamic Center was the ICCD at that point, and I had taken my children there. We have a few differences here and there, but if you look at the big picture, it’s 95% common and 5% different as far as Islamic teachings.”

Q: What special challenges do you face as an Islamic school in a post 9/11 America?

“I guess you want them not to be apologetic for what you believe because there is nothing to be apologetic about. There are good and bad people in every spectrum of the world, and just because a few people have hurt other people so much, we can’t take the blame for it all the time. At the same time, it’s important, and we emphasize this a lot, that suicide is ‘haraam’ which is absolutely not allowed in Islam. In fact, protecting your body, not hurting your body. So keep this blessing safe, because it’s not yours. It’s a gift.”

Q: Do students express being affected by prejudice or media stereotypes?

“They have. Especially the girls who wear the ‘hijab’ [cover or headscarf] stood out because that was one thing they could point out from a distance. Otherwise, we have Muslims from all over the world. You really can’t tell by the hair color or skin color where they are from and what they follow. And a lot of stereotyping for the men and the boys, I think—anybody who had a little bit of a beard was stereotyped. I have heard a lot of stories because my kids were in high school. The challenges they faced, some of the ladies in the work sphere. But as far as they children are concerned, I think a lot of them tried to hide who they were, too. It took a lot of counseling.”

Q: How is the overall topic of the war on ‘Islamic extremists’ addressed?

“In many ways. Extremism, fanaticism, and all these things come out of ignorance. The more learned people are, the more knowledgeable they are, they tend to deal with things a little more realistically. As you know, the name of the religion [Islam] means ‘peace’. A lot of emphasis is given on that so the kids don’t get the wrong message.”

Q: What are some of the projects the children work on to give back to their community?

“At the beginning of the year we had a calendar chalked up so the kids could know what we were going to do, and we had a few community service things because I think it’s very important after 9/11. What I noticed was that Muslims sometimes live in a bubble. It’s good to interact with your own community and have a support system, but it’s also very important if you’re next door neighbor doesn’t know what you are and what Muslims are about. Obviously they are going to believe whatever is told to them. That is what happened. A lot of misconceptions. But people who knew us from the PTA [Parent Teacher Association], from places where we were involved, our neighbors—because every year we distribute dates and everybody knows it’s Ramadan. But you know, everybody was asking, ‘So how are you guys doing? Do you need any help?’ There’s a lot of compassion there. They know somebody personally. I felt that a lot of the community members were living in a bubble and they needed to go out. And also, you live in your country, you live in your town, you reap so many benefits. It’s your primary duty to give something back. In fact, we did something with the homeless shelter. I found this interfaith shelter for the homeless down on Sheridan Avenue in downtown Albany. They said they are welcome to all ethnic foods… So, the kids were so excited. We made a full meal… The kids did all of it."

Q: What about this project where the children are making pillows for a good cause?

“Yes, right now that is our project for the pediatric units in the hospitals. I contacted a few—St. Claire’s, Ellis, etc. Albany Med has the biggest pediatric unit. They have a pediatric oncology unit, too. From a long time ago, when my girls were involved in Girl Scouts, we had made pillows for the heart patients. They said after surgery they needed something to hug because when they cough it is hurtful. I thought this would be a great thing. What we did is we made little kits so each one could sign in and take a kit. We have delivery dates this week. They are going to invite at least five or six kids. They can’t interact with the patients, but they are going to give them a tour of the facility [hospital]. My purpose is I want to show the kids how grateful they need to be—that they can run around, go to school, they have parents, and don’t have any sickness. It is nice for them to help kids who don’t have a normal life like that. With that they really wanted to. Some of them wanted to make three each.”

Q: Isn’t charity one of the five pillars of Islam?

“Yes, it is one of the pillars of Islam for sure. It’s called ‘zakat’. This is the quote from prophet Muhammed: ‘Charity is the duty of every Muslim. He who have not the means thereto, let him do a good act or abstain from an evil one. That is his charity.’ Every good act is charity. Smiling at your brother is charity. I want to emphasize—you don’t have to have a lot to be able to give. Everybody’s capable of giving something.”

Q: Do you believe that the Islamic community has been accepted into the mainstream community here in the Capital District?

A lesson in charity, the children show off pillows they made for the pediatric unit at Albany Medical Center.
A lesson in charity, the children show off pillows they made for the
pediatric unit at Albany Medical Center.
(Photo by Kimberly Feliciano)

“I think so. From my personal experience, it feels like this is home. I feel if you give a little, you get a little, too. For the most part, people are very compassionate, open-minded, and willing to learn. There are always people who are opinionated and don’t want to know any better. For the most part, my personal experience has been that we have great friends in all communities, and there’s lots of interfaith stuff going on. At colleges, the youth groups are doing excellent.”

Q: What has been the most surprising challenge in your first year as principal?

“[Laugh] I don’t like to be in the leadership role. I always like to be in the background, so it was hard to be kind of in the front. I wanted to change, a little bit, the mentality of the general public, that we have to be open-minded. Religion is not limited. We have so many rules that are related to good manners and dealings with people. Being nice to people, not just the Muslims. It has been practiced, but I wanted the next generation to grow up with that spirit because that’s a big part of Islam. Hopefully that will change a lot of people’s misconceptions. I hope they practice those ‘akhlaq’ and manners when they go out of these doors because we are trying to teach them in a practical way, not just in a room with lectures. While we were cooking, they were taught how to treat food with respect. You know, washing hands and all the little things that we have been teaching from the books, we could teach in a practical way. The teachers are all trying to do hands-on stuff, more audio-visual stuff, because that’s what the kids are used to. With the level five class, the teacher at this point he comes with his laptop. He hooks it up and they do everything on the computer downstairs in the basement. So we are trying to go with the times, not the old ways of teaching.”

Q: What else would you like people to know?

“I’d like people to open their hearts and see that Islam is really a beautiful, sophisticated, very ahead of our times religion that is going to take us a lot of places. To not use bad Muslims as a gauge as to what Islam is about because I see that is done a lot. It’s mostly the bad Muslims who are giving statements, who are saying things that really are not Islam.”

Q: Would you clarify what the word ‘Islam’ means?

“The word itself in Arabic means ‘peace’. The way it is perceived, with the Qur’an, is that it’s a way of life. I’ve been to Christian schools all my life. They were run by Austrians and we had mass, the Lord’s Prayer, all part of the curriculum. So, I’m familiar with the Old Testament, the New Testament. I grew up in India, so we grew up with Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, everything by our side. We’ve been exposed to a lot of religions, but from what I have seen, Islam has rules and regulations for your entire life. There’s no gray areas. It’s black and white. You do this, it is better for you. You stay away from this, it is bad for you. You do good, you will have a better place in the future. Life is like a bridge. You are crossing over to a better place, and if you want to reserve a better place for yourself you need a good life. Don’t forget to thank the Creator for everything you’ve been blessed with. The constant reminder in the middle of the day, in the middle of your work, you’re supposed to pray. The prayers are not for God. We are the ones who need the prayers. It is emphasized that if you pray—and it is mentioned several times—you ask, and it may be granted. If you never ask, it is never going to happen. So that effort has to be made. Even about charity, about life in general, about relationships with your parents. Even if your parents are doing something wrong or have done something wrong or they may not be good people—you are still supposed to respect them. They brought you into this life. You have an obligation to take care of them in times of need. Even if they follow a different religion. Irrespective.”

“And the woman in Islam. That is another misconception. A big misconception. Islam is one of the few religions where prophet Muhammed was proposed to by Lady Hadijah. She was older than him. She was a business lady in Arabia. She proposed to him seeing that he was a good man. She helped him flourish his business when he used to take caravans. So, that’s a big step in those times for a woman to go out and propose. She was a businesswoman, and the one to back Islam in the beginning with her wealth to help him. Then, the lineage of the prophet that we Shi’as take it to twelve generations—and the Sunnis also acknowledge it—that it’s followed by his daughter. He had no sons. So there’s a big emphasis and such importance given to these ladies, and it’s not emphasized enough. Islam gave inheritance laws to daughters fourteen hundred years ago. We [women] just got the right to work here, ya know? I could go on and on as to how many rights. I was just talking to some friends yesterday, and apparently, from Iran they had prenuptial agreements with the girl writing down exactly what she would like for her future, and it is a legal document. I’ve heard of prenuptials here which are very new. They [talk about] this oppressed woman! I don’t think so!”

“And women who chose to wear the ‘hijab’, it’s not supposed to be done out of force. And 95% of them are not doing it by force. They are doing it because they feel comfortable. It brings them closer to God. And there is no harm in showing your identity. Be proud of it. It has nothing to do with oppression. In fact, some of the ladies wear it so proudly. They say, ‘It’s great. I don’t have to say anything.’ I’ve heard there’s a lot of touchy-feely that goes on in high school in the hallways. The girls say, ‘Because I have this on, it’s an automatic hands-off signal. People are respectful.’”

Q: You said Islam is ahead of its time. How so?

“The perspective of females is one. The emphasis on gaining knowledge. I can’t tell you how much the word ‘’ilm’ is used. ‘’Ilm’ means knowledge. Knowledge has been emphasized over and over and over again. Teaching knowledge, imparting knowledge, sharing knowledge, has been a higher elevation than praying all day long. If you can teach somebody for an hour, that is more of a blessing than praying all night. It can be any kind of knowledge. Like scientific knowledge. If you’re studying astronomy, you find out the miracles of the universe. It leads to God. In fact, appreciating a beautiful sunset is called ‘ibadat’, which is prayer, because you are appreciating a sign of Allah. If you say something beautiful, you’re appreciating. Anything. Any knowledge which will make you learn more about how humans have progressed.”

Q: How are Muslims taught to deal with Western culture?

“We are still working on a lot of things because a lot of people [leaders] are still first generation. Places like Dearborn Michigan, three generations have grown up there. When you have gone to school here, to college, and you grow up, you kind of learn to deal with them. I think my kids will be able to answer that question better than I can because like they said, ‘You have never been in that situation, Mom, so you don’t know what it takes to handle it.’ But, from my own experience with my children, we’ve had friends from everywhere and we’ve always encouraged it. They were very respectful of each other… Now a lot of schools do have [a designated room] during Ramadan. A note goes out that some of the kids will not be eating or drinking, so be sensitive to that issue. So, I think it’s a question of us, as adults bringing the message out, too. There’s no point in making our kids suffer...The kids are more [laugh], well I guess they learn to deal with it, and they do a better job than we do.”

Q: Do you believe religions are moving more towards integration or isolation and why?

“I think the first generation, we come with our own baggage [laugh]. Sometimes we do lead isolated lives because we are comfortable with our languages, our culture, our food, with our ethnicity. But the children, they don’t see it. They see themselves as American Muslims. Our example…Iran, India, Pakistan, East Africa, and all these kids have grown up together. For them there is one language. English. And they have all experienced the same thing. They all come for mosque. They don’t see any difference between each other. So, if that answers your question, we are [moving] more towards uniting. In fact, we had a speaker last weekend from California. It was an ice breaker. We had the Imam from ICCD [Dr. Ahmed Kobeisy]. We had a recital from the Afghan Islamic Center in Schenectady. Everybody gave their word. Everybody spoke. Everybody hugged. We talked about our commonalties, not our differences. It was wonderful. Everybody opened their doors to each other. Because they’ve been established a lot more [ICCD], they opened their doors and said, ‘If you need any resources…’ because they have a standardized Islamic school [AnNur Islamic School]. We’ve welcomed them because we have a lot of speakers throughout the year. During Ramadan and Maharam, we have more speakers than any mosques in the area.”

Several mothers show their children’s pillows they helped stuff at the Sunday school.
Several mothers show their
children’s pillows they helped
stuff at the Sunday school.
(Photo by Kimberly Feliciano)

Q: What would you suggest to other principals and schools on how to increase tolerance?

“I would say get a little educated about Islam because there’s a lot of wrong material out there. If you Google on the internet, there’s a lot of websites that say wrong things. In fact, a few months ago, they took out a copy of the Qur’an with a wrong translation, and if you didn’t know any better that’s what they first see. It would be the wrong message. But there’s a lot of good websites, lots of learned people who are doing a lot of good things. Just getting educated helps a lot because there’s a lot of stuff just listening to the news. I tell my own kids also, listen to alternative radio. Go away from the main media and find out because there’s a lot of things people are doing that people don’t hear about unless you make an effort.”

Q: What would you say to someone who cites passages in the Qur’an and insist that it’s a violent religion?

“I would say find out from a Muslim. There’s lots of translations out there. In the Qur’an, there’s lots of things, if they are taken out of context, you can come up with a whole different meaning. But when put in context, there are rules and regulations (regarding the correct actions to take in a given situation). One of our brothers had done a study, I think right after 9/11, and he said so many people are publicizing that the Qur’an has so many violent passages. Not to bad mouth any religion—which I don’t think is right anyways because then you’re showing arrogance—but, he took out some passages from the Old Testament and the New Testament, and he said, ‘I am looking at all these passages that are violent, and what about it?’ If you look at any religion—I was at an interfaith thing at Union College, lots of people, and one of the ladies passed out this passage from the Torah and she wanted it out because it was very violent. We believe in the Bible and the Torah, and it’s respected. Everybody is the ‘people of the Book’, as the Qur’an calls them. So, I would say, don’t just go with the mainstream media. Don’t just read the books people want you to read. The saddest thing is when I go to the airports I see the worst depiction of Muslim culture. So many authors have written books calling themselves Muslims and writing, but they are giving a very negative aspect of Muslim society and culture.”

Muslims are taught lessons of charity at Al-Fatemah Sunday school class, in part, by making pillows for children who are ill.
Muslims are taught lessons of charity at
Al-Fatemah Sunday school class, in part,
by making pillows for children who are ill. (Photo by Kimberly Feliciano)

Q: Do Muslims believe that the messiah prophesized in the Christian Bible is the same person as the “12th Imam” prophesized in the Qur’an?

“Yes. The messiah and the 12th Imam are one and the same. It’s prophesized. Lots of written scriptures say there are signs when he would be coming. What is going to happen in society, the problems that will be happening. Even according to the Torah. Each of the monotheistic religions have said that there’s a messiah. All the prophets from Adam to Abraham to Luke to Moses, they’re all Qur’anic stories as well as Biblical stories, and other [religious] books as well.”