I wasn’t sure what to expect when I stepped into the recently established mosque. It was, I was told, a former Coca-Cola factory when Muslims bought it and decided to make it into a mosque and move their nascent Islamic weekend school there.
It was the early 1980s, and along with Masjids and Halal meat stores, weekend schools became a staple of Muslim communities, including my own. A group of Muslim parents in my city decided to establish one.
Like parents of other faiths, they did not want their kids to be ignorant of their religion, or turn their backs on it when they were older. But given that community resources were thin, starting a full-time school was too daunting and difficult a task. Thus was born the Islamic weekend school. This was repeated in Muslim communties across the United States and Canada at the time. It was based on the model of the church-based Sunday school found in the mainstream, majority Christian culture.
The idea was simple enough: Get together a group of Muslim kids, teach them the basics of the faith while giving them an opportunity to socialize with other Muslims in a Masjid environment once a week. It was mostly a volunteer effort. But what administrators, teachers, and volunteers sometimes lacked in professionalism and training was made up for in sincerity, effort, and consistency.
My strongest memories of my first day at Islamic weekend school were of one of my teachers and the other kids. Sister Anna was a Dutch convert to Islam, and she handed each of her students a brand new notebook with a glossy photo of white clouds swirling around a mountain against the backdrop of a bright blue sky on the cover. This was for the work we would do in her class. I knew from my parents that Muslims were from all over the world, of course, not just Pakistan (where my parents had immigrated from), India, the Middle East, Indonesia, Ethiopia, etc.. But Sr. Anna was one of the first converts I had met and gotten to know personally. I loved the notebook, and grew to love Sr. Anna too.
It was also a surprise to meet so many other Muslim kids like me, born and being raised in Canada. I was one of barely a handful of Muslims in my public school, and to be in an environment where others understood my struggles was both a novelty and a welcome relief.
As the years passed, I built a repository of memories that cemented my faith, my identity as a Muslim, and offered me comfort: The sound of the Adhan after lunch break; praying with friends; walking to the store next door to buy candy; the first time I heard “Alif for Allah”, the first song Yusuf Islam, a.k.a. Cat Stevens, had recorded post-conversion - on a tape recorder.
“Weekend school is what established your base as a Muslim,” my mother once told me. She is right. While she taught me how to pray, as well as read the Quran in Arabic and understand it through English translations, she insisted I attend weekend school nonetheless. For her, it was a way to cement faith, Islamic identity, and a sense of community, things she could not have done teaching me Islamic precepts at home alone.
Islamic weekend school is about both our private relationship with Allah, as well as our role in a bigger community. It is where Muslim children pray, play, fight, and (ideally) make up with friends with whom they share a bond based on faith.
Almost four decades later, Islamic weekend schools across the United States and Canada have grown and continue to educate young Muslims - the majority of whom attend public school, not full-time Islamic schools. There is still much that needs to be done to improve quality, curriculum, and professionalism in both teaching and administration. But we have come very far from that Coca-Cola factory-turned-Masjid I stepped in almost 40 years ago. Alhamdu lillah. I have no doubt that the future will only bring us further ahead, insha Allah.