Weekend Learning’s Garbled Gospel Gymnastics
The authors of Weekend Learning actually share much of Yahya Emerick’s core worldview. Their approach is to try to package it for American kids, smoothing some of the edges without giving up the message of literalism and supremacy.
The Weekend Learning authors try to have it both ways: celebrate narrow literal ultra-conservative interpretations of texts and rituals as amazing while at the same time trying to fit them into modern Western society. For children looking for clear answers about their faith and identity, it can only deepen the identity crisis and cognitive dissonance.
In 9th grade, children are told: “The father is typically the head of the household… Allah has ordained the man a stage higher than the woman” (page 151). Two grades later, the textbook sounds like a feminist: “We must remember who wrote the classical works – men. No doubt their interpretation had patriarchal bias” (Grade 11&12 textbook, page 149). Is the traditional patriarchal order good or bad?
Children in 8th grade get a very confusing opening message during a unit on non-Muslims: “The Qur’an says not to have friendship with non-Muslims, except under certain conditions.” It concludes: “We learn that under some circumstance we may not keep friendships with the Jews or the Christians. However, we should remember that not keeping friendship does not give us permission to fight them” (page 49).
Ask your 15 year-old son to explain what that means – and see if he feels good heading back to their public school playground the next day.
Weekend Learning does not try to give children the tools to make their own decisions or analyze traditional texts on their own. The textbooks presented with gospel, only the message is garbled. This only deepens the confusion many Muslim American children feel: Can I be friends with a non-Muslim or not? Should I be a feminist or not?
Meet Husain A. Nuri and Mansur Ahmad
Husain Nuri immigrated to Columbus, Ohio from his native India, where (he makes sure to tell readers who might suspect he is Shi’a) he grew up in a “devout Sunni family.” A banker by training, he has authored 25 books on Islam. He was the principal of an Islamic weekend school in Columbus and began to realize there were no good curricula.
Nuri connected with another father trying to lead weekend Islamic classes. Dr. Mansur Ahmad is a radiologist and Professor at University of Minnesota. A native speaker of Bengali, Ahmad had an Islamic training abroad and served for a time as a visiting professor at King Saud University in Riyadh. Running an Islamic school in Minnesota, he also felt there was a lack of good material for kids.
In 2002, Nuri and Ahmad connected over their shared realization that “there was no single textbook available that could meet our classroom needs” (as they explain in the preface of their textbooks). Their concerns were not ideological or about content – just practical. The existing lessons were the wrong length, the wrong depth of knowledge, and not designed for weekend schools.
They decided to write their own book. Their self-described goal (from the Preface) sounds noble: “We wanted to have a curriculum that would include everything that Muslim students growing up in the West would ideally need to know. We wanted to include topics based on the life experiences of students growing up in the West. Muslim children growing up in the US, Europe, and Australia are facing diverse challenges and conflicting pressures at school and in friend circles.”
In 2007, they sent coil-bound books to over 30 schools across the US and England. Today, Nuri runs Weekend Learning as the Chief Program Director– and the company claims its textbooks are used in over 1,000 schools. A few years ago they also began publishing books for students in Muslim day schools.
In 2015, they published their first upper high school textbook for 11th & 12th grades. To help them speak to American teenagers, they hired a recent high school graduate, Amalia Gitosuputro. She “provided valuable input as to the questions and issues high-school students want to know.” Amalia wrote the outline for a few lessons and got credit as a co-author, before going on to Case Western Reserve University, where she served as president of the MSA and did outreach for CAIR Columbus to progressive organizations.
Weekend Learning Has Been Criticized for Its Depiction of Women
In 2016, Tamara Gray, founder of the organization Rabata, delivered a scholarly paper at an ISNA convention reviewing textbooks used at Islamic weekend schools in Minnesota. Grey’s report ranked Weekend Learning the lowest among textbooks for gender equity. She gave it a “failing grade” and determined that the textbook “should not be used in the classroom”
Grey writes: “I was looking for illustrations and text that empower young girls and encourage them in the foundational equity of their faith. In this regard, I was greatly disappointed. Illustrations are few across the board, and when girls are drawn they are often in messy hijabs, or messy clothes. There are many boys drawn in prayer and giving charity. Girls are drawn around texts about cleanliness. The numbers of illustrations are far fewer than boys, and when girls are drawn they are often mothers or teachers, not students participating in the practice of Islam”.
I have concerns far beyond the depictions of women. Weekend Learning texts instill in our kids a fear of being destroyed if they stray from the right path. The authors scare kids with the fear that temptations in their life today will lead them to suffering in the afterlife (and in this life). You don’t need to be a clinical psychologist to know that these messages are harmful to innocent kids.
For older kids, the book is black and white at times in a way that furthers this sense of guilt and fear. “As a Muslim, you have to find a way to avoid the temptation to dating,” write Nuri and Ahmad (Grade 9 textbook, page 57). This blanket statement ties religious identity to a common practice for parents and teenagers alike, even back home in Muslim countries. The authors could have urged teenagers to be responsible, maybe writing instead: “It’s better not to date. Be careful and thoughtful.” But their message only drives more children – particularly girls – to lead double-lives and feel guilty doing it.
And let’s not even get started about non-Muslim friends. Making them conditional rather than always okay is terrible. Tying friendships with non-Muslims to the state of geo-politics around the world is so damaging for children in our diverse American society. Why even raise this in the mind of a child? It would seem because Nuri and Ahmad themselves have not worked out their feelings on this issue – or can’t figure out how to square literalism and real life.
Our children are American Muslim kids growing up like no other children. They live in Trump’s America and in the shadow of ISIS. They are being de-humanized by bigots from the outside and tempted by barbaric extremists from the inside. The last thing they need is more confusing messages from supposed religious authorities.
I fear that the end result of using Weekend Learning is that our children either give up being Muslims altogether or lead double-lives… or go down a very dark path.