Youth Empowerment, Holistic Education, and Islamic Weekend Schools

“Verily, I have only been sent to perfect righteous character.”

–Prophetic Tradition

The call for a holistic, student-centered, and justice-oriented education in public schooling (Miller 2019) has necessitated a reexamination of the approaches to Islamic education both in the Muslim and non-Muslim world. Educators have come to realize not only the need for change, but the importance of transformational learning approaches centered on engagement as well as self-awareness, identity, security, and belonging (Mahmoudi et. Al, 2012). Examining its implementation is relevant not only for full-time Islamic schools but also Islamic weekend schools in non-Muslim majority countries.

My research in this latter area was inspired by numerous years of involvement with Islamic weekend schools as a parent, educator, and researcher. The aim was to understand the challenges faced by Islamic weekend schools and to study how this holistic approach could be integrated in the design of their curricula in the US and the UK where Muslim youth face challenges of bigotry, prejudice, and Islamophobia (Elkassem et. Al 2018). Theoretically, most Islamic weekend schools are designed around the core components of character education, identity, and belonging; yet they fail to address these crucial issues in meaningful ways (ISPU 2017). Research suggests that character development and an overall lack of focus on contemporary social justice issues are the missing links in weekend schools’ Islamic studies curricula (ISPU 2017).

The personal and professional relationships I have formed over the years with many Islamic weekend schools enabled me to access their curricula, conduct classroom observations, and interview staff members. I analyzed the Islamic studies curricula employed by 37 weekend schools in the greater Washington metropolitan area and in London, England. I systematically evaluated 14 of the above-mentioned Islamic studies curricula employed by various weekend schools and homeschool organizations. I also interviewed scholars, educators, Imams, university professors, and social activists. Based on curricular analysis, observations, and interviews, these are the themes that emerged repeatedly:

1. Rote memorization of the Qur’an without contextual understanding. The primary focus when teaching the Qur’an is reading and rote memorization. There is little emphasis on meaning, in-depth understanding of content, or its applicability to everyday life.

2. Emphasis on “tradition,” from the perspective of the particular school of thought, with little or no reference to other Islamic traditions. Parents choose weekend schools and mosques that adhere to their way of thinking as they wish their children to receive religious instruction that emulates their religious beliefs and practices. Thus, children do not learn about different sects, ideologies, and perspectives. Due to this reason, Islamic weekend schools tend to be insular, often exclusive and excluding, with diminutive theological diversity. This poses an immense challenge for weekend school educators: how to teach doctrinal diversity while being authentic to their particular tradition, without causing confusion among their students or offending parents.

3. Uncritical employment of history and historical facts to “prove” a particular narrative.  Most Islamic weekend schools tend to function as theological and ethnic enclaves, where only one theological school of thought is taught which may not be the best way to prepare children for life in a multi-religious, multi-ethnic society.

4. Little or no critical engagement with moral responsibility or ethical questions and how they relate to the “real world.” There is a great emphasis on rituals, laws, and obligations, without contextualization or application to real life. In many schools, there is an underlying transactional prominence in the way in which Islamic doctrine and rules of conduct are taught only in reference to permissible and non-permissible actions, without much attention to character, morality, ethics, or contemporary social justice issues. The content and methodology offer students very little guidance in navigating the challenges they encounter daily.

5. Lack of emphasis on the universal message of Islam or analysis of other religions, religious dialogue, or co-existence. There is little or no interconnectedness of various Islamic principles from a holistic perspective resulting in the universal message of Islam being undermined and often ignored.

6. Teacher-centric pedagogy rendering students as inactive participants. Teachers employ top-down methodology, and students remain silent and passive receivers of knowledge. Students are not allowed to challenge or question the authority of the teacher or the material.

Some of the reasons for the above-mentioned common themes are challenges faced by Islamic weekend schools which are beyond the control of the staff and administrators of the schools. Based on my observations and involvement with Islamic weekend schools, the following logistical issues are contributing factors:

  1. Most Islamic weekend schools do not have a permanent premises which makes teaching and instruction unstable.
  2. The children have very little opportunity to engage and interact outside of the classroom.
  3. Islamic weekend schools meet once a week for nine months, which does not allow adequate time to meaningfully cover material or engage with students.
  4. Islamic weekend schools tend to be overcrowded, underfunded, and understaffed with little onsite parental involvement.
  5. Islamic weekend schools are often administered by volunteers who are not educators by profession.
  6. The administrators and faculty tend to be highly educated and accomplished professionals but have insufficient training in classroom management or educational pedagogies.
  7. There is very little professional development offered by the schools due to lack of funds and resources.

To improve Islamic weekend schools, here are my recommendations:

  1. Expand educational focus from rote memorization of the Qur’an and prayers to include wider ethical and moral behavioral instruction to build Islamic character and develop students’ identity.
  2. Improve theological literacy among teachers and encourage tolerance of doctrinal diversity by developing multi-perspective teaching methodologies.
  3. Connect curricular content with contemporary issues Muslim youth face through raising awareness of social justice issues.
  4. Invest in professional development for teachers and administrators while encouraging parental involvement and engagement.
  5. Utilize “student-centered pedagogy,” rather than teaching religion as something separate and disconnected from student context and lived experience. 
  6. Support community service projects and community engagement as teaching tools through fostering the principles of social justice.
  7. Strengthen administrative practices by encouraging parents, community members, teachers, and students to engage regularly, share expertise, and collaborate to improve teaching skills and students’ academic performance.
  8. Promote policies that ensure consistency of instruction and minimize conflict in how individual teachers interpret Islamic teachings and impart knowledge to students.
  9. Foster women’s leadership, as most Islamic weekend schools are led by women.
  10. Encourage engagement and cooperation with other faith-based and community organizations.

Islamic weekend schools need to adopt curricula that nurture critical thinking, empower young adults to meet contemporary moral and ethical struggles, and articulate thoughtful, God-conscious responses to these challenges, especially in handling prejudice and stereotyping (Gallup 2011). Incorporating a holistic social justice approach into Islamic weekend schools’ curricula is necessary to develop a sense of security, identity, and belonging among Muslim youth in order to lay the foundation for high self-esteem, a moral system of beliefs, and social engagement. We must remain mindful of these three concepts and implement them where possible in our pedagogical techniques for improving teaching practices and enhancing outcomes for our youth (Bennett 2015). Additionally, educators need to help students develop skills, such as critical thinking, self-reflection, and cooperation, which are vital to foster a better society.


Miller, John, The Holistic Curriculum, Third Edition, 2019

Mahmoudi, Sirous, et. al, “Holistic Education: An Approach for the 21st Century”. International Education Studies, Volume 5, No. 2; April 2012.

Elkassem, Siham, et. al, “Growing Up Muslim: The Impact of Islamophobia on Children in a Canadian Community”. Journal of Muslim Mental Health, Volume 12, Issue 1, Summer 2018.

Weekend Islamic Schools: Are They Preparing Children for Life Ahead? The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), July 25, 2017.

Bennett, Christine I. Comprehensive Multicultural Education: Theory and Practice. Upper Saddler River, NJ: Pearson, 2015.

Islamophobia: Understanding Anti-Muslim Sentiment in the West, Gallup 2011.

Youth Empowerment, Ethics and Islamic Education: A Conversation with Dr. Zahra Seif-Amirhosseini

About the author

Dr. Zahra S.A. Rafie is a social scientist, holding a PhD in Sociology and International Relations from the London School of Economic and Political Science. She obtained her master’s degree from the University of Cambridge in Oriental Studies, and her BA (Hons.) from the University of London, Goldsmiths College in Sociology and Philosophy. Zahra is a Professor of Sociology at Northern Virginia Community College, as well as a freelance consultant and researcher. Zahra is committed to social justice and activism in the field of gender equality, minority rights and youth empowerment. She has worked with many international organizations such as Amnesty International and UNICEF and continues her passion for social justice through NGO work. Zahra believes that effective and long-lasting change can only occur from grassroots up and is committed to creating a praxis of change that draws on intellectual theory to promote positive social change at the grassroots level. She can be reached at