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A level one student at Richmond's Masjid Al-Rahman practices writing "ba," the second letter of the Arabic alphabet. Photo by Zainab Khan.

Richmond mosque provides safe space, education for Muslim families

on December 14, 2014

The last thing you’d expect to sit opposite Jerry’s Cocktail Lounge in Richmond is a family-oriented, Muslim place of worship, let alone a full-fledged Islamic school.

Yet every Sunday, over 150 parents, students, elders, and teachers pile out of their cars or from the closest bus stop to walk over to Richmond’s Masjid Al-Rahman. Many families come from as far as Albany and Emeryville. Mosques in West Contra Costa County are sparse – the only other Muslim place of worship in the area is Masjid Noor, on Richmond’s Cutting Boulevard.

Walking through the front gate, men and women separate as they enter their own private spaces. The smell of cardamom (a favorite South Asian and Middle Eastern spice) is abundant in the air, and it is impossible to determine whether the aroma comes from the kitchen or from clothing. Women and children chatter, but it isn’t long before Shabana Shahbaz (better known as Ms. Shabana), the school’s administrator and coordinator, urges them all to take their seats and wait quietly for their teachers to arrive.

The mosque is diverse. Women walk in wearing hijabs, niqabs, Pakistani shalwar kameezes, Arab abayas, and of course, jeans. Every time a sentence is uttered, it is repeated in English, Urdu, and Arabic.

To communicate with the non-English speaking women, Ms. Shabana, who speaks both English and Urdu fluently, issues orders to her helpers and has one of them translate into Arabic.

Before classes begin, a girl, perhaps 7-years-old, rushes to Ms. Shabana’s table with a confidence only children who have spent their conscious lives translating for their foreign parents have, and asks, “How much do I owe you for this month?”

Ms. Shabana refuses to trivialize her question, treating her with the respect and dignity her question deserves. “Sweetheart, you only owe $20,” says Ms. Shabana. “Okay, great, I think I have a twenty,” answers the young girl, who has to stand on her tippy-toes to see over the table.

Across the hall, in the men’s space, a similar scene is afoot – Arab, African-American, Latino, and Pakistani men teach younger men and boys. The women have genuine classrooms on their side of the mosque, the men must divide the main prayer hall into smaller classrooms at random, the divisions made clear by the small circles and neat rows of gathered children.

Masjid Al-Rahman, or the Islamic Society of West Contra Costa, charges families only $10 a month per child. The tuition funds operating costs, snacks, and the year’s Eid parties (the two major Sunni Muslim holidays). The administration understands that many of the families are low-income, and keeps costs as minimal as possible. Textbook fees are additional and vary from $10-$60, depending on class level.

At the beginning of the year, over 200 students were enrolled at the Sunday School. That number has dropped to around 150, largely due to the school’s new policy of expelling students who miss more than three weeks in a row without proper notice. Ms. Shabana expects the numbers to exceed 200 again soon – the school has a long waiting list of students wanting to get in.

The schools curriculum focuses on Arabic (reading, writing, and speaking), Quranic memorization, and Islamic history.

Parents are drawn to the mosque and the Sunday school for much more than just its education, however.

During a phone call, Ms. Shabana explained, “It’s a place for the children to be amongst people who believe in the same religion and morals, it’s a safe environment for them, not only to learn, but also to have a sense of belonging. It’s hard for younger children to keep a balance of what the outside world is and what the religion is.”

Many of the Sunday school’s teachers and assistants once attended as students. One parent attended as a student, has had one daughter graduate from the school, and her son is currently in level five. She and her daughter now serve as volunteers.

“The masjid is very important in our religion. And Sunday is the only time we have to do what we’d like to do more of – getting together with other Muslims,” said the parent.

The mosque was founded in the early 1990s. Several immigrant families residing in the East Bay spent three years praying congregational prayers in each other’s basements until they had the means to fund their own mosque. Once the mosque was established, the next step was to build a school.

“We had the place rented, that was the first step. Next, we had to give an education to our children. It was obvious,” said Jawaid Ijaz, one of the original founders of Masjid Al-Rahman.


  1. Iftikhar Ahmad on December 15, 2014 at 4:33 am

    Free Our Schools

    Almost all children now believe they go to school to pass exams. The idea that they may be there for an education is irrelevant. State schools have become exam factories, interested only in A to C Grades. They do not educate children. Exam results do not reflect a candidate’s innate ability. Employers have moaned for years that too many employees cannot read or write properly. According to a survey, school-leavers and even graduates lack basic literacy and numeracy skills. More and more companies are having to provide remedial training to new staff, who can’t write clear instructions, do simple maths, or solve problems. Both graduates and school-leavers were also criticised for their sloppy time-keeping, ignorance of basic customer service and lack of self-discipline.

    Bilingual Muslims children have a right, as much as any other faith group, to be taught their culture, languages and faith alongside a mainstream curriculum. More faith schools will be opened under sweeping reforms of the education system in England. There is a dire need for the growth of state funded Muslim schools to meet the growing needs and demands of the Muslim parents and children. Now the time has come that parents and community should take over the running of their local schools. Parent-run schools will give the diversity, the choice and the competition that the wealthy have in the private sector. Parents can perform a better job than the Local Authority because parents have a genuine vested interest. The Local Authority simply cannot be trusted.

    The British Government is planning to make it easier to schools to “opt out” from the Local Authorities. Muslim children in state schools feel isolated and confused about who they are. This can cause dissatisfaction and lead them into criminality, and the lack of a true understanding of Islam can ultimately make them more susceptible to the teachings of fundamentalists like Christians during the middle ages and Jews in recent times in Palestine. Fundamentalism is nothing to do with Islam and Muslim; you are either a Muslim or a non-Muslim.

    There are hundreds of state primary and secondary schools where Muslim pupils are in majority. In my opinion all such schools may be opted out to become Muslim Academies. This mean the Muslim children will get a decent education. Muslim schools turned out balanced citizens, more tolerant of others and less likely to succumb to criminality or extremism. Muslim schools give young people confidence in who they are and an understanding of Islam’s teaching of tolerance and respect which prepares them for a positive and fulfilling role in society. Muslim schools are attractive to Muslim parents because they have better discipline and teaching Islamic values. Children like discipline, structure and boundaries. Bilingual Muslim children need Bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods, who understand their needs and demands.

    Indiscipline, incivility, binge drinking, drug addiction, gun and knife crimes, teenage pregnancies and abortion are part and parcel of British schooling. These are the reasons why majority of Muslim parents would like to send their children to Muslim schools with Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods. Only less than 5% attend Muslim schools and more than 95% keep on attending state and church schools to be mis-educated and de-educated by non-Muslim monolingual teachers.

    None of the British Muslims convicted following the riots in Bradford and Oldham in 2001 or any of those linked to the London bombings had been to Islamic schools. An American Think Tank studied the educational back ground of 300 Jihadists; none of them were educated in Pakistani Madrasas. They were all Western educated by non-Muslim teachers. Bilingual Muslim children need bilingual Muslim teachers as role models. A Cambridge University study found that single-sex classes could make a big difference for boys. They perform better in single-sex classes. The research is promising because male students in the study saw noticeable gains in the grades. The study confirms the Islamic notion that academic achievement is better in single-sex classes.

    None of 7/7 bombers and British Muslim youths who are in Syria and Iraq are the product of Muslim schools. They are the product of British schooling which is the home of institutional racism with chicken racist native teachers. It is absurd to believe that Muslim schools, Imams and Masajid teach Muslim children anti-Semitic, homophobic and anti-western views. It is dangerously deceptive and misleading to address text books and discuss them out of their historical, cultural and linguistic context. It is not wrong to teach children that Jews are committing the same cruelty in Palestine what German did to them before or during Second World War. It is not wrong to teach children that anti-social behaviour, drinking, drugs, homosexuality, sex before marriage, teenage pregnancies and abortions are western values and Islam is against all such sins. This does not mean that Muslim schools teach children to hate westerners, Jews and homosexuals.

    The demand for Muslim schools comes from parents who want their children a safe environment with an Islamic ethos. Parents see Muslim schools where children can develop their Islamic Identity where they won’t feel stigmatised for being Muslims and they can feel confident about their faith. Muslim schools are working to try to create a bridge between communities. There is a belief among ethnic minority parents that the British schooling does not adequately address their cultural needs. Failing to meet this need could result in feeling resentment among a group who already feel excluded. Setting up Muslim school is a defensive response. State schools with monolingual teachers are not capable to teach English to bilingual Muslim children. Bilingual teachers are needed to teach English to such children along with their mother tongue. According to a number of studies, a child will not learn a second language if his first language is ignored.

    The West has never been at ease with Islam since the Crusades. It is unfortunate that huge oil supplies lie under the Arabian Deserts. It is the West that stirred the trouble that led to 9/11. That attack was a desperate act of by men prepared to lose their life. We need to get to grips on who is the terrorist? On 24 November 1963, Lyndon Johnson said, “the battle against communism… must be joined… with strength and determination. Some three million lives were lost in the consequential battles. The US had to pull out due to Public Opinion. Communism lived on. So who was the terrorist?

    The British establishment is wrong in thinking that Imams are to blame for extremism. Imams are not solution to the problem for extremism. Extremism is nothing to do with Imams. Extremism is not created from abroad, it is coming from within. Britain fails to help Muslim communities feel part of British society. Race trouble is being predicted by the Daily Express, because of an ethnic boom in UK major cities. Muslim communities need imams for the solutions of their needs and demands in their own native languages. Muslim parents would like to see their children well versed in Standard English and to go for higher studies and research to serve humanity. The fact is that majority of Muslim children leave schools with low grades because monolingual teachers are not capable to teach Standard English to bilingual Muslim children. A Muslim is a citizen of this tiny global village. He/she does not want to become notoriously monolingual Brit.

    Terrorism and sexual grooming is nothing to do with Masajid, Imams and Muslim schools. Those Muslim youths who have been involved in terrorism and sexual grooming are the product of western education system which makes a man stupid, selfish and corrupt. They find themselves cut off from their cultural heritage, literature and poetry. They suffer from identity crises and I blame British schooling.

    The shocking level of targeting of the Muslim community of Birmingham is indicative of the normalisation of the dehumanisation of the Muslims of Britain. Under the pretext of “extremism”, criminal undemocratic and unethical abuse of public institutions and the Muslims of the UK can occur without much accountability. This pervasive attitude, especially amongst officials like Michael Gove needs to change. Our schools are truly trying to develop our children to do well at schools so later in life they are able to stand on their own two feet, but if we stop our schools from doing this than our country will have up rise of unemployment, benefit issues, crime levels high, I think its time for you apologize and allow practitioners to do their job right.
    Iftikhar Ahmad

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