Our faith influences our worldview, our identity, and our actions. Conversely, contemporary life also impacts our perception of faith, its place in our daily routine, and our value system. As Mawlana Hazar Imam noted during the Commencement Address at Columbia University, the effect of “rampant materialism, self-indulgent individualism, and unprincipled relativism,” has been enormous on the ethical paradigm and general outlook of the new generation, which finds itself at the crossroads of religion and the secular world. He also feared a bleak future if “[…] freedom of religion deteriorates into freedom from religion.” How can a faith community mitigate the impact of these societal pressures? An answer may lie in having a sound ethical and educational foundation.
Education in Islam is not dichotomized and divided. Muslim thinkers and scholars never saw the religious and the secular, philosophy and science, the sacred and the profane, in binary contexts. In his address given at the Evangelical Academy in Tutzing, Germany, Hazar Imam remarked that, “One of the central elements of the Islamic faith is the inseparable nature of faith and world. The two are so deeply intertwined that one cannot imagine their separation. They constitute a ‘Way of Life.’”
This educational perspective is brought to life under the auspices of The Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board (ITREB) for the United States, through the Religious Education Centers (REC) which serve thousands of students. Developed by the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS), the RECs use the Primary and Secondary Ta’lim curriculum which introduces students to Islam and the Ismaili tradition. Students are introduced to Islamic ethics, history, and culture. Since 1977, the IIS has been engaged in a series of curriculum development and Teacher Educator programs.
The RECs are staffed by members of the community who volunteer their time, knowledge, and skills. From positions of Principals, Heads of Instruction, Teachers, Teacher Educators, to serving on parent teams, administrative teams, creative teams, logistics teams -- every position necessary to execute and manage a quality Education Center is filled by members of the community. Professional ITREB staff and dedicated Secondary Teacher Education Program (STEP) teachers trained by the IIS extend their services for the benefit of the students.
Soon after joining the Ismaili tariqah, Jennifer Sundrani of Naperville Jamatkhana started to serve as a volunteer at the REC. For the past fifteen years, she has served as Principal for Pre-Primary levels and as a teacher. “I love teaching,” says Jennifer, “I feel that it’s at the young age we help guide the children with the ethics of Islam. Second-grade level students have a lot of questions and I love to be asked. I love sharing with the non-Ismaili parents how easy and understanding our faith is.”
Richmond’s newly-appointed Principal for Primary grades, Shaheena Janmohammad, remarks that “We are truly so blessed to be a part of a community that allows people to give back in their own unique ways. Service highlights our strengths and brings our Jamat together.” She adds, “If I’m ever feeling overwhelmed, I just remind myself how blessed I am to be getting these opportunities. Seva (service) is what has kept me going and makes me feel like I have a purpose. Seva is my happiness, it is my light, it is a way of life.”
At the secondary level, students explore diverse practices of Islam and Muslim civilizations. San Antonio’s Naveed Ali has served as a secondary teacher for over 25 years. An Information Technology professional, and a published author, he makes time to teach Grade 12 students at REC. Naveed shares why he teaches: “I consider it my debt to the Imam and the community. So much has been invested in me in time and resources. Service also enables me to connect and learn from others.” He adds, “Seva is my way of giving back, even though I can never give enough compared to what I receive. A sense of achievement, of being part of something big, a sense of belonging. It has brought me an immense amount of satisfaction, respect, and recognition.”
Responding to the question of what inspires her to serve, Alysha Jamal, a Pre-K and Kindergarten teacher says: “Being able to have the opportunity to serve the Jamat and the Imam of the time is a blessing in itself. It has been embedded in me, as my parents and grandparents have always taught me to serve the Imam. When the Imam is happy with you, he blesses you with seva.”
Ultimately, it is the teachers and staff who provide a transformative educational experience to younger members of our community, and we are grateful to them for this amazing service.