Lifestyle & Belief

California's Averroes school offers an Islamic and American education

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At the Averroes Institute, students, pictured here with teacher Zaki Hassan, attend a school named after Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd, known as Averroes in the West. (Photo by Monica Campbell.)

Averroes is one of at least 250 Islamic schools around the country built to fit the needs of the growing American Muslim population.

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The Bay Area private school opened its doors in 2011 with a freshman class of just nine students. Despite its small size, the school's co-founder, Reem Bilbeisi, is committed to building an institution that will offer a new take on education. 

"One of the things we stand for in this school is you are a Muslim, you are a American, and you need to be proud of both, and you need to be able to bring those two together," Bilbeisi said. 

The school is primarily one big, airy room outfitted with Macintosh computers, extensive bookshelves and prayer rugs. Bilbeisi said the school administration is focused on creating a safe and productive educational environment.

“If students aren’t comfortable in their space, then they’re not going to learn,” she said. “If they’re too concerned with people judging them or assuming they’re one way and trying proving that they’re another way, then they’re really not focused on their studies.”

In the U.S., there is a strong tradition of Catholic, Mormon, Yeshiva, and other religious schools, but Islamic schools face tough scrutiny. Critics fear schools like Averroes will isolate young Muslims from their non-practicing peers and promote religious extremism.

When administrators at an Islamic high school in Texas recently tried to join a private school sports league, they were asked why Muslim students would want to play sports with Jewish and Christian students if “the Koran tells you not to mix with (and even eliminate) the infidels?”

Such prejudice will continue, said Charles Hirschkind, a scholar of religion at the University of California at Berkeley. 

“Many people don’t know how to think of those schools, whether this is the intrusion of some sort of dangerous sleeper cell of some kind into American society because much of the popular media paints that image of Muslim groups in the United States,” he said.

The administration at Averroes works to actively combat prejudice and integrate students into the larger community. Students are required to volunteer at non-Muslim non-profits, guest speakers come in almost every week and there are exchanges with other schools. 

Student Sonya Maharaj, 13, said she chose Averroes because of the individual attention paid to each student. She's also fine with the dress code, which requires girls wear a headscarf. 

“I feel like what you wear and how you dress doesn’t really have an impact on you as long as you’re still a good person,” Maharaj said. “What you wear doesn’t define you.”

Edrees Meskienyar, 15, was born and raised in the United States. He's also lived in Egypt and Yemen; his parents are originally from Afghanistan. Meskienyar said at Averroes he can pray openly. At the public schools he used to attend, he had to excuse himself to pray in the bathroom. 

“I’ve been doing religious studies overseas,” Meskienyar said. “It’s my number one priority. I believe we’re here for a reason. God and religion always come first.”

Bilbeisi, who attended a large public high school, said he would have welcomed the opportunity to attend Averroes when she was a teenager, if such a place had existed. 

“When I was at home I felt like I was one person and when I was in a school I felt like I was another person,” she said. “I shut off the world and became kind of a loner. I wasn’t able to recognize how to bring the two together and I regret that."

Averroes teacher Zaki Hasan said he hopes to create an environment that will promote education, integration, and devotion.

“I do feel like this school has the opportunity to really blaze a trail and show that this is what it means to have an Islamic school,” Hasan said.