Thirteen-year-old Fadel Hasan has memorized the entire roster of his favorite football team, the Minnesota Vikings. He usually has an opinion about draft picks and trades that he doesn’t hesitate to share, his dad says.
Now, the youngster is using his memorization skills to learn and recite every word of the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book.
He is one of a dozen Muslim boys who have left conventional junior and senior high schools for a period of time to attend the intensive Qur’an school Darul Arqam Center For Excellence in Blaine.
The school met with neighborhood opposition last year when it bought the building where it had been renting space and sought to create a permanent home. More than 80 neighbors signed a petition asking the city to deny a permit for the school, citing traffic and other reasons. School families said they believe fear and misunderstanding about their faith fueled the opposition, with some neighbors asking about the school’s ties to extremism.
The parents are emphatic: There are none.
The permit was approved last June.
Most students study full time for 2½ years, keeping up with regular studies through home schooling on nights and weekends. Their final exam is to recite the Qur’an in one sitting, a process that starts in the morning and continues until sunset. The first two students will sit for their final exam this spring.
All of the full-time students are boys, but weekend instruction is available for girls.
The parents who founded the Qur’an school say it is a part of the process of establishing roots in the broader community, teaching their children morals, and laying the foundation for future religious and community leaders.
The school is housed in a nondescript, two-story office building that the families decided to buy when it went into foreclosure.
Who the families are
The children who attend the Qur’an school are mostly the American-born sons and daughters of immigrants from India, Pakistan and Somalia. Many of the parents came to the United States for college or career and either have become citizens or have green cards. They are doctors, engineers, real estate agents and finance executives who have settled in the north suburbs.
Samad Syed, an engineer at a Twin Cities firm, is the vice president of the nonprofit that oversees the school. His son is a toddler, too young to attend the school, but being part of its inception is important to Syed, a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from India.
He estimates there are about 400 Muslim families in the north suburbs who are active in community groups. Many locate there because of jobs, schools, nice homes and other amenities that make the suburbs attractive to young families.
Once the families decided to plant roots, they stayed up nights worrying about their children’s education, future and their moral compass. They held informal religious education for their children at home but felt it wasn’t enough.
“Our kids were not getting the education we wanted them to get. It was pretty unorganized,” Syed said. “The Qur’an teaches you how to be a good human being. It teaches you how to treat other people. This is our identity, who we are.”
Dr. Muhammad Suri, a psychiatrist at a local hospital, has four daughters who attend weekend classes.
“They have a lot of questions and curiosity about religion and culture,” said Suri, who is originally from Pakistan. “This helps them understand.”
“This country has given us a lot,” he added. “We also have some good cultural and family values of our own which we think will benefit this society.”
Parents say they were surprised by the initial resistance to the school because most have felt welcomed in Minnesota.
A typical school day
“I never experienced any prejudice, nor have my kids. This society has been very open to us,” said Suri, whose eldest daughter, Mariam, was valedictorian at Spring Lake Park High last year and is now a student at the University of Minnesota.
The program for boys runs Monday through Friday, with the school day starting at 8 a.m. The boys wear traditional tunics, pants and a cap. They sit on a carpeted floor in a circle. Each boy has a small wood stand in front of him holding his Qur’an.
They study one to two pages a day, reading and then reciting in unison. Qur’an teacher Noman Khan walks around the room listening to each voice.
School leaders recruited Khan from Buffalo, N.Y., where he studied Islam at the Darul Uloon Mabanin school. He does not allow the children to have cellphones or technology during class. During lunch break, the kids eat lunches packed from home and play pingpong and foosball.
They finish up around 3:30 p.m. and usually do some homework each night.
Syed said that memorizing the 400-page Qur’an, written and recited in Arabic, helps build character and is an important foundation for future religious education and leadership.
Fadel Hasan asked his parents if he could attend the Qur’an school. He is the youngest of three children and the only one enrolled there. The family discussed it and determined that he could go there full-time for one year. It’s a balance between faith and academic potential, said his parents.
‘Golden opportunity for me’
They said they hope a strong moral foundation helps their son navigate the societal distractions — technology, drugs — that ensnare many teens.
For his part, Fadel Hasan said, “I really wanted to connect to my faith. It’s a golden opportunity for me.”
The young teenager said the hardest part is not seeing his old school friends every day. They still come to his home to play and implore him to come back soon. He also plays soccer year-round and loves pro sports, technology and gadgets.
As for the logistics of memorizing the Qur’an — or the Vikings roster — he said it’s not so hard: “You read it a couple of times, then try to say it without looking. You try to visualize the page. Then you can read it in your mind.”
For Mariam Suri, born in New York and raised in Iowa and Minnesota, the school offers a chance to explore her faith. She studies there every Sunday.
“I never really had an opportunity to study my religion and study the Qur’an in detail. I never had those resources,” she said. “I felt more in touch with my spiritual side.”
“Most of the Qur’an we are reading, they talk about being the best person you can be. Try and be nice, exemplify the pillars of Islam: charity, faith. Show compassion. It’s really nice and peaceful,” Suri said.
She said she was stunned by the controversy last year, because the Twin Cities and her high school had been largely accepting.
During that period, the school held an open house offering neighbors pizza, soda and a tour of the school. Syed said the few who came were polite and that despite some initial questions, including “What are your ties to Al-Qaida and extremism?” they seemed to leave with a better understanding of the families’ mission: to educate and raise good children.
At its meeting late last June, the City Council approved the school’s permitting on a 5-0 vote, with one abstention and another council member absent, after hearing extensively from residents on both sides of the issue.
One opponent of the school, John Blucher, said recently, “I have been disappointed at what took place at the council meeting.”
He said he and the 80 people who signed the petition opposing the school for traffic and other reasons make up “practically the entire neighborhood.”
School has mayor’s backing
Mayor Tom Ryan defended the school then and now. He said he vividly remembers one Muslim man who spoke up.
“He said, ‘I am a Marine, I just got done fighting for this country.’ ” Ryan said. “We haven’t had a comment since that night, not one word. We haven’t had any complaints or any problems.”
Ryan said the families whose kids attend the school are ingrained in the community.
“They are attorneys. They are businesspeople,” he said. “I don’t understand all their ways and religious practices, but it’s a friendly atmosphere. They have always been very honest with me.”