“I feel like when you’re a public servant, you have an obligation to always serve your clients with currency, to always develop yourself so you can be the best resource for folks,” Sister Suad Islam Gr’00 is saying. Islam is the principal of the Quba Institute’s day school for pre-kindergartners through twelfth-graders. She has an energetic demeanor that is enhanced by the vibrant purple head scarf she is wearing this late-winter afternoon and an intellectual curiosity that has taken her to the classrooms of Cheyney University, Penn (for a principal certification and doctoral work), Harvard, Oxford, and, most recently, Temple University, where she was wrapping up her dissertation over the summer. “People tend to think that if you have advanced degrees that you’re done, but I have truly embraced the notion of lifelong learning,” she says.

Islam’s own grandfather was born a slave (“I come from old people,” she says), and she has educators in her family going back to Reconstruction. It’s this sense of history and community responsibility that ties her to the field of education. She became a Muslim 17 years ago, and after teaching all over the Philadelphia public school district, she joined Quba in 2001 to overhaul its academic programs. It was a year that put her faith in the spotlight, but Islam, who is married to Imam Anas Muhaimin, welcomes the attention that has come to her school since then. “It’s an opportunity to dispel propaganda,” she says, and show that “we are a peaceful, law-abiding people.”

Islam tells her visitors to imagine they’re at the United Nations. In addition to African Americans, the student population includes Bengalis, Pakistanis, Palestinians, Egyptians, Indians, Malaysians, and Sudanese, she explains. “You have a real cornucopia of people whose connection is the Arabic language.”

The school packs in academic subjects, including Arabic, in the morning. After lunch and prayer, Qur’anic studies begin. Quba’s objective is to have students reading the book by the time they’re in fourth grade. “We hope to be a standard-bearer in Islamic education in Pennsylvania,” she says.

Islam views Muller’s class as a chance for Quba and Penn students to connect in meaningful ways. “I’m really big on reflection and introspection and people traveling paths together.”

At Friday prayer services, men and women sit separately. But visitors—including women with uncovered heads—are welcome.

To borrow Islam’s metaphor of “the journey,” the travelers in Muller’s class hit a giant pothole halfway through the course.

“I got an email from Saida [Abdul Aziz] … saying that ‘We need to know what this project is all about, because it seems like people are coming and taking of our kids and not giving anything back,’” Muller recalls.

She wrote back, asking for their patience and explaining, “The students are just now getting to the point that they’re beginning to do collaborative work.’”

The response came quickly: Every step of the project needed to be put in writing—and soon.

“True to Ivy League students, they charged in,” Abdul Aziz recalls with a bemused smile. “They came in as world leaders, and we reined them in, because we’re world leaders, too.”

Quba wanted everything to be planned out with dates, and for Penn students to get permission slips from the parents. “In the end it wasn’t just the community that felt better, they felt better,” she says. “They knew at every interaction what the purpose of the interaction was and what they would get out of it.”

“This is a diversion from the way in which ethnomusicology does its work,” Muller admits. “Because people go hang out in a community, [and] it’s one person [doing the research]. You’re developing your relationship over a longer period of time, and the sort of returns are not that carefully mapped out. How will the community actually benefit? We sort of say strange things like, ‘You’ll be well-known through our writing.’ Well, to whom will you be known? So it was different, and actually I preferred this process.”


About two-thirds of the way through the semester, Quba students pay a few visits to Penn’s music lab to learn about video editing and have a say in how they’re portrayed in the Penn students’ final projects.

“My project focuses on [Quba’s founder] and his family,” John Meyers explains as he opens a clip on iMovie for Ibrahim Muhaimin, the founder’s grandson, to watch. “I’m just sort of telling this story of how music works in this family because one of the stereotypical views of Islam is that if you’re a strict Muslim, you can’t listen to music,” Meyers says. “And at this mosque, at least, that’s definitely not the case.”

Another Quba student, Naji, gives his Penn partners, Darien Lamen and Ian MacMillen, a lesson in Qur’anic recitation. Though he’s only in high school, Naji is proficient enough to teach some of the younger Quba students in an after-school program. He demonstrates the differences in sound when he’s enunciating every letter of the alphabet and when he’s reciting with greater intensity but less precision. “Some people are so good they’ve got both in there,” he says.

Jennifer Kyker has just completed an interview for her project on women and recitation and is reviewing it with the Quba student who filmed it. Muller comes by to praise a zoom-in shot. “She’s better with the camera than I am,” Kyker says.

In the meantime, Ibrahim has watched himself on the video and gives his approval to most of Meyers’ footage. “He did an excellent job.”

Meyers laughs. “I make him look very thoughtful, which is not too hard,” he says.

‘We cut out one part where I was going like this,” Ibrahim clasps his hands to demonstrate. “I was thinking to calm myself and focus so I [wouldn’t] say something I’ll regret, and see, right there I actually got caught on camera.” He points to the screen and smiles. “Somebody’s going to think I’m some kind of monk or a meditator.”

For Andaiye Qaasim, whose project was focusing on hip-hop and Islam, it was time to start over. The school’s leaders felt that the video footage taken during one of her interviews had crossed the line in how it represented young women at the school.

Qaasim explains after the semester is over that she didn’t begin her project with any particular plan, but began talking to different people to collect their views about hip-hop. She got to know a few of the young women at the school and gathered them for a group interview. “It erupted into a session of silliness,” she says. “We were talking, laughing, joking, and that’s when they started performing different lyrics. I didn’t necessarily think I would use the footage, because it wasn’t video quality, but I thought there were interesting things in it.”

Abdul Aziz says there were multiple problems with the footage, including the fact that one of the young women—a new Muslim who had not yet made her profession of faith, or shahadah—opened her headscarf.

“Most Muslim [women] artists don’t sing in public,” she adds. “They’ll speak to music, but it won’t be a melodious singing kind of voice. Young women who are representing a Muslim institution should not do that out of respect for their parents and out of respect for the institution.

“They were playing music on our prayer area, they were singing something like 50 Cent, something that would be totally inappropriate for anyone’s prayer area, and would have been totally inappropriate to represent Penn as well,” Abdul Aziz says. “We didn’t want anything to happen that would damage our relationship with the community and what they thought about Penn. Because you know what they would think. They would think Penn is going to come here and uncover our daughters and try to lead our kids off to do things they know are bad.”

Though she was initially frustrated with the decision to pull the video, Qaasim says she felt better after she sat down to talk with Abdul Aziz and asked, for example, about different expectations for men and women. “We talked about each of our personal views and our own faith backgrounds and our political views,” Qaasim recalls. (Her own father was Muslim, but he converted to Christianity when she was in high school.) “Sister Saida said to me, ‘Do I look like a woman that can be easily silenced?’ It was a really good learning experience,” says Qaasim, and she’s come to realize that the goal of cross-cultural communication is “not coming to the same world view. It’s about being able to understand someone’s perspective.”

She thinks the experience will help her navigate other unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations that could arise in her doctoral research on how hip-hop is being used politically within the North African community of Marseilles. Qaasim hopes to keep her Quba friends posted on her new adventures.

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Music Lessons By Susan Frith


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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/10/06