Writer's note: This is a revised version of the Al-Huda article I published earlier this month.
My sister who is currently in her final year at Al-Huda school would currently be preparing for MIST, an interscholastic tournament between (mostly) Muslim high schoolers. Last year's competition in D.C. had some 600 competitors. I participated in MIST 8 times during high school. I wrote a piece on it after my last tournament, you can read it here if you want to get a better idea of the tournament.
Al-Huda is electing not to participate in this year's tournament, and is specifically prohibiting all students from participating under any other team, citing their code of conduct which states that all extra-curricular activities must be properly aligned with the values of the school and the values of Islam. They are threating the students with suspensions and expulsions if they try to bypass the ban by making their own team with a different name.
Let’s take a look for a moment at what is conflicting with Islamic and Al-Hudian values. The “gender-mixing” is obviously offender number one. For many Al-Huda students this is probably the first time they are put into a situation where they have to interact with the opposite gender without direct supervision. The big issue is that at MIST there are instances of people hooking up, now in my 4 years of competing I've never personally seen it happen but I'm pretty in confident it has. This is, of course, completely unacceptable in Islam but it’s also the extreme. People also tend to have an issue with how "friendly" guys and girls get at this competition. This guy-girl interaction is, in my opinion, the main reason that Al-Huda has decided to not only withdraw, but ban its students from competing. MIST has acknowledged the issue from the beginning and does what it possibly can to stop it when they see it by deducting points and telling people to separate and move along if they aren’t with a coach.
Another potential conflict is the musical performances they have during award ceremonies. Lyrically there isn’t a problem, all of the performers from Native Deen to Quadir Lateef have never said anything but Islamically appropriate material. The issue is the instruments they use and how it’s prohibited. I know there’s some debate about this subject but I’m not knowledgeable enough to go into issues of fiqh. I will say this however, almost everyone listens to music to some extent be it in movies, television or on their own Spotify and iTunes accounts. There is something magical about the way music affects the human person which is why it is so mainstream in every culture, so much so that MIST even has a nasheed competition. But when it comes to Islamically appropriate music that isn’t Quran the performances at MIST are the way to go. I believe Al-Huda handled this appropriately, I forget when this was but during a Native Deen performance Al-Huda students walked out of the award ceremony to peacefully protest the music. They explained to the kids why they were doing it and avoided the problem without robbing them of the rest of the beneficial experience.
There might be some other issues I’m not aware of but these are the two main issues
that Al-Huda has been vocal about. I doubt anything else would motivate them to ban the competition outright but what I’m about to say will cover those issues as well.
This decision is, in a word, dangerous. Al-Huda tries too hard to shelter its students from the outside world. From my years as a student I was made to believe that the outside world is cruel and that public school and college teachers won't care about me like the teachers at Al-Huda do. I was told about how all this haraam (Islamically prohibited) stuff is out there and I need to shield myself from it. For all the talk of the outside world Al-Huda did nothing to prepare me for HOW to deal with it.
Al-Huda is a very “orthodox” school in that they separate each grade by gender starting from kindergarten. With all the sexualization in American culture it’s necessary to instill a strong Islamic foundation in kids. This part Al-Huda does well, to an extent. You learn what’s right and what’s wrong. You read Quran and you learn hadith that tell you what to do and what not to do. What you don’t learn is how to live in the world around you.
Let’s just say, for the purpose of argument, Al-Huda’s concerns are valid and that MIST doesn’t align with Islamic principles. I’m not saying that this is the case at all, but let’s just assume.
The world in general doesn’t align with Al-Huda’s or Islamic principles in general. This is a fact and it’s true in America, it’s true in Canada, it’s true in Saudi and it’s true for the vast majority of the world. Sheltering, essentially telling young adults with impressionable minds that they aren’t allowed to go to or do X because it’s bad, is okay if there are no benefits. Ignoring legal principles, Al-Huda should be allowed to ban its students from going to bars and clubs. These places have absolutely no benefit for all the immorality they offer.
Thankfully, the majority of institutions in the world aren’t of the unsavory nightclub variety. Public school, college, the work place and the mall are all examples of places where we have to learn to live in the culture of our land while maintaining our religious foundation. Excessive sheltering however, impairs the students’ ability to perform this delicate balancing act.
Indulge me in this imaginary world where you don’t need a license to drive. Imagine a mother who is scared of letting her child drive a car. She doesn’t let him drive, doesn’t even teach him how to theoretically drive for fear of him doing it. She has the best intentions and is only worried about her son’s safety. So this continues until the son is 25, out of college and needs to drive 45 minutes through downtown Manhattan to get to work tomorrow. He steps into a car for the first time and gets into a 4 person accident before he makes it out of his driveway. The mother’s concerns were legitimate but she should’ve taught him how to safely operate the car while she still had the chance. The child suffers exactly what the mother tried to protect her from and the child suffered all those years of not enjoying the perks that come with driving. It’s in this way excessive sheltering is a ‘lose-lose’ situation. Imagine the animosity that kid had towards his mom the entire time; helicopter parenting or schooling is simply a proven method of accomplishing nothing. You can replace driving with inappropriate relationships, premarital sex, drugs, alcohol, anything really and it still holds.
Instead of trying to address the problem(s) they've simply cut it off. It seems oddly hypocritical to boast about their 9 consecutive MIST championships and then suddenly banning it for being un-Islamic. What kind of message does this send to students? We don't agree with these one or two aspects of the event and hence we are not allowing anybody to compete. And I can almost guarantee 99% if not 100% of Al-Huda's competitors were not involved in the small minority that use MIST as a marriage proving ground. This is not how to effectively address problems. What better place to learn how to handle interactions in an un-Islamic sexualized country than inside an Islamic school taught by educated teachers who go through the struggle everyday of their own lives. What should you do if a woman tries to shake your hand? Can you look her in the eye? What if she smiles at me? Am I going to hell for that? These are all questions I had as I jwent from a tiny, secluded private school to a giant, co-ed public high school. I can't begin to tell people how awkward I was my first year as I had to learn all this stuff on my own. This is stuff Al-Huda should be addressing head-on, as opposed to shutting the dialogue down via an email to parents.
If nothing else the email to parents should've made them aware of the problem and encouraged them to discuss it with their children. Because if it isn't addressed now and simply brushed under the rug then the kids with the tendency to do whatever it is Al-Huda is trying to prevent will simply do so in bigger force when they get the chance. Be it in an unsupervised competition outside of MIST or whenever these high schoolers go off to college.
And let's be clear, it's not like MIST is some sacrilegious strip club where Muslim kids go to do nasty haraam stuff.
MIST is single-handedly the best thing that happened for Muslim youth in the D.C. area. The organizers are unpaid college students who have their own lives, classes, exams and jobs outside of MIST and yet dedicate insane amounts of time to create this amazing environment for their younger peers to flourish and grow.
MIST builds leadership, creativity, speaking and many other important skills that you don't necessarily cultivate in a traditional learning environment. Many people develop their talents through MIST. I became a better public speaker and debater, my sister became a better film-maker and photographer to the point where she opened her own business. Through the competitions and workshops these kids not only hone their creativity and other skills but have fun in a relatively wholesome environment (being a college student I can tell you first hand that MIST is NOTHING compared what these kids are going to see when they graduate) while learning more about their religion through the competition, speakers and workshops. And they build brother/sisterhood with their teams throughout the months of prepping and at the competition. Then those who excelled get to push themselves against the best of the best at Nationals where every region comes into compete. This experience is like nothing else. I feel so sorry for all those students who won't be able to experience the absolutely amazing journey that is MIST.
The bottom line is that this needs to be a lesson for people who hold the incredible responsibility of developing our Muslim youth that completely shutting off anything that can be remotely un-Islamic is doing more harm than good. Teaching is always better than hiding.