According to a Pew Forum report, entitled "Faith in Flux," most people who decide to leave their childhood religion say they did so before the age of 24. This indicates that development in understanding of religion and religious practices is a key factor in determining whether or not young adults will stick to their religion, switch religions or simply distance themselves from religion in general, like approximately 16 percent of Americans today. This makes it clear that the role of a religious education teacher is crucial in a young adult's life.
In the Holy Quran, which addresses itself to humankind, not just Muslims, the importance of learning is emphasized in the angel Gabriel's first words to Prophet Muhammad, iqra, meaning "read/recite." His first command to the Prophet was to educate himself about his Creator, and one of his first descriptions of God was "the Most Generous, who taught by the Pen, taught Man that he knew not" (96: 3-5). Learning is integral in a person's life in order to fulfill his or her purpose in life, which is to worship God. Indeed, learning and using one's knowledge to better the condition of humanity is a form of worship. The Quran is definitely not the first text to emphasize this, and this belief is not one that is held only by Muslims.
When I was in the second grade at our mosque's Religious Education Center (REC) in Northlake, Ill., I thought I saw God. It was just another Saturday morning at REC and my class was talking about prayer. Our teacher told us that if we closed our eyes and prayed with enough concentration and faith, we would be able to see and talk to God. She said we should try it right then and there. So we, as a class, being as obedient as we were in our innocent youth (that would change later), closed our eyes and prayed.
Being the absolute geek I was, I knew that it was my responsibility, as a good student, to see God. That would be like the equivalent of getting an A for this particular assignment. So with my eyes closed, I conjured up an image of an old man in my mind's eye. He had a long white beard and wise eyes, and he held a staff (I take full credit for inventing Professor Dumbledore at the tender age of 7). He smiled at me kindly.
When we all opened our eyes, I made sure my hand was the first one to be in the air. When my teacher called on me, I proudly declared, "I saw God! He has glasses!" My teacher observed me. I waited for her to dispute me, call me ridiculous and explain that it was just a metaphor. But she didn't. She smiled at me kindly. "Excellent!" she said. "See? It just takes faith."
At a time when half of the adult U.S. population has changed religions at some point in life, it is this kind of encouragement and acceptance that keeps kids believing. My teacher could have easily explained what she meant and rejected the notion that I could actually see a being that I would believe to be God in my mind. But she chose not to, and by doing that, she retained some of the magic that kids can experience in faith, the magic that is often drowned out by rules and rituals.
Though many people attend REC, Sunday school, Hebrew school, Bal Vikas (term for Hindu religious education, literally "blossoming of the child"), etc., we tend to forget the hard work of the teachers involved in these institutions. At a time when the unemployment rate is at 9 percent, these people take out time to volunteer to pass on their knowledge to younger generations, usually getting nothing more than a free snack during break time and the rowdiness of their classes in return. So in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, which was May 2-6, I'd like to recognize and remember those people in my childhood that made Islam more than a list of rules for me. Thank you to all those who turned my Saturdays into adventures and my Dumbledores into God.