The parents gathered in the little schoolroom clutching smartphones, ready to snap pictures of science fair projects. The 12 children near the front shuffled notecards between their fingers, murmuring lines about static electricity and why oil and water don't mix. Poster boards behind the kids touted the ideal weather conditions for a tornado, properties of magnets and the size of the solar system.
Most of the boys were dressed in suits or sports jackets, although one wore a traditional Muslim tunic and cap. The girls wore summer skirts and scarves tied around their hair and chins.
All of them are enrolled in the Iqraa School, which opened in September at the Anniston Islamic Center as the city's first Muslim school.
In Arabic, "iqraa" means "read."
As the school's year-end science fair began last week, there were only a few indications of the new school's religious affiliation: the children's attire, a poster in Arabic listing the Hijri months of the year, a few references to the prophet Mohammad on the brightly colored walls.
"The idea was to provide an education system for our children where they can get the training for religion plus academics," said Muhammad Haq, the imam of the mosque, who teaches the Quran and Arabic language classes at the school. "In the future, we would like to establish an academically excellent school that can attract other students who are not Muslim."
Learning the Quran by heart
Haq, called simply, endearingly "imam" by students, parents and members of the Anniston Islamic Center, may be focused on how to expand the school's secular, academic reach, but he ultimately is the key to the spiritual side of Iqraa School.
He is one of the few people in northeast Alabama who knows the Quran by heart and can, therefore, instruct children in their own memorization endeavors.
And the memorization of that holy book — what local Muslims call a special distinction of the Islamic faith — is the reason these parents have pulled their children out of The Donoho School for the next two to three years and transferred them to Iqraa.
"The opportunity to memorize the whole book — we got excited and we thought it was remarkable that our children are having this in Anniston, Alabama," said Mona Rahim, who has three children at Iqraa.
There are two other Islamic schools nearby in Alabama — in Birmingham and Huntsville — but only the Huntsville facility offers memorization classes, Haq said.
The imam and parents at Iqraa hope the school's ability to help Muslim children accomplish a mile-marker of their faith will draw interest from people in the Birmingham area who don't have that opportunity.
"It is a very difficult thing to do," Mona said of learning the Quran by heart. She noted that neither she nor her husband, Irfan, had the chance to memorize the Quran when they were growing up in Pakistan — another motivation for them to provide their children with rigorous Arabic classes on top of academic work.
"I'm really happy they are doing it," she said. "It's a dream come true."
Academics in the afternoons
At the recent science fair, the Rahims beamed as they watched their oldest son, 14-year-old Mateen, click through a Powerpoint presentation on chemical reactions. His teacher, Heather Franks, sat in the front row, taking notes with a red pen and photos with a digital camera.
"Now I will ask you to step outside, as my project is a bit messy," Mateen said as he finished his discussion of synthesis, decomposition and other types of reactions.
In the courtyard of the Anniston Islamic Center, Mateen dropped several small white tablets into a Sprite bottle. The liquid began to fizz, and then bubbled violently over the side of the bottle. Delighted laughter and clapping rang throughout the yard.
Afterward, Haq thanked parents for coming to the fair and praised the students' hard work.
"Exploring the scientific field really is lined up with Islam," the imam said, and quoted a supporting verse in Arabic. "I'm really thankful to the teacher for being available to the kids."
Franks, who hopes to find a job in the public school system after helping the Iqraa School get on its feet, teaches the 12 Muslim students from 1:30-5:30 Monday-Friday.
Mateen and his fellow students spend long days at the Iqraa School; the older children arrive every morning at 7 and stay until 5:30 p.m. The younger kids come an hour later and leave and hour earlier.
Students dedicate their mornings to Quran memorization and Arabic lessons with Haq. Then, after lunch, physical activity and prayer time, students join Franks for lessons in reading and math, science and history.
The kids are bright, Franks said, and quick to learn. Classtime resembles that of a one-room schoolhouse. For example, while Franks meets one-on-one with the fourth-graders, the students in different grades must sit quietly while they work on assignments or participate in group work.
"It's a pilot program, and they've done well," Franks said.
After parents presented her with a plaque at the conclusion of the science fair, she told them: "I know the school has good potential, and it will grow into whatever you want it to be."
A future for all faiths?
The school year ends this month for summer break, and classes will start back in the fall. Haq's plans for the Iqraa School are ambitious, perhaps fitting for a man who can easily recite 30 chapters of Arabic verse.
He wants to eventually help the academic side of the school earn accreditation, to hire a full-time teaching staff and to attract more students — Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
Haq envisions the school as an academically excellent one that can compete with other church-based schools in the area.
While faith-based schools don't have to register with any state agency in Alabama, state law requires these schools to be sponsored by a local church. As such, Iqraa School is backed by the Anniston Islamic Center, the mosque at the same East Anniston location.
"I would like to see it as an independent school that would add more professional people in Anniston," said Haq, who serves on the Interfaith Ministries of Calhoun County. "And it would help the development of the city."
But for now, the fledgling Iqraa School is structured as a three-year program for Muslim children to successfully complete their Quran memorizations. After the students have successfully done that, many of them will transfer back to Donoho.
At least one family — the Rahims — has hired outside tutors to ensure that transfer goes smoothly, and that the grade credits earned at Iqraa match up with the milestones set by Donoho.
That's a lot of work on top of long days at the Iqraa School, but the Rahims say it's worth it. They want to ensure their children have both a strong faith and a strong academic background.
"When I knew we were having an Islamic school, I was overjoyed," said Sakinah Qamar, the mother of a student at Iqraa. "My dreams were answered."