Most American schoolchildren learn about Islam in a social studies classroom. But at the Friends School in Baltimore, sixth-graders make their own mini-pilgrimage every year, to the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C.
As their bus rattles along the highway south to Washington, most of the kids are busy making up songs about each other. But 12-year-old Julia Potter is counting off the Five Pillars of Islam on her fingers: charity, prayer, fasting, profession of faith, and the pilgrimage to Mecca.
These kids are well-versed in the basics of Islam and more: In class, they learn about Judaism, Hinduism and Christianity; about prophets, taboos and holy laws. And every year, sixth-graders visit the Islamic Center — though every year, according to teacher Deloris Jones, they get there late. "There's absolutely nothing over the years I have been able to do to keep this thing on time," Jones says.
Inside the mosque, boys sit on the left and girls on the right, the girls' heads covered with colorful scarves. Imam Abassie Jarrkoroma leads a question-and-answer session, and this separation of the sexes is one of the first topics to come up.
"The traditional way when we pray, the men would be in the front, the children in the middle and the women in the back," he tells the children. "This is not unique to Islam. It has come down through the Judaic and Christian faith."
Next on the agenda is a stop at the Saudi Arabian Embassy, where Tarik Allagany shows the kids a video about his country. They have pointed questions for Allagany: Is Islam the only religion in Saudi Arabia? And what about the role of women in Saudi society? Allagany's answers are long, eloquent and somewhat evasive.
Jones says that afterward, she and her students will talk about "what the truth possibly really is, and how he diplomatically answered the question."
But despite those issues, Jones and her colleagues will keep bringing their sixth-graders here; they say it's the next best thing to being in the Middle East.