The Sister Clara Muhammad Schools: Pioneers in the Development of Islamic Education in America

by Hakim M. Rashid, School of Education, Howard University; and Zakiyyah Muhammad, The Universal Institute of Islamic Education, The Journal of Negro Education

The history of the Sister Clara Muhammad schools in America is one of development and transition. Evolving from the model of the University of Islam which was established in Detroit in the early 1930s, these schools in their earliest forms were the ideological predecessors of  both  the Black Nationalist independent education movement  of  the 1960s and  the current Afrocentric education movement. In the mid- to late 1970s, however, the Sister Clara Muhammad School system underwent a pro­ found transition from Black Nationalism to Al-Islam as its primary ideo­ logical focus. This article traces the history of the Sister Clara Muhammad schools from their early beginnings through their transition into an ortho­dox Islamic educational system. It also discusses the recent role of the Sister Clara Muhammad schools in the Council of Islamic Schools of North America (CISNA).


The University of Islam

The first University of Islam was started in Detroit, Michigan in 1932 (Essien-Udom, 1962). Contrary to its name, this institution was actually an elementary and secondary school and not one of higher learning. It was called a “university” to indicate that its curricula was universal and included instruction in the disciplines considered  advanced,  even  on the elementary level. The University of Islam was established by Fard Muhammad, a mysterious (some say he was Arab, some say Pakistani) silk peddler who came to Detroit in 1930 and began to teach poor African Americans that they were members of the tribe of Shabazz who had been separated from their original culture and homeland (Lincoln, 1961). One of Fard Muhammad’s early African American converts was Elijah Poole, whose name was later changed to Elijah Muhammad. The first school was located in the home of Elijah Muhammad and his wife Clara. Clara Muhammad was the school’s first  teacher.

As enrollment increased, the University of Islam later moved to a former theater building where some classes were actually taught by Fard Muhammad. After Fard Muhammad’s sudden disappearance in 1933, Elijah Muhammad assumed leadership of what had become  known as the Lost-Found Nation of Islam. Internal conflicts within the organization forced him to transfer the headquarters of the organization to Chicago, and in 1934 a second University of Islam was established there.  The goal of the new school was to enable Muslim children to receive instruction in an environment that was consistent with the philosophy, goals and objectives of the organization . The basis of  its instruction was to teach Blacks to “know self,” “love self,” and “do for self ‘ (E. Muhammad, 1965). This simplistic message was powerful and uplifting to a people who were for the most part oppressed and shut out of the mainstream  of the dominant American  society.

These early days of the Nation of Islam’s educational system can be best understood with reference to the historical context in which they occurred. In the early 1930s, America’s treatment of African Americans was overtly oppressive. African Americans were subjected to lynchings, burnings, beatings, rapes, and other forms of inhuman treatment on almost a daily basis. In the wake of the United States government’ s virtual destruction of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, efforts directed at Black self-determination were almost non­ existent. It is within this historical context (one that unfortunately has not changed much in nearly 60 years!) that the University of Islam began to teach a history that placed Black people at the center of civilization, made them feel good about themselves, and led them to view Caucasians as “devils.”

The educational system of the early 20th century, although viewed by most African Americans as a means of liberation from their condition, was also a primary instrument for the perpetuation of inferiority and the legacy of slavery. Blacks then had little understanding of the devastating influence of the educational system on the psyche of African Americans. The positive historical contributions of African Americans, along with any positive images of Black family or community life, were omitted from textbooks. Most texts either omitted mention of African Americans altogether or portrayed negative stereotypes of African Americans as lazy, ignorant, or superstitious. As Woodson (1933) wrote in The M is­ education of the Negro:

The same educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worthwhile, depresses and crushes at the same time the spark of genius in the Negro by making him feel that his race does not amount to much and never will measure up to the standards of other peoples. The Negro thus educated is a hopeless liability of the race. (p. xiii)

He went on to say:

Practically all of the successful Negroes in this country are of the uneducated type or of that of Negroes who have had no formal education at all. The large majority of the Negroes who have put on the finishing touches of our best colleges are all but worthless in the development of our people . . . To handicap a student by teaching him that his black face is a curse and that his struggle is hopeless is the worst sort of lynching . . . The “educated Negroes” have the attitude of contempt toward their own people because in their own as well as in their mixed schools, Negroes are taught to admire the Hebrews, the Greek, the Latin and the Teuton and to despise the African . (p. 2)

Thus, the prevalent climate within American society in general, and within its educational system in particular, created the conditions that made African Americans in the ghetto of Detroit receptive to the message of the Nation of Islam. As Elijah Muhammad (1965)  noted:

They want to school our children . They want them to go to their public schools. We know that the kindergarten children and first graders once in Islam cannot be taken into Christian schools without having to suffer mockery and attack from the Christian children and from the Christian teachers who hate Islam, the God of Islam, and the Prophets of Islam. Therefore, we believe that to keep peace with the Christians, we must teach our children in their own schools . . . (p. 214)

What the Nation of Islam personified was a tailor-made social move­ ment for African American people (in America) based on a philosophy that included concepts from Al-Islam, Christianity, and a mythology conveyed by Fard Muhammad (who was regarded by members of the Nation of Islam as Allah incarnate). The social commentary of the Nation of Islam and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad was both powerful and accurate. It articulated the condition, needs, and aspirations of a large segment of the African American community, identified its oppressors, and offered specific programs for its self-determination.

Few could argue with the Nation of Islam’s emphasis on cleanliness, self-pride, and self-determination. There were, however, other controversial aspects of the Nation of Islam’s ideology that made mainstream Americans, regardless of race, uncomfortable, namely, that all Caucasians were evil (and therefore “devils”), and that the United States government should give members of the Nation of Islam separate states in which to live.

From the 1930s until the early 1960s the University of Islam stood virtually alone in its efforts to provide African American children with a world view that stressed self-knowledge, self-reliance, and self-discipline. Nearly three decades after the founding of the first University of Islam, and on the eve of a decade that would see Black self-knowledge and consciousness reach movement proportions, Lincoln (1961) made the following comment about the schools the Nation of Islam had built:

Muslim schools are emphasizing Negro history, Negro achievements and the contribu­tions of Negroes to the world’s great cultures and to the development of the American nation . These facts are rarely taught in public schools, and the Muslims may be alone in trying to bring the Negro community to an awareness of racial heritage . (p. 250)

The 1960s, however, saw not only a significant increase in the member­ ship of the Nation of Islam (and thus expansion of the University of Islam); it also saw the emergence of a strong Black nationalist movement that drew much of its rhetoric and ideological orientation from Elijah Muhammad and his chief spokesman, Malcolm  X.


The 1960s was a decade of turmoil for the United States, its African American community, and the Nation of Islam. The Civil Rights move­ ment in the South, urban rebellions in the North, and divided opinions on the war in Viet Nam converged  to create a persistent  state of  crisis within the country. The African American community became increasingly polarized between the programs and policies of perceived integra­tionists like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Black nationalists such as Malcolm X. In 1964 Malcolm left the Nation of Islam, changed his name to El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, and before his assassination embraced the tenets of orthodox Al-Islam practiced throughout the Muslim world. Despite Malcolm’s defection, however, membership in the Nation of Islam continued to grow as more young African Americans embraced nationalism  and  separatism as paths to liberation.

The Nation of Islam’s plans to establish a school in each temple (branch) were also being realized. By 1965 additional University of Islam schools opened in Atlanta and Washington, DC (Shalaby, 1967). Shalaby was permitted to observe the operations of the Nation of Islam’s schools in the mid-1960s, and allowed to interview staff, students, and Elijah Muhammad himself regarding the education of his followers. Viewing the role of the Nation of Islam’s schools within the context of processes of cultural renewal and identity transformation, Shalaby made the follow­ ing observation: “The main task of the school within the Nation of Islam is to aid students in developing a more satisfying culture and in forming a new identity which refutes the traditional white stereotypes of the Negro” (p. 11). He described the schools’ approach to the identity trans­ formation process of African Americans as a holistic one that included a curriculum that focused on both self-reliance and self-knowledge:

Supplementary texts introduce students to independent Muslim facilities such as grocery stores, bakeries and factories. Students are taught to use these facilities in preference to non-Muslim facilities. Pupils are also taught to be thrifty and industrious, and to keep money within the Nation of Islam so that they may aid in helping the movement become self sufficient and independent. (pp. 69-70)

As one University of Islam principal interviewed by Shalaby   stated:

Naturally for us being Muslims, we wanted to give our children the advantage of a good, solid Muslim background, and that is one of the basic reasons for establishing separate schools. Another basic reason was to teach our children those subjects that would fit them for future usefulness to their nation. As we are in a Christian country, and in which we were robbed of our culture and history, it was the desire of the Messenger Muhammad to establish separate schools so as to teach the black boys and girls their own culture, their history, and the knowledge of themselves. (p. 240)

By 1975 the University of Islam had become an independent educational system of 41 private parochial schools located throughout the United States. In virtually every city where there was a Temple of Islam, a school could be found. In smaller cities, there was often only preschool and early primary grades; while in the larger cities such as Chicago, New York City, and Philadelphia, secondary programs were available. Some of the larger schools were well-staffed with not only certified teachers but also teachers from Muslim countries who taught Arabic. In New York City the school had closed circuit television in each classroom and its own fleet of buses. An independent system of education had been nurtured in the preceding four decades, one that focused on the needs, concerns, life activities, and goals of an independent community. Accord­ ing to Zakiyyah Muhammad (1990):

From 1934 to 1975, Muhammad University of Islam served the needs of the American Muslim community. The schools were humble but proud, poor but dignified; unpopular initially but consistent for 40 years eventually receiving accolades from the larger educational community and city and state officials as well as the general population . The Muslim schools were very popular and very successful. They have since been modeled by many independent groups. (p. 31)


On February 25, 1975, Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam for over 40 years, passed from this life. At the time of his passing there were University of Islam schools in existence throughout the coun­ try. On February 26, 1975, Elijah Muhammad’s son Wallace D. Muham­ mad, himself  a minister within the Nation of Islam, became the leader  of the organization, holding the title Chief Minister. Later adopting the Islamic title of imam, Wallace Muhammad soon began to bring about wholesale changes within the organizational structure and ideological orientation of the Nation of Islam. One of his first tasks was to demystify the symbolic teachings of Fard Muhammad that had been passed on to the organization’s members by his father (W. D. Muhammad, 1980). Wallace Muhammad taught his followers extensively from the Muslim holy book, the Holy Qur’an, and stressed that, as Muslims, they could not make any distinctions based on race or ethnicity . This meant, in effect, that Caucasians could actually join the Nation of Islam, and a few actually did.

By the late 1970s Imam Muhammad (who now goes by the Muslim name Warith Deen Mohammed) had orchestrated a phenomenal trans­ formation within the Nation of Islam, in which thousands who had embraced a Black Nationalist ideology came to view themselves primarily as orthodox Muslims. The former Nation of Islam became the American Muslim Mission, and major changes took place in the University of Islam system, which was renamed in honor of the unselfish commitment and tireless efforts of Sister Clara Muhammad, the wife of Elijah Muhammad and mother of the organization’s new leader. Although these schools historically had espoused the philosophy of the Nation of Islam and were a positive force in the upliftment of African American people, they were not Islamic schools. Imam Muhammad criticized much of the philosophy that ran through both the schools and the larger organization as un­ Islamic and even, in some respects, anti-Islamic. It was well known that the orthodox Muslim community, both in America and abroad, had become increasingly uncomfortable with some of the theological tenets of the Nation of Islam that run contrary to orthodox Islamic theology, specifically its insistence that Fard Muhammad was Allah (God) incarnate. Thus, it was essential that the Mission’s schools reflect the new ideological underpinnings of the organization and that their philosophy, principles, and practices be made consistent with the teachings of the Holy Qur’an and the traditions and way of life of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), to whom the Holy Qur’an was revealed over 1,400 years ago. While students in the Sister Clara Muhammad schools were to continue to be taught about the African origins of and contributions to civilization, their religious education was to become consistent with the belief system embraced by over one billion Muslims throughout the world.

This period of transition from Black Nationalism to orthodox Al-Islam as a guiding philosophy was not without its problems. Many of those who claimed to follow Imam Mohammed when he assumed leadership  of the organization were unable to relinquish the ideology taught by his father. Among the most prominent of these individuals was Minister Louis Farrakhan, who left the American Muslim Mission, reconstituted the Nation of Islam in 1978, and continues to teach the original doctrine of Elijah Muhammad . This schism affected the operation of the Sister Clara Muhammad schools and a number of them either closed or began offering reduced programs  in its wake.

As those who accepted Imam Muhammad’ s transition, endured the subsequent schism, or joined the organization after February 1975 began to assume leadership roles in the restructured schools, much of the turmoil subsided and efforts to upgrade the quality of the Sister Clara Muhammad schools were initiated. In April and November of 1982, national education conferences for the American Muslim Mission’s school system were held in Sedalia, North Carolina. Information gleaned from those conferences revealed that the school system was “experienc­ ing organizational stress.” Specifically, “internal conflict had emerged among the staff regarding the performance of job responsibilities” (R. Z. Muhammad, 1986, pp. 4-5).

As a result of these conferences, R. Zakiyyah Muhammad (1986) conducted a study of the role perceptions of teaching and administrative staff at the Sister Clara Muhammad School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She found significant differences between the teachers and principal in the areas of perceived competence and involvement; that is, while teachers saw themselves as highly competent, the principal saw them as moderately incompetent; and while teachers saw themselves as always involved, the principal perceived them as only moderately involved. She concluded that these differences were potential sources of organizational stress within the school, noting that clear differences existed between staff perceptions of Islamic and Western views of education and recom­ mending a more systematic in-service program to better ground Western­ trained  educators in Islamic knowledge.

In 1991, as a result of the growing training needs of personnel within the Sister Clara Muhammad School system, the Muslim Teachers College was established. This institution was created to serve as not only a vehicle for both advanced training in Arabic and Islamic Studies but also as a degree-granting institution that will ultimately  seek to produce a cadre of qualified teachers well grounded in the Islamic world view as it relates to the teaching process.  Currently, the Muslim Teachers College offers  a series of training workshops around the country designed primarily to address the in-service needs of Muslim teachers. Plans are underway to acquire land  for a permanent  site for this  institution.


Presently there are 38 Sister Clara Muhammad schools in the continental United States and 1school in Bermuda . These schools presently face two major challenges: (1) becoming more “Islamic”-developing an educational philosophy and set of practices  that is more deeply rooted in the Islamic world view; and (2) generating sufficient fiscal resources from the communities they serve to finance high-quality, academically competitive programs.

In terms of the first challenge, a standardized curriculum develop­ ment committee has been established at the national level to write a common K-12 curriculum for all subjects that reflects the Islamic world view as outlined in the Holy Qur’an. Referring to the distorted concepts of African Americans promoted by Western-oriented social science perspectives in anthropology, psychology, sociology, and so on, Imam Mohammed has specifically urged this committee to avoid the biases of the dominant culture and to utilize “the  Holy  Qur’an and a dictionary” as primary resources to ensure the purity of their efforts. The committee rotates its workshops to different areas of the country, gathering input from local Sister Clara Muhammad schools as it proceeds . Its first task was the development of a social studies curriculum because, as Imam Mohammed (1982) has noted, social studies is “the area that has proven to be most damaging to African Americans.” To date, a full K-6 social studies curriculum has been completed and a curriculum framework has been developed  for other subject areas.

In July 1991 the curriculum development committee sponsored a workshop in Boston, Massachusetts, in cooperation with the Muslim Teachers College. Over 50 teachers from Sister Clara Muhammad schools on the East Coast came together to critique the experimental curriculum and to participate in in-service workshops in Arabic, Islamic Studies, classroom management, and other topics. Through these and other activ­ ities, the Sister Clara Muhammad schools have rapidly integrated them­ selves into the broader  Islamic educational context.

In November 1991, Muslim educators from diverse communities across the U.S. met in Detroit, Michigan, to ratify a constitution establish­ ing the Council of Islamic Schools of North America (CISNA). The pur­ pose of CISNA is to assist full-time Islamic schools in the areas of curriculum development, textbook review and recommendations, teacher train­ ing and certification, accreditation procedures, publications and information, administrative policies and procedures, cooperative relations, fund raising, and employee benefits. The majority of schools repre­sented at this meeting were Sister Clara Muhammad schools. The newly elected head of CISNA is the former principal of Sister Clara Muhammad School in Richmond, Virginia, and the current president of the Muslim Teachers College.


Muslim African Americans are increasingly identifying with the worldwide Islamic movement that transcends national boundaries and ethnicity. They are increasingly coming to understand that the struggle for Muslim self-determination in America is part and parcel of the same struggle being waged in Nigeria, Algeria, and Sudan as well as in Yugoslavia, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan . This struggle pits those who would continue to oppress and exploit Muslims, regardless of ethnicity

184       The Journal of Negro Education

and nationality, against those who would seek to follow a belief system that gave rise to great civilizations in Ghana, Mali, Songhay, North Africa, the Middle East, and western Asia. The Sister Clara Muhammad schools of America have a vital role to play in this worldwide Islamic movement. They are on the front lines of a battle for the hearts and minds of Muslim children in America, a battle between Al-Islam and the hedonism, materialism,  and nationalism  of the West.

The role of America’s public schools is clear: to perpetuate the world view of the dominant American culture. The role of the Islamic school must be equally clear, to produce self-reliant, competent,  and, above  all, God-fearing Muslims who are not afraid to place Al-Islam in the marketplace of ideas competing for the soul of America. The first University of Islam laid a foundation for today’s Sister Clara Muhammad School System just as the Nation of Islam laid a foundation for the firm establish­ ment of an independent Islamic presence in the African American community. As Muslims in America increasingly recognize the value of Islamic schools, it is hoped that the Sister Clara Muhammad schools will continue to strive to achieve a potential that has yet to be   realized.


Essien-Udom, E. (1962). Black nationalism: A search for identity in America.

Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Lincoln, C. E. (1961). The Black Muslims in America. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Muhammad, E. (1965). Message to the Blackman in America. Chicago, IL: Muhammad’s Temple No. 2.

Muhammad, R. Z. (1986). Perceptions of the role of teachers and the principal in an Islamic school (Doctoral dissertation, Columbia University, 1986). (University Microfilms No. 86-20, 392).

Muhammad, Z. (1990). Dilemmas of Islamic education in America :Some possible alternatives. Muslim Education Quarterly, 7(4), 27-35.

Muhammad, W. D. (1980). As the light shineth from the east. Chicago, IL: WDM.

Muhammad, W. D. (1982, April). [Keynote address given at the first annual conference of principals, teachers, and imams of the Sister Clara Muhammad schools, Sedalia, NC.]

Shalaby, I. (1967). The role of the school in cultural renewal and identity development in the Nation of Islam in America (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Arizona, 1967). (University Microfilms No. 67-11, 958).

Woodson, C. G. (1977). The mis-education of the Negro. New York: AMS Press.