Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Holy Dhimmitude, Batman!!

Higher Ground Academy grappled with a quandary: How do we teach art to Muslim students who can't create human images? The school found a solution.
Pioneer Press
As violent protests over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad continue around the world, a St. Paul charter school is quietly negotiating the delicate question of how to teach art to Muslims.

Any depiction of God and his prophets is considered offensive under Islam, and disrespectful representations are even worse, as the recent worldwide outrage over the Danish cartoons has shown. But some Muslims also refrain from producing images of ordinary human beings and animals, citing Islamic teaching.

That presented a challenge for Higher Ground Academy, a K-12 school just west of Central High School on Marshall Avenue that has about 450 students. About 70 percent of them are Muslim immigrants from eastern Africa.

Executive Director Bill Wilson said he had concerns for some time about how to reconcile the school's art curriculum with the views of Muslim families, but the departure of the art teacher at the end of last school year gave him a window to act.

This fall, he hired ArtStart, a St. Paul-based nonprofit organization, to offer more options for about 150 kindergartners through second-graders, including visual arts and drumming. But parents were still upset that their children were drawing figures, Wilson said, and some pulled their children out of art class altogether.

Wilson then sat down with teacher and parent liaison Abdirahman Sheikh Omar Ahmad, who also is the imam at an Islamic center in Minneapolis, to work with ArtStart in determining how to meet state standards without running afoul of Muslim doctrine.

"We said, 'Look, we can do better than this,' " Wilson said.


Out the window right away went masks, puppets and that classic of elementary school art class, the self-portrait, said Sara Langworthy, an artist with ArtStart. Revamping the curriculum "definitely requires stepping outside of the normal instincts that you fall back on," she said.

In their place came nature scenes and geometric forms and patterns, said Carol Sirrine, ArtStart's executive director. This week, the class was cutting out shapes to make into cardboard pouches. Another project involved taking photographs and mapping the neighborhood around the school.

The conversation about what is appropriate is still open.

In a meeting this week, Langworthy asked Ahmad whether the students can do silhouettes of hands. That's fine, he said.

Ahmad's involvement has put many parents' minds at ease, said Said Jama, father of kindergartner Suhyr Ali Jama. Wilson said Muslim enrollment in art has rebounded since the changes were introduced.

Langworthy said she and fellow teacher Katie Tuma don't police what the students draw, but they do have conversations with students who are drawing figures to make sure it's really OK.

Not that the children are always the most reliable sources. Langworthy said early on a few told her it was all right to draw animals as long as they didn't give them noses.

Second-grader Hawi Muhammed said her parents don't mind if she draws people once in a while, but "God … doesn't like people to draw a lot," she said.

Her parents prefer to see things like "gardens (or) a house," Hawi said. "That's what they like me to do."

Pictures of people and animals aren't banned in the school, and the religious teachings don't strictly prohibit viewing drawings made by someone else. For example, body tracings that students had cut out and decorated under the previous art curriculum still hang in a main hallway.

But projects that would naturally lead to figure drawing are no longer assigned, Langworthy said, which isn't a huge loss when it comes to meeting the state standards.

The relevant state requirement for grades K-3 is that students "understand the elements of visual art, including color, line, shape, form, texture, and space."

Accomplishing those objectives without having students draw people and animals just takes a little extra thought, Langworthy said. "There's a billion ways to solve the problem," she said. "So if you're limited to only 700,000, I can live with that."

As Sirrine put it, "In a sense, it's narrowing. But then within that, you can find the depth."


Conflicts between religious beliefs and art curriculum aren't unheard of elsewhere in St. Paul or around the state, but they aren't widespread, say education officials.

Abdisalam Adam, an English as a Second Language resource teacher in the St. Paul school district, said issues like the one at Higher Ground have come up a few times, but "it is not very common." (Charter schools are public institutions that operate independently of the districts in which they are located. In Higher Ground's case, St. Paul Public Schools is the sponsoring organization, which means it has some general oversight responsibility.)

Michael Hiatt, director of professional development and research at the Perpich Center for Arts Education — the state agency that offers training and support for arts curriculum — said there was a religious group a few years ago that wanted to modify the dance curriculum offered in one district, but "I don't see it growing. I don't see an increasing number of requests."

At Higher Ground, Wilson said he plans to use ArtStart — which is typically hired for one- or two-week residencies rather than long-term relationships with schools — to expand the art curriculum to grades three through five this fall.

And he said once the program is fine-tuned, "we'd like to be able to export this" to any school that is interested.

Wilson said Higher Ground has experience in mediating cultural conflicts because of tensions that have arisen between its majority African population and the rest of the student body, almost all of whom are African American.

Certain forms of hip-hop dance performed by African-American students at school talent shows are offensive to some Muslim students, for example, but "we've always accommodated that with lots of discussion," Wilson said.

That openness to cultural compromise served the school well in the case of the art classes, he said, laying a foundation of understanding with Muslim parents before the cartoon furor of the past few weeks hit.

"If we pay attention to cultural diversity and cultural competency, those kinds of issues shouldn't emerge," he said. "We got it right before this whole thing busted open in Europe."

Doug Belden can be reached at or 651-228-5136.

Art curriculum: Before and after

Most Islamic scholars say statues and other three-dimensional renderings of human beings and animals are forbidden because they might promote idolatry, said Fedwa Wazwaz of the Islamic Resource Group, a Blaine-based group that educates non-Muslims about Islam.

Some Muslims also would object to drawings and paintings of those figures, she said. The more restrictive view is particularly common among African Muslims, which make up the majority of Higher Ground Academy's student population.

Here are a few ways the art curriculum developed at Higher Ground might look different from a traditional grade-school art class:


Children learn proportion, shape and line by drawing people based on photos from a magazine.

Children learn about color by mixing paint for skin tone.

Students learn clay construction by forming animal shapes.

Higher Ground

Same skills taught by having kids draw trees from photographs.

Same thing taught by mixing paint for landscapes.

Children make clay vessels or cups instead.

To learn more


Islamic Resource Group:

Higher Ground Academy:

State art standards:


"The school found a solution"?!?!? Why is it that every "solution" that we reach when it comes to muslims is some form of dhimmitude?

Hat-tip to the mighty Ronin


Nicholas G. said...

This isn't about art, it's about the core principals of Islam and keeping people uneducated so they don't know any better and thus keep following the guidelines. "God doesn't like people to draw." Yeah, I bet...more like Muhammed didn't like people to draw.

John Sobieski said...

Why must we accomodate stupid religous rules? Clearly Minn. has a dhimmi proglem.

Jason Pappas said...

They forgot the obvious solution: add a bomb belt and the drawing becomes Halal.

By the way, I assume they can't take photographs! It's an image!!! How about driver’s licenses and passports? How did they get into this country?

von Schlichtningen said...

In some Copenhagen schools the kids no longer get pork to eat. And the kids only get halal butchered meat. Some parents have rightly complained they do not want their kids to eat meat from animals that had to suffer while butchered.

It is PC ad nauseum.

"Animals such as cows, sheep, goats, deer, moose, chickens, ducks, game birds, etc., are also Halal, but they must be Zabihah (slaughtered according to Islamic Rites) in order to be suitable for consumption. The procedure is as follows: the animal must be slaughtered by a Muslim (or a Jew or Christian - click here for more). The animal should be put down on the ground (or held it if it is small) and its throat should be slit with a very sharp knife to make sure that the 3 main blood vessels are cut. While cutting the throat of the animal (without severing it), the person must pronounce the name of Allah or recite a blessing which contains the name of Allah, such as "Bismillah Allah-u-Akbar".

Kiddo said...

I have already called for an interview. I want to write this one up BIGTIME. I'm still calling for a massive mail campaign.

Cubed © said...

Why do we make concessions to them? Every concession to their special requirements is one more step in the march to create an Islamic state within our country.

If they don't like our art classes, let them withdraw!

Kiddo said...

Well, this one may have been a tempest in a teapot. I think the reporter was making more of it than there really was in an effort to cash in on the Cartoonifada angle. The non-muslim students at this school are free to make whatever art they want, including human forms. And it all took place in early January. Sorry for the false alarm. Took a lot of digging to find the truth on this one though!

I'm, as always, leery of populations that refuse to assimilate to the new culture they choose to move in on, but this doesn't seem to be the case at this school, even if this population is a place to keep an eye on.