Naureen Aqueel

Muslim Scouts: Practicing Islam through the Scout Law

Posted on: October 1, 2012

An edited version of this article was published in Islamic Horizons magazine, published by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) 

Scouts - 65th IMO - 01

Murjan Hammad, 17, Senior Patrol Leader for boy scouts, walks up to the front of the room to begin the scouts meeting for Troop 1576 at the Sterling ADAMS centre in Virginia on April 17, 2012. The laughter and chatter among young boys in scout uniforms aged between 10 to 17 dies down as expectant eyes follow their leader. Hammad outlines the agenda for the meeting. They are going to play a game today. Each scout has to complete a list of 10 native plants and 10 native animals that they can find and submit it in the next meeting. It’s almost Maghrib time and beginning to get dark. The scouts proceed to the outdoors to begin their activity. They have to come back in to perform their prayers. They also play a game of ‘anti-over’ before they return to resume their troop meeting.

This is a typical day of the boy scouts meeting at the ADAMS Centre, Sterling. Similar Muslim Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts belonging to the national Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and Girl Scouts of the USA organizations, but sponsored by mosques and Islamic centers and thus having exclusive Muslim membership, can be found throughout different cities in the USA and Canada. According to the Boy Scouts of America, Scouting membership in the American Islamic community in 2010 was over 2000 divided into Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Venturers in the approximately 91 Muslim units associated with the BSA. There are no clear statistics on Muslim membership in the Girls Scouts, but reports have mentioned a number of exclusively Muslim Girls Scouts troops existing in states across North America. Muslim boy and girl scouts can also be found in troops that are not exclusively Muslim. Boston, Detroit, Minneapolis, Chicago, Brooklyn, Sterling, Houston and Dallas are some of the cities that have active Muslim Scouts groups.

Scouting in the Muslim community has a long history that extends beyond the borders of the USA and Canada. “Scouting is not an American thing,” Assistant Scoutmaster at ADAMS, Yusuf Rambo explains. “There has been scouting in Muslim countries for as long as scouting has been around in the world. It has been there in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for a long time.”

The Scout Association of the UK estimates that more than a third of all scouts worldwide are Muslim. According to Dawud Zwink, former Vice President of ISNA, who served as Chairman of the National Islamic Committee on Scouting from 1990 to 1993 and is currently working as Facilitator at the Canadian Muslim Fellowship of Scouting, persons with Scouting experience in Pakistan and Lebanon played a major role in the development of Islamic Scouting in the USA in association with the Boy Scouts of America.

“Brothers from the Muslim American Society (MAS) developed their own groups that are now affiliated with BSA,” explains Zwink. “Brothers and Sisters from the African American community have developed their own Scouting organizations, some originating in the black liberation movement organizations of the 60’s and 70’s with many independent of BSA. The community headed by Warth Deen Muhammad has developed Scout groups that are affiliated with BSA.”

Scouting is a unique youth program in that it engages young people in fun-filled activities that lead on to build a sound character and strong personality. The fact that it includes activities viewed as fun by the youth, beyond those limited only to the religious domain, helps provide for the youth a platform where they can enjoy and be themselves while at the same time being involved in constructive activities that help them learn essential life skills. It is also an effective means of involving Muslim children in the mosques and Islamic centers where they can build healthy friendships with other Muslims.

“The whole premise behind boy scouting is teaching our boys leadership skills through outdoor activities that test them — a leader only gets to be a leader after going through some trials,” remarks Rambo. The rank structure that is an essential component of scouting helps reinforce the aspect of challenge based learning and competition. “As you slowly acquire a new skill, they transfer you to another rank. Boys and girls have a value for accomplishment. Our whole aim is to trick the kids into teaching them leadership skills by masking them into fun and play.”

Rank advancement culminates in the Eagle scout rank. A scout must accomplish many things before reaching the Eagle rank but once the rank is achieved, it is an achievement that helps the scout immensely in the future. When an Eagle scout goes to college or in the job market, the employer knows that everything else in that person’s life is also exemplary. For Girls Scouts, the highest rank is known as Gold.

Scouts can earn merit badges in a number of activities of interest that they engage in. The BSA lists more than 100 merit badges that Scouts can earn. The subjects range from archaeology, astronomy, art, family life and chemistry to skating, swimming, painting, camping, theater and veterinary medicine. The merit badges are ways to introduce the youth to all the opportunities out there for them that could be potential career options. In addition to the regular merit badges, Muslim Scouts can earn special emblems by studying certain subjects of theology as well as by engaging in faith related community service.

Each scouting group has an activity based program suited to the needs and interests of the children that participate. Most groups meet every week or every alternative week. Perhaps one of the defining features of Scouting that distinguishes it from other youth programs is the opportunity it provides to young people to get outdoors and do things that cannot be done at home or in the neighborhood. Activities like camping, rafting, canoeing and biking are among some of the appeals of Scouting that helps attract a large number of youth.

Each Scouting group also decides its own method of action and program content. So while some centers may not focus too much on Islamic knowledge and lessons in their activities other mosques and centers might choose to keep their program religion-centric by incorporating examples from the Quran and Sunnah. For example, Faiza Rahman, Girl Scouts coordinator for the MAS Youth Center of Dallas explains how her group always uses examples from the Sunnah. “When we teach the girls about the aspect of honesty in the Scout Law we also tell them stories of the Prophet (saw) and how he used to be honest.”

Scouting is also instrumental in providing Muslim youth with mentorship in the form of positive relationships with adults that serve as good role models. Some groups also have chaplains who provide spiritual guidance to the youth on issues of concern to them.

“For me as a mom, this is the best thing you can offer to your children for friendship, leadership and fun,” says Badria Kafala, mother of 12-year-old Yosaf Omeish who is a boy scout. Kafala put her son into Muslim scouting so that he could have Muslim friends from the community. “It helps the kids especially when they are teens – they can have a group where they can spend their time. It also helps build personality and self-esteem, and they learn from their leaders who are older boys. In scouting they practice leadership at the age of 11. It also gets them involved in various activities like hiking, canoeing, community services…so many things they can’t do in their own home and family.”

Hadia Rizwan*, another mother whose 8-year-old son was part of a cub scouts den in San Antonio, Texas last year feels that the entire experience was a positive one. “They teach the kids a sense of responsibility and there is focus on physical fitness and doing your best,” she says. Her son, however, had to stop going to the scout group because he started Quran classes during the same time.

The ADAMS Scouting troops participate every year in the Camporee with 100 other scouts from different troops which include non-Muslims. “We don’t segregate ourselves. How else are we going to be ambassadors of Rasulullah (saw) unless we don’t participate?” asks Rambo. “In camps we make sure we do not miss out on our Wajibaat like Salah. We let the kids understand that they serve as an example to the community at large. If it is during Ramadan, we fast. We eat halal food. We make sure we have a presence within scouting at the national level.”

“Scouting instills in young people, values that last a lifetime and cultivates ethical character as expressed in the Scout Oath and Law,” explains Zwink. “Scouting trains young people in citizenship, service, and leadership. We also offer our members a wealth of useful knowledge and skills. Scouts have the opportunity to learn fascinating and useful information and to build skills and the confidence that goes with them, which will serve them throughout their lives. For older youth, extreme adventure provides new meaningful experiences, generally in the out-of-doors, to promote team-building, practical leadership applications, and lifelong memories.”

Girls scouts usually do not have the same high adventure activities and ranks are often different but the goals and values of the program are the same. “In the meetings, we participate in activities that are mentioned in the scouting book and we get badges for those,” says Ushna Ahmed who goes to the Girls Scouts group at ADAMS. “We volunteer in charity organizations and arrange events. In terms of religion, being part of scouting helps us meet Muslim friends and in my life, I know it just gives me an opportunity to do things that I otherwise wouldn’t have done.”

Scouting, however, is not without its share of critics. Some Muslim critics point out that it is primarily a Christian movement and Muslim participation is not acceptable. When posed with a similar question once, Syed Ehtesham H. Naqvi, Founder President of the Islamic Council on Scouting of North America said, “Do not see who is saying it, but look to what is being said.”

“The Scouting Law given by Lord Powell contains the same principles mentioned in the Quran,” says Naqvi. “When we are living in a country like the USA, we need to get our youth involved and this is the way. My organization has achieved a number of Dawah opportunities through the scouting activities we have participated in. We have been able to teach others about Islam and distribute pamphlets.”

The Boy Scouts of America has been working with the Islamic Council on Scouting since 1982 and has gradually made policy changes to cater to Muslim Scouts in the United States. Among the initiatives taken to cater to Muslim Scouts are the provision of halal food and a place for prayer at outdoor camping events.

The Scout Oath binds a scout to do their duty to God and to their country and to abide by the Scout Law which enunciates 12 virtues that a scout must possess including being trustworthy, friendly, loyal, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. “There is not a single aspect in the law that is contrary to Islam,” says Rambo. “If anything, the most exemplary of scouts should be Muslim scouts. Scouting and Islam go hand in hand.”

Scouting helps youth develop a positive Muslim American identity and provides a positive platform for the youth to utilize their energies. The fact that it provides a complimentary education system that can run parallel to a child’s mainstream education keeps it accessible to all Muslim children whether those attending Islamic schools, public schools or being homeschooled.

The biggest challenge facing the Muslim Scouting community in North America, according Syed Ehtesham H. Naqvi, is the lack of funding and human resource. Although Muslim Scouts have a number of dedicated individuals who are doing commendable service to the community, apart from the little funding that comes from the Islamic centers, Naqvi says he fears most of the scout leaders end up paying from their own pockets for participation in national events, meetings and other activities that serve to benefit the whole community.

Zakaria BenYaqoub, MAS Dallas Boys Scouts Coordinator points out another difficulty faced by the Muslim Scouting community: lack of involvement by parents. BenYaqoub states that parental participation in organization and mentorship is essential for a better quality Scouting program.

The Muslim community in North America needs to recognize and support Scouting as an effective program providing guidance, character development and constructive activity to the youth. In a world where parents are constantly worried about providing their children with good company, mentorship and constructive activities, Muslim scouting serves as a ray of hope.

*Some names have been changed upon request

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