In the coming days, students across America are poised to graduate from high school, and many have already jumped through hoops to figure out how to pay for college. Whether it’s close to home or on the opposite coast, one nearly universal problem facing young people hungry for the upward mobility promised by a degree is the high cost of tuition and other expenses.
Of course, there's a uniquely American way around all of that: interest-bearing student loans. But even as student debt has surged to $1.5 trillion nationally and the larger system of how higher education is funded faces unprecedented scrutiny, the choice of whether to take on debt at all is more complicated for some than others.
According to some scholarly interpretations of the Quran, Islam forbids taking on or giving out loans with interest. That often leaves Muslim-Americans determined to pursue undergrad or graduate degrees torn between the pursuit of the American dream on one hand, and community, religious, and family tradition on the other.
"I feel like if there is a way to avoid interest, then take that route, even if it means a few years lost to save up," said Ahsana Islam, 22, a recent college graduate from Bridgeview, Illinois, who was mulling pursuit of a graduate degree. "It's a thought in the back of my head, that I need to save what I can and actively search for scholarship opportunities. Is your career worth a spot in hell? That is what keeps resonating with me."
It's well known that student loans are contributing to Americans' failure to engage in basic life activities such as starting a family and buying a house. But few prominent institutions have addressed the lack of alternatives for Muslims who feel religiously restricted from these loans in the first place. That can affect students' day-to-day lives, not just in terms of what school or career they choose, but how they survive in the meantime.
"I was sharing a room with two other adult siblings and wanted to move out for school [due to limited space]," said Taaha Rahman, a 24-year-old from Chicago who studied nursing. "But moving out would mean more expenses—and I did not want to take out loans for that."
Instead, she took general education classes at a local community college, got a job with her Associate’s Degree, and used that to cover her ongoing education. "It took me 16 months extra to finish in comparison to my peers," she said. "There was stigma about going to community college." Still, she was debt-free and ultimately pleased with her decision.
Until the American education system finds more systematic ways to meet Muslim students' needs, it's been left to advocates within the faith community to fill the void. Perhaps the only group singularly focused on that mission is A Continuous Charity (ACC), a 501c(3) non-profit based out of Irving, Texas, that promises to help Muslims secure interest-free loans, but also prods at the larger status quo in America.
"We are suggesting that interest as a system and way of life is a form of financial slavery and should be stopped so that no one, regardless of belief system, has to suffer from its evil consequences," said Athar Haq, the founder and president of ACC. “The federal government should only offer interest-free loans for higher education, at the very least, and eventually transition to tuition-free education.”
Haq conceded that universally tuition-free education may be too cost-prohibitive at the moment—though it has gained political momentum in recent years—and presented interest-free loans, like the ones he helps connect students with, as a "bridge or stepping stone."
"Other means to avoid the burden of interest can be promoting and funding loan forgiveness programs," he noted.
According to Haq, wider adoption of interest-free loans could benefit everyone—which is to say it's a model he and some users hope to see replicated outside the Muslim-American world. "We developed ACC as a long-term solution for our community because of the prohibition of interest in our faith," he said. "ACC's model or something similar can be used to free the general population from interest. We believe that other organizations and ultimately the government can adopt such a system."
Like many young students, Sami Khwaja, 33, was oblivious about how to fund his education when he started college, leaping at the chance for an infusion of cash in the form of a student loan. It was only later that he determined he had run afoul of Islam. "As time went by and I became more aware of what I had done, it was at that point that I started to look elsewhere to fund my tuition. including a part-time job, scholarships, and eventually ACC upon graduation, to help refinance existing interest-bearing loans," the Minnesota native said. "Paying off student loans for me was like trying to dig myself out of a deep hole."
But even if there are forms of relief out there, in the eyes of some Muslim students and advocates, the entire student loan system demonstrates what we already know: The American educational infrastructure is set up in a way that disadvantages marginalized groups. Addressing this particular problem may simply mean increasing financial aid officers' religious literacy: If those helping Muslim students navigate the financial aid system are not aware of the rules and regulations that those same students may adhere to, it makes an already-stressful process even more tense and ignores an entire faith group in the process.
After all, the problem here isn't solely affordable education. It's acknowledgment of religious plurality. "The issue isn’t always money," said Shaykh Mohammed Amin Kholwadia, a prominent Islamic scholar from the suburbs of Chicago. "It is about the willingness of these institutions wanting to make accommodations for those who are not keen on taking out interest-based loans."
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