WASHINGTON – Prayer is so important to Howard County high school student Salmah Rizvi that she gets up at 5 a.m. every day so she can pray before school starts.
The Muslim teen said she finds great solace and relief in praying, which helps her relax from her busy schedule of classes and a whirlwind of extracurricular activities.
But prayer in the middle of the day, as required by Islamic law, is a hit- and-miss proposition on school days for Salmah and other Muslim students. When she suggested recently that there be a time and place set aside for Muslim students to pray at Atholton High School, she was venturing into largely uncharted waters.
State school officials said they had never been presented with the question before and had to make a round of phone calls to determine what school policy is on the subject.
“As long as it doesn’t involve any other students, and it is not mandated, it might be possible,” said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education.
It is difficult to say how many students might be in Salmah’s shoes – or even how many Muslims there are in Maryland.
State school officials said they do not keep track of students’ religious beliefs and said they could not even venture a guess. They suggested the Census Bureau — but the federal agency is prohibited from asking about religion. Various mosques and Islamic centers around the state also said they had no firm numbers.
But for herself and the handful of Muslim students at Atholton, Salmah, 15, plans to ask that her school set aside a room where they can pray when the Islamic calendar requires prayers during hours that conflict with the school day. Salmah said the need to find a space and time to pray is particularly important during Ramadan, a month of fasting, praying and purification.
School officials did allow her to organize an event at Atholton this week to mark the end of Ramadan by breaking the fast. But Salmah said students still need a regular space where they can pray, and she would also like to see a policy that would allow Muslim students to leave class for 15 minutes during prayer time.
“It’s a relief, it actually helps a lot,” she said of prayer.
Muslim prayer has been accommodated in at least one other Howard County high school: At Long Reach High School in Columbia, a student has been able to set aside such a space, said Marc Cohen, assistant principal.
Cohen said that one of the school’s Muslim students asked for 20 minutes for Muslim students to pray in a set space during the holy month of Ramadan.
“We found that to be reasonable,” he said. “The county is pretty clear that we meet the needs of our students. We take that very seriously.”