Forty small children, ranging in age from four to nine, file into the vestibule at the sprawling Shi’a mosque right off the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in Woodside, Queens. The kids hand their backpacks, covered in images of Ninja Turtles and the princesses from “Frozen,” over to their mothers before taking their seats in one of the richly carpeted assembly rooms.

This morning, they’re learning about akhlaq, or the correct manner and behavior of Muslims. Sabira Pirmohamed is leading the conversation, which is mostly her trying to persuade the shy children to answer her questions. “You should all know what akhlaq is,” she chides. Pirmohamed is strict, but it’s only because she wants the children become the best Muslims they can be.

On the other side of the room, the older children are learning a similar lesson, but with a bit more depth. A visiting cleric from Maryland, Sheikh Ahmad al-Haeri, shares a lesson on empowerment. “Look for an important position in society,” he says. “Don’t underestimate yourself. You are like a well, with so much underneath! You can be President, if you were born here; you can be a minister, you can be a Congressman,” he says.

In light of President Trump’s recently contested travel ban against seven predominantly Muslim countries, this lesson seems particularly timely. Not only are the children encouraged to behave in ways that will bring them closer to Allah—things like being trustworthy, kind, and devoted–but they’re also encouraged to engage in civic life to bring honor to Islam. The two assemblies kick off an entire day of Sunday school at the religious center, formally known as Ithna’asheri Jamaat and located at 48-67 58th Street.

A total of about 80 children and teenagers will come from as far away as New Jersey and Staten Island to attend classes all afternoon. Sausan Merali Salehmohamed, a volunteer at the school and the mother of two of its students, tells me that children take four classes: Akhlaq, or morals and ethics, aqaid, or beliefs, tariq, or Islamic history, and Qur’an, where children learn the holy book in Arabic as well as learning the meaning of the verses, and how they apply to daily life. The aqaid class, she noted, is especially important for Shi’a children. It helps them understand how their beliefs and practices differ from Sunni beliefs, and how they can explain their faith to others who question it.

Ummul Baneen Mohammedali teaches a Qur’an class for children ages seven and eight. She is finishing her bachelor’s degree at Queens College, and hopes to be a special education teacher. Today, her class is looking at the Al-Kawthar sura, which is translated as “The abundance.” It’s short—only three verses. Mohammedali’s 14 students were expected to practice the sura in Arabic over the past week. Some of them were successful; others, not so.

The school, known as a madressa, is structured very much like a grade school; it’s more than the casual Sunday school of my Episcopalian youth. There’s a bell between periods, weekly homework assignments, exams, and a graduation. Although they’re young, the students in Mohammedali’s class are expected to be disciplined about their schoolwork; those who don’t complete their homework will receive a zero for the missed assignment.

Mohammedali has high standards for her students. She asks each one to recite the sura in Arabic, correcting their pronunciation—“That’s a saad, not a siin!”—as they go. “I can tell who practiced and who didn’t,” she says.

Mohammedali leads her students through a conversation about the meaning of the sura, too. Kawthar, she explains, is the fountain of Rasul Allah, the messenger of God, in paradise. “We want to drink from the fountain of Kawthar,” says Mohammedali. But how? Through prayer and sacrifice. She asks the class what they can sacrifice. Money, of course, is suggested–charity, or zakat, is one of the pillars of Islam. “Through being nice?” suggests a little girl. “Sure, we can be good people,” Mohammedali responds, “we can sacrifice our lives—not physically, of course.” But she notes that another important way to sacrifice is through time. “Saying this sura is like making a sacrifice,” one that’s maybe a bit less painful than other forms. As an added benefit, says Mohammedali, “You’ll also get to meet Rasul Allah.” This strikes a chord with a student in a white hijab. She gasps and exclaims, “Cool!” Mohammedali nods and says, “I think it’s pretty cool, too.”

The final line in the sura refers to Muhammad’s lack of male heirs with his wife, Khadija. While she bore him two sons, both are to have died in infancy. Because he lacked male progeny, Muhammad was taunted by Abu Jahl and his Qurayshi tribesmen. In order to explain why this is important, though, Mohammedali must first explain the concept of bloodlines. “So when a boy and a girl get married, right, what happens to the girl’s name?” she asks. “The girl takes the boy’s name, right? The boy doesn’t take the girls’ name, right? Unless she’s really lucky. How many of you have your dad’s last name?” Every student except one raises their hand. “So Muhammad didn’t have anyone to carry on his name,” Mohammedali explains, leading to the abuse from the Qurayshi tribe. But Muhammad is promised, in this sura, that those who taunted him will be punished in the worst way possible–by being cut off from God.

As students progress, they obviously have more nuanced conversations about the Qur’an and other aspects of Shi’a life; teenagers in their final year of madressa debate the nuances of the word wali, which can mean guardian, helper or friend, depending on one’s interpretation. But the foundations of Islam start early for these students. The goal, says Salehmohamed, is to teach the children that Islam is not just something to be “boxed off and reserved for Sundays.” Rather, madressa education prepares children to engage in Islam “as a way of life.”