Standing under an illustration of a boy brushing his teeth, changing his clothes, folding them neatly and “making wudoo” (ablution), the Quran teacher pointed to a sentence on the blackboard behind her: “‘Waikhfid lahuma janaha alththulli mina alrrahmati waqul rabbi irhamhuma kama rabbayanee sagheeran’. He has decreed that you serve none but him, and do good to parents, and speak to them generously.”

Students, some struggling to stay awake, nodded their heads. It was a little past 9 a.m. on a recent Sunday.

“We studied Surah [verse] al-Isra last class – how we treat our parents, remember?” said the teacher, who asked to be identified as Ayesha. Silent pause. “But for today, there are two important Surahs. I want you to choose one. Put your heads down, we’re going to vote.”

All but one student in class, a girl named Fatima, were happy to listen. With mischievous smiles, 29 students put their heads down, creating sudden, pin-drop silence in what had been the noisiest and youngest classroom in the Islamic Cultural Center of New York. There was a near-unanimous vote for “Surah al-Kahf.”

The cultural center claims to be the first mosque in New York City, built to accommodate a growing Muslim population in the city at the turn of the 20th century. Founded on the West Side in 1991 and now located at 1711 Third Ave., the center is an architectural marvel, characterized by sleek, diaphanous glass material and postmodern granite designs.

Teaching interpretations of the Quran and Arabic to adults and children, people from all five boroughs attend the prayers, activities and school services of the center, according to Imam Chernor Sa’ad Jalloh who is from Sierra Leone. “I teach Hadith – the lifestyle of the prophet, the way he spent his life, treated his family, his neighbours and companions,” said the Imam, adding that his audience includes West Africans, African Americans, Arabs, Asians and Americans. “We have a culture of inclusivity, it’s hard not to really enjoy teaching a session,” he said.

Ayesha, though, unlike the 10 other teachers at the center, seemed to be having trouble with her class, aged between seven and 11 – particularly with Fatima. In other classrooms, older children were learning other parts of the Quran, and later in the evening, the Imam would hold a Hadith class for adults inside the mosque next to the school.

“I’m counting to two. If you don’t stop scribbling in James’ notebook and laughing, I’ll call your mother and tell her you’re not respecting the teacher,” Ayesha said.

“But I am!” the 10-year-old said, her small face teeming with anger.

“It’s not funny anymore, Fatima,” said Ayesha.

Fatima, like the rest of the students in her class, was attending one of seven classes held at the weekend school of the center, which teaches students Arabic and the Quran from pre-kindergarten till sixth grade. The administrative staff says that almost 130 students, who attend regular school through the week, are enrolled in the weekend school. Ayesha, who is 45-years-old, continued teaching her class about Surah al-Kahf, the most popular Quran verse in class. The holy book is divided into 30 chapters and 114 verses.

“Al-Handiu lillaahil-laziii; ‘anzala ‘alaa ‘Abdihil-Kitaaba wa lam yaj-‘al-lahuu ‘iwajaa—” or “Praise be to Allah, who hath sent to his servant the book, and hath allowed therein no crookedness.” Ayesha recited the verse and then explained how to pronounce each part.

“Surah Al-Kahf will help you. It’ll protect you from bad Gods like Al-Masih al-Dajjal, and it has a lot of great stories,” Ayesha said, asking her class if anybody had heard of Al-Masih al-Dajjal, an anti-messianic figure in the Surah.

“I’ve heard about Judgement Day,” said a Senegalese student named Yasin. “That on Judgement Day, Al-Masih’s going to come up and he’s like, ‘Oh yeah I am God and you have to pray to me,’ and he’s like, ‘I’m going to kill you and put you back to life!’” he said.

“That’s right, Yasin! Because God gave him the power to do that! Thank you,” said Ayesha.

“It’s like a test, right?” chimed in a boy sitting on the last bench.

“It’s a big test, absolutely! He summarized it,” said Ayesha. Al-Masih al-Dajjal represents a big test by God, she added, and people will have to choose between following somebody who proclaims he is God and rejecting him. The latter risk getting punished, and reciting the opening verses of Surah al-Kahf is a form of protection.

“Mu’minii-nallaziina ya’-maluunas-saalihaati ‘anna lahum ‘Ajran hasanaa’ – to the believers who work righteous deeds, that they shall have a goodly reward, wherein they shall remain forever,” the class continued reciting in Arabic.

Fatima continued to disrupt the class. The teacher asked her to leave the classroom.

“She’s always like this. She’s the worst teacher, I hate her!” Fatima whispered while storming out. “She’s always mean. Even when I do something nice, she doesn’t appreciate me like the other boys.”

The class continued. “‘Inaa ja’alnaa maa ‘alal-azi ziinatal-lahaa linabluwa-hum’ – that which is on earth we have made, but as a glittering show for it, in order that we may test them, which are best in conduct.”

While Ayesha picked students to recite the verse aloud in class, Fatima was asked to come back inside. The next class would study the next Surah.

“Fatima, recite this verse for me?”

“Okay, ‘Inaa ja’alnaa maa-‘”

“That’s beautiful, Fatima. Quiet, everybody else. Come on, alal-azi ziinatal-lahaa. Mashallah, she’s reading the Arabic and not the English translation, I adore that!” Ayesha said. “Give me a five!”

For the first time since the class began, Fatima smiled widely. The class went on.