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Raising Muslim Children in the Age of Secular Liberalism

by in Culture & Lifestyle on 1st July, 2021

There are certain landmarks in the landscape of your existence, that change the course of it irreversibly. My hajj experience stands out as singularly the most edifying and life altering experience in my then 20 something years. Sitting in the sweltering heat of a tent in Mina, listening attentively to the cracked sounds emanating from the speakers and resounding over the murmuring sea of crouched, shadowy figures stretched out in the expansive tent. The Sheikh delivering the sermon on that particular evening was a convert to Islam. The sentiment that echoed through the blank expression of the speakers has stayed with me since.

“Most of you will never know how desolate it feels to be without Islam.”

I had never heard a sequence of words so alien yet that felt so incredibly profound to me. As a born Muslim growing up in Britain, I had almost always internalised Islam and my Muslim identity as a deficit model; something defined in opposition to secular liberalism, a restrictive force if you like, holding you back from the default standard of a liberal lifestyle. Muslims are NOT allowed to…[add an endless list of verbs here].

The idea that Islam was a nourishing, fulfilling, system that could add value wasn’t something I had ever considered.

As that sentence settled into my psych, and filtered through my consciousness, I began to feel an overwhelming sense of embarrassment. I had been born into a privilege that I had never taken the time to recognise, purely out of intellectual laziness. Islam had provided a safety blanket of purpose that had enabled me to take every physical and emotional blow, from the rudimentary setbacks of youth to the more devastating stumbling blocks of adulthood. It had given me an overarching narrative of guidance and a resilience to persist. It had cultivated a sage inner voice in me that helped to realign my actions and restored peace to my thinking.

And I had always taken this for granted because Islam was such an unassuming part of my existence, one that I had just unquestioningly adopted, and hadn’t taken the time to embrace myself, consciously and willingly.

As with all minority groups, our very standard as Muslims in the west – whether born or convert – is defined against the norm of majority. This means we often absorb deficient notions of a system we define ourselves by, and which we willingly ascribe to. This internalised contradiction can lead to us adopting Islam as though it is merely a senseless tradition, rather than understanding it as a beautiful and well-balanced system which brings meaning and benefit to our lives.

The off shoot of this has lead to a silent phenomena in which we overwhelmingly parent from fear – assuming our children won’t value the immaterial, transcendental reinforcement of Islam. We project our own unconscious assumptions onto our children and fall into an autopilot of parenting that lacks meaning, definition and purpose.

This feeling of fear, and unconscious parenting comes from a poverty of understanding – it is an admission of our own spiritual and religious impoverishment, and inability to value those intangible benefits that come with Islam. If we don’t consciously value something, how can we attribute a worth to it in our homes, and set that precedent as parents.

As a new generation of Muslim parents, living through the abundance of the information age, we have a vast amount of Islamic knowledge at our fingertips. And while there is a burgeoning sense of religious literacy amongst Muslim parents today, we are often stuck in outmoded, cultural and historical methods when it comes to passing this legacy of information onto our children. Rather than acknowledge Islam is a system they must themselves, in turn, willingly adopt, psychologically we parrot the ways of yore by starving Islam of any rationalism or meaning in the language we use to convey it to our children.

While conscious parenting has become an increasingly popular approach, we have been unable to apply it to the many, varied, fortifying edicts of Islam.

And this is not about the Arabic alphabet puzzle set we purchase for our children, our Eid decorations or our growing collection of Islamic children’s literature. This is about an inability to define Islam in a lucid, cogent way to our children, to frame this sense of purpose and make it relevant and meaningful to their everyday, to help them to see it as an enriching and whole, consistent way of life – a means through which to attain fulfilment and the crutch they require when they’re weathering life’s hardships.

We are effectively failing to embrace Islam in letter and spirit and parent from a place of understanding, learning and imaan.

If modern day parent and child development studies has taught us anything, it is that we bring our own baggage to the table of parenting.

And while we are encouraged to unpack those feelings, contradictions and hang ups that constitute a lifetime worth of emotional baggage, we very often ignore our false notions when it comes to our faith. We unquestioningly adopt generations of misinformation and misunderstanding regarding Islam into our Islamic parenting, without interrogating the many misconceptions on which they are based.

By far, the greatest thing I ever did as a parent was both take the time to relearn my religion and disentangle it from the prejudices of wider society and the misunderstandings of cultural interpretations.

The deafening backdrop of Islamophobia will invariably have impacted our impressions and application of Islam as individuals and parents. And our response to this is sometimes misshapen due to the way many of us have inherited it, from a different tongue and culture. Many of us will have adopted this contradictory dualism of a cultural Islam coupled with a reactive, reductive liberal response to those false, cultural tenets. True Islamic understanding and practice, for very many of us, has fallen between this cultural gap.

And while religious literacy is aiding us in decoupling Islam from regressive cultural practices, we are yet to give thought to how we have taken on the opposing vantage of liberalism in our definition and application of our belief system. Given the centuries of orientalism and othering lens through which it is seen in Western tradition, Islam and Islamic practice is deemed intellectually inferior in popular opinion. This insecurity is something many of us have absorbed in varying degrees, and which means a sense of uncertainty has creeped into our notions of belief and naturally this impacts how we convey it to our children.

Crucially, Islam as a practice and belief system is also widely infantilised in popular opinion because of ideas which link the Islamic practice of abstinence to nescience and ignorance and secular ideas concerning exposure to maturity and rationality.

That is, there is a perception that the Islamic way of life is infantile, and orthodox practices are immature and ‘unknowing’. To become adult is to indulge in many seemingly rite of passage activities that are antithetical to Islamic morality. This not only leads to large swaths of Muslims self- infantilising, and being apologist and derogatory about our belief system, it is also why a host of Islamic practices are framed as something we need to grow, progress and move on from – they are deemed a transitionary phase. This impacts the way we perceive our faith, as unknowing, immature and shameful. It impresses on how we convey these edicts to our children – as though they don’t come from a sense of logic or fruitfulness.

We often fall into a ‘poor child’ attitude when it comes to our children, rendering them intellectually incapable, and preventing us from directly addressing the reasonings behind religious principles. This extends to the many, and sometimes inexplicably, hot topics in Islamic parenting today; issues related to so called taboo subjects that we feel they won’t be capable of dealing with – such as drugs, alcohol, sex and relationships. For a community which is largely unable to articulate our values more broadly to our young, the culture of silence around issues that have gained a degree of controversy is deafening. So, we hesitate to speak of our religion in constructive and illuminative ways more generally, and we fail to confront taboo issues head on, and empower our children with the knowledge and tools Allah has bestowed upon us to face them.

Islam was sent as an instructive, functional system, and it is critical in empowering us and helping us to overcome our individual and social weakness, and we continually undermine this in our mute and uncommunicative approach.

Rather than seeing our children as ‘rich children’ and, more pertinently, seeing Islam as a rich tradition which armours them to tackle the challenges of everyday, we have inherited a diffidence about our faith, resulting in a reticence. We have begun to see Islam as the problem, rather than the solution that Allah has bestowed upon us.

Muslim communities in the west have overwhelmingly struggled with defining ourselves against the metanarrative of liberalism – we have failed to devise a clear and cogent narrative concerning our own identity which doesn’t lazily frame ourselves in diametric opposition to liberal ideology, or which doesn’t adopt a silent approach in response to it; failing to take into account the challenges our children will face in a society which centres the immediate pleasures of the self.

There are many ways I’ve attempted to stem the flow of intergenerational, internalised Islamophobia in my own situation. And ways in which I have embraced Islam in my approach to parenting.

Parenting from knowledge and confidence

Our children are believers in their own right. Allah gave Adam choice, and we must acknowledge, within and beyond their youth and our parenting, our children will be faced with an abundance of choice that weaves in and out of the boundaries of the halal and haram, the beneficial and harmful.

How are we conveying Islam to them, outside of our own adopted prism of shame and fear, so that they’re able to utilise it in the way that it was intended: to fulfil man’s purpose and grant them the utmost dignity and self-respect? In imposing a set of rules on our children without exploring the many, complex and truly thought-provoking reasonings behind them we are impressing this vacuous imprint of Islam onto their thinking and being. We are effectively disenabling them from making informed choices. How many of us take the time to explain the nikkah contract to our children when they ask about marriage – in all its revolutionary dimensions? When issues relating to conflict, war and geopolitics are topical, as they often sadly are, why do we not explain to our children shariah principles concerning warfare; to honour woodland, human and animal life. When local elections are on, do we take the time to provide a historical dimension to political systems through the parables of Umar RA for example, and his welfare measures? And are we attaching this knowledge to agency – encouraging our children to write to their local MP and toredress power imbalances through our consumer choices, for example?

Informing ourselves and our children about Islamic tenets is potentially the only way they will begin to see Islam outside of the restrictive forces that hamper our own views. Situating Islam practically in the here and now provides us with the elucidation we need, and makes it an active and fruitful part of our lives.

As for the issues which have such traction in the Muslim world, such as RSE, we are doing children a disservice by obfuscating them through this cloud of censorship. When open and honest conversations that help children to understand that Islamic abstinence comes from choice and our own values, rather than knee-jerk responses to modernity are what’s needed.

When we empower our children with that value and respect to learn and know, undoubtedly they will begin to value and respect their Islamic identity inshaAllah.

They will be able to see Islam for the benefit it brings and end a cycle which has framed it as a drag – something that has preoccupied us while the rest of the world is having fun.

Most often, we have such little faith and understanding Islam, we don’t feel it will stand up to intellectual scrutiny, and therefore don’t think to present aspects of our faith in their whole and logical context. We may be tempted to adopt a dictatorial approach to certain tenets of faith, rather than present them in their religious and social context – as something purposeful. By indulging in a culture of reticence, we discourage our children from taking the steps to effectively rationalise it. Our insecurity means we fear our children might question Islam, rather than be cognisant of the fact that they must do so in order to accept it in their own right.

I take it as a duty upon myself to uphold a quest for knowledge, I very rarely do not have my own independent learning goals as a backdrop to my everyday existence, and I discuss these with my children in an open, non-condescending way, so they are able to understand the true richness and boundless nature of Islamic knowledge and learning.

Parenting from Tawheed  – Islam as a whole

Islam is a continuous thread that provides many of us as Muslims with meaning, purpose and direction. It is entirely unique as a blueprint for life in that it contains no contradictions – and children naturally respond to this fact. Our smaller deeds and actions paint an intricate picture of tawheed that is fully aligned with our greater picture of purpose – to worship Allah alone. This is something we began to embody in a positive way, and that gave me the necessary confidence to parent from a place of full faith and Tawakkul.

As well as the above examples of how it forms a complete social fabric, are we framing our own personal conduct, as well as the notion of social responsibility, respect and manners within our greater sense of purpose? Do we ourselves understand it as so? Are we anchoring notions such as modesty, chastity, self-restraint – for both our sons and daughters – in a wider narrative of tawheed so they’re able to contextualise these notions and understand their true and noble purpose in light of shariah.

I personally began speaking to my own children about how the small acts of good that we as Muslims senselessly champion to justify our existence to the wider world – being kind to neighbours, extending a smile – the roots of these deeds, in obedience to Allah, and their implications. We started to learn how these were actual habits and historical details in the life of our Prophet صَلَّى ٱللَّٰهُ عَلَيْهِ وَآلِهِ وَسَلَّمَ‎ and not abstract, senseless acts. These conversations, which peppered our everyday, were important and valuable and enabled my children to contextualise them.

In focusing on the importance of intentions from an Islamic perspective, I have found that, as well giving the clarity of purpose, it has encouraged resilience in my children. To know that when you begin something with the purest of intentions to please Allah, you can have the utmost confidence in whatever outcome it brings, because undoubtedly there will be good in it.

Articulating your values as a household and family in unequivocal terms and connecting the dots between our actions and their grater purpose has given our family the kind of consistency that has helped to strengthen our imaan and relationship with each other.

Parenting from Faith

In the Qur’an we see the examples Allah has presented for us, which demonstrate how parenting from a place of imaan and confidence in Allah’s promise can enrich us and our children. We see this in the story of Musa and his mother. Despite the tyranny of the Copts of the time, and the imminent danger her son Musa faced, she had full faith in Allah’s word.  Allah gives Musa’s mother two instructions – when she fears for her son, throw him into the river and Allāh also commands that she feed him. In return for this, Allah makes two promises; We will return him to you and We will make him of the prophets.

And We inspired the mother of Musa (Moses), (saying): “Suckle him [Musa (Moses)], but when you fear for him, then cast him into the river and fear not, nor grieve. Verily! We shall bring him back to you, and shall make him one of (Our) Messengers.” (Quran Surat Al-Qasas 28:7)

This demonstrates beyond doubt that when we fulfil our duties and obligations, by putting our trust in Allah, and educating ourselves and our children, Allah promises us He will fulfil His promise.

As ever, this sense of faith brings with it the barakah, peace and assurance that is necessary to parent from a healthy, secure and happy place.

Parenting from love

Allah shows us how Prophet Yusuf’s father fills him with inspiration and love, when he confides in his father about his dream, he is met with encouragement and affection. Despite the fact that their bond and connection lasts only a few years, this tarbiya is so strong it affects Yusuf for the rest of his life. This gives us the perfect framework from which to build our family life, to equally fill our children with such inspiration. Islam teaches us to love our children and to show them mercy and compassion. The Prophet صَلَّى ٱللَّٰهُ عَلَيْهِ وَآلِهِ وَسَلَّمَ‎’s relationship with Faatimah is one of such touching affection. I have found that showing my children the love they need nourishes them in a way that very little else does, and gives them the confidence to live life on their own terms.

It was narrated that ‘Aa’ishah (may Allaah be pleased with her) said: A Bedouin came to the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) and said: Do you kiss children? We do not kiss them. The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said: “What can I do for you if Allaah has removed mercy from your heart?” Narrated by al-Bukhaari (5652).

When I look at how Merciful Allah is – how we reap blessings through the act of repentance itself, how fatalism and pessimism are discouraged in Islam, I have gained inspiration to celebrate my children’s losses, as well as their wins. I will always remind my children that Allah is All Forgiving and that no mistake, error or instance of bad judgement defines them, and this reassurance we extend to their learning. We champion the idea that every mistake presents an opportunity to learn and grow, and these mistakes are therefore worthwhile in themselves. This has given them the confidence to take on new challenges, to learn to love the process of learning and has meant they always feel comfortable confiding in me, safe in the knowledge that we are all on a journey and process of learning and developing together – myself included.

Parenting from new parameters

We have benefitted from being conscious of the language we use at home, what we invest ourselves in, and what we give importance to.

I am more deliberate in my use and application of language, and weary of borrowing the limitations of certain terms, and bringing that burden into our own linguistic space at home.

We talk about words such as ‘ugly’ and how they have no meaning outside of their purpose to hurt and demean, for example. And this makes them more aware of how they see and articulate things, and how those meanings have real world impact. This is particularly important as our children will be growing up in a rhetorical environment that has sullied words such as ‘modesty’ and therefore their practical application. Being aware of the power language wields means children are more likely to rationalise and use it responsibly.

For myself, drawing from the moral intelligence we receive from Islam and sharing this wholly has had such a great impact on my children. In reassessing the things we derive value from as a family I have been able to take a more holistic and qualitative approach to their development.

Allah tells us that the hikmah He bestowed upon Luqman is to give thanks – the quality of gratitude is equated with hikmah. This highlights to us how limited our scope of education and development is when we restrict it to learning facts and figures, meeting benchmarks, and focusing on outcomes alone. When we don’t expand our notion of education and development to include a rich mind frame and approach; to not give in to social pressures and frame other peoples successes as their failures for example– to love for your brother. To think good of others, and adopt a positive and generous mind frame. How all of this is linked to being a believer, and like everything that makes us believers, grants us innumerate benefits.

Being more intentional about what we give our time and energy to, and how I present this to my children has also transformed our home environment. How we define recreation and what we invest our time and energy in has given us a renewed sense of energy and purpose.

I will always take the time to demonstrate, through word and action, the nourishment I get from my five daily salat. I will never rush through an act of worship – whether that’s their Quran practice or my own recitation. I will always try to model the best attitude towards the blessings Allah has bestowed upon us through these acts of worship – and verbalise how much I get from them “I really got so much peace from that Salat, I was feeling so stressed today” – rather than powering through them as though they are a tick box exercise, and perceiving or conveying them as cumbersome. Readjusting what we deem a valuable use of our time – worship and learning – has helped us to find joy in things that would otherwise be crowded out of our lives if we were to fill it with other, less valuable things.

When we as parents begin to see Allah has blessed us with five opportunities a day to fulfil our purpose so completely, to take time out to do exactly what we are created to, and what a luxury this is, it is very hard not to have the enthusiasm, and to share this with those around us.

And so I end this with, the single piece of advise I would like to stress for us all as Muslim parents is to challenge our approaches to, and assumptions of Islam, and to take the time and effort to learn and implement our religion unadulterated from societies, and our own, prejudice – to see the benefit and richness of it. Because without it, how desolate we would be.

Mariya bint Rehan

Mariya bint Rehan

Mariya is a 33-year-old mother of two young girls with a background in Policy and Research and Development in the voluntary sector. She has written and illustrated a children’s book titled The Best Dua which is available internationally and in the UK. IG: @muswellbooks