Mothers in Islam have a unique role. Scholars say they are the anchors of our families and even civilization as a whole. Nine years ago, I lost my mother to breast cancer and with her went my anchor. Within a year of her death, I moved halfway across the world in search of a way to anchor myself.
Growing up in the United States, I was accustomed to seeing my immigrant-doctor mother do it all. But I also saw how her illness and then her death shattered our family. This became a formative experience in my life.
I dove headfirst into back-to-back master’s programs to escape grief before finding myself on the verge of motherhood. The 40 weeks before my daughter was born, I lived in books trying to discover how to raise a confident, pious, whole Muslim child. I ended up devoting my thesis to the topic of which I barely scratched the surface. It’s now been nearly a decade since Istanbul has become our home. The move came with unexpected challenges as well as incredible opportunities. Of them was the enormous responsibility of parenting without support: without family, without a community, without a “village.”
Becoming a parent is a great blessing and a sacred trust from Allah. But parenting today is more challenging than we anticipate. Muslim society has traditionally been centered around the family, but not the nuclear family which is a European concept developed over the last 150 years.
Traditionally, Muslim societies understand family in the widest sense possible–one that includes neighbors, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, friends, local shopkeepers–the whole village. Without a village and the support system that comes with it, modern parents are facing a mountain of challenges in raising healthy, resilient Muslim children.
While there are many obstacles, our families have a rich tradition to rely on. Drawing heavily from my research including Imam Al Ghazali’s chapter on parenting, Riyadatul Sibyan, I compiled ten tips Muslim parents can try to create a more balanced and nurturing home.
Our children were not chosen randomly. Their creation was customized for us. Their souls, paired with ours. They are our tests as well as our salvation. What triggers us in their behavior is often a sign of something within ourselves. Our parenting journey is a powerful form of tarbiyah, tailored specifically for us by Allah.
This mindset has worked wonders for me! In practice, my day-to-day worries are often consumed keeping my children clean, safe, fed, and healthy, making it easy to forget the end goal: to raise them as righteous believers in service of Allah. I try to frame every action for my family as ibadah or acts of worship. Intention matters. It helps to anchor myself and in turn my children.
Modeling turns out to be one of the most undervalued and overlooked tools we have as parents. Children, no matter their age, look to their parents to understand the world around them. Parents shape a child’s sense of self, social awareness, and morality. They learn from us what is right and wrong, what is just and fair, what is normal and what is not. But it’s not enough to just tell them, you have to show them with your behavior, your speech, your actions and reactions, and how you live in every moment.
This is why Imam Al Ghazali focuses on habits and routine. Establishing adab is not just about proper etiquette – that’s certainly a big part of it – it’s about maintaining a sense of structure and order in life through your own practices and routines to bring them closer to Allah.
When it comes to adab, I started with Imam Ghazali’s advice on the basics: food and clothing.
In terms of food, I focused on simplicity and avoiding wastefulness in my own diet first. I try to eat fresh, simple, and local. Eating the same nutritious and sustainable foods on a rotation is not only good for the environment, but also for our bodies which can digest food better with predictable diets. It makes cooking simpler too! The concept of “safe food” for picky eaters (referring to foods they know and prefer) is a trend that Muslims can resonate with. There is a natural feeling of safety and comfort that comes with every routine, even food.
When it came to clothes, I found success in dressing my kids simply, comfortably, and encouraging modesty early on. We want our kids to develop self-worth and confidence, but we also set clear bounds of what is appropriate (i.e., how much of our body can be exposed, what images we can wear, what brands/prices are okay) and we discourage pride especially over material things and looks.
As parents, it’s hard to find enough time for everything. At the same time, life has become so deceptively convenient that we assume we can get anything with just a click of a button.
This naturally erodes our sense of patience and appreciation for what we have and increases our appetite for possessing and wanting more. This had my family overcommitted, anxious, exhausted, and unfulfilled.
We needed to step back, reprioritize, and just simplify life. We sought balance between our personal and public lives, our home and work duties, and our spiritual and physical needs. We cut back on work time, screen time, social time, and material things. In their place we added exercise, arts, reading, and outdoor family time. We found joy in giving and experiencing rather than consuming. Overtime, we’ve been able to create a healthier and happier routine for ourselves as a family.
There are so many hidden benefits of having the Qur’an recited in your home: it’s a source of healing, therapy, nourishment, protection, and so much more. This was an easier place for routine. We pray together as a family as much as possible. We play the Qur’an at home, in the car, when cooking, and when playing. We read it aloud and read it together. One particularly effective routine is playing a “morning dua” during our morning routine every day. If we get caught up, my almost-2-year-old has now learned to press play by himself. He now associates the Qur’an with home. As a result, the Qur’an has become the most effective reset button for us all.
We don’t have a real TV in our home, but we do have screens – phones, laptops, tablets that are used sparingly. Less screen time means more work, attention, and energy from us parents but it’s worth it. More screen time often leads to more tantrums in our house, so we reserve it for special occasions and educational use and rarely allow more than 60 minutes at one sitting. There’s plenty of research against screen usage and the effects it has on brains, attention spans, and attitudes but as Muslims it also represents a huge challenge to parenting. Our children are the proverbial sponges. So if the persisting models they have are from screens, it’s going to be tough to compete. As parents, we needed to model cutting back on screen time first. Screens can be lifesavers when we’re really stretched thin, but they’re definitely not normalized or in our daily routine.
The human fitra is innately drawn towards nature. There are more than 500 verses in the Qur’an talking about the natural world and the endless signs of Allah in it. Reflecting in nature has been a rewarding exercise for our family. Nature provides healthy distractions, revitalizes our senses and body, encourages creativity while reducing stress and anxiety. Whenever we’re overwhelmed, we step outside with the kids and get some fresh air. You can try adding it to your routine by eating a meal outside, taking a walk, planting a garden, reading, writing, drawing or just being outside together.
We began carving out time to engage with our kids daily and found a little can go a long way. We aimed to fill their “cup” with quality time even if it was only 30 minutes. So while we read, do puzzles, play games, and connect in different ways regularly, we maximize that time by modeling other adabs. This includes playing fair and being patient when faced with difficulty. It also includes teaching them to trust themselves and others. No matter what type of school a child attends, private or public, most of their formative learning happens at home.
Dignity is a term that comes up often in Islamic parenting. Our acts of intentional kindness, mercy, and attentiveness help our children develop a sense of self-worth. We show them how to value and honor themselves and others.
In terms of discipline, Islamic scholarship has few but clear guidelines. Chief among them was preserving a child’s dignity. In practice, this may look like correcting children in private, providing the rationale behind your actions, and using measured force only when absolutely necessary.
Childhood is a rapid series of change which is overwhelming. Personalities and temperaments can vary, but routine and boundaries help keep all children grounded and find calm even during meltdowns. I still struggle with my children’s outbursts, but I had to model how to stay calm and give them space to emotionally regulate.
When writing my thesis, I was confused why Imam Al-Ghazali’s parenting chapter was so uncharacteristically short. But then I noticed that each advice was mirrored in a full chapter of his Ihya authored for adults. The parenting chapter was a microcosm of his larger work! In short: parenting requires parents to work on themselves first.
Our children often mirror our own distress and shortcomings. And when our village doesn’t exist and there’s no one to turn to for help, advice, or support, our struggles can seem unmanageable.
For parents like us who are exhausted, burnt out, or just want a break, my advice is to take it. Taking care of yourself is an important lesson our children need to learn and see modeled. I now understand that self-care is a continuous process, not a single action.
In each tip above, I include how I worked on myself. In practice, self-care can look different for you, but may include: Sleeping in (with your kids), taking time off from work, exercising (with your kids), taking a class or listen to a lecture to reconnect spiritually (even if it’s in the background), carving out a budget for a babysitter, and asking for help when you need it from your spouse or a trusted friend or professional.
While the tips above can’t really replace the village we all want and need, I hope they alleviate some of the stress and pressure we face as parents. It’s comforting to remember that even without a village, we are never alone. Allah is always with us (and probably our children too). After nearly a decade in Istanbul, I realized that if there’s no village in place then we must build it ourselves. We have befriended our neighbors, the grocers, the mail people and sanitation workers. We try to anchor ourselves and be the village for others and let Allah handle the rest.
I am a Muslim, Pakistani-American writer (We Are the United States, 2022), an award-winning teacher, a diversity consultant & editor , & a Columbia University-educated entrepreneur. I split time between NYC, LA, and Istanbul writing, teaching, & designing award-winning education programming like Journalism 4 Juniors(J4J) for Syrian refugees. Having worked with the UN, Teach for America, & leading publishing companies around the world like the Big 5 publishers, Disney, Marvel, and Amazon Publishing, I use my experiences to advocate for Muslim voices and authentic representation. In 2022, I received the Walter Grant for Muslim writers from We Need Diverse Books.