Planting Seeds of Hope: Raising Muslim Kids in an Era of Islamophobia
This article was originally published in The Message.
I’m one of those parents who stares at her kid as she sleeps. I notice every curve of her face and arch of her eyebrows. I know what her steady breathing sounds like. I’ve memorized the intonation of her laughter and the way she throws her head back and giggles when I tickle her. She is so effortlessly mine as I am hers… she’s from me, as though a piece of my being broke off and claimed its own place in this world. But with this belonging and this connection comes a heavy sense of responsibility. Raising her in an era fueled by social upheaval and warring political parties that often bring out the worst in people is daunting to say the least.
Think about it for a moment – as adults we struggle every day to maintain a strong and holistic Muslim identity. I recently heard a Muslim woman say that she sometimes feels “itchy” in her own skin. She is so hyper-aware of all the negative stereotypes that people have about Muslims that she has become uncomfortable with herself. She is trapped in a self-imposed panopticon of sorts – assuming that she is being observed and judged from every angle. If these are the very real and palpable struggles of adults, how do our children fare? They’re still frighteningly malleable and they’re still being shaped and molded into the people they will become. It’s only natural that we should worry about our children having an even harder time navigating this current political climate.
A day will come when our kids’ awareness of themselves and their environment will be heightened. With all our hearts we want that day to be one of unfolding maturity and self-assurance, not a day that might cause them to retreat into themselves, intimidated by bigotry and hatred directed toward them.
As parents, we yearn to shelter our young ones from the hatred and suspicion geared towards people who are visibly Muslim. More than anything, we want them to have normal childhoods full of bike riding, popsicle-eating, sleepovers, and unbridled fun. But a day will come when their awareness of themselves and their environment will be heightened. With all our hearts we want that day to be one of unfolding maturity and self-assurance, not a day that might cause them to retreat into themselves, intimidated by bigotry and hatred directed toward them.
I comfort myself with the knowledge that it’s often in times rife with great difficulty that strong, confident change-makers and leaders are born. Rather than looking at the political climate with despair and asking ourselves, “How is my kid going to survive with his or her faith intact in such a messed up world?” we should raise children who we sincerely believe will be a part of the solution. Of course, that’s easier said than done! But here are some ways we can get started.
Foster a Strong Sense of Identity
Before occupying ourselves with whether our kids have eaten a proper breakfast, or whether they’re too warm or cold in what they’re wearing, or how well or poorly they’re doing academically, we need to ask ourselves – does my child feel comfortable in his own skin? Are our children comfortable being Muslims? Do they know what they believe in and why? Fostering a strong sense of identity starts when our children are young. I’m a great believer in books and storytelling as a way to ingrain a sense of self-acceptance. I still remember the books I read when I was a child and how they, to this day, affect the way I process my feelings and realities. Thankfully, we’re living in a time where great stories about Muslim kids are not hard to come by. Find these books and read these stories to your kids. Normalize and together cherish their names and faith and cultures, as we live in a place where their names will often be mispronounced and their faith and cultures misunderstood. Make their faith a source of comfort, love, and inspiration. Only then will they embrace their Muslim identities without discomfort or resentment. Make Eids meaningful celebrations for them. Let them feel joy and ease in their faith instead of feeling judged or forced. Help them find a second home in the mosque by creating fun and welcoming programs for them.
One of the most important contributions we can make to nurturing our children’s identities is to ensure they have good like-minded companions. It’s important to make an effort to connect with other strong Muslim families whose kids can become companions for yours. A man asked Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) about the Hour (Day of Judgment), saying, “When will the Hour be?” The Prophet (pbuh) replied, “What have you prepared for it?” The man said, “Nothing, except that I love Allah and His Apostle.” The Prophet said, “You will be with those whom you love.” The company we keep has a very real and direct effect on our level of faith, and our standing in the sight of God. In a world where a child’s group of friends is instrumental to his or her development and self-concept, making sure that they have good companions is paramount to their success.
Leave Your Bubble and Get Involved!
While it’s important to build a great foundation for our children around other Muslims and within the Muslim community, that absolutely must not translate into segregating ourselves or our kids from the wider community where we live. Distancing ourselves from the non-Muslim population will just lead to the unhealthy practice of “othering.” Our beloved messenger Muhammad (pbuh) was known for decades in his community as a trustworthy individual – he lived with the people, he was one of them, he had real relationships with them. He celebrated with them, and mourned with them, all before ever receiving wahi (revelation) from God. When he began to preach the message of guidance, he was already familiar with the mindset and traditional ways of his people. No doubt it was an uphill battle, but there was a level of trust of the Prophet (pbuh) present, even amongst those who never accepted Islam.
It was not his practice to segregate himself or his family from those who didn’t believe in his message. Quite the contrary! He interacted with them a great deal – he was generous with them, he was just towards them, and he kept his promises to them. While we’re working on strengthening our children’s Muslim identities, we shouldn’t forget that they need to know how to navigate the greater community as well. They are part of that community, integral to its existence and its well-being.
I strongly believe that getting involved in positive activist work is one of the most important ways to instill a sense of purpose and confidence in our children. Enjoining good and forbidding evil is an important and well-known cornerstone of our faith. In the Quran, Allah (SWT) praises the believers who support and promote good actions and who prevent evil actions. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, along these lines, “Whoever amongst you sees an evil, he must change it with his hand; if he is unable to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is yet unable to do so, then with his heart — and that is the weakest form of faith.” As Muslims, our faith instructs us to be beacons of justice. But that means leaving our comfort zones. It means taking on a responsibility to change both our Muslim community and broader community for the better.
Teaching our kids to align themselves with groups and communities that face similar challenges to those that Muslims face will ensure they not only “integrate,” but also become active contributors. Building meaningful alliances is about supporting everyone facing injustice. Black Lives Matter is an instrumental example of this. For as long as black Americans have lived in the U.S., rampant racism has been the foundation of their experience. Although the civil rights movement brought about many positive changes, racism and unequal treatment of black Americans is, unfortunately, still the default in so many places and aspects of our society. From police brutality to unequal education opportunities, the intergenerational cycle of poverty and discrimination subjects black communities to ongoing experiences that reflect a multitude of trickle-down effects of slavery.
It’s important to understand that we cannot separate ourselves from the struggles of black Americans (as well as other disenfranchised peoples). We are often the same community, and Muslims of African-American heritage also face a double-edged sword when it comes to prejudice. But even when our identities do not overlap, their struggle is our struggle. It must be. When we come together as communities to fight Islamophobia, racism, classism, and any form of injustice, we become stronger, more skilled, and more capable. Brick by brick, we build the bridges that we may need to cross someday.
Be Your Child’s First Role Model
Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) lived at a time of ignorance. Families were ashamed to have daughters instead of sons, people were judged by the color of their skin, and those who held onto their Islamic faith were humiliated and severely oppressed. Through all this, the Prophet was not discouraged in the least. His message of mercy and guidance rang true and shone a bright light that pierced the darkness. He brought a message of hope, a message of mercy, love, and fair treatment for all people regardless of race, gender, nationality, or religion. His patience and perseverance transformed his community and the entire world. There is barely a place on this globe that has not been touched by this light.
Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his companions did not hide away, ashamed of who they were or what they believed. They stood tall in the face of criticism and abuse, continuously striving to establish justice and equality. They did the work needed to actually better their community. Our children are intelligent beyond words. As parents, if we emulate and exemplify those early Muslims, pushing through the darkness of hatred to create light and hope, our children will see and recognize that virtuous and strong character in us.
There have been so many days when I’ve worried about how to teach my daughter to be kind and charitable, to share, and to ask for forgiveness when she makes a mistake. I used to lose sleep over it, looking at her napping cherub face and wondering: how can I help her become a good person? I was in a constant state of apprehension, searching for good Islamic books and resources to help me convey to her the beauty of good character. While I still scour Islamic conference bazaars for helpful resources, I have come to understand that the answer is actually quite simple – I must be who I want her to be. I should speak to her the way I expect her to speak to others. I should pray the way I expect her to eventually pray. I should dress the way I wish for her to dress; I should exude confidence the way I wish for her to. In me, my daughter has her first role model. In me, she has the person who she will – without her consciously understanding it – imitate. And while verbal instruction is important, actions are overwhelmingly what will determine what our children learn and internalize. As we all know, it’s a running joke that we eventually become our parents!
Seek Help from Allah
This point should be number one on the list. We are not capable of doing a single thing until Allah (SWT) wills it. But we do have a tool in our tool chest that unfortunately can go unused for long periods of time. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, “Three supplications will not be rejected [by Allah] — the supplication of the parent for his child, the supplication of the one who is fasting, and the supplication of the traveler.” We can employ every parenting trick in the book, expose our kids to only the best books and media, get them involved in positive activism and volunteer work, and make sure they’re around good role models – but when all is said and done, it is only Allah (SWT) who is the controller of hearts. So be steadfast in asking Him to guide your children, and to make them grow and mature in a way that renders them fit to be leaders of the believers. Our hope always remains pinned on Allah’s all-encompassing mercy.
“Our Lord! Grant to us from our spouses and our offspring the comfort of our eyes, and make us models for the righteous” (Quran 25:74).