Saturday, February 21, 2015

Science Education for Muslim Children

There are two reasons for studying science given to us in Quran.  The first is that it is something special in our nature and the second is that it is a way to see our Creator in exploring His creation and thus strengthen our faith and knowledge of His existence.
Remember the verses in Quran about the creation of Adam.  Allah told the angels that He would create a vicegerent, or successor on earth.  Then He taught Adam the names of all things.  Then He challenged the angels to name things, but they couldn’t, because that was not their nature.  Then He had Adam display his knowledge before the angels.  Then He ordered the angels to bow down to Adam. (2:30-34) So what is this special quality to ‘know the names of things’? 
It couldn’t be that Allah simply filled Adam’s mind with names, like a databank.  What language would He have used?  And why would there be so many other languages in the world today if Allah had made one special language for man?  It would be a program like He gave to the angels and indeed to animals.  They know what He told them and no more.  The gift to Adam was different. He was taught the skill of naming things.
Giving something a name is the first part of knowing it.  See that thing hanging from a tree.  Name it ‘apple’.  Describe it by taste, color. Investigate the cycle of the tree to know when the apple will be available and when it will be at peak flavor. Investigate how it smells.  What part of the apple creates the odor? How strong does the tiny stem need to be to keep the apple on the tree?  Study how long the apple can be kept before it withers or rots and explore the conditions needed to protect it.  We could continue on deepening our knowledge about ‘apple’, using biology, chemistry, and even a little physics. 
We are human.  Allah taught us to be scientists. We explore our world, building on knowledge passed down by those before us.  We name it, compare it, and describe it, and share that information with others and pass it down to those who come after us.  We could not have invented the wheel or learned to make and control fire without this ability to name things, to study their characteristics and learn what we can do with them. 
Allah explains how He created us with this nature and then He calls on us to use this nature as a way to know Him.
"Verily! In the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of night and day there are indeed ayat (proofs, evidences, verses, lessons, signs, revelations, etc.) for men of understanding” (Surah 3:190-1).
There are multiple verses in Quran that encourage us to observe the world around us as a way of knowing Allah. A few examples:
 “Have you not seen how Allah has sent down water from the sky and has caused it to penetrate the earth as water springs, and afterward thereby produces crops of diverse hues; and afterward they wither and you see them turn yellow; then He makes them chaff. Lo! Here indeed is a reminder for men of understanding.” (Surah 39:21)
“And He it is Who has set for you the stars that you may guide your course by them amid the darkness of the land and the sea. We have detailed Our revelations for a people who have knowledge.” (Surah 6:97)
“Allah it is who has created seven heavens, and of the earth the like thereof. The commandment comes down among them slowly, that you may know that Allah is able to do all things, and that Allah surrounds all things in knowledge.” (Surah 65:12)
“We have built the heaven with might, and We it is who make the vast extent (thereof).  And the earth have We laid out, how gracious was the Spreader (thereof)!  And all things We have created by pairs, that maybe you may reflect.” (Surah 51:47-49)
There are these and other verses of Quran that refer to the orbits of the sun and moon, to the formation of the fetus in the womb, to the destruction of mountain ranges and the separation of salty sea water from fresh water, along with many other topics.    Allah calls on our intellect.
If we look at Islamic history, a major contribution to the world was the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, created by the Caliph Haroun El Rashid, precisely to acquire the science of the Greeks, India, and Persia, and introduce it to the Muslim world. The scholars of science who worked there didn’t worry that they might contaminate their religion by learning the wisdom of others. Instead, they filtered anything that conflicted out. Muslim scientists built on these translated sciences, established the basics of scientific enquiry, and expanding world knowledge in all directions.  They understood that an understanding of science can provide important paths toward a better appreciation of the Glory of Allah. 
So what are some suggestions for integrating Islam into a science lesson for children? It is rather simple to do and doesn’t need a lot of effort or planning time.  Simply include the marvel of the spirit in with all the other observations children make.  And include a bit about being responsible toward creation. 
For a young child, watch a bug wandering around on the dirt.  If you catch it in a container to observe with a hand lens, examine it and count the things you can identify about it.  Subhanallah!  It’s so tiny but it has so many parts and each one of its legs knows how to work with the others.  It knows where to find its food even though the world around it is so big.  Where does it live?  Allah made it know how to find shelter.  Then teach the child not to harm the bug, but to release it outside again because vicegerents take care and don’t hurt things if they can help it. 
Explore all the animals, dogs, cats, tigers, sharks, each so different.  What a great imagination it took to make all these, each eating different food and finding its food and its home that Allah provided for it.  Observe things in the environment.  What did Allah make?  What did man make?  People rely on what Allah has created to get what they need to make cars and sofas and spaghetti.  Watch the moon and the sun.  Observe how they move through the sky.  We sense the marvel of it all.  Allah made this movement happen and we can tell time from these movements.  Look at the snow through a hand lens.  See each snowflake different from the other.  Allah creates all kinds of difference in something that at first looks so much the same.  How Allah is Great!
For an older child, study ecosystems.  See how each living and nonliving thing has a role to play in the ecosystem.  See how it is all one system, everything linked.  There is a great design and in that design we can see the intelligence of the one Creator. 
Study the weather.  Follow the cycles.  Look at the complex and yet unified system of water, temperature, and pressure.  How does energy flow through the system?   The same basic principles apply all over the world.  Weathering wears away the rocks and mountains fall into ruins.  The Earth changes over time.  Time to Allah is different from time for us. 
Then look at the Periodic Chart.  Is it not a sign of Allah?  It is simple. The atoms change by one proton from left to right. But the elements created are so different!  All matter is made of protons, neutrons, and electrons.  One simple yet complex system, one intelligence, we see the signs of the Creator in His creation.  Subhanallah!
Now look at DNA.  As atoms are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons, DNA is made of just 4 nitrogen bases, adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G) and cytosine (C). The code for living organisms is simple at its beginning.  But different combinations of these nitrogen bases form very different organisms. For those worried about man’s relationship with monkeys, yes, 98 to 99% of our DNA is the same, but that 1% difference is really about 40 million base pairs, and look at the evidence of difference we see between us and them.  And think, we share 50% of our DNA with bananas.  Subhanallah!  All living things are part of one system. We are part of the system. The system is simple at its base, showing the single intelligence that created it, but the results of minor changes create such varied species.  As a species, actually, humans share 99.9% of their DNA with each other.  Look at all the different people in the world, so alike, yet each with his or her own fingerprints and personalities.  We stand in awe of our Creator! 
A small change of one proton is the difference between nitrogen and carbon.  A small change in DNA is the difference between a chimpanzee and man.  At some point in evolution, Allah created the right change to make the organism to which He would give a soul, and He would teach this organism, Adam, the names of things.  Alone of all animals, man can name, describe, put into categories, classify.  That is the basis of science.  Man is more than this, of course.  With his soul he can choose to follow the will of Allah or not, unlike any other animal.  But he also has this side of his nature as well.
A scientist who has no faith in God will see the mutations that occur in DNA as random occurrences.  On the micro level they look that way.  But a Muslim looks at the big picture, how these random occurrences create a grand order in each ecosystem, and sees the signs of Allah.  He sees the connections between all of Creation, from the microscopic bacteria to the multitude of galaxies. 
Let us teach our children to see these wonders and encourage them in the study of science in the tradition of Muslim scientists throughout the centuries. 

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Jennah and the Lions

I wrote this some years back for our community newsletter as an Eid story for children.  It is loosely based on a tale, "Little Black Sambo" by Helen Bannerman that I remember from my childhood.

Jennah twirled her parasol slowly around up in the air in front of herself, admiring the whirling colors of red, blue, and yellow.  The parasol was an umbrella to protect her from the blazing sun of the African sky outside on hot summer days.  She patted her new necklace of colorful beads and looked down again upon her new shoes.  Truly this was a very special Eid and she was feeling very elegant.

“Come, Jennah.  Here are the nuts for Auntie to make her pastries for Eid today”, said her mother.  “But don’t stray off the path.  Just go straight to Auntie’s to help her bake.”

Jennah took the sack and set off sweetly, with her parasol propped on her shoulder, her new necklace, and her new shoes.  She hadn’t gone very far, however, when it occurred to her that Farida would just love to see her new things, especially her parasol.  It wasn’t very far to Farida’s.  It was almost on the way, if she took the short cut Papa sometimes took through the trees where a small part of the jungle cut in between her village and that little extra section where Farida lived.  She could hurry up there and show Farida her new Eid things and only lose a short time.  And there was lots of time to get to Auntie’s house and help her bake before guests started to arrive.

Forgetting her mother’s command to walk straight to Auntie’s, Jennah trotted off into the jungle on a rarely used path. Here the light was filtered and heavy vines grew across the path, half hiding it.  Walking slower now, Jennah was startled by a low growling sound. From out of nowhere suddenly there was a big scary lioness!

Jennah held her sack tightly and did a quick quiet du’a, “Allah, HELP!”

“Hey, little girl.  You are just in time to be my lunch,” growled the lioness.

Jennah thought fast and said, “Oh, please don’t eat me, Ma’m.  If you let me go to Auntie’s, I’ll give you my new bead necklace.  You’ll look like the queen you are.”

“Me, Queen?” asked the lioness, surprised at the idea.

“Yes, surely,” said Jennah.  Quickly Jennah removed the beads from her neck and ran and dropped them around the lioness’s neck.  Then she backed off fast and said, “How beautiful, your Highness.  See yourself in the reflection of the pool over there.”

The lioness walked over to the small pool to see her reflection, while Jennah slipped quietly away.  She hadn’t gone far, however, when she came upon another lioness.

Jennah held her sack tightly and did a quick quiet du’a, “Allah, HELP!!”

“Hey, little girl.  You are just in time to be my lunch,” growled the lioness.

Jennah thought fast and said, “Oh, please don’t eat me, Ma’m.  If you let me go to Auntie’s, I’ll give you my new shoes.  You’ll look like the queen you are.”

“Me, Queen?” asked the lioness.  “And how could I wear your shoes? I have 4 paws and you have only 2 shoes.”

“You could wear them on your ears,” suggested Jennah.

“So I could,” said the lioness thoughtfully.

Quickly Jennah removed her new shoes and ran and stuck them on the ears of the lioness.  Then she backed off fast and said, “See yourself in the reflection of the pool over there.”

She pointed toward the pool where she had left the last lioness.  The lioness slowly walked back over toward the pool to admire her reflection, while Jennah slipped quietly away in the opposite direction.  She hadn’t gone far, however, when she came upon another lioness.

Jennah held her sack tightly and did a quick quiet du’a, “Allah, HELP!!!”

“Hey, little girl.  You are just in time to be my lunch,” growled the lioness.

Jennah thought fast and said, “Oh, please don’t eat me, Ma’m.  If you let me go to Auntie’s, I’ll give you my new parasol.  You’ll look like the queen you are.”

“Me, Queen?” asked the lioness. “And how could I hold your parasol?  I need my 4 paws for walking.”

“You could tie a knot in your tail and carry it like that,” suggested Jennah.

“So I could,” said the lioness thoughtfully.

Quickly Jennah ran and tied her new parasol to the tail of the lioness.  Then she backed off fast and said, “See yourself in the reflection of the pool over there.”

She pointed toward the pool where the other lions had gone.  The lioness walked back over toward the pool to admire her reflection while Jennah slipped quietly away in the opposite direction.

With all her new presents gone, Jennah started crying.  She still carried her sack of nuts, looking for a path to Auntie’s.  Gone was her idea of going to Farida’s.  She was sorry she had ever had such an idea.  Oh, why hadn’t she listened to her mother in the first place and gone straight to Auntie’s.  Now she was lost in the jungle and all her new beautiful Eid presents were gone. 

“Oh Allah, I promise always to listen to my mother from now on.  Thank you for saving me from the lions, but please, one more help.  Which way is home?” she prayed.

Suddenly, in front of her she heard a growling and a howling and a hissing that made her shiver.  Peering out from behind a giant leaf, Jennah saw the 3 lions at the pond’s edge, arguing about which one of them looked more like a queen.  Would they come back and attack her?  Holding her breath and watching, Jennah noticed that to the right side of the pond was the path back to the village.  She waited for her chance to pass the lionesses unseen. 

The lady lions were so mad at each other that they each took off Jennah’s new things and dropped them beside the path so they could fight each other better.  They were snarling and growling and saying every bad name they could think of.  Then they started chasing each other around the pond.  They never noticed when Jennah crept around, whispering bismillah over and over quietly to herself, picked up her new things, and, slipping her shoes back onto her feet, ran quickly down the path, out of the jungle, back to the village, back to Auntie’s house, to safety once again.

And Jennah helped Auntie get lots of nut cookies made before the Eid guests arrived.  Then all of her family came over to Auntie’s house and all of the neighbors too.  And oh how nice – Farida came with her father before the evening was over and she had a new parasol too!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Teaching the Names of Things

I remember how her eyes got wider and seemed to shine with joy as she stared at the maple leaf, at its shape. I'd just told her it's name. Before that moment it had been an interestingly shaped leaf she'd picked up from the ground. Now it had a name. I pointed to a tree nearby and told her that was a maple tree.

She looked from the leaf to the tree, which was covered with similar leaves, and smiled broadly. "A maple tree," she said. "It's a kind of tree?" She looked around her and looked again at the leaf in her hand. Then, looking around at the trees in the woods where we were walking she pointed to another tree. "That's a maple too? Yes? It has the same kind of leaf."

"Yes," I responded.

"But that one is different," she said, pointing to another tree.

"Yes, that is a sycamore. See how much larger its leaf is, and how the texture is different. And look at the bark of its trunk. The white spotty bark that looks rather smooth? That shows clearly it's a sycamore. "

"Sycamore? Oh.” She looked at her leaf and again at the sycamore tree. “Aisha - look, this is a maple leaf!" She scooted over to her friend waving her leaf, eager to tell her its name.

I was out in the woods with a class of 7th grade kids. The girl learning to identify a maple was a refugee from Africa, who had lived in Ohio for years, but she had been mostly in the city and this was her first visit to a wooded area. Yes, there are maple trees in city parks and sometimes down older city streets, but who had ever had the time and background to tell her about them?

Teaching science to children, I've often been reminded of the ayah about Prophet Adam (PBUH) when Allah said He taught Adam the names of things (see Quran 2:31-34). For this knowledge the angels bowed down to Adam. We know our world through the names we give things and the way we classify things. A small child might classify a set of animal pictures by the color of the animals, or by whether they bite or don't bite. We classify them in more complex ways, but we all have a basic need to know the things around us and how they fit into the broader picture. This need to know the names of things is more than just labeling them. When we name something we attach all sorts of information with that name to identify it. What makes it different? How does it sound? Feel? Move? We explore the world and see where we fit in, what we can do with things, and what we need protection from. It’s something in our fitra, our basic nature Allah gave us. Allah tells us in Quran to use this information and reflect to know Him.

Your Lord inspired the bees: “Build dwellings in the mountains and the trees, and also in the structures which men erect. Then eat from every kind of fruit and travel the paths of your Lord, made easy for you to follow.” From their bellies comes a drink of varying colors, containing healing for mankind. There is certainly a sign in that for people who reflect. (Quran 16: 68-69)

Have they not looked at the camel - how it was created? and at the sky - how it was raised up? and at the mountains - how they were embedded? and at the earth - how it was smoothed out? So remind them! You are only a reminder. (Quran 88: 17-21)

It is He Who sends down water from the sky. From it you drink and from it come the shrubs among which you graze your herds. And by it He makes crops grow for you and olives and dates and grapes and fruit of every kind. . There is certainly a sign in that for people who reflect. He has made the night and the day subservient to you, and the sun, the moon and the stars, all subject to His command. There are certainly signs in that for people who use their intellect. And also the things of varying colors He has created for you in the earth. There is certainly a sign in that for people who pay heed. It is He Who made the sea subservient to you so that you can eat fresh flesh from it and bring out from it ornaments to wear. And you see the ships cleaving through it so that you can seek His bounty, and so that perhaps you may show thanks. He cast firmly embedded mountains on the earth so it would not move under you, and rivers and pathways so that perhaps you might be guided, and landmarks. And they are guided by the stars. Is He Who creates like him who does not create? So will you not pay heed? (Quran 16: 10-17)

There is a strong link made in Quran between looking for the signs of Allah in His creation and knowing Him, worshiping Him, submitting to Him. Children can do this. Help them look for the signs of Allah in how ants march in lines across the dirt and carry things bigger than themselves. Watch the waves generated by rain droplets falling into a puddle. Observe how lightweight a butterfly is, and how it flies so far, in spite of the breezes that blow, and finds its food in the flowers no person planned or planted.

Today more and more children are being cut off from hands-on experience with the natural world. For security reasons, parents are keeping their children cooped up in their homes. Children are spending more hours a day in front of a TV or computer screen than they are spending in school in too many homes. When they do play outside, they are often supervised very closely in environments that have been sanitized from anything dirty or unsafe. How many get to try hammering a nail into wood, to hear the sound, feel the strength needed, see how the hard wood yields to the harder nail? That experience is part of appreciating the strength of iron, “And We also sent down iron in which there lies great force and which has many uses for mankind…” (Quran 57:25).

The book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv, is a popular read today for the general public, because the larger society is recognizing this distance from nature as a problem, not of distance from God, but as a basic need of children to know nature. I believe exploring the natural world creates important experiences for children that help them recognize Allah and His message. Is it any wonder that the Prophet said all prophets have been shepherds (hadith in Bukhari), spending long hours year after year in close contact with nature, the weather, the rocks, the changes in vegetation through the seasons and years?

Can you teach your children about the plants, birds, insects, and animals in your local environment? Or are you nature deprived yourself? How can we be effective vice regents of this earth, and answer our Lord about how we cared for it if we only know the world created by man? (see Quran 2:30)

Who around you might be able to help? In my community there are local Metro Parks, with staff and programs to help children as young as preschool. Is a scouting program available? There are Muslim scouts in a wide variety of communities in North America that get children out hiking and camping in the woods. Many children enjoy collecting things like rocks and shells. Libraries have books that help identify them. The internet can help as well. Remind them always to respect living things, like insects, and not to kill them except for necessity. With inexpensive cameras, children can now photograph butterflies and birds, or wildflowers, and make posters or albums of their finds along with labels and any other information they find in their research.

Mention to your children, while observing something, how you find Allah in His creation. It doesn't need to be a big lecture - just a simple statement. Subhannallah! Glory be to Allah. Can you say that instead of saying, "That's cool." How about saying, "Mashallah! Whatever Allah wills will happen!" when looking at some strange insect crawling through the grass. Ask your children about their discoveries. What does Allah have to do with all these different kinds of rocks? Challenge them to answer. It doesn't have to be a chore. How about laying down in the grass with your child and watch the clouds together, praising Allah, or watching a sunset together reciting dua.

Will they get dirty? Sure. What a change from computer games and 'hanging out'.

Say: “Praise be to Allah. He will show you His Signs and you will recognize them. Your Lord is not heedless of anything you do.” (Surat an-Naml: 93)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Special Day for Abu Saif

The sun was slowly sinking in the western sky and the colors of its farewell were spreading across the horizon and the few clouds. Abu Saif looked up from his reading and smiled. He was so hungry and the smells from the kitchen, which drifted into his study, made his mouth water in anticipation. At sunset he would break fast with his family. He rose from his desk and strolled into the dining room to enjoy the sight of the table, already set and decorated with numerous tasty dishes, waiting for the family to assemble. Um Saif was bringing out another dish as he entered. Umm – spiced roast chicken decorated a platter of hot rice. Abu Saif was rich and could afford to have variety on his evening table. There were the stuffed zucchinis and eggplants. And great! Grape leaves tonight! There were the kofta burgers. There was his favorite – the foul (broad bean) salad he loved…

What! That’s not foul! Where was the foul? Abu Saif’s eyes went over the table again with increasing worry. Platter of dates set here. Green salad set over there. Relish plate there. The humus was over there and a big bowl was set in the center of the table, steaming with the delicious soup.

“Um Saif, where is the foul salad?” he asked nervously.

“We had that every night this week. Tonight I made stuffed grape leaves,” said his wife.

Abu Saif’s face quickly turned red with anger. “What! I’ve been waiting all day for my foul! How could you forget it!”

“You didn’t mention that, Dear. I didn’t know.”

Abu Saif felt furious. Remembering, just in time, that he was fasting and couldn’t argue, he marched past his gathering children and slammed the front door as he left the house. Outside the air was cooler. The sound of the adhan started clearly calling the prayer from the mosque down the street. Abu Saif paced off away from his house, away from the mosque, not really knowing where he was going.

Shortly he found himself down by the river. A poor dock worker sat on the bank reciting Quran as he prepared something he had taken out of a bag. Abu Saif approached to where he could see what the poor man was doing. He was preparing to break fast with a piece of dry bread and a small bowl of vinegar. He had nothing else, but Abu Saif could hear him reciting a small prayer, thanking Allah (SWT) for His Bounty.

Suddenly, Abu Saif felt a pain twitch his chest. Here he was, upset that his well-filled table lacked one dish out of many and feeling abused by the world for that, while this poor man was praising Allah when he had so little! Quickly Abu Saif stumbled forward and emptied all the money in his wallet beside the astonished dock worker. Murmuring to him, “Thank you dear Brother,” Abu Saif turned and trotted home with a fixed idea in his mind.

At home in the dining room, his family had just finished eating and had left all of the table prepared for him. Abu Saif stomped in and looked around at it unhappily.

“Please clear off the table, Um Saif! This abundance is not good for me!”

“Safiya,” he called to his daughter, who was peeking around the corner of the kitchen door. “Take this bread and dry it on the stove, and prepare me a bowl of vinegar.”

A worried Um Saif hurriedly started to remove the platters of food. Her two sons helped clear the table. Safiya scurried around the kitchen, preparing her father’s order. What had happened? Had Papa gone mad?

“All praise be to Allah, and thanks be to Allah. Allah is the Greatest!” declared Abu Saif as he broke fast with his hard bread dipped in vinegar, just like the poor man. “May Allah Subhannah was Ta’la forgive me for not appreciating how much He has blessed me.” Then he recited, “But if you count the favors of Allah, never will you be able to number them. Truly man is given up to injustice and ingratitude.” (Quran 14:34)

This is a true story someone told me about his uncle. It impacted the whole family in a positive way as each person felt more grateful for the bounty the family had, and re-evaluated the importance of their wants and desires. It offers several themes for discussion with your child, depending on the child's age.

We can discuss controlling our anger. How do we do it? Abu Saif didn't yell bad words or throw things. He stopped himself and walked away. He was an adult so he didn't have to tell someone where he was going and he went some distance from home to calm down. Is this a good way? What did the prophet say about controlling anger? An older child could research this if necessary. Daddy, Mommy, what do they do when they get mad? How should the child control anger? (You might need to work on this for yourself before you discuss it with your child, if you aren't good at controlling your anger. Then you can discuss your improvement and how you try to please Allah.)

Talk about why we get angry more often when we are hungry. An older child could research what foods affect blood sugar and what do Muslim doctors and nutrition experts advise for a good Ramadan diet.

Was Abu Saif right to get mad over the missing salad? Doesn't it sound silly? Can you and your child think of times when someone in the family got mad over something silly? Someone might feel angry because he spilled something or made a mistake. He might also feel anger if someone shoved him at school. You can discuss reasons for anger and when it is important to respond to that anger, to do something to fix a problem, and when is it better to forgive or forget about instead.

Why did Abu Saif eat the same meal as the poor man? He gave him money. See how your child understands this act. You might suggest trying a meal of vinegar and bread. What does it taste like? Years ago, when Bangladesh had severe flooding like Pakistan is now suffering from, a youth group at a church near my home had a dinner fundraiser for the victims. They charged a large fee for tickets to the dinner. They only served plain rice at the dinner, saying that was the meal of a poor Bengali refugee from the flood. It surprised the attendees who were not expecting such an inexpensive meal. It earned a nice sum of money for the charitable cause. And it made those involved a lot more aware of how needed the aid was to these people so far away and how wealthy they were, so they should donate. We empathize more with people when we have similar experiences to theirs. How does Ramadan help us to do this also?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Fountain Mirage

Eight year old Zayed was so thirsty. He could think of nothing else. He’d fasted all day yesterday and felt really strong, but today all he could think of was the water fountain out in the hall. He’d hit a home run in the 2nd grade baseball tournament game while outside for sports today. He’d felt so great when his team won. But everyone else had gone to drink at the drinking fountain afterwards and he hadn’t because he was Muslim and fasting for Ramadan. And now in class all he could think of was the fountain of icy cold water down the hall.

It became too much for him as he pictured himself dying of thirst. What would that be like? Do you see spots before your eyes? Zayed checked himself to see if he could see spots before his eyes yet. Maybe – just starting. One little sip of water would save him. He raised his hand and asked to be excused to the restroom.

Once outside in the hall, he dashed down to the fountain, looked around quickly to see that no one was watching, and drank. He drank and drank and drank. Then he pulled away in disgust. The water hadn’t satisfied his thirst. He still felt thirsty. He drank some more. Never had the water seemed less satisfying.

Fed up, Zayed returned to class. He’d broken his fast and didn’t feel like he’d gotten anything for it.

Coming home from school later brought the incident back to his mind. He’d been really active in class to forget it in the afternoon. Now he had to face Aunt Bedriyah, who watched him, his older brother Zuhair, and his two sisters, until their parents came home from work in the evening. He didn’t feel hungry at all but he wasn’t fasting now, was he? Should he pretend to be fasting or should he eat something? He sure didn’t want his brother and sisters to know. They would tease him.

Watching the children come in from school, Aunt Bedriyah immediately sensed that Zayed wasn’t feeling right. The three other children were their noisy selves as they stowed their shoes and books and went to do salat (prayer). After salat the others took off to play, but Zayed sat quietly on the couch staring at a page in his reading book.

“What kind of soup do you want for iftar (evening meal in Ramadan), Zayed? I could make mushroom or French onion,” asked Aunt Bedriyah.

Zayed was silent for a minute and then asked slowly, staring at his book, “What do you do if you forget and drink when you’re fasting?”

“You stop as soon as you remember, ask Allah for forgiveness, and continue fasting.” Aunt Bedriyah sat down on the sofa near him and eyed him seriously. Obviously he had something on his mind.

“What if you do it – accidentally – on purpose?” he asked very slowly again.

Aunt Bedriyah sat silently for a minute, thinking of what to say.

“I felt so thirsty – I thought I was sick, and you don’t fast if you’re sick – right?” Zayed continued suddenly rushing his words. “Then I drank water, but I didn’t feel better – only – stupid. I guess I’m not sick, but now Zuhair is going to be better than me because he fasted all month when he was eight and Daddy gave him twenty five dollars for Eid, extra!”

“Fasting is for Allah, Zayed, not for Daddy or Zuhair. If you fast, Allah rewards you, and makes you strong, but you are small still and you don’t have to fast yet.”

She saw he still looked downcast. “Do you want to fast till Magrib (sundown)?”

“Can I?”

“That would be two half days instead of a whole day, like you did so well last year. It’s not an adult fasting day but it is an effort with intention. You’re learning to fast.”

“Do we have to tell everybody?” asked Zayed.

“Of course not. It’s between you and Allah if you fast. But He knows and your parents need to know because they are responsible for you. If you feel sick at school you can phone your mom at work or phone me.”

“Do you want to fast tomorrow?” she asked after a pause.

“Yeah! I’m strong, strong as Zuhair!”

“I know you’re strong. I bet you can fast the rest of the month, Inshallah (Allah willing). Say Inshallah Zayed.”

“Inshallah! And I want mushroom soup tonight. Can we have fruit salad too?”

“Sure. Come and help me make it. I’ll peel the apples and you slice the bananas.


How do we teach our children to fast? Gently. There are years for children to learn about fasting and how to fast before they become adult and accountable for their fasting. But any effort they make toward fasting, like fasting half days and fasting only on the weekends of Ramadan, count for them as good deeds, something to be encouraged.

Two issues are important in considering a child's potential to fast; the child's health and will power. Children in many Muslim countries start fasting the whole month from around 7 or 8 years of age, when the average child usually has a much slower growth rate than a younger child or a teen and also has the maturity to exert the self control necessary. In these countries the climate can be very hot, yet children may have an easier time fasting than adults, who may be troubled by withdrawal from their addiction to cigarettes or caffeine. But the whole lifestyle if often different there, with school starting earlier and out at noon and everyone taking an afternoon nap. We may have much more to do during the fasting hours and the further north we are, the longer our fasting day.

Each individual child is different and has different issues to deal with, so knowing the averages isn't all we need to take into account. One mother I knew took her children to the doctor for a general check up before Ramadan. It was as much for her own peace of mind as for them. Mothers spend so much time getting their children to eat enough, drink enough, and stay healthy, that watching their children fast can be harder on them than on the children.

Going through a growth spurt during fasting can be a problem, but you will see it quickly in the child's behavior and you can limit fasting efforts. Personally I'm concerned if a child doesn't eat a good suhoor, predawn meal, and if the child shows excessive fatigue in the later part of the day. Remember that it takes a body about 3 days to get into the rhythm of fasting, so one bad day doesn't mean too much. The body gets the idea and starts to change its schedule for when to prepare the stomach to expect food and water. If a child can take a nap in the afternoon, this can help support fasting. Making sure the child gets up for suhoor and drinks sufficiently in the evening and predawn hours also is very important, particularly as we get to longer fasting days in the summer in America.

The other issue, will power, depends on the temperament of the child. Don't expect all of your children to be the same. We develop the ability to control our urges and postpone our rewards. Work with your children. Listen to them and support their efforts to be strong. Challenge them and encourage them. See what they can do while not fussing them if they fail. Like Zayed, they should not have to worry about telling you of their failures, even as they come to you to celebrate their successes.

We live in a society in America where people are encouraged not to develop this control. All the publicity encourages you to buy, whether you need it or not. Credit cards and bank loans, until recently, were given to people even if they didn't have money. Slogans have been things like 'Just Do It', implying that we should follow whatever impulse we might have and act on it. Go out and have fun! If it feels good, why not? Our children are often at sea surrounded by such messages and need to learn to resist them, as we have to resist them ourselves. Testing ourselves with fasting should make us strong. Reading Quran, praying, observing the natural world around us, can show our children that there is more to life, more out there, than just the world of school and the media. Gradually teaching our children to fast, as they are able, has many important lessons our children need to learn. If a young person can learn to control his eating and drinking, he will be able to remember his prayers, to control his tongue, to do his homework when he'd rather talk with friends on the phone or stare out the window.

How do you explain fasting to your child's teacher or after school administrator? Make sure to explain that it is optional if your child has not reached puberty, that the teacher is not required to enforce anything, and that the child won't be punished for breaking the fast. Some parents get so carried away explaining about Ramadan, and then Islam in general, that they don't emphasize these points, which are the most important for the teacher to know.

How do you feel about fasting yourself? How is that impacting your child's experience?

There are many more blessings that come from Ramadan. May your children grow in wisdom and experience with Allah.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Jamil and His Friends

Jamil had two friends from school over! They were playing a videogame in the family room. His mother felt warm inside and bustled around to put snacks out on the kitchen table and keep out of the way of her hypersensitive preteen child. She got the younger children to go play out in the backyard and supervised from the porch as she did some paperwork on her laptop.

Jamil had been moody for several months now. He kept to himself in his room or in front of a video game and hardly spoke. Hiba had tried to engage him in conversation and tried to get him to participate in other activities, but he had just grumbled and shrugged and wandered off in an evasive way. Other moms said kids changed and got moody as they started into adolescence, and Hiba supposed that was what was going on, but she was disturbed and worried. It's hard raising children alone, three kids, a condo and a job. Hiba felt she didn't have the time to really spend on Jamil and find out what was wrong.

From time to time she entered the house to fetch something and check on supper cooking in the oven. Her eyes and ears picked up whatever they could as she passed through the family room unobtrusively. Then she quietly started to prepare the evening salad. What was Jamil doing? It was Chris' turn apparently and Jamil and Jake seemed to be. .. was that what you call 'trash talk'? Hiba wasn't sure. They were leaning back looking 'cool' and harassing him in an arrogant manner that she found disturbing. It certainly wasn't polite! It sounded like something those wisecracking teen actors on TV might do, not her polite modest Jamil! But Jamil didn't look like himself at the moment. His facial expression and his voice, his body language, it looked like some act he was playing. Hiba kept quiet, although she was really aching to stop Jamil and make him apologize to Chris. Maybe Jake wasn't someone to invite back. Instead she pretended not to notice and Jamil's friends went home soon after.

Later that evening Hiba tried to have a polite discussion with Jamil about his friends and his behavior. It didn't work. Jamil got all upset, said everyone talked that way at school, and she wouldn't understand. He yelled at her. She found herself raising her voice. She noticed the younger children slip out of the room looking scared. It was really upsetting. Jamil didn't invite any more friends over after that.

So - what would you do if you were Hiba? It is so hard to be a single mom. I caution those who might say she made a fuss over nothing. Such talk among kids is normal. I know that is correct, but it misses the issues.

Jamil is alone at 13, in a middle school environment trying to cope with a social world alien to his home environment. He is trying out social roles with two close friends who are probably good kids also trying to find their way. Most regular American families have problems with their children of this age group. Kids are not following their parents example blindly anymore. They are starting the search for a position in the greater community outside of home. Jamil may act this way with close friends and very differently if confronted in the hall at school by someone or a group from the "in crowd", or by a teacher in class, and he may act very 'normally' from Hiba's perspective when he attends Muslim functions with his family.

However, Mom can't sit down and say, "I know you are trying to find out how to be an adult on your own. Let's discuss different role models." Young people don't have the awareness of self and maturity to understand that kind of discussion. They are reacting instinctively or with a little forethought to specific small events that look enormous in their lives. They have no overview. Most moms don't either. We are usually continuing that mode of action throughout our lives, with continually more experience to self correct from time to time.

Hiba's big problem is being alone raising her children. Yet even if her husband was still present, the situation might not be much different. Too many fathers are so tied up with their work they leave their wives virtually on their own with the kids. And if they are involved, they usually know no more than their wives about what to do, though there is some comfort in working together. Hiba has heard about warning signs to look for that your child might be on drugs (see: and Jamil is exhibiting a few of the warning symptoms to her untrained observation. And the behavior is so unexpected and different for her that she feels it is out of her control. The elephant in the room is - what else is going on in Jamil's life that she doesn't know about? She will lie in bed awake at night, when she really needs the sleep for the hectic day ahead, worrying 'what if' to herself.

Stress and worry for both Jamil and Hiba can make roadblocks for any effective communication between the two. From my years of experience in the American Muslim community I cannot overstress the importance of support groups for all of us. I've written about it before. It can be family members, neighbors, or friends who live close by. Internet support groups work up to a point, but the view of a person you get on line can be very different from the view you might get from a real life meeting. People can write about themselves as they want to be. A speaker at the ISNA convention (Islamic Society of North America) this year, addressing the issue of children's use of the internet, declared forcefully that people who are engaged socially with others in their community don't have time to be on the internet. He believed that internet abuse was most common among those who are lonely. Think about your own internet use. I find for myself that my use goes up when not much is going on.

I have seen so many adults select their homes based on the quality of local schools and proximity to work. Rarely have I heard them speak of their need to be close to other Muslims for the social needs of their children and themselves. I've seen many people who have no time for a study group on religion in their busy schedules. They only think of their religion deeply when hit by a crisis. But we respond better to a crisis when we already have a support group in place, and a crisis might be averted or minimized by preventative action, if we develop a support group for both ourselves and our children.

When children grow older, they become more discriminating about who they will play with and select their own friends based on personality and common interests, just like we do. If they are going to live their adult lives in a diverse community, they benefit from experience with a mixed community of children growing up. How can you assist your child and other children in your community? A few concerns I've had observing others:

Often parents arrange their social life for themselves and expect their children to be friends with their friends' children. As the kids grow up they may grow apart and we may need to expand our circle of friends for our children's sakes and manage to tolerate parents we don't particularly enjoy so our children can visit or be in activities with their children.

It is better to view these social experiences as efforts for the sake of Allah (SWT), to assist all of the children in growing up, than to view them as tit for tat, like I invite that family, then they invite us, I drive their child to camp so they should drive up to pick up the children and bring them home. Because we need these activities for our children and other children need these activities. We get reward from Allah for assisting other parents who may be in need but unable to contribute, or who may not appreciate the value of their child's participation.

Listen to the kids. You've arranged a summer program for older girls at the mosque with some other mothers. It's all planned and set up. Then you get the kids together and present the program to them. One of the older girls just wants to go out and play softball like the boys group does. She attracts all the other girls to her idea and in an instant you have the whole group wanting to play softball instead. So modify the plans and take them out (in the 90 degree heat) to play softball! Revise the schedule working with the girls' suggestions, several times if needed over the program time, to accommodate some of your projects and some of theirs. It's a win-win situation because...

Young people can't be left to themselves to organize their own programs. They don't have the skills. They end up 'hanging out' together in a vague random fashion. With adult help they can learn to organize and coordinate together to undertake projects, planning a party or a roller skating event, or conducting their own highway clean-up project. Show them how to elect or select a leader and assign each other to specific tasks. Give them some authority and responsibility, clearly defined and within their capabilities. It's less work for adults and a great learning experience for kids.

How your child will fit as an adult in America is not just a function of going to the right schools to get into an ivy league college. That is about economic success, which has its importance, but the most important success is being at home in a Muslim family and community, within the larger non Muslim population of this country. Do we want our children to be marginalized in a tiny circle of people who treat everything outside their home as a hostile foreign place? Or do we want our children to be so at home with everything 'All American' that they have no Muslim identity? Most Muslims are looking for that middle ground, but don't know how to find it for themselves, let alone guide their children to it. We are doing something new and we need to work together to figure out how that works. Jamil should not be left alone in school trying to figure it out by himself.

Our role changes as our children grow. As they grow older, we need to respect their transformation into adults, responsible for their own decisions. There is no date but a gradual change. And gradually we need to give them more opportunities for testing their judgment and being responsible.

How do you help create good support groups for the children in your community? What responsibility do you have to help other people's children? What talents or abilities do you have to contribute? How might Allah reward you for your effort?

Saturday, June 26, 2010


a folk tale adapted

Radwan the old farmer scowled at the sky of the early morning. It looked like a beautiful day was ahead, with sunshine and a few puffy clouds in the forecast. Radwan scowled because he was thinking and he needed to be serious and in charge of his thoughts and the day. With this weather, he could do lots of different work projects around the farm, or he could go into town and see about buying that new plow horse he had been saving to purchase. Probably he ought to go today to town, and maybe he could get some work done in the late afternoon using the new plow horse to help him.

"Subhanallah, what a beautiful day," said his son, as he stepped out from the house behind him with his water pail. He walked to their well with a smile on his face as he felt the blessing of having a bright sunny day ahead. "Inshallah I will be able to wash the blankets and get them well dry before sunset with such a day."

"Well I'm going to town to buy the new horse. You know your chores. Keep yourself busy," said Radwan shortly.

"Of course, Father. But please say 'Inshallah' about buying the horse, to ask Allah for help to get a good one," said his son.

"Don't bother me with nonsense. I've got my money. I know how to judge a horse and I know how to bargain. I'll be home before asr prayer and use the horse to pull the wagon and get that pile of wood up from where we stacked it last year. It should be cured enough to burn well by now."

So Radwan the old farmer set off down the road that led to town. The road was long and winding though the hills, and an hour later, about halfway to town, an armed robber jumped out from behind the rocks and bushes beside the road. At gunpoint he demanded all of Radwan's money and he made a quick escape on horseback.

In a daze of confusion and anger, Radwan continued down to town to file a complaint with the sheriff. It did no good to him to hear he was the 4th person to be robbed that week and that the sheriff was working hard to search for the robber. Radwan took the attack as a personal attack, on his ability to control his world. He was mad!

It was long after asr prayer when Radwan finally arrived home. He met his son in the yard, taking down the clean sweet smelling blankets that had been hanging in the sun to dry all day. At least Allah had helped his son with HIS project today! Was that why people bothered with that 'inshallah' stuff?

"Father, I worried about you coming so late. What happened? Where is the new horse?"

Radwan the old farmer sighed in angry resignation. "I was robbed of all my money on my way down to town, inshallah!"

"Do not say about anything: "I am doing that tomorrow" unless [you add] 'inshallah!'" (Surah 18, verse 23)

"Prayers of all of you are granted provided you do not get impatient and start grumbling that, "I prayed to my Lord but He did not grant me." (Bukhari and Muslim)


This story helps teach the importance of saying 'inshallah' whenever we begin anything. The dua (prayer) actually means 'God willing' or 'if God wills it'. Notice how when Radwan finally gives in and uses it he uses it incorrectly. We can discuss that with children when we read them the story. People who are new to the use can make errors.

I remember fondly a message on my answering machine, "This is Sandy inshallah .... I hope you are doing well..." As she paused at the wrong place to think out her message, she ended up saying "God willing this is Sandy."

It is sad that some Muslims use 'inshallah' very improperly. When I lived in Kuwait years ago, the expatriate English speaking community, which consisted of British and Americans, used to joke that the word meant something wouldn't happen. Too often they would be promised, "Inshallah I will deliver that to you on Tuesday" or some similar statement. Muslims would say things like that with no intention of following through. It was like, "If Allah wants it to happen, it will, but I will make no effort for it." (I don't mean to imply that those misusing the dua were all Kuwaiti.  There were many different nationalities of Muslims working in Kuwait then and the bad habit could not be attributed to one ethnic group.)

I can say, "Inshallah it will rain" and that means I'm asking Allah for rain and I want rain. But if I tell my child, "Inshallah I will take you to the park this afternoon", I must do my best to make it happen and I'm asking Allah to help me in my efforts. Perhaps it was too many parents who promised and didn't fulfill their promises that made so many people in Kuwait use the dua so carelessly.

"Anyone who calls a child saying that he would give him a certain thing and did not give it, then it's a lie." (Ahmed)

Sometimes when people who aren't Muslim are around I'll use the English translation. A number of people have responded very positively when I do that. Depending on your circumstances you might want to teach your children that as well.