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: www.nida.nih.gov) 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.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Prophet and Children

Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was known for his kind and affectionate nature, thoughtful and respectful of all. Many of the companions were children when they met and lived with the Prophet, and they passed on their experiences in the collections of hadith.

What will our children say about us when we are gone? We are the models teaching them how to behave like our prophet. If we can't follow his example, how can we ask our children to do so?

One man reported that as a boy, he was caught throwing stones at palm trees, and was brought before the Prophet for judgment. "O boy, why do you throw stones at the palm trees?" the Prophet asked him. He said, "To eat (dates)." The Prophet said, "Do not throw stones at the palm trees but eat what falls beneath them." He then wiped (his hands over the boy's) head and said, "O Allah, fill his stomach." (Abu Dawd)

Notice how in this story, the prophet did not give a long lecture, or yell. The boy was brought for punishment, but what did the prophet do instead? He asked the boy to explain himself. The boy was hungry. Many people around then did not have enough to eat. He recognized the child's need by giving him permission to eat what falls to the ground. And he said a dua for the boy, that he have enough to eat in the future.

Anas bin Malik reported: "When the messenger of Allah (PBUH) came to Madina, he did not have a servant. Abu Talha took me to the Messenger of Allah and said, 'O Messenger of Allah, Anas is a clever boy, so let him serve you.' Then I served him on journeys and at home." (Bukhari and Abu Dawd)

"One day he sent me on an errand and I said, 'By Allah, I will not go,' but it was in my mind that I would do as the Messenger of Allah had ordered me. I went until I came upon children playing in the street. Then the Messenger of Allah arrived and he caught me by the back of my neck from behind. as I looked at him I found him smiling, and he said, 'Unays (Anas's nickname), did you go where I ordered you to go?' I said, 'O Messenger of Allah, yes, I am going.' I served him for nine years, but do not know that he ever said to me about anything I did, why I did that, or about anything I had neglected, why I had not done that." (Muslim)

Notice again the absence of yelling and scolding. Anas doesn't get punished. He gets a friendly reminder to get back to his task. In each of these examples, the Prophet seems to see the situation from the child’s perspective as well as from the adult perspective. Anas needed a break.

How often parents react to a child from their own perspective without consideration for the child’s viewpoint. We make eating schedules based on our own needs and then children sneak food or misbehave because they are hungry. We make activities timed for our attention spans, and don’t plan brakes for a child’s need for exercise and change in focus. Children, and even adults, have varying abilities to focus on tasks. Some tire early and some can go on for hours. And the ability changes depending on how interesting the task is. Much of the misbehavior in schools that run according to clock schedules is due to the inability of children to fit into the school time slots, and when parents run their homes on to-do list schedules, much of the problem they have with their kids also comes from this issue. So why punish? Look for ways to adjust and make the expectations for the child more in line with what the child can do.

When I spoke to a group of people some time back about trying to act like the Prophet with our children, a man spoke up and said the Prophet hadn't had his son to deal with. Of course Anas was probably chosen to serve the Prophet because he was a well behaved boy. But when we read Quran and hadith we see that the Prophet had good manners and thoughtful respectful dealings with people no matter how bad they were.

We need to be aware of the common error of blaming others for our behavior. Our children don't make us do anything. We give in to our own fatigue or anger and frustration, but that is a choice we make. We are adults, answerable for our actions. Children are not answerable. They act according to their nature and to how we, and the environment around them, train them to behave.

Yes, there are children who are difficult. Some have a strong desire to "be the boss" - with a very dominant personality. Some are very fearful, and their fears stop them from doing normal things, so they fill their time with safe things. Some are very energetic - even hyperactive. Others go off into day dreams and have trouble focusing. We have terms for children, like ADHD and autistic and dyslexic and reams of literature on how to diagnose and handle each issue. But modern child psychology and education theory actually ask adults to act very much like Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) when dealing with these children, gently, patiently, inquiring of them about what they are doing without scolding, and working with them to teach them. And trying to see the world through the child’s eyes.

In his relations with his own children, it is described how the Prophet would greet his daughter Fatima with a kiss. When he went to her house she would rise and come to welcome him and kiss him. (Abu Dawd) When the Messenger came back from a journey, the children of his family would welcome him. Once, when he came riding into Madinah from a journey, the young Abdullah ran up to him first and the Prophet mounted the boy in front of him. Then came his grandson and he mounted him up behind him, and they entered Madina this way, riding together. (Muslim) He was known to carry his grandchildren on his shoulders, and to kiss them in public. One man, watching him kiss and hold his grandson Hasan, said to him, "I have ten children and I have never kissed any of them." The Messenger of Allah glanced at him and said, "The one who is not merciful will not be shown mercy." (Bukhari)

We have many more examples of the Prophet interacting with children and encouraging his companions in the same direction. The great importance he attached to the kind treatment of children can be understood from his statement, "He does not belong to us who does not show mercy to our young ones and respect to our old ones, and who does not enjoin the good and forbid the wrong." (Tirmidhi)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Poisoned Circle

Iman loved her study circle at Sr. Yasmin's house. Since it had started, it had given her a place to really feel accepted. It was a place where she belonged. About 12 to 15 high school girls met there every Tuesday night when Sr. Yasmin's husband would go out for the evening. They would read Quran, recite dua and talk about Islam together for about an hour, then have a little social time with juice and cookies before heading home. It was cool to be with other girls like herself, to talk about problems at school and issues with kids at school.

Since she'd started wearing hijab in middle school she had felt like an outsider at school. Kids she'd known for years had started talking around her and avoiding eye contact in the hallway. Teachers seemed to have less interest in her - or was that just because high school was different from elementary? She just felt out of place, alone. Then Sr. Yasmin had started her halaqah.

Her parents were very happy with the new program for Iman. They supported her membership and made sure she had transportation to the halaqah, and to the other activities that sprang up from it. At first there were social things, like roller skating parties and trips to the river and the woods to go canoeing and hiking. Gradually, over time, the girls started spending more time with thikr. They did some community service projects, like volunteering at a food bank, but they put in more and more time before and after salah in thikr activities. Sr. Yasmin taught them some chants to say together, swaying back and forth with the rhythm. Then, during Ramadan, they did some weekend nights of itikaf at the mosque together, praying tarawih and then continuing with reciting Quran and thikr until fajr. It was such a wonderful experience for Iman. She felt such love for Allah and a strong desire to spend her life in devotion to Allah. She loved Sr. Yasmin.

Gradually the suggestions of Sr. Yasmin took the form of dictates. You had to come. You had to participate. Iman didn't notice. She was too happy to be a part of things and loved having Sr. Yasmin ask anything of her. The halaqah spent more time at the mosque and Sr. Yasmin's husband spent more time away so the girls could stay with her. Evening after evening, weekend after weekend, the halqah was taking all of the girls free time. Parents were noticing the absence and the absent way the girls behaved when they were home, busy reciting dua when they weren't studying or memorizing Quran. Gradually the girls had all come to wear very similar clothes and wanted to fix their hair the same way.

Iman's mother was the first to speak up to her friends, the mothers of several of the other girls. What was going on here? It was good Iman wasn't mopping about school anymore and had friends, but this was becoming too much. Little by little a few other mothers started questioning around.

Before she knew the whole story, Iman's mother had learned enough to call it quits. She had discovered that a man was hanging around the halaqah all the time. Her husband knew him. He was a time waster, an unemployed man who claimed to be in import/export business, but who just hung out at the mosque and sponged off his brother. Two mothers had seen Sr. Yasmin talking and laughing with him in a manner that seemed overly friendly. One girl innocently mentioned how Sr. Yasmin spent a lot of time "consulting with the sheikh" in the back room. Between the excessive time consuming obsession this halaqah had become and the existence of an odd man hanging around the group, there were too many inappropriate things going on here for Iman's mom.

She made her daughter quit the group and told other mothers what she had learned and what she was concerned about. Several became indignant and refused to hear her out. They said she was gossiping and spreading slander. Those who had helped her get the story sided with her. Sr. Yasmin defended herself with great outrage at the accusations. The girls halaqah was split. Iman was heartbroken and cried, but, in spite of all the pressure, her mother stayed firm. Iman heard from some of the girls that Sr. Yasmin had told them not to talk to her. It all seemed worse! How she wanted to be near Sr. Yasmin again and be in her good graces! Her mom was so unfair! Then it was summer vacation and Iman traveled with her family to her aunt and uncle's home several hours away. She stayed with them over the summer, recovering. Her cousins took her to many activities and gradually she regained her balance.

In September, Sr. Yasmin filed for divorce. Her husband countersued. The story was soon all over the community.

Sr. Yasmin, so pious and sweet, turned out to have been using the halaqah to cover for her affair. She'd met him at the mosque during the itikaf experience during Ramadan. She had introduced him to the girls as a 'visiting sheikh' and had arranged for him to 'assist' with their halaqah. He didn't do much more than lead them in a short opening dua and closing dua most of the time. Sr. Yasmin had arranged the program so the girls could conduct most of it on their own, and she could slip away into another room to visit with her sweetheart.

As the affair came to light, everyone stopped going to the girls halaqah. Iman was re-included in the group that talked on the phone and on line, hashing over the whole story, each girl remembering details they had noticed, but not made sense of earlier. At the request of Iman's mother, the imam of the mosque called a meeting of the girls and their parents. He explained briefly and politely what had been discovered about Sr. Yasmin. He explained the Islamic position on her behavior and apologized for not having acted earlier. The husband had been complaining for some months about his wife's distant behavior and obsession with the halaqah. They discussed how things had happened and the girls recognized that Sr. Yasmin had started with good intentions. The group had been so successful that she had let her success go to her head. The imam led the group in dua for Sr. Yasmin and her family, and for all of the community hurt by her betrayal.

Iman felt a little better after the talk with the imam, but it would be an important event in her life that colored her thinking for years to come. She called up the girls and arranged to restart the halaqah as their own group. They knew how to do it on their own now. They returned to the initial format of once a week and they took turns in hosting it. Some of the mothers joined in now and then, participating as friends and not as leaders. Some girls left for college and adulthood. New girls joined.

I write this story with few details, to keep to my self- imposed space limit. It is very painful to write, a composite of three real events I witnessed over the years. We really need good programs for our youth and the halaqah started out with such promise. People need to create these support groups for our youth around the country, for boys and girls. I know most of our school teachers and imams are humble and devote a lot of time and sacrifice to educate our children. But a few of our leaders abuse their power. This Yasmin abused it for personal reasons, ego. Others abuse it for political goals. We've seen some convince young men to commit crimes in the name of their faith!

Enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong is an obligation of all Muslims, and parents have a special responsibility. Young people want to be so independent, but they lack perspective to see the moderate path of faith.

There are several topics in this story:

• What is excessive religious practice? Was Sr. Yasmin excessive? What would be a good amount of religious practice? Do your children get some spiritual experiences as well as the common “Let’s memorize Quran” rote work?

• What is arrogance in leadership? How do you recognize it?

• How do you stand up for what is right when there are differences of opinion, or where you are criticizing someone in power who has blind supporters? What kind of evidence do you need? Did Iman’s mother have enough information when she stopped her daughter from going to halaqah and started complaining to others? Where would you have drawn the line?

• How do you heal after betrayal and how do you help your children when they are betrayed? Did the imam do a good job helping the families? Who else might have helped? What else might be useful? What are some things that are NOT helpful to do?

Each one takes time to study. But we cannot remain ignorant or follow a leader blindly. We have the responsibility to our families and our communities. And Allah (SWT) will hold us accountable.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Save My Family

"Oh Imam, Come save my family!" The man cried in tears. "These awful people have captured my wife while I was away working. They taught her that women's liberation stuff. They convinced her to leave me and go live with them. They convinced my daughter to hate me."

Though he had never seen the brother before, the imam agreed to try to help. He assumed from the way the man spoke that the couple had been separated only a few days. Who were 'these awful people' he spoke of? With an address from the man, the Imam sent two responsible women from the mosque to visit the woman. They could meet her and see if she wanted to come for counseling.

The apartment was shabby, but clean and neat. It wasn't a friend's house but an apartment obtained through an agency that helps the homeless and women who are victims of domestic violence. The woman greeted her guests politely and gracefully, though with a nervous air, glancing quickly around the street as she let them in.

"He keeps sending people to see me. You aren't the first to come."

"How many days has it been since you left him?"

"Days? It's been a year almost. Didn't he tell you? He just won't accept the divorce."

"Divorce, are you divorced?"

"Yes, it was final about 3 months ago. But he won't accept the American judge's decision. He still thinks he hasn't divorced me, and he spies on me all the time."

"But you were married 20 years, weren't you? That's what he said. Why did you throw that all away?"

"Since I married him he was jealous. He wanted me always to stay home. He always treated me with suspicion, and used bad language and treated me harshly. It took me time to learn English, and then I tried to leave him twice. But he cried and promised to improve, and I had no job skills, so I went back. But he never changed. Then his harassment got worse as my daughter got into high school. He was so worried that she might have a boyfriend. Now it is different. I found friends who help me and I am learning job skills. Soon I will be able to support myself. And my daughter is big now. She has a job already. So we can be free of him now."

Like many victims of domestic violence, she was finally psychologically able to leave when her husband started hitting their daughter. She couldn't do it for herself, but she did it for her child. The daughter only spoke ill of her father. Of her faith, she knew just the basics of prayer and fasting her mother had taught her at home. Muslims were the friends of her father who encouraged her mom to put up with him. The mother said she still prayed. (Was that a social lie to please the guests?)

The daughter was quite hostile to Islam. The father had twisted his faith to use it to justify his maltreatment of his family. They said he believed God had given him the obligation to beat his family when they disobeyed him. And he always assumed evil intentions on their part, no matter the facts. They were always guilty.

The two visitors apologized for intruding and expressed sympathy and encouragement to the mother and daughter. They left embarrassed and puzzled. How could this man deny reality? How could he talk like his family had only left a few days ago? What did he expect anyone to do to help him?

What a sad story. Unfortunately it is true. This Muslim family never came to the mosque to seek help for their problems or for anything more than an occasional Eid prayer. Three months after the divorce was final, the husband finally thought to come to the mosque? In their 20 years of married life did his wife never think to seek help from a mosque? Or from Muslim friends? Did no one who knew them ever think to help her?

Actually, is the local mosque near you prepared to receive someone like the wife? Is the imam trained in how to assist victims of domestic violence, support them, and provide counseling to all parties? Too often our local imams are chosen because they have memorized Quran and are good at recitation. They often have no experience in counseling or social work and frequently they have no idea of life here in the United States. They don't know about Legal Aid or homeless shelters. They don't know American law or Ohio law on marriage, child custody, and divorce. Does your imam sit in the mosque, advising people how to live in some ideal Muslim country that does not exist?

"You see the believers as regard their being merciful among themselves, showing love among themselves, and being kind among themselves, resembling one body, so that if any part of the body is not well then the whole body shares the insomnia and fever with it." (Bukhari)

We have families in desperate need in our community. Just because they don't come to the mosque doesn't mean we have no responsibility for them. People trained in social work and serious family counseling are the second line of defense of families. The first line of defense should be a general community trained in Islamic adab.

Do you know Islamic adab (manners) of dealing with people?

People often surround themselves socially with others like themselves. When they have problems, they ask their friends for advice. The blind are asked to lead the blind. How knowledgeable are your friends? Can they help you with advice in times of serious problems? Would you have the knowledge to help them, or know where to get advice for them?

If someone is not my husband, my wife, my child, or my family member, they are still members of my community and my community will not be healthy until we are all healthy.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Establishing Family Salah

Stepping around the toys and pillows strewn on the floor, Hassan winced as his foot pressed on something hard with a solid edge. Quickly he removed his foot from the object and discovered he'd almost put his full weight on an expensive game cartridge. "Yazen!" he called. "What's your video game doing on the floor? I nearly broke it!" Yazen continued to intently play another video game in front of computer. His father starred at his back. "Yazen!" he called again. He waited. "Yazen Hassan!" he called, his voice getting sterner with each call.

Finally Yazen turned to face his father. "I saved it. I had to save the game or I'd have to start the level over again," he told his father.

"For a game - for a toy - you make me wait? I'm your father. Which is more important, your game or your father?" he asked.

"Sorry Dad."

"So what is this expensive game doing lying on the floor in this mess for people to break?" asked his father harshly.

Hassan held the game out to his son who rose to his feet to get it. Yazen tossed the game on a shelf messy with other games and videos. Then he resumed his game as his father starred thoughtfully around the room.

Their three children either seemed to ignore each other or fight. They ignored any chores and left things in a mess all over. How many toys had been broken or lost or left outside to be ruined in the rain. Why couldn't they do anything together as a family? Each one had a different set of friends and activities. He and his wife spent a lot of time driving them to one thing or the other. When they were home Yazen would be playing video games, often on line with friends no one knew, Layla was either over at a friend's or had a friend upstairs in her room, door closed, and Mahar would be all over the place. They ate what they heated in the microwave or grabbed out of the fridge in passing. He hated to admit, but Sahar was right. Their kids were spoiled.

 Instead of teaching them to be obedient to parents, they had trained them to each put himself or herself first and ignore others. Instead of teaching them to be thankful to Allah for His provisions, they had taught them to feel they deserved everything they wanted and got. Instead of teaching them to get along with each other, they had given them space to avoid each other and lots of things to do instead of getting along with each other. Sahar had made plans to change things, drastically, but he needed to start it. He just didn't know how. There were so many habits that were going to have to change.

Hassan straightened his back and focused himself, and started the call to prayer. His son looked up at him with concern for a second, and then returned to his game. No one came. He called to his children and his wife. Sahar called to Layla and Mahar and went upstairs to herd Layla down. A glance out the window made Hassan go to the back door and call out into the yard to Mahar. Yazen, frowning, finally stopped his game and went to do wudu.

Finally, after 15 minutes of work, including pushing some of the toys out of the way to make a prayer area, Hassan asked Yasser to recite the iqama and the family prayed together, a family first. As Hassan ended the salah, the children jumped up to escape and their mother ordered them to sit down again.

After sunnah prayers Hassan led them in dua, speaking in English and giving thanks in detail. Then he addressed them. From now on they were going to make three prayers as a family, fajr, magreb, and isha. He wanted them to come quickly when they heard the adhan and he wanted them each to contribute a dua at the end of salah, aloud, for the family to join, at least one per day. The kids looked at him warily, with their mouths slightly opened, not sure this was really happening.

As he dismissed them, he ordered them to all help pick up the family room and get it in order. The kids started immediately squabbling about who should pick up what. Hassan quickly ordered silence, and threatened them with no TV for a whole week if they didn't just do the work quietly. The children stared at their father with big eyes of astonishment. Glancing nervously at each other they got the toys picked up and the room straightened. Sahar and Hassan sat quietly watching. They felt exausted from the tension of this effort.

It was difficult to get the group prayers going. It was three more things to schedule. Getting everyone up for fajr was the hardest. Sahar stood firm on the importance of it though, and even being late to school was not allowed to stop the group prayer. Her steadfastness helped Hassan stay strong when he wanted to give in and make an excuse not to pray jummah. When Hassan had to be away on business, the kids thought they were off the hook, but Sahar asked Yazen to give the adhan and lead the prayer. Slowly the children's dua contributions became more specific. "May Allah bless this family" got old really quickly and, with maternal prompting, they came up with things like "I thank Allah that Layla likes green beans so I didn't have to eat any" and "I thank Allah for helping me print out my homework before the teacher collected it today".

In the time of prayers, conversations about Islam started creeping in. The children started asking questions, about the fiqh of salah, about lying, and about what they were learning in the Islamic school classes at the mosque. Some of their questions were easy to answer. Sometimes Hassan or Sahar had to do some research or some thinking to respond well. As the months advanced, they taught Yazen and Layla how to look up questions on the internet. They bought some reference books on Islam for themselves and for the children. Conversations started creeping into other times of the day as well.

Sahar hadn't intended for Hassan to start her list of reforms with family prayers. She had had other priorities. But to get his support she had told him to pick the first reform to enact, figuring that such a long list couldn't be accomplished overnight and it was best to start with only one or two changes he would help her with the most. It seemed to take so much effort to get the prayers established right that she left the list aside for a while. Then, when she did find the list 6 months later, she noticed how many other things on her list had happened without any particular effort.

From their respectful meetings and discussions at salah times, the children began taking more interest in each other, and talking more respectfully in general. So they began doing a few things together, like sharing snacks together. They were having more family meals without anyone making a big deal about it. People weren't avoiding each other like before.

She thought back to the morning when Maher couldn't find his pencil case and was ready to cry. Layla had stopped focusing on her hair and run around to help him find it - without being asked! And she had actually said something comforting to him rather than belittling him! Sahar had put her hand against the wall to steady herself as she watched this amazing event. More and more incidents of thoughtful behavior kept occurring since, among all three and with their parents. Yazen had even left his computer game and come to help her unload the groceries from the car, when she'd only asked him once!

Their family schedule of activities got simpler. The children realized salah took precedence and stopped asking for activities that interfered. So the chauffeuring got easier for the parents and the children were much more selective and thoughtful about the activities they did do. They started using their new Islamic understanding of morals in making choices about what to do and who to play with. "I'm not going to her birthday party. She doesn't act very nice and all she wants is to get presents. And she's mean too. Why should we celebrate just because she was born?" "This TV show has too much violence. Let's turn it off."

And the house seemed cleaner and happier. Yazen still got too focused on his video games, but he got a timer to help him limit himself. And everyone was more thoughtful about picking up toys and games. After hearing about the reward for giving charity at Islamic School, Layla had come home and proposed giving away some of her toys to the poor. Discussing it together, the children worked with their mother to clear things out of their rooms. Four big boxes were filled and given away, a family project with everyone contributing.

No family is perfect and growing children always have new lessons to learn. Do your children cooperated with you and with each other? Are they thoughtful?

This family followed the advice of the Prophet to establish salah, "Prayer in a group is twenty-seven times better than the prayer of a man by himself." (Bukhari) They lived too far from the mosque to make going there for salah practical. Another option they might have taken would have been selling their home and moving closer to the mosque. Such a move is rarely done in American suburban areas. How would that have changed their lives?

What other things could this family have done to correct the problems in their home? What benefits have you discovered from your efforts to practice your religion with your children?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Asia Growing Up

Fourteen year old Asia came back from 10 days at Islamic Teen Camp glowing. She'd always been interested in this thing - being Muslim - that her parents were, but it was such a small part of her life, an hour on Sunday of a class she attended when her parents weren't too busy to take her miles from their home. Generally she had thought of it as something about her parents, not her. They fasted and prayed and did the whole thing. But she just prayed once in a while and only fasted a few days of Ramadan on the weekends. Until this camp experience, Islam had been a minor part of her life.

Now she'd learned SOOO much. The Quran was beautiful recited at camp in the woods. She'd been horrified at first when she'd heard they wanted the kids to wake up for fajr salah, wash in the camp ground's cold water, and all pray together. But the experience had been overwhelming. It was so quiet and the adhan drifted so lightly in the early morning air. Then afterward she'd seen the sun rise. They had stayed up late with lectures and then walked under so many stars to answer the adhan for isha prayer. And all the lectures made sense. They were easy to understand and remember. She'd made friends. They were going to keep in touch on Facebook. Everything about being Muslim just felt right. She'd even decided to wear hijab properly from now on and do all her prayers regularly just after the adhan. And she did - for the rest of the summer.

Asia lived in a nice suburban town, the only dark skinned girl, the only Muslim. But she had friends. Her girlfriends were a bit turned off by her new scarf thing, but they seemed to figure it was just part of that slightly exotic thing about her, like having parents who spoke with accented English. She took all her photos without the scarf off her Facebook page but other kids still had pictures of her on theirs and she ignored that. She'd become more reserved with her old friends.

There were just things her friends wouldn't understand. She backed out of going swimming with them without telling them why. She'd always gone before. When they talked about boys she just sat there quietly. Then her friend Sandy started teasing her that she had a boyfriend. Her old friend Courtney thought she had an out of town boyfriend she'd met at that summer camp she'd gone to. One boy blurted out during a picnic, "Say, what's with that thing on your head all the time Asia? Did you go bald over the summer?" Was he ineptly inquiring about her health or was he insulting her? Another said he'd always thought Asia was American, implying that, with the scarf, she wasn't. She got some odd stares when out at the mall. She was all upset about each incident at first. But all in all it wasn't too bad. She spent more time alone, reading Quran.

The big looming issue would be starting school, and being seen by all the other kids who weren't her friends and many who didn't know her. How would they treat her? And how would she ask the principal about a place to pray?

Personally, over the years, I've seen many youth inspired by Islamic camping, conferences and other group organized programs. One 12 year old boy explained to me how he felt the environment was so clean and healthy compared to the social environment at his school.

Questions for discussion and thought:

1. How much should your choice of home be based on proximity to other Muslim children to form a support group for your children? Islam gives us guidelines for making decision, but often there is no one right answer. Things can depend on the specific conditions and the personalities of the people. What is your priorities list?

2. How much do people really learn about Islam when one Muslim family lives in their midst? What does the family have to do for that to happen?

3. All cultural groups have to have a way to pass down their culture to their children. The less diverse a neighborhood or town, the more people feel they have the right to expect others to follow local customs. Most people don't come out and say, "I want you to be like me." They tend to say things like "Around here we always celebrate July 4th like this."

a. What are some ways American schools, or other school systems you know, use to get children to follow their cultural practices?

b. What are some ways your neighborhood is set up or acts to get you to follow their rules?

c. What methods were used to get you to "follow the group" when you were young? How well did they work and did you like them or dislike them?

d. What are some ways your family uses to get your children to follow manners and habits common to your family? Are they good methods or what could you do better? Allah will not reward people for using un-Islamic manners to force Islamic behavior. There is no compulsion in religion.

e. What are some of the ways people in the mosque use to get community members to follow a common practice? Like getting people to dress similarly or manage a picnic similarly? Are they good methods or what could you do better?

School administrators, often very ignorant of Islam, are usually concerned about allowing students special permission for something can. It might lead to others asking for permission for other things, or complain of favoritism, and lead to a general breakdown in behavior, disrupting learning. They are also concerned with preparing students for adulthood, and obtaining the customary habits and manners common among successful adults. These issues lead them to be very cautious and often negative about allowing students to be different from the general norm. However, schools are required by federal law to allow 'reasonable accommodation' of faith practices, so Muslim children in many public schools have asked for and gotten permission to perform salah in a secluded area on school grounds, get excused absences from school for Eid, get library time during lunch for the month of Ramadan while fasting, and girls have gotten permission to wear headscarves. Accommodation of modesty issues around sports locker rooms have been arranged as well.

The 'reasonable accommodation' issue is that the school should not be forced into major disruption from accommodation and no great expense should be incurred. No staff members should be expected to remind a child that he should be fasting if he drinks water from the drinking fountain or eats something in the cafeteria during Ramadan. No staff member can lead prayer, remind children to pray, or be otherwise involved in prayer. So the child must be responsible on his or her own to remember, wash, get the proper excuse to go to whatever space has been designated by the school, out of the way, and pray and get back to class without supervision. If the child goofs off, going someplace else with a pass for prayer, or playing games with library privileges, the school may take away the privilege of religious accommodation.

4. What can Asia's parents do to support her desire to become a practicing Muslim, especially since she doesn't have a lot of Islamic knowledge to discuss Islam with teachers and school mates.

"And hold fast, all of you together to the rope of Allah , and do not separate" (3:103)

"A man follows the religion of his friend; so each one should consider whom he makes his friend." (Abu Dawud & Tirmidhi)

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Allah Our Creator

Teaching our children tawhid, the oneness of Allah, and how we are a part of Allah’s creation isn’t something to start when they reach high school. It is something we begin teaching when they are quite small.

Toddlers and preschoolers learn about animals. They learn about those that have eyes and ears like them. They learn the sounds they make to ‘talk’. They learn they need to eat and breathe and drink water. It’s the beginning of teaching them how they are part of a giant world, part of creation. Sit with them at the park and feel the breeze. Play with them in the snow. Talk to them about Allah’s creation, - how He made us each so different, - how He made us so similar. Add it to the conversation a little bit here and there.

A rule of thumb is to make the lesson no longer than one minute for every year of the child’s age. So a three minute discussion with a three year old is enough. Don’t insist on more. Add a bit if the child expresses more interest or just let the topic lay for a while.

Preschool children want to know what Allah made and what man made. Mention the distinction to them. Allah made the materials we use to build a toy car and a ramp. He made the rules about friction and gravity. We learn these rules when we make experiments and learn how to make the car roll faster and not fall off the ramp. Subhanallah! How wonderful Allah is! He made a logical world we can understand by working and thinking. And He made us responsible for this world, to take care of it. So we have to know about it.

Science lessons for children are easily adapted to an appreciation of Allah and His greatness and His wisdom. Subhanallah! Look how Allah created it! Mashallah! Allah made it that way. Add this when you and your child watch a cat play or you pick mint together in the garden. Watch a seed grow or a thunderstorm roll in across the sky. What does your child observe?

Quran tells us that Adam was special because Allah taught him the names of things. When we can name things we describe them, we have knowledge about them. This is something special we do with information that makes us different from other animals. Science is part of this. The word for science and the word for knowledge come from the same root in Arabic. As our children learn language, share this with them, this gift from Allah that makes us special in our relationship to Him and to our world.

Young children are very concrete in their thinking. A child will assume that Mickey Mouse and Barney are real unless we explain these things to them. It is important not to fill their minds with false tales, however pretty, and let them think they are true. How often parents fail to teach their children about Allah but they teach them about ghosts, fairies, Santa Claus, and wild stories about jinn and cute girl angels with wings. Jinn and angels do exist but we know very little about them.

There is a place for fantasy, for fun, but we need to oversee that it doesn’t overwhelm the truth and the spiritual development of our children. Think about this point deeply and discuss it with others. How much fun fantasy is your child involved with? How much time does your child spend with nature, with the people around, learning about our world and how we fit into it, how we are responsible for it?

A common way to explain Allah to the young concrete thinker is to compare Him to the air. It’s all around us, we don’t always feel it but sometimes it is very strong, on a windy day. We can’t see it. But Allah is greater than the wind. For an older child, in elementary school, we can also refer to the stars in the sky. How many are there? Try to count them with your child. Allah created all of them. He is much greater than all the stars in the endless sky. It is said frequently that the concept of zero and the Arabic numerals, algebra and trigonometry were the great contributions of Muslim mathematicians to the world. But the concept of infinity is perhaps even more important. It comes out of our contemplation of Allah. How else might you describe Allah to a child?

Modern science has discovered many new facts about our world, our universe. For our older children we can incorporate some of these new understandings when we teach them about Allah, how all creation is one created by one All Intelligent Creative Creator. These concepts can be understood by middle school age, and help the child to appreciate learning science in school, as well as appreciating Allah more.

Several billion years ago, in the arm of the Milky Way Galaxy, a super nova, a gigantic star, exploded at tremendous heat, blasting millions of tons of atoms, particles, space dust, out into empty space around it. Over time, about 5 billion years ago, some of that dust slowly pulled together, spinning around, and formed our solar system. Everything in the solar system, every atom, was created in some exploding star and any atom greater in mass than iron can only have been made by a supernova.

(See http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/teachers/calcium/got_calcium_litho.pdf and http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/teachers/elements/elements.html.)

So the atoms that make up our planet and everything in and on it, including us, come from star dust. Subhanallah!

Chemists have studied atoms and made a chart of their structure. Add another proton to the nucleus and you get a new atom. Subhanallah, this is the stuff we are made of.

Then there are 4 molecules, (adenine, A, guanine, G, cytosine, C, and thymine, T). Like neutrons, protons, and electrons are essential for the atom, these are essential for DNA, the code of life. DNA is far more complicated than atoms. We share DNA with all living things.

Mashallah, how Allah created such infinite variety in life from this code!

There is unity in all things in our universe, and among all living things on our planet. We can see the fingerprints of the Creator who made everything from a few simple things.

How do you share this appreciation with your children? On picnics in the park? While watching the moon from a window?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Mad Fence

A Folktale rewritten

Once there was and once there wasn't, a long time ago, a young boy named Tariq with a VERY bad temper. When his mother called him to get up for school in the morning he would yell at her, "I'm up, leave me alone!" even though he had just opened his eyes. If he wanted spaghetti when his mother made macaroni and cheese, he would get mad at her for not asking him before cooking. When his little sister accidentally touched his toys he would yell at her. Always. He HATED it when someone touched HIS stuff, especially his sister. When his friend missed the ball in a soccer game and their team lost, he yelled really bad words and his friend decided not to be friends with him anymore. Well, it WAS all his friend's fault anyway, and who needs friends!

His father was a sailor and left home often to sail on ships around the world. He wasn't home a lot. One day, his father came home from a long trip while Tariq was working on a model ship on the table. His father roared out "Asalaam alaikum, I'm home!" and his mother and little sister came running happily from the back rooms to greet him.

A gust of wind from the open door blew down the newly glued mast of Tariq's model ship. Tariq screamed in rage. "Shut that door! You just ruined my model!"

Tariq's father, mother, and little sister stared at him in shock. Everyone stayed away from Tariq for a while, while Tariq's father had coffee and talked with his wife and daughter. There was lots of news of the family to catch up on. Then, when Tariq's mother went to start supper, Tariq's father called him out to the storage shed in the back yard.

"Tariq, see these nails? See this hammer? I want you to take a nail to the back fence and hammer it in, for getting mad about the breeze disturbing your model earlier today. And from now on, I want you to pound in a nail each time you get angry."

Tariq didn't understand why he should hammer a nail, but he did as his father ordered. It was hard to hit the nail square on the head, and once he hit his finger instead of the nail. He got mad at the hammer and threw it across the yard. Tariq's father made him nail in another nail, for throwing the hammer in rage.

The next morning, Tariq was almost late to school because he had to hammer in 5 nails for yelling at his mother, father, and sister for 5 different reasons before breakfast. By the end of the day he had hammered in 37 nails, and he was pretty tired of hammering. He was getting better about not hitting his fingers though.

Day by day Tariq hammered nails. Why did his father insist on it? Looking at the fence, with its many nails, Tariq was embarrassed by all the proof of his bad deeds. Some of the kids from school knew about the fence, because he accidentally told them. They called it the "Mad Fence". They asked many times to come and see it but Tariq wouldn't show it to them.

But little by little, he found that the thought of the fence made it easier to hold his tongue and he gradually began to yell less often, and when he yelled, he was able to stop more quickly. Then, one evening, he was building a block castle and his sister, who had come over to watch, dropped her stuffed bunny on the blocks, making the whole thing come down. Tariq stood up quickly, took a big breath to yell, and, instead of saying something mad, suddenly burst out, "OK, I'll get a nail!"

His father came out to the fence as Tariq pounded in the new nail. They talked about how he was pounding in fewer nails now. He had made great progress. He was even starting to have some friends again. Friends were nice to have! That was slow going though, because they remembered how mad he used to get and didn't trust him yet.

"I'm glad I don't have to pound so many nails anymore, Dad. Seeing all the nails in the fence is ugly."

Then his father suggested that Tariq could remove a nail each day that he went all day without losing his temper. Day by day Tariq looked forward to removing a nail from the fence before Isha prayer. It was often difficult to pull them out and he had to struggle, but it felt good to remove the signs of his bad deeds.

Finally, the day came when he removed the last nail. He called his family to witness the great event. He felt very proud. His mother was so happy, she kissed him and promised to make his favorite dessert for after supper.

His father, however, said, "You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this. You can put a knife in a man and draw it out. It won't matter how many times you say, "I'm sorry". The wound is still there. A verbal wound is as bad as a physical one."

The family stared at the fence solemnly. It was a witness of Tariq's battle with himself.

Then his father hugged him and said, "May you grow to be a strong man, Son. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, "The strong is not the one who overcomes people by his strength, but the strong is the one who controls himself while in anger." (Bukhari)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Marwa's Daughter

A Muslim woman I will call ‘Marwa’, came to the States from overseas to attend college. Over here she met a man from back home, also studying. They got married and life looked perfectly wonderful. Instead of going back home, her husband got a good job here after finishing his degree, and when she finished hers they decided to start their family. Things fell apart when her daughter was born.

I never knew the name of her daughter’s health problem, but she did not develop properly. The child remained a baby, unable to walk or talk. She did respond to her mother who was able to understand her emotions and communicate to some degree with her. I first saw her when she was around two years old. She had to be fed through a feeding tube and would always need diapers. Doctors told the parents she would not live more than 2 years.

Marwa’s husband couldn’t handle it. He left her and their daughter. He went underground economically to hide himself from court ordered child support. Part of his desertion was his lack of moral character. Another part was the cold logic of American’s health care system. The child required so much specialized expensive care that the debt would cripple the young family for years to pay for it. Alone and destitute, Marwa had access to free health care for her daughter. But she didn’t despair or complain. She asked Allah for help.

No one makes a du’a without one of three things happening. Either it is answered, or it is stored up for him, or wrong actions are atoned for by it. (Muwatta)

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

When I met Marwa, she was enrolled in a graduate program in college. She hadn’t been able to get a job and care for her daughter, because she couldn’t find a daycare that would accept the burden of her daughter’s care while she worked. All her family was overseas, unable to help her financially or otherwise. She couldn’t return home because the medical care her daughter needed was not available there. However, she could get care for her daughter at the university child care service while she was in classes, and she was able to get scholarship aid and student loans to pay her living expenses, barely. The doctors said her daughter had not long to live, so she would get an advanced degree while she cared for her daughter. Actually, it was a well thought out plan to manage through these few years.

Marwa impressed me so much. She turned to Quran and prayer for help and strength in each difficulty. There was the pain of losing her husband and feeling cast off by many former friends. It is sad how many people shy away from a handicap or disability, like it is contagious! There was the feeling of loneliness at 2 am when she would wake up and care for her sick child night after night, month after month, by herself. Marwa didn't have time for normal relations with friends and a social life. Between her studies and her daughter, and all the work of daily life, she was too busy for an afternoon at the mall or a party. She often seemed self absorbed, unable to listen to what others were doing or interested in, most likely because she was so busy processing her own problems by herself. That increased her isolation. People tend to search out friends with common circumstances, and no one had a situation like Marwa.

She was a tireless worker and the kind of person who rarely asks for help. She came to the mosque once in a while to find someone to help out for a specific need she couldn’t manage otherwise. She struggled on, showing patience in adversity. The laundry, the cleaning, the classes, car problems from parking issues to the mechanical issues of cheep wheels, the special care for her daughter, the doctor visits, just the daily physical lifting and carrying the child who’s body grew, even as her mind did not, all this burden was on the young woman. How different her life was before her daughter's birth. How different her life was from what most of us experience. I tried to support her and link her with others who had more free time. I never heard her complain about her situation. And you could hear the love she had for her child in everything she said or did. Most of my conversations with her were about a specific problem at that moment and how she might solve it.

She finished her master’s degree slowly, but continually looking for a job situation with appropriate childcare. Her daughter continued to thrive with her mother’s tender care, in her own way, in spite of the medical prognosis. Finally Marwa was able to change her situation for a place where she could work in her career field and get the daycare help she needed. This child that was expected to die before the age of three was still alive and reasonably healthy at the age of 6, when I last heard from them.

We live in an age when many people would say this child should have been aborted before she was born. Do a test on the fetus and end things before the pain and the expense and the waste of time dealing. Others refuse to take the child home from the hospital.

But Allah created this child for a reason and He is All Knowing, All Wise, All Compassionate. Refusing the tests He sends us is taking a path away from Him. I witnessed Marwa rejoice in each milestone her daughter attained. She spoke to me of her reliance on Allah to help her, and I saw the help that she received. Allah knows best about our deeds, but from what I saw and heard, she overcame every difficulty with strength, grace, and good manners.

And do not kill your children out of fear of poverty. We provide sustenance for them and for you. Truly killing them is a great sin. (Quran 6:151, 17:31)

Abu Hassan said to Abu Hurayrah, "My two children have died. Would you narrate to me anything from the Messenger of Allah, a hadith which would soothe our hearts in our bereavement? He said: "Yes. Small children are the fowls of paradise. If one of them meets his parents he will take hold of his cloth with his hand as I take hold of the hem of your cloth. And the child will not take his hand off it until Allah admits his parents to Paradise." (Muslim)

How do you think you would manage if tested with a child like Marwa’s? We all pray for healthy children. Allah knows each one of us and will only give us what we can bear. What tests is Allah giving you with your children … with your family? How well are you doing to manage through those tests? What are you learning from those tests?

The one for whom Allah intends good encounters afflictions to get it. (Bukhari)

Who do you admire? Do you know another parent who seems to be doing a great job? What is one thing you might learn from watching that person that could give you strength?

While I admire Marwa and pray that Allah give her ease after hardship, I also found strength to be more patient with my own tests. They didn’t seem nearly as difficult as what Marwa was managing. I also felt I should do more to help others. Each person has different strengths and weaknesses. Even if someone appears strong, I want to offer help if I can. We are a community and should not be left to manage alone, in loneliness. Just giving an ear to someone can help them feel part of society, even if we can’t do more.

Prophet Muhammad was outlived by only one of his 7 children, his daughter Fatimah who lived 6 months after his death. Three of his children, his sons, all died before the age of about 2. This description is of the death of his last child, who was about 18 months old.

“We went with the Messenger of Allah to the blacksmith, Abu Sayf, who was the husband of Ibrahim’s wet nurse. The Messenger of Allah took Ibrahim and kissed him and sniffed him. Then after that we came in to him and at that time Ibrahim was breathing his last, and the eyes of the Messenger of Allah began to shed tears. At that, Abdur Rahman Ibn Awf said, “Even you, O Messenger of Allah?” He said, “O Ibn Awf, this is mercy.” Then he wept more and said, “Surely the eyes shed tears and the heart is grieved, but we do not say except what is pleasing to our Lord, and we are grieved by your parting, O Ibrahim.” (Bukhari)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Moral Support

Muzemmal was very concerned about his preteen daughter Sara. She was always so obedient and thoughtful and sweet. But he had attended a lecture at the mosque about raising children in America and the lecturer had told stories about wild parties hosted by children from the mosque. He had said some of the least suspicious children were actually some of the wildest. And Muzemmal had felt like the lecturer had been looking straight at him, personally, when he said that.

Muzemmal had tried to talk to Sara about the stories he'd heard, and she had responded properly, modestly looking down at the ground and denying having heard about any such activity. But he still felt uneasy. So he called Tara's house the next evening, where she had said she was going to work on a project for school. Tara's mom said she wasn't there but Tara was, and he got really worried.

About 8 pm Sara came home. When he confronted her, she said she had gone to the library to do research for the project. Hadn't she told mom her change of plans before leaving? Mom said she hadn't. Sara apologized very sweetly. His daughter was so beautiful. Muzemmal felt very concerned about his preteen daughter. Where could he go for help?

Mariam attended a lecture on how to discipline her children and came home all pumped to implement some new strategies. She'd train her younger child to do 'time out' and her older two to face consequences for their misdeeds. She had the literature passed out at the lecture and felt a glow of optimism.

But she came home to kids used to her usual behavior and she fell right back into the patterns of life she so strongly wanted to change. Bedtime chaos reigned as usual with her 6 year old coming out of his room umteen times, each time with a different excuse, and her older two ignoring her reminders that "It's time for bed" until she screamed, turned off the TV herself, and stood waving her arms wildly at them to get them out of the living room and off to their bedrooms. She tried the time out thing with her 6 year old the next day and he wouldn't stay. He thought it was a game. After she tried it three times she gave up in despair. Where could Mariam go for support?

Everyone needs help in raising their children. A one hour lecture or reading one advise book is not enough. How many people with little cooking experience can read a recipe and make it turn out right the first time? How many people grew up seeing Mom or Dad making that special dish the whole family loves, and could make it themselves perfectly the first time they tried it on their own? Raising children is much harder than cooking. There are more variables. Each child has a unique personality. We often live in very different environments than our parents and we are responding to different pressures. There are different expectations.

Our first step, of course, should be to call on Allah for guidance. His help is the most important. Then we look around and see what comes our way that might be guidance. Look for people, either mentors or supporters. One place to look should be to our spouses, parents and our family members. Our spouses should be working with us on our parenting issues but they usually aren't more expert than we are ourselves, and they may have a very different perspective. Often one parent leaves most of the parenting to the other. Working in consultation, supporting each other, is very important to the well being of the children.

Who might be a mentor, an experienced wise person to give advice? If you have someone, great. That is a blessing. Our mentors in the States are usually incomplete. We need someone who has experience in this country, in this environment where we live, where our children live and we need someone knowledgeable about Islam. Finding one person to guide you with both is difficult. Don't give up on any source of help. They may well be the answer to your prayers. But be aware of the possible limitations of your source and keep your options open to combine advise from more than one source.

"Let there arise out of you a group enjoining what is good and forbidding what is wrong." Start a support group, or join one. Americans have a tradition for doing this. The new frontier nature of creating this country separated families and communities, and people had to find new ways of getting the neighborly help most of us need. This system works in places where mature stable communities don't exist.

Talk to some other people of similar situation, family members, friends, or people who look like they might be interested in your project. Three is probably the minimum number and you don't want so many that hosting becomes difficult. The smaller the group, the more informal and less structured you can be. Invite them over for an evening to discuss structure and agree on how to organize. Meet once a month or once a week? It depends on people's schedule. You're not an expert on parenting? You aren't supposed to be. But you will become an expert over time.

In a support group, everyone is admitting in advance that they aren't perfect but they want to do better. And everyone is accepting to help each other do better. Each person in the group will have some strengths and some weaknesses. As a whole the group should have enough variety that the sum of the group's strengths helps everyone benefit. When you meet with the sincere intention to please Allah in raising your children, you can avoid being judgmental of others in your group. Accept that you will have disagreements so do that respectfully. Listen to each person and be thoughtful of each other. Within the limits imposed by Allah there are many ways to raise a child. Each person will have some suggestions for at least one practical method that will work for someone else. Brainstorming together gives all participants more options of things to do. But don't just rely on your own knowledge.

There is a great deal of scientific material available that can be used to focus the group on normal child development. There is as much or more information on how to teach your children. And there is some inspirational work available about the Islamic perspective. Some groups arrange to have guest speakers come, from time to time.

If you know how to organize a house and keep your family on schedule, you can organize a support group. Get someone to volunteer to keep a few notes for the group and send reminders to everyone before meetings. Lead a discussion about what topics people want to work on. Get volunteers to find material on each topic and write up a schedule. Or get one book that focuses on most of what people are interested in, have everyone buy a copy, (or borrow from the library) and then schedule discussions on the different chapters. People will add their own personal observations and ideas during the discussion.

One possible structure: every other Friday meet at 7:00 at a different person's house. Open with dua, asking for guidance. Read a selection from the Quran, then a hadith. Ask someone to summarize the evening topic in about 10-15 minutes. (This isn't rocket science or a doctoral thesis. Keep topics short and simple.) Open up group discussion. What does this mean for me? How do I implement this in my situation? After about 30 minutes the hostess or host starts serving refreshments and someone closes with a dua. Discussion becomes more informal. By 8:30-9:00 pm it's done and people go home, think about things, try things with their kids, and prepare for the next meeting. Before starting the evening topic you might add a few minutes to ask people for follow up on the last meeting's topic. Does it need more study? Any success stories from anyone?

If you can't find supporting people in your community, perhaps you need to think about where you live. A child's fitra (basic nature from Allah (SWT)) is to model himself after his parents, but as the child grows and starts to observe people outside of home, he starts to observe the differences between home and the rest of the world. Another aspect of the child's fitra is a desire to fit in with the community around him. We need a community around us that reflects our values.