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?