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?