BRINGING UP OUR CHILDREN IN THE WESTby
Dr. Ahmad Shafaat (1986)
In bringing up our children, whether in the West or anywhere else, our goal should evidently be to help them get the best in this world and the best in the hereafter - success and happiness in this life and salvation and paradise in the hereafter. This means that we should help our children successfully pursue necessary study and/or training leading to a profession and also to provide them whatever they need to become good Muslims.
Being a good Muslim is not only needed for salvation and paradise but it is also helpful in this world. Good, clean, habits, discipline and a sense of responsibility that Islam inculcates can greatly help children in their studies, and later on, in the successful practice of their profession while faith and trust in God that Islam teaches can add happiness and peace to their success in life.
To help children become good Muslims two things are essential:
1) A good parent-child relationship
2) Parents' strong Muslim identity
In a Muslim society these two things are generally sufficient; if a good parent-child relationship exists, so that the children do not develop any emotions rejecting what their parents stand for, then the Muslim identity of the parents, if it is sufficiently strong, naturally passes on to the children. However, in the western world, the above mentioned things are usually not enough, since the Muslim identity of parents as well as children comes under many powerful pressures which an average family cannot withstand alone. In the West, therefore, a third factor is needed:
3) The cooperation of an organized, united and dynamic Muslim community.
Let us look at these three factors in a little more detail.
A good parent-child relationship consists of love and respect between parents and children. To establish this relationship is the sole responsibility of the parents and they can do so by giving their children unconditional love, which then generates in children love, respect and obedience for the parents. This natural process is disturbed and the parent-child relationship starts running into problems if parents cannot or do not give sufficient love to the children. It is often believed that parents always love their children. But this idea, though it has the support of a Hadith (see note), is in conflict with the Holy Qur'an and observed facts. The Holy Qur'an mentions those pagan Arabs who used to bury their female children alive:
"When the female infant buried alive is questioned - for what crime she was killed? " (81:8-9)
This is a recognition that parents can do zulm (injustice, cruelty) to their children and that they will be answerable for it on the day of judgment.
Cruelty to children is not something that existed once upon a time among the Jahili (ignorant and pagan) Arabs. To a more or less degree it is a practice in all cultures. Even in modern "civilized" and prosperous North America hundreds of thousands of children are subjected each year to ruthless torture by their parents, many of whom, unlike the Jahili Arabs, are not in any kind of economic difficulty. These are no doubt extreme examples but they should destroy the myth that all parents have nothing but love for their children.
Moving from extreme cases to normal cases, it can indeed be said that a vast majority of parents, especially Muslim parents do love their children. However, it is not certain that even normal parents give their children sufficient love. I would be inclined to think that most of them do not. In any case, it cannot but do good to once in a while admit the possibility that we as parents may not be giving enough love to our children. This admission would put parents in a far better position to establish a good relationship with their children than would be the case otherwise.
At this point a word should be added about the nature of love. Love does not mean continuously pampering the children and giving in to all their wishes. Love is rather a deep concern for the well-being and happiness of the children which manifests itself in softness when softness is needed and in firmness when firmness is needed. It takes a lot of effort to be firm. Parents can make that effort only if they care enough for their children.
In dealing with children try to avoid negative emotions. For example, if children are rude to you, and in the West children can be quite rude to their parents, do not ask them to clean their rooms, etc., in retaliation. Children are much more aware of their parents' real feelings than we may think. If parents have negative feelings of revengefulness towards them, they are likely to react negatively to what the parents are telling them.
We should try to be consistent with our children. We should not, for example, stop them from something bad when we are angry and tolerate it when we are in a good mood.
A good communication is also needed to establish a good parent-child relationship. If a child is not positively responding to what you are saying and this is happening again and again, then it is time not to get more and more mad and frustrated but to think and to talk to the child or otherwise find out what is going on in his or her mind.
Now let us come to the all-important topic of imparting Islamic identity to our children in the West. In this connection the main requirement evidently is that parents themselves should have a strong Muslim identity. But their are additional important points to be kept in mind.
In developing their Muslim identity we have to naturally impress upon our children that our ways are quite different from those of the rest of the western society. But this should not be done in such a way as to create hostility towards the western society as a whole. This can create emotional conflict in a child and it is also against Islam. The Holy Qur'an says of the people of the book that "they are not all alike" (3:113) and it praises some of their good qualities along with condemnation of what is wrong with them (5:85-87, 57:27, etc.). We must not therefore make a general condemnation of the western society as a whole but rather point out to them what is good in this society and what is bad. We should help them identify themselves with what is good here and to reject what is bad.
For example, we should tell them: "Most Westerners believe in the Trinity and in the divinity of Jesus (may peace be upon him), which we reject totally. But there are many Westerners who believe in one God and the prophethood of Jesus (may peace be upon him) in much the same way as we do." "Most Westerners take alcohol and/or drugs, but many reject this practice, as we Muslims do." "Many Westerners are homosexuals or are willing to morally accept this deviation. But many others consider it immoral, just as we do." "Many Westerners are for abortion but almost as many are against it." Then we should point to the evidence of the harm of the things prohibited by Islam, e.g. death by accident, ruined lives, broken homes in case of alcohol/drugs, etc. and AIDS in case of homosexuality.
Then it should also be pointed out to our youth that in some ways Western society is more Islamic than most Muslim societies. For example, here there is democracy and constitutionality which is more Islamic than the arbitrary rule of dictators and kings found in most Muslim lands. Also, there is generally less corruption (bribery, etc.) here than in some of the Muslim countries. Much self-criticism in the end will not weaken our children's Muslim identity but rather strengthen it. More-over, it will help some of them grow up to be reformers which we so badly need.
In matters of details in which there are found differences among Muslims (e.g. how to pray, who should have been the leader of the Muslims after the death of the Prophet) we may tell our children what we think but without being too dogmatic about it. We should concentrate on inculcating love for God, the Prophet, Islam and Muslims and on teaching the basic and agreed upon beliefs and practices of Islam. For the rest we should take a more relaxed attitude. This would not only help Muslim unity, but also increase our chances of success in bringing up our children as Muslims, since dogmatism in every matter can in the end drive our youth away from Islam.
As we noted earlier, the work of bringing up children as Muslims in the western world is not easy. Most parents cannot manage it on their own. Therefore, a close cooperation is needed between parents and the community. The parents should, as part of this cooperation, take interest in community work and contribute to it whatever they can while the community, through its elected representatives, should provide the parents with all the facilities they need to educate their children in Islam and to make them comfortable with, and proud of, Islamic values and traditions.
Note: It is said the Prophet was once asked whether one should obey and honor one's parents even if they do zulm (injustice) on their children. The Prophet is alleged to have replied that parents cannot do zulm on their children. This Hadith must be rejected as false, since, as we said above, it conflicts with the book of God and observed facts. More-over, this Hadith seems incompatible with some other ahadith where the Prophet exhorts parents to treat their children well and spend on them, e.g. the following two ahadith:
Joining together two of his fingers the Prophet said: "Whoever performs his prayers properly, spends on his children in spite of his modest means and does not speak ill of others will be in Paradise as close to me as these (two fingers of mine)."
"Whoever is given daughters and spends on them and treats them well - surely God will reward him in paradise."
The very fact that such ahadith encourage parents to treat their children well means that parents may not always love their children enough, for otherwise such encouragement would not be needed. Daughters are specially the victims of parents' selfishness in many cultures, where for economic and social reasons many parents do not feel too happy to have daughters.
First published in Al-Ummah, Montreal, Canada in 1986. Copyright © Dr. Ahmad Shafaat. The article may be reproduced for Da'wah purpose with proper references.