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Why Muslim Youth Need Guiding Mentorship

In this memoir, a student speaks about how having knowledgeable, concerned mentorship in his teenage years helped him take the right path.

My Two Mentors

One day in my late teens, I remember being out all day with my brothers and younger cousins. We engaged in all kinds of activities, such as football, laser tag, and then going to a restaurant to eat.

We had fun all day. My father simply took us to where we wanted to go and would watch us have fun, until we were ready to go to the next one. When we got home that evening, I began talking to my cousins about the next activity my dad could take us to.

At this, my two older cousins, Umar and Ali, approached me. They both pointed out quite bluntly that I needed to be more grateful to my parents and appreciate how much effort and sacrifice they’d made for me. Only then did I realize how much I was taking them for granted.

I benefitted a lot through Umar and Ali, who served as my mentors through my teenage years. Both about ten years older than me, they had been through the same education system as me, and had been brought up in the West just like me. They’d seen the same challenges to their faith that I was going through. I knew I could speak to them whenever I needed.

I didn’t have the benefit of having learnt sacred knowledge from a young age. As a result, for the first twenty years of my life, my knowledge of Islam was quite basic. Like the other Muslims in my school, I had to figure it out largely on my own. I remember being in school at age 12, where the teacher was asking the students how many of them believed in God. Despite their age, many answered that they did not.

In most subjects there was either an anti-God, anti-religious, or anti-Islamic narrative. In history classes, the Islamic nations were always the bad guys, whether it was the Ottoman armies or the successful “kicking out” of the Muslims from Spain. Religious study lessons would include philosophical challenges to the existence of God, such as the so-called “Problem of Evil,” without mentioning the vast contributions and proofs of the great Muslim thinkers.

And of course, biology lessons always featured evolution in biased ways. When speaking about animals that were well adapted to their environments, the teacher would attribute it to the genius of evolution. But when there were apparent biological flaws in an animal, the teacher would say that a Creator would not have let that flaw to exist.

This environment impacted me greatly. I felt very insecure about not having clear answers. I’d find myself around the age of 14 and 15 lying in bed at night for hours thinking about how the universe began, whether evolution existed, and everything else.

By the grace of Allah, I always remained a Muslim in belief. However, I had fundamental questions that needed answering. During this period, I benefited immensely from Umar and Ali, who would answer my questions. They would explain how there is no problem believing in the Big Bang as long one believes it is God that caused it to happen. They explained the problems with evolution from a scientific perspective, and that explaining how science and Islam are compatible. Their mentorship was so effective because they had gone through the same journey that I had. Because of this, they were able to help me in a way that parents, aunties and uncles were not.

Battling Ideology

But my troubles weren’t over. When I began university I got involved with the Muslim student groups. Their arguments seemed logical and straightforward, and I got caught up in them. After all, why did we need to follow a school of thought, if we had the Qur’an and sunna? And why were we introducing innovations if our religion was already clear?

Alhamdulillah, yet again, there were Umar and Ali. They tried their best to gently explain the issues with textual literalism, and the importance of schools of thought and following traditional Islam. It wasn’t an overnight process, nor was it an easy one.

They would patiently tolerate me debating with them on religious issues, but would not argue with me. “Don’t worry,” I heard Umar say to Ali. “He’ll figure it out for himself one day.” With wisdom and kindness, they gave me the space to explore for myself, while also advising me at the right moments when I most needed it.

A few years later, when I was ready, Ali very generously paid for me to study some Sunni Path courses (now Qibla), including an Aqida al-Tahawi course taught by Shaykh Hamza Karamali, and a course that covered the sources of Islamic law, taught by Shaykh Farid Dingle.

I remembered how I told a brother from university that I was about to take these classes. “Be careful,” he warned. “They may be Asharis!” “What are Asharis?” I asked. “They interpret some parts of the Qur’an figuratively,” he replied. “For example, when the Qur’an refers to ‘Allah’s hand,’ they say it’s a metaphor for His power, because He does not resemble created things.”

I personally couldn’t see what was wrong with that. He gave me a CD and told me to listen to it instead. I tried, but the speaker was just bashing the other methodologies without actually proving his own points.

I decided to go ahead with the Sunni Path courses. They were detailed and well-taught, and confirmed to me the truth of traditional Sunni Islam in a clear, factual manner. The Aqida course included some articles written by Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller about the Sunni Aqida. I sent them to the brother from university.
When he finally responded, he told me that the articles were not backed up by sources from the Qur’an and Sunna.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “The whole article is based on hadith!” “Yes, but they need to be verified.” “They are sahih, what more do you want?” I was frustrated with the lack of response. Learning from Shaykh Hamza and Shaykh Farid gave me the inspiration to study more. Alhamdulillah, Ali also introduced me to the spiritual teachings of Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller, who I now learn from and do not ever want to look back.

However, their work was not yet over. When the time came for me to start searching for a spouse, it was time for them to help me again, as some of my family members, although they wanted nothing but the best for me, weren’t on the same page as me when it came to what to look for in a spouse. My cousins themselves had gone through the same challenges while looking for a spouse. By now, they were both married and starting families, and through their advice I eventually did find a wife who had the same religious perspective and goals as me.

To this day, Umar and Ali continue to guide me with their calm influence, wisdom and life experience. To me, my story is an example of the importance of Muslim youth having role models, who are older than them but not too old, and well-grounded in their own faith.

By Amjad Shaykh


This piece was written by a SeekersHub student. Looking to inspire? Consider writing for our Compass Blog! We are looking for individuals willing to submit feature pieces for publication. Share your stories with us. Contact [email protected] with your pitch and inspire and motivate hundreds – if not thousands – of others.


Raising Muslim Children In An Age Of Disbelief

Shaykh Walead Mosaad is father to two exceptional young men, MashaAllah. How did he and his wife get it so right? In this brief interview, SeekersHub blogger Aashif Sacha gets Shaykh Walead talking about why he made the choice to commit years of his life to learning the Islamic sciences (hint: for his kids), who his role models are and what tips he has for those fearful of raising children in an age of widespread disbelief.

Finally, if you are worried that you have left it too late to begin studying your religion, Shaykh Walead has some very reassuring words for you.

It’s never too late to start a life of learning. Take a SeekersHub course today. There are courses on dozens of interesting topics, including Islamic Parenting. It’s so easy to sign up and you can learn from anywhere in the world.

Have you signed up to the SeekersHub Compass mailing list? Every week, exclusive content is distributed only to subscribers – including the recordings from our monthly seminars. Sign up before you miss out.

Our Scholars Need to Be Real About The Issues We Face – Shaykh Idris Watts

Shaykh Idris Watts gives us a little taster into the extent to which our pious predecessors were in touch with the condition of their communities. What did they do for young Muslim families with children, for example, when nativity plays were being widely read and performed?
A real and relevant talk that focusses on recognising the issues many Muslims today struggle with and how the Prophet’s ﷺ teachings form the core of a rich and merciful tradition.

Becoming A Man – A New Course for Those Coming of Age

MC-Amjad-Bio-resizedComing of age can be awkward, challenging, and confusing–for both parents and their children. Although many of the changes are biological, they also have religious implications as well. This course seeks to provide a framework for young men to learn about the qualities of a true man of faith. By contextualizing the wisdom and example of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his companions to deal with contemporary issues, young men will gain insights into the practice, spirituality, and virtue of the believer. Insha Allah, this course will help give young men clarity and confidence in their religion and life.

Listen to Ustadh Amjad Tarsin’s brief introduction below and don’t forget to register for the course.

Help Your Kids Confront ‘The-P-Word’: Pornography, by Hina Khan-Mukhtar

Photo credit: kolessl“Hina?” The voice on the other end of the line was ragged; it was obvious the caller had been crying.

I felt panic rise in my chest. “What’s wrong? What’s happened?”

Pause. Deep breath. And then: “It came into my house last night.”

And there it was. Without any need for elaboration, without any more details, I knew exactly what “It” was referring to.

Pornography.

If I use the word “epidemic” to describe what is happening with pornography and our children, I do not think I would be overstating the matter. It is no longer a matter of “if” but a matter of “when”…at some point or the other, we will all be confronted with this cancer that is currently spreading its tentacles into every home in the world. Therefore, it behooves us to be prepared and to have our preventions and our treatments in place, insha’Allah (God willing).

According to the latest statistics on familysafemedia.com:

  • 4.2 million pornographic websites exist today
  • 42.7% of internet users view porn
  • 34% of internet users receive unwanted exposure to sexual material
  • 72 million worldwide viewers visit pornographic websites on a monthly basis 

The facts that all parents need to know:

  • the average age of first internet exposure to pornography is 11 years old
  • 80% of 15- to 17-year-olds are having multiple hard-core porn exposures
  • 90% of 8- to 16-year-olds have viewed porn online (most while doing homework)
  • 26 children’s character names are linked to thousands of porn links (including Pokemon and Action Man)

It is my hope that parents will use this article as a family read-aloud, a springboard from which to jumpstart a more in-depth conversation about a crisis that is affecting so many youngsters and adults alike.

1.) Treat the internet like a loaded weapon in the house.

How does one treat a loaded weapon? First, you make sure that children know that’s it there and you warn them of its inherent dangers. You teach them that they are never to touch it unless you are there to supervise them. You never ever leave kids alone with it. You don’t let them have easy access to it. You keep it under lock and key. All of these exact same rules apply to the internet as well.

We have two sons in high school and one son beginning middle school, alhamdulillah (praise be to God). The older two have flip phones for calling and texting — no smart phones with internet access. None of them are allowed to use the internet in the privacy of their bedrooms. All web searches are conducted in a public space in our home where anyone passing by can see what they’re looking at. Whenever there is silence for an extraordinarily long amount of time, either their father or I will glance over their shoulders to see what’s going on or we will simply point-blank ask them what exactly they’re doing. We know the passwords to their email accounts. These understandings have been in place since Day One, so our attitude doesn’t come across as one of mistrust; it is simply the way things are done in our home if one is a minor who wants the privilege of using the internet.

I know of other parents who require that their children “check in” their smart phones with them at night. The phones are charged in the parents’ bedrooms after 9 pm and no one is allowed to email or text after that time. Some parents change the wifi password daily and the kids must request the new password whenever they need to use the internet. The parents’ laptops are kept under similar stringent security controls. Some parents check in with adults — even close relatives — before letting their children go over to play or spend the night (just like they would with any loaded weapons in the house): “Will the children have access to any computers? What kind of controls do you have on the kids’ internet usage?”

This first point I’ve mentioned is all about prevention, about trying to establish a healthy rhythm and routine around the internet before ever even letting your kids get on the information highway. The rest of the points in this article are all about preparation.

2.) If your kids are using the internet at all, you should have talked to them about pornography yesterday.

Muslims have always been known for their sense of modesty. Countless times I have witnessed parents wince and then — with bulging eyes — hold urgent “shush” fingers to their lips when they hear me start to caution about the dangers of pornography in front of their children — children who are often clutching their own computers and smart phones and iPods after having asked me for my wifi password within minutes of entering my home. Modesty is a noble trait and one that needs to be honored, but when it comes to discussing the dangers of the internet, any apprehensions about talking about what’s really happening “out there” need to be thrown out the window.

Last year, a mother who attended one of my talks at a local mosque heard me urge parents to talk to their kids about pornography as soon as possible. A few months later, she showed up at one of my parenting talks at a private Islamic school. When it was time to get feedback from the audience, she raised her hand and told the other moms and dads, “When I first heard Sister Hina say that we needed to talk to our kids about pornography, I knew I had to do it, but I didn’t know how. I was scared to death. Despite knowing that this was something I had to do, it still took me over a month to summon up the courage to actually speak with my son. When I finally did, I couldn’t believe the look of relief on his face! It turned out that he already knew about pornography and had even seen some images and didn’t know what to make of them. He had so many questions, but he didn’t know whom to ask. I’m so grateful that I finally talked to him about pornography…I only wish I had done it sooner.”

Some parents worry that talking to kids about pornography will make them curious about something they had been blissfully oblivious about and they will then want to further seek it out on their own. I recently heard of a child who looked up “pornography” on the internet after hearing the word mentioned as a social ill in a khutbah (Friday sermon). I learned of another child who went to a summer camp where another boy asked him if he knew what porn was; the Muslim boy was too embarrassed to admit that he had never heard the word before and came home and typed up “p-a-r-m” on the computer’s search engine…and guess what? Porn came up. I know of another little girl who was searching for her favorite toy (“American Girl”) as a potential Eid gift and pornographic images of the “ideal” American girl flooded her family’s computer screen instead. One little boy had to do a science report on dogs, and when he attempted to research canines, images of bestiality popped up on his mother’s laptop.

If you don’t talk to your kids about porn, I can guarantee you that someone else will. It is only a matter of time. You simply must get to them first.

There isn’t any need to go into graphic details about what makes up pornography…what’s important is that kids know WHAT it is and — perhaps even more importantly — that they know that YOU know what it is. If a child accidentally stumbles onto pornography, previously completely clueless about its existence, they may assume that — like them — their parents also must have no idea about this secret world either. Believe it or not, the children may even worry that they need to be the ones to protect the adults from it! They may also fret that parents will overreact or will mistrust them or will even accuse them of having deliberately searched out “dirty images”. But if you’ve already talked to your kids about this heinous industry and its terrible evils (and its inevitability), they will instead be able to tell you, “It happened, Mom/Dad. You had warned me that pictures of naked people would suddenly pop up on my computer one day and today it actually happened. But — don’t worry — I knew exactly what to do. I followed our drill.”

3.) Just like with any emergency, have a safety drill in place for when (not if) kids encounter pornography.

Students are taught fire drills and earthquake drills and intruder drills in school and at work. Just like those important precautions, we too need to have a safety drill in place for when we encounter pornography in our lives. Pornography can be just as destructive to one’s livelihood and happiness as any other natural or manmade disaster. Zeeshan and I have taught our sons and nieces and nephews a simple three step drill:

First, say, “Audhu billahi minashaitanir rajeem” (I seek refuge in Allah from the accursed Satan).

Second, turn off the computer or laptop — close the cover, unplug, power down, whatever it takes to immediately remove the pornographic images from your sight.

Third, get up at once and go tell an adult.

Photo credit: bnmk0819

We have drilled these three instructions into the children over and over. We teach them that there is real power in seeking refuge in God and remind them that He hears all our prayers; there is no success without His Help. But along with praying to God for help, we need to take real, practical steps to ensuring our own success as well — and the next step after dua (prayer) is to physically turn away from that which is displeasing to God. Finally, we remind them that they need allies and mentors to help them succeed through the various challenges in life, so it is important to involve trusted adults in anything that could be harmful to our physical, emotional, and spiritual development.

Our middle son lives 400 miles away from us with my brother. I am fortunate in that my brother and I have the same rules when it comes to internet use in our homes. Despite being on the same page, however, my brother told me, “You know, Hina, I can watch over Ameen all I want. We can have all the rules and restrictions in place. But there are many times when I have to go to bed and he often still has homework that he is doing until the wee hours of the night. The truth is that at some point HE needs to be the one who is vigilant; he needs to know what to do when he encounters pornography.”

Sure enough, one night Ameen was working on an assignment when a pornographic image popped up on his screen. Thank God he remembered (and followed) the drill and promptly uttered “audhu billahi minashaitanir rajeem”, turned off the computer, and immediately went to tell his uncle what had happened. My brother told him not to touch the computer again and in the coming days got someone to clean up the virus that had infected the laptop. If we hadn’t had that drill in place, I shudder to imagine what might have happened — the confusion, the curiosity, the second glance, the clicking, and then — WHOOSH — he’s fallen down a dark, cavernous, sick hole from which he could have spent years trying to crawl out of. May Allah protect all of our children. Aameen (amen).

4.) It is important to explain pornography from a spiritual perspective as well.

A person can have instituted all the rules and limits in the world, but if kids don’t understand Whom they are ultimately trying to please, there will never be any true buy-in on their part. “Remember, we will not always be around to instruct you on what to do and what not to do; your teachers will not always be monitoring you and your actions,” we tell the kids. “But Allah IS always with you. He sees and hears all. He is the One Who never sleeps. You cannot hide from Him. And Allah especially loves the one who avoids sin in the privacy of his own home simply out of his fear of displeasing God. That’s called taqwa (God-consciousness). It’s when you’re alone that your true sincerity and belief in God is tested. Will you pass the test? Will you have taqwa?”

It’s not necessary that the “God sees you” warning will be enough of a deterrent for many teenagers, but it is still our job to make sure that our kids are taught to look beyond this realm and to ponder otherworldly consequences for their actions. We have also told our kids that “the first inadvertent glance is a freebie”; they will not be held accountable for anything they did not intentionally mean to look at, but it is the second glance when the angels do in fact start recording their actions. “Be mindful of your intentions” is the mantra we repeat.

“Anything Allah has prohibited for us has only been prohibited for our own benefit,” we also teach our sons. “There is a mercy and a protection in any instruction that tells us to stay away from something, even if we don’t understand the wisdom in the moment. Our job is just to say, ‘I hear and I obey.'”

The other point we make with our boys — and other parents make with their kids — is to admit that it is possible for some people to watch pornography once or twice or even multiple times and then decide that they are done with it and don’t ever want to return to it again. But we emphasize the highly addictive nature of pornography as well; there is a reason that the rush one gets from watching porn has been compared to the chemical high one gets from cocaine and heroin. “You have no idea what camp you fall into,” I tell our three boys. “You could be someone who sees porn once or a few times and then decides, ‘No more for me’…and then actually sticks with that decision. Or you could be someone who watches it once and — BOOM — it’s over for you. You are addicted for the rest of your life and later you cannot have a normal, healthy relationship with your wife and you need therapy forever. There’s NO WAY of knowing how you’ll react to porn when you first see it…and that is the point. That is why Allah has told us to just completely stay away from that which is haraam (prohibited). Like alcohol, don’t even taste a little bit of it just once. It’s totally off-limits now and forever. And thank God for that.”

We remind our children of the sufi teaching that there are seven inroads to the heart — the eyes, the ears, the mouth, the hands, the stomach, the genitalia, and the feet. We compare the heart to a castle that needs to be protected by a fortress wall so that no enemies can attack it from any of the seven entrances. “Only people with pure hearts will enter Jannah (Paradise),” we caution our kids. “We are all born with a tiny black speck on our hearts. Every time I allow a sin from one of those seven avenues to enter my heart, that black spot continues to grow until eventually the whole heart is rotting. The only thing that removes the (spiritual) blackness and polishes the heart is tawba (repentance) and dhikr (remembrance of God). Life is made up of constantly messing up and of constantly asking for forgiveness and then resolving to do better. You don’t want to be consumed by a disease or an addiction that takes over your life, God forbid. Watching porn is not worth the risk; the price is too high.”

I have also taught my sons and my other students that Muslims are supposed to be here to leave the world a better place. I inform them about the destructive elements behind the pornography industry — the criminal exploitation of women and children, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, the harmful effects of porn on marriage, the plummeting low self-esteem of men and women who cannot ever measure up to what they’re watching on their screens. “Pornography is a dark, dark world…and Muslims are here to bring noor (light).”

5.) There is no utopia. There is no safe community. There is nowhere to escape.

Pornography is here to stay and it is up to us to figure out how to deal with it. I had a young mother recently tell me, “Thank God we live in (insert name of a Muslim country). The government there has tight controls over what is and isn’t allowed to be seen.” It broke my heart to burst her bubble, but I knew I was doing her a favor by removing her blinders. Even my children are aware of the fact that the top countries that download the most porn are ones that claim to be Islamic.

I have heard more than one parent come up with elaborate plans to escape the country, to get away to “somewhere safe” where the lifestyle is more provincial, more simple, more “disconnected”, preferably where the people are pious and the culture is conservative. Suffice it to say that I have been told first-hand about villages that don’t have electricity and running water but that still have the ability to access pornography on the few phones that manage to exist there.

After my presentation at a mosque, I was overwhelmed by the number of mothers and wives who wanted to share their own heartbreaking tales of woe. I heard about young hifz (Quran memorization) students who stumbled onto porn while reviewing Quran on their iPods, becoming hopelessly addicted over the course of years before being discovered by parents. I was told about young children who encountered porn in their trusted grandparents’ homes while looking up popular cartoon characters (a famous porn star has professionally named herself after an innocuous Disney character). My own son told me about a classmate who was openly watching porn on the computer at the local public library — other teens were laughing at him behind his back, but he was completely oblivious to them. (Ironically, the librarians were hushing the boys for being loud and even threatened to kick them out if they didn’t quiet down, but these same adults were helpless to stop anyone from watching porn on their premises due to the fact that it would be seen as “censoring public information”.)

“I did everything right,” one mom wept to me. “I kept a close eye on what they watched. I didn’t allow them to use the internet unsupervised. No one but my husband and I know the password on our wifi. I let others know what our family rules were. The ONLY thing I didn’t do was talk to my kids about it because I wanted them to hold onto their innocence a little while longer. I didn’t tell them what pornography was and how they should react if they ever come across it. So when it happened, they just didn’t have the tools to deal with it.”

There is nowhere to go, folks. There is no immunity. We have to face the monster head-on.

Photo credit: Jasmin Merdan

The first step to facing the monster is being informed; the second is being vigilant. I was really impressed recently when I met a husband and wife team, both of whom were born and raised in a small town in a third-world Muslim country. They have been living in the US for only a little over a decade, yet they are two of the most culturally aware and attentive parents I have ever met. They know all the statistics and the studies. They have tight controls on what their children are watching and when. They talk to their kids about everything without lecturing or nagging. These are parents who are not clueless in the least.

Only a week later I spent time with a young father who — along with his wife — was born and raised in America. Both of these parents work in the tech industry and have shared many articles with me on how best to raise kids in this day and age. After meeting their young daughter, however, I couldn’t help but feel an acute sense of foreboding. This sweet child took selfies constantly in my presence. She seemed unable to function without her smart phone permanently in her hand. Within minutes of entering my home, she was pestering me for my wifi code, despite my repeated attempts to rebuff her. Through talking to her, I soon found out that she had more than one social media account…unbeknownst to the adults in her life. For now, it seems that she is still innocent and unharmed, alhamdulillah, but it feels like this little girl is playing with fire…and her parents are the ones handing her the matches. The difference between both families is that one set of parents is informed and vigilant whereas the other set of parents is simply informed. It is imperative that all parents act on what they have learned.

****

As a personal confession, I must admit that it has been extraordinarily difficult to write this piece — it is very, very important to me that no one despairs after reading my words. The point is not to dishearten anyone but simply to wake people up. In the course of researching and writing this article, I have had to walk away more than once; there have been many times when I have just wanted to burst into tears. After proofreading my first draft, my 17-year-old son Shaan asked me, “Don’t you feel icky? This is so depressing.” Yes, but I knew I had to write on this topic back when he was a freshman who polled the boys in his class and found out that — except for one — every single student claimed to watch porn on a regular basis. One of them even told him, “I only use my computer for homework and porn. What else is there?” Shaan recently shared with me: “You talked to us about alcohol and sex-outside-of-marriage and hard drugs and peer pressure, but I’m finding the two things that a majority of kids — Muslims and non-Muslims — seem to be struggling with in high school are (1) weed and (2) pornography.” While I definitely feel the weight of this topic, I am continuing to pray that I only write that which is of benefit, insha’Allah.

If you are someone whose child has been exposed to pornography or whose child has become addicted to it, please do not despair. Allah has created no disease without also creating its cure. There is always hope…first and foremost with Allah. And there is treatment available with mental health experts who are professionally trained to help our kids heal. Please do not shame or blame your children, no matter their age or your expectations of them; they are victims of an evil industry that preys on the innocent and the weak. You need to be there now as their advocates and their support. Sometimes, despite our best efforts and our tightest precautions, our children will still end up engaging with pornography. It is not your fault. It is not your child’s fault. This is a test that — for whatever reason — Allah has meant for you and your family to be tried with; just like with any other test, you need prayer, patience, and perseverance (along with a plan for healing) to get through the toughest times.

If you are someone who is reasonably sure that your children have not yet encountered pornography, please do not become complacent. Remain hyper-vigilant always. And, God forbid, don’t ever be smug and do not judge or criticize other parents and their children who are struggling with a plague that is infecting so many. All of us need to pray for one another’s children. May Allah (subhana wa ta’ala) protect their eyes and ears and hearts and brains and guide them and keep them safe from all of the detrimental elements of this world. May they escape this dunya (world) unscathed. Aameen (amen).

*details of personal anecdotes have been changed in order preserve anonymity*

 

Resources for Seekers:

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf on The Social Costs of Pornography
Finding God Through The Chains Of Pornography Addiction
“Too Embarrassed to Talk About It”: Pornography Addiction and Some of Its Effects on Muslim Marital Life
Raising Your Children with Deen & Dunya – Radio Interview with Hina Khan-Mukhtar
Raising Children with Deen and Dunya
Making Ramadan a Time for Young Hearts to Grow
Ibn Khaldun on the instruction of children and its different methods
Islamic Parenting: Ten Keys to Raising Righteous Children
The Prophet Muhammad’s Love, Concern, & Kindness for Children
On Parents Showing Righteousness to Children

Parenting: Planting the seeds of prayer in our young ones

Teaching our children and teenagers to perform obligatory prayers, and enforcing it, is a delicate and often stressful matter for families. What is the prophetic guidance on the matter? When and how is it best done? Parenting expert Hina Khan-Mukhtar sheds some light.

I was driving a girlfriend to her house when my son Shaan called me from high school on my cell phone. I had him on speaker, so his anxious voice reverberated around the inside of the vehicle for us both to hear: “Mama, can you please be sure to pick me up exactly at three? I need to make it home in time to pray my Dhuhr (afternoon prayer) and I don’t want to risk missing it.”

After I assured him more than once that I wouldn’t be late, I hung up and found my friend staring at me with a quizzical look on her face.

“What?” I asked.

“Explain that to me,” she said.

“Explain what to you?”

“How the heck do you get a teenage boy in public high school to actually care about not missing his prayer?”

It is a question that I’ve been asked more than once, and there has never been a simple, easy answer to give. The quickest and most honest one is to frankly admit that all guidance is a blessing and a mercy from God and none of us are in any real control of what our children choose to take — and not take — from our teachings.

But let’s face it — we all know that’s not what parents want to hear (even if they know it’s the truth). Parents are looking for tips and advice, some kind of handbook to follow, a checklist of do’s and don’ts. The fact of the matter is that saying “Tell me what else to do besides pray about/for it” is a false premise to begin with — every success is dependent first and foremost upon prayer for that very success. After hoping I’ve made that clear, I will say that for the purposes of this article, I did sit down and reflect on what has brought us to where we are now after almost 18 years of raising sons, alhamdulillah (praise be to God). I write this article with the full knowledge that we are no experts; we are no authority figures; we are no success stories (if for no other reason except the fact that the “story” simply isn’t over yet). We just happen to be parents who for whatever reason are blessed with children who choose to pray…for now (may the desire always remain with them and only grow in conviction — amen). I asked my kids what they think has helped make prayer a priority for them in their lives, and I informally interviewed some friends to get their insights as well. Here’s what has worked for our families so far, and we hope that our experiences may help others in turn, insha’Allah (God willing)…

1) For God’s sake (literally), leave those kids alone for the first 7 years!

We’re not contending that you shouldn’t teach your kids about their religion or that you shouldn’t encourage them to stand with you in prayer, but we are saying that you shouldn’t have any real expectations of them until after they are 7 years old. I still remember how I cringed when I once saw a well-meaning father pretty much forcing his 6-year-old daughter to join the congregational prayer. She kept running off, and he kept bringing her back, insisting that she fold her hands and stand silently by his side as he recited the Quranic verses aloud. His intentions were noble and sincere, no doubt, but the execution left much to be desired. It was painful to watch, and I remember hoping that his plans weren’t going to backfire on him one day. Another time, I heard a mother tell her son that “Allah will be mad at you if you don’t pray; the angels are writing down that you’re being a bad boy”, and it took all my willpower not to cry out loud, “Stop! Please don’t say that to your 5-year-old!”

There is a reason God has not made prayer incumbent upon children — what baffles most adults is trying to figure out how they are supposed to take the spiritual souls that have been placed under their care and then successfully prepare them for the lifelong duty of praying five times a day once their physical bodies have attained puberty. The responsibility on parents is no joke, and some of them can crack under the pressure.

In the early years, children should be allowed to join and leave the prayer at will, letting themselves get acclimated to the motions and the sensations of the ritual prayer at their own pace. Praying with the family should be an enjoyable experience — one that kids can partake in (or not) as much as they desire. Their association with prayer should be one of sweetness. I know one father who has all of his children share their duas (supplications) aloud one by one after the prayer is over so that everyone can join together in asking Allah (subhana wa ta’ala) to grant their siblings’ wishes. Once the duas are over, the kids often dissolve into tickling and wrestling matches while the father finishes up his supererogatory prayers on his own. Kids can be taught the basic adab (etiquettes) of prayer from an early age — i.e. being mindful of not walking in front of people while they are praying and resisting the urge to make loud, obnoxious noises while others are engaged in worship — but these guidelines about the prayer are all related to respectful consideration towards our fellow Muslims; as far as these little Muslims themselves are concerned, no one should be demanding any personal obligations of them just yet!

2) When the time to begin formally praying finally does come, go all out and make the initiation into prayer a celebration to remember! Treat it like an exciting honor, a real rite of passage.

When each of my boys turned 7 years old, I bought them beautiful journals which I gave to my friends and family to fill with inspiring messages about prayer. A few of my more “crafty” friends went all out and used their art supplies to create elaborate 3-D cards complete with embossed ink and sequined beads. My parents and my in-laws each wrote messages to their grandsons, sharing their hopes and wishes for their futures with them. Older cousins wrote about how prayer helps them in good times and in bad; aunties and uncles gave advice on what helps them get through “prayer slumps” which — if we are truly honest — are bound to come in one’s life at some point or another. I remember my husband Zeeshan getting teary-eyed as he read his message aloud to our middle son Ameen. The general theme was one of encouragement and excitement. It’s been almost 10 years since I put together those gifts for my older two sons, and even now, I will sometimes catch them perusing their Prayer Books with smiles on their faces as they read the heartfelt messages to themselves.

A friend recently organized an elaborate “Salah (Prayer) Party” for her daughter who had turned 7 years old earlier this year. There was a delicious cake and a colorful piñata and many goody bags, but there was also a “Prayer Mat Making Station”, a “Misbaha (Prayer Beads) Making Station”, and a “Pin the Moon Over the Mosque” Game for the kids to enjoy. Along with yummy treats, each little girl also left the party with a “Prayer Chart” where she will now be able to track how many prayers in a day she is able to complete. I overheard the birthday girl excitedly bragging to her guests, “Guess what? I get to wake up for Fajr (dawn) prayer now!”

Zeeshan and I have found that slow and steady wins the race. When each of our sons turned 7 years old, we allowed them to choose one prayer that they wanted to take on as their daily commitment. Every single one of them chose the Maghrib (evening) prayer — probably because that was a time their father was usually home from work, they could pray in congregation behind him, and worship at that particular time of day seemed to fit seamlessly into our hectic schedules. The understanding was that — no matter what — Maghrib would never be neglected from that day (i.e. their 7th birthday) forward. If the boys wanted to pray any of the other prayers, that was all well and good (and highly praiseworthy), but it was their choice and we made it clear that we would not be monitoring them or holding them accountable. Maghrib, however, was non-negotiable. Whether they were at a play date or in the middle of a shopping mall or at a swimming lesson, if the time for Maghrib came in, they made sure to take a few minutes to complete it. (One note: we didn’t expect more than the fard/obligatory of Maghrib from them at this age.)

We continued this routine for twelve months. When a year of praying Maghrib on time had finally passed by successfully, we told the boys that they were now “qualified” to take on a second prayer. We treated it like an honor that only the most responsible could be trusted to handle! Once six months of praying two prayers had passed, we announced that it was time for them to commit to a third prayer. We tracked the completion of their prayers with star stickers on calendars that we had made at home out of cardstock. Using this method, all three of our boys were praying all five of their daily prayers by the time they were 9 1/2 years old, alhamdulillah. By age 10, prayer was an established routine. After the age of 10, the boys eventually began adding on the sunnah (supererogatory) prayers as well.

It is important to note that during this period (i.e. before the age of 10), we did clearly explain to the children that we were not requiring them to stick with their prayers because we considered it sinful for them to leave them (we didn’t) but because we were trying to train them for the time when fard prayers would eventually be required. We told them that we were trying to teach them how to honor commitments, we knew that it took practice and discipline to do so, and we accepted that it was our job to slowly but surely teach them those tools for success.

During the course of writing this article, I asked my almost-16-year-old son Ameen why he prays all of his prayers on time, and he responded, “I don’t remember ever not praying, so I can’t imagine not doing it now. It’s a part of who I am.”

My most fervent prayer is that he always feels that way. I am no fool; I know prayer is a gift and, if not treated with gratitude and humility, it can be lost at any moment. May Allah (subhana wa ta’ala) protect us from ever experiencing such a devastating void in our lives. Aameen. (Amen.)

3) “If it was good enough for the Prophet (salallaahu alaihi wasallam), it’s good enough for me.”

When I asked Shaan why he is committed to his prayers, he said, “It was the last thing the Prophet (salallaahu alaihi wasallam) told us to hold onto; he was talking about it right up until the point he passed away. How can we ignore that? How important must prayer be if he (peace be upon him) was reminding us about it even with his last breaths?”

If children are taught the seerah (biography of the Prophet Muhammad) and Islamic history, they will learn that our pious predecessors performed their prayers even in the middle of a battlefield, even when they were ill and dying, even when they were being harassed and humiliated. They learn that missing a prayer just isn’t an option for anyone who has taqwa (God-consciousness).

4) Teach them what they’re saying, what they’re doing, and why.

Prayer should not be allowed to become a series of robotic yoga-like motions devoid of meaning or purpose. Zeeshan and I have been forthright with our kids and confessed to them that there will be times when prayer might feel like an inconvenient, rote duty that just needs to be discharged — and they may find themselves feeling disillusioned and disheartened when those thoughts come to them — but, nevertheless, the canonical prayer is never to be abandoned, no matter how ambivalent one might be feeling towards it in that moment.

“We worship Allah with our minds, bodies, and souls,” I remind my children. “If our minds and souls aren’t ‘into’ prayer for some reason, we can at least force our bodies to obey Him. And then we pray that He will eventually lead our minds and souls to follow our bodies in joy and submission as well. Allah is the One Who is in charge of our hearts. He can turn us to Him at any time He wills. We just have to make sure that we’re not the ones who’re turning away first.”

One of the ayahs (verses) of the Quran that I often quote to my kids is 51:56: “And I have not created jinn and mankind except that they should worship Me.”

“That’s the purpose of life right there,” I tell them. “If you want to know why we were created and what we’re supposed to be doing while we’re here, you have your answer in that one line. Look no further.”

When we discuss the creation of man and the time when Allah (subhana wa ta’ala) commanded Iblis (Satan) to bow down to Adam, we point out how it was nothing but arrogance that made Iblis rebel. “With every prostration, you are choosing to obey God and humble yourself before Him in a way that Satan refused to,” Zeeshan tells them.

We have made sure to make it clear to the kids, however, that God is not in any need of our prayers or our praise or our prostrations; on the contrary, it is we who are in need of Him.

We have also emphasized that none of us should ever feel self-righteous or holier-than-thou about the fact that we are choosing to pray when others are not. “We need prayer; it’s like taking medicine that the Doctor prescribes,” I tell the boys. “Would any of us go around bragging about taking meds or look down on others because they aren’t taking the prescription that we’ve chosen to take for our own health?”

At the same time, we have encouraged friendships with those families and children where prayer is a taken-for-granted part of the daily routine. We all know that you are only as good as the company you keep, and being in an environment where prayer is as natural as eating or drinking just helps create a new type of “normal” for the kids. My boys have grown up seeing not only their parents and their friends praying in congregation but seeing their parents’ friends and friends’ parents giving significance to the five daily prayers as well.

Teaching our children about the Isra and Mi’raj (Night Journey and Ascension) has been instrumental in getting them to understand how the prayer was revealed and what the different parts of the prayer mean to us on a spiritual level. The position of ruku (bowing) is compared to the way one would bow in front of a king. In the humbling position of sajdah (prostration), we point out how that is the only position in which the human heart is elevated over the human brain. “At a certain level, yes, we can recognize Allah by using our thinking minds,” we tell our kids, “but — ultimately — we come to Him via our hearts. It is the heart that truly knows God; it is the heart that truly recognizes Him.”

Once the kids are taught that the same “attahiyat” that we recite while we are sitting in prayer is in fact the actual repetition of the conversation between Allah (subhana wa ta’ala) and the Prophet Muhammad (salallaahu alaihi wasallam) and the angels, they will not be so prone to mindlessly speed through it, insha’Allah. The prayer will suddenly have relevance for them. When we sit and recite our dhikr (litanies) after prayer, we tell the kids that each whisper on our tongues is a polishing of the heart. “We want to have hearts that shine like mirrors and only reflect Him on the Day of Judgement,” we tell them. Making sure that we teach them what the Arabic words that they are reciting actually mean helps in bringing about some consciousness in the prayer, insha’Allah.

Finally, it’s really important to talk to the kids about intention. One of my favorite quotes by Imam Ali (radiAllahu anhu) that I like to share with the boys is his comparison of worshippers to three types — the first is the worshipper who worships out of desire for Heaven (he is like the businessman looking only for a profit); the second is the worshipper who worships out of fear of the Hellfire (he is like the slave who wants only to avoid punishment); and the third is the worshipper who worships out of gratitude because he recognizes that Allah is worthy of worship (he is the truly free man).

“Which one are you?” we ask our sons…and then we leave them to reflect.

And we reflect on ourselves as well.

5) Set them up for success.

We make sure to equip each of our cars with what I like to call “a prayer pack” — a small knapsack that contains a clean prayer mat, a bottle of water for wudu (ablutions), a squeeze bottle for istinja (ritual washing of the private parts after using the toilet), a compass for ascertaining the Qibla (direction of the Ka’aba in Makkah for prayer), and a prayer garment that will cover any woman who is in need of one. Before smart phones arrived on the scene, I used to keep a print-out of the month’s prayer timings in the pack as well. This prayer pack ensured that I didn’t need to worry about whether I had the ability to fulfill my prayers properly and on time or not.

Once Shaan started high school, I helped him create his own “prayer pack”. In his backpack, we placed a zip-up prayer mat made out of parachute material; it was light and compact and easily folded up and unfolded on a moment’s notice. I also included a digital timer that snapped around his thumb and could be discreetly clicked for dhikr while accurately keeping track of how many litanies had been completed. And I bought him a really cool compass that he uses regularly to figure out the direction for prayer. We recently invested quite a bit of money in some high quality khuffs (waterproof socks) for him so that he wouldn’t have to deal with the inconvenience of having to stick his foot in the sink while making wudu in the boys’ restroom at his high school. He can just wipe over his khuffs during school hours now. On Shaan’s first day as a freshman, his father and I helped him come up with talking points so that he could approach the principal with confidence when he requested a private space for prayer; we promised to have his back if he ran into any resistance. Our “support” turned out to be unnecessary however. It’s been three years now, alhamdulillah, and the high school front office staff knows Shaan really well — he’s the kid who comes in every day during lunch to go to the conference room to pray.

While all of these gadgets and gizmos may be great to have around for convenience’s sake, the kids understand that they will have to make do for prayer — one way or the other — whether they have their prayer packs on hand or not. “Guard your prayer” is the mantra in our home.

6) “Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.” – Rumi

For some kids, positive sensory associations are very important in creating an attachment to prayer. From a young age, my boys have taken great pride in dressing up for Jumah (Friday) prayers in their best clothes, wearing their best perfume and their best kufis (prayer hats). We always set out their most special clothes for the most special of days, and they feel noble and dignified as they wash and dress for going to the mosque on Friday afternoons. I know of one mom who created a magical “prayer corner” in her daughter’s bedroom, complete with a lace canopy that cascaded down over an intricately embroidered prayer mat and an ornate table that held a beautifully designed Quran and crystal prayer beads. Other parents regularly light sweetly scented incense or candles during prayer time in the home. One mother used to wear a silk prayer gown stamped with gold and silver block print for her night prayers; her children sometimes have compared her to a princess, other times to an angel. Another parent told me that she always baked the kids’ favorite treats to share after the congregational prayers on Fridays and also played nasheeds (devotional hymns) in the house after Surah Kahf had been recited for the week. These are all examples of kids who saw, heard, smelled, and tasted nothing but beauty and elegance when it came to prayer in their homes.

7) Aspire to be what you want them to be.

No one recognizes hypocrisy quicker than a child. The truth of the matter is that you can encourage and teach a child to pray all you want, but if you’re not going to pray, the chances are highly likely that he/she’s not going to pray either. And letting a child witness that you pray isn’t always enough either. What about how you pray? Are you rushed and distracted? Do you drag your feet when the prayer time comes in? Are you nonchalant if you miss a prayer? I know of an adult who remembers his own father weeping when he once missed a prayer, and that reaction made more of an impression on him about the importance of prayer than all the lectures in the world ever could.

In conclusion, I feel it’s important to confess how emotionally difficult it was for me to actually write this article. I’ve been analyzing what my hesitation was, and I realize that it was rooted in the fear that my words will come across as preachy and imbued with a sense of self-satisfaction when nothing could be farther from the truth. Another part of me worries that I will somehow jinx my family by admitting to the world that my husband and kids are regular with their prayers (for now). After a lot of back and forth debate with myself, I finally decided to pray to Allah to purify my intentions and asked Him to allow me to write just one thing that will benefit even one parent out there. I remember when I had my first son in 1997, how desperate I was to find any kind of reading material that would help motivate and guide me in teaching him the fundamentals of this beautiful religion. I didn’t need proofs for why I needed to teach the prayer; I was already more than convinced. But I did desperately crave real-life examples of how Muslim parents got down in the trenches and actually did the hard work of passing on this most important pillar of the faith to the next generation. I have been fortunate in that I have been surrounded by many inspirational parents and have had the opportunity to learn from them all, alhamdulillah. I am hoping that their techniques can now help a new generation of parents, insha’Allah.

A year ago, one of my girlfriends who has a son in college somberly told me that he had recently confessed to her that he was no longer praying because he “just wasn’t feeling it anymore”. This was a mother who had “done everything right”; she was a mentor to many of us when it came to raising children to be practicing and believing Muslims. I tried to comprehend what she was telling me and then thoughtlessly blurted out, “Why aren’t you panicking?” I didn’t understand how she could tell me such devastating news in such a calm and matter-of-fact manner.

“Because I have faith in my Lord” was her forthright response. “From Day One, I have been praying for my children’s imaan (faith), and I don’t think those prayers just disappeared into thin air. They have been heard and they will be answered, insha’Allah…but in His time and not mine. I’ve done my part; I’ve done what was commanded of me. Now I leave my children’s fate to Allah while I continue to pray for their guidance and His Mercy.”

As of this writing, her son is praying all five prayers once again.

 

Resources for Seekers:

Traditional Methods of Raising Children
Raising a Muslim with Manners

Raising Your Children with Deen & Dunya – Radio Interview with Hina Khan-Mukhtar
Raising Children with Deen and Dunya
Ibn Khaldun on the instruction of children and its different methods
Islamic Parenting: Ten Keys to Raising Righteous Children
The Prophet Muhammad’s Love, Concern, & Kindness for Children
On Parents Showing Righteousness to Children