We did not model unconditional love

In the last post, I was discussing Amina Jabbar’s awesome post over at MuslimahMediaWatch. Among other things, Jabbar’s post gave me some optimism that maybe it might some day be possible for Muslim  discussions about various types of oppression in Muslim communities to get beyond the simplistic approaches that I usually see. That it might become possible for ideas and practices to be recognized as oppressive without also simultaneously disavowing them as “cultural, not Islamic,” or “extremist, not mainstream”… or the results of “wrong interpretation” or whathaveyou.

Looking back, I wish that I paid attention to my misgivings about some of the ideas floating around in the '80's and '90's about "how to raise our children to be good Muslims." Ah well, hindsight is 20/20....

Looking back, I wish that I paid attention to my misgivings about some of the ideas floating around in the ’80’s and ’90’s about “how to raise our children to be good Muslims.” Ah well, hindsight is 20/20….

It also was really (for lack of a better word) triggering. In part because of the article she linked to, about Maryam Basir and her father’s response to her career choices. According to the article, Basir prays five times a day, fasts in Ramadan, eats halaal, is married to a Muslim man, and avoids alcohol and drugs. Nonetheless, she and her father are estranged as a result of her decision to become a model. Her father, a convert who serves as an imam for two prisons, laments, “I wanted my children to be pious and knowledgeable. But only one of my daughters still wears the hijab. In the end, you meet Allah and you are judged…. it hurts my heart to see what Maryam is doing. I fear for her.”

My first response to that was recognition. Yes, I recognized that approach to child-rearing, all right.

And I remembered a story that we read to our kids, about a girl who had been thrown out of the house by her good Muslim parents because she would not live according to their (Islamic) rules. Samira, her name was. I hadn’t thought about that story in years. What a horrible story for us to have exposed our kids to. What the hell were we thinking??

Back in the ’80’s and ’90’s where I was living at the time, so much effort went into “raising our children to be good Muslims”—which meant first and foremost, that they had to practice Islam in accordance with the conservative understanding that we were being taught. We were absolutely determined that our kids would learn how to pray, fast, read the Qur’an, eat halaal, adhere to conservative Muslim norms of behavior, and (in the case of girls) wear hijab… and as far as we were concerned, failure was not an option. Nor was partial compliance an option, because “Islam is a complete way of life.” So it would not be good enough if (say) a child prayed regularly but dated, or was a good and generous person but didn’t wear hijab.


My best friend and I were full of anxiety about what we would do if despite all our efforts, our kids didn’t live up to the conservative standard of “proper Muslim behavior” in all things. What would we do then? There were different answers to that question.

One approach, which we encountered among some conservative, Muslim Brotherhood-ish immigrants, was essentially to deny that this could really be an issue. Because of course if the parents are good Muslims, then they will manage to “educate” their kids in such a way that their kids see the world much as they do, and will willingly adhere to the standards that they were raised with. (Implicit in this is the idea that there is really one correct way to be Muslim—as well as the suggestion that kids who don’t end up being “good Muslims” somehow publicly reveal the hidden failings of their parents.)

Another approach that we sometimes encountered was less optimistic. It admitted that yes, even the best parents sometimes have non-practicing (or poorly practicing) kids—and that in such a case, the parents have to get tough. Either the kid complies, or he/she can’t live under their roof. Or, if the kid has left home, then the parents’ relationships with him or her can’t be normal unless he or she returns to “proper” faith and practice. Because the kid has to know (and be constantly reminded, at that) what the expectations are… and that he/she is not living up to them…. and if the parents are consistent and firm, eventually most kids should come around to seeing things the parents’ way.

Basically, it was the ’70’s “tough love” parenting fad cross-bred with Salafi-influenced North American convert Islam. Really. Bad. Idea.

In our ceaseless quest to “raise our children to be good Muslims,” we were ever on the lookout for kids’ books with suitably conservative Islamic content. Among the books we found and bought for our kids were volumes one and two of The Muslim Family Reader: A Builder of the Islamic Personality. These books contained short stories that were meant to be read aloud in regular family devotional meetings. Some of the stories were better than others. Some communicated a fairly positive message—brothers and sisters getting along with one another and sharing, for example. But others ranged from the mildly to the deeply disturbing. The story of Samira was one that I put in the latter category even then, though I didn’t want to admit even to myself that I found it disturbing.

According to the story as I remember it, Samira doesn’t obey her parents’ rules, though little or no detail is provided as to how or why. Her parents finally tell her that she can’t live under their roof any more, and so she leaves home. She ends up in the hospital, in serious condition (I can’t remember why). Her brother Lamin comes to visit her, and brings her a box with roses. She opens up the box, happy and appreciative, expecting to see fresh, long-stemmed roses, but instead sees roses that are wilted and dying. So, Samira angrily asks her brother why he brought her wilted flowers, saying that she doesn’t want anything that is “old and dead.” Lamin responds that “Allah wants us when we are young, as well as when we are old.”

Good grief. There are just so many things that are wrong with this story….

For some reason, my kids never really took to those books. (I wonder why.) In a sense, I thought it was just as well, but never really probed those thoughts of mine. Still, I remember being quite apprehensive when I heard that they were being made to read through those books as a Ramadan project at madrasa. But since they didn’t come home saying anything about any of the stories in them, I assumed that it was probably all right….

How could such a story be told to kids, who hadn’t even reached their teens yet? Looking back, it seems crazy to me now. Crazy, and abusive. I can see now that the message we basically sent our kids was: your parents, your family, your community and God will love you if you are obedient and do what you have been taught that a good Muslim does. But if you don’t, then you have no worth in God’s sight. Nor, for that matter, in the eyes of your parents, or anyone else.

Unfortunately, that sort of attitude was in the air at the time. Not just in terms of how kids were raised, but for everyone. Behave, conform, follow the rules, don’t question too much… or you will be shunned. And there were people who actually did, as a matter of policy, shun other Muslims who they didn’t think had the “right” or “true” understanding of this or that, or who they thought didn’t practice “properly.” People who did that said that they were “hating for the sake of Allaah and loving for the sake of Allaah” (referencing one of their favorite hadiths there). There were those “brothers” who would warn other men to warn female converts to stay away from certain convert sisters who they didn’t think would be a good influence on them, because they questioned too much or didn’t behave “modestly” enough.

The Cult also practiced levels of inclusion and exclusion, so that in order to be included, you had to conform, and the more carefully and enthusiastically you conformed, the greater the degree of inclusion you had a chance of experiencing. Those who didn’t conform were excluded, and could finally face shunning. We believed (and we were taught) that how pious Muslims view you reflects how God sees you, so being excluded by the pious was not just a matter of experiencing the pain of being on the outside. The prospect of it made us fear for our salvation.

Looking back, I can remember having doubts about the rightness of it all—being disturbed by the story of Samira, feeling that it isn’t right for people to be socially excluded or even shunned because they weren’t following all the rules “properly.” But I did my best to repress my doubts. I didn’t voice them. Partly because I learned early on that the price of not conforming in those very conservative circles was criticism, exclusion and shunning, and partly because no one around me was willing to name it as abuse. Less conservative Muslims might criticize or laugh at the more conservative for “taking things too far,” but that was about it. I didn’t have the language to term it abuse, because “abuse” was supposedly only something that Others (from outside our insular, very conservative community) inflicted on Muslims, or perhaps might be perpetrated by “bad Muslims” who had been misled by “culture.” We didn’t think that we could call a conservative practice that its proponents supported by quoting hadiths or fatwas or whathaveyou “abuse.” And that was a very serious problem.


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  1. #1 by Fran on April 14, 2013 - 5:33 pm

    I once heard a woman say that when her teenaged son didn’t pray correctly she utilized corporal punishment, since his lack of appropriate performance was a reflection of her responsibility as a parent to ‘educate’ him. She, as I understood it, felt that she was acting responsibly for her deen and Allah by doing this. She was advised by other more moderate Muslima that this behavior fell into the realm of compulsion which is not acceptable in Islam. I’ve often wondered how the broader immigrant and second/third generation immigrant North American families have successfully ‘indoctrinated’ their children. But upon self reflection, I see by self examination how indoctrination and socialization operates in real life. Thanks again for a great and insightful post.

    • #2 by xcwn on April 14, 2013 - 5:56 pm

      Fran—Sigh. I’m ashamed to admit it, but we believed that our kids had to pray correctly and on time five times each day when they reached age ten. And that if they didn’t, it was our duty to hit them. Because a hadith says so.

      We were taught that a Muslim who doesn’t pray regularly (or at all) has gone out of Islam, and that in an ideal world, such a person should be killed. And we taught our kids this. They also received the same message at the madrasa they attended, as well as their Islamic youth camp.

      Looking back on all that, I now think it’s insane. It was child abuse to teach kids such things. It is also a really sad example of what happens when a religious community reads texts in a shallow, literalistic and uncritical way.

      • #3 by Charmed Seeker on April 24, 2013 - 6:54 am

        Did your kids really learn that message at their madrassa? Wow… Aren’t madrassas supposed to be only for memorizing the Quran in Arabic?
        What is your opinion about madrassas? Do you think hours-a-day rote memorization of Qur’an by 9 year old kids is ultimately beneficial to them?
        (btw – I made a slight change to my username)

  2. #4 by Rubaya Binte Siraj on March 21, 2014 - 1:59 pm

    Fran I have heard my parents say that if a couple’s child/ren don’t pray properly, the couple is destined to hell. That is another reason.

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