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Believing, Doing, Becoming 01: The Three Retrospectively Very Obvious Things I Got Wrong
A good halaqa requires experience. Failure is an excellent source of experience.
Not Just Stories They’ll Love—Stories They’re Part Of, Stories They’re Responsible For. Stories They’ll Star In.
Close to a year ago, I started Sunday Schooled to share how we taught Islam in our little blended tribe—F and Z, both of whom are now in the same all-girls’ high school, plus their younger brother R, who’s ten. With a lot of excitement, exactly zero experience, and about three free minutes per week, I decided I could design, deliver and simultaneously regularly update the wider world with an outstanding course all parents of faith could benefit from.
Unsurprisingly, it all fizzled out (and shockingly fast). But the disappointment was instructive. I’m big enough to admit my errors. I spent a lot of time learning from the aborted launch—I’m like NASA but hopefully without the idolatry. And I’m ready to try again.Still, mistakes are always chances to improve, which is why it’s important to share these unforced errors. Maybe they’ll help you in learning Islam with your kids, families, and communities.
First, it was a bad idea to do one and the same halaqa for two teenage girls and a younger boy. In retrospect, that should appear like incredibly blindingly obvious. This time around, there’s going to be two halaqas.
One for the girls and a second for R (and potentially some of his friends and cousins, too.) This post inaugurates the first halaqa, for teenage girls who can handle more sophisticated and sensitive conversations.
Second, I wanted too much even though I knew we had time for very little. This year, I’m going to make the halaqas less and more serious. When I say less serious, I mean less in the way of assignments, from homework to quizzes and tests.
These girls have so much on their plates, from classes to sports, plus they need social lives, and there’s masjid activities, volunteer work is a good idea—it’s a lot. Every night, we try to eat dinner and do maghrib together, plus a short du’a before sunnah.
That’s our family time. I want it to be something they enjoy.
I don’t want to add in a weekly Islamic experience that feels like a big boring burden. I’d love instead for the halaqa not just to be enjoyable, but to be a chance to see that their faith is serious, smart, sophisticated, and wonderful.
That plants in them the seed for lifelong learning.
Yes, ours is a faith that’s challenging, demanding and sometimes seriously countercultural, but also uplifting and ennobling, connecting people and places all over the world with purpose. (More on that next week.)
But when I said more serious, I mean we’re going to try harder to be more disciplined. The last halaqa was not. We’re doing less this time in order to be consistent, because infrequency and irregularity rarely amount to much.
We’ll do as much as we can, every week, and I mean every week, even if it means a ten minute review on a drive somewhere nice. There’s a hadith (saying) of the blessed last Prophet that inspires this ambition:
“The most beloved act to God is the one done consistently, even if it is small.” (Bukhari).
Third, and most painfully but crucially for me to admit, last year’s halaqa wasn’t just too unwieldy for three kids of different ages, and too scattered to work, but worse than that… It was dry, dense, hard to connect to, off-putting and probably boring.
What’s most embarrassing about this is that one of the things I learned from literally decades of speaking about, preaching and teaching Islam is that any lesson works best (or works at all) only if you tell a story or otherwise make it relevant.
So that’s what I’m going to try this time around, once a week, maybe thirty or forty minutes every Sunday if we can, give or take the extra time to get everyone focused, keep everyone focused, and keep myself focused.
We’re going to tell a story that invites the girls to see themselves as inheritors of the plot, as not just observers, but responsible for picking up where the generations before them left off. Because we elders will retire. We will exit the stage.
And then it’s up to them.
As before, so again: Because she always does such a good job, I turned to Z to give me an image that captured what this new halaqa was all about. She selected this one, which she took in Miami during our short but awesome vacation there.
Z said the picture reminds her that even though people have arguments and differences, we are all people in God’s world, and it’s supposed to be a good world for all of us together. I loved and appreciated that so much that I knew instantly: This was the picture.
May God give her and all our kids lives of beauty, purpose, and faith.
The Curriculum I’m Teaching and Why You’ll Want To Copy Me, Or At Least Subscribe: Do Things In Threes
This halaqa was originally going to be called “God, The Prophet (s)—and Us.” The name changed, and I’ll explain why in a second. But the core ambition, the desire to focus on just three things, has not changed:
Understanding how the life of the Prophet, peace be upon him, unfolded—the person he was, the world he lived in, and the people he changed;
Understanding how Islam came together not just during but more importantly through the life of the blessed Prophet;
And then, God willing, if we have time, appreciating what the first two mean for them, because they’ll be ever more responsible for it.
I want F and Z to start thinking about what it means to be mature Muslims not just for themselves, but in families and communities and cultures and societies. They should see themselves not as passive observers on the sidelines but as active participants in the thick of it. Nobody gets to tell them they don’t belong—but that also means that a lot more responsibility will be on them, too.
Your Creed Creates Your Character: Why Teaching Islam is No Different Than Living Islam
The new name of this halaqa is “Believing, Doing, Becoming.”
What we’re going to try to instill in F and Z is an idea that’s certainly not exclusive to Islam, but one that all the same distinguishes our tradition from the way popular culture sometimes frames what it means to be a quote-unquote good person. To communicate the Muslim conception, I’ve come up with an acronym: BDB.
Believing. Doing. Becoming.
Because yes this halaqa will talk about what it means to be Muslim. How our religion formed. And why we do the things we do.
But all of that in order to teach us who we can and must be. To give these girls (and hopefully, through this Substack, many more kids) real tools to make religion a part of their lives. Not just an identity or a heritage, but principally and ultimately a discipline that help them find a direct relationship to God and to their highest self, leading them towards beautiful, noble, and distinguished character.
That’s where Believing, Doing, and Becoming comes in.
Islamic rituals and practices don’t just emerge from our core beliefs but reinforce them as well, in a kind of ascending spiral yearning for God. To becoming. The kind of people we’re going to have to try to be, embodying the values and virtues that should be the hallmark of a good Muslim: Honest. Thoughtful. Kind. Considerate. Dignified. Modest. Charitable. Courageous. Pious.
Warm, generous, and dedicated to family, friends, community and society.
Believing without acting is meaningless at best. “I care about the environment and do exactly nothing about it” means you don’t care about the environment a whole lot. But acting without believing? If you’re told not to drink alcohol, but never told why, then it’s that much harder to stay dry.
But even then, that’s not enough. We don’t do things over and over again just to do the same things over and over again.
Pious actions should make for God-conscious people. Charitable actions should make for generous people. These beliefs lead to deeds, and these deeds should lead to becoming, to character, something I’m trying very hard myself to work on.
A simple example: As Muslims, we believe everything is ultimately from God. One way to acknowledge this is by being generous with the things God gives us and by so doing admitting that they never belonged to us anyway.
And the outcome, across years of effort, should be a person who’s reflexively generous, unattached to worldly things, grateful for them but not dependent on them, appreciative of them but not defined by them.
It’s a good way to think about what we believe and focus on the virtues we’d like to cultivate. Easy? Of course not. I’m writing this as someone who struggles with these things all the time, even now, forty-two years into my life.
Which is why I’m going to tell the girls, week in and out, that these aren’t just things I’m teaching offhand—these are lessons I’m trying to live in own my life too, based on the many times I’ve tried and failed, which includes the first time we did the halaqa. And I’m trying again because I have to try again.
It really hits home: I could frame this as a year lost. Or I could frame this as a chance to reflect, to reconsider, and to relaunch. Which is what I have to do.
In his book Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, Timothy Carney alludes to something he calls “infertile virtue”—that otherwise successful elders somehow lose their nerve, out of a fear of demonstrating any kind of moral commitment that might convey judgment, and so shortchange their kids.
Denying their kids wisdom that, paradoxically, helped their parents succeed. We can’t do that. We can’t be afraid to be assertively, proudly, emphatically people of faith. Too much of that puts others down and is wrong. But not enough of it means we leave our kids thinking it doesn’t, shouldn’t, or won’t matter. Also wrong.
We are what we repeatedly do. We become our silence and hesitancy. It’s so tempting and easy to sit back and avoid any kind of engagement that regularly strays into difficult territory. But what lesson does that communicate? That I would rather you absorb what’s out there because I don’t have it in me to talk about it?
This halaqa is my responsibility. And a privilege. And a joy. I’d love for us to have and hold onto this experience forever, even if this chance to sit and learn only lasts for the few more years we have before they go out into the world. But we are judged for eternity for what we do in a life that endures only temporarily.
Because the worth of what we do, and who we are, is so much bigger than this beautiful world. Another, even more beautiful one is around the corner.
But we have to work to see it.
It’s my hope that Sunday Schooled becomes a thoughtful, shared, supportive community. So please join (it’s free to subscribe!) Every week, God willing, I’ll share updates from this halaqa (with the title “Believing, Doing, Becoming” and installment number, so you can keep track of what week we’re on). But not only that.
In coming days, I’ll introduce the boys’ halaqa, too. There is one other regular series, what I call Sunday Schooled For Parents, where I share resources for teachers, educators, and of course parents, like transcribed interviews with people who can help us handle tough issues as well as recommendations of content (like books) that parents can gain from.
And lastly, but only infrequently, I’ll occasionally share relevant news about my writing, including upcoming appearances and programs. For example, below.
Elsewhere in the Harooniverse: Speaking, Preaching, and Teaching
Here’s an update on upcoming appearances real and virtual.
I. COMPLETELY VERIFIED: THE BAY AREA, CALIFORNIA
On Friday, September 23rd, I’ll be in the Bay Area!
I’ll start off at San Ramon Valley Islamic Center, in San Ramon, California, where I’ll be giving the Friday sermon. The topic will be tawheed, the heart and soul of Islam, the uncompromising and deep unitarianism we are or at least should be fervently attached to. But this won’t just be an abstract discussion of what we believe. It’ll be a very personal exploration of why tawheed matters so much, what it means for our lives as Muslims, and how it shapes our place in the world.
Then, in the evening, I’ll be at MCC East Bay in Pleasanton, California, as part of their Friday night programming.
Taking place between 7 and 9pm, meaning we’ll begin with maghrib (sunset) and end with ‘isha (night) prayers, I’ll be talking about how our role as khulafa fi’l ard, as Caliphs on the Earth, is vital not only to understanding why Muslim unity is so hard to realize—but vital to realizing the thriving communities we deserve. I’ll make the case for accountable, transparent, and egalitarian communities, focused locally. And I’ll talk about how we can get there, with ample time for questions.
Come through! Both events are open to the public.
II. TO BE CLARIFIED: OSLO, WEST HARTFORD, NEW ORLEANS
Watch this space for more—virtual events with the West Hartford Public Library and a bookstore in New Orleans, plus an in-person event in Oslo, Norway.
This essay touches on this theme of passivity, although I think it exaggerates the importance and consequences of some factors and downplays others entirely. Still, there is something to be said for simply abstaining from the hard work of investing in religion—some of which, tragically, is because we don’t have the resources we need and deserve. It is my modest hope this Substack can help contribute to addressing that.