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Islam is About Creed and Deed
Tell them why. But please also tell them why you're telling them why.
I don’t think I’m particularly religious.
Actually, I don’t know one way or another. Because I don’t know what that word really means. I don’t even like it. It often sounds presumptuous—suggesting certainty where none can be assumed. What I can say is I care. Almost my whole life, I’ve believed deeply in God. For all of my life, I’ve been fiercely attached to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.
Belief in him led me back to belief in Him.
But Islam is about creed and deed. I’ve struggled with living my faith for the very same reason I’m so deeply in need of its balms. Because I’m weak. I’m lacking. I’ve hurt and disappointed God, others, and myself, more times than I’d like to try to count. One of the things that keeps me going? As I age, and maybe because I’m aging, the example of my parents, and especially my late mom, God give her paradise, shines ever brighter.
Except here’s the thing: I think less about what she said—in fact, that part is hard to remember sometimes (see also: aging)—and more about what she did; I contrast myself and find myself wanting. As in: Lacking, yeah. But also: aspiring. Since I turned forty, I increasingly dwell on how she lived her life, and how she faced death, and wish both for myself. That’s not the only reason I’ve changed so much.
The other reason?
On a recent trip to Chicago, a friend, who’s also a father and a prolific author, Eboo Patel, told me about his “increasing kinship with tradition.” As we talked over scones, bagels, cold-brew coffee, and iced chai in his lovely backyard, I found myself agreeing, more and more. Because of the kids in my life, I see myself less as an isolated individual, and more as a link in a chain, which goes back fourteen hundred years.
And goes forward—well, how many years?
God knows. Ours is to try. Alongside teaching and writing for the world at large—which is good and fulfilling work, don’t get me wrong—I am now directly responsible for actual children. What’s more, I want to be. I love them. But when you’re responsible for someone, you’re responsible for them as people. And that, in turn, depends on what you think a person is.
If you believe a person is more than just a body, more than an ethnicity or a demographic category, more than their ancestry and history, more than a degree or a salary, if you believe a person is actually an immortal soul temporarily in the world, housed in a body evolved by God, then responsibility takes on a specific valence. That’s a big enough deal. Except.
It’s also at odds with the direction mainstream culture seems to be headed.
We’re moving ever more emphatically away from religion, or at least established religion. As America goes, so goes much of the world (including, if we’re honest, much of the so-called Muslim world.) That means kids—our kids—will have to navigate a world in which theistic creed (and pious deed) may seem ever more irrational, nonsensical, or even just irrelevant.
In other words, we’ve got an uphill responsibility. I’ve got an uphill responsibility.
What I teach F, Z, and R, about who they are and why they’re here, what constitutes goodness and what constitutes its opposite, must enable them to stand up to the worst impulses of our selves and our times, and not only that, but empower them to engage circumstances no one can foresee—or, at least, that I can’t.
That I might never live to see.
Not As Well As I’d Like, Actually
My wife convinced me to start this Substack, but there’s only a Sunday Schooled in the first place because of a question she asked me months back. A few weeks after we’d gotten married—Ramadan was almost upon us—she asked how I was doing.
How I was handling being a stepdad.
I confessed I was struggling. I didn’t know how to Abu. I wanted to be a meaningful presence in their lives, but I didn’t know what that demanded—and I was also conscious that trying too hard could easily provoke the wrong reaction. My wife thought about this, promised to get back to me and, when she did, said she had an idea. She reminded me I’d spent years teaching about Islam and Muslims.
Could I do that for the people dearest to me?
The kids had had plenty of Sunday school, but she felt their religious education was uneven. Great in some places albeit lacking in others. Because good resources are few and far between—and equally it’s hard to access those that did exist. Even just after a few weeks of wedded bliss, I was deeply sympathetic. Life with children was exhausting on a level I’d never experienced.
So I spent some weeks thinking about what she said and, soon enough, had a proposal.
Over the coming school year, a resonant nine months, I proposed I teach a class for F, Z, and R, for just about an hour a week plus some homework and a weekly quiz. The topic? The foundations of Islam.
As a new stepfather, I’d spent a lot of time talking to my peers, trying to learn whatever I could, and heard certain themes repeatedly repeated. Among them: That many Muslim kids learn a lot (relatively speaking) about what they should do, religiously that is, but not nearly enough about why.
My wife loved the idea—and we decided that, once summer break was over, and school was back in session, we’d start. We set aside about an hour every Sunday—or, at least, that was our idea. But first: A problem. Kind of. You see, if I was going to tell them why, I also had to tell them why I’d be telling them why.
If Islam Has Five Pillars, Shouldn’t My Halaqa?
When we sat down in the living room that first Sunday—it was the middle of an overheated August—I started by explaining to them that the purpose of our halaqa was to help them better understand their religion. To understand why. Why do we believe in God, for example? Why do we worship God?
Why do people exist at all?
Why does God ask us to do certain things—and avoid other things? But we’d start with this question: Why am I teaching you any of this at all?
There were five reasons, I explained. (I mean, in truth there are many more, but I also didn’t want to overload their brains and sour them on the whole experience from Sunday 1.) Reasons, I soon came to see, I’d have to repeatedly repeat, so that the full significance would inshallah sink in, not only for them—but for me.
First, I said, I wanted them to learn the joys of a deep relationship with their Creator, directly, as it is and should be, not only because it’s a way of honoring God, but because it’s what we need. We were created to search for and serve God.
His presence in our life enriches. His absence from our life diminishes.
And—as we grow older, and move through life, we sometimes face hard, scary, or just confusing times. Because we’re not always that strong. Their Abu included. We should know how to talk to God, because He asks that of us, of course, but also because we require His help and guidance, day in and day out.
It’s hard to coordinate consistently, but we try to pray maghrib—the sunset prayer— together nightly. Afterwards, one of the kids leads us in du’a, or supplication. I’ve noticed they’re eager to pray for people abstractly (e.g., R always gives a shout-out to Yemen and Palestine), which is great of course, but they find it harder to pray in specifics. Sometimes I nudge them to pray for themselves: It’s a way of helping them internalize this lesson: We are all flawed. We are all weak. We can all do better.
Second, I said, I wanted them to know the tradition they came from, whether they later chose to identify with it or not (and yes, I said all of that). It’s meaningful to know your tradition. It makes you psychologically stronger, less susceptible to negativity, immaturity, and indecency. (More on that later.) For parents and educators, this is really important, too. Islam isn’t going to survive if we pass on a lukewarm, half-hearted, superficial identity.
Given what’s coming, unless these kids want it and know it for themselves, it’s going to be hard to sustain piety. We’re not just raising Muslims, after all.
We should be raising Muslims who can raise Muslims who can raise Muslims.
Third, I said, my ancestry was now part of their identity. I come from a family that celebrated the study of Islam, from literature and poetry to law and philosophy. (My ancestors’ books—who are a part of their ancestry—are found in many libraries.) I hoped they would, in their own ways, extend that legacy.
Fourth, I said, we all must live in communities, and communities are only as strong as their members. We protect communities, but communities protect us.
In theory, at least.
Which brings me to the fifth reason. But before I get there, let me just admit I wish I’d spent a lot more time on these five reasons. I wish I’d devoted a whole halaqa to them. Asked the kids to take time and reflect on them. Talk about them. Think out loud about them. Because if you don’t know why you’re doing something, it’s unlikely you’ll keep doing it when the going gets tougher.
Whether that’s an afternoon halaqa or a whole life of commitment.
Speaking of which, the fifth reason is a challenging one. It probably makes a lot of Muslims uncomfortable, if they’re not entirely in denial about it. But you have to talk to kids about hard topics before they learn about them from people who don’t wish them well, or who simply understand them entirely differently than you. That applies to sex and intimacy as much as it does to religion and its uses and abuses.
The thing is, we often look for God when we’re weak, vulnerable, alone, or scared (or just so enthusiastic we let down our guard). Some people, tragically, use religion to take advantage of others, especially folks who are hurting. To ward off the potential for spiritual abuse—which is real enough, and can also become sexual or other kinds of physical or emotional abuse, if it is not already—a strong sense of religious identity may help shield us and fortify us.
It can help you see people manipulate, obfuscate, and deceive. Because people do and will. Maybe a deep knowledge of faith, along with other kinds of defenses, make it harder for that kind of criminality and immorality to flourish. I don’t know for sure, of course. But I was able to banish awful preachers from communities I was responsible for because I saw their perversion of religion—because I knew enough about the religion to know what it was not.
And that theme runs throughout the halaqas I’m teaching. You should know what you’re for—and why. You should also be able to say what you oppose—and why.
In lieu of a fatwa, a Christmas khutbah.
Later this week, I’ll share a reflection on how our family celebrates Christmas (and, in case I haven’t hit you over the head with it enough, why.) Hopefully it provides a helpful perspective and encourages you, my readers, to share how you live out your religious and moral commitments. (If you’re subscribed already, you’ll receive the essay automatically. If not, sign up—it’s free!)
Netflix and (Free) Will
“Easy for you to say. Allah doesn’t let you drink.”
In my early twenties, I taught some Sunday school at the Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts, the mosque my parents helped found. (Pay it forward.) Some of my contributions were welcomed. Others were declined.
The latter included my suggestion my high school class watch The Lord of the Rings together. Specifically, I proposed we’d pause, every now and then, to talk about how Tolkien’s and Jackson’s visions intersected with the so-called big questions.
Because that’s the thing: Religion is everywhere.
Human beings are souls. We are fundamentally spiritual. You can no more squeeze it out of us than you can suppress our desire for freedom, companionship, music, or story. The powers-that-be demurred. I disagreed. Why not encourage young believers to think critically, to examine culture creativity and theologically?
That’ll help them become wiser consumers. And inshallah thoughtful producers.
I bring this up because my wife and I recently finished (and loved)—yes, we’re late to the party—Netflix’s Midnight Mass. There’s some scenes of (mostly implied) sexuality, plenty of mature language, lots of bloodshed, and many disturbing moments of (super)natural grossness. I mean it’s a TV-MA horror miniseries.
It’s obviously not appropriate for R. Maybe not Z. But F, who’s 15? I don’t know. I think it would be a gentle invitation to some good conversations. (In theory—and when has there ever been a difference between theory and practice?)
Because Midnight Mass is one of the more compelling, thoughtful, confusing, frustrating, intriguing explorations of the complexities of faith, belief, agency, cosmology, destiny, and responsibility I’ve seen on TV in a long time.
I’ll also say, the portrayal of Muslims is surprising; if you do choose to watch, dwell on Hassan’s last appearance—and what it means to you. I know what it means to me.
I know we can’t choose what happens to us. But we can try to choose how to respond to what happens to us. Living piously prepares us to die piously. It’s a lesson I draw on in a future halaqa, centered on Rogue One, the Star Wars film.
My mother taught me how to want to live. She showed me, quite literally, how to face death. I hope one day my kids will want to say some of the same things about me. Links in a chain, after all. Beads on a rosary.
Neither at the beginning nor, God willing, near the end.