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When The Doctor Told Me I’m a Genetic Dead-End
I believed that if I was supposed to have kids, well then I was going to have kids.
At least seven years ago
I always thought I’d have children. 2.5 or more. My future wife and I wouldn’t just meet replacement rate, but confidently clear it. And why wouldn’t I be a father? If I was called to do something, then of course I’d be able to and would actually do that thing, a naïve assurance about life outcomes not uncommon to many (usu. younger) folks convinced of their religiosity.
I even had names prepared—for girls, I liked Hafsa and Aqsa. For boys, Isa and Ishaq. But I was also extremely fond of Muhammad. What was arguably the most common name in the world had practically disappeared among most of my peers, to say nothing of their sons. Was it because the blessed Prophet’s name was too identifiably and obviously Muslim?
I was okay standing out. Or, at least, with my son’s standing out. How this younger Moghul would feel about this, I’ll never know. But I myself didn’t know that at the time. For all appeared to be proceeding according to plan: I got married, which in the world I came from was (a) just what you did—and (b) a necessary prerequisite to having children.
In other respects, though, I hardly made choices commensurate with the stereotypical post-Pakistani, highly-credentialed, decidedly suburban family.
I pursued a transitory, itinerant career, which would probably not make me the stable paternal presence young Hafsa and Muhammad would yearn for. I lived in New York City, where there was practically no room for kids—and what accommodations there were came at costs that, when balanced against a young creative’s income, were guaranteed to preclude Hafsa and Muhammad’s immersion in a range of enjoyable (and uplifting and necessary) activities.
In other words, my actions gave the lie to my professed convictions. All the same, for years we tried. For years we failed. The marriage failed, too, but before then, an astonishingly insensitive “fertility specialist,” an actual M.D., informed me that I was unlikely to have children unassisted. Given the costs, risks, and challenges involved, however, assisted reproduction appeared, she insisted, half-smirking—and no, I’m not making this up—closed to me too.
For someone who had made few if any serious preparations for the responsibilities of mature paternity, the news that there would be no children in my life was nevertheless like a gut punch.
How could that be—and what did that mean?
By way of brief background, I hail, maternally at least, from a lineage that made weighty demands on us all—our clan goes all the way back to Imam ‘Ali (albeit not through his marriage to Hazrat Fatima, may God be pleased with them both) by way of a prescient Iraqi ancestor who hurried towards North India shortly before the Mongol invasion of Mesopotamia in the 13th century. Ironically, of course, my last name is Persian for “Mongol”— Google translated, “Haroon Moghul” should be “Aaron Mongol,” which is a great name for a Wes Anderson character.
But that’s not the point.
The point is, I came from a family that took itself religiously and otherwise very seriously. I was also born with several congenital maladies and malformations. Taken together, that meant the pronouncement of infertility appeared to be yet another confirmation of the Divine’s level of confidence in me. Though the near and dear advised me not to think this way, I became consumed by the conclusion that I was a genetic dead end, too biologically defective to do the one thing every living thing wants to and should do: Continue.
I struggled to come to terms with this the best way I knew how: by writing.
I planned a book—Letters to My Unborn Children, which would be ruefully dedicated to my permanently unborn children—conceived of as a series of epistles outlining the things I thought I would have wanted to pass on to my offspring, had there actually been any. What I thought about faith and family, love and intimacy, or society and history. The times I came up short. What I learned from my shortcomings. Maybe, I thought, someone somewhere would read it.
I’d pass something of value on, if even I could not literally pass myself on.
That book, however, did not come to pass—for at least three reasons.
First, because writing it was a masochistic exercise.
Second, because I found it hard to imagine what to say to a child who didn’t exist—to someone about whom I knew nothing in specific, because that child was an abstraction.
And third, and more important than all of these, because I met my beloved, the woman who would become my wife.
About a year ago
Twenty-two years after first moving to New York City, I arrived in the Midwest.
During, and because of the pandemic, we married in an intimate ceremony in the stunning prayer hall of the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, celebrating with immediate family at home right after. Her family. Now, of course, also my family. Our family. Me. My wife.
And her three kids.
Two daughters: F, who was then fourteen. Z, who was then twelve. And a son: R, who was then eight. In an hour on an early winter afternoon, Imam Musa made me a husband. And, therefore, also a stepfather. Of course, I knew that was a consequence of marrying. I went in with eyes open, mind open, heart open. But there’s a difference between abstractly knowing something and then suddenly being that thing.
For those of you who may have entered a preexisting family system, you know that it’s very easy to think about in theory, and incredibly confusing in lived reality. For example. When the kids first met me, they called me “Uncle,” as South Asians routinely refer to close, albeit unrelated, elder men. Rather than convey affection, though, this only projected distance and conveyed uncertainty, as if nobody quite knew where I fit in, or if I would ever fit in.
But what else would they call me?
One of my friends, who incidentally does not have children, proposed “Shaykh.” To this day, I do not know if he was joking. (You know who you are.) I reached out to a few more friends, to ask how they’d navigate this particular situation. But nothing seemed right and so, for a while, I remained “Uncle”—even though, thank God, the kids weren’t okay with this, either. Which was the whole point. It was their decision, not mine.
One night, F confessed to her mother: she thought calling me “Uncle” was weird. And then, this same daughter thought it up. “Let’s call him ‘Abu’.”
Unbeknownst to me, this was discussed among the rest of the family, approved, endorsed, and submitted to me for my approval.
I may have crumpled. Out of joy, love, and the intense weight of the implications. All at once.
Abu. I would be “Abu.” Derived from Arabic, it’s common among South Asian Muslims. It was the same name I called my father by. And though it took a few weeks to undo one habit and introduce another, her children appeared to take to it quickly. Her children, yes. My children? Well, biologically, no. But something else happened over those few weeks.
I fell in love with F, Z, and R in something of the same way I had fallen in love with their mother. Quickly and completely. There were times they confounded me. Surprised me. Confused me. Definitely amused me: Teenage girls are many things, but the one I didn’t see coming was laugh-out-loud funny, which I hesitate to admit—mostly because Mama and Abu are in constant danger of becoming the butt of many admittedly good jokes delivered whiplash fast.
This happens when you are older, slower, and technologically not very competent.
But most of all? I felt so much love for my new family that at times it felt like my heart would burst. That’s how many people I talk to tell me it was with their kids. That they are suddenly and were entirely swept away by them, almost as suddenly as they appeared in their lives. After they’re born, sometimes. Or after you sign a contract. But it’s just as real.
Unborn children indeed. I don’t know that I expected that. But that’s how it happened. And that’s what happened.
And in so many ways, that’s a wonderful thing. But it only goes so far. Love can and does motivate me to put others before myself. Love can and does tell me to serve. But it doesn’t tell me how to do that. How to be an Abu. Just as importantly, it also doesn’t tell me what to do when love is superseded by frustration, tempered by exhaustion, or clouded by emotion. Love is not, in fact, all you need. This would very rapidly and very clearly become a big problem.
That’s Very Nice, Haroon, But What Does This Have To Do With Halaqas?
Now, it might not seem like the above relates meaningfully to teaching Islam, to passing on a legacy, a belief system, an individual identity, and community affiliation. But first things first. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll share more on my personal journey into a new kind of responsibility. That’s not because the halaqas themselves weren’t very important. It’s because you can’t understand what I decided to teach, how I decided to teach, and of course why I decided to teach, if you don’t know where I’m coming from.
That is to say, this isn’t just important to understand me. It’s important for you, if these halaqas are something you want to borrow from, introduce into your education, teaching, or conversations; I fully expect that each and every educator will tailor these to what their students need. Indeed, even the halaqa itself, over the first couple of months, became clearly inadequate. With three kids, two girls and a boy, spread out over age, and so much material to cover, my wife and I decided that there would be three separate halaqas.
I’ll provide much more detail in the weeks to come, but let me just leave this here for now.
For all three kids, we did a Foundations course, exploring the building blocks of Islam, the ideas, concepts, and beliefs without which Islam makes no sense. (And which, incidentally, are ultimately pretty unique to Islam.)
A few months into that, my wife and I decided to create two other halaqas; for the girls, who were teenagers, we created a halaqa that explored Muslim diversity, Muslim societies, and Muslim identities, including their own. We called it the PG-13 halaqa.
Since, you know, everyone present was 13 and up. (For someone who once did stand-up comedy in New York City, the fact that I had happily descended into awful dad jokes was deeply illuminating.)
We hoped this halaqa would help the girls think more critically about their heritage, the pluralism at their mosque, the challenges and opportunities of American congregations, and an awareness of the circumstances of the ummah beyond their experiences.
Not in those exact words, mind you.
For R himself, who’s younger and isn’t ready for some of this material, I came up with a course exploring Muslim masculinity. I thought it was important for he and I to bond, even as it is important to think: What does Muslim manhood evolve?
For this, I establish four key concepts for being a Muslim man, rooted in the Qur’an. The halaqa unfolds from there.
More on these will come soon!
Elsewhere: Two Billion Caliphs—Hardcover, No Cover, Audible Cover
My next book, Two Billion Caliphs: A Vision of a Muslim Future, will be released on April 12, 2022, which is also Ramadan. (Spoiler alert: Great Eid gift!) This time, Beacon Press is releasing the hardcover first, alongside the ebook and audiobook. Speaking of audiobooks, guess who’s the voice talent?
And guess who’s never narrated an audiobook before?
I’m excited, eager for the opportunity, confident I can convey the gravity and weight the book calls for, but also a little nervous. An example of my concerns? Pronunciation. By way of background: Throughout Two Billion Caliphs, I refer to the Creator of the Universe not as “Allah” but as “God.”
I am trying to make my book more accessible, the American iteration of my religion more relatable, and the content more approachable.
Of course, some names can’t be translated, for various reasons. Case in point: “Jesus” is of course not what the Messiah was called in his native Palestine. But “Muhammad”—we don’t have an English version of that Prophet’s name. (May peace and blessings be upon both.) Should I therefore pronounce the Prophet’s name, and other Arabic names, according to Arabic’s exact standards? Or is that too overwhelming to the English ear? Honestly, I haven’t even decided how to pronounce my own (last) name in the audiobook.
You see, in day-to-day conversations, I tell most people who aren’t from my region of the world that “Moghul” is pronounced “mogul”—because that’s not entirely historically inaccurate (thanks colonialism!)—and also because when I provide the actual, Persianate pronunciation, in which the “gh” corresponds to the Perso-Arabic “ghayn,” people get confused, scared, and vote Republican.
I’ve always been very particular about my first name; with the difficulty of the ghayn in my last name, however, I have elected to be more elastic and generous. I mean, if your last name is “Khan,” do you sit there and wait until your Anglo-American conversation partner figures out the kha? There’s a fine line here.
There’s a difference, as I see it, between explaining to people how to pronounce names they’ve never heard before, but which contain no sounds they haven’t made before, and how to communicate words that include letters for which there is no English equivalent. And I’m as guilty of that as the next person.
What I’m saying here is, I’d like Sunday Schooled to be a space for stories, for ideas—and for conversation and community. So, among other things, I’d love to know what you think. How should I approach the audiobook? How should I pronounce foreign language terms? Am I being unnecessarily obstinate?
P.S.: Although the book is out in April, advance copies will be available earlier for folks who review books, assign books, or organize book events. If that’s you, let me know! If you’d like to talk about possible book events, such as readings, talks, panels, or what have you, let me know too—April’s just around the corner, and the calendar fills up quickly.
P.P.S. See you twice next week! There’ll be an extra post, prompted by a query: “Why can’t we have a Christmas tree? Lots of my Muslim friends do.”