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Young Man 01: A is For Allah, All Over Again
Can a lesson be fundamental and still fun? In the first young man's halaqa, we find out. Also I will go to Chicago.
Welcome to the first installment of the Young Man’s Halaqa, a twice-a-week (inshallah!) adventure with the youngest, who’s halfway between ten and eleven. Like Believing, Doing, Becoming, this will be a regular feature of our weeks.
What Do You Learn and When?
The (high school) girls’ halaqa, Believing, Doing, Becoming, examines the life of the blessed Prophet. Our hope is that the girls (and for everyone else following!) are encouraged to think deeply about translating the blessed Prophet’s legacy into our own very different time.But it’s comparatively easier to do a halaqa that asks open-ended, big questions. At least, if you’re used to and comfortable in that terrain.
But for younger kids, you need to establish the foundation first, which is hard. (Critical thinking requires firm grounding: You can’t be a good writer, after all, if you don’t know the grammar.) For lots of reasons, some understandable and a few unfortunate, our generation often hesitates before that work. It’s a lot easier, and more satisfying, to “let’s journal for fifteen minutes” than slog through conjugation.
But if you can’t do the latter, the former is at best inadequate. Which is one reason why this second halaqa, for our younger third, took so long to come up with.
On Sunday, though, I (finally) started the halaqa for R, who spends his time between baseball, baseball, football, basketball, baseball, also somehow he’s gotten into cricket a little (thanks, multigenerational homes!) and then there’s what appears to be my and my wife’s major contribution to this constellation, Tolkien’s universe (we’re mostly through The Rings of Power and don’t you dare spoil it for us).
The task before me is: How do I help R build a foundation of faith that, all the same, won’t be incredibly boring? One point: I must harness the major strength of many children this age—their prodigious memory. This is the age when foundations can be laid, because the mind is more plastic. (Watch someone my age try to learn a new language and you’ll understand what I mean.)
The idea I came up with, and I hope it’s a good one, is to play with and on the Arabic alphabet. Twice a week, we’re going to learn three new vocabulary words from a master list I’m separately working on, one that’s already dozens of words long. Just three words. Twice a week. Six words over the whole week. Subsequent sessions will be review plus new words. It’s easy to practice anywhere and everywhere.
The first words will begin with “alif,” the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. When we’re through those, we’ll start with “baa,” the second letter. And so on. The good? 1) We’ll have an easy organizing principle. 2) We can talk about pronunciation, which is sometimes hard to perfect. 3) And we have a schematic that can give us a sense of how far we’ve come (and, as he pointed out, how much farther we’ll have to go.)
But I think—I think!—he kind of liked it.
Sunday night, October 23rd. Three words that started with “alif.” These aren’t in strict alphabetical order, because I needed for us to start with Allah, which seems to me to be the word we should focus on at the beginning of any and every halaqa. So let’s see how it goes; you might find it fun for your kids—without sacrificing the fundamentals, preparing them for the critical and creative work later on.
It’s fundamental to my approach to Islam. Not to throw the baby out with the bath water: Yes, sometimes old-school approaches were frustratingly consumed only with rote learning. They never graduated to the stuff that independent moral life requires. That the freedom to be or not be faithful demands. But the latter can’t exist without the former. The problem wasn’t the memorization.
The problem was seeing that as the end instead of the beginning.
But rather than just bombard him with simple, sterile definitions, I’m going to use each word as an anchor to talk about Islamic ideas, concepts, and culture.
My hope is that this makes R and all our kids more comfortable in Muslim spaces, more connected to Muslim beliefs, more committed to Muslim practices, and more confident in their journeys. And because it’s done in small bites—the Prophet, peace be upon him, loved the small but consistent deed and encouraged things in threes (we love our odd numbers; God, after all, is Odd)—hopefully it goes down easy.
So here’s our first three!
Well, this one is easy. We start with God—because Allah literally just means “God,” or “the God.” The important lesson I want to instill here is that in everything we do, from the apparently small to the apparently large, we should start by thinking of God before ourselves and anyone else. Is this right? Is this good? Is this proper?
I also want him to know that another word for “God” is “Khuda,” the Persian word often used in Urdu. As in Khuda Hafiz. I try to tell the kids (without, hopefully, annoying them to no end) that greetings that invoke peace, God’s mercy, or God’s protection, are small prayers we can easily gift each other.
Little ways to honor the joys of our daily encounters, to infuse our interactions with markers of our faith, our consciousness of God, and our desire to share this.
Sure, technically this means “all praise is God’s,” but that’s a bit clunky to me, and I don’t know that it really connects with a ten year-old. So the way I chose to translate this was as a kind of challenge. A game, even. He loves games. Kids love games. Question: Why do Muslims say “alhamdulillah” when someone asks us how we are?
Subtle hint to kids: Please say alhamdulillah when someone asks how you are.
What we’re truly trying to say is “whatever I’m grateful for, or thankful for, whatever I’m happy about and praising, is from God and because of God.” Or, “there’s always something to thank God for.” That absolutely doesn’t mean that we don’t thank people or that God doesn’t act through forces in the world in much of our lives.
What it does mean is everything starts with and ultimately goes back to God.
The challenge that I’m putting to him is to always be looking for things to be thankful for, especially when it’s hard, so that we can be ever more appreciative of and mindful of God. Even when we feel a bit crummy, say with an ache in our tummy, we still thank God. We still look for reasons to celebrate God’s goodness.
And praise it!
Plenty of Muslims translate this as “God is the greatest.”
I differ slightly.
I believe this more closely approximates “God is greater.” And, of course, that’s a challenge, too. Because if I just said—here’s a reference R loved—“Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is better,” the natural and normal reaction would be, “better than who?” So when we start prayers, for example, we say “God is greater.”
Inviting us to ask: Greater than what? Greater than who? Reminding us to ask, as we enter a conversation with God, is my mind where it should be?
Am I focused on Who I am talking to?
Because the answer is: God is greater than everyone and everything else. After all, He made everyone and everything else. Our faith isn’t passive. It’s active. We’re constantly looking for reasons to be hopeful. Reasons to be awed. Reasons to be amazed. Reasons to be positive. Even in the so-called little things.
And so concluded our lesson.
Three more words to come, later this week, and soon to be posted here. Accompanied by a fun conversation that took place in our most recent high school halaqa, which deserves a separate post. Those updates will keep coming here, so if you aren’t subscribed, please go ahead and do so—it’s free!
On the evening of Tuesday, November 15th, I’ll be at Chicago’s East-West University. The event is free and open to the public—come through if you can, and of course please feel free to share with anyone who might enjoy the conversation.
I have an important update from the latest installment in that series, which took place just this Sunday—that one should be up very soon.
In my excessive nerdiness, I’ve already spoiled it for all of us.