Archive for November, 2014

The Blessing of Daughters

In Sūrah al-Takwīr, God talks about the ending of the world, when all that we take for granted as fixed and stable is up-ended and destroyed. The translation begins as follows: “When the sun is shrouded in darkness, when the stars are dimmed, when the mountains are set in motion…” It is only our imaginations that can grant us access to the point that God is trying to make, as the Qur’ān speaks to our imaginations. We have seen something of this already in the world – one might think of the destruction of Mount St. Helens, and from that experience begin to imagine what it would be like for whole mountain ranges to begin to crumble. This is a manifestation of ‘ilm al-yaqīn (the knowledge of certainty), the first of three levels of certainty that the Qur’ān elucidates. The Qur’ān informs us of the inevitable destruction of the Earth, a fact confirmed by geological and cosmological science, and thus we arrive at a mental state of certainty where we do not doubt this information. But we need to move beyond the realm of knowledge to the realm of imagination, for the eye of the heart can also begin to see these things in more vivid detail, and thus bring us closer to the next level of certainty known as ‘ayn al-yaqīn (the eye of certainty). But if our hearts are rusted over or hardened, then these things will remain mere words on a page, or mere sounds recited by our lips. Our inner eye will not begin to witness these realities until it is too late for that witnessing to be of any benefit to us. So we gather in religious gatherings for precisely this purpose – to nourish our hearts. We do so, so that when we leave these sacred times, and go back to our everyday lives with our everyday concerns and our everyday behaviors, we do so with hearts that are open to the manifestations of the Real (al-Ḥaqq) that are always ever-present before us, but which we struggle to see, as through a glass darkly.

In the midst of this tremendous scene, where the stage upon which we have enacted the dramas of our lives begins to dissolve back into nothingness, God mentions one sin. The commentators of the Qur’ān, the mufassirūn, tell us that the placement of this sin amidst the destruction of the world is an indication of its immense gravity. This sin is so grave, that its effects remain without diminishing or being distorted, even unto the end of time, after all that we build our lives upon has vanished into thin air. God says:

“And when the baby girl who is buried alive is asked, for what sin she was killed” (81.8-9)

Burying baby girls alive, a sin that still exists in various parts of the world, is of such gravity that God chose to mention it in this context. Al-ḥamdu li’llāh, the advent of the life and message of Prophet Muḥammad (may peace and blessings be upon him and his family) brought about a destruction of this practice in the Arabian peninsula, but this work still remains unfinished on a global scale. According to the documentary film, “It’s A Girl,” there are more female infanticides every year in India and China than the total number of females born in the United States. But in order for us to continue this prophetic work, we have to go even deeper. The Muslim is not content with just avoiding the gravest of outward sins – we want to know the root cause, the diseases of our hearts that make it possible for human beings to kill, humiliate, one-up, rape, degrade, debase, oppress, or exploit other servants of God, other human beings just like them.

Why was it that these little girls in the time of jāhilīya (the pre-Islamic period, lit. “ignorance”) were killed? Was it for any other reason than that they were girls? Was it for any other reason that, when the child was born, the hopeful anticipation of having a son quickly dissolved into shame and sadness at the birth of a daughter? Burying them alive was only the most visible aspect of the sin – at its root was a devaluing of the life and worth of daughters. When we look at human history, we see that, in general, men are more valued in society than women. It is a sad and painful truth to acknowledge, and we must constantly reaffirm that part of the mission of the Prophet Muḥammad (peace and blessings be upon him and his family) was to combat this tendency. But the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him and his family) did not simply outlaw shameful cultural practices – he demonstrated the means to uproot them completely. He spoke very frankly about his love for his own daughters. In Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, in the chapter on the merits of Fāṭima, he states “…my daughter is part of me. He who disturbs her in fact disturbs me, and he who offends her in fact offends me.” His love for her was so great that his heart was filled with empathy. He wanted to know her struggles and challenges and joys and hopes, as any parent should do so for their child. He let her know that he was on her side in the trials of life. In this way, he demonstrated to us that loving our daughters is not simply something that is done through feeding them, putting a roof over their head, and trying to find them a good husband. It is through having a deep emotional connection with them, so that they truly feel understood and supported by their parents.

In addition to demonstrating for us an exalted love of a parent for their daughter, the Prophet Muḥammad (peace and blessings be upon him and his family) also provided us with many hadiths where he encouraged having daughters. In Imām al-Bukhari’s book al-Adab al-Mufrad, it states that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him and his family) said, “There is no Muslim who has two daughters and takes good care of them but that he will enter the Garden.” It is not often remembered that, by mentioning two daughters, he is in fact encouraging the parents who have only one daughter to hope for a second! Daughters are gifts from God that God gives to those God intends good for, for they can lead one to Heaven if they are appreciated, loved, and nurtured in the best of ways.

For 6 years I worked as a Muslim chaplain at two different Ivy League universities. In that time, I helped raise the sons and daughters of the American Muslim community. They came to me with their deepest hopes and fears, at the threshold of adulthood and independence, having left their parents’ homes behind. I did my best to be there for them, and help them through these crucial years. It was challenging and rewarding work, but the most challenging thing that I consistently dealt with was learning from young women about how their parents mistreated them. Sometimes it involved physical violence, something which leaves scars on the psyche of a person for their whole life, and is completely unjustifiable. It is proof enough to know what is right and true to reflect on the fact that, to my knowledge, there is no mention of the Prophet (peace and blessings upon him and his family) ever striking his daughters Fāṭima, Zaynab, Ruqayya, and Umm Kulthūm. So anyone who claims to follow the Sunnah would do well to remember this fact. But it is not just physical abuse that is wrong and leaves deep scars. Verbal abuse, even subtle forms of it, can be devastating. It can make a young woman feel like she is never good enough, and that she is unloved and unloveable. It can make her feel like family life is a trial to be endured, not a blessing to be cherished. In very difficult cases, it can make her feel like the choice is between staying in an abusive family or simply cutting ties with them for the sake of physical, emotional, or even spiritual survival. And in the worst of cases, it can lead to a young woman feeling so trapped that the idea of suicide, once only passing thoughts in her mind, begin to take root. May God protect all of our daughters from these pains, and open our eyes to the ways we may be subtly contributing to their pain, āmīn.

Can we imagine the Messenger of Allah (sall Allāhu alayhi wa ālihi wa sallam) belittling his daughters? Telling them that they are fat and need to lose weight? Telling them that they are not smart enough or good enough to do something they are excited about doing? Constantly fretting about why they are not married, as if their only purpose in life was to bring a son-in-law into the family, and produce some grandchildren? The Best of Creation taught us that daughters are blessings from Allah as they are, not as a means to some worldly end, and we should tell our daughters that we love them just as they are. We have to really know them and listen to them, so that we are not projecting onto them our own distorted vision of what we want them to be. This is tough work, and it is almost always not resolved overnight. It often involves unlearning things that have been ingrained in us over the decades of our lives, things that make us mistreat daughters without even realizing it. But that difficult internal journey is worth it, because we do so in search of the exalted empathy of the one who said, “my daughter is a part of me. He who disturbs her in fact disturbs me, and he who offends her in fact offends me.”

The sons of the family also have a role to play. In some of the hadiths about the blessings of daughters, sisters are mentioned as well, in part to remind the brothers of the importance of treating their sisters in the best of ways. Sons are often the object of their parents’ affection, and given more encouragement and leeway in how they live their lives. It is often the case that much of the pain in the hearts of young Muslim women comes about as a result of many years of comparing the way that they were treated with the treatment their brothers received from their parents. As such, sons often need to help their parents to understand, treat, and love their daughters as best as possible.

I cannot stress how clear it has become to me working with young adults how vitally important it is to have a loving home. If a child feels understood and loved within their home, they will usually have a natural and healthy love for Islam. And if a child feels abused and marginalized, then they will eventually lose their attachment to Islam unless they can find an alternative experience and understanding of Islam, different from what they were taught by words and deeds within their home. Every single day Muslim kids are out there trying to make sense of the world in which they live, and in this crazy time and place, we are going to need a lot more love and understanding for us to thrive as a religious community. Islam for us is not a given, it is a choice – a choice that anyone, at anytime, in any generation, can decide is not worth the sacrifice. Young American Muslims actively choose to remain Muslim in adulthood, or they choose to begin the process of leaving it. Sometimes they renounce their faith overnight, and sometimes it just dwindles for years until there is nothing left. May the Guider of Hearts make firm and increase the faith that is in our hearts, āmīn!

Some of the people I admire the most are American Muslim women in their 20s and 30s who still love Islam in spite of the fact that they have experienced an environment of intense psychological violence simply because God, in God’s vast wisdom and loving mercy, choose that they would be born in this world as girls and not boys. These are human beings who make me feel like my faith is a little stream whereas theirs is a majestic river, and I draw sustenance from their perseverance. Women who choose to live within the broad limits of the Sharī‘ah, as best they understand it, because they believe that Heaven is real and that Hell is real, and that if it be that they have to struggle in this life, they will still try to do what is right even when it sometimes hurts so much. Women who still come to religious gatherings even though they may have never heard words like this delivered by those speaking on behalf of the Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him and his family). So may these words honor, in some small way, their years of silent sacrifice for the sake of the One they turn to in their deepest prayers, the One Who they believe hears them and understands, especially when it feels like there is no one else to talk to. These women are our imams who can lead us to understanding our own hearts, because they are human beings with living hearts, for only a woman with faith like an ocean has the spiritual resources to undergo all of this and still hold fast to the path of Islam.

I hope and pray that the new generation of baby Muslim girls grows up knowing without any doubt or qualification that they are loved so much by their mothers and fathers, their grandmothers and grandfathers, their aunts and uncles, and that we all want them to flourish in this life. That they can be whoever they are and do whatever they want, as long as it is ethical and within the limits of God’s commands and prohibitions. That they were celebrated from the moment that they were born, because they were daughters, not in spite of it. And I want those who have endured abuse to experience relief, and ideally, with God’s grace, full rectification and sincere resolution. If our understanding and experience of Islam does not provide us with a way to deal with the traumas of our life, then it will mean very little to us. And so the Qur’ān and the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him and his family) often speak about things that break our hearts. They do not shy from death, suffering, abuse and trauma, but they always put the onus on the ones who are wronging others. Children are innocent, and they do not deserve to suffer because of our pathologies, because of the diseases of our heart. God says, “when the baby girl is asked,” which is a subtle indication that we will be asked about how we treated them. That little girl, who did not even choose her own gender, is blameless, and so she will have nothing to answer for when she is asked. But what will happen when the parents of that little girl, and the brothers, and the aunts and uncles are asked? What sort of hope can we expect to have on that day? If we were never willing to see things from her perspective, never willing to defend her, never willing to give her the love that she deserves, then how can we hope for mercy? The first hadith that is usually taught by scholars to their students is: “The merciful ones will be shown mercy by the all-Merciful. Be merciful to those on Earth, Allah will be merciful to you ( al-rāḥimūna yarḥamuhum al-Raḥmān irḥamū man fī’l-arḍi yarḥamkum man fī’l-samā’).” Mercy begins in our families, and if we fail there, then we will fail everywhere else. We will miss the meaning of the life of The Mercy to All Worlds (peace and blessings be upon him and his family) and err in our attempts to follow his example.

I am just as much to blame as anyone else. I can think of so many times in my life when I have failed in this test, and I grieve for it. I don’t want to be that way any more, and so these words begin, first and foremost, with myself. I don’t want these sins and failings on me anymore, because I don’t want any little Muslim girl to go through the things that I have witnessed and heard from the daughters of previous generations. Nor do I want them to experience any of what I have witnessed throughout my whole life of the many awful ways that young women are treated in the wider secular American culture. I simply want them to experience the fullness of love as it was meant to be, as a reflection of God’s immense love for them. God says:

“God is the One who shapes you in the wombs however God wills. There is no God except God, the Mighty, The Wise” (3.6)

God choose them to be daughters, and I want to be the first to honor that Divine choice. May I be forgiven for any way which I have contributed to a culture where young girls and women are made to feel anything less than the amazing human beings that they are, and may God inspire in me the wisdom to know the best way to being a part of the solution and not a part of the problem. I seek your forgiveness and God’s for any ways in which I may have missed the goal of iḥsān (excellence) in these words, which we should seek in all things.

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