April 23, 2011
Dr. Aisha Utz on Nurturing Emaan in Children
1. Out of all the parenting topics available to write about, why did you select “Nurturing Emaan” as the focus for your book?
Bismillah Ar-Rahmaan, Ar-Raheem. I had read several parenting books from an Islamic perspective and found that many of them focused on similar concepts, primarily that of raising children to be Muslims in the sense of practicing the outward rituals of Islam. I felt that something was missing in these books, which was the inner dimension of belief and faith. Having lived in the Muslim world for several years now, I can say that the education systems are also missing this dimension. Children are taught how to pray, fast, supplicate, etc., but the teaching and actions seem to be void of any true sincerity or faith. It is for this reason that I felt that the building of emaan should be given priority in our families, in our schools and in our communities. We should be attempting to build a generation of true believers rather than mere foam in the sea.
2. In the introduction to your book, you repeat the call for a return to Islamic values as a solution to society’s ills. Please expand on this concept for our readers. What does it entail? What social ills affecting our children in particular do you believe this can remedy? What role does having Emaan play in these efforts and what do you believe is our job as parents in facilitating this?
The foam of the sea that I am referring comes from the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him. The Messenger (peace and blessings be upon) said, “Soon the nations will call one another to attack you, as diners call one another to the platter.” Someone asked the Prophet, “Will that be because we will be few in number those days?” He replied, “No, those days you will be many, but you will be foam, like the foam of the sea. Allah will remove fear and respect from the hearts of your enemies, and He will fill your hearts with wahn (weakness).” Someone inquired, “O Messenger of Allah, what is that wahn?” He said, “Love of this world and hatred of death.” (Abu Dawud, Ahmad). The main ill of our ummah today is just as the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) has described, the love of this world. It is due to this love that Muslims have been willing to sell their deen for a paltry price. As parents, we need to teach our children to love Allah, subhanahu wa ta'ala, above all else and then His Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). When this love and this emaan is in the heart everything else will fall into place. With love of Allah and His Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) comes obedience, submission, and strength; strength to face the challenges, tribulations and tests that come to us almost on a daily basis.
3. Explain the importance of emphasizing and prioritizing spiritual education and training over worldly education and training.
One could respond to that by asking the question: "Which would you give more priority to and exert more effort toward achieving: something that will last for eternity or something that may last, on an average, 70 years?" Please take notice that I used the word "will" for eternity as that is certain, and the word "may" for this life as there is no guarantee that we will be here tomorrow. So following that, the second question would be, "Which should be given more emphasis: something that is certain or something that is indeterminate?" Of course, this understanding requires that the individual have as the primary goal for his or her family the attainment of Allah's favor and rewards in the Hereafter, a goal that each and every Muslim should have.
This is not to say that "worldly" education and training do not have their place since working for and acquiring them may actually be turned into a form of ibaadah (worship) to Allah and thus ultimately a source of rewards. The danger mainly comes when the correct intention is missing (not done for the sake of Allah) or when prohibited means or forms of education are utilized and even justified in various distorted ways. We should be conscious of Allah at all times and make sure that our children have solid spiritual and religious education first and foremost and then we can move on to other aspects of life.
4. Strengthening Emaan is something that even the best of adults have difficulty with. What advice can you give for strengthening this characteristic in our children and connecting our children to the various pillars of Emaan?
Although various examples and suggestions are provided in the book, I would say that there are two main keys to strengthening emaan. The first of these is knowledge which is the reason that a complete section has been given to this topic in the book. I can say that for me personally, the acquisition of knowledge has been one of the greatest blessings in my life. It takes you to places that you could never have imagined, in the sense that you understand and see concepts and events from a completely different perspective (one that most humans are not able to perceive). It brings one closer and closer to Allah (subhanahu wa ta'ala) and not only strengthens faith, but leads to a certainty of faith that is beyond description. When one comprehends the complete, comprehensive and perfect nature of Islam and Allah's plan for His creatures, the only appropriate response is to submit entirely with one's heart and soul.
The other important component, I believe, is connecting Islam and Emaan to our lives, as I have mentioned in the book. We need to contemplate and become aware of Allah's constant presence and the signs that He sends to us during our existence in this world. So many people are sent signs but simply allow them to pass by without taking heed or obtaining benefit. These signs indicate to us that there truly is a God, that He cares for us, and that He does intervene and have an influence in our lives. The more that we learn and grow, the more we are able to perceive and contemplate Allah's signs in the Qur'an, in the universe, and within our own selves. As we become aware of these experiences, we need to share them with our children and use the day by day opportunities to nurture emaan within them.
5. From a psychological standpoint, what affect can not having a strong Muslim role model have on a child’s Emaan? What affect can it have if a child has a strong Muslim role model, but he or she is not the child’s parent?
It is still possible to develop emaan without a strong role model, but the effect is more powerful if a model is available. It is not necessary that the model be a parent, but a parent will have more opportunity to teach a child due to the uniqueness of the parental role and the greater amount of time that they will have together. As I have mentioned in the book, one of the ways in which children learn is by observing and imitating others around them. In psychological terms, this is known as observational learning or modeling, and it can have a strong influence upon behavior. In reality, however, we do have the model of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) "alive" and available as his teachings have been preserved. When one reads the ahadith, the seerah, the stories of the companions, it is as if they come to life and the "model" stands before one's eyes. This is one of the amazing aspects of Islam in that it has been preserved in such detail and to such an extent that someone 1400 years after the time of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) is able to benefit from his model. He is our spiritual model and will be such until the end of time.
6. In chapter five of your book, you call the child’s fitrah (innate tendency to know Allah) an “important favor for parents”. Please explain how the fitrah is a favor for parents and how we can best utilize this favor in educating our children.
This concept is basically described in that chapter of the book, but it might be best to provide an analogy here. Let us say that there is a university student who loves medicine and really wants to be a doctor. He has always been interested in biology and related subjects and just finds it so natural to study this major. When he enters the university and begins studying medicine it will come so easily and he will thoroughly enjoy the experience. If that same student were to be forced to study engineering it would be much more challenging and he would probably dread attending classes every day.
The same idea can be applied to the fitrah which is our natural inclination to believe in the existence of Allah and to worship Him alone. It is a favor to parents as it makes the process of teaching children so much easier, just as the medical student finds the study of medicine to be easier than other disciplines. It actually takes more effort to teach children to go against their fitrah. The favor can be utilized in teaching our children in two ways: 1) beginning the education of children at a young age, even at the time of birth, as the fitrah will already be present and 2) by focusing on tawheed and the principles of emaan as has been described in the book. In our day and time, Muslims have lost the importance of tawheed in their lives and have been led astray by various ideologies and foreign concepts. We need to reclaim the significance of tawheed, not only for this life but primarily for the Hereafter for that is the only key that opens the door to Paradise.
7. In many ways, the world we live in encourages the compartmentalization of beliefs. It’s okay to pray, but not while we’re at work or school. It’s okay to believe in God, but not okay to share those beliefs with others. How can we counter this way of thinking when it comes to teaching our children about Islam and Emaan?
Unfortunately, Muslims have fallen into another trap of the disbelievers in attempting to separate religion from life (secular perspective). This is tied to the early point about loving the dunya (this worldly life). It is important to teach our children that Islam is not simply a religion, but it is a complete way of life that is structured in such a way as to provide guidance on even the most mundane of activities. Our every action, our every intention should be for the sake of Allah and in accordance with shari'ah and in that way everything that we do becomes an act of worship. This is the only way that we can fulfill the purpose of our creation. When we fall short of that we are not completely submitting to Allah, but are submitting to other things whether it be peer pressure, fear of evaluation or backlash from others, etc. We need to submit ourselves completely to Allah and fear Him above all else.
8. For many women, there is a lot of pressure to be a “super mom”, juggling marriage, children, career, volunteer work, and “higher” education. What impact do you think this mindset has on the Muslim family unit? What impact do you think this mindset has on a Muslim child whose own mother may be burning herself out trying to meet this expectation?
In my work with university students, I have seen the pressure for young women to gain higher education degrees and to subsequently enter the workforce. Many of them are delaying marriage and the starting of a family in order to pursue "career goals." I have counseled female students who do not have the ability or desire to pursue higher education but who are forced by their parents or other societal pressures. They experience a great deal of stress and may suffer from anxiety and depression due to their situation. This is happening in the Muslim world and it seems to be yet another example of blind imitation of the disbelievers, who societies were destroyed, in part, by the disparagement of the role of motherhood. I believe that this phenomenon is having and will continue to have a major effect upon the functioning of Muslim families and upon Muslim communities as a whole. Any time that humans stray from the commandments of Allah, the intricate balance is disturbed and they are the ones to ultimately suffer.
Motherhood is a valued and honorable role in society and it needs to maintain its position in society for optimal functioning of families and communities. Children need their mothers more than anyone in the world and no one can ever take her place. This is another message that we need to give our children and we need to give our daughters the opportunity, and actually encourage them to choose motherhood as a lifetime career. This is not to say that work outside the home is completely prohibited as we do need female teachers, doctors, etc., but we need to make sure that our priorities are in the correct order. I am currently writing another book on this topic as it is so relevant to our current times.
9. With so much scrutiny and animosity being projected towards Muslims around the world, how can we encourage our children to maintain positive self-images and hold firm to their Islamic identities?
When children have strong emaan they will automatically have a positive self-image and a strong Islamic identity, so they go hand in hand. This is one of the reasons that the building of emaan is so important in our current times. With so many efforts to denigrate Islam, our faith needs to be especially firm to face the inevitable challenges. I recently went to Spain to attend an international conference on women's mental health, and had a taste of the negativity and animosity that others carry toward Muslims (one is somewhat sheltered from that while living in a Muslim country, alhamdulillah). One could almost feel the icy glares slicing through the soul. But with certainty of faith, the ice is quickly melted and turned to peace and contentment. The contentment of knowing that what you have is the truth and that no matter what they do or so they can never take that away from you, for it is in the heart. And that no matter what situation you may find yourself in you will never compromise your beliefs for any worldly gain.
This brings to mind the saying of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him): "Islam began as something strange, and it shall return to being something strange, so give glad tidings to the strangers." It was asked, "Who are those strangers, O Messenger of Allah?" He replied, "Those that correct the people when they become corrupt." [Reported by Abu Amr al-Dani, from the hadith of ibn Masoud. It is authentic according to al-Albani. Another narration says, "Those that correct my sunnah which has been corrupted by the people after me."] In another narration he said in response to the same question, "They are a small group of people among a large evil population. Those who oppose them are more than those who follow them." [Reported by ibn Asaakir. It is authentic according to al-Albani.] . So, in essence, we should be content and proud to be amongst the strangers as the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) gave glad tidings to those who follow his Sunnah and call others to the message of Islam.
10. What roles do bonding, love and affection play in nurturing our children’s Emaan?
I believe that these elements are essential in the overall formula. One of the things that I remember being taught as a graduate student in clinical psychology is that discipline can only work if a strong parent-child relationship has been developed. If that is missing, no discipline in the world will have an effect in changing behavior. I believe that the same principle applies to nurturing emaan in children. We will not be very successful in our efforts if we do not take the time to build a relationship with our children. Relationships are built through love, affection, bonding, spending time together, laughing together, crying together. Once the bond has been formed, children will respond more readily to the message that we are trying to get across. It is an ongoing process and one that requires effort and dedication.
11. In what ways do you believe that striving to nurture Emaan in our children can assist us in nurturing Emaan in our own selves?
I have discussed this in the book as well. I believe that parenting provides a natural opportunity to nurture emaan within ourselves. We learn and grow along with our children as we share and study and experience the wisdom and blessings of Allah in our lives. If we are to teach and be good role models it becomes necessary for us to learn and try to build our own emaan for the most effective results. This is ultimately one of the purposes and goals of parenting.
12. What impact has your experience as a mother had on your own Emaan?
Parenting is not an easy job and there will be challenges, but I think that one of the greatest effects that parenting has had on my own emaan is the realization that Allah is there to assist, to guide, and to reward any efforts that are made. This is part of the signs that were mentioned earlier and one sees it playing out in life. These experiences increase one's emaan and certainty of faith, and are the treasures of parenting that only few are able to discover and comprehend. These are the moments when Allah provides the opportunity to make hijrah to the Muslim lands for the benefit of the family, when He sends a good Muslim friend for your child or teenager, when He guides you to that knowledge which is best for your children.
The other element is to obtain the fruits of one's efforts. These are the moments when your child comes and tells you that she informed her teacher about an extra mark that was mistakenly given on an exam; when your child tell you that other students were cheating on an exam or assignment, but she refused to cheat; when your teenager who has been a bit distant in the search for independence, comes one day to stand beside you in prayer once again. These are the bounties that Allah bestows upon His believers in this world due to their righteousness. And the rewards in the Hereafter will be far beyond these and far beyond our imagination.
May Allah accept our efforts and grant us His Paradise in the Hereafter.