How Might I Raise
My Daughter as a Muslim?
A Question for a Muslim Mother
Dear Farhan Shah and Sawera Tariq Mahmnood,
I am a Muslim like you, and, like you, I have a young daughter. My very conservative parents, also Muslim, have their ideas about what it means to raise our daughter. But I would like to hear your ideas? Can you share with me some of your ideas about raising a daughter to be Muslim?
Thank you for asking us such an important question.
Farhan is my husband, and we thought it might be best if I responded, since I am myself the daughter of Muslim parents and am a Muslim. I think you might like a woman' perspective. I am enclosing a photo of our daughter Aylin in this post, and also some photos from Oslo, where we live I am sure your daughter is as cute as mine. May God bless you and your family and your daughter.
At the very outset I want to make clear that, as fresh parents to our four-month old daughter (Aylin Farhan Shah), Farhan and I are complete novices in parenthood. We believe that there are no ready-made answers in a world characterised by dynamism, flux and novelty. As we frame a healthy vision of parenthood, our vision and ideal will always be subject to modification, transformation and expansion. It can never claim a final, infallible character. We will always be “learning” to be parents, even when we are grandparents. At every age of our daughter’s life, what it means to be a good parent will be slightly different. Not only the world, but we ourselves, are in process.
Still, I want to offer some suggestions that guide us in bringing up our daughter. The first is to remember that our deeds count as much, if not more, than what we espouse. We know that as parents we possess tremendous power in shaping our child´s character and understanding of the world. This power comes with a great deal of responsibility. For us, it is important that our daughter sees these values actually being practiced in our daily lives, in our interactions with one another, with the surrounding world, and with her. It is not enough to give her guidance in terms of abstract teachings, we need to show her the values we live by, and hope she lives by, in our day-to-day living.
This practical approach I have learned from the Quranic scripture, a book which emphasizes deed rather than mere idea. This takes me, then, to your question on how to raise a young girl within an Islamic context. I offer four suggestions. Try not not to focus on gender binary thinking. Be "genderless" in your perspective. Let her be herself, not someone who fits into rigid stereotypes of what it means to be “male” or “female.” Second, always remember that a child needs to be and feel loved and cared for. This will give her a foundation for life. You love can help open her to a life of trust in God. Third, don’t impose religious beliefs on your child in a forced or authoritarian way; let her beliefs develop gradually by openness and dialogue with you, in concord with humane values of the Quran and your good intuitions. And lastly, never teach her to subordinate her freedom of thinking to patriarchal modes of interpretations and living. Patriarchal ways so often emphasize power “over” others, with men at the top of the hierarchy. Let her learn the arts of power-with not power-over, and let her respect herself as an individual. Farhan and I would say the same thing, if your child were male.
Let me close with a more general word. For us as for you, I am sure, a child is a beautiful gift given by God and it is our normative duty to help a child become a source of goodness for himself/herself and for society. This goodness takes many forms: a capacity for joy, for respect, for love, for wonder, for critical thinking. How we help our child become a source of goodness will be partly shaped by what we have learned from others. We all are infused with norms and values which stem from the society we live in and from childhood teachings that have formed our thinking of what is right and wrong. These norms and values can be good, but they can also be problematic. We often swear by them and at times, we refuse to change our views and perspectives even as they may need changing. In a constant changing world there is a need to recognize when we need to think for ourselves and adapt to new situations, even if that contradicts what we have learned. Our guide must be the goodness of God, not the norms of society, which are always but approximations toward such goodness.
This takes me back, then, to the idea of religious upbringing. First of all, as you bring your child into a religious community, there is a need to focus on the basic teaching of values, which in character are universal. The practice of the religion needs to find its motivation and legitimation in these values: compassion, respect, sharing, humility, creativity. These are the kinds of values are often found in any classroom door in the shape of a poster or in any religious book. Having said that, the universality of these self-evidential values are expressed in different forms, given their contextual background. For instance, the value of compassion is indeed universal, but how it is expressed depends upon how its interpreted and lived in different contexts and climates. I say this because what may come naturally to me, a Muslim living in Norway, may not be a blueprint in upbringing for you. The tools might differ, but the values are the same.
I hope this helps you. Farhan and I send you all the best with the demanding but immensely meaningful duty as a parent. Please do share your thoughts with us in the near future.
Sawera Tariq Mahmnood, Oslo, Norway