Muslim Voices: Raising a Muslim Child Today
Editor’s Note: On February 18, Ping Chong+Company brings the interview-based theater work Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity to Ann Arbor. This interview-based theater production, part of Chong’s 25-year series entitled Undesirable Elements, explores the diverse experiences of young Muslim New Yorkers who came of age in post-9/11 New York City at a time of increasing Islamophobia. Participants come from a range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds and include young men and women who reflect a range of Muslim identities: those who converted to Islam, those who were raised Muslim but have since left the faith, those who identify as “secular” or “culturally” Muslim, and those who are observant on a daily basis. Beyond Sacred illuminates the daily lives of Muslim Americans in an effort to work toward greater communication and understanding between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.
This post is a part of a series of posts and interviews exploring Muslim identity on U-M campus.
Nama Khalil, the author of this essay, is a photographer and PhD candidate in Anthropology at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is currently working on a photo-essay about Muslim American mothers and their children.
We had just finished dinner and gone into the living room. I was sitting on our red leather sofa speaking with my husband’s Muslim colleague while he was making tea in the kitchen. One conversation topic led to the next: from the Olympics, to the new Idris Elba movie, and finally the elections. I found myself blankly staring at my husband as he walked towards us holding a tray with a grey kettle and three empty glasses and said, “It’s a bad time to be Muslim in this country,”
“It always feels that way during election season. Besides it’s not easy being a minority in America,” our guest noted.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to live in a Muslim majority country and have your kids be Muslim than raising your kids here where they aren’t welcome…I mean, how can a place be your home when you are made to feel so uneasy about who you are?” My husband responded calmly while pouring the tea into short Turkish cups.
“Because this is home,” I countered. “Besides, it doesn’t matter where you are, you need a supportive and nourishing Muslim community to be able to raise Muslim kids and it’s a myth to assume that this only exists in the Muslim world…” my voice trailing off as I thought about what he said.
When I was pregnant, my husband and I discussed how we would raise our children Muslim. At that time, it meant nourishing their connection with the divine by teaching them to love praying, fasting, and giving charity. We wanted their names to be part of their Muslim identity, and so we named our daughter Safa, a name from the Quran that means purity, and is also the name of a sacred mountain that is part of Islamic history. For her nursery, I painted a mural of wildlife animals, to surround her with some of God’s creation, and a tree with the ninety-nine names of God shaped as leaves.
For her library, I carefully selected books that showcased the diversity of Muslim culture: Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, A Muslim Book of Colors, Stories from the Quran, books that teach God consciousness: Illyas and Duck search for Allah, A Picnic of Poems: Allah’s Green Garden, and an illustrated book about the Prophet Muhammed. These books are shelved next to American classics by Shel Silverstein and Dr Seuss—books from my childhood. I focused my energy on building her a spiritual sanctuary, a space of childhood innocence, not ready to deal with what awaits her in the real world.
Since the birth of our daughter, conversations between my husband and I shifted to issues like: Why we shouldn’t buy her pink clothes, the minuscule details of how to sleep train, how many toys she should have (if any), and what method is best for introducing solids. We have been adjusting to parenthood, realizing our new roles—me, a feminist mother and the disciplinarian, and he, the doting father who spoils his daughter. Meanwhile, I have been drowning in feelings of loneliness, anxiety, irritation, self-doubt, and guilt. I can’t explain why these emotions consume me, each feeling shifting into the other within seconds, while the pressure to enjoy my time with Safa makes me succumb to them even more. I haven’t had a chance to truly think more about what raising a Muslim child would entail, especially a Muslim child in America.
Thinking about raising Safa as a Muslim in America overwhelms me. This election cycle has brought out the ugliest side of the country, revealing and emboldening those who wish my family and me harm. I worry for my daughter’s sense of belonging, security, and identity; How do I raise my daughter to be confident, empowered, and independent in a society that might not accept her for who she is—a Muslim American? How will I protect her from those who blindly support the rhetoric of Donald Trump and Fox News and pass that along to their children? How do I explain to her that as a Muslim woman of color she must be careful because our bodies are policed and commodified? Will she stand her ground? Or will she reject her religion, culture, and me?
Unfortunately, for Safa to be accepted, welcomed, and truly “American” she needs to be what our politicians call a “good Muslim”— someone who assimilates to the values and customs of the dominant society, and helps our government fight “bad Muslims” by defending our country’s decision to invade Iraq and Afghanistan, say nothing about our ongoing drone strikes in Yemen (killing more children than “terrorists”), constantly apologize on behalf of ISIS for those who assume that they represent Islam, as well as turn a blind eye to police brutality against the Black community, and pretend that other minority struggles are not her own.
These actions do not embody what being Muslim is about. Not only does the “good Muslim, bad Muslim” dichotomy remove God from the equation, it ignores a vital component of Islamic teaching: social justice. The entire narrative of our Prophet revolves around eradicating injustices; he single-handedly changed the status quo and struggled throughout that journey. In attempts to depoliticize Islam and make it only about spirituality, we actually lose sight of our mission in this life. Yet, our political climate and global crisis has left me cynical and too numb to speak up, although it is crucial now, more than ever before, to find the strength to do so. How will Safa model this sunna if I have stopped following it? How do I teach her about active citizenship when I have stopped believing in it?
Our conversation was interrupted by Safa crying. I went into her room and held her tight, nursing her back to sleep while weaving my finger through her short curls and admiring her round face made visible by the glow-in-the-dark stars glued to the ceiling. In moments like these, I am grateful for the blessing of experiencing God’s greatest miracles. I still find myself apprehensive about her future, unable to maintain my unyielding reliance on God. I constantly remind myself that Safa is God’s child as much as she is mine, and that I was chosen to guide her, nourish her, love her, and raise her to be the best person she can be. So I closed my eyes and prayed. I prayed for physical and emotional strength, so I can be a good mother to her. I prayed for courage and strength, so I can raise her to be unapologetically Muslim. And I prayed for patience and energy, so I can work on making our home more welcoming for Safa.