What Motherhood Means in Islam

The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) made it very clear what he thought of mothers. He taught that “Heaven lies at the feet of a mother.” Then there is the well-known hadith about the importance of mothers:

A man came to the Prophet and said, ‘O Messenger of God! Who among the people is the most worthy of my good companionship?’ The Prophet said: ‘Your mother.’ The man said, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: ‘Then your mother.’ The man further asked, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: ‘Then your mother.’ The man asked again, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: ‘Then your father.’ (Bukhari, Muslim).

With great honor comes great responsibility. These words were not said just to make mothers feel good. If anything, they should make mothers even more aware of how important their role is. For a bad mother could just as easily bring Hell to her children. And if children are going to look to their mother for companionship, then she needs to be the kind of person Allah commands her to be.

Both parents are necessary to teach a child what he needs to know to become a mature and righteous adult. And indeed, the Qur’an and Mohammed both stress the importance of honoring our parents. But because of the unique relationship mothers have to their children, they are in the best position to teach them one of life’s most important lessons: how to be loving and caring.

But a mother cannot teach these lessons unless she earns her children’s trust. That is the very essence of the bond between mother and child. If a child doesn’t learn at her mother’s knee what it is to trust another, she will have a hard time trusting anyone, even (or especially) God.

When I had my first child, someone sent me a card of congratulations. But it also contained a prayer that asked God to “help me to be worthy of the trust in those precious eyes.” I framed the prayer and kept it through the births of all four of my children. There were many days when I needed that reminder! It’s a heavy responsibility to be the face of love to a child.

Which brings me to Mother’s Day. I read an opinion the other day that Muslims shouldn’t celebrated Mother’s Day for two reasons: 1) The Prophet (PBUH) taught us only to celebrate two Eids and anything else is an innovation and thus outside of the will of God; and 2) Mother’s Day is a holiday established by kuffar (non-believers) and is therefore haram for Muslims.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not the strictest Muslim in the world. For one thing, I don’t know enough about what is and what isn’t haram. I’ve only read the Qur’an through once so far and I am familiar with only a few ahadith. For another, it is extremely difficult for me to suddenly throw off a lifetime of traditions and experiences and become an entirely different person.

But if I was to just use my common sense, I would say that the Eids Mohammed (PBUH) instituted were meant to be part of our worship of Allah and are therefore religious. Obviously it would be haram for us to celebrate religious holidays that are not Islamic. I completely understand why we’re not to celebrate Christmas or Easter, for instance. But what about secular holidays? If the country we’re living in has holidays that have national, but not religious, significance, what is the harm in at least recognizing them?

I don’t believe in cutting myself off from non-believers by insisting that anything they do is somehow unclean and unrighteous. In my opinion, the more we say to non-Muslims that what they do is wrong, the wider the wedge we drive between us. How is it possible to witness to the truth of Islam when we repeatedly tell non-Muslims that we can’t have anything to do with them or their ways?

I’m not proposing that we should accommodate ourselves to the non-Muslim world. But if we are to encourage non-Muslims to enter our world, where is the sin in showing them that we have beliefs and customs that reinforce, or at least do not negate, some of theirs?

Muslims make a special point of honoring motherhood. So do non-Muslims on Mother’s Day. So why can’t we see Mother’s Day as common ground between us?

It’s true that Muslims believe that mothers should be honored every day and not just one day a year. But by celebrating Mother’s Day, non-Muslims aren’t saying that they only honor mothers on that one day. What they are saying is that mothers deserve a special day of recognition. Is that really an attitude that is incompatible with Islam?

My daughters took me out for brunch yesterday for Mother’s Day. Can you imagine if I had told them that I couldn’t celebrate Mother’s Day anymore because I’m a Muslim? I think they would get the wrong impression of Islam if I did that. Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t help but think that they came away with a favorable opinion of Islam by the fact that their hijab-wearing mother wanted to share a special day with them.

After all, Mother’s Day is also about my gratitude to God for the children with which He blessed me.





Moving Closer to God

I’ve been reading What’s Right With Islam by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf lately. He has a very easy-to-read writing style without being simplistic.  He writes about our spiritual life as a journey of development as we open up to God more and more. I never thought of it in quite that way before. I just thought, Oh, I have to obey all these rules to show God that I’m obedient/submitted. But that’s making obedience the end, when the end is actually communion with God. A fine difference but a hugely important one.

Claude Monet, Bend in the Epte River Near Giverny, 1888

I read an analogy the other day about how some people look at a Monet painting and all they see are the dots while others see the whole picture. The writer said that’s like Muslims who get so hung up on the rules that they lose the sense of what they’re all for. They don’t see the whole picture.

Imam Rauf also writes about how some people will emphasize some of the names or attributes of God to the exclusion of the others, but that gives them a limited picture of God and prevents them from entering into complete communion with Him. He said that the one who has embraced all the 99 names of God will be the most blessed when he enters Paradise. The point is that when you know God so fully, you will be able to commune with Him that fully when you are in Heaven. (Imam Rauf also described Hell as lack of communion with God.)

It’s true that when we’re caught up in our own little world of human emotions and motivations we feel trapped. The feeling is almost like panic. I don’t want to be here, we cry. I don’t like the way this feels. Let me out of here! That must be what Hell feels like, only to the nth degree. But the more we practice the things that move us closer to God, the less panicky we feel. At least that’s the way that I experience it. My recent experience of not getting the jobs I interviewed for is a case in point: I was so overcome by hurt and feeling rejected, and so full of anger, I just wanted to lash out—I thought that would ease my pain. But it wouldn’t have; it would only have made things worse. When you do that, you’re moving away from God, not toward Him. You’re descending into Hell.

Why is it that I’m finding a peace in Islam that I stopped feeling in Christianity? I was worshiping the same God. But I didn’t know where to go from there. Islam gives you a blueprint for how to live; Christianity just gives you platitudes. Oh, sure, Christians have Jesus as a model to emulate, but so do Muslims. The Bible doesn’t address human nature the way the Qur’an does. Both talk about man’s shortcomings, but the Qur’an slams the point home. And yet it doesn’t leave it there; it’s not fire and brimstone. It tells us exactly what we must do to transcend the negative parts of our nature. It teaches us the absolute importance of submission and gives us practical examples of things we can/should do to enter into a close relationship with Allah. Again, the point isn’t our being submitted; the point is what is possible because we’re submitted.

Submission manifests itself in three ways: in our actions, our faith (beliefs), and our openness to God. Imam Rauf describes it as a progression. If we stay stuck in any one phase, we will never reach true communion with God. If all we emphasize, for instance, is following the rules, we’ll never experience God as more than a taskmaster. When we start doing what we do because of our faith, we draw closer to God. This is where many people stop. But there’s one more step: letting our selves fall away and all barriers between us and God dissolve. Then we have seen Paradise.

This last phase is a hard one to reach. It’s mainly mystics (or Sufis) who seek to go there. But we all can get glimpses of this degree of closeness to God. When we meditate on God’s nature, when we pray for others, when we lose ourselves in prayer, when we bend to God’s will, when we are overwhelmed by thoughts of God’s grace and mercy. These moments may not come very often, but, inshallah, they motivate us to seek more. The catch is that we cannot experience closeness to God just by willing it; we have to practice it.

The Transforming Power of the Ummah

One of the things I love about Islam is its community (or “ummah“).  It was the ummah that brought me to Islam.

Three years ago, I didn’t know any Muslims. I had all kinds of preconceptions about them based on what I’d read or seen in the media. While I didn’t subscribe to the idea that they were all terrorists, or that they all hated Americans, I did see them as “others”— strange and foreign and closed off to those who were not like them.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The Muslims I met were primarily from Libya. Considering the history between Libya and the United States, I did not expect them to be friendly. But to my surprise, I found them to be outgoing and open. They always asked about my family and often shared details about their lives and their faith. I was surprised that they were so forthcoming—some would say trusting—in their conversations with me. I wondered how they could be so positive in a country that has declared war, either officially or unofficially, on so much of the Arab world.

They soon made it clear that it was their faith that shaped their personalities. Not that they would have described it that way. But the more I learned about Islam, the more I could see the connection between Islam’s emphasis on loving and caring for your fellow man and the way that they treated everyone they came into contact with. I was amused when they said that they behaved the way that they did because it was their duty. Because it was clear to me that their behavior came naturally out of the way they’d been raised.

It is absolutely wrong that Muslims would like to force Islam on the world, by the figurative sword if necessary. Muslims do invite people to Islam (through the practice of da’wah), but in a very gentle way. The Muslims I came to know answered my questions about Islam, but never said anything against Christianity. They never said, “Your way is wrong; ours is right.” They made it clear that they wanted to be friends even if I never embraced Islam.

The Muslims I met invited me into their community  even before I became a Muslim. The closer I got to them, the more I began to want what they had.  And what was it that they had that I didn’t have? Their faith.

At first I couldn’t see how I could possibly become a Muslim because the cultural differences were too great. But getting to know actual Muslims taught me that we are all the same underneath. There’s no reason why what motivates and inspires a born Muslim can’t also motivate and inspire a non-Muslim.

And so I became a Muslim. And if I thought I had been embraced before it was nothing to what I experienced after I converted. I became a born-again Christian when I was 21, I answered I don’t know how many altar calls (where you’re invited to pray at the altar while you’re in a church service, usually as a sign of a deeper commitment to Christ) and I have to say, I never experienced anything close to the welcome I received after my conversion to Islam.

Everyone was so excited! Jubilation is the only word I can use to describe it. I was invited to I don’t know how many dinners, called “sister” by men and women alike, given presents of prayer rugs, beads, outfits and hijabs, taken to the mosque and taught how to pray, given books that would increase my knowledge.

That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a tough transition. Those of you who have read my earlier posts know that I’ve struggled to fit into my new status.  But my sisters and brothers have stayed involved in my life and are truly concerned when I’m having trouble. All they want to do is make me feel welcome, because they know that the real key to my transformation is their enveloping love.

Done In By Da’wah

When people ask me what led to my conversion to Islam, I cite several factors, but the one that really did me in was good old-fashioned da’wah. Some people think of da’wah as missionary activity, but that’s not the way I experienced it. I only had one woman give me missionary tracts, and that was after I’d already converted. (I’m not sure why she did that; maybe she was afraid that my conversion wasn’t going to “take”?)

The only time anyone even broached the subject of my converting was when a man I’d known for a couple of months asked me, “So, do you think you’d ever become a Muslim?” And that was in response to my saying that I really liked what I’d learned about Islam. By then the seed had already been planted.

The fact was, I’d been familiar with Islam for a couple of years, from courses that I’d taken in college. I knew—and had been quite impressed by—the Five Pillars. I had learned about how Islam was founded and spread. I was even familiar with the various schools of Islamic Law (Shari’ah). But I didn’t know what Islam looked like in the flesh. I had never had a one-on-one conversation with a Muslim in my life.

That all changed after I started working for a test preparation company upon my graduation from college. Many of the students who came into the center every day were Muslims from Libya who were in the U.S. studying to take their medical licensing exams. Since they had to study with us 22 hours a week for their student visas, I saw a lot of them. At first I was shy around them. They had strange names, broken English and strong accents, and the women all wore headscarves. I couldn’t imagine what we’d ever have to talk about.

But it was they who started talking to me. They asked about my family, my work, where I lived and where I had traveled and they shared the same information about themselves. In fact, they talked incessantly! They were so friendly, I soon lost my shyness and began to open up to them. I started learning their names and their faces. I stopped noticing their accents and found myself understanding them easily.

They occasionally mentioned their faith, but mostly in terms of how they applied it to themselves. They never once said that all people should become Muslims or that those who don’t would go to hell. If they had I would have been turned off immediately. I’d heard too many Christians say similar things and I’d always felt uncomfortable when they did, even though I was one of them.

I couldn’t help but become curious. What made them so kind and friendly? Why were they always so cheerful? And how did their faith play into it, if at all?

I soon found out that their faith had a great deal to do with their behavior. They often mentioned that they would not be good Muslims if they didn’t accept others the way they wanted to be accepted. (And this was from Libyans residing in an often hostile America!) They credited God with everything that was good in their lives and looked at everything bad as tests God would give them the strength for. They talked about accountability and humility, and patience and perseverance.

When I asked questions about Islam, they were always obviously pleased, but never pushy. But still, when I was asked if I thought I’d ever become a Muslim, I answered with a resounding, “No!”

I explained that their culture was just too different. I couldn’t imagine praying five times a day, learning Arabic, wearing a hijab. After all, I was an American!

Slowly, I began to understand that these weren’t the real obstacles. Yes, I had trouble imagining myself doing them, but the real issue was that I thought doing them would change who I was as a person. When I finally realized that being a Muslim would only make me the person I was meant to be, I started to “try on” the idea of converting. And the more I thought about the kind of people the Muslims I knew were, the more certain I became that I wanted to be one of them.

Along the way, I’d read a lot about Islam and Mohammad, the role of women and the testimonies of converts. But it was real-life Muslims who led me through the gate. And for that I am eternally grateful.


Reaching Out to the World

It’s one thing to witness to non-Muslims by being strong in our faith. We shouldn’t shy away from practicing the Five Pillars or being open about who we are. But how many non-Muslims will feel comfortable about approaching us if they see this impenetrable wall of  Muslimness? And how do we reach through that wall if we know nothing about non-Muslims’ hopes, dreams and beliefs?

Why did Allah make us all different?

The Bible implies that God made us all to speak different languages as a punishment for man’s attempt to reach heaven by building the Tower of Babel. Islam puts a much more positive spin on our differences. Allah means for us to learn from one another. People who have different experiences of life can add to our wisdom about how to live. I don’t think it’s incidental that Muslims are taught to seek knowledge. We should always be open to learning new things. And one of the things we will learn is that people are not so very different at the core.

It’s wrong for Muslims to think that they are better than non-Muslims. If anything, we are just more fortunate. To harbor hate or prejudice in our hearts toward those who don’t embrace Islam runs counter to everything Allah intends for us. Hate and prejudice diminish the person who holds onto them. The only way to make an impression on non-Muslims is to show charity and love toward them. Love is the most powerful force in the world.

What can we learn from the Bible?

You may think that I sound too much like a Christian when I write things like that. But why do we consider Jesus to be one of the greatest of prophets if we don’t listen to what he had to say? Muslims have a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Because we reject Jesus’ divinity, we tend to ignore his teachings. I know that Muslims think the Bible is corrupted, but that doesn’t mean that it has nothing in it that can teach us how to be better Muslims.

I was led to convert to Islam by a combination of knowledge and being loved. I didn’t come to Islam because I was afraid I would go to hell if I didn’t. In fact, I had to get over my fear of hell if I did. As a Christian, I was taught that the only way to God, and to eternal life, was through Jesus Christ. If I didn’t believe that Jesus was God and that he died as a sacrifice for my sins, I would go to hell. Even after I had stopped believing that Jesus was divine, I was afraid to stop going through him to get to God.

My conversion

But then I met Muslims who were secure and happy in their faith, who accepted and loved me even though I wasn’t a Muslim. They answered my questions about Islam, but left it totally up to me whether I would convert or not. And I know that even if I hadn’t, they would have remained friendly and caring toward me, because I’ve seen the way they are with other non-Muslims.

Non-Muslims think of Muslims as hate-filled and resentful toward Western culture. I won’t deny that there are some who are, just as there are some Christians who are hate-filled and resentful toward Islamic culture. But a Muslim—or a Christian—who is truly submitted to God isn’t like that. Submission to Allah means submission to His will, and His will is that we all come to Him. Anything we do as believers that causes non-believers to turn away from God is against His will, and therefore a sin.

Reaching through our Muslimness

Islam is simple at its core, but complicated in its practice. Sometimes I think that we make it too complicated. I know there are Muslims who believe that the simplest way is to follow all the precepts in the Qur’an and in Mohammad’s (pbuh) teachings. But what if you don’t know all there is to learn about Islam? You could become paralyzed wondering which way you should turn. Sometimes I feel afraid to do anything; it seems that the safest way is to reject anything that is not specifically labeled Islamic. But if you do that, you lose touch with the world, and I don’t believe that Allah wants us to do that.