The Tough Love of Allah

Amy Chua* caused a sensation with her January 8th article in The Wall Street Journal titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” What caused the stir? Her assertion that the Chinese way of raising children is better than the so-called Western way. Chua wrote:

Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting. In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that “stressing academic success is not good for children” or that “parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.” By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be “the best” students, that “academic achievement reflects successful parenting,” and that if children did not excel at school then there was “a problem” and parents “were not doing their job.” Other studies indicate that compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately 10 times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children. By contrast, Western kids are more likely to participate in sports teams.

The sample she’s referring to is too small to be statistically significant, but her point is well taken. Western parents do tend to be more lenient and more concerned about damaging their children’s fragile egos. But what many (undoubtedly Western) parents objected to in Chua’s account of her child-raising techniques is how brutal they seem to be. But Chua defends her actions this way:

Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.

While I, too, think she goes overboard, I can see her point. She practices what used to be called “tough love” and it struck me that her way of dealing with her children is a lot like the way Allah deals with us. He does not coddle us, but requires us to strive to be the best we can be. In contrast, Christianity may seem more forgiving of our faults, but does it really do its adherents any favors?

It’s not that Christians don’t think that they have to be good people, but when you’re constantly told that you’re okay just as you are, what’s your incentive to improve? Muslims believe that Allah is more demanding than that.

We can’t plead not guilty on the basis of our sinful nature, because Islam teaches us that we’re not born sinful. Christianity tells us that our only hope lies in Jesus and what he did for us on the cross (sacrificing himself in our place). Islam says that our hope lies partly in ourselves because Allah made us capable of improvement. If we become deserving of Jannah, it’s not because of what He did for us, but because of what we do for ourselves.

That doesn’t mean that we can improve ourselves without His help any more than a child can improve without guidance and discipline. Nor does it mean that Allah doesn’t love us. Amy Chua says that she loves her children and they know it. But they also know that they’re going to be held to high standards. Why? Because their mother believes that they can meet them.

Some people reacted negatively to Chua’s child-raising techniques because they think she withholds her love from her children in order to make them perform. In the same way, some non-Muslims think that Allah withholds His love from us until we are good enough to deserve it. But that’s not what the Qur’an says. He always loves us, even though He is not always pleased with us. But He also believes in us, so much so that He made the angels bow down to Adam.

One reason I was attracted to Islam was because I didn’t think Christianity expected as much from me as it should have. Deep inside myself, I knew I was capable of being a much better person, but my religion didn’t demand that I perform according to my capabilities. I was told that I didn’t have to worry about Hell because Jesus took on the punishment I deserved when he died on the cross. (Actually, Christianity is contradictory on this point because the Bible says that we are to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” [Philippians 2:12] and that “faith without works is dead” [James 2:17].)

By contrast, Islam is very clear: We have to have faith in Allah but we’re not “saved” by that alone. We must strive, with His help and guidance, to be what He calls us to be.

That might be tough love, but it’s the kind of love that inspires me.

*Chua is also the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother in which she expounds on her parenting style.

2 Replies to “The Tough Love of Allah”

  1. That is a great analogy! I totally agree…I must salute you for having a mind constantly at work. I read that article but you extracted so much from it that I did

    1. Thank you, Jnana! I suppose another reason I gravitated to Islam is that I am a very undisciplined person and I recognized that I need more structure in my life. Islam certainly gives you that! I still find it difficult to live up to Allah’s expectations, but then don’t we all? At least Allah never deserts us!

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