Separating Faith From Culture in Islam

I had an interesting conversation with my sister-in-law recently about an old friend of hers who had moved to the States and become a Christian, despite being raised in a practising Muslim household.

It made me think about what aspect of her former faith led her to believe that Islam was not for her.

I have come across a small number of former Muslims who have converted to a different religion or become atheist. The pattern I have found is often these people come from very religious families who have tried to drill the faith into their children. The methods they have used however have meant a less than pleasant experience around faith for the children. Some of these methods I have experienced while others I have witnessed.

The first that comes to mind is the ‘hellfire and brimstone’ method of imparting faith, also known as the ‘everything is haram (forbidden)’ method. This is where parents raise their children as Muslims but only within the restrictions of what they can and cannot do—mainly the latter: don’t drink, don’t listen to music, don’t talk to members of the opposite sex, don’t have fun, ad infinitum. Often the ban on doing everything and anything comes without any explanation of why we should avoid these things. Where Islam has forbidden or discouraged something, the Quran or hadith ( the life and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)) have explained why through clear reasons. Often parents don’t take the time to learn the basis of what is allowed and what is not. Even when they do know, they don’t explain why to children, making bans seem illogical and unreasonable.

I once met a young woman at a lecture about the virtues of various good deeds and the rewards you can expect. She was amazed at the talk. She had spent her whole childhood and teenage years being told about the punishments for various misdeeds, but no one had thought to take a positive perspective on faith with her. Because of this, she had become very demotivated about her faith. The lecture left her energised and empowered because she could focus on working towards good, rather than trying to avoid everything.

Some of the limits established by Islam have a factual basis in the faith, such as no alcohol or no sex outside of marriage. However there are many that don’t: feeling unclean when a young woman begins to menstruate, having to cover your hair in the house or in front of close family members, women not being given a choice regarding whom they marry, sons being given priority over daughters. These are all things which go against the spirit of fairness and kindness central to Islam, but are commonly found in Muslim households, causing young people to feel uncomfortable, guilty or mistreated in relation to their faith.

Much of this comes about due to ignorance of faith and often has a basis in culture rather than religion. While Muslims around the world have upheld the core parts of their faith, they have also internalised elements of other faiths or cultures without being aware of the distinction between the two. I remember someone telling me when I was expecting my first child that it was forbidden to wear henna—completely wrong as henna was used during the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) lifetime and therefore is encouraged. Another lady once told me it was haram to say my husband’s name—wrong again, as there is no basis in our scripture or religious law for this. It’s unfortunate that people are so quick to ban things.

I take the stance with my children that if something is not explicitly banned with clear evidence in the Quran or sunnah, then there is no reason not to partake of it. Funnily enough this ‘everything is haram’ attitude seems to have rubbed off on our four-year-old, who employs it when he doesn’t want to do something: “brushing teefs is haram,” “eating peas is haram,” “being rude to children is haram.” We all jokingly call him the haram police.

Another issue that leads to people losing touch with their faith is having to practice things they don’t understand. This could be learning the Quran in Arabic without any effort to explain its meaning, being encouraged to cover you hair or body with no discussion around why or being discouraged from certain activities with your friends – proms, school discos and mixed sex sports, such as swimming, without a replacement given. I do not believe children should be told to follow a faith blindly. Islam encourages questioning and parents should not be fearful that their faith will not be able to withstand scrutiny. We should communicate faith in an age-appropriate way—through stories, explanations when we do things and our reasoning for the way we approach our faith. If we cannot do this, how can we expect our children to agree with our way of practicing and really, perhaps we should ask why we are doing it ourselves.

For me, it also helps to set a practical example: reading about charity in a book is a good start, but it’s too abstract for children to grasp the relevance. In contrast, involving your children whilst you undertake voluntary work, take food to neighbours or visit someone in the hospital helps them gain practical experience of the positive, motivating and fulfilling aspects of faith. Clearly, positive parenting from a faith perspective is not for the lazy ‘do as I say, not as I do’ brigade.

I also try to incorporate relevant context with my children when we are discussing faith. So during the month of hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage, we share stories about the origins of the rituals involved. We share our experiences and take the kids with us to visit returning haji’s. We discuss the stories and events behind some of the gifts—special ajwa dates, Zamzam water from Mecca and pretty prayer beads. Faith moves away from something you are lectured about and toward a fascinating experience you want to be part of.

In this lies the heart of my efforts to share my faith with my children in a positive way. Instead of constantly warning and guilt-tripping them with great, long lists of things they cannot do, I wish to go back to my religion’s foundation. I am keen to strip away the restrictions and unfair practices incorporated into Islam by many and return to the joy and spirit of the early days of the faith: fighting for the rights of women, the poor, the elderly and all those who are vulnerable in society, speaking out against injustice, bringing a sense of discipline and responsibility into our lives, fostering compassion for the rest of creation, and living lives that are consistent with our internal moral compass of right and wrong.

I want my children to know that faith does not begin with a list of rules but with a relationship with their Creator. Faith begins through feeling part of something greater and finding a purpose and a clear path through life. This means having enough knowledge to know their rights as part of the Muslim community and feel empowered to make well informed decisions about their lives.

Perhaps I am stating the obvious, but I have seen too many religious families where the children shy away from the faith because of their negative experiences: lectures, bans, guilt by tales of hellfire and brimstone, emotional or spiritual blackmail or because they are just not able to see any relevance with their own lives. I deeply hope that my children are able to embrace Islam because they have experienced the pleasure, sense of brotherhood, empowerment, direction and serenity it can bring.

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