Center for Peace and Democracy (CPD)

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Reflecting on Our Roles as Fathers and Husbands

Ramadan is that time of year when we engage in a month-long process of introspection, repentance, and self-renewal. It is not only a time when we are to increase our commitment to performing various acts of worship such as fasting and prayer, but it should also be a time for re-evaluating all aspects of our lives. As Muslim men, this process should include room for assessing our performance as both husbands and fathers.

For most people around the world, these are indeed strange and trying times. For Muslims, not much else needs to be said along these lines. Perhaps it is only knowing that this world is the realm of testing and that in one way or another in our lifetimes we will all be tested, that allows us to get up every day and face the outside world. For many family men, however, rigor and severity are not a reality only on the outside, but inside the home as well. For such individuals and their families, the abode of peace that the home is supposed to be is anything but. Many such families are living quiet lives of sadness, desperation, and rancor due to family relationships that are simply not working.

Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) in a very well-known hadith was recorded as saying that marriage was equal to half of the deen [of Islam]. This profound statement by our master has spurred volumes of scholarly commentary over the centuries and from a layman’s perspective, the hadith is monumental in its meaning and importance for those who have embraced the way of marriage and family. Only through deep reflection on our lives as husbands and fathers can we begin to understand the essence of the Messenger’s (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) words and why marriage is awarded the weight of half of our lives as Muslims.

The life partnership and commitment that marriage entail should be approached as a spiritual undertaking that can be an important facilitator of individual spiritual development. Just as we are essentially spiritual beings in a human existence, marriage is a journey that—if approached as such—can be a rich source of learning and personal development for both spouses. As Muslim men, much of what we are taught about family life pertains to our roles and responsibilities as husbands, i.e., the X’s and O’s of marriage and family life. However, too often the spirit of marriage is ignored or missed. Too often, in the course of trying to “manage” our families, we completely overlook the nuances that make marriage and family so important a human experience. Often we overlook the patience, sacrifice, compromise, love, understanding, humility, strength, and so many other inputs that are needed to be a good husband and father. These are the fruits of the dedication and hard work that go into family life that help us to develop into better and more universal human beings.

Though certainly there is no magic formula for achieving a “successful” marriage and family life, selflessness, love, and service are a few key principles from the teachings of our tradition that, when applied, can have remarkable transformational qualities on our roles as husbands and fathers and subsequently, our families in general.

Giving Without Expectation of Reward

One of the most important themes in the life of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) is the notion of meeting the needs and fulfilling the rights of others without any expectation of reciprocity. It is well known that the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) actively participated in household duties such as sewing, cooking, serving his guests, and cleaning. The modern world often teaches us to expect reward for our work, time, and efforts. Even as Muslims, it often seems as though we take these same expectations into our home lives. It is common to hear about Muslim husbands and fathers demanding to be treated like kings in their homes with their wives and children expected to act like servants rather than loved ones. This phenomenon, despite going against the spirit of love and service that the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) brought to the world, has many negative effects on families. For one, the “distant father” syndrome prevents children from fulfilling their divine role as a source of love and inspiration to their parents.

As is commonly understood from the famous hadith that all children are born in a state of Islam, our scholars have told us that the greater meaning of this hadith is that children come into this world pure, and it is only what they learn from their parents and societies (i.e., the world) that turns them from this pure state. This purity of heart means that they are essentially beacons of mercy and love, a reminder of the endless blessings of the All-Merciful. However, the “distant father,” the one who would be king in his own home and God-knows-what outside of it, himself a product of rejection, is not open to this divine blessing sent in the form of his children. The child, in turn, learns rejection early on and internalizes it, eventually manifesting his frustration in a multitude of ways including acting out, rebelliousness, mental illness, oppression, or simply the inability to open up to others—the feeling of separation that typically goes hand in hand with illnesses such as depression and severe anxiety.

As Muslim men, we are supposed to be servants of Allah. A servant is one who does not expect anything from anyone, for a servant knows that he is in no position to do so. A servant understands and accepts the fact that he is totally reliant and bonded to his master, and as such, is in no position to play king. A willing servant is also one who is always looking to give, to do, to provide, and to love. This is the way of Allah Himself, Who gives and provides for all His creation without fail, even those that turn away from Him. Thus, if to give without expectation of reward is the way of the King, what then for a lowly servant and recipient of the King’s endless bounty and mercy? The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) was known to spend his nights in prayer to the extent that his feet would swell. When asked why he went to such lengths to please his Lord after knowing that he would be pardoned for all his sins, his answer was simply “Shall I not be a grateful slave?” This story exemplifies so many of the Prophet’s beautiful traits and his perfect servantship. It also highlights the concept of selfless giving—of giving out of love and gratitude without any desire for anything in return. If we as Muslim husbands and fathers truly love our families, does it not make sense that we should be selfless givers to them? Should we not be servants of Allah by serving those who are closest to us and thereby fulfilling our amanah (trust) by showing mercy, kindness, and love to them? Who are we to claim servantship and then expect others to serve and wait on us as if we were the King Himself? It’s something worth pondering over this Ramadan.

Living Is Modeling Is Teaching

The Muslim family should be based on the goal, practice, and teaching of surrendering the heart and subsequently all of one’s affairs in life to Allah. In practice, this translates into more than just blind obedience to rules. This begins with a real and living desire to be conscious of Allah and the way of His Messenger at all times.

Many parenting experts say that one of the most important aspects of being a good parent is self-awareness. Not only must we be aware of ourselves in the sight of Allah, but we must know and realize that our children see and learn from everything that we do. Often, I am blown away by the level of detail to which my own daughter mimics my actions and comments. Particularly when children are young, it is important to be conscious of ourselves because the most powerful teaching lessons are our everyday actions. Everything a young child experiences is an input into his or her development. Children are like sponges that soak up the entire world as it unfolds around them. As such, the gift of remembrance in this context is that by remembering Allah, we become aware of ourselves and our conduct. This, in turn, will be observed or picked up by our children as well as by our spouses and other family members. Remembrance settles the heart and brings peace of mind. The “vibe” this creates then spreads around the home and family allowing positive transformation to occur.

As the father is the leader of the home in Islam, it is his responsibility to set the social and emotional tone for the home and family. Leadership in Islam goes far beyond financial responsibility. If the leader is emotionally distant, perpetually angry, or closed off, chances are this will resonate throughout the rest of the family. Thus, the role of the father and husband as a “tone-setter” is a key element in the leadership of the household. I notice in my own home that when I am engaged in prayer or reading, my daughter will take interest and want to join me in her own way. Rather than get upset at her for interrupting me, I will usually try to include her in what I am doing in a way that is playful and educational. This allows her to take an interest in it as well, increasing the bond and emotional connection between us.

On the other hand, if we push our children away and become annoyed when they want to share in our activities, they will learn this as a form of rejection. Looking at this from the perspective of Islamic practice, if our children observe us to be angry with them every time they interrupt our prayer, dhikr or other religious practices, they will equate that reaction—and the religious practice—with rejection and hurt. We know from the Prophet’s blessed life (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) that he was well known for kissing, hugging, and playing with his grandchildren, Hassan and Hussein (may Allah be pleased with them). The Prophet would also accommodate them even during his salah (prayer), when they would climb on his back and play with his garments. The lesson he taught us was to accommodate our children, particularly during religious practices, so they will be endeared to them and not associate rejection or anything unpleasant with them. I cannot help but think that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) was setting an example for us of how to teach children to love Islam the same way he did.

“Fatimah Is a Piece of Me” — Seeing Our Children as a Reflection of Ourselves

When we read about the Prophet’s love and care for his daughter Fatimah (may Allah be pleased with her), about whom he said “Fatimah is a piece of me, whosoever tortures her has tortured me, and whoever pleases her has pleased me,” it is easy to understand the special place that children are meant to have in the lives of parents. In blessing us with children, the All-Merciful has given us each a human mirror. These little mirrors, in their role as learners, reflect back to us what they see, hear, and understand from us. As such, to be in tune with our children and their many ways of communicating, we are more able to understand ourselves and what we are “projecting” onto the world around us. Any parent who takes a minute to observe their child knows this to be true. From the perspective of living Islam, however, we should also understand this to be an opportunity from Allah to examine ourselves. In so doing, our children, in another one of their roles as a mercy to parents, become allies for our own self-growth and purification. We help them as parents and they help us to better understand ourselves. The key to profiting on their gift is to be conscious of our every word and every action when we are around them. Of course this is a tall order for most us; however, when we understand the importance of every moment we share with our children, we can begin to appreciate them in a whole new way.

This Ramadan, all of us as Muslim fathers and husbands should take time to reflect on our lives with our families. We should use the blessing of Ramadan to look at ourselves with sincere and honest eyes, and take stock. Aside from meeting our material and financial responsibilities, are we really fulfilling the amanah that Allah has given us in the form of our families? Are we teaching and modeling mercy, love, and forgiveness, or do we just see our families as our personal slaves? When we begin to open our hearts and look at things with a different set of eyes, we may not like what we see. Nevertheless, Ramadan is the perfect time to begin this all-important and difficult work of struggling with ourselves to clear our hearts of all but Allah. As the saying goes, there is no better time than the present.

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