Qur’anic Literacy

Our Arabic teacher in Jordan used to say about our class that we had a good “thaqaafah Qur’aaniyyah,” or “Qur’anic Literacy.” In other words, when discussing an issue, we were able to pull a Qur’anic verse as reference for the subject at hand. He said that he found that this was a rare skill for Muslims from Western countries.
20170522_133430.jpgI’m working on this with the kids right now, and I’ll share this as an example of some of the verses we go through. I am going through notes from a class I took many years ago with a teacher where we went through basic Islamic principles with their proofs. As I go through it with the kids, I go over the Qur’anic verses associated with each concept and they copy them in their class notes.
Then, they copy them separately in their Arabic notebooks as copywork for several days to allow the verses to sink in.
So in this example, the first verse was discussed in the context of subtle forms of shirk. The second verse was when we discussed major shirk, and the third verse was in the context of love of Allah as a condition of the shahadah.
Children need to learn these “anchor points” for their Islamic knowledge so that they are practicing their faith based on a reference point from Allah or his Messenger (sallAllahu alayhi wa sallam). It’s no longer just “this stuff my parents said,” but a living, breathing relationship with the Divine speech.
I cannot stress this Qur’anic literacy enough. I see so many children who have memorized pages and pages of Qur’an but you see in their eyes the complete lack of understanding when it comes to basic points of the deen. We cannot afford to have them treat the Qur’an as a mystical song with no meaning or value for their every day life.
If they can memorize Juz Amma, they can memorize a handful of verses that will give them a grounding in their deen. It will also serve to help them learn Arabic.
Adults can do this as well! I have a Qur’an commonplace book as well as a note system. I’ll be doing some videos on this soon so stay tuned. This was how I built up my own Qur’anic literacy over the years. Ramadan is a perfect time to start this. Start interacting with the text and marking important verses, and see if you too can improve your own thaqaafah Qur’aaniyyah.

real talk about mental illness

Let’s have some real talk about medications, specifically for “taboo” issues like mental illness. Medication does not mean that you are weak. Medication means that you were smart enough, brave enough, and strong enough to get help for a disease that you have no control over.

I get the hesitation; I really do. You see, I used to be one complaining about how “Big Pharma” doesn’t offer cures, but only creates customers. Or how everyone is “overmedicated” and “overdiagnosed.” You might feel like you are so enlightened and not following the mindless crowd to say these things, but the danger is that when you truly need medication, you will be blind.

I have medications for sleep, depression/anxiety, panic attacks, muscle pain, multiple sclerosis, dysautonomia, asthma, and allergies. Is my Zoloft (for mood) somehow more shameful than my injections for MS? Is it weak for me to carry Ativan everywhere I go in case I have a panic attack, while it’s okay for me to carry an inhaler for my asthma?

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You can pry my Zoloft out of my cold, dead hands.

I’m sharing this with you to break the stigma. I’m sharing this with you so that if you ever feel like you need to see a therapist, or a psychiatrist, you know that regular people like myself rely on these tools and therapies to live amazing lives.

I considered myself to be so enlightened about mental illness. I have a minor in psychology and I used to read books about mental illnesses to understand them better and develop empathy for those with them. And yet it took me five years to accept that I needed to do something about my own mental health.

I am now medicated and proud of it. The strongest moments in my life were when I decided to seek therapy and start medication, and I will never have any shame about it. I am here for support and help if anyone needs help making the leap.

“Self-Esteem”: an Epiphany

Forget the term “self-esteem” for a moment. Think of it as “esteeming oneself.”

I just had an epiphany regarding the concept of self-esteem. This was the trigger:

“A child increasingly needs to achieve tasks for his own sake, and gradually, his self-esteem becomes more important than the esteem he gets from others. He can begin to develop personal values and mental skills that support sustained effort, tolerance of frustration, and resilience when his initial efforts do not work. Sometimes the child’s values develop into a desire for prestige, status, reputation, fame, or even dominance of others” (Webb, et. al, “A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children”).

We think of self-esteem as the overinflated ego that results from a child getting one too many participation trophies or needless pats on the back, to the point that it’s become a distasteful term. Re-read the quote and see how this concept of esteeming oneself is best understood vis a vis the idea of seeking esteem through others.

We all crave for others to esteem us: to value, respect, and honor us and our accomplishments. To a certain degree this is normal; it’s when it becomes the sole motivator that problems occur. A person with self-esteem is one who is intrinsically motivated: she respects and values herself and believes in her inherent competence and self-worth. She doesn’t need to rely on the approbation of others, and therefore she is self-motivated and driven to achieve.

The person who holds their own self in esteem believes firmly:

  • I am an individual that has value in the eyes of my creator.
  • I am competent.
  • I respect and honor myself.
  • I recognize my own strengths.

Self-esteem is fundamentally a personal value by which a person chooses to put the seeking of external validation below the seeking of personal achievement and fulfilment. It is the self-respect that leads a person to eschew prestige and popularity in favor of relying on his internal moral compass.

In the secular worldview, this concept of self-respect and self-esteem does not take into account a creator. For us, respect of oneself comes vis a vis respecting one’s creator. Think of it this way: instead of seeking external esteem, we direct our esteem to the creator. His primary directive for us is submission. When we submit, this is the only way to honor ourself and esteem ourselves. All “self-esteem” must come from this fundamental self-to-creator relationship.

An example: When one of my kids misuses something, I remind them, “You are not respecting that object.”

Invariably they will say, “How can you respect an object?”

I reply, “By using it in the manner in which it was intended to be used.”

Allah tells us, “Wa maa khalaqtul-jinna wal insa illaa liya’budoon.” :  “I have not created jinn or men except to worship me.”

When we ignore this, it’s like a person using a vase as a hammer or a book as a step-stool: it’s disrespecting the purpose of the object. Likewise, if we do not live our lives in submission to Allah, by definition this cannot be self-esteem. We are misusing our bodies and abusing the gift of our creator. If we live beholden to the seeking of others’ esteem, we are also disrespecting the purpose of our life: it’s His approval that we crave, not others.

In the early days of Islam in Makkah, the value of esteeming oneself meant that the Muslims had to forego their desire for others’ esteem and instead, value and honor their own souls as believers. They respected their own selves too much to seek the honor and prestige of the Quraysh’s social system of idolatry. This is why Umar ibn al-Khattab famously said that when we seek honor and prestige in other than Allah, he will humiliate us.

In Jordan, my neighbor would discipline her son by saying, “Ihtarim nafsak”: literally, “respect yourself.” Self-esteem dictates that you do the right thing because it’s a form of respect and value to your own self, not because you want others to think highly of you.

Do you see now why external rewards, participation trophies, and over-the-top praise can actually damage the concept of esteeming oneself? Can you also see why riyaa’ (doing good deeds to be seen or to show off) is such a great sin?

O Allah, let us seek honor in obeying you. Let us honor our souls by driving them towards the purpose of their creation. Let us not be distracted by following the whims of others, and let us be those fearless believers who “laa yakhaafoona lawmata laa’im”, who fear not the blame of the blamers, but rather stand strong and tall for what they believe in.

What are we doing to create Muslim thinkers that can see past a secular mindset?

By now you’ve heard of the obscene statements by Amina Wadud calling Prophet Ibrahim a “dead beat dad” because he left his wife and infant in the desert under God’s own command.

I don’t need to waste your time refuting this statement or discussing what a piece of work Wadud is. But don’t pat yourself on the back, either.

What we do need to talk about are the ways that we, well meaning teachers and parents, allow for this type of thinking to evolve. We are unwittingly sending our own children on this destructive path if we do not make major reforms in our pedagogy.

You may recall my discussion on children’s literature and secular thinking (refresh your memory here: http://bit.ly/2pNh023)

This early stage of life is where the problem starts–it’s when a child or youth learns about the world in terms of what she can see and think about. She’s not reading stories about relying on God’s plan, she’s reading stories that are devoid of any mention of God. She’s studying science texts that describe natural phenomena without delving into the creator of those phenomena. The student learns to be an analytical thinker, someone who can look at the world around him and logically analyze issues from language, literature, to science and sociology.

We think that a once-a-day Islamic Studies class is enough to remedy this, provided the child is privileged enough to be in an Islamic School.

We are telling this child to think, to analyze, to make inferences, to use “critical thinking” and be an independent thinker, and yet we haven’t given him the proper tools with which to do this within a theological framework.

We have enculturated the child in a completely secular humanist framework, so when he reads the Qur’an, he’s got those secular humanist lenses on. We prioritized this paradigm his whole academic life–is it any wonder that some of these kids completely lose the plot and grow up to be of the same mindset of the Amina Waduds of the world?

Do we think that we are so intellectually and spiritually superior that we have somehow inoculated our children from this mindset with little to no effort on our part? Can we possibly be this naive? Are a few sessions a week of an “Islamic Studies class” that is essentially fun-and-games time, plus the memorization of surahs they don’t know the meaning of, enough to create a whole worldview by which the student can then understand everything around her?

Meanwhile, they are receiving secular educations that will enable them to enter college and do any field of their choosing.

And lest you think that this secular education is merely for the purposes of employment, you must understand that everything has a worldview attached. And nature abhors a vacuum. If you fail to fill the mind of the child with the Islamic worldview and integrate this worldview into every single subject, then the natural consequence will be for the child to adopt secular norms and attitudes towards the world.

I tell my kids that our Islamic lens is like a pair of sunglasses that we have on all the time that affects how we perceive the world around us. This lens is comprised of the teachings of the Qur’an and Sunnah, and everything that we hear, read, or see passes through this filter before it reaches us.

Where people go wrong, I try to explain to them, is when they put on other glasses first. It might be the glasses of their own cultural upbringing. It might be the ideas derived from their own logical analysis. Then these people will go read the Qur’an and Sunnah with the wrong glasses on, and start to understand the Qur’an according to their own preconceived notions.

I think most of us understand this analogy and yet what we lack is application, on the individual, family, and community level. This is beyond the scope of this post, but I hope to start reflecting on this more as an educator and parent. How do you propose we approach children’s education so that they do not develop a divided mindset of religious on one side, secular on the other?

Follow other posts at: #meriumnotesandthoughts andthemuslimeducator.wordpress.com.

Literature, Existentialism, Secularism, and all that fun stuff….

The topic of secularism and kids literature is one that is near and dear to me, so this is another area I’ll be delving into…
TL;DR [too long; didn’t read]: The secret to what kids’ fights, YA literature, and the Big Questions of Life have in common (this is not really a fair tl;dr because I’m not going to give you the spoiler)
My kids AB and Z get into awful fights over the stupidest things.
AB will insist that Z has done something, she will roundly declare she hasn’t, and eventually she comes sobbing to me, saying, “He says I did this but I didn’t!” Or vice versa. Or perhaps they are dickering over the exact nature of what went down. You would think they were members of the British Parliament brawling, the way they go at it.
Invariably, I repeat a mantra over and over again: “It doesn’t matter who says what—You can’t change reality.”
I try to get Z to understand that if she really didn’t say “AB is a stupid piece of poop,” it doesn’t matter how much her brother claims she did it. “His saying so doesn’t change the reality,” I tell her.
There’s a common thread you see in children’s and young adult novels as well as movies, and that is a certain level of existential wondering. “Do you ever think about what’s out there?” characters will muse. Angsty lovelorn teenagers will theorize over what happens after death (before one of them tragically dies). The authors will somehow remind us of the mystery of it all, the randomness, often with a nihilistic and/or secular humanistic underpinning.
This thread continues into adult literature– “When Breath Becomes Air” is a bestselling book by the late Paul Kalanthi. In it, he grapples with the big questions of life and death in the face of his impending death due to cancer.
To this I say the same thing, and I endeavor to pass this message on to my children in every aspect of life: It doesn’t matter what people say, the reality does not change.
It sounds nice to pontificate over the deep, dark, existential questions (preferably lying under the stars with your crush, Young Adult novel-style). Uncertainty is sexy, whereas conviction is passe.
Except—those discussions are just words. And remember: words don’t make reality. The world will keep on turning according to a predetermined plan no matter what we say about it.
To the wanderers and questioners, I say: there is a reality out there, so look for it. Pray for it.
Because when that Day comes when the reality (al-Haaqah) arrives, all the words will cease. All the wondering and theorizing will have been for naught, because the answer and the accountability will have arrived.
Skeptics have a cartoon that they are quite proud of, because they believe that all the universe’s questions can be answered by science alone. They despise the idea of religious ideas that have no proof in the physical world. The cartoon has a beaker from a lab with legs and arms. One hand is held up, giving the middle finger. The caption reads: “Science doesn’t give a shit about your beliefs.”
To this I say: “Reality doesn’t give a shit about your words.”
Excuse the language, but I hope the point is clear. Let me close with a verse from the Qur’an that puts words and reality into context:
“His speech is the Haqq.”
Haqq is truth and reality all rolled up into one. And it is HIS speech that is the ultimate truth. Our words will be dust in the wind, but when He speaks, He creates the true reality. And it is one which we can never escape, no matter how many words and tales we weave.

How do I validate a child’s feelings?

“Okay,” you’re asking me. “We should validate a child’s feelings, even if they seem silly to us. What does this look like in practice?”

I’m going to post some examples as a follow-up to my last post about treating a child’s feelings as valid.

Three-and-a-half years ago: Ibrahim is one, and Abdullah is 7. I’m going to be honest here. Reading this now is making me cringe because I’ve fallen way off the wagon and need a boost to become more patient and empathetic. So consider this story a lesson for me as well!–

Abdullah was laying on my lap one day when Ibrahim, tired and jealous, lunged at him. He bit Abdullah’s stomach and dug his nails into him, then swung his little hands at him in frustration. I peeled Ibrahim off of Abdullah, and Abdullah yelled out in anger, “Bad! Bad, bad Ibrahim!”

“You’re really angry at Ibrahim right now,” I said.

Abdullah continued, “He’s bad! I don’t like him!”

I told him, “I hear that you’re really angry right now. I can’t let you talk like that in front of him though because those words are hurtful. Would it help you to have a pen and paper and write out what you are feeling?”

Abdullah nodded, and I handed him a pen and paper. He poured out all kinds of angry, frustrated scrawls in the manner of a typical seven-year-old boy. To be honest, some of the things he wrote made me cringe. But then I told him that this is the thing with feelings–they feel really big and awful right now, but they are like waves: they come and go. “You feel all these things right now and these waves are crashing down on you, but they’ll wash away at some point, and this writing helps to get the feelings out.”

“They’re still there–they haven’t come out,” he muttered.

“And that’s fine, too. It takes time.”

I tried really hard in this situation to just listen–to let him express what he felt, while still holding a firm limit about his behavior (my main limit is “No hurting people or property”). This is new for me, as my response would normally have been to dismiss (“Oh, he doesn’t understand, you’re okay,”) or distract (“Hey, let’s just look at this book!”).

It was a small incident, but it sent a lot of positive messages to Abdullah:
* Sometimes I have big and wild feelings, and it’s normal
* I can’t hurt people or damage things when I feel out of control, and I can trust my mom to protect me from doing that
* I can feel safe confiding my angry thoughts to my mom.
* I know that I can use writing to help deal with my feelings.
* I know that feelings come and go, even big feelings.

You can see here that acknowledging feelings and offering constructive skills is a powerful way to help a child develop maturity, social skills, and self-regulation.

New series: respectful parenting

I am publishing some of my Facebook posts here for those who are not on there. This was a kick-off post on the topic of respectful parenting. I hope to dive more into this subject with my own musings from the last few years of my own struggles to be a respectful parent. You can follow for updates (see sidebar) if you would like to keep abreast of new posts.


Has it ever happened that something happens to you–something that, in the scheme of things is really small but it upsets you terribly? Perhaps you were working on a document for hours and then the computer freezes and you lose your work. You were tired, hungry, and the straw broke the camel’s back. You just scream, cry, curse, throw your hands up in frustration–even though you know that life will go on and there is greater suffering in the world that deserves your tears and anger. But still. It happens.

Which response would you prefer from your loved one? “Oh c’mon, get over it–people in the world are dying and you’re crying over this? First. World. Problems.” Or perhaps you’d prefer a little distraction?, “Oh, hey, just forget that, look over here at this thing on my phone.” What about this response? “Man, that’s frustrating. I’m here if you want to vent or need help.”

How about this situation? A child’s block tower or lego structure collapses. Tears and hysterics ensue. What will your response be? Sometimes we forget that their problems and their emotions are, on some primal level, a microcosm of ours. Are your tears more valid than hers? Is your frustration more acceptable? You’d prefer empathy over someone invalidating your frustration or trying to distract you. Doesn’t this child deserve the same level of respect? A simple statement that’s easy to make, “Wow, that is so frustrating. You were working so hard and it broke.” Don’t jump to fix the blocks, and don’t jump to brush away the feelings. Just be. It’s simpler for you as the parent, and more respectful and helpful for the child.