our faith, our feelings, our hearts

When you think of eemaan (faith), think of “heart-sense.” The foundation of our emaan begins in the heart–with the speech of the heart, and the actions of the heart. The speech of the heart is it’s acknowledgement and affirmation that there is none worthy of worship but Allah. The action of the heart is the next step–it is when the heart overflows with submission, love, hope, and fear of Allah. From this starting point, when our tongue speaks or our body acts, they do so with this “heart sense” already in place.


So many times we live our lives on the surface level only. Our tongues speak, our limbs act, and yet the heart is silent and still. We do this with our friends and family, when we interact with them absent-minded and distracted. We do this with our lord, when we stand and bow like empty shells, lacking any sense of heart during our worship. We weren’t created this way. On the contrary, we were created with hearts that were pure and full of instinctive connection with Allah and with others around us. We came into this world truly feeling and embodying every moment from the depths of our heart. We quickly learn to shut down that heart-sense and create a shell of insincerity around us.

Here’s the amazing thing about kids, though: they are still pure and so their heart-sense radiates forth in everything they do. When they gaze with wonder at the heavens, their heart knows that this is the mark of their Creator. When they put their arms around you, those are not only arms holding you; it is a clasp that starts out from the depths of their hearts.

I realize this when my kids settle in for bed every night. I’m worn down and wanting to shut the light, offer a half-hearted “Love you!” and be done with it. I’m old and jaded, and my body is used to acting on auto-pilot without the heart-sense to guide it. Not for the kids.

When Abdullah hugs me, it’s with a hug so deep and an “I love you mama, sooooo much” that is so earnest it can’t be faked. And on cue, Zaynab calls out from her bed and there is always a catch in her voice, a crack. “I love you, Mama.” It’s a feeling so big she doesn’t know what to do with it, so her body shows her heart on it’s sleeve with that tremble in the voice as she speaks it.

I think about this now. How often do I ask my kids to betray their heart-sense and live inauthentically? It might be the time they are upset at something seemingly trivial and my response is to distract and deny: “Oh, come on, that’s not something to worry about; let’s do this instead.”

What if instead, I responded by going deep down to the heart-sense? “That really upset you. You are shaking. You must have been really hurt by what your friends did.”

If we abandon engaging the heart-sense with our children, it becomes harder for us to engage them in issues of faith. Over time, as we push away real feelings and anything that seems uncomfortable or awkward, our kids become jaded just like us. You see this when they start to not show the same enthusiasm that they did when they were younger, preferring instead to give a shrug and nod of the head. When you try to talk about virtues like courage and love, empathy and eeman, they are often hesitant and out of touch with these feelings. Often times, children don’t have the words to describe how they feel, because they haven’t been given ample opportunity to name and identify feelings in a non-judgmental way.

Eemaan is deeply tied in with emotion and feeling–in fact, true eemaan is rooted in a deep love for Allah, a fear of his punishment, and a hope for his reward. You can’t choose to ignore the heart-sense in some areas of life and then expect it to blossom in others. We need to encourage a heart-sense in both areas of life: in our dealings with our Lord, and in our dealings with our fellow humans.

Questions to ask ourselves would be:

“Am I focusing on outward appearances here, or on the khushoo’ (humility) of the heart?”

“Is my tongue the only thing moving, or is my heart being moved?”

“Am I comfortable talking about my inner life?” This includes eemaan, love, hope, and fear of Allah, as well as the myriad human emotions that we experience regularly.

You see, when you shut down any discussion on internal feelings with your children due to your discomfort, it becomes hard to discuss eemaan and taqwa. These things are deeply personal aspects of us that require great trust and courage to be vulnerable enough to share this inner life with others. If you are consistently brushing off, invalidating, and shutting down the conversation regarding feelings in your home, you simply can’t expect to have an open discussion regarding faith.

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.

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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.