Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, click over to the Islamic Center at New York University or visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author e-mail alert above, visit his Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.
Last night in Abu Dhabi I met a young man who after my lecture asked if we could talk. He, like many others I have listened to in different parts of the world, started off by saying, "I have a problem with my parents..."
Ibn 'Umar said, "Allah has called them the 'dutiful' (al-Abrar) because they are dutiful (birr) to their parents and children. Just as you have a duty which you owe your parent, so you have a duty which you owe your child."
It's easy to find discussions in Muslim communities that focus on how Islam says parents should be treated by their children. You don't always see so much that speaks to how parents are supposed to take care of our children. Many of the people who come to see me have issues in understanding their relationships with their parents. More often than not, there is a blanket misconception that somehow equates honoring one's parents to believing one's parents are always right. It's confusing to many when it's ok to disagree and if that disagreement is somehow tantamount to displeasing God. In some instances, clear limits are transgressed but somehow justified by this idea that a parent can do no wrong.
I've sat with men and women, young and old, who can tell you horrific stories of how those who are entrusted to look after them have not upheld that responsibility. Issues with abuse, verbal, physical and sexual, at the hands of fathers, mothers whose only form of communication with daughters is by yelling and voicing disappointment, forced marriages, feelings of being unloved and neglected, and much more. But somehow it is those who are going through these things that find it the hardest to say that kind of treatment is wrong.
A young woman came to see me once and told me how her father was negligent of her and her sisters and abusive of her mother. She said he drank a lot and not only had open affairs with many women, but kept their pictures around the house. She described everything with a certain calmness and at the end of asked a question that I did not expect. "Is it haraam, (religiously impermissible), for me to dislike my father?"
I posed this scenario to an audience I was lecturing to in a mosque outside of NYC. I then broke them up into group of 10 and asked them to discuss what they would tell this young girl if she came to them with the same case and question. When we came to discuss as a group, not one person could comfortably say that it was ok for her to dislike her father. Where does this hesitation come from? I would argue that it is rooted in the simplistic discourse that we have around family development and familial duty. Islam is about reality and it's time to start dealing with the reality that not every parent is a good one.
Most people in general have a desire to know if they are good, and the way they affirm that goodness is from the acceptance of people around them. A lot of Muslims derive their sense of validation from the approval of their parents. A parent's happiness somehow indicates the happiness of God, and getting a parent upset becomes extremely problematic, because how will God be happy with one who gets their parents upset? It's not fair to let a child think they are somehow deficient by taking unfair advantage of a misconstrued idea of what it means to respect parents. We are producing generations of young people who are scared to take risks because they get no positive reinforcement from their elders. That, coupled with the reality that everything possible is unleashed when one makes a mistake, makes it really hard for some children to grow. The two biggest instances where issues seem to arise are marriage and career choice. Conversations on these, and many other subjects, become hard to have due to a critical gap in communication. A child confused and backed into a corner doesn't really know what to do now. In most instances, the emotional trauma builds up and young people turn to unhealthy outlets to deal with the pain they experience from a parent unwilling to listen. I've sat with young girls who have developed eating disorders because their mothers tell them they are not beautiful enough and that's why no one is marrying them, young men who cut themselves because they can't deal with being a constant disappointment to their fathers, and people of all backgrounds who start to lose touch with their Islam because seemingly all of it is justified from this regurgitated discourse of "your parents are always right."
Starting the communication is easier said then done. If you find yourself in the place when you have a child, please take a moment to reflect deeply on how you treat him or her. Do you tell them you are proud of them? Do you treat them the same as your other children? Are your daughters and sons treated the same? Do you hug them and tell them that you love them? When they make mistakes, do you help them to understand? Your children will look up to you and it's important to play a role in their lives, but you can't live your life through them.
If you find yourself in a situation in which you don't connect with your parent, find someone to speak with about it. Don't let emotions build up inside that should be bottled up. Will every parent come around? There will be some parents who won't understand and others who will eventually come to understand what it is that you are going through. The end goal should not be complete agreement, but opening up a channel of communication that lets both parties feel respected and understood. Taking the steps necessary to deal with the situation should include someone who understands you and your given circumstance. This probably won't come through listening to a lecture on youtube or even at a conference, but rather should take place face-to-face with someone who knows and understands you and can help you in your given circumstance. You are important enough for specific attention.
The Prophet Muhammad was an amazing parent and grandparent. He would play games with his grandchildren Hasan and Husain, tell them he loved them, and be there for them in so many different ways. His relationship with his daughter Fatima was so beautiful. She is said to have resembled him more than anyone else and she would be with him in many different gatherings and meetings. When he was in final stages of life, he was seen whispering in her ear. At first she cried and then she laughed. When asked what is it that was said to her, she responded, "The Prophet first told me secretly that he would expire in that disease in which he died, so I wept; then he told me secretly that I would be the first of his family to follow him, so I laughed." When she is about to pass away months later, we are told that she readies herself with a bath and clean clothing, eagerly anticipating being with her father again. Would our children react the same way if they knew they were going to spend an eternity with us?
If the answer to that is no, then we need to start making some changes. Start by telling your child that you love him or her and don't let them ever believe for a moment, regardless of what they do, that you will ever stop.
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