Defining the World, Defining You, My Son

  My eldest, who is fascinated with lists comparing largest tsunamis or most populated cities in the world, one day asks me at the dinner table, “Mama, what is the tallest building in New York City?” I look at him and hesitate, “Well, umm, it used to be these two buildings called the Twin Towers….” and I can see his eyes transfixed on me as he sees the caveat coming….”but it’s now the Empire State Building.”  And now he’s stopped eating and the inevitable question, “what happened?” I stare at him for a good, long moment. What and how do I tell him about 9/11?  And so, I decide not to shy away from this moment.  “Something terrible happened almost 10 years ago…” and I briefly, in about three sentences, tell him what happened. I leave out the part about the perpetrators of this crime.  He prods on with a few more questions and then begins narrating his own made-up version of something that occurred in his imaginary country of Carolina (yes, he has an imaginary country, off the coast of Madagascar no less!).  And I know this to be his way of understanding and assimilating what he learns about the world into his mind.

  And then, I am immediately saddened for my son. How will I one day tell him that 9/11 was perpetrated by so-called Muslims, people belonging to his faith? How will I tell him that some segments of the larger society blame his religion for this tragedy? How will this innocent boy of mine take in the language, images, rhetoric, and persons of anti-Islamic sentiment?  How will I assure and teach him that while there is much that is wrong with the world, there is a role for you to play in it to make it better?   

While he’s moved on to talking about other things, I keep looking at him and so many thoughts continue to cross my mind.  I think of the many struggles that lay ahead as he will have to carve out an identity that is, inshaAllah, strong in faith but not removed from a larger society that will be at odds with his values. I think, well, I experienced the same challenge, growing up here as the first generation of immigrant parents, we’ll help him, his father and I.  But of course I realize his upbringing will be different in so many ways.  For him, I know he doesn’t yet have a notion of being “different,” a refreshing lens to look through from a child.  I wonder how he will make sense of his dual-ethnic background, an upbringing that prioritizes Islam as the defining force in his life (inshaAllah), and numerous cultural sways.

I catch myself.  It will be a struggle, no doubt.  There will be internal turmoil, outwardly changes, and tears.  And we will go through it together. 

Rasul (s.a.w) in a hadith (paraphrased) called for glad tidings for the ‘strangers.’  His companions asked who they were.  He (s.a.w) said that Islam came as a strange religion and there will come a time when it will be deemed as strange and those who follow it also as such – so give glad tidings to them. 

May Allah (swt) guide us in our endeavors to raise righteous, balanced children who will be proud to belong in this world as contributing citizens and in the hereafter as the Ummah of Rasul (s.a.w). Ameen.

                                                                                                                                       Fariha Khan

 Fariha is mommy to three children (5 1/2, 3 1/2, and 1) and lives in Maryland.  She loves the outdoors, reading, and spending time with family and friend

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  • Marwa

    Salaam Fariha,

    Masha’Allah, you expressed the worries of so many of us in such an eloquent way. I think we have certain advantages as first generation Americans that can help our children navigate the harsh waves of hate and prejudice. There are no language barriers, we understand the context of why there is this growing sentiment of anti-Muslim rhetoric and we also have friends that are not Muslim. The fact that we are contributing to GrowMama will provide an American Muslim perspective that inshaAllah will prove invaluable for the next generation of moms and the larger American population. We’re in this together, insha’Allah.

  • Maliha

    I love your eldest Mashaallah :)

    The challenges and context may be slightly different, but you are really articulating a mother’s heart. “Defining you, my son…” is so poetic and is a statement that so many mothers globally (and across time) have to grapple with, lose sleep over, pray over, weep over…

    I don’t know why, but the knowledge that I am not alone really does help me…


  • Stephanie

    I really enjoyed reading this and I also struggle with the same issues in raising my girls but slightly differently as we are an interfaith family. My husband is Muslim, I am not and our girls are Muslim. I know there will be so many issues and questions about their identity that they will face growing up, particularly given the hostile environment in the US now against Muslims that only seems to get worse and not better. It already makes me apprehensive to think of all the challenges they will face- how much defending of themselves they will have to do growing up. I will try my best, as their non-Muslim Mom, to help them navigate it all.

    I would love to reprint this article in my magazine- pls contact me and I can give you some more background on it! Thank you and thanks for your words!

  • Fasiha

    LOVES it! Always so honest, heartfelt and straight the the heart of the matter. May Allah make it easy for all of us struggling to explain the uglier shades of our world to the little ones. I have every confidence that the discussion process will go well when you explore it with the degree of thoughtfulness, sensitivity and honesty you are so capable of, mashaAllah. :)

  • suma

    JAK- Really liked this post. Important topic. “His upbringing will be different in so many ways.” I agree and that’s the way it should be. Imam Ali b. Abu Talib(RA) counseled us in this respect when he said that our children’s upbringing has to be different from our upbringing because they are born in a different time. Really like this advice….too bad I heard it after my children were grown.:)sigh…..Oh… Al-Humdulillah…that’s life!!!

  • thanaya

    ameen! sister im sure so many other women share this dilemma with you… im living in Pakistan yet i worry about the consequences of the way things are right now! may Allah swt make it easy for all of us and the coming generations of our ummah, Ameen! love