Muslim parents should do their best to guide their children toward an Islamic lifestyle
By Freda Shamma
God obliges Muslim parents to raise their children as practicing Muslims if possible. But doing this in the U.S., which worships wealth and the individual’s right to live life as he/she wishes, is an enormously difficult task. What makes it even harder is the absence of rightly guided extended family and friends and a hostile environment.
Most Muslim children attend public schools, which take up about 50% of their awake time. At school, they interact with teachers and students who either know nothing of Islamic values or believe the misinformation presented by the media. Textbooks reflect no religious values and present nothing positive about Islam or Muslims. Leaving school doesn’t necessarily mean engaging with a more Islamic atmosphere, as schoolwork, TV, video games and non-Muslim friends suffer from the same lack of information.
Even in the typical Islamic school, only 14% of each school day is spent on Islamically oriented material (assuming two classes that teach Quran, Arabic and Islamic studies), while the other subjects are taught with the same public-school curriculum and textbooks. Although most of the teachers and students are Muslim, they aren’t necessarily practicing Islam as one might hope.
How can Muslim parents help direct their children toward an Islamic lifestyle? Parents can’t take any time away from school, and most of them certainly don’t want to take time away from homework. That leaves mealtime, prayer time and/or leisure time. The quickest way to make children dislike Islam and parents is to try to fill their leisure time with lectures about Islam.
What can parents do? A surprising amount, it turns out. Let’s examine every activity in daily life.
Sleep. Unless you believe in subliminal messages, the only time available here is just before bedtime and right after waking up. Some successful families conduct a family Islamic study session for half an hour to an hour either before bedtime or upon getting up in the morning.
School. School absorbs an astonishing 50% of your child’s time. Think of how you can utilize that time more effectively.
• Meet your children’s teachers early in the school year. Let them know that you’re just as concerned about your children’s education as every other parent. Explain what a Muslim student should be. Offer to help on school trips, in the office and during special activities like graduation. In short, make yourself available for whatever comes up. Once you have a positive relationship with the teachers, offer to come to explain Muslim holidays such as Eid. It’s also a good idea to bring some sweets for the kids when you come.
• Join the parent-teacher organization and attend its meetings. If you help with the ordinary activities, like bringing cookies when they’re needed, then when it’s time to plan the theme of the senior graduation party and someone comes up with “Let’s make it seem like a gambling casino,” your opinion will be sought and listened to.
• Talk to the administrators and offer your assistance, perhaps helping the librarian one day a week or in the office xeroxing materials that teachers need. If they know you, they’ll ask you to participate in World Culture Day or a similar event that highlights the world’s different regions. When they ask you to present something about your homeland, suggest something about Islamic art and civilization, or possibly about how the Muslim minority community contributes to American life.
• Work with the school board. Attend its meetings and make positive comments about how the school is run. Offer to sit on a committee and/or run for office. Regular visits can bring enormous benefits. As teachers and administrators get to know you, they’ll begin to value having Muslim children in the school, and this attitude will have a positive effect on your child. This will happen even if you do nothing else. But add to that the value of the work you’ll do if you’re involved. Another hidden value is that your child will see how important education is to you and that you interact with the school in a positive way.
• Time and money are important. Buy some Islamic books and videos for the library, most of which have no books about Islam written by a Muslim. Check with an organization like CAIR or Islamicmedia.com for suggestions on which books and/or videos might be best. The Unity Productions Foundation (UPF) recently released a three-part series on PBS about an American Muslim Road Trip — meeting Muslims along Route 66 who are contributing to American society.
Leisure time. Most Muslim students have two major problems with their leisure time. Spending hours online or interacting with video games has several negative aspects. First, these activities focus on the screen that changes every few seconds. The brain is very adaptable and easily becomes a brain that can only focus for a few seconds at a time, which of course leads to very poor school performance. The other huge problem is that screen time with others does not lead to real personal interaction. Instead, it often leads to depression and/or to anti-social interaction.
The other major problem with leisure time is that most, if not all of it, is spent on non-Islamic oriented activity. Students who need friends, real friends who they spend real time with. And at least some of these friends must be practicing Muslims. Parents are no longer the main source of guidance for their youth. Now the main source of guidance is from their friends and if the friends are not practicing Muslims their advice will too often lead your child away from Islam. Even if you must go out of your comfort zone of friends of your own ethnicity, for the sake of your children you must find some good friends for them to interact with on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, many Muslim students are shy or ashamed of their religious identity and do not want their parents coming to school looking “strange” or speaking broken English. This is not the time to argue about such things with them; rather pity those children who may be the only Muslim in the public school or his/her class. Being part of a school group is extremely important for teens. If your child feels like this, seek some activity that involves no interaction with students. If you try to force your way in, your child will be more likely to dislike Islam and/or native culture. For example, make an appointment to talk with your child’s teacher after school when the students have left.
If your child experiences verbal attacks on his/her religion, skin color or culture, call CAIR to see if they can intercede. Or contact Islamic Networks Group (ING) to give a school-wide presentation on these issues, as much of the harassment will be coming their lack of knowledge about what Islam really is.
Freda Shamma is the founder and director of the Foundation for the Advancement and Development of Education and Learning. She has spent the last 50 years working on Islamic schooling on three different continents. She is the compiler of the “Treasury of Muslim Literature”, an anthology of Muslim writings during what is called the Golden age of Islam, 850-1250, aimed at middle school students and can be used as the major reading material for the seventh grade up.