For those of you in Dubai, the Dubai International Peace Convention was two weekends ago, and I was an exhibitor there. Oh, yeah. And I had stickers. And I stuck them on people.
They said “Hello, I am: Autism Aware” and in order to earn one, you had to be naïve enough to be disarmed by my cheesy grin and then ambushed with “So, what do you know about autism!”
Then, if you were patient enough to nod through my five minute presentation/tirade on what autism is, why early recognition is important, and how to recognize it in a child as young as two (Poor eye contact, less than six words, lack of social interaction) and if you nodded at all the right bits and laughed at my attempts at funny bits, you got a sticker. Whether you wanted one or not.
(When a child isn’t talking by a certain age and the parents get worried, people typically say: Give him time! My friend knew this guy who had an uncle who didn’t talk until he was six, and now he’s a ninja-neuroscientist-pastry chef-professor! *rimshot* But actually, any child who isn’t talking by the age of two should have autism ruled out before any more time is allowed to pass.)
It was cool actually, people would come to the autism awareness stall because they had seen someone else wearing a “Hello, I am: Autism Aware” sticker and they sought us out because:
A) They wanted a sticker too -or-
B) They didn’t know was autism was but they wanted to find out -or-
C) They knew very well what autism was and wanted to compare notes
I met school kids who giggled and slapped stickers on each other, parents whose children were in other centers, teachers who were sure they had undiagnosed cases in their own classes, doctors who were not sure who to refer children to, and lots and lots of young mothers who I accosted with a flier that had some warning signs of autism divided by age from 18 months to four years.
I also met:
- Dr. Zakir Naik, briefly, surrounded by his entourage, as he made the rounds of all the stalls at the convention. He politely listened to my autism awareness tirade before the entourage juggernaut rolled onward to the next stall. He seemed like a nice man, MashaAllah.
- The mother of a nice young volunteer, who came to the stall out of politeness and left somberly with a “Signs of Autism” checklist in her hands with way too many underlined to take to her own non-verbal, hand-flapping, head-banging nephew.
- A man who, when cheerfully ambushed with my typical “So, what do you know about autism!” replied with a slow blink, some agonizing moments, and the shaky reply of “I know that it destroys your life.” He turned out to be an autism parent.
- A little boy with Asperger’s syndrome and his mother. He didn’t say a single word, and he stood reading a book the entire time his mother and I chatted, but he did look up and laugh at my one ninja-neuroscientist-pastry chef-professor joke before re-immersing himself in his book.
- A father who was just passing by when he saw the word autism and stopped because he had just been told the day before by a concerned friend that his son might have autism. He got the ‘Where to get help’ flier.
My duty at the Dubai International Peace Convention was four hours on Thursday and then nine hours on Friday and twelve hours on Saturday. It was emotionally intense, not just because I had to talk non-stop, but because I met so many people with terrible fears that were completely founded. SubhanAllahiWabihamdihi– my son has progressed to the point where we have hopes for him being able to get through primary school, InshaAllah. Most other parents get the door slammed in their face right from KG and it is never opened to them again, and here I was telling them: There is hope! But not for you, because your son is ten now! And hope has a waiting list! And based on the misery in your eyes, you couldn’t afford it anyway!
Allah u Akbar. A person who never speaks won’t be held accountable for lies, but it is agony for the parents every single day. Their child will never go to school, they will grow into an adult who cannot provide for their own needs- forget having a job- will they ever be able to dress themselves?
Let that question mark hang there for a moment, and imagine an old widow trying to care for an adult male who communicates by hitting, punching, and breaking- who collapses at home one day and no ambulance is called because her adult son can’t speak let alone use a phone.
When is she discovered? In what state will her son be at that time? Who among her relatives will take care of an adult male who cannot bathe himself? What institution will care for him? If he runs out of the house, confused by the noise and the ambulance and the strangers, who will chase him down and bring him back home to safety? If he fights the well-meaning strangers trying to take him home, how many of them will stay calm and keep trying after the first time they’re hit in the face or bitten in his panic? A better question to ask might be: what color car will hit him first?
These are the questions I ask myself when I meet other families with autism, and the only light in the darkness of that scenario is that Allah knows best.
He does. Allah knows best. And we suffer in this life so that we can be rewarded in the next, but never beyond what we are able to cope with. Allah will care for the grown man with autism, and nothing will happen to him that Allah has not willed and has not deemed to be good for his status in the Akhirah. I was asked, by one woman at the conference, how I could even think of having other children (I have three) after my first child was discovered to have autism. I told her that it must be good for him- maybe if my son didn’t have autism he would have been a thief, a rapist, or a murderer. Or worse- he could have been a very successful and handsome intellectual sort of young man who fell in love with the dunya and left Islam to become one of its enemies because it was easier and more glamorous than being one of its defenders. There are worse things than being autistic- getting your account in your left hand on the Day of Judgment is definitely one of them.
My son was kicking the wall last night at 10:30 pm. I went into his room and asked him if everything was alright. He sat up in bed and said, in his funny robotic way:
“I have – a –secret – Idea.”
I smiled in the dark. My son is verbal, Alhamdulillah, and after years of wondering what he was thinking when he sat staring into space for hours, I sometimes get to find out.
“You have a secret idea? Really? What is it?
“I’m thinking- what is charity? Is it an idea?”
Two days ago, one of his ABA therapists was helping him with a worksheet in which he was supposed to sort a pile of nouns into categories- people, things, and ideas. A fireman is a person, a car is a thing, a discovery is an idea. Charity was not in that list.
“Yes, charity is when we give things to other people to make Allah happy with us. It’s something we do, but it’s not a person or a thing. It’s an idea.”
“Good night Khalid.”
He dives back onto his pillow and I can hear him kicking the wall again later, but I know he’s awake because he’s busy sorting nouns in his head. On some nights I go into his room hours after he’s “gone to bed” because I can hear him talking to himself, and he’s reciting Dubai street names and road numbers. (Two seconds ago: “Baniyas road. Baniyas. Baniyas road.”) I went into his room one night at 11 pm and asked him if he was feeling alright because I could hear him flipping around in bed.
“Khalid, do you need help?”
“Yes, where’s TECOM?”
“Near Barsha. After Mall of the Emirates. Before Knowledge Village I think. Good night.”
He’s asleep right now, and in our little home, all is the right with the world. Throughout Dubai, and the UAE, and the rest of the world where one in eighty-eight children are diagnosed with the nearly crippling developmental delay of autism all is still right with the world.
For Muslim parents, autism is the opportunity to have the false pretenses of societal expectations and wealth and family pride and superiority forcibly stripped away from the core responsibilities of what it means to be both Muslim and parent. You don’t need to worry about keeping up with the Joneses- they stopped inviting you over after that meltdown one time and don’t call anymore once they found out your son had special needs. Trust in Allah and take care of your child. His disability is a gift, because accountability is harsh. Worry more for yourself than for him and whether you are able to justice to your child without growing to hate what his label stands for, and have faith- really- in Allah’s plan without allowing Shaytan to plant the seed of bitterness in your heart with what Allah has willed for you.
May Allah have mercy on us all, and give us the patience and Taqwa to see even our disabilities as opportunities for Jannah.
Please speak with a specialist immediately if your child:
By 18 months:
- Doesn’t point to show things to others
- Can’t walk
- Doesn’t know what familiar things are for
- Doesn’t copy others
- Doesn’t gain new words
- Doesn’t have at least 6 words
- Doesn’t notice or mind when a caregiver leaves or returns
By 2 years:
- Doesn’t use 2-word phrases (for example, “drink milk”)
- Doesn’t know what to do with common things, like a brush, phone, fork, spoon
- Doesn’t copy actions and words
- Doesn’t follow simple instructions
- Doesn’t walk steadily
- Loses skills she once had
By 3 years:
- Can’t work simple toys (such as peg boards, simple puzzles, turning handle)
- Doesn’t speak in sentences
- Doesn’t understand simple instructions
- Doesn’t play pretend or make-believe
- Doesn’t want to play with other children or with toys
- Avoids or doesn’t make eye contact
- Loses skills he once had
By 4 years:
- Has trouble scribbling
- Shows no interest in interactive games or make-believe
- Ignores other children or doesn’t respond to people outside the family
- Resists dressing, sleeping, and using the toilet
- Can’t retell a favorite story
- Doesn’t follow 3-part commands
- Doesn’t understand “same” and “different”
- Doesn’t use “me” and “you” correctly
- Speaks unclearly
- Loses skills he once had
The signs of autism- excerpted from The Mayo Clinic website:
Some children show signs of autism in early infancy. Other children may develop normally for the first few months or years of life but then suddenly become withdrawn, become aggressive or lose language skills they’ve already acquired. Though each child with autism is likely to have a unique pattern of behavior, these are some common autism symptoms:
- Fails to respond to his or her name
- Has poor eye contact
- Appears not to hear you at times
- Resists cuddling and holding
- Appears unaware of others’ feelings
- Seems to prefer playing alone — retreats into his or her “own world”
- Starts talking later than age 2, and has other developmental delays by 30 months
- Loses previously acquired ability to say words or sentences
- Doesn’t make eye contact when making requests
- Speaks with an abnormal tone or rhythm — may use a singsong voice or robot-like speech
- Can’t start a conversation or keep one going
- May repeat words or phrases verbatim, but doesn’t understand how to use them
- Performs repetitive movements, such as rocking, spinning or hand-flapping
- Develops specific routines or rituals
- Becomes disturbed at the slightest change in routines or rituals
- Moves constantly
- May be fascinated by parts of an object, such as the spinning wheels of a toy car
- May be unusually sensitive to light, sound and touch and yet oblivious to pain
Advice To Students Starting A New School Year
I remember driving to college orientation over the summer with my father, may Allah have mercy on him. I was going to be going to school out of state, and at the age of eighteen, this was the first time that I would be living away from home.
We talked about a lot of things, and nothing in particular but one of the stories he shared stayed with me. There was an Imam who had a close circle of students and one of them became absent for an extended period. Upon that student’s return, the Imam asked him where he had been, to which the student replied,
“Egypt!” The imam said to him, “well how was Egypt!”
The student replied, “Egypt is where knowledge resides.”
The Imam responded, “You’ve spoken the truth.”
Sometime later, the imam had another student who also was absent and upon his return, the Imam asked him where he had gone to which the student replied, “Egypt!” The imam said to him, “Well, how was Egypt?”
The student said, “Egypt is nothing but amusement and play!”
The Imam responded, ‘You’ve spoken the truth!”
There were students who had witnessed both conversations and asked the Imam later why he had borne witness to the truth of two antithetical statements to which the imam replied,
“They both found what they were looking for.”
I got the message. University could be a place of incredible learning, engagement with ideas, and can push you and challenge you in the best of ways. It can also be a non-stop party. A blur of heedlessness and hedonism that will bring about remorse and regret for that individual in the Dunya and Akhira.
I think back to that car ride fondly, and I appreciate the predicament of parting advice. A person who will be bidding farewell to someone so dear to them and wanting to give them something powerful that they can hold onto or wisdom that will guide them. Many students in the past weeks have been receiving similar parting advice from their families, and so in this article I wanted to share one of the advice of the Prophet that he gave to a companion that he loved so much.
عَنْ أَبِي ذَرٍّ جُنْدَبِ بْنِ جُنَادَةَ، وَأَبِي عَبْدِ الرَّحْمَنِ مُعَاذِ بْنِ جَبَلٍ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُمَا، عَنْ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه و سلم قَالَ: “اتَّقِ اللَّهَ حَيْثُمَا كُنْت، وَأَتْبِعْ السَّيِّئَةَ الْحَسَنَةَ تَمْحُهَا، وَخَالِقْ النَّاسَ بِخُلُقٍ حَسَنٍ” .
رَوَاهُ التِّرْمِذِيُّ [رقم:1987] وَقَالَ: حَدِيثٌ حَسَنٌ، وَفِي بَعْضِ النُّسَخِ: حَسَنٌ صَحِيحٌ.
On the authority of Abu Dharr Jundub ibn Junadah, and Abu Abdur-Rahman Muadh bin Jabal (may Allah be pleased with him), that the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said
“Have Taqwa of Allah wherever you are, and follow a bad deed with a good deed it will erase it, and treat people with good character.” (Tirmidhi)
The advice is comprised of three components
- Fear Allah wherever you are
- Follow a bad deed with a good deed it will erase it
- Treat people with good character
Have Taqwa of Allah wherever you are
Taqwa is the crown of the believer. And it is the best thing that a person can carry with them on the journey of this life, and the journey to meet their Lord. Allah says,
“And take provision, and the best provision is Taqwa.”
عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ، قَالَ سُئِلَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم عَنْ أَكْثَرِ مَا يُدْخِلُ النَّاسَ الْجَنَّةَ فَقَالَ ” تَقْوَى اللَّهِ وَحُسْنُ الْخُلُقِ ”
The Prophet was asked as to what admits people into Paradise the most and he said, “Taqwa and good character.” (Tirmidhi)
And so what is Taqwa?
Talq ibn Habeeb gave a beautiful definition and description of Taqwa when he said,
“Taqwa is to act in obedience to Allah, upon a light from Allah, seeking the reward of Allah. And it is to avoid the disobedience of Allah, upon a light from Allah, fearing the punishment of Allah.”
And so he describes taqwa as having three components; the action, the source for that action, and the motivation for that action.”
To act in the obedience of Allah..
To do the things that Allah commands you to do and to stay away from what Allah prohibits you from doing
Upon a light from Allah..
The source for the action or inaction must come from revelation, a light from Allah. And this should stir us to seek knowledge so that our actions are onem guided by a light from Allah. You’ve made it to University, you are bright, gifted, intelligent and committed to education. Do not let be the one thing that you remain uneducated about be your religion.
يَعْلَمُونَ ظَاهِراً مِّنَ ٱلْحَيَاةِ ٱلدُّنْيَا وَهُمْ عَنِ ٱلآخِرَةِ هُمْ غَافِلُونَ
They know what is apparent of the worldly life, but they, of the Hereafter, are unaware. (Al-Room v. 7)
The prophet (S) said, “Allah hates every expert in the Dunya who is ignorant of the hereafter.” (Saheeh Al-Jaami’)
Make sure that you carve out time to attend halaqas on campus, seek out teachers and mentors who will guide you in learning about your religion even as you are pursuing your secular studies..
Seeking the reward of Allah..
The third component of Taqwa is the motivation: that these actions that are being performed and that are sourced authentically in revelation must be performed for the sake of Allah, seeking His reward, and not for any other audience. That they not be done for shares, or likes or retweets. That a person does what they do of worship, that they abstain from what they abstain from of sin, seeking the reward of Allah and fearing His punishment.
Fear Allah wherever you are..
Meaning in public and in private, online or offline, and when in the company of the righteous as well as when in the company of the wicked, in all circumstances a person must be mindful of the presence of Allah..
عَنْ ثَوْبَانَ عَنِ النَّبِيِّ صلى الله عليه وسلم أَنَّهُ قَالَ : ( لأَعْلَمَنَّ أَقْوَامًا مِنْ أُمَّتِي يَأْتُونَ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ بِحَسَنَاتٍ أَمْثَالِ جِبَالِ تِهَامَةَ بِيضًا فَيَجْعَلُهَا اللَّهُ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ هَبَاءً مَنْثُورًا ) قَالَ ثَوْبَانُ : يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صِفْهُمْ لَنَا ، جَلِّهِمْ لَنَا أَنْ لاَ نَكُونَ مِنْهُمْ وَنَحْنُ لاَ نَعْلَمُ ، قَالَ : ( أَمَا إِنَّهُمْ إِخْوَانُكُمْ وَمِنْ جِلْدَتِكُمْ وَيَأْخُذُونَ مِنَ اللَّيْلِ كَمَا تَأْخُذُونَ وَلَكِنَّهُمْ أَقْوَامٌ إِذَا خَلَوْا بِمَحَارِمِ اللَّهِ انْتَهَكُوهَا
It was narrated from Thawban that the Prophet ﷺ said:
“I certainly know people of my nation who will come on the Day of Resurrection with good deeds like the mountains of Tihaamah, but Allah will make them like scattered dust.” Thawban said: “O Messenger of Allah, describe them to us and tell us more, so that we will not become of them unknowingly.” He said: “They are your brothers and from your race, worshipping at night as you do, but they are people who, when they are alone with what Allah has prohibited, they violate it.”
This hadeeth is a warning for the person who is quick, eager and ready to violate the limits of Allah as soon as the door is locked, or the curtains or drawn, or as soon as they have arrived in a new place where no one knows them. We will sin, but let our sins be sins of weakness or lapses of taqwa and not sins of predetermination and design. There is a big difference between someone who sins in a moment’s temptation and the one who is planning to sin for hours, days or weeks!
And follow a good deed with a bad deed it will erase it..
When we fall, as we must inevitably due to our being human, the prophet (S) instructed us to follow a sin with a good deed to erase it.
Commit a sin, give charity.
Commit a sin, perform wudhu as beautifully as you can and pray two rak’ahs.
Commit a sin, seek Allah’s forgiveness and repent…
Our sins should not suffocate us from doing good deeds, they should fuel us to doing good deeds.
وَأَقِمِ ٱلصَّلاَةَ طَرَفَيِ ٱلنَّهَارِ وَزُلَفاً مِّنَ ٱلَّيْلِ إِنَّ ٱلْحَسَنَاتِ يُذْهِبْنَ ٱلسَّـيِّئَاتِ ذٰلِكَ ذِكْرَىٰ لِلذَّاكِرِينَ
And establish prayer at the two ends of the day and at the approach of the night. Indeed, good deeds do away with misdeeds. That is a reminder for those who remember. (Surat Hood v. 114)
A man from the Ansar was alone with a woman and he did everything with her short of fornication. In remorse, he went to the prophet (S) and confessed to him. Umar said to the man, “Allah had concealed your sins, why didn’t you conceal it yourself!” The prophet (S) however was silent.
The man eventually left and the prophet (S) had a messenger go to him to recite the aforementioned verse. A man said, “Oh Messenger of Allah is it for him alone?”
The Prophet said, “No for all people.”
And so for all people, sin plus good deed equals the sin is erased. That is a formula to be inscribed in our hearts for the rest of our lives.
Al-Hassan Al-Basri, the master preacher of the Tabi’een was asked,
“Should one of us not be ashamed of our Lord, we seek forgiveness from our Lord and then return to sin, and then seek forgiveness and then return!”
“Shaytan would love to conquer you with that (notion), do not grow tired of seeking forgiveness”
But know that these sins that are erased by good deeds are the minor sins, as for the major sins they require repentance for the many verses in which Allah threatens punishment for those who commit major sins if they do not repent, and so repentance is a condition for the erasing of the effect of major sins.
And treat people with good character
And if Taqwa is the crown of the believer, then good character is the crown of Taqwa, for many people think that taqwa is to fulfill the rights of Allah without fulfilling the rights of His creation! The Prophet in many hadith highlights the lofty stations that a believer attains with good character, for example:
عَنْ عَائِشَةَ، رَحِمَهَا اللَّهُ قَالَتْ سَمِعْتُ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم يَقُولُ “ إِنَّ الْمُؤْمِنَ لَيُدْرِكُ بِحُسْنِ خُلُقِهِ دَرَجَةَ الصَّائِمِ الْقَائِمِ
The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: By his good character a believer will attain the degree of one who prays during the night and fasts during the day. (Tirmidhi)
عَنْ أَبِي الدَّرْدَاءِ، قَالَ سَمِعْتُ النَّبِيَّ صلى الله عليه وسلم يَقُولُ “ مَا مِنْ شَيْءٍ يُوضَعُ فِي الْمِيزَانِ أَثْقَلُ مِنْ حُسْنِ الْخُلُقِ وَإِنَّ صَاحِبَ حُسْنِ الْخُلُقِ لَيَبْلُغُ بِهِ دَرَجَةَ صَاحِبِ الصَّوْمِ وَالصَّلاَةِ
Abu Ad-Darda narrated that the Messenger of Allah said:
“Nothing is placed on the Scale that is heavier than good character. Indeed the person with good character will have attained the rank of the person of fasting and prayer.” (Tirmidhi)
Let no one beat you to the taqwa of Allah and let no one beat you to beautiful character.
You’ve come of age at a time in which the majority of our interactions are online, and in that world harshness and cruelty are low hanging fruit seemingly devoid of consequences.
The Prophet said, “Whoever lives in the deserts becomes harsh.” (Abu Dawood)
And social media is a desert, it is an experience where we are all alone, together.
So choose gentleness over harshness, choose forgiveness over vindictiveness, choose truth over falsehood and protect people from your harm.
For the Prophet said, “I am a guarantor of a house in the highest part of Jannah for whoever makes their character good.”
May Allah make us from them.
Challenges of Identity & Conviction: The Need to Construct an Islamic Worldview
He squirmed in his seat as his Middle East history professor–yet again–made a subtle jab about Islam, this time about the jizyah. This professor claimed to be pro-Arab and pro-Islam and was part of a university department that touted itself for presenting history and narratives that are typically left out of the West’s Eurocentric social studies sequence. Still, she would subjectively only present an Orientalist interpretation of Islam. Ahmad* sighed. He felt bad just thinking about what all his classmates at this esteemed university thought about Islam and Muslims. He was also worried about fellow Muslims in his class who had not grown up in a practicing household-what if they believed her? He hated how she was using her position as the “sage” in the room to present her bias as absolute truth. As for himself, he knew deep down in his bones that what his professor was alleging just could not be true. His fitrah was protesting her coy smile as she knowingly agitated the few Muslims in her class of one-hundred-fifty. Yet, Ahmad had never studied such topics growing up and felt all his years of secondary education left him ill-equipped as a freshman in college. He tried to search for answers to her false accusations after class and approached her later during office hours, but she just laughed him off as a backward, orthodox Muslim who had obviously been brainwashed into believing the “fairy tale version” of Islam.
Asiyah* graduated as class valedictorian of her Islamic school. She loved Biology and Physics and planned to major in Engineering at a top-notch program. While both family, friends, and peers were proud of her (some maybe even wishing they were in her shoes), they had no idea of the bitter inner struggle that was eating away at her, tearing her up from the inside out. Her crisis of faith shook her to the core and her parents were at their wits’ end. While she prayed all her prayers and even properly donned her hijab, deep down she felt……..sort of….……atheist. Physics was her life–her complete being. She loved how the numbers just added up and everything could be empirically proven. But this led to her greatest anguish: how could certain miraculous events during the time of the Blessed Prophet have occurred? How could she believe in events that were physically and scientifically impossible? She felt like an empty body performing the rituals of Islam.
An Unwelcome Surprise
Islam is a way of life. Its principles operate in every avenue of one’s life. However, English, History, Science and Mathematics are often taught as if they are beyond the scope of Islam. It is commonly assumed that moral teaching happens, or should happen, only in the Islamic Studies class. Yet, if we compare what is being taught in the Islamic Studies class with what is being taught consciously or unconsciously in other classes, an unwelcome surprise awaits us. Examining typical reading material in English classes, for example, reveals that too much of the material is actually going against Islamic norms and principles. Some of the most prominent problems with traditional English literature (which directly clash with Islamic moral and ethical principles) include: the mockery of God and religion, the promotion of rebellion against parents and traditional family values, the normalization of immoral conduct such as lying and rude behavior, and the condoning of inappropriate cross-gender interactions. Additionally, positive references about Islamic culture are either nonexistent or rare. Toxic themes of secularism, atheism, materialism, liberalism, and agnosticism are constantly bombarding our young Muslim students, thus shaping the way in which they view and interact with the world.
Corrective Lens: The Worldview of Islam
We need our children to develop an Islamic worldview, one that provides a framework for Muslims to understand their world from the perspective of the Qur’an. It is impossible for the Islamic Studies classes alone to successfully teach Islamic behavior and nurture moral commitment unless the other classes also reflect the Islamic worldview- an outlook that emphasizes the idea that all our actions should be focused on pleasing Allah and doing good for ourselves and others. Therefore, the majority of what is taught in all academic disciplines should be based on Islamic values, aiming to improve the life of the student by promoting sublime ethical conduct. The unfortunate reality is quite the opposite: a typical child in a school in the West spends a minimum of 576 periods (16 periods of core classes/week * 4 weeks/month * 9 months) of classroom instruction annually on academic subjects that are devoid of Islam and contain minimal teaching of morality that aligns with Islamic principles. How much Islam a child learns depends on whether their parents choose Sunday school, Islamic schools, and/or other forms of supplementation to provide religious knowledge. However, rarely does that supplemental instruction undo the thousands of hours of the atheistic worldview that children soak in by the time they finish high school through the study of secular subjects. By not having an Islamic worldview and not having Muslims’ heritage and contributions to humanity infused into the teaching of academic subjects, we witness the problems experienced by the likes of Ahmad* and Asiyah*–problems that plague modern Muslim youth.
Identifying the Unlikely Suspect
This realization is perhaps the missing piece in the puzzle when it comes to our bewilderment: how are large swaths of youth from some of the kindest, sweetest, practicing Muslim families going astray and getting confused? When we shepherd our flock and find one or more of our “sheep” lost and off the beaten path, we think of the likely suspects, which include negative influences from peers, family, movies, social media, etc. We may even blame the lack of inspiring role models. We are less likely to suspect that the very literature that our children are consuming day in and day out through our well-intentioned efforts to make them “educated” and “sophisticated” could cause them to question Islam or fall into moral abyss.
Ibn ‘Umar reported that the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, “All of you are shepherds and each of you is responsible for his flock. A man is the shepherd of the people of his house and he is responsible. A woman is the shepherd of the house of her husband and she is responsible. Each of you is a shepherd and each is responsible for his flock.”
Islamic Infusion in Academic Study as a Solution
There have been efforts across the globe to infuse Islam into academic study of worldly subjects. Universities such as the International Islamic University of Malaysia(IIUM), which has a dedicated “Centre for Islamisation (CENTRIS),” is an example. At the secondary school level, most brick and mortar Islamic schools do offer Arabic, Qur’an, and Islamic studies; however, few Muslim teachers are trained in how to teach core academic subjects using principles of Islamic pedagogy.
How exactly can educators infuse an Islamic perspective into their teaching? And how can Muslim children have access to high quality education from the worldview of Islam, taught by talented and dynamic educators?
Infusing Islam & Muslim Heritage in Core Academic Subjects, According to the Experts:
- Dr. Nadeem Memon, professor of Islamic pedagogy, states that for a pedagogy to be Islamic, it should not contradict the aims, objectives and ethics contained in revelation (Qur’an) and should closely reflect an Islamic ethos that is based on revelation, the sunnah of the Prophet(pbuh), and the intellectual and spiritual heritage of his followers. It should also effectively develop the student’s intelligence (`aql), faith (iman), morality and character (khuluq), knowledge and practice of personal religious obligations (fard ain) and knowledge, skills and physical abilities warranted by worldly responsibilities and duties (Ajem, Ramzy and Nadeem Memon, “Prophetic Pedagogy: Teaching ‘Islamically’ in our Classrooms”)
- Dr. Susan Douglass, expert in Social Studies, promotes a panoramic study of the world by global eras–emphasizing the interdependence of nations–rather than an isolationist civilizations approach (which in Western societies focuses only on Western civilization). Such study includes Islamic history and Muslims’ contributions to humanity throughout the ages.
- Dr. Freda Shamma, pioneer in promoting culturally inclusive and ethical literature, emphasizes that English classes should carefully select literature aligned with Islamic moral values and include works by both Western authors and those from other cultures, i.e. literature that 1-features Muslim main characters and 2- is authored by Muslims.
- Dr. Nur Jannah Hassan at CENTRIS, stresses that Science classes should be designed to awaken the student’s mind, to inspire a complete awe of and servitude towards the Creator and Sustainer, to instill the purpose of creation, vicegerency and stewardship of the earth and its inhabitants, to enable students to decipher God’s Signs in nature and in the self, to infuse responsibility in sustaining balance and accountability, and should include Muslims’ legacy in the field.
- Dr. Reema alNizami, specialist in Math Education, advocates that Math classes should instill creative thinking, systematic problem solving and an appreciation of balance; include a survey of Muslims’ contributions to the field; and utilize word problems that encourage charitable and ethical financial practices.
Technology Enables Access to Islamically Infused Schooling for grades 6-12
Technology has now enabled this Islamic infusion for middle schools and secondary schools to become a reality on a global scale, alhamdulillah. Legacy International Online High School, a college preparatory, online Islamic school serving grades 6-12, whose mission is “Cultivating Compassionate Global Leaders”, offers all academic subjects from the Islamic worldview. Pioneered by leading Muslim educators from around the globe with background in Islamic pedagogy and digital learning, Legacy is the first of its kind online platform that is accessible to:
- homeschooling families seeking full-time, rigorous, Islamically infused classes
- Public school families looking for a part-time Islamic studies or Arabic sequence
- Islamic schools, evening programs, and Sunday schools that are short-staffed and would like to outsource certain courses from the Islamic worldview
- Schools and entities needing training/workshops to empower Muslim educators on how to teach from the Islamic worldview
Strengthening Faith & Identity in College and Beyond
For those seeking supplementary resources to address the most prevalent hot topic issues plaguing young Muslims of our times, Yaqeen Institute, whose initial publications were more targeted towards a university audience, is now working to make its research more accessible to the general public through both its Conviction Circles initiative and its short videos featuring infographics.
Another online platform, California Islamic University, offers a comprehensive course sequence which allows college students to graduate with a second degree in Islamic studies while simultaneously completing their undergraduate studies at any accredited community college or university in the United States. Qalam and AlMaghrib Institute also offer online coursework in Islamic studies.
What We Hope to Avoid
While volunteering at his son Sulayman’s* public school with ten student participants, Ibrahim* was saddened when he met a young boy named Chris*. When Chris met Ibrahim, he piped up and eagerly told Ibrahim, “my grandparents are Muslim!” Through the course of the conversation, Ibrahim realized that he knew Chris’ grandparents, a very sweet elderly couple (and currently very practicing) who had not made the Islamic worldview a priority early on in their children’s lives. A mere two generations later, Islam is completely eliminated from their family. *names changed
Legacy IOHS recommends the following to Muslim families/educators and Islamic schools:
- Instill in our children a strong grasp of the foundational sciences of Islam, while preparing them with the necessary contemporary knowledge and skills
- Teach our children in their formative years to view the world (including their “secular” academic study) through the lens of Islam
- Follow this up with relevant motivational programs that assist them in understanding challenging issues of today and coach them on how to respond to the issues in their teenage years.
We pray that with the above, we will have fulfilled our duty in shepherding our flock in a comprehensive way, with utmost care. It is Allah’s help we seek in these challenging times:
رَبَّنَا لَا تُزِغْ قُلُوبَنَا بَعْدَ إِذْ هَدَيْتَنَا وَهَبْ لَنَا مِنْ لَدُنْكَ رَحْمَةً ۚ إِنَّكَ أَنْتَ الْوَهَّابُ
‘Our Lord, do not let our hearts deviate after You have guided us. Grant us Your mercy: You are the Ever Giving. [Qur’an 3:8]
رَبَّنَا هَبْ لَنَا مِنْ أَزْوَاجِنَا وَذُرِّيَّاتِنَا قُرَّةَ أَعْيُنٍ وَاجْعَلْنَا لِلْمُتَّقِينَ إِمَامًا
‘Our Lord, give us joy in our spouses and offspring. Make us good examples to those who are aware of You’. [Qur’an 25:74]
يَا مُقَلِّبَ القُلُوبِ ثَبِّتْ قَلْبِيْ عَلَى دِيْنِكْ
“O turner of the hearts, keep my heart firm on your religion.”
Freda Shamma has a M.A. from the University of California, Berkeley, and an Ed.D. from the University of Cincinnati in the area of Curriculum Development. A veteran educator, she has worked with educators from the United States, South Africa and all over the Muslim world to develop integrated curricula based on an Islamic worldview that meets the needs of modern Muslim youth. She serves as Curriculum Advisor for Legacy International Online High School.
An avid student of the Islamic sciences, Zaheer Arastu earned his M.Ed from The George Washington University and completed his training in Educational Leadership from the University of Oklahoma. his experience in Islamic education spans over 15 years serving as both teacher, administrator, and dean of innovation and technology. He currently serves as the Head of School for Legacy International Online High School.
Grit and Resilience: The Self-Help vs. Islamic Perspective
I don’t really care about grit.
Persevering and persisting through difficulties to achieve a higher goal is awesome. High-five. We should all develop that. No one disagrees that resilience is an essential characteristic to have.
Somehow, this simple concept has ballooned into what feels like a self-help cottage industry of sorts. It has a Ted talk with tens of millions of views, podcasts, keynote speeches, a New York Times best-selling book, and finding ways to teach this in schools and workplaces.
What I do care about is critically analyzing if it is all that it’s cracked up to be (spoiler alert: I don’t think so), why the self-help industry aggressively promotes it, and how we understand it from an Islamic perspective. For me, this is about much more than just grit – it’s about understanding character development from a (mostly Americanized) secular perspective vis-a-vis the Islamic one.
The appeal of grit in a self-help context is that it provides a magic bullet that intuitively feels correct. It provides optimism. If I can master this one thing, it will unlock what I need to be successful. When I keep running into a roadblock, I can scapegoat my reason for failure – a lack of grit.
Grit encompasses several inspirational cliches – be satisfied with being unsatisfied, or love the chase as much as the capture, or that grit is falling in love and staying in love. It is to believe anyone can succeed if they work long and hard enough. In short, it is the one-word encapsulation of the ideal of the American Dream.
Self-help literature has an underlying theme of controlling what is within your control and letting go of the rest. Islamically, in general, we agree with this sentiment. We focus our actions where we are personally accountable and put our trust in Allah for what we cannot control.
The problem with this theme, specifically with grit, is that it necessitates believing the circumstances around you cannot be changed. Therefore, you must simply accept things the way that they are. Teaching people that they can overcome any situation by merely working hard enough is not only unrealistic but utterly devoid of compassion.
“The notion that kids in poverty can overcome hunger, lack of medical care, homelessness, and trauma by buckling down and persisting was always stupid and heartless, exactly what you would expect to hear from Scrooge or the Koch brothers or Betsy DeVos.” -Diane Ravitch, Forget Grit, Focus on Inequality
Focusing on the individual characteristics of grit and perseverance shifts attention away from structural or systemic issues that impact someone’s ability to succeed. The personal characteristics can be changed while structural inequalities are seen as ‘fixed.’
Alfie Kohn, in an article critical of Grit by Angela Duckworth, notes that Duckworth and her mentor while studying grit operated under a belief that,
[U]nderachievement isn’t explained by structural factors — social, economic, or even educational. Rather, they insisted it should be attributed to the students themselves and their “failure to exercise self-discipline.” The entire conceptual edifice of grit is constructed on that individualistic premise, one that remains popular for ideological reasons even though it’s been repeatedly debunked by research.
Duckworth admitted as much in an interview with EdSurge.
There was a student who introduced himself having written a critical essay about the narrative of grit. His major point was that when we talk about grit as a kind of ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ personal strength, it leaves in the shadows structural poverty and racism and other things that make it impossible, frankly, for some kids to do what we would expect them to do. When he sent me that essay, of course, I wanted to know more. I joined his [dissertation] committee because I don’t know much about sociology, and I don’t know much about this criticism.
I learned a lot from him over the years. I think the lesson for me is that when someone criticizes you, when someone criticized me, the natural thing is to be defensive and to reflexively make more clear your case and why you’re right, but I’ve always learned more from just listening. When I have the courage to just say, “Well, maybe there’s a point here that I hadn’t thought of,” and in this case the Grit narrative and what Grit has become is something that he really brought to me and my awareness in a way that I was oblivious to before.
It is mind-boggling that the person who popularized this research and wrote the book on the topic simply didn’t know that there was such a thing as structural inequality. It is quite disappointing that her response essentially amounted to “That’s interesting. I’d like to learn more.”
Duckworth provides a caveat – “My theory doesn’t address these outside forces, nor does it include luck. It’s about the psychology of achievement, but because psychology isn’t all that matters, it’s incomplete.” This is a cop-out we see consistently in the self-help industry and elsewhere. They won’t deny that those problems exist, they simply say that’s not the current focus.
It is intellectually dishonest to promote something as a key to success while outright ignoring the structures needed to enable success. That is not the only thing the theory of grit ignores. While marketing it as a necessary characteristic, it overlooks traits like honesty and kindness.
The grit narrative lionizes this superhero type of individual who breaks through all obstacles no matter how much the deck is stacked against them. It provides a sense of false hope. Instead of knowing when to cut your losses and see a failure for what it is, espousing a grit mentality will make a person stubbornly pursue a failing endeavor. It reminds me of those singers who comically fail the first round of auditions on American Idol, are rightly ridiculed by the judges, and then emotionally tell the whole world they’re going to come out on top (and then never do).
Overconfidence, obstinance, and naive optimism are the result of grit without context or boundaries. It fosters denial and a lack of self-awareness – the consequences of which are felt when horrible leaders keep rising to the top due, in part, to their grit and perseverance.
The entire idea of the psychology of achievement completely ignores the notion of morality and ethics. Grit in a vacuum may be amoral, but that is not how the real world works. This speaks powerfully to the need to understand the application of these types of concepts through a lens of faith.
The individual focus, however, is precisely what makes something like grit a prime candidate to become a popular self-help item. Schools and corporations alike will want to push it because it focuses on the individual instead of the reality of circumstances. There is a real amount of cognitive dissonance when a corporation can tell employees to focus on developing grit while not addressing toxic employment practices that increase turnover and destroy employees physically and emotionally (see: Dying for a Paycheck by Jeffrey Pfeffer).
Circumstances matter more than ever. You’ve probably heard the story (of course, in a Ted Talk) about the famous marshmallow test at some point. This popularizes the self-help version of delayed gratification. A bunch of kids are given a marshmallow and told that if they can avoid eating it for 5 minutes, they’ll get a second one. The children are then shown hilariously trying to resist eating it. These kids were then studied as they grew older, and lo and behold, those who had the self-discipline to hold out for the 2nd marshmallow were far more successful in life than those who gave in.
A new study found that a child’s ability to hold out for the second marshmallow had nothing to do with the ability to delay gratification. As The Atlantic points out, it had much more to do with the child’s social and economic background. When a child comes from a well to do household, the promise of a second marshmallow will be fulfilled. Their parents always deliver. When someone grows up in poverty, they are more attuned to take the short term reward because the guarantee does not exist that the marshmallow would still be there later. The circumstances matter much more than the psychological studies can account for. It is far easier to display grit with an entrepreneurial venture, for example, when you have the safety net of wealthy and supportive parents.
Valerie Strauss writes in the Washington Post that grit discourse is driven by middle and upper-class parents wanting their spoiled kids to appreciate the virtues of struggling against hardship. Unfortunately, this focus on character education means that poor students suffer because less money will then be spent on teaching disadvantaged students the skills they need to be successful. Sisyphus, she notes, had plenty of grit, but it didn’t get him very far.
Strauss asks us to imagine if a toxic dump was discovered near Beverly Hills, and our response was to teach kids how to lessen the effects of toxins instead of fixing the dump.
The grit discourse does not teach that poor children deserve poverty; it teaches that poverty itself is not so bad. In fact, hardship provides the very traits required to escape hardship. This logic is as seductive as it is circular. Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is seen as a virtuous enterprise whether practiced by Horatio Alger’s urchins or Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs (bootstrapping is a common term in technology finance circles). And most importantly, it creates a purported path out of poverty that does not involve any sacrifice on the part of the privileged classes. -Valerie Strauss
This approach is a way to appear noble while perpetuating the status quo. It provides the illusion of upliftment while further entrenching the very systems that prevent it. We see this enacted most commonly with modern-day Silicon Valley style of philanthropy. Anand Giridharadas has an entire book dedicated to this ‘elite charade of changing the world’ entitled Winners Take All.
The media also does its fair share to push this narrative. Stories that should horrify us are passed along as inspirational stories of perseverance. It’s like celebrating a GoFundMe campaign that helps pay for surgery to save someone’s life instead of critically analyzing why healthcare is not seen as a human right in the first place.
Islamically, we are taught to find ways to address the individual as well as the system. Characteristics like grit and delayed gratification are not bad. They’re misapplied when the bigger picture is not taken into account. In the Islamic system, for example, a person is encouraged not to beg. At the same time, there is an encouragement for those who can give to seek out those in need. A person in debt is strongly advised to pay off their debts as quickly as possible. At the same time, the lender is encouraged to be easygoing and to forgive the debt if possible.
This provides a more realistic framework for applying these concepts. A person facing difficulty should be encouraged to be resilient and find ways to bounce back. At the same time, support structures must be established to help that person.
Beyond the framework, there is a much larger issue. Grit is oriented around success. Success is unquestionably assumed to be a personal success oriented around academic achievement, career, wealth, and status. When that is the end goal, it makes it much easier to keep the focus on the individual.
The Islamic definition of success is much broader. There is the obvious idea of success in the Hereafter, but that is separate from this discussion. Even in a worldly sense, a successful person may be the one who sacrifices attending a good school, or perhaps even a dream job type of career opportunity, to spend more time with their family. The emphasis on individual success at all costs has contributed to the breakdown of essential family and community support systems.
A misapplied sense of grit furthers this when a person thinks they don’t need anyone else, and they just need to persevere. It is part of a larger body of messaging that promotes freedom and autonomy. We celebrate people who are strong and independent. Self-help tells us we can achieve anything with the right mindset.
But what happens when we fail? What happens when we find loneliness and not fulfillment, when we lack the bonds of familial solidarity, and when money does not make us whole? Then it all falls on us. It is precisely this feeling of constriction that Allah , give good news to those who are steadfast, those who say, when afflicted with a calamity, ‘We belong to God and to Him we shall return.’ These will be given blessings and mercy from their Lord, and it is they who are rightly guided.” (2:155-157)
Resilience is a reflex. When a person faces hardship, they will fall back on the habits and values they have. It brings to mind the statement of the Prophet that patience is at the first strike. He taught us the mindset needed to have grit in the first place,
“Wondrous is the affair of the believer for there is good for him in every matter and this is not the case with anyone except the believer. If he is happy, then he thanks Allah and thus there is good for him, and if he is harmed, then he shows patience and thus there is good for him” (Muslim).
He also taught us the habits we need to ensure that we have the reflex of grit when the situation warrants it –
“Whoever would be pleased for Allah to answer him during times of hardship and difficulty, let him supplicate often during times of ease” (Tirmidhi).
The institution of the masjid as a community center provides a massive opportunity to build infrastructure to support people. Resilience, as Michael Ungar writes, is not a DIY endeavor. Communities must find ways to provide the resources a person needs to persevere. Ungar explains, “What kind of resources? The kind that get you through the inevitable crises that life throws our way. A bank of sick days. Some savings or an extended family who can take you in. Neighbours or a congregation willing to bring over a casserole, shovel your driveway or help care for your children while you are doing whatever you need to do to get through the moment. Communities with police, social workers, home-care workers, fire departments, ambulances, and food banks. Employment insurance, pension plans or financial advisers to help you through a layoff.”
Ungar summarizes the appropriate application of grit, “The science of resilience is clear: The social, political and natural environments in which we live are far more important to our health, fitness, finances and time management than our individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. When it comes to maintaining well-being and finding success, environments matter. In fact, they may matter just as much, and likely much more, than individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. A positive attitude may be required to take advantage of opportunities as you find them, but no amount of positive thinking on its own is going to help you survive a natural disaster, a bad workplace or childhood abuse. Change your world first by finding the relationships that nurture you, the opportunities to use your talents and the places where you experience community and governmental support and social justice. Once you have these, your world will help you succeed more than you could ever help yourself.”
The one major missing ingredient here is tawakkul (trust in Allah). One of the events in the life of the Prophet that epitomized grit, resilience, and perseverance was the Battle of Badr. At this occasion, the Companions said, “God is enough for us: He is the best protector.“
“Those whose faith only increased when people said, ‘Fear your enemy: they have amassed a great army against you,’ and who replied, ‘God is enough for us: He is the best protector,’“ (3:173)
This is the same phrase that Ibrahim , while displaying the utmost level of resilience, said when he was thrown into the fire, and it was made cool.
There is a core belief in Islam about balancing between fear and hope. Scholars advise when a person feels despair, they should remind themselves of the traditions that reinforce hope in Allah’s forgiveness. When a person feels themselves sliding further and further into disobedience to Allah, then they should remind themselves of the traditions that warn against Allah’s punishment. The focus changes depending on the situation.
Grit itself is a praiseworthy characteristic
There is no doubt that it is a trait that makes people successful. The challenge comes in applying it and how we teach it. It needs a proper level of balance. Too much focus on grit as a singular predictor of success may lead to victim-blaming and false hope syndrome. Overlooking it on the other hand, enables a feeling of entitlement and a victim mentality.
One purpose of teaching grit was to help students from privileged backgrounds understand and appreciate the struggle needed to overcome difficulty. Misapplied, it can lead to overlooking systemic issues that prevent a person from succeeding even when they have grit.
Self-help literature often fails to make these types of distinctions. It fails to provide guidance for balancing adapting the advice based on circumstance. The criticisms here are not of the idea of grit, but rather the myopic way in which self-help literature promotes concepts like grit without real-world contextualization. We need to find a way to have the right proportionality of understanding individual effort, societal support, and our reliance on Allah.
Our ability to persevere, to be resilient, and to have grit, is linked directly to our relationship with Allah, and our true level of trust in Him.
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