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Blurred Lines: Women, “Celebrity” Shaykhs, and Spiritual Abuse

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By Ustadha Zaynab Ansari

You who believe, uphold justice and bear witness to God, even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or your close relatives. Whether the person is rich or poor, God can best take care of both. Refrain from following your own desire, so that you can act justly–if you distort or neglect justice, God is fully aware of what you do.” (The Qur’an, 4:135)

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The Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), God bless and grant his peace, said, “Religion is good counsel. We [Sahaba] asked, ‘To whom?’ He, peace be upon him, replied, ‘To Allah and His Book, and His messenger, and to the leaders of the Muslims and the masses.’”  (Muslim)

“It is said that a man from the Children of Israel acquired much knowledge from books that would fill up eighty vaults. But that knowledge was of no benefit to him. Allah, the Exalted, revealed to the prophet of that time to tell that person, ‘Even if you were study more books to further your knowledge that would still be of no benefit to you as you do not act upon three things: (1) do not fall in love with this world for this world is not the permanent abode for the faithful believers (lit. mu’minin), (2) do not befriend Satan for he is not a friend of the faithful believers, and (3) do not trouble any of Allah’s creation because such is not the nature of any faithful believer.’” [1]

Disclaimer: The following article represents my views and my views alone. None of what follows should be attributed to the people or organizations with whom I currently work or with whom I have worked in the past. While names and identifying information have been left out, the following accounts are based on verifiable events.

While I welcome comments and questions on this subject, I will not respond to speculation about the identities of the individuals involved in these scenarios. This essay is also not about any particular approach to Islam, school of thought, or minhaj. It is about human behavior.

In the Name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy[2]

People are often curious about my role as a female teacher and speaker in the male-dominated field of “traditional Islam.” [3] “What does a woman scholar-in-residence do?” I am often asked. To the non-Muslim questioner, my role is seen as a bit of a curiosity, especially given the stock, standard media image of the oppressed Muslim woman. To the Muslim questioner, the question goes deeper. For some women, I am a potential role model for their daughters and a mentor to them. For some men, I represent the rare woman in the circles associated with traditional Islam who is willing to speak in public. I am simultaneously called upon to speak for the women in the audience, while defending the Shar’i (Islamic legal) basis for my presence on stage. Event organizers, typically quite gracious, believe that I contribute to the diverse perspectives they hope to offer to audience members. Often the only woman in a lineup that is otherwise exclusively male, I represent, supposedly, a continuation of the tradition of the scholarly Muslim woman.

At first glance, it may appear as if I am successfully negotiating the gender politics of the American Muslim conference. It is really offstage, however, that the tensions between my public role and private reality collide. While I enjoy learning from and interacting with the teachers, callers, and Shuyukh who attend the conferences, events, and retreats that constitute the American Islamic socio-intellectual scene, I have experienced moments that have given me pause. These are the moments in which the lines between the public world of the “celebrity” Shaykh and his private life become blurred, and the women who inhabit both worlds reach out to me for clarity.

When I first started writing Islamic advice columns, I was completely unprepared for the deluge of questions I would receive from men and women around the world. A laid back former colleague told me the job would not be difficult. “You’ll just be the Muslim version of Dear Abby,” he chuckled. Unless Abby has started fielding questions on Shari’ah law, however, I have come to disagree with his assessment. Over the years, thousands of questions have poured in on every conceivable topic: theology, Qur’anic exegesis, hadith studies, human rights, environmentalism, disability, marriage and family law, sexuality, gender relations, Islamic ritual law, history, politics…the list goes on. I quickly realized that the Muslim (internet) public was consuming and demanding answers at a faster rate than I or any other writer could provide. Perhaps dissatisfied with the limitations of online Islamic answers and quasi-fatawa, prospective students of knowledge—which included women in large percentages—began signing up for classes with their favorite teachers and scholars. They also flocked to retreats, intensives, and conferences, looking for the personal connection that was missing from online forums.

This combination of electronic delivery of Islamic content and personal interaction with scholars and teachers at onsite venues has led to a revolution in traditional modes of Islamic learning. [4] Suddenly, students did not have to spend thousands of dollars and experience the culture shock of living overseas. They could access sacred texts from the comfort of their home computers—and, increasingly, their smartphones—and even communicate with the teacher in real time using Skype, chat, and other instant messaging applications. In an instant, the distance between student and teacher shrank and the boundaries of decorum that circumscribed the public interactions of males and females shifted and relaxed. The blurring of lines sparked by this technological revolution has resulted in the creation of fan pages for ‘ulama, “friending” unrelated men and women on Facebook, following favorite teacher profiles on social media, and casually messaging heretofore inaccessible people at all times of day and night.

Adab on the Internet

From the perspective of the democratization of Islamic knowledge, the above developments might appear promising. However, from the perspective of adab (etiquette), the “formality between men and women” so keenly articulated by a prominent woman scholar; the integrity of the knowledge itself and its purveyors; and the safety of the family structure; the above developments are alarming.[5] Before I discuss why I find this trend disturbing, let me say a word about the “celebrity” Shaykh. Lest anyone think I am being dismissive toward our ‘ulama, I am not. I do not believe teachers, scholars, and speakers set out to become famous. I pray that all of us serving in a public capacity read and reread Imam Al-Ghazali’s (God rest his soul and sanctify his secret) warning to teachers of sacred knowledge, particularly regarding their susceptibility to arrogance, showing off, and amassing followers.I believe the celebrity Shaykh is a victim of his own success, a product of a techno-obsessed and consumer-driven culture that dictates that every ‘alim, school, and institution market their “authentic” and “traditional” Islamic “products and services” or perish. Moreover, the celebrity Shaykh has become enthroned on a pedestal, the pedestal of unimpeachable piety and character, the pedestal of “see no wrong, do no wrong,” in which we, the adoring students, have cast this very fallible human being as larger than life.

We are doing ourselves and our teachers a tremendous disservice when we elevate them beyond human frailties. Our ‘ulama, teachers, and Mashayikh are not perfect. They are flawed human beings, with the same weaknesses, shortcomings, and challenges with which we struggle. The only perfected human being was the Prophet Muhammad, God bless him and give him peace. And if we read his biography, we realize that even he, peace be upon him, his wives, companions, and associates had to deal with real human problems. So why do we try to ascribe perfection to our teachers and scholars today? It is natural to feel affection for the person who guides and directs us, but are we helping our religious leaders when we declare them beyond reproach?

I contend that we have created a toxic environment for our religious leaders: an environment in which the proper boundaries between student and teacher have become blurred, an environment in which misuse of power is rife, and an environment in which women, in particular, are subject to deception and spiritual abuse. I raise this issue, not to cause dissension (fitna) in the ranks of the Muslims, but to warn our leaders, our elders, and our masses that we have to address this social ill before we lose all credibility when it comes to the Qur’anic injunction to the

“[Believers], you are the best community singled out for people: you order what is right, forbid what is wrong, and believe in God.” (The Qur’an, 3:110).

Adding Up Islam in Public and Private

Our leaders, particularly those who claim to be spiritual guides, must practice what they preach. Our ‘ulama are not politicians, for whom a wide disparity between public image and private conduct is expected. Yes our ‘ulama are fallible, but they have a responsibility to recognize the tensions inherent in their roles, the pitfalls of the celebrity Shaykh culture, and the integrity of the positions they hold. How can our leaders recite platitudes about women’s empowerment and status in Islam publicly, while privately undermining those very rights they claim to cherish? How is it acceptable to publicly proclaim respect for women, while privately deeming them little more than sexual conquests?

It has recently come to my attention that there are well-known individuals who are using their platforms for more than the dissemination of Islamic teachings. There is evidence demonstrating that these individuals are using their positions in circles of sacred learning to groom, recruit, and entice female followers with promises of marriage, access to Shaykhs, study abroad opportunities, and entrée to exclusive socio-spiritual networks. Under the guise of mentoring, these individuals are engaging in private, unsupervised conversations with marriageable members of the opposite sex. These conversations, carried out in the relative anonymity of cyberspace, appear to run the gamut from fairly innocuous exchanges of biographical information (à la pen pals in the pre-computer era) to material that is merely suggestive to thoughts and sentiments that are wildly inappropriate. For those who want to make the excuse that the conversations are a prelude to marriage, I would merely remind them that the individuals involved in this scenario are teachers of Islamic law and, hence, know full well that there are rules surrounding courtship in Islam. I would also point out that when said teacher is engaging in conversations with multiple women at the same time, we also have a math problem. Islamic law only allows a man to marry four wives, so if the already-married teacher is “courting” multiple women at once, only a certain percentage can expect the relationship to become licit. What then of the remaining percentage? Again, a math problem.

One could make the excuse that our ‘ulama are not mathematicians. True, but surely they have some knowledge of Newtonian physics, “for every reaction, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” After making the cold calculus of choosing and excluding whom to marry from their adoring students, these teachers may very well be able to move on, accepting the next exciting or lucrative speaking engagement. However, the women who were promised marriage and then jilted are having a more difficult time of it. It is not an easy thing to be played, particularly when the player is your favorite Shaykh. One can only imagine what these women’s perception of Islam has become, especially when the Shaykh was their Islam.

As a direct consequence of these individuals’ actions, women have become disillusioned, embittered, and depressed. Every time these individuals raise their voices up to proclaim their sincere love of the deen, these women’s hearts fall just a little more. The harm is even more egregious when these women are actually the ex-wives of Shuyukh. Typically, these women start out as eager students who strike up an online relationship with the Shaykh (or with whom the Shaykh initiates contact), which then descends into banter and flirtation, then promises of commitment, talk of marriage, etc. In some cases, the Shaykh proposes marriage, in other cases, it is the women. The common denominator though, in all situations, is the existence of the first wife. Her presence is often alluded to in online conversations, but her consent for the relationship is rarely sought. She is either said to be “okay with it,” or believed to be able to “deal with it.” In most cases, the first wife is not okay with it, nor is she able to deal with it. In fact, in most cases, the poor woman has no idea the other woman even exists, until it is too late.

Talaq by Text Message

Since the purpose of this essay is to draw attention to the plight of the “other woman,” I will not belabor the point about the first wife, except to say that when her husband’s dalliances and marriages are revealed, the trust between them is irreparably broken. If she is legally married (per the laws of the United States, for example), she may have some means of redress. However, the other woman has no such means. As the clandestine second (or third or fourth) wife of the Shaykh, she has no legal avenues through which to pursue her rights. Her Islamic nikah (marriage contract) is not enforceable, placing her in an extremely vulnerable position. It is a position no one’s daughter or sister should find herself in, but it is happening to good women from good families. As the secret second wife of the Shaykh, the poor woman receives no public recognition or respect. She cannot appear with him in gatherings. She cannot announce herself to the community. And she dare not contact his first wife and speak out lest she be accused of causing fitna. To add insult to injury, the Shaykh, who will not even deign to acknowledge the woman publicly, still retains conjugal access, enjoying all the pleasures of marriage without the responsibility, for, in many cases, he has not provided a marital home nor financial support to the secret second wife. To cap it all off, when he is done with the second wife, the marriage is ended without much ceremony, unless one deems talaq by text message ceremonious. Predictably, when the woman reacts badly, as anyone would under the circumstances, the Shaykh and his followers write her off as “unstable.” [6]

I will leave everyone with a few thoughts. What is a woman’s broken heart worth? What does a woman’s lost faith mean to us? What would the Prophet, God bless him and give him peace, who conducted his marriages with total transparency, think of us? Is it appropriate to use one’s access to knowledge and teachers as a lure for needy, vulnerable women? Is it fair to marry a woman in secret, knowing one lacks the means to support her? When a man marries behind his wife’s back, does he truly value the marriage bond? When individuals abuse their religious authority in this fashion, are they upholding the integrity of the tradition with which they have been entrusted? Is it not inconsistent to publicly lecture about modesty and the niqab (face veil) for women, yet let one’s guard down in private communication? We need to think very carefully about how we as teachers, scholars, Mashayikh, and students contribute to the blurred lines that have resulted in broken homes, broken hearts, and broken minds.

“By the declining day, man is [deep] in loss, except for those who believe, do good deeds, urge one another to the truth, and urge one another to steadfastness.” (The Qur’an, 103:1-3).

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Shaykha Zaynab Ansari Abdul-Razacq is a native Southerner with Northern roots. She spent several years studying the core Islamic sciences, including Arabic, jurisprudence, Qur’anic recitation & commentary, Hadith, and Prophetic biography in Damascus, Syria at Abu Nour Masjid’s college preparatory program. Currently, she is the scholar-in-residence at the Tayseer Foundation in Knoxville, TN.

[1] Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani and Mawlana Muhammad Abdul Jabbar, tr. Habib Siddiqui, Al-Munabbihat: The Counsel (Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Book Trust, 2007), 17.

[2] This invocation and all translations of Qur’anic verses come from the M.A.S. Abdel Haleem Oxford World’s Classics Qur’an. The hadith translation is my own.

[3] I am enclosing this term in quotation marks given the fact that most observant Muslims would regard themselves as practitioners of a traditional Islam vs. a non-traditional Islam.

[4] Again, this term is enclosed in quotation marks given that there are a plethora of institutions embodying varying approaches to Islam that lay claim to this mantle. Again, this essay is not about any one particular approach or institution.

[5] See “Formality between men and women” at http://www.peacespective.org/formality/ (accessed May 7, 2015).

[6] All conversations enclosed in quotation marks are either paraphrased or quoted directly.

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#Life

Mental Health & COVID-19: Light, Guidance, & Much Love | Part 1

Insha’Allah, you and your loved ones are safe & healthy. May Allah swt protect us all from COVID-19, Ya Hafidh, and open the way for our spiritual growth, Ya Fattah Ya Rabb. No doubt, we are living in very challenges times, and many in our community are suffering. As such, my intention for this two-part series is to provide some beneficial perspectives and practical strategies that will make your emotional journey safer & easier, insha’Allah.

And a journey it surely is. We are on a very long hike up a very steep mountain. And we have only two choices about HOW we approach this challenge: unskillfully or skillfully. If we wear flip-flops, and fail to pack water and snacks, we will have a very difficult time reaching the summit. And if we do, we will be in very bad shape. If we wear good socks, sturdy hiking boots, and our backpack is well-stocked, not only are we likely to reach the summit, but reach it in great shape. This is what I want for our beloved community, insha’Allah.

As Muslims, it is crucial to remember that the ultimate summit is the hereafter. Truly, Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) is our goal and pleasing Him is our aim. Truly, everything we do or fail to do here has an impact there. For many people, this haqq is much more difficult to remember and actualize when their day-to-day challenges are daunting. This is why historically and traditionally, in times of crisis, Muslims have always sought the nasiha of wise elders. Imam Muhasibi, the father of Islamic Psychology, developed this crucial, beautiful science in response to the human needs of his students. Sadly, the loss of these teachings as a widespread living tradition has contributed in large part to the widespread mental-health problems that have been plaguing our community for a very long time, which have now been exacerbated by COVID-19.

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Here’s a good metaphor. The science of nutrition teaches us about our body, the properties of different foods, what to avoid to prevent disease, and the vital nutrients we MUST ingest to attain optimum physical health. Likewise, the science of mental health teaches us about our heart and mind, the impact of specific activities, what to avoid to prevent disease, and the vital psychological nutrients we MUST ingest to attain optimum mental health. Lack of knowledge about Islamic Psychology and the absence of the vital psychological nutrients have taken a huge toll on our community. The stories I hear would probably shock you. They would certainly break your heart. Especially the stories of our young people, who are my top priority. Insha’Allah, the wake-up call of COVID-19 propels us to reclaim en masse this lost part of our spiritual heritage, so we can reclaim our vitality and nobility as the Ummah of Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him).

To continue with the metaphor. Working one-on-one with an experienced nutritionist is very different than reading a book about nutrition. With the former, your nutritional program is specifically tailored to your particular problems, challenges, habits, and temperament. The same is true when it comes to mental health. So I must manage your expectations honestly and honorably by saying that it is not possible for me to do in two articles for the general public what I do one-on-one in my private practice as a psychotherapist, life-coach, and spiritual mentor. Truly, there is a palpable, powerful, fitrah-based alchemy that can only happen when two human hearts link-up in real time. That said, in the same way that reading and learning about nutrition is very beneficial, so too reading and learning about mental health, especially now.

Working Skillfully with Difficult Emotions

No doubt, COVID-19 has unleashed a wide range of very difficult emotions. People are struggling with tremendous anxiety, uncertainty, fear, sadness, loneliness, depression, helplessness, hopelessness, anger, frustration, confusion, grief, despair, and in some cases, a full-blown crisis of faith. So let me explain a little bit about emotions and how to work with them skillfully  

One of the foundational principles of cognitive-behavioral psychology is called ‘reframing.’

It is the process of deliberately thinking differently about our situation. Reframing it. The fact is, the lens through which we view our circumstances makes all the difference in the world insofar as how we feel. Thoughts are like the front wheels of the car and feelings are like the back wheels. We must be in the driver seat, steering intentionally. Whichever way the front wheels turn, the back wheels follow. So paying attention to our thoughts moment by moment, and making sure they are aligned with the Qur’an and Sunnah, is crucial. The mind is a like a muscle that MUST be trained through specific exercises, and our tradition is rich in the techniques for doing so. Truly, we must hit the spiritual gym regularly. The heavy lifting of muhasiba (self-reckoning) and muraqaba (mindfulness/meditation) are not optional. If these are not already a consistent part of your spiritual practice, NOW is the time to take them up. You will be so happy you did!

Here’s a good metaphor. If you are a longtime couch potato, even a flight of stairs leaves you huffing and puffing. If you are in good shape, you’re able to jog around the block easily. If you’re in great shape, you’re able to leap over the hurdles like a gazelle. For many, COVID-19 has been like asking a couch potato to run a marathon. So we need to get in the best spiritual shape possible as quickly as possible. To that end:

The Centering Exercise 

Every time you notice that you are feeling sad, anxious, fearful, angry, hopeless, helpless, impatient, frustrated, confused, or depressed, here’s what to do.  

  • Turn off your devices and put them in another room.
  • Close your door and put a “Please do not disturb.” sign on the doorknob. Lay down.
  • Close your eyes. Turn your attention to your heart. Remember the Hadith Qudsi, “Heaven and earth cannot contain me but the heart of my faithful believer is where I reside.” Truly, Allah is closer than our jugular vein. (50:16)
  • Take some slow-deep breaths. On the out-breath, silently recite “La illaha.” On the in-breath, silently recite “il Allah.” After a few minutes, notice the shift in your state. Notice the deep connection between ‘self’ and ‘breath’, not just experientially, but also etymologically. They both derive from the same Arabic root, transliterated nfs.   
  • When you are centered, mentally review what you had been thinking about that gave rise to the difficult emotions.  Then do a ‘search and replace,’ deliberately and intentionally replacing your dark thoughts with the Light of The Qur’an or Hadith. Here is one example: Search: “I’ll never get through this.” Replace: “Allah never burdens a person with more than he is well able to bear.” (2:286)

As individuals, we each have our own particular dark thoughts. NOW is the BEST time to fix them. I lovingly encourage you to get a blank journal, so that each time you do The Centering Exercise, you can make note of what you observed, what you learned about yourself. Write down each dark thought and then write down each Rx of Light from The Qur’an or Sunnah. Having a personal journal gives you a concrete means of reinforcing your new thought patterns. 

We know from our neuroscience that the human brain possesses ‘neuroplasticity’, which is the capacity to be shaped, molded, changed. As such, the more often you do The Centering Exercise, the more your thinking patterns will change. This is how Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) created us, mash’Allah! It’s really quite amazing to realize that the Qur’an we’ve been given provides Light upon Light from The Lord of The Worlds. And the Sunnah is that Light fully actualized to perfection, mash’Allah. The fact is, no matter how dark a room may be, if we light just one candle, it illuminates the space. Mash’Allah!

Parents, once you get the hang of The Centering Exercise, please please teach it to your children! Insha’Allah, make it the new normal in your household, transforming discord and upset into harmony and peace.

Say “Ameen!”

Divine Reminders

Insofar as reframing COVID-19 in the broader sense, I offer you this lens, this Divine Reminder, with much love. May it shift your state from embittered to empowered. My beloved sisters and brothers, Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) is our Rabb, our Teacher, and COVID-19 is the Test we’ve all been given. Every single human being on the planet. We all woke up one day, walked into the classroom of Life, and got handed a pop quiz. The purpose of which is to show us the places where we weren’t prepared. This is great! Because the trumpet is absolutely going to sound, and we surely want to be ready. As long as we’re breathing, we have time to prepare. This is great!

Say “Ameen!” 

Beloved ones, we have the incredible privilege of being students of The One Who Knows Everything, including The Future and The Unseen.  It is very bad adab to question the teaching methods of our Teacher or to complain that we don’t like the Test.

This was the fatal mistake of Bani Israel that we are reminded 17x/day not to emulate. On the contrary, what we want to be asking ourselves is: “What must I do to pass this Test with flying colors, to ace this Exam?” Our beautiful Qur’an teaches us: “Not without purpose did We create heaven and earth and all between.” (38:27)  This pandemic is not some random event. It has a divine purpose. There is deep meaning in it. 

There is also enormous rahmah in it. Our beautiful Qur’an teaches us: “…My mercy embraces everything.” (7:156) The Divine Physician has dispensed this bitter medicine to heal us. To heal the whole world from its longstanding imbalances and injustices. Surely, it is no accident, the timing of COVID-19 vis-à-vis the murder of George Floyd and the global response it has galvanized.  Surely, every human being wants to and deserves to breathe.

COVID-19 is a wake-up call for the whole world. Ours to do as students is to be fully present in each moment, to practice mindfulness (muraqaba), so we can be deeply receptive to the Lessons we are meant to learn (muhasiba). Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” (13:11) Beloved ones, NOW is the time for global tawbah (repentance). As the Ummah of Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), this is our Divine Assignment, individually, collectively, institutionally. 

My vision and personal commitment is that we wind up stronger and better-than-ever on the other side of this, insha’Allah. I can say this with great confidence because first and foremost, I know that COVID-19 or no COVID-19, Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) is not out of business! The presence of The Presence, the power of the Names & Attributes, are as robust as ever. 

We are being summoned to recognize our hubris and turn our hearts in humility toward The One Who Is In Charge, The One Who Calls The Shots, to The One Whose Decree we surrender. Humbly. Readily. Insha’Allah, NOW is the time to actualize the last part of Hadith Jibreel about qadr. The fact is, what’s happening around us is what’s happening, and this is always in the hands of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). HOW we respond to what’s happening is entirely up to us.

What I want for our community is the best possible response, the most skillful and beautiful response, the response that will be of maximum benefit here & hereafter, insha’Allah.

I can also say this with great confidence because time and again, working with Muslim refugees who have been through horrific trauma, I have seen with my own eyes how absolutely amazing human beings are. How resilient. How courageous. How creative. How capable of transforming sorrow into joy, lemons into lemonade, compost into roses. This is what I want for you, my beloved sisters and brothers.

No doubt, on any long and arduous journey, in addition to having the right equipment and supplies, having an experienced trail-guide makes all the difference. There is dangerous terrain you want to avoid, and beautiful vistas you don’t want to miss. In my experience over decades, I have observed that human beings thrive when we are given the right tools and the loving encouragement to master them.  So let me give you now some very practical guidelines to help you navigate skillfully, so you can extract from these precious days of your life what is meaningful & transformational. 

Practical Strategies

When it comes to protecting our physical health from the pandemic, there are certain steps we MUST take. Likewise with our mental health. As such, here are some practical strategies, culled from thousands of pages of research and decades of experience. My focus is on parents, whose job has never been more difficult. And with the new school year right around the corner, this guidance is extremely timely. 

Boundaries: Set clear boundaries regarding where and when devices can be used. This applies to everyone in the household, kids and parents alike. Parents, as your elder who loves you, I am reminding you that YOU are the CEO of your home. YOU are the policy maker. YOU are in charge. NOT your kids or their devices. So take charge!

  • No devices for kids 0-3. These guidelines are from the American Pediatric Association. 
  • No devices at the dinner table* or in the bedrooms.
  • No devices until after Fajr. Better yet, after breakfast.
  • All devices put away 1-2 hours before bedtime. Plugged in in the kitchen to recharge.
  • Limit on-line entertainment and socializing to 1 hour/day MAX.
  • Schedule tech fasts ½ day weekly, and 1-2 full days monthly, on a weekend.
  • An occasional family-time movie is fine on the weekend. Choose something meaningful, uplifting, thought-provoking, heart-opening. Pop some popcorn. Make tea. Engage in a special time afterward to really talk together about your experience. *Getting in the habit of real-time-face-to-face conversations is crucial. If you start when your kids are young, it will lay a strong foundation for their teenage years, when they desperately need wise, trustworthy, caring adults who really know how to listen from the heart.

Nature: Spending time in nature is the very best thing you can do for yourself and with your family. There are reams of data about the stress-reducing effects of being outdoors, especially in the woods. There are also reams of data about the benefits of exercise, not only for physical health, but for mental health. Given all the extra sitting everyone is doing during COVID-19, regular exercise is not optional. 

Furthermore, if your kids are schooling from home and you are working from home, everyone will surely need some breathing room, some physical and emotional space from one another, some time every day in solitude, unplugged from their devices. Spending alone-time in nature is the perfect solution. 

For family-time activities, unplug from your devices and enjoy these delightful experiences. They will engender tremendous awe (khushu’) and deepen your heart-connection with your Rabb, The One Who Created you and all the beauty around you. Subhan’Allah.

  • Take a 15-30 minute family-walk every night after dinner before homework.
  • Go hiking, biking, rollerblading, kayaking, kite-flying, or camping on the weekend.   
  • Set up bird feeders in your yard. Learn their names and identify their songs.
  • Go out nightly to look at the stars. Learn the names of the constellations.
  • Watch as many sunrises & sunsets, moonrises & moonsets as you can. 

As Muslims, our worship is guided by the natural cycles Allah put in place. The sun is our clock. It tells us when to pray. The moon is our calendar. It tells us when the new month begins. Sighting the moon is an act of worship, mash’Allah.

Divine Reminders

Our beautiful Qur’an teaches:“We will show them Our Signs (ayat) in the universe and in their own selves, until it becomes clear to them that this (the Qur’an) is the truth.” (Fussilat 41:53)

In this ayah, we are taught the two beautiful gateways into the sacred: the macrocosm of the universe, and the microcosm of the self. Both of these gateways open into the direct experience of Allah’s presence. 

As Muslims, we have been invited to spend time in this dunya in the company of The One Who is Love (al-Wadud). The One Who is Strength (al-Aziz). The One Who is Peace (as-Salaam). And on & on. What could be more beneficial during this time of crisis? Alas, calling upon our Rabb by His most Beautiful Names, with urgency & sincerity, is one of the Lessons we must learn from COVID-19.  My prayer for our community is that people do not squander the opportunity to connect in a deep, meaningful, intimate way heart-to-heart with Allah because they can’t put their phone down or turn their computer off. Insha’Allah, I will address the subject of digital addiction in the second article, as it plays a huge role when it comes to mental health issues.

Closing Du’a

Ya Habibi Ya Allah. Please grant us oceans of fortitude and mountains of strength Ya Sabur Ya Aziz. May we be dutiful beautiful students who strive with all our might in jihad al akbar to pass this test with flying colors, to ace this exam. May we, the Ummah of Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), love one another like he loves us, and strengthen one another every step of the way. May we wind up stronger and better-than-ever on the other side of COVID-19, reclaiming the standard of Insan Kamil as the Index by which we measure our lives. Ya Dhal Jalali wal Ikram.

Say “Ameen!” 

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