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Baba, The Quran and Me

“When we were young, every Ramadan, we had to complete one recitation of the Quran because my dad made us. There was no question of not completing it. It’s just what we did.”

Sitting together with my friend and our toddlers in a Mommy & Me art class, the words were barely out of my mouth before regret kicked in. I saw the surprised and disapproving frown forming on my friend’s face. Forcing the Quran on a child? How politically incorrect. How backward. How unenlightened. One simply did not say these things in polite, modern, company. I could practically see her censuring thoughts and I felt dismay at my inability to explain myself. Thankfully, the conversation took a turn elsewhere, both of us wise enough not to go too deep into a potentially tricky topic.

Later that evening, after my kids were asleep and the blessed cover of the night slowly drifted over the city, I lay in the quiet, thinking. Remembering. And laughing over the realization that if I were to ever retell this story, I would probably begin the exact same, inappropriate way:

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When we were young, every Ramadan, we had to complete one recitation the Quran because my dad made us. There was no question of not completing it. It’s just what we did.

I think I must’ve been seven or eight when I first gained an understanding of this family tradition. My Baba, during the course of some of the most precious conversations of my life time, would often tell us, my brother, sister and I, stories from his childhood. What his life and his days spent with his eight brothers and sisters used to look like.

The Ramadan stories were particularly powerful to hear because he would speak of things that seemed so foreign, so unfamiliar – like abject poverty, splitting one bowl of food for Iftar amongst a family of eleven – that it was almost dream like.

The story we marveled over most was the amount of Quran that, as kids, he and his siblings read each Ramadan. “We would each try to be the one who finished it the most number of times. I usually reached four and gave up. One of my sisters did it seven times each year. No one could ever beat her.”, he would chuckle as he remembered. “But how did you guys find the time, Baba?!” we would gasp. And he would look equally amazed. “It was Ramadan. Once work is done, what else is there to do except read the Quran every single possible minute?” His genuine shock, that one could possibly, crazily, choose to spend their time in unessential worldly matters and how utterly unfathomable that was to him, seeped into our young, impressionable minds. We would pester him again and again for more nuances to this story and he would oblige. “Do you know every letter you recite during Ramadan has 70 times the regular reward? That means every letter, like saying Alif, gets you seven HUNDRED good deeds? Just do the math for reading the whole Quran! Go on! Now do the math for your aunt who reads it seven times!” Our minds properly boggled, we would be wide eyed trying to figure out the answer to this cosmic equation from the mathematics of the Divine.

And eventually, our amazement and interest in this particular competition led to the formation of our own internal, little family game. The rules were simple: The target was Eid, and, more specifically, Eidee, the cash gift that we received from Baba on Eid morning. Whoever finished one, just one, complete recitation of the Quran before the official declaration of Eid, would have their Eidee doubled.

When we first heard this wager, I think we each of us practically clapped in glee. Oooh, twice the amount of money! A parent-sanctioned chance to openly beat the siblings and earn bragging rights, and that too, not just in some vague, metaphorical way, but in actual, crisp, crackling, Saudi riyal note earnings! Oh Daddy, this game was on!!

And our glee was because, you see, the very first year, we operated from a place of total ignorance. We’d never actually attempted what was being asked and so we figured “Eh, how hard could it be? Those old aunts and uncles of ours, if they could do it up to seven times, what was ONE time? This should be a cakewalk.”

Well it wasn’t. It wasn’t the first year. And it still isn’t 25 years later.

There have been years of starting and staying strong. Of planning from beforehand. Of thinking, okay, roughly 30 days, 30 juz. If I read a little more than one a day, I am on track. And in that same pattern, of sailing easily and comfortably to the finish line. Of standing, grinning on Eid morning, keeping my palm extended as first one 50 riyal note was laid on it and then, nodding proudly, yes I did complete my recitation, getting another 50. Of exulting over my father’s proudly beaming face.

There have been years, in late tweens/early teens of total mismanagement. Of letting life take over a little too much and then realizing, aghast, that only five fasts were left and I still had eighteen juz to go. Of racing, helter skelter, through more than six juz on the very last day, squeaking past the finish line just minutes before what would be the last Maghrib prayer of Ramadan. Of encountering a slightly raised, fatherly eyebrow, “So you really did finish?” and of meekly nodding yes, deliberately neglecting to mention the particular speeds of recitation.

Later, once womanhood kicked in, there were years of getting unexpectedly overly long periods and that throwing my entire calculation off. Of feeling gnawing desperation around Day 21, 22. How will I complete it now? Of not giving up. Of, after ghusl, staying up all night and then continuing to stay awake after Fajr to complete the required reading, but now, with the sense of adulthood inside me, only reading in the most measured, dignified manner possible.

There were years when, long after the double-Eidee wager had faded away with other remnants of childhood, with all the impetuous, rebellion of youth, of spending my days in smoke-filled rooms, strategizing with socialist/activists, and my evenings protesting against the Iraq war on the frozen streets of Toronto. Of not praying at all, of not so much as glancing towards the dusty shelf where my Quran sat the entire year. But then, out of sheer habit, on the first of Ramadan, shamefaced from all the spiritual neglect of the past eleven months, taking it down, cleaning it and then getting to it. Of feeling, verse by verse, page by page, chapter by beautiful chapter, cleansed. Redeemed. Able to start over.

There was the first year of my marriage. When my brand new husband, sat back, astonished at this surprising wife of his. This wife who never even put her shoes in the right place when she got back home from somewhere. Whose phone was always misplaced. Whose closet always a disaster. “I never knew you could be so disciplined.”, he marveled as he witnessed my steady progression over the course of the month, the pages on the right of the bookmark growing and the pages on the left lessening.

There were subsequent years in which he figured if I could do it, he could too. Of motivating each other. Of gently teasing whoever was behind. Of eventually acknowledging, that his long office hours and unrelenting corporate job would get the best of him. Of consoling ,“Don’t worry. I read it for both of us. Niyyah is what counts. You got it.”, and of vowing, “I’m going to do it next time for sure!”.

There was the year of expecting my firstborn – a boy who would later go on to have developmental delays and additional needs – when Ramadan was in the month just before his birth. Of, that year, with all the nervous excitement and joyful anticipation of a first time mother-to-be, completing the Quran three times. Of growing bigger and more uncomfortable, curling up on the couch and slowly working my way through the Book again and again, and one more time, to give myself a sense of purpose and calm. A steadying feeling that I was being a responsible mother and giving my very first baby his very first gift as a Muslim child.

And there have many, many more years. Of anxiety. Of scary financial strain. Of a turbulent marriage. A difficult son. Of sickness. Of fear. And of deep, deep grief.

In all of those years, those months and weeks of uncertainty, Ramadan and the accompanying habit of completing the Quran has stood like an immovable beacon.

In the early years, the prospect of either receiving doubled earnings on Eid or facing the disappointed expression on my father’s face was the motivation. In the middling years, it was force of habit, a yearly ritual that I neither questioned nor pondered very much over. Completing the Quran was just another part of Ramadan for me, similar to fasting. I had to fast and so I had to finish the Quran. And in recent years, with the onset of maturity, the wisdom that has come in my thirties, the settling into the very bones of my life and my self, this yearly practice has become an identity and a gift. An eagerly anticipated reconnection. To Allah. To the Quran. To my childhood. To my father. To my self.

Ramadan1

The motivations behind this practice have shape shifted and blurred over the years. They have entered questionable realms and they have exited. They have wavered repeatedly, stretched unbelievably and sometimes disappeared completely. But, now, today and inshaAllah forever after, they are strong, solid and singular in focus. And so perhaps, a better way to start this story would have been:

Every year, in Ramadan, I have to complete the recitation of the Quran because this is who I am. There is no question of not completing it. It’s just what I do.

I know, in writing this, that there will be dissenters. There will be those who strongly disagree with this idea – those who will be disgusted by the linking of monetary motivation to the Holy Quran. Those who will insist everyone should give weightage to spending more time understanding the Quran rather than rote reciting it. Those who will find my descriptions of “racing” through the Quran in my earlier years the exact raison d’etre for not setting unrealistic targets.

Perhaps, they are each right in their own way. But they, their reasons, their motivations, their goals are not right for me.

I cannot explain to them how I feel about my father and how the prospect of attaining his pleasure can compel me to move mountains. I cannot explain how this practice he has instilled in me has been my spiritual lifeline. I cannot explain to them the deep, intrinsic pleasure of reading that Book from cover to cover in a fixed time frame and that too, during the most blessed days of the year. I cannot explain because I am always far too busy trying to make sense of my own story.

See, I feel, to thrive in this Life, we each have to do what we can to try and make sense of the lot we’ve given. To try and comprehend our messy, marvelous stories and see them for the treasure they are.

When I look at my life, when I take the long view, I see two, exactly opposite, completely diametrical truths. I see that I have had, through the Will of Allah, so much turbulence. Such storms. Such darkness. And I also see that my father in the form of this and other traditions, gave me such stability, so many anchors. So many lifebuoys. In all the years of my life, when I was flailing and thrashing about in the uncertain seas of physically painful, fibromyalgia-filled school days, a rebellious university life, a tumultuous early marriage, a special needs child, difficult subsequent pregnancies, financial strain and unemployment, sickness, grief, this tradition was an always present marker on my horizon. A rope to grab on to every single year no matter how stormy and darkened the rest of the eleven months were. A steady, brightly shining lighthouse that by virtue of always being there, always brought me back to my center.

As another Ramadan approaches, I think of the ghosts of Ramadan past. The years flitter in my mind like a fast paced slide show and I see my recitation efforts stacked up on each other. Year after year after year of trying. Of working towards a challenging but clearly identified goal. Of honing my discipline and time management skills. Of experiencing the fear of failure and the dedication required in overcoming that fear. Of experiencing the high of personal achievement and the two-folded spiritual satisfaction of reconnecting to this glorious book of Allah and, in the process, beating down my inner demons of laziness and indiscipline, those lesser parts of me who, every year would rather give up but don’t.

Sometimes, when I am feeling particularly lost as I look at my son, this boy who refuses to comply, whose anxiety levels are always so high, who doesn’t speak like other kids his age, I clutch to my heart the memory of those hours and hours my pregnant self spent with the Quran, those three complete recitations he heard while he moved inside me.

Sometimes, when things seem excruciatingly lonely, I think of my ancestors and my aunts and uncles and my cousins. All those children of all those siblings of my father. I think of the dozens and dozens of my family members, all of whom carry on this tradition proudly today. Each and every one of the kids and adults in my dad’s side of the family (and there are many!) completes the Quran every Ramadan. Because that is who they are. That is who we are. If they can do it, I can do it. I am reminded that I not alone. I am held aloft by a strong family, good values and faith-full traditions.

Sometimes, when life seems particularly overwhelming, too much work, not enough time, I think of all those years in which I took stock of the situation, ”Okay ten days left, 16 juz to go. How can I manage this?” and then slowly and diligently accomplished what initially felt to be an insurmountable task. I hold daily to my soul the knowledge that I am resilient. That I can overcome. That I have. That I will.

And sometimes, when my now sick and aging father is asleep, his gray hair glistening softly in the shadows, I lean down and press my cheek to his. I put my lips to his ear. And I whisper things. I whisper how the kids made me laugh today and cry simultaneously. I whisper that Ramadan is coming and he better get my double-Eidee ready. I whisper my love and my prayers and my hopes. I whisper how afraid I am of the future. How much I already miss him. But most of all, I whisper my gratitude. Gratitude for gifting me so freely all the things, all the lessons, all the beliefs, all the forces of habit and inspiring stories and abiding, enriching traditions that have blessed my life. For giving me an identity and an anchor. For always being my lighthouse when he was able, and whenever the time came that he wasn’t, to make sure to leave my life with enough Light to see me through.

Rabbir humhuma kama rabbayaani sagheera
Rabbir humhuma kama rabbayaani sagheera
Rabbir humhuma kama rabbayaani sagheera

 – – –

Hiba Masood is a writer, storyteller and speaker. You can find more of her and her work daily on the Facebook page www.facebook.com/etdramamama

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Hiba Masood is a writer living in Karachi, Pakistan. She is the author of Drummer Girl, the founder of Ramadan Moon and is known online as Drama Mama. To read more of her work daily, follow her on Instagram @hibamasood.

37 Comments

37 Comments

  1. Avatar

    fatima

    June 17, 2016 at 7:14 AM

    hey hiba, beautiful beautiful beautiful piece of work. Seems like i was going through all the stages you wrote and my relation with Quran, throughout my life flashed as i continue to read your words.
    just out of curiosity, when you mention completing a quran, are you refering to the translations or the arabic text?
    lots of love.

    • Avatar

      Murah

      July 12, 2016 at 2:41 PM

      duh! seriously…translation? wow! when i think i heard them all…..what planet are you living in?

      • Avatar

        Anonymous

        July 22, 2016 at 8:44 PM

        The Arabic text suffices as a reply. Fatima’s point is coming from a peaceful place, let us be merciful with one another insha Allah.

  2. Avatar

    Anonymous

    June 17, 2016 at 7:51 AM

    i can only imagine what a task this must have been for you to put this all in writing. Job well done. It was a pleasure to read, and so relatable that it made me go down my own little memory lane! Thank you for writing this!

  3. Avatar

    Aisha

    June 17, 2016 at 8:29 AM

    Yeah, it’s a tradition in my family too. My mum instilled it in us, though we never got any monetary benefit or so. But somehow she inspired us and till today one goes through that guilty feeling if we r not reaching our target. I m glad she forced it on us eventhough i dnt feel that dhe actually forced it. N i hope i am able to inspire my kids in the same way ins Sha Allah.

  4. Avatar

    Qurratulain

    June 17, 2016 at 8:39 AM

    What a moving piece of work! Made me teary. I often follow everything you write on your page and it’s true the words that seep out of suffering are undeniably beautiful. Sending lots of love. Continue writing. You inspire many unknowingly.

  5. Avatar

    Fatima

    June 17, 2016 at 9:27 AM

    I’m crying reading this.
    My father never forced us, but everyday it was a daily question of ‘how many did you read? Which para (juz) are you on?’
    He told us stories of his older sister reading 5 every year and we were always so impressed.

    Thank you for this reminder of my own childhood.

  6. Avatar

    saaliha

    June 17, 2016 at 9:44 AM

    Wow this is beautiful mashaAllah! May Allah accept you and your family and may he grant you all shade under his throne on the day of judgment, ameen

  7. Avatar

    umme ammar

    June 17, 2016 at 2:50 PM

    Excellent piece of writing..?. got me crying! And alhumdolillah this tradition of completing one quran in ramadan is still alive in many families includin mine… if only we can successfully transfer it to our children
    the best part
    rabbir hum huma kama rabbayni sagheera?

  8. Avatar

    umm e hanzalah

    June 17, 2016 at 3:30 PM

    SubhanAllah…tears r felling from.my eyes…with few changes could easily relate to the values we got from our parents..beautiful piece of writing..pulled me back to my childhood days…May Allah s.w.t help us all to transfer these values in our children..ameen..n yes off course rabbir hamhuma kama rabbiyani sagheera..Ameen..

  9. Avatar

    Hira Danish

    June 17, 2016 at 6:24 PM

    I have been following you since a couple of years now Hiba, and find you as a person quite parallel to my own self. I admire your courage and determination to keep pouring your heart out on paper. Sending lots of Duas for you and your generations that may you all uphold this amazing tradition of yours and be beacons of light forever.

  10. Avatar

    Tabassum

    June 18, 2016 at 1:39 AM

    Beautiful writing. This all sound so familiar. I have been questioned for encouraging my kids (11 and 8) to fast and recite Quran, do other activities with eid gifts and other such things but my own experience made me felt , this will work. Now reading your article make me felt more assured. Thanks for such a hear touching piece

  11. Avatar

    Um talhah

    June 18, 2016 at 2:26 AM

    jazakumAllahu khairan.
    The account of your teenage years both surprised and encouraged me. I didn’t expect a rebellious teen who’s not praying to recite the quran. May Allah reward your father abundantly.

  12. Avatar

    Spirituality

    June 18, 2016 at 12:23 PM

    Jazaki Allahu Khayran for the beautiful piece!

    Recitation of the Quran has tremendous benefits, so we should never be ashamed :)! The past few Ramadans have been difficult, as I have been unable to fast and attend taraweeh due to health reasons. So, one of my goals is to recite the entire Quran during Ramadan.

    Thanks so much for sharing your life story with us through your writings, with its ups and downs. One day, could you write about your struggles with fibromyalgia and how you overcame this disease? I and others suffering from similar health problems could really benefit.

    Also, I would love to hear anyone’s experiences of how they use Ramadan as a platform to boost not only recitation, but comprehension and deeper understanding of the Quran – for themselves as well as their children. Imagine, we get 700 rewards for reciting just one letter of the Quran. But how much more benefit would we get for really understanding the book (which is after all, a guide for those with taqwa), and trying to live accordingly?

    In addition to daily recitation, I’m trying to study the tafseer of an ayat or two everyday. I watch Nouman Ali Khan’s Quran Cover to Cover Series and take notes. Other ideas, and ideas on how to make such a process fun for families most welcome :)!

    Jazakum Allahu Khayran and I hope everyone is having a blessed Ramadan.

  13. Avatar

    Waheeda Sadik

    June 18, 2016 at 3:14 PM

    An absolute pleasure to read.I get you.jzk for your precious memories.

  14. Avatar

    Uzma

    June 18, 2016 at 10:09 PM

    Beautiful writing…totally relates to it.

  15. Avatar

    Umm Ayesha

    June 19, 2016 at 11:14 AM

    MashaAllah a beautiful piece of writing. I remember the time when we were young,the womwn in our family would challenge each other on how many Qursns they would read in Ramadhan. Five , six, seven was nothing to them. Some would even read ten Qurans. Then came duas, at tshajjud they would do the lenghthiest of duas, an hour or more, would anyone do this these days?

  16. Avatar

    Omer Riaz

    June 21, 2016 at 7:40 AM

    Excellent Article Hiba. .Very Well Written. One of the noblest things to do in Ramadan is to extensively recite The Holy Quran, contemplate on one’s own existence and spend as much time as possible in the remembrance of Allah (SWT). Ramadan is a very special and spiritually rich month. In it Muslims find within them cultivated a deep and sincere love because fasting is done only for the sake of Allah (SWT) and it is no doubt that those people who worship Allah (SWT) sincerely and love Him also love all those around them and are good people.

  17. Avatar

    Badr

    June 22, 2016 at 8:04 AM

    Beautiful and touching story Ukhti….Jazzaki Allah Kheir.
    InshAllah, I can finish reading the Quran this Ramadan. At least once !

  18. Avatar

    shah

    June 28, 2016 at 1:57 AM

    Quran Focus is the best place for online Quran Reading. We have excellent programs that enable kids, older children, grown ups and new Muslims to learn Quran at Home.

    Please join Quran Focus Academy (http://www.quranfocus.com) to learn Quran Reading, Hifz, Translation, Tafseer and Essentials of Islam. One to one lessons via internet, qualified English speaking teachers, one week free trial classes, no advance fee, pay fee via PayPal, low monthly fee & family discount available.

  19. Avatar

    KB

    June 28, 2016 at 8:50 PM

    What a wonderful article. It moved me to tears. I will go read Quran now- the month is almost over

  20. Avatar

    sfk

    June 28, 2016 at 10:00 PM

    You made me cry…this was such a moving and relatable piece. My father too is the person who brought me closer to the Holy Qur’an. For the past couple of years I have been slacking off and I promised myself that wouldn’t happen this year. I still have 16 juz to go and I was getting depressed but your article has motivated me to reach the finish line!

  21. Avatar

    Alia

    July 1, 2016 at 5:33 AM

    Mashallah thanks for sharing with us! Your story reminded me of my friend’s family teaching the kids how to pray. All the things our parents “made” us do which appeared to be chores as we were kids are now good habits which benefit our lives tremendously! This Ramadan hasn’t been the same for me, I’m so behind on reading the Quran. This article just inspired me to try! With a few days left, I’ll still do what I can to make the most of it. You’re amazing!

  22. Avatar

    Zeba

    July 3, 2016 at 6:16 AM

    Oh Hibz, you never fail to amaze and inspire. I miss you friend. <<>>

  23. Avatar

    francis Ayala

    July 3, 2016 at 11:48 AM

    Lovely article. You inadvertently demonstrate how humanity shares much in common. We all are profoundly influenced by parents and relatives, and maintain those attachments. We are lifted through spiritual disciplines –reading the holy scripture of our traditions, prayer, meditation, chanting. We suffer and rejoice throughout our lives. We see events, and form opinion through our own prism of experience. We are all one humanity, but imagine ourselves separate. Thank you for sharing!

  24. Avatar

    Farida

    July 11, 2016 at 5:40 AM

    MashaAllah beautiful Tradition the last paragraph about your father and already missing him touched me to tears. Our Parents did whatever they could in the best way they knew how . I hope we will be able to parent our children with such beautiful memorable Traditions. Thank you, I really enjoyed reading your article.

  25. Avatar

    shadia

    July 16, 2016 at 11:46 PM

    Beautiful Masha’Allah

  26. Avatar

    Narayan Murthy

    August 5, 2016 at 8:45 AM

  27. Avatar

    Narayan Murthy

    August 5, 2016 at 8:46 AM

    WATCH – Mr. Deep Trivedi’s fitting reply to Mr. Zakir Naik on https://youtu.be/VRZI_TGAalc

  28. Avatar

    Madiha Khan

    August 10, 2016 at 1:50 AM

    Masha Allah very good article , yes we all should learn quran atleast one time in a year and Ramadan days are best to finish Quran, but I will also say that we also should learn quran except Ramadan days …

  29. Avatar

    Mohammad

    August 24, 2016 at 2:52 PM

    Subhanallah! Excellent piece of writing! and not just writing but the piece also reminds one of their past and their identity.

  30. Avatar

    Umm Hadi

    October 9, 2016 at 2:13 PM

    Asak Sr Hiba,
    May Allah bless your dad with the best in duniya and Akhira.
    May I ask how is doing?

  31. Pingback: Quran and Children | Wifaqul Ulama (Britain)

  32. Avatar

    Hina Shoeb

    June 10, 2017 at 5:06 AM

    Beautifully written! Lots of love your way

  33. Avatar

    Rizwan

    January 29, 2018 at 1:13 PM

    The ending made me cry. Thank you for a beautiful article.

  34. Avatar

    Maryam Ijaz

    April 15, 2019 at 8:23 AM

    Hi Hiba,
    Reading your essay reminds me of the days when my mom used to tell me and my sisters to complete Quran every Ramadan by 27th Roza because my mom used to do Niaz and make special dua for the departed family members. Reading your essay took me back to my childhood and made me realize how much I want my son to adopt the same habit our mom entailed on us which I am ashamed I didn’t carry on. Every year I wait for Ramadan there is something about this month that always excites me beside the fact we get an early off and all the family member sit on the table to break the fast together. This year INSHALLAH I will make sure I completed the Quran and will continue even after Ramadan.

    Thank you for reminding us the wordly affairs no matter how good or bad doesn’t matter because in the end what matters is how much successful are we as a Muslim.

  35. Avatar

    ruqyah syariah

    July 11, 2019 at 3:13 AM

    I had to complete also one recitation of the Quran for every Ramadan because my teacher was made us.

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Podcast: Priorities and Protest | On Muslim Activism with Shaykhs Dawud Walid and Omar Suleiman

Islam teaches us to stand up for justice, to enjoin good and forbid evil, and to help our brother whether he’s the oppressor or the oppressed, but how?

To help us fully understand the answer to this question, we have the honor of speaking to not one, but two subject matter experts on Muslim activism. Dr. Omar Suleiman and Shaykh Dawud Walid are both scholars, authors, and Imams internationally known for their work in civil rights and social justice.

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Excerpts from the interview:

“You can’t say I don’t believe any bad things about black people because I love Sayyiduna Bilal. We have to move past, and move beyond the tokenization of Bilal and talk about the haqeeqah (reality) of America and how the broader super culture really has influenced a lot of anti-black frameworks inside the Muslim community of those who are not black.” – Shaykh Dawud Walid

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“Many Muslims feel very stressed when they’re driving across the border to Canada or flying back into the country. They’re very fearful about CBP or about being interrogated or held. Take that feeling, multiply it by about three, and imagine every day of your life living in America feeling that way. That’s about the best way I can explain it, but if you’re black AND you’re Muslim, that’s double trouble.” – Shaykh Dawud Walid

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Raised by Converts

Note to the reader:  Some Muslims debate which term we should use for someone who has chosen to accept Islam. Is it supposed to be “convert” or “revert?”  In this article, I choose to use the word “convert.”  Before I start receiving comments from individuals who are convinced that the term “revert” is the only correct one, I would like to share this superb article on the issue written by Ricardo Peña, who says it better than I ever could.  

Nuha* thought she had found her soulmate and future life partner in Joel*, her co-worker. He was kind, hardworking, and charming, and the young couple wanted to get married.  Nuha’s father, however, would not give his blessing to the union because the potential groom had recently converted to Islam.  Nuha’s dad wanted his daughter to marry a man who had grown up in a Muslim family and therefore, presumably, had years of Islamic experience and fairly solid religious knowledge. He speculated about some of the things Joel might have done before embracing Islam and whether he had any habits that would be hard to break. He also thought it would be wiser for his daughter to marry someone from the same background; he doubted a white guy would really know how to relate to a Pakistani-American girl and her desi family. Most of all, he worried that Joel would not know enough about Islam to be a good husband, father, and imam of his family.  

Was Nuha’s father justified? Do converts make good spouses and parents? Can they ever truly move on from any un-Islamic aspects of their past and adhere to their new deen

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How do converts attain the knowledge necessary to raise children with Islamic knowledge, taqwa, and adab?

To answer this question I spoke with six Muslims who grew up in a household where one or more parents were converts to Islam. Their answers give insight into the true dynamics of what happens when converts raise children.  

Khadijah is a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach from the United Kingdom. Her mother, a white British woman, converted when Khadijah was eight years old.  When she and Khadijah’s father had divorced, she had felt a need to find a deeper meaning in life. This searching led her to Islam.  

“My mum taught me Islam in stages,” explains Khadijah. “As she learnt things, she passed them onto me. We went to study circles together, and we learnt to pray together as well. She wrote the transliteration of the prayer on little blue cards for us to hold whilst we prayed. I wouldn’t say her knowledge was sufficient at the time, but whose knowledge is? I learnt valuable lessons as I watched her do her own reading, leaning, and questioning. I felt like we stumbled through together. As I grew up, this taught me Islam is a constant journey, and it’s ok to ask questions.”

Shaheda, a freelance writer from North Carolina, grew up in different circumstances than Khadijah, but the women’s stories have definite parallels. Shaheda’s parents are African Americans who were both raised in traditional southern Christian families. The pair converted to Islam in the 1960s when they were college students who were active in the Civil Rights movement. They began to learn about Islam after their introduction to leaders like Malcolm X.  

As different as her parents’ life experiences were from Khadijah’s mum’s, Shaheda enjoyed the same benefit of being able to see her parents growing and changing due to the love of Islam. “My parents were learning Islam as they were raising us,” explains Shaheda, “and so their increase in knowledge was tangible to us. We grew up in a community where you would see the physical manifestations of knowledge acquisition. The style of dress of the sisters became more modest, the separation of women and men became more pronounced in social gatherings, social gatherings took on a more religious tone, we began to attend Sunday school to learn Quran and Arabic.”

Though it may come as a surprise to some, in families where one spouse was a born to a Muslim family and the other is a convert, the convert is often actually the more knowledgable and practicing parent. Aliyah is a family counselor from the Midwestern United States whose Indian mother and white American father met when they were partners in pre-med.  “My dad had read about ‘Mohammedans’ and would ask my mom lots of questions about them,” explains Aliyah. “My mom was raised in a home that was only culturally Muslim. Plus, back then most immigrants just wanted to assimilate. She didn’t really know the answer to my dad’s intensive questions. One day she suggested he ask her father the same questions. My grandfather took him to the ISNA convention where he could ask more knowledgeable people. Alhumdulilah he got all his questions answered and converted!”

 She continues, “As a little kid we always looked at my dad as the sheikh of the house. We all agree that he’s the reason my family is even practicing. He would always patiently entertain and answer my questions, read me stories about the Prophets and Seerah, and really focus on aqeedah and comparative religions.  When I grew up and both our levels of knowledge needed to grow, we learnt together. As a teen, my dad and I would walk to the masjid together and attend the Friday night halaqa. In college, our favorite thing to do was attend al Maghrib classes. I would ditch my friends and discuss with him what we had learned during the lunch break.”

For Iman,* a stay at home mom who grew up between the United States and the Middle East, it was her convert mother — not her Arab father — who was her main Islamic influence.  “I was about 6-7 years old when my mom converted,” she explains.  “I grew up celebrating Christmas and Eid. We had a Christmas tree in our living room for the first several years of my life. My mother, who was raised a Southern Baptist, embraced Islam when my youngest brother was a baby, so for most of his life she was a practicing Muslim. We learned most of what we know from her.  I remember as a child seeing stacks of books on the dining table that she would check out of the masjid library to read and learn. She was a very intelligent woman who knew more about Islam than lots of born Muslims.”

Based on her own experiences, Iman asserts, “Generally speaking, I think converts are more knowledgeable than born Muslims. It can be challenging,” she adds, “when the convert is more serious about deen than their born-Muslim spouse.”

Anisa, a former teacher from Missouri, agrees with Iman.  “In some ways, I feel converts may have more Islamic knowledge than born Muslims because they have had to search for the knowledge themselves as opposed to growing up with it. Also,” she adds, “many born Muslims have grown up with so much culture mixed with the religion that the difference between the two can get blurred.”

Anisa’s mom, a white American woman who was raised Christian, met some Muslims at Oklahoma Baptist College back in 1970.  She started conversations with them in the hopes of converting them to Christianity, but ended up intrigued by their faith. She took an Islamic History class and read whatever books she could find at the library. She decided to become a Muslim at an MSA conference and made her shahada in 1973. “By the time my mother was raising my sisters and me, she definitely knew all the basics of Islam and was able to teach us,” says Anisa.

“She was the main parental source of knowledge for us, although we also attended Sunday school.”Click To Tweet

Mustafa is the child of an Egyptian dad and an American mom. He was born in the U.S. but raised primarily in Egypt where he was surrounded by Muslims, and yet his convert mother was a huge inspiration to him in his faith. “I know that I loved my mom so much,” Mustafa says.  “I felt that she had done the decision-making process for us. That if someone so smart, clever, and precise figured out Islam was the Truth, it must be.” 

“My mom became Muslim in the early 80s,” explains Mustafa. “She learned about Islam from her students while completing her Masters at the University of Illinois-Champagne. She was teaching English as a second language to Malaysian exchange students. She also ended up living with them and learning about Islam from them. People always assumed my mom converted for my dad,” muses Mustafa. “She didn’t even know him when she converted!”

As positive as their experiences were, overall, with the guidance of their convert parents, life was not always easy for the children who grew up with one born-Muslim parent and one convert. Many times, stereotypes about race, ethnicity, and cultural differences complicated their relationships with extended family members and outsiders. Both as children and as adults, many of them had to cope with people’s misconceptions and tactlessness.  

“I was always teased,” confides Aliyah.  “I’ve been called ‘half Muslim,’ ‘zebra,’ and ‘white girl’ in a derogatory way. Aunties always questioned if I was taught Islam properly. People would assume my dad converted for love (the pet peeve of my whole family). I would hear talk in Urdu in the masjid kitchen that I couldn’t cut an onion because I’m white. It was hard for us when we were getting married to find someone that clicked with us because we were so culturally different than everyone we knew.”

“Kids are rough,” adds Mustafa.  “Muslims can be ignorant, stereotypical, and not know what is offensive. Someone asked my sister, ‘Did your dad marry your mom because she wore a bikini?’ We were oddities at school in Egypt when people would see my mom pick us up from school. I was actually embarrassed to be seen with her for a while growing up, just because of all the attention it got me.”

I was “the white girl” in a Muslim school,” explains Khadijah, “and whilst that made the other girls very aware of who I was, there was always an element of separation there. I didn’t feel white. I didn’t feel Pakistani or Gujarati. I don’t feel like it affected me in either a negative or positive way. I got used to not completely belonging and forged my own ‘culture.’ I married an Afro-Caribbean brother, so my children have such a mix of cultures around them and I think it’s pretty beautiful. Whether my upbringing influenced this or not, I don’t know!”

While Shaheda did not feel any religious tension within her extended family, (“I understand from firsthand experience how people of different faiths can coexist in love and mutual respect,” she says), she does experience some difficulty from her brothers and sisters in Islam.  She reports “having to repeatedly validate my identity as an actual Muslim to those who don’t have the same experience. The assumption that there may be something missing or not quite Muslim enough is troublesome.” 

Wisdom to Share

These children of converts with their unique experiences and courageous dedication to their faith have excellent wisdom to share with the Ummah.  

Aliyah, whose work as a counselor focuses especially on Muslim families, has advice for Muslim parents whose marriage is mixed, either culturally or racially. “To youth,” she says, “identity matters SO MUCH, especially in this day and age when that’s all anyone ever talks about. If you’re a white convert parent of brown/black kids, identify your privilege that comes with that. If your kids are brown or black…learn about what that means in America. When I was with my non-Muslim relatives they would just make me feel so ‘other.’ They would focus on my exotic look and beliefs and just make me feel like an alien.” 

She continues, “Research things to consider when you are raising a child that is a different ethnicity than you. Ask your kids how they feel about it. Have an open conversation. Teach them about valuing both their cultural backgrounds.”

Khadijah’s advice to Muslim parents is,

“Learn WITH your children. Let them see that you’re still learning and struggling as well. Let them experience the journey with you. They’ll learn more that way than through lectures. You don’t have to act like you have everything figured out.” 

I believe the constant cycling in of converts into Muslim communities is a great blessing,” offers Shaheda. “And with that blessing comes a responsibility. We owe them our support, wisdom, and love, and I think we should take that responsibility very seriously. We should create bonds. These individuals who Allah has chosen as believers among disbelievers are special, and they keep us on our spiritual toes. There are multitudes of blessings when a community gains a new convert.”

When I asked them if they would have any concerns about their own children marrying converts, all of the interviewees answered a firm “no.”  They realize that a person’s dedication to Islam is not guaranteed by being born into it, or even raised with it. 

Converts — people who chose Islam as mature adults after a great deal of research, soul-searching, and personal transformation — are among our Ummah’s most passionate, educated, and sincere members.  

*Names have been changed

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The Beginnings Of The Darul Islam Movement In America

I was raised in the Darul Islam movement; my father Shaykh Abdu-Karim Ahmad, was one of their Imams for a time in Philly. So was my cousin Shaykh Ali Ahmad. Both who are still alive today. There are many narrations yet to be told, that shed a little light and context, about Muslim America today.

Much of the history about Islam in United States of America and of the pioneering Muslims upon who’s shoulders we stand, has never been told. Some of them unfortunately may never be told and may die with the death of those who were there. When it comes to American Muslim history, the narratives of those who lived it is more poignant than that of those who only heard about it. As in the hadith of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), “He who is told is not like he who has seen”.

Much of what is written about Black American Muslim Sunni pioneers is written about us but not by us. 

One story that has remained largely unchronicled is that of the Darul Islam movement. Darul Islam was an early indigenous Sunni Muslim community made up of Black American Muslims and converts to Islam. At its height, it comprised 25-30 Muslim communities and masaajid across the country. It was started by Rajab Mahmood and Yahya Abdul-Karim, who were formally attendees of the famous State Street Mosque in Brooklyn, New York in the Atlantic Ave area west of Flatbush. The State St, Mosque which was started by was Dawud Faisal, a Black man who came to the United States from the Caribbean to pursue a career in jazz music, became a beacon for early Muslim immigrants as there was already a spate of Arab businesses along Atlantic Ave near third street, not far from the Mosque. My father used to take us to Malko Brothers bakery on Atlantic Ave in the early sixties where we would buy pita bread and halal meat from one of the other stores. It was one of the few places you could buy pita bread on the East Coast and there was no such thing as a halal store in America then.  

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Partially because Shaykh Dawud was black, and perhaps because of his jazz background and affiliation, the Masjid also attracted Black American converts to Sunni Islam. Many early Sunni Muslims were associated with and came from jazz musicians.  The Legendary John Coltrane was reported to have been a Muslim, he was married to a sister named Amina and his daughter was named Na’eema. My father performed her marriage in New York in the 1980’s. It’s rumored that he never publicized his Islam because it would have damaged his career as it had done to so many others. Hajj Talib Dawud, who started a masjid in Philadelphia (not related to the Darul Islam movement), used to be a trumpet player for Dizzy Gillespie. 

Meanwhile, , there was a chasm between immigrant Muslims who were new to the country. Converts to Islam, who were overwhelmingly Black, were new to Islam.  In 1960, Shaykh Dawud hired a teacher who was Hafiz al-Quran named Hafiz Mah’boob — he was associated with the Tabligh Jamaa’ah movement— but he was Black or looked black. The young African American converts, Rajab Mah’mood, Yahya Abdulkarim, Suleiman Abdul-Hadi (my uncle and one of the founding members of The Last Poets), Muhammad Salahuddin, and others. were drawn to him, He was “down” with educating the brothers from America and he used to teach them Arabic and Islam. It was a different time then and the immigrant, mainly Arab Muslims, and the Black American converts to Islam were from two different worlds. There was an unspoken uneasiness. Eventually Hafiz Mah’boob suggested that the African American brothers go and start their own masjid.

Rajab Mah’mood and Yahya AbdulKarim eventually left the State Street Mosque and started their own Masjid in Brownsville, one of Brooklyn’s toughest neighborhoods, they named it Yasin Mosque, and that was the beginning of the Darul Islam Movement in the United States. That’s also just the beginning of the story.

I was born and raised a Sunni Muslim in Philadelphia, PA; my parents converted to Islam in the 1950’s.

I was raised in the Darul Islam movement; my father Shaykh Abdu-Karim Ahmad, was one of their Imams for a time in Philly. So was my cousin Shaykh Ali Ahmad. Both who are still alive today. There are many narrations yet to be told, that shed a little light and context, about Muslim America today.

History matters. 

Taken from the Upcoming Book. “The History of the Darul Islam Movement in America” 

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