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Girls and Sexuality: Understanding What Parents and Muslim Communities Can Do For Their Daughters

MuslimMatters

By Menahal Begawala

When I became a therapist I had a vision of helping people get through hard times, communicate better with their families, and develop perspective when they felt stuck. I’ve been honored with the privilege of being allowed a glimpse into the lives of my clients with this goal in mind. My greatest privilege (and challenge) so far has been to work with adolescent girls.

When I sit across from young girls who come from Muslim families, my first challenge is to face my own apprehension. I don’t know what preconceived notions they’ll have seeing a conservatively dressed hijab wearing therapist. Thus far, I have found these young women not only open, but also happily willing to work with me. While it is not my place as a therapist to be a religious figure for my clients, I recognize that on some level they are relieved to be able to openly talk with someone who appears to embody the very facet of their backgrounds from which they feel disconnected.

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I believe that the challenges young Muslim girls face in navigating their identity in today’s society are more difficult than they have ever been. Between the ongoing struggles of societal, familial, and cultural pressures, the sexualization of women, and the often negative impact of social media, young girls are often left navigating identity issues that would leave many adults in a paralyzing bind. For the sake of this article, I will limit the conversation to issues surrounding adolescent girls and sexuality.

It’s a pervasive issue that is impacting the Muslim community.

“I don’t think that any boy can ever there for me emotionally like Amani* is. And I just can’t see myself being with a boy who isn’t there for me emotionally.”

“I always crushed on Jasmine, never on Aladdin.”

Sexualization and the Loss of Identity

As an Education major, I was required to read The Disappearance of Childhood, by Neil Postman. Postman discussed the impact of media on the portrayal and loss of innocence in children. It’s safe to say that society has come a long way since 1994 when that book was published, and that we have far more sources of media input than were available in the 90’s. Whether through print, filtered photos on Instagram, or television, young girls are constantly bombarded with images of what is considered beautiful and attractive. The gap between girls and women is closing quickly as girls hit puberty and physically mature at earlier ages than ever before. Clothing and fashion for tweens and adult women are almost indistinguishable, which cause young girls to be focused on their appearance (with or without hijab) before they’ve had an opportunity to develop a deeper sense of identity.

Everyday, young girls receive constantly opposing messages about identity, freedom, having a voice, and modesty. When the exploitation of women is guised as liberation and independence, it is easy to see how one’s appearance and sexiness can be mistaken for worthiness.  On the other hand, when we drill the idea of modesty being purely about outer garments, we are sending the same damaging message: that a woman’s worth is relegated to the way she dresses. Please note that this is not a comment on the status of hijab in Islam. The intention here is to highlight how we talk to our young girls and what messages we are giving to them when we shy away from deeper more meaningful, albeit difficult, conversations.

Sexuality vs. Sexualization

Dr. Leonard Sax distinguishes between sexuality and sexualization in his book Girls on The Edge. He notes the importance of recognizing sexuality as an important and healthy part of adolescent development. Sexuality is about who one is, a part of her identity, whereas sexualization is a focus on how someone looks. Sexuality is a normal and necessary part of human development. Human sexuality is defined as “the quality of being sexual, or the way people experience and express themselves as sexual beings. This involves biological, erotic, physical, emotional, social, or spiritual feelings and behaviors.”1 Adolescence is a time when youngsters are figuring out their place in the world while navigating their changing bodies, emotions, and social lives. Sexuality is intertwined in every aspect of a young person’s both with themselves and the world around them. It’s normal, natural, and healthy. The sexualization of young girls however, is not.

Sexualization, unlike sexuality, is when the focus is on one’s appearance and sex appeal and goes hand in hand with objectification. It goes without saying that the sexualization of women leads to many negative consequences beyond the scope of this article.  However, within the Muslim community, it seems like we’ve become so scared of these consequences that we are stuck on external solutions in the name of protection/safety. Healthy and necessary conversations about sexuality are abandoned and even stigmatized. The resulting message for girls is that their sexuality, and in essence, their being, is shameful and cannot be spoken of. As a result, our young women are left to navigate the challenges of developing an identity inclusive of their entire selves on their own. One client told me, “My mom doesn’t want me to hug boys. That doesn’t matter because I’m bisexual anyway.” I can’t help but wonder how the girl may have taken it differently if her mother had a conversation about her self-worth and why she was asking her to refrain from certain behaviors. What we don’t realize is that when the adults in these adolescents’ lives don’t lovingly guide them and keep the door open for interactive conversations, social media can very easily fill the void.

It is normal for adolescents to have questions about their developing bodies and sexual awareness. We do our children and our communities a disservice when we choose to ignore the realities of their development. It was not uncommon during the time of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) for women to come to ask questions about intimate matters. They knew that modesty and openness could coexist. We see, in the following hadith, that the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) was clear about a woman’s response to sexual arousal and the implication that this is part and parcel of conception.

Um-Sulaim came to Allah’s Apostle ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) and said, “Verily, Allah is not shy of (telling you) the truth. Is it necessary for a woman to take a bath after she has a wet dream (nocturnal sexual discharge?) The Prophetṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him)replied, “Yes, if she notices a discharge.” Um Sulaim, then covered her face and asked, “O Allah’s Apostle! Does a woman get a discharge?” He replied, “Yes, let your right hand be in dust (An Arabic expression said light-heartedly to a person whose statement you contradict) and that is why the son resembles his mother.” Sahih Muslim 608 Chapter 3, The Book of Menstruation (Kitab Al-Haid) `

Sexual Identity

In addition to sorting through their physical, emotional, and social growth, the youth of today are living in a time where it’s almost expected that they will explore, or at least question, their sexual identity. This is another topic that the Muslim community often likes to keep behind closed doors. We assume that our children will accept the heterosexual norms of our religious and cultural communities. Many will, but it’s not something that can be taken for granted. Whether we like it or not, and irrespective of the Islamic rulings on the topic, the fact is that more and more of our young women are faced with questions regarding their sexual identity. Their lives are caught in the dichotomy of a society in which sexual exploration is encouraged and homes and communities where discussing sexuality is taboo.

In a culture where 1) girl-girl sexual intimacy is no longer taboo, 2) fluidity of sexual orientation, especially for females, is normalized, 3) where emotionally unengaged parenting can leave girls with an emotional void to fill, and 4) where young men are less mature than they used to be, it’s no surprise that more and more young girls are turning to the same sex for comfort during these formative and difficult years2. When girls are battling the normal developmental challenges of adolescence, while living in homes where they feel ignored, criticized, or misunderstood, it can translate into low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and/or rebellion.

Peers easily become the primary support system, and emotional intimacy can translate into physical intimacy. When I asked one of my clients about her feelings towards her family ignoring her, she said “I don’t care. My friends are my world. They’re my everything! Actually, and don’t tell my mother this, my best friend and I just started going out a few weeks ago.” I’ve worked with this client long enough to know that she isn’t unaffected by her family’s dismissal towards her, but that she is coping through her friendships— which can end up becoming romantic as well.

Dr. Sax posits that the “girls themselves may not understand what’s happening because the girls aren’t in touch with their own sexuality.” (p 33) According to Dr. Sax, the number of young women who identify as lesbian or bisexual may be somewhere between 15 to 23%. We have to stop assuming that Muslim adolescent girls and young women don’t fall into this range. We also have to recognize that superficial conversations about modesty and hijab and exhortations to “have taqwa” with threats of hell are not a viable solution. The issues are a lot deeper and require us to move out of our comfort zones and look in the mirror as parents, adults, and as a community.

The Issue with External Solutions

Hijab. It’s the first thing that comes to mind for many people. Questions of whether there should or shouldn’t be partitions in masajid are still being hotly debated. In defending our positions on the physical barriers between men and women, we lose sight of the fact that our young girls are struggling; regardless of whether or not they wear hijab. When it comes to Muslim girls, we become so hung up on the topic of external appearances that we end up overlooking conversations on what it means to create a healthy sense of identity, sexuality, and self-worth. The underlying issue is not the presence or absence of the physical barrier, hijab, clothing type, or make-up, as much as it is our girls’ identities becoming defined by and limited to these things. I am not arguing that discussing or talking about hijab with our girls should be abandoned. I do believe however, that these conversations need to happen within a larger context that makes them more meaningful.

On one extreme, religiosity becomes imposed on girls. They are taught what is halal, what is haram, and often overly cautioned about actions that will take them to hell. Girls are taught that hijab is important due to them being analogous to sweets that have to be covered from flies. What is this teaching girls?  I can’t get over how many young people I meet who are turned away from Islam because they’ve been given such a dark and ignorant perspective. At best, they begrudgingly oblige. At worst, they begin to identify as “in the closet atheist.” When we don’t treat those younger than us with compassion and mercy, they begin to believe that the God —whose teachings we’re imparting —also doesn’t have Compassion and Mercy.

Ibn Majah narrates on the authority of Jundab ibn ‘Abdallah raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) who said: “We were with the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) – a group of youngsters close to the age of maturity. We learnt what was iman before we could learn the Quran. Thereafter we learnt the Quran. In so doing, we increased our iman.”

This hadith shows us that the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) began his teaching of youngsters by developing a relationship with Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). There’s no denying that hijab is a command from Allah. However, when we reduce religious teachings only to lessons on halal/haram, the relationship with Allah ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) doesn’t have a chance to develop.

The other extreme is when conversations about modesty and proper hijab are scoffed at and deemed judgmental and/or cultural. During the second wave of feminism, popular notions of women’s roles in society, their sexuality and reproductive rights were debated, and modesty was posited as a byproduct of the male patriarchy. Many of these notions have become entrenched within the Muslim community and any questions or criticisms of modern hijab and fashion trends are considered politically incorrect. It has become increasingly common to meet young Muslim “feminists”. I use quotes around feminist because I believe that many young women don’t actually know the history of feminism, or how it impacts them beyond giving them more rights than what are afforded to them within their families.

The problem with both of these approaches is that they take away from healthy conversations on sexuality and identity. We become so busy imposing or defending external factors that deeper discussions fall to the wayside.  It also doesn’t help that the widespread use of social media is forcing girls to always be “camera ready” lest an unflattering picture of them make it onto someone else’s Snap story.

What Can We Do?

The issues presented here are part of a much bigger picture and definitely don’t exist in a vacuum. Here are suggestions of what parents and communities can do  for their daughters.

Be curious. Ask her what she’s feeling. Acknowledge that it’s difficult. Acknowledge that you may not understand, but that you want to. Don’t assume you know what your daughter is going through. Also, don’t diminish her sadness or other emotion that makes you uncomfortable as “dramatic.” We have too many adult women who have lived their lives being told they are drama queens and in turn, that their emotions are not valid. We perpetuate this injustice on our daughters when we ignore their pain or tell them what they should or should not be feeling.

Empathize. You may not know what it feels like to be in your daughter’s shoes. You may not understand why she feels the way she feels, whether sad, anxious, lonely, or excited. But you do know what these feelings are. You’ve undoubtedly felt them. Let your daughters (and sons for that matter) know that you have also felt this way at some point in your life, and still experience these feelings. Normalize these feelings for your children. Recognize and verbalize their existence.

When we don’t empathize with children, it can come across as indifference or shaming. Too often I see parents telling their kids not to cry or not to feel a certain way. This minimizes real and often difficult emotions and doesn’t actually teach young people about how to navigate the circumstances causing them. It just teaches them to shut their feelings off. The problem is that we cannot selectively turn off emotions. When we choose to shut down our capacity to feel pain and grief, we inadvertently also shut off our ability to feel joy and excitement.

Pay attention. Notice changes in your daughter’s mood. Is she isolating herself? Is she constantly on social media? While it’s normal for adolescents to push away from their parents, it is not normal for them to shut them out completely. Paying attention requires spending time with our children and getting to know who they are. It means looking beyond their grades and whether they know how to make chai to their interests, their passions, and their struggles.

Stop comparing. Not to your struggles, not to a sibling’s successes, not to another cousin/friend/random person’s goodness. Comparing doesn’t positively motivate anyone. Our girls have enough damaging comparisons with airbrushed models being the standard of beauty. Let’s not make them believe that they aren’t good enough by telling them that so-and-so handled the same struggle or passed the same test with flying colors. Comparing sends a message that we don’t love who they are. Instead of making comparisons with the good behaviors of others, learn to notice and compliment the efforts that are being made.

Be willing to be the mean parent. It is possible to show love, compassion, and acceptance to children while also setting healthy boundaries. I encourage everyone who is a parent, or works with young girls in any capacity to read Girls on The Edge to better understand the implications of social media, sexual identity, and other factors on the development of girls. It won’t be easy to go against the grain of many popular norms, but it’ll be healthier for our girls in the long run.

This is especially important when it comes to social media. Research has shown a correlation between the usage of social media and depression. Being constantly connected can have a detrimental effect on young women, and it’s up to parents to regulate and teach their children how to be responsible and balanced in their use of social media.

Be more positive more often. After having worked with a number of young girls as a counselor, I’ve come to notice a pattern. Every single one of them, without exception, feels criticized and/or ignored by their parents. When I meet with the parents, I can see genuine love and concern for their daughters. However, this gets voiced in the form of complaints or suggestions for improvement while appreciation and genuine compliments have to be probed for. Even when it comes to adult relationships, Dr. John Gottman, a renowned relationship expert has found that successful marriages have a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. As adults, we need to be validated and acknowledged positively in our relationships. Yet in the hustle and bustle of daily life and getting tasks done, we forget to do this for our children. The most important component of our children’s healthy development is for them to know that they are loved. Don’t assume that your children know that you love them. Tell them frequently that you do.

Create opportunities. This is where the community comes in. We need to create avenues for girls to explore their interests and develop their sense of self in the context of a community. Dr. Sax discusses the importance of girls engaging with a community of women of various ages as well as giving girls the opportunity to explore their spirituality. Our masajid are ideal places for women, old and young, to come together and develop a multidimensional sense of self.

Seek help. Life is hard. At some point we developed the expectation that we should know it all or somehow be able to figure it out. This just isn’t true. We need to develop the ability to ask for help when we need it on an individual, familial, and communal level. This can take the form of seeking therapy or counseling, leaning on a friend for support, or getting professional consultation of some kind. When we aren’t willing to ask for help, we also often end up being unable to be helpful.

Be a role model. Not just in terms of religious or vocational success. Struggle and failure are a part of life. These visitors come in and out of our lives at every stage. They don’t make us less than nor do they diminish our worth. When we learn to be honest about our limitations and are willing to face our own emotions, we show the youngsters around us that it is not only okay, but also safe, to do so. Be willing to grapple with the challenges that are uncomfortable.  Our children do it every single day.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy of the client.

  1. Jerrold S. Greenberg, Clint E. Bruess, Sara B. Oswalt (2016). Exploring the Dimensions of Human Sexuality. Jones & Bartlett Publishers. pp. 4–10. ISBN 1284081540. Retrieved June 21, 2017. Human sexuality is a part of your total personality. It involves the interrelationship of biological, psychological, and sociocultural dimensions. […] It is the total of our physical, emotional, and spiritual responses, thoughts, and feelings.
  2. Researchers at Cornell University, examining data collected from a representative sampling of young Americans that included more than 20,000 individuals across the United States, found that 14.5 percent of women were categorized as lesibians, bisexual, or “bisexual leaning heterosexual.” Among young men, 5.6 percent were categorized as gay, bisexual, or “bisexual leaning heterosexual.” See Ritch Savin-Williams and Geoffrey L. Ream, “Prevalence and Stability of sexual orientation components during adolescence and young adulthood,” Archives of Sexual Behavior, volume 36 (2007), pp. 385-394. The proportions in the United States might be even lower than in some European countries. For example, in Norway, more than 20 percent of girls and young women were categorized as lesbian or bisexual: see L. Wichstrom and K. Hegna, “Sexual orientation and suicide attempt: a longitudinal study of the general Norwegian adolescent population,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology, volume 112 (2003), pp. 141-151. In another study, 23 percent of girls and young women in New Zealand – nearly one in four – were sexually attracted to other girls and young women: see N. Dickson and colleagues, “Same sex attraction in a birth cohort: prevalence and persistence in early childhood,” Social Science and Medicine, volume 56 (2003), pp 1607-1615

Menahal grew up in Queens, New York. She’s a graduate of the Al-Huda Institute and has a Masters degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Menahal works with individuals, families, and couples covering a client base with a broad range of mental health issues, including substance abuse disorders. Most notably Menahal has completed Levels 1-3 of marriage counseling via the Gottman Institute, world renowned for its work on marriage stability and divorce prediction. Thereafter, she worked with the Gottman Institute to author the Islamic Reference Guide to the Gottman Method. She is now pursuing training in Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, a modality to treat trauma. Menahal can be contacted for speaking or workshop requests, or therapy related inquiries at menahal.begawala@gmail.com.

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    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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