There is no perfect way to raise Muslim children in America, or in anywhere else, and in a complex society such as the United States, there are a lot of different elements which factor into the overall process of healthy child-rearing for Muslim American children; neighborhoods, education, background, family support, community participation, parental involvement, income, experience or lack of, knowledge of the deen, common sense, the role of father, as well as other factors. Some of these things we have control over and others, we have no control over. However, there are principle elements of child-rearing that are based upon the Quran and the Sunna, and that have proven effective for children of American Muslim converts to Islam. Similarly, there many things that have proven not to work and that have shown to be destructive to their religion.
Imam al-Qurtubi says; “knowledge is acquired through two means; nusoos (textual evidence) and tajriba (trial and error)”. Something very disturbing is happening in Muslim America amongst children of converts; many of them are either leaving Islam altogether, or at least abandoning the meaningful practice of Islam. Some of them are speaking out about how growing up in dysfunctional Muslim homes where there was extremism, abuse, conflicting religious messages, moving from sect to sect, or living under ridiculous, imported fatwas and rulings made their lives difficult. Some are even converting to Christianity and heading for the churches, and others grow up confused about their identity which is something that should never befall a Muslim child. This generational backlash is widespread, and warrants that we need to take a look at what has and hasn’t worked as far as raising Muslim children in America because judging by the lack of the generational continuity of Islam in many new Muslim American families, we indeed have a problem.
Islam has been in the United States for a long time now, and people have been converting to Islam in high numbers for the last fifty years or so. Since that time, what we have seen is that a high percentage of the people who converted to Islam, failed to pass it down to their children in a healthy, seamless way that their children continued to practice the faith into the next generation and the generation after that. There is a great disconnect between those who convert to Islam and the ability to pass it on to the next generation. At this point in our juncture it is only prudent that we take a good look at what we are doing and how we are going about raising our children and what are we raising them upon.
From what I have seen over the last thirty years, parents who have had the most success in maintaining Islam within their children have been the ones who kept their Islam simple and emphasized following the Quran and the Sunna, without any additions. The parents who complicated their Islam with too many foreign elements, or who neglected their Islam, and replaced it with secular teaching and ideas, or who mixed their Islam with Christianity, tend to raise children who are very confused about their Islamic identity (if they still have one), and who opt not to practice their religion. By simple Islam, I mean the emphasis upon what was contained in the hadith of Jibril (AS) regarding the five pillars, and basic beliefs; (Allah, the Prophets, the angels, the Day of Judgment, and the Books). When the importance of the primary foundations of Islamic belief and behavior such as prayer, fasting, family bonds, goodness to neighbors, charity, honesty, loyalty, taqwa, kindness, family, the Masjid, and brotherhood, were stressed, children seemed to have an easier time coping in the long term, and maintaining a healthy and active Islamic identity. I’m not talking about a perfect Islam or perfect child because there is none, but there is such a thing as an active and healthy Muslim identity.
It is important for Muslim parents to keep in mind that it is absolutely vital that you make sure that your children have a secure foundation in their deen. Giving children a foundation in their religion usually takes the entirety of their growing up under you. It is not something achieved in one sitting, one experience, in one month, one summer, or one year, and it’s not something that you can buy, or contract someone to do for you. You as a parent must do it yourself, starting at home. Children are born in a state of fitra, and by their very nature they are predisposed to take the path that their parents put them on. When they are exposed by the parents to too many different truths, or too many different religious sub-ideologies, they will tend not be secure in their faith. Faith insecurity is something that you do not want to happen with your children under any circumstances because once they become insecure in their faith, they are likely to fall for anything.
The Prophet (SAWS) wasn’t a complicated person. He didn’t preach or teach in a complicated style, and he didn’t like excessive questioning about matters which is why he said; “It was only their excessive questioning and their disagreeing with their Prophets which destroyed those who came before you” He (SAWS) never liked when the deen was made burdensome, and he said; “The practice of religion is easy and whoever overburdens himself in his religion will be overpowered by it. Therefore, be moderate, try to be near perfection but within your capacity and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded.”  Instead, our beloved Prophet (SAWS) preferred simple messages of guidance that were simple to grasp and easy to implement, as long as you didn’t complicate it. For example when asked what the best type of Islam was, he replied: “Feeding food, and spreading salaams”, when asked for advice he simply replied in one tradition: “don’t get angry”.
When children are put upon simple, firm and true deen from the very beginning, it is likely that they will not be swayed or moved by anything different; whether it is a different madhaahib, deviant ideologies, or faddish Islamic sects. You don’t want your children to end up being like the people who spend more time researching and arguing about the deen, than they spend practicing it. This is why the Prophet (SAWS) said: “I’m leaving you with two things that if you hold fast to them you will never go astray after me; the Book of Allah and my Sunna”. [Bukhaari] Holding fast to anything else after that is just a gamble, and gambling is haram in Islam.
Keep in mind is that the true religion of Allah will always be Islam and the only one of our ummah who is ma’soom (free of error) is Muhammad Ibn Abdullah, the Last Prophet (SAWS). So teach your children to live according to the Quran and the Sunna beloveds, in principle, belief, and practice. Anything else is just someone else’s experiment, for which Allah has revealed no authority. Let your children identify themselves as Muslims. It is the Sunna of the Prophet (SAWS) to call yourself a Muslim, and that is the best possible identity for them.
وَجَاهِدُوا فِي اللَّهِ حَقَّ جِهَادِهِ هُوَ اجْتَبَاكُمْ وَمَا جَعَلَ عَلَيْكُمْ فِي الدِّينِ مِنْ حَرَجٍ مِّلَّةَ أَبِيكُمْ إِبْرَاهِيمَ هُوَ سَمَّاكُمُ الْمُسْلِمينَ مِن قَبْلُ وَفِي هَذَا لِيَكُونَ الرَّسُولُ شَهِيدًا عَلَيْكُمْ وَتَكُونُوا شُهَدَاء عَلَى النَّاسِ فَأَقِيمُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَآتُوا الزَّكَاةَ وَاعْتَصِمُوا بِاللَّهِ هُوَ مَوْلَاكُمْ فَنِعْمَ الْمَوْلَى وَنِعْمَ النَّصِيرُ
[“And strive in His cause as ye ought to strive, (with sincerity and under discipline). He has chosen you, and has imposed no difficulties on you in religion; it is the cult of your father Abraham. It is He Who has named you Muslims, both before and in this (Revelation); that the Messenger may be a witness for you, and ye be witnesses for mankind! So establish regular Prayer, give regular Charity, and hold fast to Allah. He is your Protector – the Best to protect and the Best to help!” ]
Indigenous American Muslim converts, mostly whom are Black American, have a unique and distinct history in that we are the descendants of slaves and are historically and fundamentally cut off from the rest of the Muslim world to a very significant degree, and we need to recognize that and stop trying to fit into everyone else’s reality. Indigenous American Muslims ascribe to groups and ideologies in different ways that people generally do from the Muslim world, which is a subject by itself that I won’t address here, and I’m not saying this in a good or bad way except to say that the American Muslim convert community has a uniqueness that warrants we keep our assimilation of Islam, very independent and progressively simple. Because many of us are converts, and second generation Muslims, we should assimilate into Islam in the same simplistic incremental way the first converts of our Umma i.e. the companions of the Prophet (SAWS) did. This was to keep their Islamic identity, simple enough to minimize complication and flexible enough using principles from the Quran and the Sunna, that it was inclusive of everyone who came to believe laa ilaaha illa Allah and accepted the basic principles of Islam.
Therefore, do not teach your children that they are, Shaafi’ee, Qaadiri, Tijaani, Tablighi, Salafi, Hanbali, Maaliki, or any other designation. Teach them that they are Muslim. Even if you happen to follow a particular school of thought or a tariqa be it Shaafi’ee, or Maaliki, or Shaadhili, or if you ascribe to a group such as Salafi, or a Tablighi, or anything else, don’t let these designations become your children’s principle identity. Do not, and I repeat, do not teach your children that anything represents the totality of Islam, other than Islam. If you teach them that your group are the only true Muslims, or that if they follow this or that tariqa or madhhab, there Islam will be better than everyone else’s, then you will only confuse and mislead them; as many people are already doing. I’ve seen this happen often.
Islam, as an identity, has more depth, more security, more longevity, and more spiritual potency than any of the other sectarian additions to it. This is because Islam, in its pure form is sanctioned from above seven heavens and is supported by the authority of wahy (divine revelation). The Prophet (SAWS) was sent to all of mankind by agreement of the scholars. قُلْ يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنِّي رَسُولُ اللّهِ إِلَيْكُمْ جَمِيعً” [Say: “O men! I am sent unto you all, as the Messenger of Allah,] However, this or that sheikh, or that companion, or that taabi’ee, were not dispatched to all people as a mercy to mankind. In reality; people are only commanded to worship Allah Alone, and to make the religion for His sake only, and that is the most important message that we must pass on to our children.
The point is, that if you teach your children the truth, (the Quran and the sunna), you don’t have to spend a lot of time teaching them about all the falsehood that they may or may not encounter during their lifetime, or teaching them about all the different sects and ways that people do this or that. Truth is stronger than falsehood, and there is no end to the amount of falsehood, differences of thought, deviant and orthodox ideology, and opinions in circulation amongst the Muslims. It takes years for most people to sift througfh all that. Their time on earth is limited just like ours, and the more truth they know (from the Kitaab and the Sunna) and the more they are aware of what is important, then the more time and energy they can devote to practicing it and preparing for their hereafter.
There are so many sunnan and vital aspects of deen that Muslim children grow up knowing nothing about. Whether it is family issues, moral value issues, character issues, adaab issues, belief issues, fiqh issues, social issues, or simple lifestyle issues upon which Allah and His Messenger have rendered guidance. The idea is to pass the deen down to your children in a way that they will remain firm in their faith, and in their practice of Islam, and not find themselves running from one thing to another thing to another thing. Or constantly questioning this and then questioning that, and questioning what they believe, every time something new comes on the scene, like many Muslims are doing today. It’s really a sad situation. However, it can get better in sha Allah but we have to go back to the basics.
You don’t need advanced and complicated aqeeda books to teach children their belief. People have teaching their children religion and morals for years, with simple, basic instruction, and by word of mouth from parent to child. If a parent really wants their child to learn aqeeda, then read the Quran to them. Everything they need to know about Allah is contained in His Book, and whatever essentials that are left undisclosed in the Book, the Prophet (SAWS) has covered it abundantly. When they grow up and want to get deep down in theology, or if they want to become polemicists when they get older, and debate back and forth about aqeeda on the internet, then let them do that on their own, but let not you as the parent, be the one to start them off on this path. For most parents, you will find that the Quran and the Sunna is more than enough for your children. When it comes to religion; teach them exactly what the Prophet (SAWS) taught us.
Simplicity and the fundamentals are the first step in restoring order amongst indigenous American Muslims, and most vital in that is in establishing the prayer with your family, your wife and the children of your household. Your children must see that you bow your head down to Allah sub’haanahu wa ta’ala. That way, they will know that you are accountable to Him. If they see that you are accountable to Allah, they will find it easier and more palatable to be accountable to you as a parent. If there is no prayer in your home, then it is almost assured that Shaitaan will soon become the imam of your household.
Imam Luqman Ahmad
Shaykh Luqman is an Imam and Resident Scholar at the Toledo Masjid al-Islam in Ohio. He is the author of several books and hundreds of articles about Islam and Muslims in America He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org