The month of Ramadhan is divinely made for self-reflection and self-examination. Along with the soul-taming experience of self-restraint and delay of gratification found in fasting, we are given the opportunity to probe our own minds and hearts in a deeper way. This soul searching can include looking at “my” relationship with Allah, my relationship with my own self, and my relationship with other people, particularly my family members.
But Ramadhan is more than all about us. So one of the most pertinent questions we can ask ourselves in these days of profound spiritual dedication and renewal is this: How can we guide our children to a closer relationship with Allah, and how can we facilitate for them a greater surrender to, and love of, Him?
My experience in counseling numerous families has given me insight to some answers.
But let’s begin first with Umar ibnul Khattab. A father came to him when he was khalifah and complained to him that his son did not respect or obey him. Umar listened to the man patiently and men sent a messenger to bring the son. Umar met with the son alone and asked him about his father’s complaints, and Umar wept upon listening to the boy He then spoke privately with the father who fully expected to hear that the khalifah had reprimanded his son and set him straight about the Islamic imperative to respect parents. Umar asked the son to leave them alone.
What he told this father may surprise you. He said that he could not expect his son to respect him and be dutiful to him because he, the father, did not respect the son or fulfill his duty toward his son. This had become clear to Umar during his conversation with the son.
Some 1400 years later a man named Sal Severe has written a book called How to Behave so Your Children Will Too. The title says it all, doesn’t it? When Sal’s children were young, he says, he realized that the way he behaved toward them very much determined how they behaved toward him and to everyone else. Over the many years of counseling families, he came to the conclusion that spending one hour with the parents did more to help a problem child than spending time with the child himself.
So is it not imperative for us as parents to change ourselves if there are things in our own behavior that negatively impact the environment in the home and the dynamic between family members?
Yet it is so common that parents come to counseling expecting the counselor to work miracles with their problem child, to somehow “fix” their child.
And when I suggest to the parents that there are things they too must work on in their own souls, some of them get offended, and insist that the problem is the child, not them. I wonder if the father who brought his son to Umar responded the same way when told that he could not expect his son to respect him since he didn’t respect his son.
It is very easy for us parents to delude ourselves into thinking that we are just fine as we are, but our children have to change. This is not intended in any way to blame parents or make them feel guilty.
The fact is that none of us is perfect in our parenting. We make numerous mistakes and are doing well if we continuously reexamine what we are doing and how we are doing it. This is part and parcel of the ongoing, lifelong process of transforming the self. And in fact, our children benefit from seeing us fall short, grapple with our own shortcomings, but through it all maintain a commitment to personal growth and change. Our children will see that they too will experience that human journey and that every mistake made is an opportunity to learn and grow, and in that process-if it is one’s intention-to strive for greater purity of heart and closeness to Allah.
The point is that Allah does not ask that we be perfect. We are commanded, however, to be committed to the process of purifying our hearts, of transforming ourselves, of deepening our knowledge of “self” each and every day. We have to portray that process to our children as a fascinating, joyful, rewarding process. And-here’s the point- we can only do that if we experience it that way! It is a profound reality that we are at every moment modeling for our children the beliefs, attitudes, values, priorities, and behaviors that speak volumes to them of our own spiritual lives and lay the foundation for the spiritual lives of our children.
The unavoidable truth is that if we want to guide our children to a closer relationship with Allah, we have to demonstrate what that close relationship looks like, sounds like, and feels like. If we want to facilitate for them a greater love of Him, we have to make our love of Allah visible through our own daily living. If we want to ensure our children’s surrender to Allah, we must truthfully represent that surrender with our own manner of thought, feeling, and behavior.
It sounds easy enough to establish a family life that revolves around awareness of Allah as the guide, the criterion, and the support that permeates our days and nights, and easy enough to provide opportunities for our children to be with their Muslim friends whose parents want the same for them as we do for our children. But is it?
And why is this so important? Consider the following hadeeth:
The Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, said: “Listen, shall I tell you something more important in degree than prayer (salah), fasting (sawm) and charity (sadaqah)?" The Companions requested him to do so. He said: “Keeping a mutual relationship on the right footing, because defect in that relationship shaves a thing clean.” Abu Isa said this is a sound (sahih) hadeeth. It is further related that the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, said: “It shaves a thing clean, and I do not mean that it shaves the hair, but it shaves the religion (deen)” (Tirmithi).
It is truly remarkable that guarding and protecting our relationships is more important in degree than prayer (salah), fasting (sawm) and charity (sadaqah) .We know just how important prayer, fasting, and charity are, and this hadeeth is not lessening their significance in any way, but rather pointing to how essential relationships are. The fact that a defect in a relationship wipes out one’s religion (deen) indicates the tremendous impact our relationships have on us and those we are involved with. If we consider how draining of energy a miserable marriage relationship is, for example, we can understand how the depression, hopelessness, resentment, and other negative experiences that result from a dysfunctional and unhappy marriage can gradually erode one’s practice of Islam.
Does this hadeeth not teach us that our relationships, including our relationships with our children, need to be guarded in order to guard our own and our children’s experience and practice of Islam? By extension, we can also include the importance of guarding “my” relationship with my own self (so many people have issues and inner conflicts that drain away their energy). And even more crucially, we can infer from this the importance of guarding “my” relationship with Allah, as this relationship can become routine and unfulfilling if we don’t make it a priority.
If we want to ensure our children’s surrender to Allah, we must truthfully represent that surrender with our own manner of thought, feeling, and action. Then our children will emulate us and love Allah.
In the same way, if we want our children to enjoy a character and personality that are healthy and successful, we have to provide the model for a healthy and successful relationship “with self.” In that way, our children will emulate us and feel successful in navigating through their own lives. They will be emulating us and loving their own lives.
And if we want our children to enjoy healthy and successful relationships with other people, we have to provide that model, as well. In fact, our relationship with our children is the model our children will copy with others. If we are successful in our relationship with them, they will emulate us and love ???? we’ll get to that exciting answer below. Let’s look at each of the three categories of relationship.
Guarding Our Relationship with the ‘Self’
If we were to create an overall composite profile of couples who seek marital counseling, it would look like this:
- One or both spouses is resistant to learning new things, closed to new experiences, and static rather than dynamic in their daily manner of living.
- One or both is in denial about their issues, blaming others for their difficulties, and not very open to receiving feedback about their shortcomings; not completely honest with themselves about their issues or shortcomings.
- One or both have impulse control issues, compulsions, or addictions.
- One or both is disorganized with regard to time management, finances, household, etc.
- One or both have issues of anxiety, anger, or depression.
- One or both lack confidence or assertiveness in the relationship and resign themselves to an unfulfilled marriage and/or fife, or resort to passive-aggressive behavior.
- One or both is lazy, lacking motivation or inspiration, feeling like a victim of external circumstances, failing to make the marital relationship a priority.
- One or both are unhappy or even miserable with their marriage and their life in general.
We can avoid much of the above-described misery by working on ourselves and taking an inventory of self to see how we are doing with regard to each of the aspects listed below. A married couple can learn new skills such as empathic listening or conflict resolution. However, the two spouses each bring to the relationship their own personal strengths and weaknesses. If both are committed to self-transformation, working on their own issues, the relationship can strengthen and deepen each and every day. Each aspect of self listed below refers to the corresponding description above. In addition to each spouse’s personal happiness and the success of the marital relationship, it is so important to work on the self because we are the primary models for our children of health or unhealthy relationship with regard to self.
Each of the traits listed below is part of the human potential to attain to an integrated state of being whole and complete. Every individual has the challenge of harmonizing the various parts of his personhood-his thoughts, feelings, attitudes, beliefs, values, motives, and behaviors-into an uncompromised, congruent whole. We can look at the personhood as a system whose various parts are combined and organized, an arrangement of personality and character aspects and attributes that form a complex yet unitary whole. Each aspect listed below is an essential provision on the journey of self-transformation, the striving for excellence (ihsan) that Islam teaches us. Those who are interested in further in-depth discussion about each of the following aspects, can find a full article on each aspect at www.salaamhearts.com .
1. Openness to new experience and change
This indicates a person’s desire and willingness to seek out new ideas, activities, and/or people. These individuals feel comfortable with change and do not adhere strictly to familiar routines and experiences unless these facilitate their health, happiness, and success. There are always new opportunities for change, whether in our external world of experience or in our internal world of thoughts, feelings, actions, and habits. Those who are comfortable with change have an open mindedness and inclination to personal growth and enrichment, exploration, and discovery. Those who are open to new experiences tend to be curious and creative-minded, and to enjoy variety. They understand that Islam is a self-tranformational religion and way of life.
Integrity is essential to spiritual excellence. It is also at the core of a truly happy and fulfilling life. Cultivating integrity and honesty involves a gradual dropping away of all pre- tense and manipulation in one’s interactions with others. Integrity as a manner of living that adheres to moral and ethical principles, results in a process of healing all that is fragmented, broken, or wounded within the soul.This manner of living also incorporates a dedication to facing one’s shortcomings and honestly seeing the reality of one’s everyday life and relationships.
To drop our egoistic pretenses and practice living each moment centered in, and coming from, the heart, is a life-long journey that promises the greatest happiness and fulfillment. It is the path we can take to reclaim our Jitrah, the primal, pristine human nature we were born with.
3. Self-discipline / Self-governance
Self-discipline is a capacity to behave in a way that serves our intentions and goals. It is necessary to cultivate self-discipline in order to achieve optimal health, happiness, and success. Lacking self-control leads to indulgence in impulsive or habitual behaviors and attitudes that disregard the principle of cause and effect. Realizing that an action has consequences and that we can make a choice at each and every moment of our daily lives, is the first step toward the desire to strive for self-governance. Self-governance, or the lack thereof, affects every aspect of our lives, including physical and mental health, relationships, particularly marriage and parent/child relationships, career, practice of Islam, school, and so on. Controlling impulses and whims is a profound ability that can be learned at any age, and can be strengthened anytime one makes an intention to further develop this capacity. Sabr (patience and perseverance) is at the core of self-discipline and self-governance.
4. Orderliness and Organization
Being orderly and organized with one’s belongings, priorities, and habits of living is essential to feeling peaceful in daily life. Oftentimes, disorderliness is a reflection of a disorganized thinking style. It’s been said that “Organized minds make successful people. "The truth is that feeling relaxed and comfortable, as well as accomplishing one’s goals, is much more possible when one’s interior (mind) .and exterior (environment) are neat and tidy. When your home, closets, office, or desk, for example, are messy and cluttered, it is very difficult to get things done in an efficient way. And enjoying the process is next to impossible. Being orderly and organized comes naturally to some people, but it is a skill that can be learned and the benefits are enormous, positively affecting every aspect of one’s life.
5. Coping skills
Calm, peace of mind, and sense of tranquility result from the ability to cope well so that anxiety, worry, and/or fear are minimized. People who enjoy this state of mind typically have made an intention to learn how to be calm and peaceful. They know the value of solitude and finding time to experience stillness and absence of the multitude of stimuli that can disturb our minds, bodies, and spirits – like cell phones, computers, and email. Finding a balance between the high-tech, busy world and the world of peace and quiet is a challenge worth taking on for anyone who strives for optimal health, happiness, and success.
Good coping skills allow an individual to also constructively deal with feelings of anger or frustration. Anger is a normal human emotion that is simply a response to hurt, frustration, or fear. How we “act out” our anger can be constructive or destructive to our physical and psychological health and to our relationships with others. Put simply, anger is a powerful force that can drive us to do good or to do bad. The problem does not he in anger per se, but in its unrestrained power that can, at times, overwhelm us and compromise our capacity to think clearly and make sound judgments. Frequent anger and “acting out” episodes are the result of poor coping skills. Developing good coping skills allows us to deal with the stressors of daily life. Examples of healthy coping techniques are putting trust in Allah, assessing any difficulty in a realistic way and putting it in a healthy perspective, focusing on the things one can be thankful for, regular physical exercise, relaxation techniques, and positive, affirming self-talk.
6. Assertiveness and Confidence
Assertiveness is the capacity and willingness to honestly express your views and opinions, your feelings and your needs. It is important to distinguish between assertiveness and aggressiveness. Aggression typically involves hostility and a sense of coercion. The tone and attitude of assertiveness convey a confidence in yourself and a willingness to be heard, to be considered, to be recognized. Being assertive means that you don’t shy away from situations that are uncomfortable, and that you are able to navigate or even negotiate your way through to resolution and understanding. This skill is essential in the marriage relationship so that each spouse is able to express him or herself and articulate their needs.
7. Achievement Orientation and Goal-Setting
Setting goals and striving to achieve them is an aspect of daily living that provides motivation, an experience of life “as process,” and the fulfillment one feels when a goal is achieved. The Qur’an says that “…man can have nothing but what he strives for” [53:39]. Goal-setting helps a person determine what is important to him or her, and what one’s purpose is on a short-term and a long-term basis. The process of choosing, articulating, and following through on a plan of action toward a particular result brings about the rewards of accomplishment and also the increased self-confidence of knowing that one is moving forward, enriching the self, and aiming for excellence. The Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, said: “Actions are but by intention, and every man shall have but that which he intended” (Bukhari and Muslim).
Happiness has many facets such as joy, contentment, and optimism. The dictionary tells us that happiness results from the possession or attainment of what one considers good. So to a large degree, happiness depends upon what one attaches value to. If a person takes pleasure in feeling relaxed, putting things in perspective so that one does not get thrown off by whatever befalls him or her, whether good or bad, easy or difficult; if a person finds countless things, however small, for which to be thankful; if a person pursues goals that bring fulfillment-then happiness becomes a practical matter of making these experiences an enjoyable habit of living.
Happiness is not a mood. It is more a spiritual approach to life. It is a mindset that facilitates, feeds, and enhances the feeling of positive and enjoyable well-being. True happiness does not come with what one has acquired-whether possessions, or prestige, or power. It comes with what one has actualized in the self or soul. The Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, said: “True richness is the richness of the soul” (Bukhari and Muslim). It comes with choosing the essential over the superficial. It comes from emptying the heart of all turmoil, the mind of all addictions, and the behavior of all need to dominate others or inclination to victimize. It has been said that happiness is “when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” Exploring one’s self with regard to each of the above eight categories is a profound way to increase self-knowledge. Imam ibn Al-Qayyim said that whoever does not know himself does not know Allah. But, of course, this must be knowledge of the heart, not of the tongue. We are talking about knowledge which elevates and transforms the soul. Al-Hassan Al-Basri said: “There are two kinds of knowledge- knowledge of the tongue and knowledge of the heart, which is the beneficial knowledge. Knowledge of the heart raises people in rank. It is the inner knowledge which is absorbed by the heart and puts it right. Knowledge of the tongue is taken lightly by the people- neither those who possess it, nor anyone else, act upon it.”
A story illustrates this. Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (d. 505 AH /1111 C.E.) used to travel from village to village, his donkey loaded with the books he proudly collected, evidence of his vast knowledge-so he thought! One day robbers stole his donkey and all his books. He was grateful that they had spared his life, but he realized that when his books were gone, so was his so-called knowledge. He realized that he had never taken to heart the knowledge in the volumes of books he carried from village to village. He vowed from that moment forward that he would acquire only one book, and when he had mastered and put into practice the knowledge in that one book, only then would he acquire another.
We can do the same with each of the eight aspects listed above. We can work on improving ourselves with regard to being open to new experience and change (aspect #1), examining ourselves in this regard on a daily basis, reading and researching more about what it means to be committed to lifelong personal growth and transformation, and putting into practice whatever we learn and making sure it is knowledge of the heart, and then move on to the next aspect. This is a wonderful way to guard the relationship with one’s self!
Article provided by Al Jumuah Magazine, a monthly Muslim lifestyle publication, which addresses the religious concerns of Muslim families across the world.
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