At a community iftar (after-sunset meal) I attended last Ramadan, my kids and I both had an enjoyable evening. Moms and dads had ample room to pray taraweeh (extra night prayers) in a beautiful, reverently-adorned prayer space. A designated childcare room for younger children was equipped with qualified babysitters and arts and crafts. Older kids participated in an outdoor Mario Kart tournament; the four-player video game screen was projected onto a wall of the mosque courtyard to create a ten-foot-tall display.
The mosque had put a lot of planning and thoughtfulness into the evening, and they had the funds and space to accommodate nearly every age group. We all left feeling satisfied, at our own levels, that we had enjoyed this Ramadan celebration.
This Ramadan, I attended a different iftar where there was no organized childcare. As parents took moments to relax and eat, groups of children ran amuck in and out of the building. Some parents tried to keep track of their children; others were too tired or too lazy to try. My five-year-old ended up getting kicked in the private parts by an older boy. The evening ended with frustration and confusion.
This second situation may not have happened if the children involved were better supervised. As a Muslim parenting community, we should be always striving to do better to ensure that our children are safe in and around our mosques (masajid).
We also need to balance this with the worship and learning needs of the whole community. So how do we overcome the challenges?
Challenges of Parenting in Islamic Spaces
Parenting as Muslims, especially in Islamic spaces, has its unique opportunities and challenges. Not everyone feels at home in their local spaces.
Years ago, Leah Atwa, a mom of three boys in Annandale, Virginia, pre-registered online for an Islamic event at a mosque in her area that was marketed as family-friendly. Attendees were supposed to bring canned goods for the needy.
Upon arriving, she found no space for her and her children to sit, no one knew where she should put the cans, and a community member even harshly told her that if her child spoke, she should leave. “I left the event in tears,” Leah explained, “because I had worked so hard to get the kids in the car, gather the canned goods, and come. We didn’t feel welcome.”
Another mom who prefers to remain anonymous felt shame and frustration when her autistic child was told he could no longer attend the Sunday school near her home. “After we would drop him off, we would wait in the parking lot because we knew they were going to call us,” she lamented, “They would always say he broke the rules.”
She switched her child to a different Islamic Sunday school program nearly an hour from her home, and he thrived. She believes the first school had an old-school model that was not student-focused.
Considering Muslim Parenting Culture
Through the Holy Qur’an and the example of the life of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW), Allah (SWT) teaches us perennial, shining values to guide Islamic parenting. This includes values such as mercy (rahmah), patience (sabr), wisdom (hikmah), and beautiful character (husn ul-khuluq). These are the values we ought to strive to develop and attain in our parenting, and the same values that we seek to pass on to our children.
Muslim parenting is different from Islamic parenting. Muslim parenting can involve all the cultural practices and personal preferences of each Muslim family. These values may or may not be based on the actual Islamic texts and traditions.
Mazalina Maram, a mom of three from Malaysia, expressed frustration about how the Islamic value of Muslim children respecting elders is abused by power-hungry parents. “Parents abuse that power for their benefit by enforcing their children to respect them,” Mazalina explained, “without [the parents] doing the same.”
“I love the [Islamic] emphasis on honoring parents – especially mothers,” shares Janet Kozak, an American convert mom now living in Pakistan. “However, the flip side of that is the rampant misogynistic cultural behaviors and actions inadvertently taught to kids.” Janet sees systems in some Muslim communities that oppress and dissuade girls and women from fully participating in Islamic spaces, rather than lifting women up and supporting them.
Tara Delancey, mother of two in northern California, praised the quest for excellence she sees among Muslim parents. “I’ve noticed that Muslim parents generally have very high standards when it comes to their children’s academic success, and [they] do everything they can to ensure their success.”
Tara continued, “If they live in a non-Muslim country, they also have to work very hard to teach their children the deen (faith) and create a community of support and friendship that is so important for their Islamic identity and moral development.”
Prioritizing Family-Friendly Spaces and Culture
As parents, what we can control are our own choices. We can model the behavior we wish to see in our children, and we can hold ourselves personally accountable for what we allow our children to do in Islamic spaces like mosques, Islamic centers, or schools. However, we can’t always control our circumstances.
Or can we? Islamic spaces need to be family-friendly almost constantly, as parents are usually with their children. Where parents go, children go, too.
“I wish that Islamic spaces were more accommodating for families with small children or for children with special needs,” Leah, the mom who left an event in tears, later added.
So what can be done on a community level to address the needs of Muslim parents and their children, especially in the West?
Some organizations have decided to take experiences like Leah’s to heart. They’ve decided that the Muslim community needs systematic change to a systematic problem.
One such organization is Muhsen, a non-profit Islamic organization whose vision includes “to strive to lead in creating a better understanding of disabilities in our communities.” They offer certification programs for mosques to make sure they are accessible and disability-friendly. Their website offers a host of parent-friendly projects and resources.
Another innovative organization is the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit MakeSpace. MakeSpace is a group and community center self-described as “aspiring to build an inclusive community of compassionate and empowered American Muslims.” Their most recent quarterly report explains they held 87 events, nearly all of them family-friendly, in categories such as spirituality, education, and family/social.
One of the co-founders of MakeSpace is Fatimah Popal, whose husband Imam Zia leads the organization. Fatimah is also a Virginia mother of three. When she thinks of Muslim parenting and Islamic spaces, most recently she has been interested in how previous generations of children were more integrated into the worship experiences — in all faith traditions.
“Our Ramadan childcare program at MakeSpace incorporates activities that have to do with our faith, like morals and lessons,” Fatimah explained, “and when I attend taraweeh [extra night prayers], I encourage my older children to pray at least two rakat [cycles of ritual prayer] before going to the childcare…We want to make sure that children are not hidden away from the main part of Ramadan — from the fruit of what the month gives.”
Fatimah’s insight reflects the need for Muslim parents to strike a balance between occupying their children so adults can worship while also offering children the chance to try, consider, and be a part of that worship as well.
Organizations like Muhsen and MakeSpace both represent a trend towards serving the family-friendly needs of Muslim communities that, just a decade or two ago, were not often met in North America. Many mosques also now offer programs such as children’s Friday prayers. And here at Noor Kids, we’re connecting with kids on their level and helping kids love Islam through graphic-novel style books and storytimes!
Thinking About the Future
The Muslim community, as mentioned above, is doing many things well to include and serve families at local events and gatherings, but there are other ways we’re still lacking as Muslim parents. There are some things we’re excelling at but there is also always room for improvement.
Is your Islamic space family-friendly? Check it against this list:
1 – What is the experience of families at the location? Listen to the voices of real men, women, and children that have attended.
2 – Does the space prioritize one age or gender over another? Determine if an unfair preference exists.
3 – Are all children being cherished and encouraged to grow spiritually? Not all childcare programs are created equal.
4 – Is the community missing tools it needs to improve? Sometimes the money, human capital, space, or even willpower is what is missing in order for change to occur.