WHEN MY Five-year-old came home from school begging me to start helping him on his Hajj Project, for the three best ones were going to get awarded, I knew I was in for a tough week. Excited, tense and just a tad bit weary I started out by listening to what his ideas were. He wanted white disposable spoons for the people, he wanted paper balls for the pebbles at Mina, and he wanted to win. Ever so cautiously, I tried whenever the time seemed right, to remind him that the competition was not the point. It was important that we were having fun, that we were leaning, that we were building something together. Maahin insisted that yes, all that was good, but he wanted to win a prize too.
The day of the projects entry was a day of an overwhelming number of box-sized kaʿbah’s coming into our school. So many kids had participated, so many had researched, made models, posters, or drawings to represent a day of sacrifice. In my heart I thought, why does everything has to be competitive? I thought of broken hearts, as only three would get prizes, and I thought of a disappointed Maahin.
But he surprised me, for that day he said nothing at all about the project. The next day, he said, “I wish Faiz, Areeb, Harris or Muhammad win the Hajj project prize.” I asked him, “How about you”? Maahin replied, “I don’t want to win.” For a moment I thought that his heart broke, and that his soul gave up a bit too easily, since no results had even been announced yet. Still, I asked why he didn’t want to win anymore. He did not take even a moment to respond, since he had been thinking about this, I suppose, the entire silent, last day. He said, “Because they are my friends, and if they are sad it will make me sad too, and they’ve never won anything before, and Mama, if I won in first grade, and somebody else won in some other grade, and somebody else won too (counting his top three), what about all the other kids who made the projects. It’s not fair. I don’t want to win.”
I was dumbstruck. I had never expected that my exhaustingly active and excited five-year-old would want to give up winning. But his intellect and soul knew that it’s not worth winning, when it’s unfair. Community building cannot begin once you are mature, it must start from the cradle, since that is when one’s soul is most mature. Well before we harden into the competitive world and selfish promotion.
I remember myself in the stoic setting of a missionary school as a child. Only the affluent could attend this school, but right behind the main building was a smaller one, dedicated to the education of the needy. We were taught right from the start that being in the Convent meant taking care of the students in the other building. We attended their events, they used our sports fields — and all in all we were never to forget that they had rights over us.
Islam teaches us just that, that all Muslims are called one brotherhood, supportive unto each other like bricks in a singular structure where each one holds the other, since the weakness of one undermines the strength of the whole structure. We are taught to be like a body, where if one organ hurt, the whole system would suffer. My Prophet never spoke empty words. He showed in his own life the miracle of communal responsibility. Part of the success lies in the miracle being of his Companions, who well realized the mammoth role each of them had to play to build the religious community, and ground their feet in tough soil.
Each community member was important and was made to feel that way too, whether it was Salman Al-Farsi, a non-Arab, whose strategy was used for winning the Battle of the Trench, or a nameless woman who swept the floor of the mosque, or a passionate Ṣuhaib Al-Rûmi giving up all wealth to be with the Prophet, or Bilâl proclaiming the adhân, or a blind Companion seeking knowledge, each one was putting in his/ her part to build the community’s strength.
As our children today are born into this Dîn, it is our call to introduce them to a religion and community life, such as the one that ʿÂishah and Anas were born into. ʿÂishah was not born into a religion where one companion was backstabbing another, where issues were being raised about which mosque to have alliance with and which not. She was a child who saw a father devoted to the One God and his last Prophet. She saw a father confident in giving all his belongings in war for the sake of salvaging community.
Our community is in dire straits not only because it suffers an onslaught from without, but also because we are not strengthened within. A sense of responsibility, even before the first revelation came, engulfed the Prophet as he had taken upon himself to help the widows and orphans of his community. If we involve our children in similar big and small projects of community building, not only does it strengthen the community as a whole, it also builds for a lasting bond within the family when a common goal is shared.
When we as parents, teachers, adults take time out for our children for simple things like going for a walk together, sitting down to lend an ear, we are laying the very foundations of community life. Children will want to participate in society only if they feel a part of it. So, the first step is inculcating a sense of belonging within our children to their surroundings, immediate community and larger humanity. If we as individuals do things for our youth and children, they too will feel a pleasure in being part of this family.
One should not feel it an obligation or tiresome responsibility to be part of a family. Instead, a family is how we define ourselves, give meaning to our identity, even though sometimes it may get a little overbearing. I remember my favorite teacher in all my years was the history teacher in high school. I never took one history class, but that was not the point. Each student owned Mrs. Rehman. She belonged so completely to the school and us that it gave us nothing but a sense of belonging to the school and her when we did things together. Wrinkled, yet enthusiastic about everything from theater, to debates, to history, to field trips, she had us all going in a frenzy of excitement. Out of all my stoic missionary school years when whispering a little loud amounted to chaos, I had emerged with an afraid soul, unconfident that anything could be done. I wanted to be nothing. Mrs. Rehman changed all that in one month of high school. She nudged me into every activity, and persuaded me that anything was possible.
What we need most in order to build our communities is a ‘can-do’ attitude. We need to make time, to drive our kids to baseball practice, to clean up the park, to stop the car to pick up a dead squirrel from the road and put it on one side. Children learn by example and when they see a parent concerned for them, and the community, actively participating, and not hostile or weary towards it, they too will learn the power of love. It is important in this to strike a healthy balance. We should not teach children that the mosque is more important than they are, when the kids are left behind to tell their own bedtime stories, put themselves to sleep. Nor should teens dread being alone in their lives while Dad does community service at the mosque, and Mom attends her ḥalaqa. Let not the child think that he is the cost that has to be paid in order to work for community. Our children ought to be with us when we go to our mosques. They need to be at the serving station with us when we have our food supplies distributed among the needy.
When we establish a family that enjoys being and doing things together, we lay a strong foundation for people who will be healthy contributors to society and not uninterested or unmotivated individuals. Moving outside the family, when we show our kids the importance of relations of the womb, as they interact with extended family it creates a bond that is very strong. The Quran itself lays parameters when it lists the order in which we ought to make our charity. Visiting family –not gossiping or backbiting about them– visiting the sick, making an effort to cook for neighbors in need, or driving a friend who needs a ride instead of bickering about it are all essential. Our children need to see that in a selfish, competitive world we need to stick together if we hope to emerge whole. And yes, winning, or getting there first is not winning, if it is unfair. My father used to say that you’re truly successful not when you move along like a pair of scissors on a cloth, for it moves on yet cuts and leaves behind, but like a needle and thread that also moves ahead but sews together, and joins while it does so.
Working together then in our communities, to support our schools, arrange activities in the neighborhood for simple things –like picnics, or gatherings– goes a long way to get people together and to commune with each other. Volunteering our time not just in the Muslim community but for general beneficial purposes –like at an old persons’ home, or planting trees– build us as stronger members of society.
Our children will give back, when they see us do the same. Find out about a local shelter, or thrift store, or masjid that takes used belongings. Get your kids to clean out their wardrobes, toy baskets, and the like so we can give of something we love. Encourage them by taking them along as you donate food to a shelter. This Eid, while the kids got excited about presents, I tried to get them excited about sacrifice. We found an organization that supports education for the needy and Maahin decided to give eight dollars from his Eid money to the cause. I made sure that I went on the internet and made that payment, so when the receipt papers come in, he can see that he has made a difference in someone’s life.