The doorbell rang and my son Shaan, a 17-year-old high school junior, answered the door and welcomed his college-going friend Brian in to watch football with my husband Zeeshan and our other sons, 15-year-old Ameen and 10-year-old Raahim.
I turned to greet him and Brian handed me a package of Oreo cookies. “I brought these for you.”
As they settled down to watch the game, I couldn’t resist asking, “So, Brian, last time you were here, you brought me two packages of chocolates. Now you brought me cookies. It’s unusual for a young man to think of these types of gestures. Does your mom tell you that you should take a gift for the host when you go visiting somewhere?”
“Nope, that was aaaall me,” he joked. When I laughed, he said, “Actually, it’s just something I’ve always seen my dad do. Every time we go to someone’s house, he stops at a store and gets them something first, so I guess that’s where I got that idea from.”
“Yeah, but last time your dad was here for the Super Bowl, he brought Auntie Hina a $100 box of Godiva chocolates. This was — what? — $4?” my husband teased him.
“Yeah, well, I don’t have a job,” Brian teased back. “When I do, then I’ll be generous like him too, insha’Allah (God willing).”
When I recounted the conversation to Brian’s mom (my friend Sandra), she expressed complete astonishment, “Mark has no idea that Brian’s been watching him like that. He would be totally shocked if I told him what he said.”
This surprise is something that often surprises me; it bewilders me how regularly parents underestimate the impact a father or a father-like-figure has on their children. When I wrote my article Raising Children with Deen and Dunya in 2009, where I chronicled the ten most common pieces of advice successful families had given me for raising practicing Muslim children, readers responded with genuine amazement at the tenth piece of advice: “They had a pious father who engaged them.” Men and women from all over the world wrote to me, telling me that I had opened their eyes to a factor whose importance they had simply not been aware of. It seems that with all of the emphasis on Jannah (Paradise) lying under a mother’s feet and all of the discussion of the pressures and duties of being a righteous mother, the role of a relevant father has somehow gotten overshadowed.
Last year, when a girlfriend of mine went on the Hajj pilgrimage with her husband, the care of her sons was split up amongst various friends; we were honored to host her boys during their last few days of being away from home. While we were having dinner one night, I asked 10-year-old Taajuddin, “So you’ve had a chance to stay with quite a few people during these past few weeks. It must be interesting to see how different Muslim families operate. We all have the same goal — to teach our children to be practicing Muslims who love the deen (religion) — but we all have different ways of getting to that goal.”
He thought about it and said, “Yeah, that’s true. Like, for example, Raahim prays at home with his dad in jamaat (congregation), but Rafique goes for Fajr (dawn prayer) at the mosque every morning. His dad just comes in the room and says, ‘Rafique, get up for prayer’ one time, and Rafique just hops up just like that. He doesn’t have to be told again or anything!”
“Wow,” I said. “That’s pretty impressive. It’s not easy for most boys to get up that early with such a good attitude.”
He nodded his head. “Well, his dad takes him to Peet’s Coffee after prayer and they have breakfast together. So it’s fun too.”
The look of appreciation in his eyes told me that — with an incentive like that — leaving the house while the morning was still dark wasn’t such a dreaded proposition after all. I can’t help but wonder — who was the real hero in this story? Peet’s Coffee or the dad who was taking special time out to bond with his son?
Dr. Leonard Sax, best-selling author of Boys Adrift, Girls on the Edge, and Why Gender Matters, presents a remarkable amount of research that shows that fathers who are physically engaged with their daughters — meaning, they give hugs and kisses and play rough and tumble with them — have daughters who are healthier than girls from the same demographic, same socioeconomic status with fathers who don’t engage in that kind of physical, tactile communication. He says that dads have to be involved but in a genuine way. If a father loves to hike, he takes his daughters with him. If he enjoys fishing or sailing, he teaches his daughters how to as well. When I attended a lecture of his at one of our local mosques, he told us something that astounded me — girls who didn’t engage in sexual activities in their high school years all had one thing in common: they had fathers who attended all of their school events (i.e. sports, recitals, art exhibits, award ceremonies, etc.)
For those dads who feel hesitant to show physical affection to their growing daughters, one only has to bring to mind the hadith (Prophetic narration) when the desert Arab — upon seeing the Prophet Muhammad (salallaahu alaihi wasallam) tenderly kiss his grandson — told him in bafflement: “Do you kiss children? Indeed, I have 10 children, and I do not kiss any of them.” The Prophet (salallaahu alaihi wasallam) responded, “Is there anything I can do once Allah has removed mercy from your heart?”
A mother of two who was raised in a small town with only a handful of Muslims regularly extols the virtues of her father. He is famous for having built a mosque in whatever town he happened to live in, and all of his children have grown up to be exceptional Muslims and praiseworthy citizens who give back to their communities. I once asked her how she and her siblings managed to resist the siren call of the peer culture around them while growing up, and she told me succinctly, “When you feel love in the house, you don’t look for it anywhere else.”
A present father is a powerful gift.
Vern Bengston, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California and a noted scholar on the dynamics of aging, inaugurated a landmark research project in 1970 when he began studying 2,000 people, belonging to 360 families, spanning four generations for more than three decades. He published his findings in 2013 in his book Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across the Generations. Bengston found that of those kids who had a close relationship with their fathers, 67% carried on the family tradition; however, of those who were not close, just a little more than half (51%) practiced the same faith they were raised in. “What was most intriguing to me and stood out in my mind was that parental piety didn’t make up for a distant dad,” Bengston said in an interview with the Deseret News last year.
This is something I’ve seen in my own community as well. There have been many pious, practicing fathers who somehow have not been able to transfer the love of the faith to their children, but — on the other hand — I have witnessed nominally practicing Muslim fathers whose children have gone on to adhere to the parameters of Islam with reverence and respect. In those particular comparisons, it seems to me that the father who actively engaged his children was the one who ended up with the success.
“My dad always made prayer a priority,” a young man named Omar once told me. “Even if we were in the middle of Disneyland, he would stand up to pray when the time came in, so it was natural that we followed his lead. But what we’ll never forget is that he was with us in Disneyland in the first place.”
A prime example of when pious practice and loving engagement came together to form the perfect union!
The parenting journey is bound to be marked by a number of rough patches. It’s important to have tawakkul (trust in Allah) to get you through the trying times.
A few years ago a favorite girlfriend of mine visited me from Canada. She is someone I often rely on for parenting advice, and we regularly exchange stories of our children’s escapades and idiosyncrasies that leave us howling with laughter. Lost in thought at my table with a hot cup of tea in front of her, she absentmindedly listened while my husband and sons joked around in the next room, and then turned to me to say, “You know, I’ve often wondered what it is that makes your sons have such good adab (manners), what makes them such a joy to be around? And it just struck me — they have a kind father.”
Kind father notwithstanding, the beginning of 2013 was a rocky start for my husband Zeeshan and our middle son Ameen. Having completely different personalities and styles, they suddenly seemed to be clashing with one another every single day, misunderstanding and misinterpreting each other’s jokes, words, intentions, facial expressions. Alhamdulillah, Ameen was too well-mannered to ever be outwardly rude or disrespectful to his father, but there was a tension in the house that seemed to be creating cracks in our once peaceful, calm, loving atmosphere.
Then came the day that Ameen discovered the ideal high school he wanted to attend…
…400 miles away from us.
He hinted for awhile about how he wanted to enroll in this particular private school that also had a renowned hifz (Quran memorization) program, but when we didn’t take the bait, he came out and openly begged and bargained to be allowed to go. He knew what he wanted to do, and he needed our blessings and our support in order to do it.
Zeeshan balked. “I need to keep him close to me so that I can work on our relationship. Once he leaves this house, I fear he’ll be gone forever.”
“But what if this causes more strains on your relationship?” I asked him. “If he knows that you didn’t let him pursue his dreams due to your own desires, don’t you think that will cause him to be even more bitter than he is now?”
Eventually, after much prayer along with advice from trusted scholars and friends, Zeeshan gave his consent, and we helped Ameen pack his bags and prepare for his move to Southern California. Zeeshan was candid with him, telling him how hard it was for him to let go but how he trusted that Allah (subhana wa ta’ala) would maintain the bonds of kinship; he told Ameen that he had faith that he would be successful in his goals and that our prayers were always with him. We hugged him and kissed him and gave him our best wishes as he climbed into my brother’s SUV for the six hour drive away from us.
When they stopped at a gas station to refuel, my brother told the kids they could buy whatever drink they wanted. My sister-in-law texted me: “Ameen said, ‘I want a Starbucks Frappuccino because it reminds me of my dad.’”
The healing had already begun. As my Canadian friend so wisely said, “The seeds planted by a good father will bear fruit even in the hardest of times.”