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Sunday, January 30, 2005

Aiding ‘n Abetting


I was sitting in the corner of a huge lobby at a recent Islamic conference. I was to chair a speech by Dr. Zakir Naik, and was awaiting instructions from the organizers. With little to occupy my time, I began daydreaming and people watching. A woman and two boys, one around thirteen years old, the other about eleven, approached the registration table. The registration volunteers were busy doing what they do best: Registering people. The table was covered with flyers and other registration material. There was a bag of chips on the table, almost unnoticeable, obviously left there by a volunteer as she tended to something else. The eleven-year old boy came up to the table, took a quick look right and left, and then snatched the bag of chips into his coat while his mother smiled indulgently at him. I stared in disbelief as they walked away leisurely, seemingly unconcerned with what they had just done, while the older brother badgered the younger for his share of the stolen goods.

I replayed this scene in my head several times after the conference, hoping I would not feel as angry about it as I did at the time. But I find my sense of outrage has not yet dissipated.

I cannot help but think: The mother was complicit in the crime.

One might say it is just a bag of chips. And it is just a child. Perhaps she did not want to cause a scene. Perhaps the child was hungry. Perhaps they’re poor and can’t afford a bag of chips. Perhaps it is unfair to judge the mother for her parenting style.

After all, who am I to speak? I have no children. How can I understand what a mother goes through?

I do not claim to understand. But I have worked with kids for a number of years. I have taught them, disciplined them and played with them. At some basic level, I understand how children think.

And I will admit straight away that there is no excuse for the mother’s poor response to her child’s wrongful actions. Her non-action validated the act of stealing in his mind.

Islam teaches mercy and compassion towards children. The Prophet (SAW) was very fond of children, and they reciprocated that love. There are reports that when the Prophet prayed, his granddaughter Umamah often rode piggyback. When he changed position, he would put her down, then allow her to get back on when it was safe again. A father once came to the Prophet (SAW) and told the Prophet that although he had several children, he had never kissed any of them. The Prophet was surprised, and responded to the effect that those who did not show mercy to others would not be shown mercy by God. Children were very dear to the Prophet.

At the same time, he taught us that children should be schooled in certain religious beliefs and practices. For example, he commanded that children on the cusp of puberty perform their five daily prayers. He quietly corrected a boy with bad table manners. His was a gentleness, imbued with wisdom, not stupidity. We learn from him that we must instil certain characteristics within our children. Parents are responsible for bringing up the new generation, and so children must learn how to distinguish between right and wrong, how to be good people, and how to live decent lives. And they must learn how to deal with others in a fair and just manner.

Last summer, on a visit to Kingston, Ontario, a Muslim parent came up to me and asked a few interesting questions: how did you grow up to become such a good Muslim? How did you come to love prayer and other religious duties? Did your parents have trouble with you at any time? She was having difficulty with her daughter, who was not interested in anything Islamic. I explained to her that my parents instilled in us a love of God and an early awareness of the need to obey God in all that we do. At very young age, we did not need to be forced to do anything. It came naturally. Our desire to be good people arose from our own direct relationship with God. Sure, we were not angels. But we knew right from wrong and often did not need correction.

I was speaking with a young Muslim father about the mother and her two sons, and he commented that the mother should have ensured the child ask for the bag of chips before taking it. While stealing is a big part of the problem, I don’t think it is the only problem. Begging is a demeaning behaviour that is disliked in Islam; Muslims are permitted to beg only when they are without basic necessities. A bag of chips does not qualify. Second, children must be taught that they cannot always get what they desire. In other words, they must learn restraint. This is a learned behaviour that will enable children to resist even greater temptations as they mature. We cannot expect our children to abstain from alcohol or drugs if they cannot resist a simple bag of chips. Finally, our children need to learn how to be satisfied with what they have instead of yearning for the material goods that others possess. These are some of the lessons I believe that mother could have taught her child had she gently led him away from the open bag of chips.

And God knows best.

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