Every year as I prepare for Ramadan, I try to set goals for our family. A couple of nights before the fasting begins, my family patiently listens to my list of things I want us to accomplish — many of which are too ambitious, and many others that boil down to a “Let’s-do-something-as-a-big-happy-Muslim-family” kind of thing. This year, I was feeling frustrated when I noticed a lot of the eye rolling that teenagers do so well as I ticked off my list for them. My husband and I went on to tell them we didn’t want them playing any mindless computer games, and the extra time was to be spent reading up on Islamic history, or learning a new chapter from the Quran. That’s when they became restless in their seats and the sighs started filling the room. I grasped at the last tender threads of their attention and reminded them of the verse from the Quran where God says, “Now, verily, it is We who have created man, and We know what his innermost self whispers within him: for We are closer to him than his neck-vein” (Quran 50:16).
God knows us, and is as close to us as the deoxygenated blood that rushes from our brain to our heart. I told our kids, “Only God knows if you’re really fasting, and you’re not fasting this month for Dad or me, and you’re not fasting to impress your non-Muslim friends with your self-control; you’re fasting for God.” This seemed to strike my teens at that moment. I think it was the first time we all realized that they are adults in regard to their spiritual lives. My husband and I are there to guide them and help through life until they can manage on their own, but as far as their choices and beliefs go, it’s their life now. Their relationship with God is personal and private. As their mother, I need to learn to accept that the way by which they to choose to develop as human beings, and as Muslims, is pretty much out of my control. We gave them the foundation of our beliefs, but it’s up to them to decide how high and strong they want to build their spiritual home.
I also learned this month that what may inspire me may not inspire my children. And the reverse is equally true. This point was illustrated last week when the kids and I went to a nearby town’s small library. Here some wonderful Muslims of FAITH organize a weekly food distribution effort every year during Ramadan called Herndon Without Hunger for needy families in our area. Muslims believe that charitable acts done during the month of Ramadan are especially blessed. Upon arriving to help, we were shocked to see a line stretching around the block with hundreds of families of all ethnicities and ages waiting in very hot and humid weather.
My 9-year-old stood at my side as I helped people to navigate the line in an orderly way as it wound around the library building. My two teenagers went in to help at the food distribution area. After a few minutes, I saw my son slowly and patiently walking behind an elderly man, carrying the man’s bag of rice in his right hand and a bag of canned goods in his left. He helped the man get out of the library and over to the bus stop shelter where the man waited for the next bus. Next, I saw my daughter doing the same for another senior, and at the moody age of 15, I spied her brilliant smile that has been so often missing lately. We have a tradition in Islam where we say we can see God’s light, or noor, in a person’s face. I saw the noor in my children’s faces that day, and it came from being able to give of themselves to others. They were thanking people for letting them carry their food for them, and I was thanking God for such beautiful children.
There were so many people there that FAITH ran out of food that day, and they had to turn away a large crowd of people who had been waiting for a long time. It bothered my kids that those folks would go home with nothing. As we got in the car to drive home in time to break our fast, they asked if I would drop them there next week, but much earlier so they could help unload the truck. “We didn’t get to do enough,” my daughter said.
Later that week, we were talking about feeling connected to God. I asked my teenagers to tell my youngest daughter about when they first felt really close to God, imagining they would mention being at one of the larger mosques we’ve visited during Ramadan evening prayers, or while reading a particularly beautiful passage of the Quran as I have been so inspired. To my surprise, my son said he first felt it while in Cub Scouts at our mosque, and my 15-year-old nodded with understanding. I thought, “Cub Scouts made him feel spiritually connected to God — what?” Then, I heard him tell his little sister, “Don’t worry, soon you’ll be old enough to do bigger service projects, then you’ll know what we’re talking about.” I then recalled how exhilarated they looked last fall after participating in the National Muslim-Jewish Twinning Day of Service where and the teens from both religions joined efforts to do a storm clean up in Maryland. It sounded like hard work, but they had been so happy when they came home that day.
My son’s words made me realize that these kids feel most connected to God and their faith when they are helping others for God’s sake. They don’t need my list of spiritual goals; they just need me to provide a ride to the volunteer spots.