Fatherless Ummah

2 April 2005

Jamal used to dream of the children he would have, their names, they games they would play. One day he married the girl his family expected him to marry. Soon it was obvious that they were not compatible. Jamal spent less and less time at home – though enough to produce four children in six years. But as his marriage difficulties spilled over into his relationships with his children, he increasingly stayed away, becoming an absent father.

By contrast, Khalid studied the Islamic references to the ‘the ideal wife and mother’ and chose a wife he felt could meet them. His children’s upbringing safeguarded in the hands of their Stepford mother, he felt free to work by day and indulge in dawah activities afterwards. His wife began to suffer from depression, but Khalid was not around enough to see. By the time he realised it, his children had gone their separate ways and were not keen on the interference of a father they didn’t know and couldn’t communicate with.

Aspects of Khalid’s and Jamal’s stories are mirrored in an increasing number of Muslim families. The irony is, that this is not really what most Muslim men want.

There are many reasons for this decline in Muslim fatherhood: wars, changing economic infrastructures, large-scale migrations,, the failure to recognise and act upon disintegrating social systems, through retreat into an imagined past Islamic Golden Age.

As current conditions place the ‘provider’ role of Muslim fathers under threat the essence of Muslim manhood comes under siege. Where traditional Muslim economic structures facilitated Muslim men’s control of their own small businesses, modernity has pushed the Muslim father into factories, offices – and unemployment. In most Muslim countries , unchecked globalisation has taken control of both agricultural and commercial markets leaving a trail of wrecked economies, fiscal pressures and widespread poverty.

We too must take our share of the blame. We have allowed unjust patriarchal systems to suffocate the ability of Muslim men to play a more hands-on fathering role. Expected to put his children in their place as soon as he steps into the house, the Muslim father has found this advantageous insofar as, with the children scared off, he can sit uninterrupted in his favourite chair, and read the paper before dinner. That is until those same children rebel, break away and choose to live their lives distant from their parents. Then there is hand-wringing, tears and the lament of how dad did “too little, too late.”

It will take time for us to get rid of our festering patriarchal cobwebs but there is hope. A new generation of enlightened Muslim men have painfully acknowledged the cycle of paternal neglect and the psychological damage it can wreak. Themselves deprived of fatherly warmth, conversation and shared male experiences, these young men have realised that they do not have, and must develop, the skills necessary to engage in meaningful relationships. When re-evaluating Islam they have found that there is great scope for developing themselves into more pro-active husbands and fathers, without compromising on the expected role of ‘provider’ and ‘protector’. These men, willing to challenge cultural expectations of family life, re seeking life partners rather than future mothers, and wish to be part of their children’s life journey.

Hafez’ relationship with his own father was characterised by criticism and humiliation. Despite this, Hafez tried vainly to please him. Only when on the brink of emotional breakdown did he realise his survival depended on dramatically changing his own life. After a traumatic period of failed relationships and lost opportunities, he came across new insights into Islam. In particular, a new understanding of the Prophet as loving husband, nurturing father, tolerant grandfather. Armed with the compassionate and fatherly aspects of the Sunnah he was, over time, able to convince his family that change doesn’t need to be traumatic. He has come to believe that the best example he can give his children is to be a good example himself. One hadith has challenged him more than any other. Aisha, may Allah be pleased with her, when asked what the Blessed Prophet did when at home replied ‘The Prophet used to mend his shoes, sew his clothes and work in his household just as one works in one’s own house.’

If Muslim fathers really want to come home, there is no better example to follow.

A longer version of this article by Humera Khan was first published in the Fatherhood section of Q-News, Edition 355, April 2004, http://www.q-news.com

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