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Oh my gods
In the wake of the Boston bombings, a single Muslim mother talks about how she's chosen a unique, spiritual path for her young son - one that lets him pray to a Pokemon figurine and say, 'Ummmmmm', for Om.
He looks like me, " my son, Shibli, 10, said as a photo of the young Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, flashed upon the TV screen recently of the alleged Boston Marathon bomber. Indeed, with his innocent eyes and rumple of dark curly hair, young Dzhokhar did look like my son.
As an American, a Muslim and a mother, my heart broke for yet another Muslim boy lost, taking the lives of others. Dzhokhar's youth has struck a nerve for he could be a son to any of us. In the wake of the gun tragedies of Arizona, Colorado and Connecticut, involving young men struggling with mental health issues, a deep soul searching is occurring among many about how we can help our boys. The themes we are thinking about are relevant as far away as India, where we have to ask ourselves, too, why the young Indian men in the gang-rape case of December 2011 became predators, assaulting a young woman so cruelly.
For parents, it seems, we hope to create a magical alchemy of mysterious elements that include love, stability and discipline to chart futures for our children that will include happiness. We try to figure out how to add religion, faith and spirituality. The path that I chose - raising my son without allegiance to one faith but rather the study of all faiths - is one that not all would embrace. Some might even consider it a betrayal of identity, but it works for me, because it is one that I can live and practise with emotional, spiritual and intellectual authenticity - and to me the strongest moral compass we can give our children is to love, respect and value themselves and, then, in turn love, respect and value others.
For me, I had a particular challenge to face, raising my son as a single Muslim mother. My son's biological father, a Pakistani Muslim, had abandoned me soon after my former Wall Street Journal colleague Daniel Pearl was kidnapped on January 23, 2002. He and his wife, Mariane, were staying at the house I had rented in Karachi (I was there as a journalist). Later, alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad took credit for slaughtering Danny with his "blessed right hand". During that time, I learned I was pregnant, a crime according to the sharia, or Islamic law, of Pakistan, because I wasn't married.
In vitro, I think, my son's spiritual journey began, protected in my womb from the tears I was swallowing from the trauma of that year. When I gave birth on October 16, 2002, I drew breath to my son, trying to inspire in him his own calming breath, as I chanted, "Allah hu, Allah hu, Allah hu, " to still my breath when nurses told me that my son's heartbeat was dropping dangerously low. When Shibli was born safely, my father whispered the shahada, or proclamation of faith, into my son's ear, a Muslim tradition, and in that moment Shibli's conversation with faith began. When I gazed at Shibli for the first time, resting in my arms, beautiful and perfect, I felt as if was touching the Divine. What I have wanted is for Shibli to have a conscious spiritual journey on this earth, eyes and mind wide open.
At three months, I chose to take Shibli on a pilgrimage to Mecca, making him a young hajji. There he walked his first steps, the lesson of inner journey, I hoped, sinking into him with each pad of his feet upon our tent's floor. After his first birthday, Shibli was on my hip when I walked through the front door of my hometown mosque, defying orders that I take a back door for 'sisters', and in his subconscious I tried to instill in Shibli a sense of ijtihad, or critical thinking. When the muezzin, or the person who does the call to prayer, sang loudly, "Allahu akbar, " Shibli sang back, "Ababooboo. "
He was a de facto rebel, going with me into the main hall of our local mosque, forbidden to women but not childproof. He has a small mark on his right toe when he lifted a tile and it fell on his foot. I saw it as a sign. I realised that I wanted to guide my son judiciously away from any dogmatic, ritualistic and blind adherence to faith.
To some, this may seem impolite and even confused, but I sought to raise Shibli with a philosophy I called the 'Joseph Campbell school', referencing a 20th-century American philosopher who taught about mythmaking in religions. One of the first words I taught Shibli: 'Mythology'. "But Asra, " my mother protested, "it is your tradition. " "Mom, " I said, "if I had a cocaine addiction, I wouldn't to pass it onto my son. " "Asra!" she scolded me, gently. What my mother taught me with her grace in supporting the path that I had chosen as a mother was the greatest gift a parent gives a child: unconditional love. When he was two, I created a meditation space in Shibli's closet, reminiscent of a closet mandir, or temple, at which I had sat in the home of a family friend, Nandi Uncle, named for the bull god. Sometimes, Shibli would put a Pikachu figurine from the Japanese Pokemon cartoon before him as his point of focus. He'd say, "Ummmmmm, " for 'Om', the Sanskrit word for 'peace'. At four, when my father prayed, Shibli would climb on his shoulders during prostration, learning the power of devotion. At seven, enamoured of Greek mythology, he exclaimed, "Oh my gods. "
At eight, he debated on the playground the closelyheld belief of a classmate that the 'truth' means one God. He told his pal: "People around the world believe in many different gods. " He'd read the Ramayana in a graphic novel. This week, we've talked about the Tsarnaev brothers. Shibli knows about the angels that Muslims are taught sit, metaphorically, on a person's shoulders recording good deeds and bad. "Did the devil speak to them?" Shibli asked. "Or angels?"
What I seek to do is teach Shibli values of respect, truth, compassion and social justice free of dogma. We stumble. But, like every parent, what I hope I can do is foster an inner spirit that is kind and good. That's the best tradition Shibli can inherit.
Nomani is a journalist based in the US
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