Ramadan, parenting, and “spiritual equality”

This post is the first of a series of Ramadan (and post-Ramadan) reflections on experiencing faith, spiritual life, and communal dynamics in the American Muslim community. 

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Since Ramadan began, my wife and I have seen quite a few posts and reflections regarding the inability of mothers to spend their time and energy in ritual devotion and spiritual development because of the demands of parenting (erm, I mean, mothering). Can’t make tarawih prayers at the mosque, someone has to stay home with the kids. Can’t read much Qur’an, the kids require too much attention. Can’t devote time to any worship beyond the bare requirements, too many responsibilities in the home.

With this come of course the reassuring statements by religious authorities that their energy and time spent in fulfilling their familial responsibilities as mothers and wives is itself a form of worship and obedience to God, and will be rewarded equal to the ritual devotion that they are missing out on.

Of course, there is no doubt that fulfilling one’s obligations and duties in life is part of our worship of and relationship with God, and is morally and spiritually meaningful. That is an important reminder and message of balance and reassurance. But, at the same time, there is something woefully lacking in such discourse. We have to have more to offer than mere comforting words about the reward of such obedience, some constructive and practical discussion of how to create opportunity for women to also participate in the abundant ritual blessings of Ramadan. So I have a few points in response to such communal rhetoric and discourse.

1) Firstly, just because those social and familial responsibilities are also a form of worship and obedience to God, it doesn’t take away from the unique role of ritual devotion specifically in our spiritual development and relationship with God. The spiritual fruits that we harvest through ritual practices (prayer, dhikr, reading Qur’an, meditation, etc.) are not the same as those that come from other forms of obedience and worship, and should not just be lightly cast aside.

2) Secondly, if it is true that serving your family and fulfilling your responsibilities to them is a form of worship, and we are serious about this, then this message needs to be directed not just towards women but men as well. After all, parenting is a joint endeavor and is the responsibility of both parents (in those families with a two-parent household). So yes, men too will get rewarded for taking care of their families and fulfilling their responsibilities to their children and wives. It is a form of worship and obedience to God for them as well. Otherwise, if we are not willing to emphasize this mutual responsibility, then it is clear that such rhetoric is nothing but an apologetic justification for women not having the opportunity to seek spiritual edification.

3) Thirdly, again, let’s focus on men for a bit, shall we? In all this rhetoric, women are as always valorized for their sacrifice for their families. In this case, even sacrificing their spiritual life. What we fail to recognize is that the flipside of such sacrifice is the spiritual greed of the men in our communities. Is the message we’re sending that it’s okay for men to be spiritually greedy, taking advantage of the ritual blessings of Ramadan without a care to the fact that the women in their lives are yearning for such spiritual opportunities but cannot have them? Is it not part of spiritual excellence and maturity to seek the betterment of others as well and promote a fair and balanced spiritual life for the whole?

4) That brings me to the practical considerations of what I’m talking about. In most situations, there is really no reason why one partner should take all the hits spiritually. So if you are privileged enough to be able to perform tarawih prayers together as a couple at home, do that instead of going to the mosque. If you prefer praying at the mosque or are not able to adequately perform tarawih yourselves, then alternate who goes and who stays with the kids, or figure out babysitting, etc. In general, alternate who gets to spend some extra time alone praying, reading Qur’an, meditating, reading dhikrs, etc., and who takes care of the kids. Share responsibilities and tasks so that both partners have a bit more time to concentrate on their spirituality. Each situation and each couple’s dynamics are unique and particular to them, but the bottom line is: negotiate, compromise, and figure something out that works for both people.

We hear endless apologetics from religious authorities about how in Islam the social roles of men and women may not be the same, but they are nonetheless “spiritually equal”. As a community, however, we need to think long and hard on how to make the concept of “spiritual equality” more than just superficial rhetoric that essentially means “you will not be punished in the afterlife for being a woman”. That is not spiritual equality, that is simply a notion of God that is not terribly unjust and arbitrary in His omnipotence. Let’s stop kidding ourselves. If it is to be a meaningful concept at all, spiritual equality can’t just be about the next life, it has to be about this life too, about the experience of religious and spiritual life. Otherwise our women are privileged to enjoy the same “spiritual equality” as African-American slaves, who were promised that fulfilling their social role and obeying their slave-masters would land them in heaven in the next life. I, for one, don’t think that is a standard of spiritual equality that we should settle for.

~Zaid

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9 thoughts on “Ramadan, parenting, and “spiritual equality”

  1. Munira Motorwala says:

    Thank you, hope more people will start thinking and behaving as you suggest so that women too can be able to partake in the blessings of Ramadan

  2. luckyfatima says:

    Not sure it is OK to make a parallel between the frequently violent and deadly effects of slavery on AA people, and gender inequity among Muslims and particularly with regard to the subject of spiritual equality during Ramadan. Could be construed as a misappropriation.

    Other than that, nodding my head YES, YES, YES at everything you’ve written here. Thanks so much for saying these things. This topic has been bothering me, especially with the propagation of the more “typical” outlook in some apologistic articles which you have critiqued here.

    • zaadialogues says:

      Hey Fatima, thanks for the encouraging comment and for the critical feedback both, it is very much appreciated!

      As for your concern, that statement was not intended to equate or even to compare the conditions/suffering/consequences of American slavery and American Muslim gender inequality. I only meant to draw attention to the fact that such apologetic rhetoric of empty “spiritual equality” that focuses on recompense in the hereafter for one’s under-privileged status in this life, is the same rhetorical/ideological strategy of justification used by Christian slave-masters in American history to placate their subjugated slaves. The comparison was limited to that issue of ideological justification for the status quo.

      Looking forward to your continued feedback in the future!

  3. A.S. says:

    I appreciate your noble attempt to speak out for the spiritual needs of women, as this is too often neglected in our communities, and too often women are relegated to the kitchens preparing elaborate meals, when in fact the focus should be on simple foods and worship during this important month.

    However, I don’t really agree with your first assumption, of the importance of ritual worship over taking care of our children. I feel that this is a very male-centric way of thinking that has entered the psyche of many Muslim women in the modern world. Instead, I have personally felt (after 5 kids) that the spiritual fruits that come from the struggle of being the primary caregiver for these kids is incredible, much more than can come from some “ritual” forms of worship, given that the right intention and actions are present. The spiritual openings that come to some women during what seem like “petty” duties of childrearing are immense, if they are paying attention to the lesson that God is teaching them at that moment. I am not talking about outward forms of knowledge, which is incumbent upon one and all, rather I am talking about states and stations with God Most High, which are accessible to anyone whom God wishes to bestow this to, to those with the right heart and actions, whether rich or poor, male or female, scholar or abid.

    Really, it comes down to the question of: What will please God Most High the most in this situation? Each situation needs to be evaluated in this context, even ritual worship, which is ultimately a means to an end: that is, the pleasure of God. So even though ritual worship is exceedingly important, there are times when God has directly placed other things above it for a woman, whereas there are very few times that is true for men.

    A prime example is being completely exempt from prayer after childbirth and menses, and not having to fast (necessarily) during pregnancy and breastfeeding. If God has placed some elements of child-rearing over such integrals such as prayer and fasting, then who are we to say that other non-fard ritual actions (such as tarawih or Quran reading) are more important than our child-rearing?
    This is not to say that women are “exempt” from such integrals on the Day of Judgement, as some sort of compromise or lowering of accountability of women due to a lower status, like one would give to a child or insane individual. Rather, it is Rahmah given to women as a recognition of the importance of the task and the incredible amount of personal sacrifice that mothers in particular play, which cannot be rivaled by fathers, however good intentioned they are to obtain such a status. The numerous hadiths placing mothers above fathers point to this reality.

    However, I do agree that men need to recognize the tremendous role that we play, and to *understand* it’s importance and sacredness and elevate it above what they are doing in their masjids. I agree completely that men need to allow for women to obtain spiritual nourishment from places other than child-rearing, but not just in giving us equal access to what is spiritually nourishing for MEN, but instead what is spiritually nourishing for us as women! And for each woman, that may be different…..

    Allah knows best!

    • zaadialogues says:

      My dear sister,

      I want to thank you for sharing your important and very sharp and insightful comments and critical reflections on the piece, it is very much appreciated. Indeed I value and appreciate much of what you are saying, but have some thoughts in response as well.

      To begin, I did not in any way intend to suggest that ritual worship is more important than taking care of children. Rather, I said that it has a unique function and role, ie, that it provides different fruits than other forms of spiritual life and worship, but not that it is better or more beneficial than those. Indeed, I would be the last person to promote ritualism as the ideal of the spiritual path. I firmly believe that spirituality is about holistic living. And a life of ritualistic devotion without engaging in the world and without attention to one’s various social and moral obligations and responsibilities is a shallow and superficial spirituality that means very little. But that doesn’t mean that ritual devotion doesn’t play an important role in that journey, as a connection to the Divine through ritual brings the sacred dimension into the rest of our experiences and engagements in life so that those things can be experienced fully and contribute to our spiritual growth. So I am in no way trying to diminish the importance of child-rearing (and other forms of social/familial responsibilities) in one’s spiritual growth.

      As for your very crucial point regarding the need to acknowledge the particular experiences of women and not evaluating them on the basis of a male normative standard, I agree that this is quite important, and in fact my partner-in-crime Saadia is currently in the midst of writing a blog post on that precise topic, on the need to develop a communal discourse that positively recognizes and validates women’s unique and particular experiences in a life of faith and spirituality.
      That being said, I also do not see such a rigid bifurcation between male and female experience and spirituality that should not at some level be bridged. In fact a good portion of my motivation in taking the positions I do on gender stems from a desire to see more “femininity” inculcated in men. A number of years ago, I began to realize that my own moral and spiritual growth was being hindered and held back precisely because I was lacking in qualities, traits, and values that we normally associate with “femininity”, and I have since very self-consciously tried to inculcate those in myself.
      We can I think understand this through the prism of the concept of “acquiring the traits/attributes of Allah” (al-takhalluq bi khuluq/asma’ Allah) that has been so famously and beautifully discussed by figures such as Imam al-Ghazali and Muhyi al-Din Ibn Arabi, among many others. In order to become more whole and perfect human beings and radiate the Divine light within us, we must inculcate and manifest in ourselves the various “beautiful names of Allah” (as appropriate to our servanthood of course). And in order to reach towards perfection, we must manifest those names and attributes in the most balanced and holistic way possible, giving each attribute its due and appropriate share (e.g. “mercy precedes wrath” as a principle). We also know that among these names and attributes of Allah, there are the jamālī and the jalālī names, that is, those having to do with beauty and those having to do with power/majesty. These have also often been associated with femininity and masculinity, respectively. God, of course, encompasses the entire spectrum of attributes, both the beautiful/feminine as well as majestic/masculine. And in light of that, the most perfect and whole human being will also manifest a balance of the various attributes, both “feminine” and “masculine”. We see this most beautifully illustrated in the example of our beloved, the Prophet Muhammad saws, who clearly embodied many beautiful qualities and traits that would normally be deemed feminine, to the extent that it was said that he was “as shy/modest (haya’) as a virgin girl”.
      The point I am making is that the spiritual wellbeing and wholesomeness of men is also hindered by being restricted to “male” roles and modes of existing in the world. That is a severe limitation on one’s experience of being human. We should not box ourselves into these idealized categories of femininity and masculinity, they are not rigid empirical categories that map directly onto being female and male in real life. So we men should also be trying to cultivate in ourselves the beautiful feminine qualities of nurturance and self-sacrifice that are so crucial to child-rearing.

      Finally, every situation and family is unique to them, and I am in no way trying to insist that everyone needs to do everything in a particular way and have a particular model of parenting. If one’s life situation is such that they have responsibilities and obligations that cannot really be negotiated, that is not what I am addressing or critiquing. Rather, I am addressing a larger communal dynamic and discourse that does not take women’s spiritual experience seriously.

      And indeed, all knowledge is only with God

      -Zaid

      • A.S. says:

        I really love your point about men and feminine qualities – it is so true that the essence of this Deen is very much does away with the rigid divide between “male” and “female” qualities, while still maintaining and promoting gender, something the West has always had immense difficulty doing and is currently making a mess out of. It is very interesting to know that men are also suffering spiritually from this false partition, didn’t think about it from a man’s point of view ;) Alhamdullilah for our most balanced and complete example that is the Beloved of God! May peace and blessings be upon him and his family.

        Divine Unity and focusing on His Names really does liberate us from all other false dichotomies, Subhanallah. Currently going through al-Ghazali’s Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of God with the kids…What is truly amazing is how they spontaneously ask a question, only to find that al-Ghazzali has addressed *exactly* that question within a page or two :) The insights of the awliya!

        May Allah Most High keep you two firm upon the path of knowledge and bless you both greatly, Ameen :)

  4. […] finding the hours spent in the kitchen to be time wasted. Women also enable others to become spiritually greedy – sacrificing and martyring their own spiritual […]

  5. […] “Ramadan, parenting, and spiritual equality” by Zaid (The Zaadialogues) […]

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