I had a long conversation with an older relative, a loosely-practicing Muslim gentleman in his seventies. His life has got me reflecting on the issues we inherit and pass down through the generations. Let’s call him Nabil.
Nabil, as a young man in his mid-twenties, deliberately missed his beloved father’s funeral to go to a regular day of school at the university he attended. Nabil’s father was his hero and his role model, and his death broke Nabil’s heart. Yet Nabil skipped the funeral. Why?
Some of Nabil’s stances are so unbelievable and ideologically confused, but before telling you them, I have to first tell you about his family background and particularly his father.
Nabil’s father was a poor orphan with neither mother nor father. At the tender age of 11, this orphan boy started working odd jobs and clawing his way up from rock bottom. He worked feverishly, scrimped and saved, and eventually, he became quite wealthy as an adult in an amazing turnaround. He had 18 children. He became a respected, affluent man who owned lands and businesses.
He was a good provider for his children and family, but he was constantly working in order to provide and keep up with business. He rarely rested and rarely saw his children for any sustained period of time. He had a strong, unrelenting work ethic, which was, of course, one of the keys to his success and financial stability after his dire childhood poverty.
He raised his kids with two main principles: education is one of the most important things in this Dunya, and working hard to build a career for yourself and be financially comfortable is the very definition of success.
It’s no surprise that these are the biggest take-away messages his 18 kids got; these are the battles he himself had had to wage and win as he fought for his very survival as a child.
He always told his children, “I did not have a good education because I was an orphan, so I want *you* to all have top-notch educations. I did not have money when I was young and poor, but through hard work, saving, and investing, I am now well-off. I want *you* to have the things I never had: a prestigious education and a respected career.”
But sometimes when issues are this deeply rooted, and self-awareness is limited, things get taken too far. The pendulum swings too far. We get imbalance.
Most of this man’s 18 children left the Muslim home country to get their prized education in America, the ultimate land of secular education and “success.” Their father’s dream.
They became an assortment of doctors, engineers, and business owners, fulfilling their father’s dream/requirement of highly educated, careerist offspring.
But there were unintended negative consequences of this philosophy. The father’s personal baggage became the children’s legacy.
The daughters were not married until after they got their degree (as their father required), which for some of them was medical school, a lengthy program. Mind you, this occurred in the 1960s and ’70s in the Middle East, a time and place which did not favor delaying women’s marriages to this degree. The daughters’ pool of potential suitors dwindled due to this requirement placed on them. Education got in the way of their marriages, and later on down the line, the careerist mentality led to their divorces.
The sons fared no better. The ones who wanted to follow their father’s wishes became rigid workaholics. Some others rebelled against the stringent requirements and expectations, deliberately becoming never-do-wells and settling into the role of the family black sheep. But the go-getters absorbed their father’s strict work ethic and imitated it, in an attempt to gain their father’s approval.
Nabil is one of these industrious, workaholic sons, now in his seventies.
He said to me fondly, “My father loved education so much that he told all of us when he got older, “If I pass away and any of you are in school or at work, I will never forgive you if you take a day off of work or school to attend my funeral. Dedicate yourself to your studies and your career. Don’t skip even one day for me, even if it’s for my funeral. This is my final wish.”
The father indeed passed away while many of his children were away in America and England, attending university. Nabil recalled to me that, in accordance with his father’s wishes, he missed his father’s funeral so as not to miss a day of class. “Just as my father taught me,” he said.
“Education and career over family?” I asked him. “Is one day of class or work so important as to override the natural need of a child to attend to a family emergency, the death of his own father?”
“Well…the father is already dead, and education is important,” he repeated awkwardly. He frowned, baffled.
He seemed not to see anything amiss in this. I did not press the point further.
Nabil has his own two sons, men now in their mid-thirties. Both attended Ivy League universities because their father made sure of it. Education is all-important, after all. The more prestigious the school, the better.
This father, just like his own father before him, made sure he went above and beyond for his children in terms of money and education. He made sure they did not want for anything financially, especially in the department of education and career prep.
But there was a strange imbalance.
He flew back and forth from his home state to the universities his sons attended, multiple times each semester, each year. “I have not seen or heard of any parent who has visited his kid in college more than I did,” he boasted to me proudly.
As he continued to describe these near-monthly visits, the picture became even more odd and disturbing. He had created a ruberic for his adult children, which he called “the transcript.” Each time he would fly to his son’s dorm to visit him on campus, Nabil would rate his son on about 25 items, which he printed out in an itemized list.
High on the list were grades, class attendance, and other academic requirements. Also on the list was an expectation for professional networking and career advancement. Further, there were clothing requirements (no “Muslim” shirts, meaning shirts from the high school MSA with Arabic writing on them). Friend requirements: no hanging out too much with Muslim kids on campus, as they are not ambitious enough or focused enough on their studies. Many, many other kinds of requirements were outlined in painstaking detail on the list.
Each visit was dated with the date of each campus visit, and the sons were given a letter grade by their father in each one of these twenty-five areas. The transcript I held in my hands listed 8 visits in one school year. The father gave the sons a total GPA for the year at the bottom, an average of all the GPAs from each visit. The one transcript he showed me listed one son’s year GPA as 1.93.
The son failed.
The father kept talking, explaining to me his utter disappointment in his sons for not following his wishes for them in all areas of life, just as he himself had followed his own father’s wishes in all areas of *his* life. One of the sons was an especially big disappointment to Nabil, because he grew more religious as an adult.
“My son does not seem to care as much as he should about the most important things in life,” he told me bitterly. “He didn’t take full advantage of his education while he was in college, and he does not seem to be ambitious enough with his career now. What a disappointment. What a failure. Why does he not even care about his father’s values, which are also his grandfather’s values? Why doesn’t he have the right priorities in life?”
Nabil, very much his father’s son, does not see his own sons as a success, even though his sons are happily married and good husbands and fathers. They both work and provide for their families. But his sons have both prioritized Islam in their own lives, putting Islam and family above education and career in importance.
This is not seen as good enough. This is not considered “success.”
Because to Nabil and many people like him, the equation is simple:
“Success” = Education + Career + Money + Status
We all have blind spots in life. But when our blind spots and misplaced priorities become solidified and cemented and officially taught to the next generation, then further codified into law and passed down yet again, this becomes a disaster. Some call this intergenerational trauma.
In many ways, this is the general story of the Muslim community in the west, regardless of the specific country. When the western colonizers invaded the various Muslim lands and brought their Dunya-centered obsession with secular education and career with them, the fabric of Muslim society began slowly and subtly changing. Unraveling.
We gradually started yielding to their seemingly superior values, latching onto their education and career obsessions and abandoning our Islamic, family-centered mentality. After all, which one was the colonizer, and which was the colonized? Who was rich and who was poor? Who was in charge and who was under the boot?
So the only way to succeed is to imitate the conquerors. To love the colonizers and follow their model, learn from their wisdom.
Their model was simple enough: center education and career and de-center God and family. That stuff is fine too, but maybe later, after class and work. Then we can worry about worshipping God and being with family in our off-time after we’ve given our best to our schooling and job. This is a success. And we must rush to success.
In the أذان , adhan, the call to prayer, we hear,
“حي على الصلاة، حي على الفلاح.”
“Rush to salah, rush to success!”
We have to regain a sense of what real success entails.
Every family has layers of baggage, intergenerational and inherited. Let Islam be your compass, distinguishing between right and wrong, priorities and add-ons, success and failure. Even if this is not the mentality taught to you by your parents and grandparents.
You teach yourself and your children true Islamic values and leave the old baggage behind.