How parents keep the faith: Teaching the religion of Islam at home

Home, more than the mosque, is where the Malik children learn the religion of Islam – from Skyping to Pakistan for Quranic lessons to copying Mom's prayers.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Ms. Malik prays five times a day. Henna Malik's (l.) parents keep the faith by teaching the religion of Islam at home: She learns how to pray from her mother, Romana, by copying everything she does.
Ann Hermes
This article – part of the cover story project on how parents keep the faith – appears in the Dec. 20, 2010 Christian Science Monitor weekly magazine.

The red brick walk outlines the quintessential suburban comforts – it passes a Honda Pilot in the driveway, winds through a manicured lawn, and ends at the white columned entrance to the Malik family's spacious newly built home.

But, says Salman Malik, who immigrated to the United States from Pakistan at age 9, there's something missing: "In the US, Muslim kids are in trouble [because] they lack role models and institutions."

And here, on the outskirts of Manchester, N.H., it's far from any Muslim community; a fledgling mosque is under construction, but it's a small institution without many services. So Mr. Malik and his wife, Romana, "have to step in to fill that void," he says. "We have no choice. Their [Muslim] identity is very important to us. We want to make sure they know who they are."

For guidance in Muslim practices, the girls look primarily to their mother. Unlike others in the family who can fall short of best intentions, Ms. Malik always prays five times a day, as Muslims are expected to do. Raabia, 15, tries to keep up by praying nearly as often as her mother. Henna, 11, sidles up to her mother at prayer time and follows along.

"When she starts praying, I listen to her, and whatever she says – I say it, too," Henna says. "When she goes down, then I go down. So I follow what she says and what she does, and that's how I memorize it."

Neither Ms. Malik nor Dr. Malik, an oral surgeon, feels qualified to help their children master the Quran, which requires perfect Arabic pronunciation lest a reader stray from the meaning revealed through the prophet Mohammad. So in the absence of qualified local experts, the Malik girls are tutored after school at home via Skype with a tutor in Pakistan.

This way, says Dr. Malik, Henna and Raabia get a sense of connection to a world where others share their quest, even passion, for deep knowledge of the Quran. They're beginning by learning suras, short prayers.

"We're building a foundation with them," Dr. Malik says. "Once they have an understanding of how to read it properly, then they're going to slowly start to understand it."

Forming a strong sense of Muslim identity sometimes involves the whole family. For example, during Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunup to sundown for 30 days, the Malik family gathers in the kitchen around 4 a.m. Everyone eats a well-planned breakfast to nourish them for the entire day. It's a bonding experience, as is the day-long self-denial and the end-of-day feast every night for a month with other Muslim families in the area.

Sustaining a Muslim identity, however, involves personal challenges. Henna, for instance, gets hunger pangs at school when her classmates eat non-halal burgers that smell delicious. And Raabia is the only girl on her basketball team who keeps her shoulders and legs covered. For her, it's a matter of modesty, but it sometimes brings unwanted attention, such as the time another team refused to let her play unless she dressed like everyone else. She refused, and her coach stood by her.

"If I show too much of my skin, I feel uncomfortable because I'm so used to covering up," Raabia says. Being different in that way "is not a problem because [my teammates] all know why I do it."

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