By Samana Siddiqui
Business gurus and government leaders have long touted the need for employees to be culturally savvy, able to deal with the world’s diversity, and the benefits of being multilingual. Being able to speak more than one language has been found to not only improve an individual’s job prospects, but help them with issues like multi-tasking and focus, as well as delaying mental slowdown that comes with age.
But sharing your linguistic and ethnic heritage with your children is not only good for their long-term health and material prospects. For Muslims, it’s also how to revive those aspects of Islamic culture that have been left to the wayside in recent times.
For example, consider the value of respect for parents and elders given in Islam. Most people who have grown up in a predominantly Muslim culture not only understand this but witnessed their own parents and others in their surroundings put this principle into action. Whether it was offering a seat to someone elderly, allowing them to go before you while in line for food at a party, or speaking in a more formal manner with them, these are all things that are a natural part of their mannerisms. No one had to necessarily tell them, “respect your elders by doing so and so”. They learned by osmosis.
Contrast this with a number of Muslims who have never experienced this aspect of Muslim culture on a regular basis. While they are not necessarily rude and disrespectful, there is a tendency to treat older people as equals, the downside of living in a culture where equality for all is emphasized.
That translates into, for instance, speaking in informal slang with elders at times, instead of being more careful in the manner of expression. It may also be seen in the way many Muslim youth, in particular, neglect to approach elders first to offer greetings of Salam, versus vice-versa. This is in fact something Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, emphasized: “A young person should greet someone who is older, a pedestrian should greet someone who is sitting down, and a small group should greet a large one” (Bukhari, Muslim).
There are some ways to start sharing your ethnic and linguistic heritage with tomorrow’s Muslims today:
While learning about your heritage, it is crucial to begin by making it clear that any cultural practices need to be judged based on whether or not they measure up to the Islamic standard. As one young Egyptian-Canadian Muslim youth once explained to me: “I take what’s Islamic from my Egyptian culture and what’s Islamic from my Canadian culture.”
So, for example, while adopting a more respectful attitude toward elders is a positive thing you want to inculcate into your children’s upbringing from a given Muslim culture, barring women from the mosque, as practiced in some parts of the world, is something to avoid, since it violates Islamic teachings.
With an Islamic framework, picking and choosing cultural practices becomes much clearer and easier.
If your mother tongue is not English and you want your kids to not only understand, but be able to speak it, establish rooms in the house where only that language will be spoken. For instance, the kitchen, where everyone congregates to eat, could be designated the “Arabic zone” (or whichever language you want your kids to pick up). No one is allowed to speak any other language there. This is a tough practice and kids are prone to give up if you do. But stick to it. They’ll eventually agree if you’re persistent and try to engage them in the conversation.
If you want to take it a step further, make your entire home a zone where only your native language is spoken. An Indian-American Muslim woman once shared with me her father’s rule in their house when she was growing up: “leave your shoes and your English at the door.” Over two decades later, not only is she fluent in accent-free English, she is a fast-talking Urdu speaker as well.
Don’t hesitate to participate in Islamically acceptable activities organized by a local organization representing your culture. So while you may want to skip the annual dance party, you can still participate in language classes or children’s arts and crafts programs, for example.
Most schools organize “culture days” or “international heritage days”, where students are encouraged to share various aspects of their ethnic heritage, particularly through food and dress. Take this a step further and encourage your child to research a specific aspect of your native culture that interests them, whether that’s the different kinds of dress worn in various parts of the country or the stamps it has issued over the last fifty years.
As your kids learn the American national anthem, the pledge of allegiance, and songs like “Yankee Doodle”, do the same for your other culture. Find out and share with them the history of how the anthem and songs were composed, in what context, and what that means for the country and its people today. See if you can find elements that emphasize Islamic values and talk about them.
While speaking a language you want your kids to pick up in the home is important, it’s also vital that they are exposed to it through other methods, like television programs. Provided the content is Halal, this will help them experience new forms of expression, and train their ear to pick up the nuances of the language.
Grandparents are an incredible source of cultural and linguistic heritage. Countless young people are bilingual or trilingual today thanks to a grandparent who insisted on speaking to their grandchildren in nothing but their native tongue. This was not necessarily because they didn’t know English. Rather, it was because they felt it was important that their heritage be passed on in this manner.
If you are blessed to have older relatives either living with you or nearby, encourage them to speak to your kids in their native tongue alone. Also, instruct your kids to speak to this relative only in that language.
This is a fascinating way to not only pass on heritage, but to also understand Islam’s dynamism as it encountered people of various nations and tribes around the world. For example, you could discuss how the traditional dress of your country has its roots in Islam’s clear but flexible rules about modesty. You could also tie that in with how other Muslim cultures have expressed this principle. Compare the dress of Muslims in Southeast Asia, Africa, South Asia, and the Arab world, and how, even with differences in style, all are loose and flowing. And don’t forget to include how Muslims in the United States are also adapting these principles to American-style clothing.
Frequent trips to the “motherland”, where your parents, grandparents or great-grandparents came from, are also vital in inculcating cultural values. This will not only give your kids an opportunity to practice their language skills, it will also help them see how Islam is practiced among Muslims in another part of the world, showing that while we all have our differences, Islam ties us in brotherhood and sisterhood in more ways that we can imagine.
Muslims can be found virtually anywhere on the planet and this has never been more the case than today. That means that even if your heritage is not connected to a Muslim country, you can still plan to visit your motherland. For example, if you and your spouse are descendents of the Mayflower pilgrims, don’t hesitate to plan visits to England and Holland. Not only should you share this aspect of your children’s ethnic heritage with them, but also make a point to visit the thriving Muslim communities that live there today and see how they live Islam in that part of the world.
Food is another source of cultural transmission. It reflects the habitat of the culture it came from, and is a source of rich historical knowledge. For example, America’s pioneers ate all kinds of different animals and plants that were part of their terrain as they moved westward across the U.S.. These foods were cooked and prepared in ways that reflected their bare bones lifestyle, contact with Native Americans, along with their cultural and religious traditions.
Spend one Saturday a month with the family preparing a specific dish and trying to find out its history and relation to your ethnic heritage. Invite others to do the same. Move it up a notch and hold your own international monthly potluck dinner once a month with friends of different cultures.
If you’re rusty on reading in your mother tongue, turn to an older relative for help, In fact, make it a tradition that whenever you visit their home or vice-versa, some time will be spent reading or telling a story in your family’s native language.
This is something you can try with your older teenagers, who are developing a more critical mind. Watch the news on a local television station, then do the same on a channel in your native language. If you don’t have cable, you can most likely find this online. Then discuss how the stories were treated. Were there any differences? Did both stories present the news from the same angle? What kinds of words were used to describe the incident or issue?