Bismillahir Rahmānir Raheem.
Two of my little brothers are currently playing foosball. I have one biological brother, and then two of my little cousins: among British-Bengalis, it is quite normal for us to refer to our cousins as cousin-sisters and cousin-brothers. It often feels this way too: like although we did not share a womb, and do not share two parents…
Sometimes uncles are father figures (giving guidance, reassurance, help, stability and support) and aunts are mothers (nurture, love, affection, amazing food and comfort), Masha Allah.
I love the notion of pure Islamic, Abrahamic, revivalism. Notions of community networks; to revive the soul of any community, to combat these forces of atomisation and hyper-individuality, perhaps it is integral that we begin with… family.
د is four years old, and he (Masha Allah, Allahummabārik) is a beautiful, adorable child. His favourite superhero, apparently, is… himself. “Me.” He points to the Spider-Man T-shirt he is wearing.
Favourite car? “Red.”
“Black Mer-say-dee car,” he talks about, sometimes. “BMW.”
“Which country are you from?”
“The blue one.”
“Do you do Nomaz? [prayer, also known as Salāh]”
The most important thing in his world? “Me, [himself]” he says, again. He values family too, Masha Allah. Hugging both his parents, and sometimes inviting others to join: he calls this “family”.
I ask د if he knows who Allah is. Fascinating, how kids tend to conceptualise God, sometimes. د mentions something about the “masjid” (‘place of prostration’, in Arabic. The Anglicised version of this word is ‘mosque’. See here for its theorised etymological journey).
د mentions something, in relation to Allah and the masjid, about the colour purple, specifically. I believe his mum, my aunt, has a purple prayer mat (a nice fluffy one) at their house, so perhaps this response is in reference to that.
د has also started school recently. His teacher’s name is “Kelly”.
And, “what do you do at the masjid?”
“Um, I do Allah baak.” [He’s trying to say ‘Allahu Akbar’, which means God is Great, God is the Greatest.]
“Does your dad [do ‘Allah baak’]?”
Today I sat with him outside, while he jumped energetically on the trampoline. I went inside to get some water and asked him if he wants some too. He said no, because his “heart’s bleeding!” [i.e. beating. Is it not just the most adorable thing ever, when children employ… (the word here is,) ‘malapropisms‘?!]
د apologises for something small. He generally likes it when people are “happy” with him. “That’s okay,” I say. “Welcome,” says he, and then, I think he says “thank you”.
The other two boys, earlier, played Scrabble together. I suppose this is a less direct way of getting them to practise their spelling, and to love English. They love playing football (and basketball. “But no! I like football the best,” says ten-year-old ع. Football is the best sport, according to them).
Man-U won a match today. Ronaldo scored for them or something, and as usual, my uncle is overjoyed. We’re treated to dessert as a result, from him and his wife, my aunt. Personally, I’m not a major fan of football, but if a match results in some chocolate cookie dough for me, then I am not one to complain. [‘The beautiful game’].
[Here, I wonder about the Islamic guidelines for eating. ‘Moderation’ is the way, I know. Do whatever is Khayr*, I suppose. Sharing food with family must be Khayr: eating what they are. I think ‘social eating’ sugary/otherwise food might be alright, at least sometimes, but I know that physical health is important too.]
As we eat dessert, the two older boys are teaching د how to say “Wassup, my G?” د’s nuclear family has moved out of Tower Hamlets (East London), however this is still (part of) home for him (Masha Allah, Allahummabārik, Āmeen), and from his older brothers, he gets this… gradual initiation. An education.
د copies a lot of the things that they do. We tend to naturally, in our minds, latch onto ‘role models’, don’t we: people who appear to be further along developmental curves than we ourselves are. Boys to friends who are older, age-wise and in terms of maturity, and to older brothers, and to uncles and fathers; people who are what we want to be more like. To historical figures, prophets, and to sportsmen, even:
س’s favourite footballer is one Mohamed Salah. He’s “a very good Muslim, and a very good football player”. I, and س’s friends at school (separately, coincidentally) started to call him ‘Saif Salah’. While س supports Liverpool (like many if not most of the men on our dad’s side), and while our mum’s side is mostly Man-U, د looks at the foosball table, and says that he supports the “yellow” team. No wait, the “red” one, since he is wearing a Spider-Man t-shirt.
د is named after the prophet Dawud (AS), whose Biblical name is David. And nine-year-old س’s name in Arabic means ‘sword’, and I got to name him myself (Masha Allah) those nine years ago. Today we discovered that if spelt with a ‘ص’, (which is still an ‘s’ sound in Arabic, but in a slightly different way) then the meaning changes to… ‘summer’. I asked my brother if he would like to be named ‘sword’, or ‘summer’. And he said ‘sword’, since his best friend, our neighbour Faaris, is called ‘knight’ in Arabic. The sword and the knight: a best-friend match made… by Allah [Masha Allah, Allahummabārik*].
I find it amazing how Allah has created us, and the things within our lives and around us. Our stories. Like how the younger, perhaps purer, versions of us — children — know, and show us what they love, and are perhaps likely going to love, and be like. د loves cars. س and ع were interested in dinosaurs and animals.
“Robot transformation VW [Volkswagen]” is what د wants to see on YouTube. And then his eyes are quite transfixed on a video about super-cars. I have a little theory, here. I don’t subscribe to notions of ‘Arab supremacy’ or anything, but an early part of our family’s ancestry is said to be Yemeni, and Arabs are known to love their horses. And cars are practically mechanised horses. Personally, I love both horses and [super-]cars. What gorgeous creatures; what gorgeous machines (always, Masha Allah*).
The desire to have nice cars, nice horses, nice clothes. A key Islamic principle is that of humility — before the Creator, and this should translate into humility among creation. Yet, a Muslim is allowed to wear nice, expensive clothes. Drive nice, expensive cars (or horses, still, in certain fortunate parts of the world).
I came across a Hadīth (saying attributed to the Prophet (SAW)) about a man having asked him about nice clothes, wondering, I think, if loving to wear nice clothes and shoes, and wanting them to be the best, conflicts with the Islamic directive to be humble, and not arrogant.
Muhammad (SAW)’s response is said to have been that God is Beautiful, and loves beauty. Rather, arrogance is “one who disregards [is boastful, rude, and ungrateful towards] the truth and looks down upon [despises, treats disrespectfully and contemptuously] people.” [Source].
ع learns Islamic Studies by attending a mosque class every week. س has two Islamic Studies / Qur’an teachers. He (س) has very recently progressed onto reading the Qur’an (on from the ‘preparatory books’, which are known, at least by us, as the Qa’ida and the Sifaarah). Our nan and some other family members want to get some gifts for him: my aunt paid for Minecraft for him yesterday, as a gift.
The boys enjoy playing Minecraft and Fifa. د knows how to play (Masha Allah) and our little three-year-old cousin-sister (who is starting preschool in the coming week, Insha Allah. An Islamic one in East London. Her teacher’s name is “Haleema”) likes to play Mario-Kart with them sometimes, too. I think she’s managed to beat them all at least once.
Soon, Insha Allah*, س’s friend will join him in his Arabic classes. ر – his friend – is half-Turkish, half-English, I believe. From what I know, his mum isn’t Muslim, but would like for her son to take after his father in that regard. She, for example, also ensures that her children eat Halāl food only.
On reflecting upon things like the upbringing of these boys [it takes a village / It takes a family…] I suppose I am thinking about gender again. [Paternal/masculine, and maternal/feminine influences]. The difference[s] exist[s], and we exist as a dimorphic species. Yet, it is not a simple, concrete separation. Men, I think, (often) have something significant of the ‘feminine essence’ within them, and I think the same is true for women and ‘masculine essence’.
Sometimes people try to conflate modern ‘masculinity’ movements with Islam. And although Islam is a patriarchal Deen [men are ‘Qawwamoon’ upon women (see Qur’an, (4:34)). The root word for this stems from ‘to stand’, ‘to establish’. It arguably also means ‘care-takers’, ‘guardians’] I don’t think it is the case that all men ‘should’ only love sports, and cars, and other very ‘masculine’ things. What about elements of poetry, and taking care of children, and gentleness? Perhaps a man’s (balanced) ‘inner feminine’ is important to be nurtured, like how a woman’s ‘inner masculine’ is (in balance). [Too much ‘strength’ becomes weakness, perhaps. Too much ‘softness’ is not always ideal either].
Another key Islamic principle: that of balance.
Yesterday, I also thought about ‘love’. And I think love is… an encompassing. Complex, and yet so very simple and effortless; presence, and understandings. Encompassing, like when somebody feels cold, and/or tired, and another knows to place a blanket over and around them. Or, chucks them one: still love, depending on intention. Yesterday I had come across a post on a neighbourhood app, about a woman who feels ‘liked’ — when she is ‘fun’ and ‘outgoing’ and all. But all human beings have further needs, which love just caters for. Our existences are certainly not only pleasantries and ‘good times’. Love is like a lovely mustard-yellow blanket, and it encompasses. Allah’s love for us, and family, and good friends who are family (Masha Allah).
ع loves football, animals, and nature, he says. When he is older, Insha Allah, he would like to be an “explorer” or a “scientist” or, of course, a “footballer“.
س says he loves nature (and here, the boys tell me about the time my comedian brother kissed a tree, and called it a ‘Muslim tree’. All elements of nature are indeed in submission to God) and football, and running. He used to love fish (and loved visiting the aquarium, but has since forgotten “everything about it”). He also quite likes maths (Masha Allah).
ع has loved going to the aquarium too, and to the zoo/the Safari park, and to Scotland, and to Legoland.
I ask the boys what they might like most about being Muslim. ع gives a relatively more mature response, about Halāl and Harām (lawful, and unlawful). س likes that, as a Muslim, he doesn’t eat pork.
I ask ع if he knows whom he is named after. The Prophet Jesus (may God’s peace be upon him), in Arabic. ع reflects upon the notion of the trinity: if Jesus were (Astaghfirullah) ‘God’, “how can he be alive, and then he… died?” He mentions something about Islamic eschatology (a part of theology concerned with the final events of history, or the ultimate destiny of humanity). About the coming of the Dajjāl (otherwise known as the antichrist).
But the Prophetic story that ع says he loves the most is that of Nuh (Noah, peace be upon him). Of course the animal-lover would love the story about the animals and the ark…
I ask them which country they are ‘from’. While د says that he is from the “blue” country, ع says he is from “England”. I wonder if, over time, British-Bengalis will begin to identify far less with ‘being Bengali’. س also says that he’s from England. Earlier that day (yesterday) he had been chanting, “It’s coming home”. This, in retrospect: it [football] has not ‘come home’.
And on the anniversary of 9/11 (which was yesterday, and which sometimes boys/men who look like my brothers find themselves on the unfair and unnecessary receiving end of abuse as a result of) س thinks that the word ‘terrorist’ means… to tear something up.
When س grows up, Insha Allah, he would like to be a footballer, or a basketball player, or a runner. “‘Cause he is pretty fast,” supportively says ع.
I ask the boys to reflect on Ramadān earlier this year: a month of Muslims fasting from dusk until dawn. The boys did not fast, although I think ع had completed a ‘half-fast’ or a few.
ع recalls eating ‘Papa John’s’ (pizza). The two lovingly recall the food. ع’s mum would make mango lassi, among other things, pretty much daily, I think. ع’s two older brothers can also cook: one can make meat curry. One makes a sort of signature shepherd’s pie.
The two boys fondly remember eating all day, as normal, and then still joining everybody for Ifthaar (the meal where we break our fast), even though they themselves hadn’t been fasting. ع remembers sometimes wondering “why nobody’s eating,” during the day. And then: oh yeah…
They seem to quite love playing Scrabble (Masha Allah). And when ع grows older, he would like to pray more (Insha Allah) and read more Islamic books. س (whom ع is very protective of, and supportive towards, Masha Allah, as an older brother) would also like to pray “a lot, every time”. He would also like to finish [reading] the Qur’an.
Some things about each other, then: س says that ع is “weird and funny”, and likes these traits about him, while ع thinks that س is “funny, fast [running], and fun to be friends with”.
I ask them what they think about me: ع says, “kind of funny, fun to do games and things with, smart”. But then I am positively humbled by my little brother, who prevents my ego from becoming inflated by adding that I am “annoying, nerdy, and weird”.
[ع comments that calling someone “nerdy” means that you think they’re smart.]
Then, ع, when asked about what’s difficult in life, talks about “people”: how they can be “annoying”, or “bad”, sometimes, and how sometimes people mistreat animals. He talks about an incident he witnessed, about someone mistreating a dog.
س begins to make up fake Scrabble words, and finds it funny; then he wants to arrange the tiles in alphabetical order. The boys talk about an Islamic summer school they had attended, at which they would do sports [one of their teachers had been a black-belt in Tae-kwondo, while the other had been a pro badminton player or something similar], as well as Islamic learning.
They talk about their favourite YouTubers too: there is a list, and it has changed over time.
س talks about one of his Qur’an teachers, whom he feels is a ‘good Muslim’, and who recently gifted him (س) his first own copy of the Qur’an. It is pretty and patterned in appearance.
I ask س what makes someone a good big brother/sister, then.
“Not you,” comes his response. The end.
*Khayr — good/goodness.
*Allahummabārik — “May God bless [it/him/her]”
*Masha Allah — “God has Willed it.” i.e. whatever is good/beautiful is from Allah.
*(SAW) — “Peace and blessings of Allah be upon him.” A way of honouring the Prophet (SAW).
*Insha Allah — God-Willing.
With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.