The poor kids: dad asks so many dumb and annoying questions. I know them to be dumb because they tell me so, and because they roll their eyes at me and shake their heads. But I ask them anyway, because I think my dumb questions are important.
At dinner, I start, “What did you learn at madrasa this evening?”
I call it madrasa but it’s not what you imagine, kids sitting in line rocking backwards and forwards as they recite scriptures by rote. Or, if you’ve been raised on Fox News, youngsters running around with AK-47s. It’s just a gathering of teenagers learning the basics of their religion, or as our daughter describes it, “Stuff.”
It’s a genuine question, but the kids are always suspicious when I ask questions about their lives. Our role as parents at this stage is to provide food and access to screens. Beyond that, we’re supposed to fade into the background and present as little inconvenience as possible. The fewer words the better. Any words that remain will be processed for one of three responses: a) ignore, b) condemn or c) counter-attack.
My question is initially categorised as a). So I ask it again and get it upgraded to b).
“We just went over what we covered previously,” she replies.
“Which was?” I ask.
She shakes her head at me and blows a heavy sigh across the table. “Stuff,” she snarls irately. Then: “And what did you learn today?”
Mum’s not going to let that pass, and glares at her. She’s getting tired of the disrespect we’re subjected to these days. I just think of it as training for our nafs: these kids are our sheiks of tarbiyah, intent on disciplining our souls.
Dissatisfied with our daughter’s response, I decide to cover the basics. “What is Islam?” I ask her. She categorises this question as a). “I’m serious,” I say when she rolls her eyes. “What is Islam?”
“Dumb question. Could it be… a religion? Durh…”
Her eyes are rolling once more.
“But what is Islam for?” I ask her.
When she scowls back at me as if I’ve asked the stupidest question ever uttered, I ask our lad the same. But he’s getting irate too, fed up with parents talking to him, which filtered through his frontal lobe he always takes as a personal assault on him. He’s a month off thirteen, but has already transmogrified into Kevin the Teenager.
I’m thinking they must have covered this topic at madrasa before delving into the proofs of their religion or the minutiae of the halal and the haram. I’d imagine it would be covered at the top of every revision session. Or is that an assumption too far? Still, they’re not having it and simply avert their eyes.
“It’s a path towards achieving a state of safety and good health,” I suggest. “Personally and collectively.”
“Both physically and spiritually,” adds their mum.
“So we avoid those things which are harmful to our health,” I say, “and we do those things which are beneficial, whether individually or communally.”
Of course, this isn’t the answer you get from BBC Bitesize and I’m certain it’s not what they were taught at their school, run by a Church of England academy trust. It’s probably not even what their madrasa teachers taught them either. But that’s my understanding of the purpose of our religion, borne of my two decades of study.
At this point, I glance back at our son. “What’s the central principle of Islam?” I ask him.
He looks back at me, perplexed as if I’ve asked him the square root of 169. I try to rephrase.
“What’s the most important thing all Muslims must believe?”
“Um, prayer?” he offers meekly.
“Why do we pray? What are we praying for?”
He shrugs his shoulders.
“The reason I’m asking,” I tell him, “is because when I was just a bit older than you, I had a Pakistani friend of whom I asked the same question. But all he could tell me was that they don’t eat pork because pigs eat dirt, and they shouldn’t drink alcohol. He couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me the central pillar of his faith.”
“To worship none except the one true God,” says mum.
“Exactly,” I say. “But as a teenager, not a single Muslim friend could teach me what their beliefs actually were. I had to find out for myself. It’s important that you know what it is we believe.”
Unfortunately that last sentence is heard as an almighty rebuke, and I’m being accused of having a go at them again. These are just dumb questions, irrelevant to their lives right now. For them, these things we call beliefs are simply social classifications. From friends at school they have learnt that white people are known as Christians and brown people as Muslims.
What about me? “You’re a weird exception.” What about your black auntie? “Isn’t she Muslim?” Nope. What about your mum? “She’s not white!” Her skin is more or less the same colour as mine. “No, you’re white, she’s, well, Turkish.” Haven’t you learnt about Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism at school? “Yes, but…”
I realise it’s going to be challenging raising kids in this age of identity politics. Try as we may to explain that religions are beliefs not cultural identities, the latter is all they are exposed to in the real world. To be Muslim is to be something other than the majority, a catch-all term that now inexplicably subsumes people with totally distinct beliefs.
Those that follow syncretic traditions, happily embracing monotheistic bhagats of either the Islamic or Dharmic traditions may be unperturbed by this modern categorisation, but many ethnic minorities are much perturbed. African Christians in our town have become accustomed to receiving so-called Islamophobic abuse; so too Hindus and Sikhs.
I guess, despite being raised amongst parents serious about practising their faith, it isn’t real to our children yet. It’s still just a part of their cultural identity and little more. They fast in Ramadan because it’s just what Muslims do. They perform salat with us — grudgingly — because it’s just what is done. But really, it’s not real as it is to us strangers to the path, who adopted and chose to embrace this way as adults.
So back to the dumb questions: “What did you do at school today?”
“What did you learn in science?”
“What did you learn in biology?”
“About the digestive system!”
“What is the digestive system for?”
“Won’t you just drop all the dumb questions? Give me a break!”
Yep, our role as parents is just to enter the password for YouTube on the Fire Stick and provide regular meals. Anything else is just dumb. Welcome to the world of raising teenagers. Brace for impact.