Let me explain a few things. I am a writer and a mother. During my twelve-year marriage, I nurtured a blended family of six children in various places around the world. To make matters more interesting, I am now a single mother raising my only biological child, an eleven-year-old son.
First, I am not particularly well qualified to write a scholarly, intellectually based treatise espousing religious texts with references on motherhood, gender, or Islam, in general. There are scholars who do that well, and even more YouTube commentators demonstrating varying degrees of religiosity and perspectives to provide additional accounts.
What I am qualified to do is to write about my own experience. One of my biggest challenges in my experience parenting children of various ages was in finding ways to empower them as people while having to enforce cultural values that often left them ill equipped to negotiate their own identities. For example, the failure to turn them into strict adherents of daily prayer became a reflection of my perceived poor parenting skills rather than an acknowledgement that I was raising a number of kids alone while the father was abroad.
I pondered why raising Muslim children is often defined by ritual or externalities, such as praying or not dating until marriage. Alternatively, I wanted to explore how to pass along knowledge in children while also instilling an Islamic ethos in dealing with the larger world.
This distinction between ritual and ethos become one of the biggest experiments I faced as a Muslim parent. The various Muslim communities where I lived around the world seemed to collectively emphasize the “quantitative” measurements of good Muslim mothering. My experience with Islamic Sunday School in North America also placed the responsibility on mothers for ensuring their children memorized required weekly lessons. There is valuable investment in Islamiyat and it is one that requires parental involvement. Yet, the role of the Muslim mother is often measured by externalizations at the expense of personal empowerment for the mother and that of her children. Muslim fathers are often considered free of blame as it is assumed they are involved in outside employment or other matters related to maintaining the family.
I have witnessed a variety of vastly different Muslim motherhood experiences. These examples were contextualized between culture and economic status. In the Gulf region, I observed opulent lifestyles characterized by live-in nannies. Some mothers were extremely dedicated and used their privileged lifestyle to engage their children in a variety of activities.
In vastly different scenarios, I knew profoundly poor, illiterate mothers so overburdened with multiple children and domestic duties that they rarely had individual time with any one child. Yet, one local imam offered these women as ideal mothers (and these women who were doing the best they could with the resources available to them) who were closer to Mothers of the Believers model. These contrasting experiences of Muslim motherhood, all subject to definition of class, cultural, ethnicity, and educational levels, did not seem to show up in normative Islamic discourse. Therefore, I wondered where the concept of “Muslim motherhood” erupted. Who decided what determined a good Muslim mother?
As a Muslim woman, I’ve made some observations. These are not the scholarly remarks that come with tafseer, academic footnotes, or discussions on hadith authenticity. That particular Islamic discourse is vibrant and ever present in the collective Muslim consciousness.
Contemporary Islam promotes the value of women’s status by pointing out the hadith espousing that paradise lies at the feet of mothers. The ideal Muslim woman is a mother, and Islam will, therefore, treat her well.
In real life, motherhood is messy. There is a great deal of guilt in never being good enough, constantly questioning your abilities as mother to meet the daily needs of your children regardless of access to resources. This is true of the general motherhood experience. For Muslim women (or any woman of faith) she must also maintain a marriage. On top of that, there is a purported religious obligation to guarantee that children are spiritually nourished, as well.
In normative Islamic discourse on gender – the kind of language used in mosques and within the public space in Muslim communities around the world – promotes that motherhood is a woman’s primary obligation in society and to the Ummah. The crux of Islamic discussion on gender is centered on the woman’s biological aspect of mothering. This contextualization not only determines narratives on gender for women, but it also serves as the basis for constructions of Muslim male masculinity. Men are the protectors, qiwamah, of women, and therefore, their children. Men are the mahram to women, and therefore, of children. Yet, women are mothers who hold the keys to paradise.
I was in a Georgetown restaurant once with a well-known Islamic sheikh. He said something that resonated (and I paraphrase). He suggested that I should “forget the Tafseer and what the scholars say about the Qu’ran. Every Muslim should read the Qu’ran at least once as if Prophet Muhammad was a postal worker delivering the Qu’ran just for you.”
I did just that in efforts to write this essay. I wanted to know how the concept of “the Muslim mother” emerged. My own personal reading revealed something I had not previously considered: there is an absence of mothers in Qu’ranic text. Ironically, there is an emphasis the motherless.
Prophet Muhammad was orphaned at a young age. He and his first wife, Khadija, had five children, and only four children survived into adulthood – all girls. The one child born post-Khadija died as a toddler. The Mother of the Believers, with the exception of Khadija, are not presented as literal mothers of actual children. Yet, they are upheld as models for Muslim women where the discourse of the pious, dutiful, observant Muslim woman is to be a good mother.
In the Qu’ran, there are no direct verses relating to the actual act of motherhood, except to acknowledge that childbirth is painful. Islamic texts recognize the powerful love mothers have for their children, and liken that kind of love to the Divine’s affection for humanity. Yet, in the absence everyday examples of Muslim mothering, the concept of the Muslim mother emerges from “empty narrative space.” The Muslim mother, in many ways, is merely a metaphor.
This empty narrative space suggests that there is no ideal example of a good Muslim mother. The current discourse on Muslim motherhood is a bit outdated: there are more Muslim women working outside of the home in all parts of the Islamic world, as well as a growing number of divorced or widowed Muslim mothers raising children where the role of male providers and protectors is unrealistic, or even non-existence. Discussions about what it means to be a good Muslim woman is lagging behind the contemporary lived realities of many Muslim women across class and ethnic lines. Furthermore, Muslim women often need real spiritual sustenance as mothers beyond, yet there is rarely language addressing the normal, momentary dissatisfaction and occasional feelings of guilt that many women experience related to their mothering.
These types of discussions are important because they have real world impact. Family law in the Muslim world has yet to catch up with these alternate realities, and a great impediment to legal reform may be related to an over simplistic understanding of motherhood and the challenges facing Muslim mothers. These narratives also contribute to a nuanced understanding of gender, identity, and religious experience outside of the legalistic discourse that often dominates Islamic religiosity.
Additionally, Muslim communities can empower and support women by giving voice to the multiple ways women can foster vibrant, creative Muslim children. In this “empty space” narrative, Muslim mothers of all persuasions are empowered to write their own script.