We are quickly approaching the end of August. For many families, it is a time of considerable promise, excitement, trepidation, nervousness, and anticipation. The summer is wrapping up, and many families find their children returning to college. Other families are facing the more burdensome and transformative occasion of their children leaving to go to college for the first time. In both cases, it is a critical time in which the child stands at the doorsteps of adulthood, with all its promises and challenges. Many families have to say goodbye to their children with whatever they armed and empowered them with over the years of childhood, which, in hindsight, appears as if it was but a flicker in time.
Those going to college will face decisions that will have ramifications for the rest of their lives. They will make these decisions without their parents hovering over them, interfering, or trying to navigate or mitigate the consequences. These decisions will carry them through into adulthood when they are no longer children but rather, quite literally, the men and women of the future. The reality is that for so many Muslim families, like non-Muslim families, it is but the grace of God and the value system that we instilled in our children that will be the sole protector and safety net for our children. For the very first time, the family will havevery little recourse and opportunity to make a difference.
Many decades ago, I went through these same moments when, at a young age, like so many children of colonized societies, I was forced to say goodbye to my family and fly to the United States. I had to say goodbye to the only life I had ever known to chart an unclear but hopefully better future. We really do not know how our parents feel as they say goodbye to us, of course, leaving us just with the grace of God and the value system that they have hopefully instilled in us throughout the years. We really do not know the anxiety, the stress, the trepidation, and the pressure until decades later when we stand in the same position, bidding farewell to our child, a child being initiated into adulthood.
I think of the many people who I knew decades ago, who came to the U.S. around the same time, who also left their families to attend college and be separated from their loved ones. I think back to all the faces and all the names. I struggle to remember many. Many names are now forgotten, and many faces are but abstractions of memory. I think of all the friendships I imagined would last a lifetime. I think of all the acquaintances I was sure I would remember forever, but that now seem distant and irrelevant. I think of the trajectories in life that ultimately fizzled into nothing. I think back to all those who are now lost to me. Not just lost to me, in fact, but lost to their families and, quite often, lost to themselves. I think back to people who, at that stage, in high school, thought they knew who they were. Now, decades later, they are practically unrecognizable to me and to the self that existed decades ago when they were at this doorstep of adulthood.
So many of our children are forced down a path in life where they must redefine themselves and confront many challenges that often leave them thoroughly compromised and unrecognizable, even to their former selves. What is it, without the supervision and oversight of the family, that keeps you on a correct path? What is it that leads you to take a wrong decision that leads you down a wrong path? What is it? Time and again, I come back to the same answer. The families that ultimately see their children go down a right, moral, and ethical path taught their children a very basic value. Even before teaching their children to fear God, these families taught their children the value of dignity and self-respect. They instilled in their children a powerful sense of identity. And that became the power, and often the savior, that intervened to protect the child long after the families could intervene and interfere in the child's self-perception, their sense of identity, and their sense of what is becoming for them and what is unbecoming.
For a decade, I served at UCLA as the Chair of the Student Conduct Committee, a committee that held trials for students who committed ethical violations and were unable to resolve the charges against them with the Dean, often because the charges were too serious or because the penalties were so drastic that the student sought to take their chances with an official hearing. These trials were like legal trials where the committee would call witnesses, hear testimony and, ultimately, pass a judgment. The infractions before this committee ranged from disorderly conduct, such as being intoxicated in public or destroying university property, to numerous cases of cheating and plagiarism to, in the most extreme and horrible situations, cases of rape and sexual assault.
What I would always notice with the students who ended up in a world of trouble is that these students were clearly shocked by where they had ended up. None of these students, even for an instant, thought they would end up committing the ethical infractions they committed. It is very rare to meet someone who planned a violation. Student after student would speak at these trials as if they were overwhelmed by circumstance, by events simply unfolding that swept the student in their wake. Time and again, the task of the committee was to hear the testimony of all and to do what is seen in trials, going through the micro steps that led to the violation. Time and again, we would see clear evidence of the many moments where the student could have hit the brakes and avoided the disastrous course of conduct.
They could have avoided the entire problem if they had a strong sense of their own ethical being, of what is right and wrong, of what is becoming and what is unbecoming of them. In ninety-nine percent of cases, the student was swept into a course of action because of their acquaintances and friends, and these very same people would often testify against the student to distance themselves from the course of conduct that the accused had taken. Whether it was cheating, disorderly conduct, or sexual assault, in one form or another, the very people who were the direct cause of the student's violation would later testify to distance themselves. They would say, "We did not force them to do anything, and our role was actually very minor." As one can imagine, the self-perceptions of the accused were very different. “If it had not been for them, and for the stories they shared to ease my way down a certain path, I would not have gone astray.”
That strong sense of self, of what is becoming and unbecoming, was missing. That ethical backbone, a strong sense of what is needed for a person to respect themselves, was missing. “What is integral to me? What is the ‘me’ that I can live with, respect, and look at in the mirror and not want to look away in shame or distress?” That comes from the moral example we set before our children.
We are immediately reminded of perhaps the most famous advice given by a father to their child in the entire Islamic tradition. That is the wisdom of Luqman in the chapter of the Qur'an titled Surah Luqman (Q 31). So many Muslims do not pay careful attention to the advice that Luqman gives his son. Luqman first tells his son,
O my dear son! Do not ascribe divine powers to aught beside God: for, behold, such (a false] ascribing of divinity is indeed an awesome wrong! (Q 31:13)
To paraphrase, Luqman says, "Give God God's due." For a person to have a realistic view of their own self, they must be anchored in a moral paradigm, and they must believe it is imperative to give each their due. If they are unable to be fair with God, if they are unable to give God the honor, the respect, and the deference that due to God, the risk is high that their sense of ethical justice is skewed, and they will not even be able to give their own selves their due.
O my dear son! Be constant in prayer (Q 31:17)
Luqman tells his son to persevere in prayer because prayers are the line to our Creator. Luqman tells his son to not be like those hypocrites who only remember God when they are in trouble and when life crashes all around them, like the students in the conduct cases. Once charges are leveled against them, and once it becomes clear that they will be expelled if the charges stick, in case after case, as we investigate the facts of the students’ lives, we see the same thing. After the charges, the students started becoming religious. I would often see students standing in the hallway whispering prayers, imploring, pleading, and begging God. In this context, of course, it was always that they would increase their presence and visitations at churches. Sometimes they would even bring clergy or rabbis to testify on their behalf. I would ask the priest or the rabbi, "When did the student start regularly attending?" Time and again, it was always post-disaster.
Luqman tells his son to give God God's due. There will be many moments in life when, with every fiber of your being, you will wish for God to be standing with you. Whether in college or after college, there will be many moments in life where disaster strikes. But it is your sense of self-respect that should call upon you to not be one of those hypocrites who suddenly remembers, only after a disaster strikes, that they have a God, that God has rights, and that they owe God a great deal. Other than a person's self-respect and insistence on not being a hypocrite, what is it that tells a person that it is unbecoming to remember God only in the most opportunistic and functionalist manner? It is your self-perception. It is your sense of self-respect. It is what dignity means to you. It is, quite simply, the idea of, “I want to be treated fairly so I am going to treat others fairly, and I start with God.”
Luqman gives his son the advice that so many Muslim families love to ignore. First, Luqman tells his son to give God God's due, to persevere in prayers, to train to always be in remembrance of God, and to build a relationship with God because it is God who is the true Parent. Our parents are proxies. Parents play a key role from infancy to young adulthood, but our parents are proxies. The true Parent is God all along.
Next, Luqman tells his son that what should be the defining ethic of his son’s life, his life’s mission, is to diligently work to serve the cause of justice. To work to establish, serve, support, and defend what is right and just. To oppose what is wrong, and to know that when you stand for what is right and against what is wrong, people will target you. People will attack you. They will try to demean you, impeach your motives, make you think less of yourself, mock you, and call you a loser and an impractical dreamer.
and enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong and bear in patience whatever (ill] may befall thee (Q 31:17).
This is precisely why Luqman tells his son to persevere in patience. Just because those who take moral and ethical positions are vilified, attacked, slandered, and demeaned, it does not absolve you of needing to take action. It is your strong sense of self-respect and dignity that will carry you. So, persevere. Weather the hardship. It does not matter because God, the true Parent, tells us that it is not all about this life. So long as our true Parent knows our true motives and true intentions, so long as our true Parent honors and respects us, we must stand up for what is right. We must persevere. Let the detractors detract all they want. Yes, it is costly to stand for what is right and just, but what matters is that our true Parent is content with us.
I think back to all the colleagues and friends I have known through the years. I think of those who lost their way, who ended up convicted of tax fraud or some type of ethical violation, who became wealthy businessmen or wealthy lawyers who hardly remember the suffering of their own people, or who hardly remember what it means to be oppressed and suffering, to be a refugee dispossessed of your property, or to be persecuted, jailed, and tortured for your convictions and beliefs. I look back, and I see that it is because their relationship with their true Parent is broken, and their sense of self-respect and dignity is long lost. They no longer respond to the call of what is good or ethical, and their lives are no longer about fighting what is unjust and ugly. Their parents may have been decent people, but they have long since lost their paths.
I wish every Muslim child would hear me. The transformation that you are going through is the opportunity to wake up to the fact that up to this point, your proxy parents could shelter you. Your proxy parents could hover all around you. They could make sure you are protected, sheltered, and safe. But the role of these proxy parents has become constrained and small, and this is the opportunity to fully wake up to the fact that there is a true Parent, a real Parent, a real Caretaker, the One who gave you the proxy parents in the first place, the One who gave you your health, your wellbeing, your intellect, your everything, and the One who took care of you and sheltered you to this point.
Now, the real adulthood and the fully grown decision is this: do you acknowledge the extended Hand of your real Parent, or do you deny it? Keep in mind that in denying it, you deny yourself your true sense of integrity and justice, so the path of life will become more precarious and risky. The more you grow into adulthood, the less you listen to proxy parents. Without the guiding Hand of your true Parent, then, your own self may become completely unrecognizable to the self that you have now. I pray you will not be among those who look back to their younger selves who were going off to college and think, "What I would give to go back and do it right this time."
Luqman gives his son another piece of advice.
and walk not haughtily on earth : for, behold, God does not love anyone who, out of self conceit, acts in a boastful manner (Q 31:18).
What does it mean to walk on earth “haughtily,” with hubris? It is tread on earth irresponsibly and with arrogance. Luqman tells his son to tread upon the earth like all of God’s creatures. God neither likes nor approves of those who walk upon the earth egocentrically, those who only think of themselves, their wants, their needs, and their desires. If we would only pay attention to what that means.
Our sons and daughters who are going to college now could never imagine that they would one day be among those who blissfully destroy God's earth. They could never imagine being among those who build weapons that kill human beings, or those who contribute to the destruction of Mother Earth, tearing life down, destroying the habitats of so many of God's creatures who have rights just like we do. But they will do it, and they will say, "Well, I have to send my children to college." When our children grow up and learn what their proxy parents did for a living, they will follow in their footsteps. When they follow in these footsteps, they will be divorced from the Divine. To be divorced from the Divine means the deconstruction of the self, of their sense of integrity, of their sense of justice, and of their sense of self-perception. With this compromised self, they will receive and implement demonic orders. They will be engaged in demonic activity, all the while life zips by.
You feel like you are just starting college and then, in the blink of an eye, college is over. You blink again, and you are in your 40s. You blink again, and your 40s are long gone and you think, "How many more years do I have on this earth?" When the moment of death arrives, you do not want to be like those hypocrites who suddenly remember that they have a God and that this God has rights. You do not want to be one of those who spent an entire life ignoring the rights of God, ignoring prayer, and ignoring the rights of other human beings. Those who have contributed a great deal of destruction and evil to this earth. Those who earned money at the expense of the rights of others around the globe. Those who willfully neglected what is happening to children halfway around the globe so that they could earn huge amounts. Only when they realize it is all over do they remember that they have a God.
The hypocrisy is too much to bear, so people adopt an irrational myth: "God will forgive me. God will bless me anyway. God will save my soul." What about all the injustice you have done? What if you have taken far more than your fair share in life? What if you gave yourself your due at the expense of the suffering and hurt of others? People say to themselves, “I do not want to think about it. I do not want to talk about it. So I will attend services in the mosque that tell me what I want to hear, which is that I am fine and that so long as I pray, God will forgive everything." We remain in this cycle.
One final word. To all our Muslim children, wake up. Realize that your parents have failed. Once upon a time, we were your age. We would think about the failures of our parents, and we would think it cannot be the same. We thought these failures would not be repeated. We would see Muslims slaughtered in genocides around the world. We would see Muslim lands stolen and Muslims being displaced. We would see Muslims jailed and tortured around the world by the despots and dictators installed, supported, and maintained by non-Muslim countries, the same countries who would then point the finger at Muslims and say, "You are bad people and you have a bad religion because the only thing you know is despotism”---the despotism they forced upon us. We were once your age. We read the facts of life, and we told ourselves that we would be different. But the truth is that it did not become different with us because not enough of us tried hard enough. Too many of us went to college and our sole preoccupation was to become engineers and doctors, to make plenty of money, and to care for ourselves. Meanwhile, Muslims in Bosnia were slaughtered. Muslims in Albania were obliterated. Muslims in Palestine got annihilated. Muslims in China are being annihilated, and Muslims in India are being annihilated. We can go on and on.
Things are not going to change until we reach the generation that goes to college but still achieves a critical mass of people who expend enough effort to turn things around, and that is not going to happen with our children becoming egocentric doctors and engineers. That is not going to happen with our children making good lives for themselves and their children. It is only going to happen when our children learn to respect themselves enough to say, "I embrace who I am. I do not deny who I am. I am a Muslim. I am non-White," or if they are White, "I am Muslim, I am White, and I am proud of who I am, because for a Muslim, there is only a human being. There is no Arab, no Black, no White. As a Muslim, my dignity is part and parcel of the dignity of my Ummah. If Muslims are being butchered in Bosnia, that is on me. If Muslims are being persecuted in India, that is on me. If Muslims are in concentration camps in China, that is on me. If Muslims are filling prisons in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, that is on me. And because it is on me, part of standing for my dignity and my self-respect is that I fight for their rights."
I pray that a generation will come in which a critical mass of people expends that critical amount of effort to turn things around. A generation that gets beyond selfishness and moral ambivalence and is firmly anchored in a real, true Islam. I do not know if those going to college are going to be the critical generation that turns things around. But even if you are not, you can definitely be a part of the path that leads to that generation. Look in the mirror. Worry about yourself. Be the precedent that opens the possibility of hope in the future. For so long as you do not believe in yourself, so long as you have no hope in yourself and for yourself, and so long as you continue to feel, "What difference can I make?" then there is truly no hope for tomorrow. At the very least, contribute to that hope by believing in yourself.