Twenty years ago, as we prepared to commence our national American Families of Faith research project in early 2001, we could not have imagined what September 11 of that year would bring. One of us (Dave), was bound for Massachusetts to interview exemplary religious families there. The other (Loren) was interviewing families around the University of Delaware, positioned midpoint between the twin towers of New York City and the Pentagon in D.C., all of which were attacked on 9/11.
On that day, an extremist band corrupted and literally hijacked a sacred belief and practice of Islam, jihad (a war on the evil within), to mean a war of terror on a nation. By contrast—even in the immediate aftermath of atrocity, terrorism, and destruction—chapels, synagogues, and mosques were filled with individuals and families who were mourning, grieving, reeling—and seeking comfort from their shared God of Abraham. It was a living 21st-century demonstration that the power of religion may be channeled into horrifying … or honorable manifestations.
A few years before 9-11, a leading religion researcher, the late David Larson referred to religion as “the anti-tenure topic”—the fast track out of a respectable academic job. Despite that danger, we began our work in this area. Overnight, however, fire began to rage and hate crimes against Muslims subsequently increased 1600% from pre-9/11 levels. Rarely, had modern America been further from “Peace, Love, and Understanding.” In the midst of polemics and emotion, careful and moderate scholarship was desperately needed to facilitate authentic tolerance and respect across religious bodies.
The late Krister Stendahl, dean of the Harvard Divinity School, went so far as to recommend that our awareness of the sacred beliefs of others might best be enhanced by reserving a little “holy envy” for the noblest and most admirable elements of religions other than our own. It is in this spirit that we began the Strong Muslim Families branch of our American Families of Faith research project—a 20-year national effort to interview nearly 300 racially, regionally, and religiously diverse families in healthy long-term marriages. About 25 of these families are Muslim, including both Sunni and Shia. These families include races and ethnicities representing numerous nations of origin (e.g., African/African American, Arab/Arab American [from Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine], European American, East Indian, and Iranian).
The purpose of this article is to briefly explore how religious beliefs and practices influence family relationships among highly religious Muslims. Our intent is to share their own reports, in their own voices. Our aim is to not only provide information but to foster authentic understanding and respect.
One recurring theme among the Muslim participants was the importance of actively living what they believed and taught. Specifically, many Muslims mentioned just how important it was to “walk the walk” in various ways, from their relationships, to teaching their children, to interacting with kindness and respect towards neighbors and strangers. Abaan, (all names are pseudonyms) a Muslim husband and father, said:
I think faith also helps in terms of how I deal with other people. … You think of them as servants of God … as being human. So you respect them for being … human … and then you forgive them if they do things that you don’t think they should be doing because you value them as human beings and [you] pray for them too.
Another participant said:
As Muslims, religion is not separate from the way you live your life. Everything you do in your life should be ‘religious.’ The way you behave with people is part of your religion. [Even] the way you drive your car is part of your religion.
Raashid, when asked if he felt God has directly influenced his family, said,
[I]f we get a challenge today, we are very confident that God is working behind it. … [We] belie[ve] that trials have purpose and that Allah works through trials to create something beautiful [and that belief has] helped this family express gratitude for hard experiences.
Additionally, many shared the belief that Allah was involved in their daily struggles and would provide help and support. Faizah, a mother and wife, explained, “My belief makes it easier to live during the time of obstacles or troubles. … I feel God is beside me and is encouraging me and supporting me.”
Many of the couples we interviewed expressed that their religion gave them a shared vision and purpose that helped unite them in their marriage. When asked if Islam influenced his relationship with his spouse, Hafid said,
We have [a] common vision. I think that vision [has] helped us a lot. … we know … what we want to do, [and Islam] is something we share … and we committed to it and both of us were ready to [do] whatever it takes. So the light [is] … clear to us.
Another participant said,
Sometimes [Allah] brings certain situations where the family is tested and many times we find the only solution is through faith. … [E]ven if something happens which is unpleasant, whether it’s a loss, whether it’s a sickness, whether it’s a death, the faith that we have, … [our] common faith strengthens us through those tests.
In addition to discussing marital unity, many couples also addressed ways that Islam helped them prevent and/or overcome marital conflict. One such practice was avoiding unnecessary across-gender interactions. Halimah, a wife, said, “In our religion, we don’t encourage men and women mixing too much without having [the] wife in between them. … This type of [expectation] reduces a lot of marriage conflicts.” Another participant noted, “Differences are always there and disagreements are unavoidable.” Accordingly, several couples explained how religious practices and Sharia (Islamic law) regarding divorce can help couples try to work through moderate to serious conflicts before a final decision to end the relationship. Mahdi, a husband, explained,
In Islam, [if a] … couple want to get divorced … they have to pass through three stages. First, they have to talk between themselves, and to understand what the problem [is]. … [Then], if they really pass this stage, [and get to] where they cannot talk [between] themselves, they have to invoke family members to come and gather both of them and try to solve the problem. If that doesn’t work, then they call … a person known in society … and [continue] trying to solve it. Then, if not, a divorce will be [the] solution.
One theme expressed in the interviews was that the belief that their marriage was a gift from Allah helped couples let go of problems and forgive. Yuusif, a husband, expressed,
How we treat each other in the marriage is … witnessed by Allah. … [When] you get into arguments or you have a fight, you must always remember the favor that Allah has given you in your spouse, and [the] blessing [they are]. Therefore, you try to forgive … more. And also, if in a weak moment you have wronged the[m] … by a harsh word … you ask their forgiveness, and you ask Allah’s forgiveness over it.
A husband and father named Da’wud explained, “Each time you have some problem, God has given some guidelines for you to submit, to ignore little things, and to look at … [the] big picture.” Indeed, forgiveness was sometimes talked about as a form of devotion; as a way to honor Allah. One spouse connected forgiveness closely with “the Creator,” as follows:
When there is a conflict … it’s always helpful to remember to … bring yourself down and let [it] blow over. You can remind yourself … I’m doing it for the sake of the Creator. And, if it means lowering yourself, we lower ourselves for the sake of the Creator. Even if … you are convinced that you are right, let it pass. Things like that help.
One value that was repeatedly emphasized by Muslim parents was the importance they placed on teaching their children how to live the teachings of Islam by being an authentic example as a parent. One father, Ayyub, when asked what it meant to be a good father said that “teach[ing] by example, [is] the most important thing. You cannot expect your child to do something that is opposite of what you do … if they see you do certain things, they will do them.” A mother named Angie, an adult convert to Islam, similarly expressed her view that:
In terms of religion, it doesn’t matter how much the father talks to the children, the children will learn from what the father does. … If my children see my husband go to the mosque every night for prayer [which he does], he is setting an example. I don’t have to “teach” it. They are seeing it.
One father said, “I believe that to have a good influence on my child, I have to spend time with him and spending quality time with him, that makes them love you and if they love you, they will listen to you.” As with marriage, however, conflicts and problems inevitably arose, in parent-child relationships. Noor spoke of her role as a mother, and of her responsibility for helping her children with their problems:
One of the most important things for me to do is to nurture my children. To make sure that any problems that they have, I have to help resolve. I’m the one; I’m the one that bonds with the children.
Maryam, a 17-year-old daughter, spoke of how roles and responsibilities fostered respect among family members. She said, “In Islam, there [are] rights and duties upon the parents to the child—and [upon] the child to the parents. And you know, my right and duties, [are that] I have to respect my parents.” Respect was also given to the children, as parents understood their role was to help guide the family with the counsel of all the family. Yuusif, a husband and father, explained how these roles promoted both purpose and direction in conflict avoidance and resolution:
[Shura is] mutual consultation for which there are injunctions in the Qur’an and in the Prophets’ teachings that the husband, or the father, is not a dictator. The decisions in the family … should be made with consultation, including your children.
Yuusif later offered more detail of the process of Shura: “Everybody feels that they are a partner in it. And they have a chance to voice the positives and negatives. . . . [T]hat also helps avoid a lot of conflict because people don’t feel that [they] have [a] voice.”
A mother named Aisha said of parent-child relations, “You’re allowed to speak, but just remember who you’re speaking to and how you do it. [I]t’s the same thing I’ve brought … to my children because we believe in respect.” Maryam, Aisha’s daughter, added that first “there’s that mutual thing that I respect them” and second “they are very merciful upon me, and they guide me,” and because of this two-way law, “I have a peaceful relationship with them. And there’s a lot of understanding.”
The mutual respect referenced here should not be overstated as egalitarian nor as equality. A hierarchy exists within Shura, with the husband as “head,” the wife with a heavily expressive function, and the children in deference to both parents. Even so, many of the Muslim parents were reportedly highly responsive to their children and discussed the value of taking time to understand their children and their needs, both in general and during times of conflict.
Some parents discussed how understanding their children and developing a close relationship with them also fosters understanding and respect from children for their parents. This respect was reportedly cultivated in both directions as parents also created an environment where their children’s opinions were respected. One mother said of her children:
We talk a lot. We have very in-depth conversations because … they’re verbal. They have their opinions and we’ve always told them, ‘You can always say what you need to say, but just say it with the right tone.’ So they’re allowed to express themselves, even if they disagree with us. We don’t have a problem with that.
For many of the families we interviewed (typically in their homes), what we witnessed was admirable and even inspired some holy envy. Many of our observations and interviews contrasted with common conceptions (often misconceptions) of Islam and Muslims. As opposed to unchallenged patriarchal superiority, with little spousal or familial participation in family issues, our data (from mothers, fathers, and children) explained that, per Shura, that fathers are expected, based on teachings of the Qur’an and Sharia, to consult with family members. Women talked about discussion in their marriages and children discussed how their opinions were often heard as they often conferred with parents on family issues.
Common media representations of the Islamic faith and its adherents make it too easy to misattribute unrepresentative and extremist behaviors, attitudes, and ideologies to all Muslim adherents. As we seek a greater understanding of ourselves and others, it is important to include that which they hold most sacred. According to the Muslim philosopher Baba Dioum, “[W]ith deep understanding comes love and authentic respect.”
We are grateful for the 25 families who offered their time, their homes, their stories, and their sacred ground to us to help us understand.
Our experience was that many of the families who shared their homes and stories with us were of a quality of character that any neighborhood or nation might welcome. Their relationships seemed structured but strong; hierarchical but warm.
We close by focusing on an aspect of Islam that elicits our holy envy, namely the combination of alms-giving (zakat) and fasting (sawm). These pillars of Islam reach their shared apex during the devotion, unity, and celebration that surround the month-long fast of Ramadan. Ramadan elicited a joy, even an ebullience, from Muslims of various ages. We witnessed Ramadan first-hand as invited guests, as well as via participants’ descriptions.
The meaning and excitement surrounding this faith-based sacrifice and celebration were truly unique in scope. The discipline of the month-long fast is supplemented by zakat—an annual charitable offering of 2.5% of one’s wealth (net worth) as an effort designed to relieve the suffering of the poor whose involuntary fast is constant. Ramadan and zakat are practices without precise parallel among the faiths we have studied.
Indeed, if this level of generosity were practiced by all Muslims and by all privileged members of the human family, world hunger would be eradicated in short order. Indeed, the lived principle of zakat stimulates not only a sense of deep respect and holy envy but also hope for a better world.
About the Authors: While we ourselves are active (devoted) members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in our work in the American Families of Faith project, we seek to highlight the strengths of our friends of various faiths. We have developed a sense of deep respect and even holy envy for these families and their faiths. Additionally, the book chapters from which these articles are adapted included two coauthors who are devoted members of those faiths.
If you like listening to audiobooks and podcasts, we have recorded a set of conversations about the families we interviewed that includes additional quotes from mothers, fathers, and youth, more of our experiences in attending their services, as well as personal experiences with friends of other faiths. These podcasts are available at: