An Exploration of Sacred Parenting and Education

In Loving Memory by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

In Education, parenting, Relationships on October 19, 2012 at 5:15 pm

Reflecting on who to write about as a source of inspiration in my life, I thought about  how tarbeyah  as ‘nurturing’ and breadth of education may embrace many dimensions: upbringing by parents and within the wider family, schooling, institutional religious education, the transmission of community and civilisational values, role models of all kinds, including historical exemplars, and  the guidance, inspiration and blessing provided by spiritual teachers.

Out of so many sources of inspiration, how to choose one in particular? Well, I’ll go for my late grandmother because she exemplifies for me the precious connection with previous generations which seems to be at some risk in our culture. Indeed, various reports (including the 2007 UNICEF report on child well-being in developed countries) identified the collapse of inter-generational family ties as one of the main reasons for personal and social problems amongst young people in Britain today. The same problem was highlighted in a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in the same year, a report which attributed to it the deteriorating behaviour of British teenagers. At the same time, figures released by the British government have revealed that  the average parent spends twice as long dealing with emails as playing with his/her children, and that British adolescents spent longer in the company of other teens – and less time with adults and parents – than most other young people around the world. Only 64 per cent eat with their parents in Britain compared to 89 per cent in France and 93 per cent in Italy, and in the five years since those figures were published, one might assume that even fewer eat with their parents today.

Robert Bly, the American poet, has written a probing analysis of the troubled soul of western society. His prophetic book The Sibling Society, published in 1996, revealed to us a culture where adults remain children and where children have no desire to be adults, where we tolerate no one above us and have no concern for anyone below us. Disenchantment with all forms of hierarchy (partly justified by the abuse of power which hierarchical structures can engender) has led to a levelling which has destroyed any willingness to look up or down. But without that ‘vertical gaze’, as Bly calls it, we have no longing for the good, no deep understanding of evil. What we are left with is a spiritual Flatland in which the talk show replaces family, the internet replaces art, the ‘celeb’ replaces the positive role model, and the shopping centre replaces the community.

So I want to extend my gaze vertically to my grandmother, who played a major role in nurturing me as a child, and whom I sat with at her bedside when she made her final journey at the age of 99. Soon after she had departed, I saw her in a dream. She was smiling, and I knew with absolute certainty that all was well with her.

Here are two of the choice sayings of my grandmother which I remember to this day, and have no hesitation in repeating to my own grandchildren. I even prefix these gems in the same way as I heard them, with the ringing imperative: “Mark my words!”

Moderation in all things

Don’t make an exhibition of yourself

Very Victorian, you might say (and understandably so as my granny was born in 1896)  and soooo British. If you have been watching Ian Hislop’s TV series on the ‘stiff upper lip’, you will see what I mean. Moderation, reserve, modesty, understatement, stoicism, unflappability –  are these not some of the classic elements of Britishness? (I’ll avoid the thorny issue as to whether they are actually English rather than British, as that will open a can of worms).

But what strikes me now about my granny’s principles is how thoroughly Islamic they are.

One might immediately point to the convergence of  British stoicism with the Islamic virtue of patient endurance (sabr) and equanimity in good and bad times, but the semantic connection between moderation and modesty (not making an exhibition of yourself) is particularly noteworthy. Moderation converges with the Qur’anic vision of Muslims as a “community of the middle way” and as for modesty, the Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said: “Every religion has a distinctive feature and the distinctive feature of Islam is modesty”. He is also reported to have said:  “True modesty is the source of all virtues”. The intimate connection between moderation and modesty is also embedded in the derivation of both words from the same root (Latin modes) in the English language. The underlying sense is to ‘keep within due measure’.

I don’t know if we would want to go so far as to agree with the Duchess of Devonshire who has recently lamented the decline of the British stiff upper lip, claiming that we now have, in her words, a “sloppy, sentimental culture of self-pity and self-esteem”, but we might still want to admire the archetypal British unflappability shown at the Battle of Waterloo when in the heat of battle the Duke of Uxbridge turned to the Duke of Wellington and said:”By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!” to which Wellington impassively replied, “By God, sir, so you have.”

Moderation, however, should not be equated with half-heartedness, expediency or mediocrity. It is right to challenge the false idea that to be a ‘moderate’ Muslim, a ‘good’, conforming Muslim, one should become invisible and silent in the public square. We have in Britain an honourable tradition of reforming liberalism, social activism and peaceful, intelligent, dissent that has historically guided our national evolution towards a free, just and tolerant society, and all citizens can legitimately engage in that without fear of being labelled as ‘extremist’.

One of the gifts of my granny’s ringing utterances is that they connect up different elements in my multiple identity as a British Muslim. My identity as a Muslim is not in conflict with my identity as a human being, and some of my cherished human values may find expression in  another part of my identity which I see as British (or indeed, English or Welsh), not to mention my granny’s French Huguenot ancestors who fled religious persecution in France and came to Britain in the 16th century.  All these multiple layers of identity can vie with one another and support each other, and each one can help us to see what needs to be reclaimed and revived, for all of us are confronted in these times with an urgent need to renew and revive the best in our respective traditions.

Respecting the wisdom of our ancestors is part of being deeply rooted in primordial wisdom. The Qur’an tells us that the good word is like a tree which is deeply rooted. Our deepest roots lie in the Truth of Divine Revelation, which is continually verified by our connection to our own fitra, our essential nature, but guidance from our forebears is an integral part of establishing that connection. True, the Qur’an warns us that the inherited habits of thought of the ‘forebears of old’ should not be followed mechanically and condemns blind imitation (taqlid), defined by Muhammad Asad as the “unthinking acceptance of religious doctrines or assertions which are not unequivocally supported by divine revelation, the explicit teachings of a Prophet, or the evidence of unprejudiced reason”. But in the case of my granny’s wisdom, it conforms absolutely to all those criteria. May Allah bless her.


  1. Beautiful. As always, raising some very important questions and issues. I think the idea of finding coherence in multiple identities, which more often then not, are portrayed as incompatible or mutually exclusive by the media, is an important one that Muslims living in the West have had to re-evaluate, especially after 9/11. Is being British compatible with being Muslim? This naturally leads to questions about culture, and if being Muslim is a cultural phenomenon which essentially is incompatible with being British? The Pakistani cricketer, Imran Khan, in his book ‘Pakistan’, wrote about how Gai Eaton or (Hassan Abdul Hakeem) exemplified being both British and Muslim without feeling any contradiction between the two. What the Prophet Muhammed pbuh brought was essentially Abrahamic and we are reminded that each person is born upon Fitra.

    I do have a question in reference to Bly: Why is there such tension between the parent and child, more specifically, between father and son. In a talk, on Sibling Society, Bly spoke about how the people of his generation need to turn 180 degrees and connect with their grandchild or children of that generation because a lot of work needs to be done. But then, he too had a lot of tension with his own father and didn’t write poetry about his father until much later in life because it was too painful. He also mentioned that he saw examples today of young fathers carrying and playing with their children, doing a marvelous job – something to be proud of. Yet in his men’s movement he has clearly struck a note with many men and their relationship with their fathers. Is this phenomenon a result of the industrial age? Somebody once said ‘If you think you’re enlightened go and spend a weekend with your parents’. Presumable when the Qur’an mentions treating your parents kindly with ihsan, it isnt assumed one is always on good terms with them?

    “And your Sustainer has decreed that you will serve none but Him, and that you be good (Ihsan) towards parents. Whether one or both of them attain old age in your life,say not to them (even) `fie’ nor rebuke them but address them with terms of honor.” (17:23)”

    Maybe, if done with the right intention and spirit, is a spiritual path in it own right.

    May God bless your grandmother Jeremy.

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