The Golden Calf of
There probably isn’t a Muslim alive that
hasn’t heard the hadith, ‘paradise
lies at your mother’s feet.’
Muslims are quite proud of this, as well as many other prophetic traditions and
Qur'anic verses that champion motherhood. Indeed, it seems to be unquestioned
that being a mother is a blessed and strongly endorsed position for a Muslim
As a mother and a Muslim, I am glad for
this. I adore being a mother. My love for my children is best summed up by a
quote from the beautiful film ‘Monsoon Wedding’, when Lalit, the patriarch of
the family, gazes upon his sleeping daughter and niece and says, ‘Sometimes
when I look at them I feel love which I almost cannot bear.’ I have willingly
given my bayah (pledge of allegiance) to the Tariqa of Motherhood. This monastery’s time-tested techniques –
sleep deprivation, monotonous tasks, loneliness, complete service – are much
like any Sufi path and deliver similar results: selflessness focus, humility,
weakness, commitment and compassion. My spiritual growth has been sharpened in
a way and at a speed it never would have otherwise, and I know I see God, the
universe, humanity and myself in a far deeper, faith-centred technicolour than
I ever did previously.
However, I don’t believe that being a
mother is the epitome of being a Muslim woman. I don’t believe it’s my, or any
other woman’s, highest calling per se. And I don’t believe there is inherently
any greater spiritual reward or development in motherhood for Muslim women than
any other role. I understand this may sound akin to blasphemy to some Muslims
who view motherhood as the primary goal for Muslim women, and anyone who thinks
otherwise has been influenced by the Great Satan: Western Feminism. And this is
part of the problem.
The primary role for any Muslim woman, and
indeed Muslim man, is to be a servant of Allah. There is no greater role or
honour than that. Yes, being a mother may be part of that for many women, but
it is by no means the only legitimate expression of Muslim womanhood. If we
look at our religious history, we see great women who were mothers (Khadija,
Fatima, Maryam to name just a few), but we also see great women who were never
mothers (Aisha, Rabia al-Adawiya). And
we simply aren’t told whether or not the Queen of Sheba, Bilqis, is a
mother. The Qur’an has her as a great
and wise leader and a devout servant of God, worthy of emulation by countless
subsequent generations. Whether she was a mother or not was not relevant to the
community, we are often uneasy about Muslim women who, through choice or
circumstance, never become mothers. It
is seen as unnatural, and they are viewed somehow ‘less than’ their mothering
sisters. I cannot help but wonder at the gendered implications of this, especially
when we know that great male scholars of Islam, such as Imam an Nawawi and Ibn
Taymiyah, and prophets such as Yahya and ‘Isa never married nor had children.
None of them are seen as lesser men or lesser Muslims. In fact, their servitude
and contributions to our religious tradition are undeniable.
Just as the Children of Israel turned their
gold jewellery into a calf and began worshipping it in place of the God who had
saved them from Pharaoh, Muslims need to be careful not to make a golden calf
of the role of motherhood, a mere idol at the foot of the mountain where true
Divine communion occurs. We must be especially careful not to do so under the
flimsy guise of a religious mandate about ‘women's proper place’. Doing so is a
negation of our religious tradition, unfair to women, and stifling to society.
At the core of being a Muslim is loving
Allah and serving Allah. There are many roads that lead to the top of that
mountain, and motherhood is but only one. If that is the best way a woman feels
she can love and serve God, by thoughtfully and compassionately raising the
next generation, then she should do so. But likewise, if a woman feels the best
way for her to love and serve Allah is through scholarship, medicine,
humanitarian work or politics, then she should be encouraged on that path also.
The path is not more important than the
destination. Before we are mothers (or any of the other roles we invest in), we
are what is referred to by Allah many times in the Qur’an as ‘believing women’.
And that is enough.