October 21, 2013

Muslim Mothers in Chiapas

Nahela Morales is a Mexican mother of one currently living in New Jersey, USA. She serves as the National Hispanic Outreach Coordinator for Why Islam, a non-profit dawah organization.

Recently, she and a team of volunteers traveled to Mexico to give dawah and provide aid for impoverished families. It was during this trip that she visited the city of San Cristobal de Las Casas in the State of Chiapas, home to a growing number of indigenous converts to Islam. This is her story of the Muslim mothers living there.

Where exactly is Chiapas and what kind of place is it?
Chiapas is in the south of Mexico, bordering Guatemala, Central America, Vera Cruz, Mexico, and Tabasco, Mexico. It’s a very humid, tropical area with lots of natural vegetation; it’s a rainforest.
Culturally, it’s a very rich place with lots of tourism, especially in San Cristobal de Las Casas. The people who live there are predominantly indigenous made up of Mayans and non-Mayans.

How did Islam originally reach Chiapas?
This is kind of a tricky question to answer because unfortunately Islam didn’t come in a very truthful way. It was brought by a group of Spaniards who adhered to a specific sect of Islam and held onto practices that were not actually part of the religion. When they migrated to the area, they built industry and created jobs for the indigenous people who lived there. But the jobs were not fair. They forced the people to work from Fajr time until 12 midnight for a pay of only about $10 per week.

Alhamdulilah, the indigenous people accepted Islam but ran into disagreements and were outcast by the Spaniards when they tried to subject them to practices that were not from the religion, such as never being able to speak to their family members. 

This caused a lot of fighting and separation between the people and basically split everyone into two groups: those who tried to follow Qur’an and Sunnah and those who did not. Some who felt that these ways could not be from Islam traveled to Mexico City, about a 12 hour bus ride from Chiapas, searching for other Muslims who could teach them the correct practices of the religion and they brought those teachings back with them to Chiapas.

How many Muslim converts are living in Chiapas now and what is their community like?
Currently, there’s an estimated 300 converts living in Chiapas, but the number is still growing. Chiapas actually has the largest number of Muslim converts living in one location in the whole of Mexico. Pretty much all of those who converted are related to one another through the same two families and speak Tzotzil, the native dialect of the people.

The masjid is called Masjid Al-Kauthur and is located pretty much in the middle of the rainforest. It’s very small, maybe the size of an office conference room, and is made of mud cement. Despite the size, the masjid still offers daily congregational salat five times a day and the Jummah prayer on Fridays. It’s open for the both men and women.The Khutbas are given by one of two of the oldest Muslims in Chiapas who happen to be brothers. One of them studied in Spain and has been Muslim for 14 years and the other one has been Muslim for 18 years.

In terms of resources, the community is very poor. The work that’s available is very limited and the pay is inconsistent. You have agricultural workers, carpenters, construction workers, and taxi drivers, but none of them have a regular income. If it rains, the construction worker can’t work. If no one in the community needs something fixed, the carpenter can’t work. If the taxi driver is low on money, he can’t buy gas to run his cab. When a holiday comes and people only have four chickens to slaughter, that’s what they slaughter. During Ramadan, they fast all day and then break their fast with a piece of tortilla, some salt, and call it a day. 

But the contentment is unexplainable. There, it’s really just them and Allah, and that’s it. To break fast with a piece of tortilla and salt, that shattered me.

They are all very united mashaAllah and help one another out. The whole community comes together to spread funds amongst everyone. If one family manages to grow a crop of tomatoes, they’ll split their tomatoes with the other families so everyone can eat tomato, mashaAllah. They’re really a living display of what it means to be one ummah.

Tell me about the Muslim mothers in Chiapas.
Most of the families live in the outskirts of San Cristobal, about a 15-20 minute drive away from the main part of the city. But it’s known by all that they’re Muslims. Even when people don’t know to call them “Muslim”, they call them the “different people who live in that town”. They have told me that for the most part they don’t feel any different because they speak the local dialect. But those who are from different tribes and speak Spanish have more difficulty mingling in and can feel rejected at times. But in general, the non-Muslims in the area are used to seeing the Muslims around so they don’t treat them as strangers or foreigners.

MashaAllah, one of the things that struck me the most about these women was their attire. It really impressed me how they adapted to a new way of life in Islam but still hold on to their cultural identity and dress, usually a long wool skirt tied with a string belt, a colorful blouse, a small sweater, and then the hijab. So they’re identified by others as being Muslim because of their hijab,  but the rest of their attire makes it known that they are part of the indigenous community.

99% of the Muslim women in Chiapas are stay-at-home moms and about 99% of them all breastfeed their babies mashaAllah. Most of the women have at least 3 children. We saw some families with as many as 6 or 7 children.

The houses are very poor. The walls are made of lumber that’s tied together, kind of like when you tie Popsicle sticks together to make a wall for a toy house. Some of the women have to hang plastic on the inside to help keep the water out. The whole house is just one room that’s divided into areas by curtains. The beds are just mats laid on the floor. The bathroom is an outhouse with no drainage; you just poor water in before you go. The kitchen is run on a gas tank and when that gas runs out, the women have to cook in someone else’s house. Most of the homes don’t have refrigerators. But the families don’t have a lot of food in the first place so those who do have fridges just share their space with the ones who don’t. And look at us! We have fridges full of food and still open the door ten times before deciding that we have nothing at all, subhanAllah.

The women have to walk to the river to wash their laundry, bring it back wet, and then hang it outside to dry. A couple of the women whose husbands manage to bring home a little bit of money use the funds to sew and embroider items to sell such as mats or blouses. Because of lack of resources, the women almost always cook together.  One sister only has beans, another only has rice, so they come together so all the families can have a little bit of everything.

But even in such conditions, the women are very content and satisfied with everything that Allah, subhana wa ta ala, has given them. The whole time that I was there, I never heard one complaint from a single one of them about their situation. They’re always smiling and they’re always together. They’re very united. When the men are out, they’re helping each other with the children, or cooking together, or working together to sell things. They have that true peace that comes with accepting the Qadr of Allah and an amazing sisterhood mashaAllah.

As a mother and Mexican convert to Islam yourself, what sort of connection did you build with the mothers in Chiapas?
When we got to Masjid Al-Kauthur and I saw these sisters, the first thing I did was start crying. And then they started crying. It was as if our sisterhood in Islam just immediately brought us together and made us so happy to see eachother. The hugs were long and the tears just kept flowing. It was an amazing feeling that I’ve never felt, and with people who I had never met in my life. The bond of sisterhood in Islam that brings us together is very powerful. It’s truly a connection beyond words.

Take away the environment and the lack of resources and I found that these mothers had many similarities with Muslims mothers around the world, regardless of where in the world you live.

The way they nourished their children and the way I nourished my own child were similar. The way they taught their children and encouraged their children to pray, especially the older ones, I felt was similar too. I mean, there were so many similarities. And I think it’s because no matter the situation we are in, as mothers we always want the best for our children and we care for them. We’re always the nurturers, the caregivers, and the protectors of our children.

What do you think is the greatest Islamic lesson we can learn from the Muslim moms in Chiapas?
The biggest lesson is to put Islam as a priority. Even with their lack of resources, Islam is the priority for these mothers. And it shows that you don’t need money, or a fancy house to pass on the single greatest thing that Allah has given us, the Qur'an. Even though they had little knowledge, they made sure to pass on whatever they knew of the religion to their children. As soon as they learned something, they passed it on mashaAllah.

We put so many obstacles on ourselves that we forget our priority should always be to insert the values of the Quran and Islam into our families. These women in Chiapas don’t have Friday night classes with guest speakers, or Al-Maghrib institute, or online halaqahs, but they are there learning their religion and passing it on while so many of us here (in the US) don’t.

Even in terms of manners and character. I will never forget little Omar, who was only about 5 or 6 years old, but he was the most helpful little boy I ever saw. He would run back and forth to help us and thank us. The lack of resources and education has not stopped them from teaching their families manners.

No matter where in the world we are, or what our situation is, Islam is one and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is one. We should be teaching our families these two things no matter what. Don’t take it for granted.

Lack of time or money shouldn’t be an excuse for us to not teach our children the lessons they need to learn. And I say this as a full-time working mom.  

Is there anything else you would like to add?
At one point when we were all cooking together, some questions came up about our lifestyle. After we answered them, we asked the women if they would ever want come to America. They said no. And I didn’t expect that. It surprised me because they were so full of questions and happy with all of the answers we gave them, but they had no desire whatsoever to take part in it. The lesson I brought home from this is that when Allah, subhana wa ta ala, chooses things for us and we accept what He’s given us, He puts that satisfaction in our hearts.

In America, we have everything and we always want more. But in Chiapas, they don’t have and they’re content, subhanAllah. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of my family in Chiapas and how accepting they are of Allah’s Qadr.

Sometimes we’re complaining over the most insignificant things when we’re really rich. We’re filthy rich.  And not because we have a roof over our heads, but because we have Islam. Sometimes we focus so much on our actual hardships that we forget about Islam. But these women in Chiapas aren’t like that. They don’t even know if they’re going to have food to last them the day but they’re okay with it. It’s amazing subhanAllah.


To learn more about the Muslims living in Chiapas, Mexico, or to help out with some of the ongoing projects there, contact Nahela Morales directly at nahela@whyislam.org

October 7, 2013

Abu Layth on Being a Father

Abu Layth is an American father of two boys, currently residing in NJ, USA. He is the owner of Qays Design, a graphic design and printing firm committed to helping small businesses grow. You can visit his company’s website at https://www.myqays.com/.

Please share with us your experience being a Muslim father.
Just the thought of being a father has such as weight on it. Not weight that weighs you down but a weight of responsibility that you have to carry and that you’re not really prepared for. How could I prepare myself to be a father? It’s a whole different experience.

I’ve only been a father for a few years so the experience is still new. And being a father to children who are so close together is a blessing but it’s also a challenge. Sometimes I feel like I don’t even have children; it’s more like they’re my little brothers. At the same time, I think about how Allah tells us to be the best we can be in all that we do and I think about how the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was the best to his family. I know that I have to be the best that I can be to please Allah.

When it was just me, whether I chose to please Allah or not only affected me. But now that I have children, my responsibility to please Allah is greater. Because now it’s a matter of having to be the best I can be so that these little people who are following me can follow me in good character and good actions to please Allah. Now when I do something wrong, not only do I not please Allah and let myself down, but I also let down those who are depending on me. So it’s a struggle, and it’s not easy.

To be honest, it’s a difficulty. But Alhamdulilah it’s a difficulty that benefits because it forces me to better myself, maybe even faster than I would have if I wasn’t a father. I would never want my children to grow up the way that I did or go through the things that I went through, so I’m forced to be better so that they can follow me in good and not get lost to something worse, may Allah protect them. My children are my motivation in that way. And Alhamdulilah Islam gives us reason and purpose behind everything so that helps.

The one thing that I would like is to have more time with my children and not have to focus so much on working just to provide for them. We’re not going to get back these years and these seconds that we have with them now so I want to make sure that I cherish these moments.

Some might think they have plenty of time because their kids are still young. They think their children will grow and go to highschool and then to college and become professionals and live until they’re 65 or more. But as Muslims, we know that we’re not promised tomorrow. SubhanAllah there are people who lost their children at age 2, or 3, or 5, or even younger. The time we have now is not guaranteed in the future for any of us, so how can we not try to spend all the time we can with our children? But it’s hard because I still have to balance work and self-improvement in the deen and other things as well.

What do you feel is the responsibility of a Muslim father towards his family, especially with regards to his children’s upbringing?
I feel that my responsibility towards my family in general is that I fulfill their rights and uphold the responsibilities that Allah gave me as a husband and father. But I consider this to be the bare minimum. On top of that, I also feel the responsibility to strive to develop myself and become a better Muslim, to strengthen my relationship with Allah, subhana wa ta ala, so that 1) Allah blesses me and my family as a whole and 2) so that I can set a good example for my family in this effort.

Regarding the children’s upbringing, I think it’s my responsibility is to make sure that they understand and follow the Quran and the Sunnah and to give them the necessary tools so that they can grow up loving Islam on their own. Not love it because they’re forced to or because their friends do, but love it because they grew up learning about it and practicing it and built a love for it based on the sunnah.

I want them to be capable of standing firm upon the religion, especially if they are to grow up in the West where they have to face many things that may oppose Islam. I want to make sure they have the right tools for both the deen and dunya so they can be successful despite what they may face.

In what ways do you try to be present and involved with your children?
Right now, because my children are young, I just try to help and back up my wife with whatever she’s already doing with them. So if she’s teaching them Qur’an, I try to read with them too. If the kids are playing, I try to play with them. But I feel like as they get older and are able to comprehend more I want to be more involved with regards to their education and development as opposed to just play.

I also try to have them involved in what I do, like taking them to the masjid when we attend classes or jummah, or taking them to work with me occasionally. It’s not just so we can spend time together but it’s also so they can feel like they’re involved in our lives.

What has been your biggest challenge in being a Muslim father?
Practicing what I preach by being a good example to them within Islam. 

Sometimes I feel like a hypocrite when I try to instill certain morals and teachings but yet I fall short in them. It’s scary knowing that I’m going to be responsible for what I’m saying and what I’m doing. It’s the biggest challenge.

Also as a father in general, Muslim or not, making sure that I balance my time and am giving my family their rights is challenging. Another challenge is remembering to be grateful and appreciative to Allah for giving us children.

What has been your biggest joy in being a Muslim father?
My biggest joy is that I’m a father period. That Allah blessed me and has allowed me to be a father to healthy, beautiful children and to spend time with them is a joy. Just being able to see them and experience their personalities and habits, everything that they do you just try to soak it in and it’s nice to be able to do that, especially knowing that not everyone is allowed that.

How do you think Muslim fathers can help counter some of the negative and non-Islamic influences that their children are faced with growing up in today’s society?
I think the main thing for the parents, both the mother and father, is to learn about the deen, to gain knowledge of the Quran and Sunnah. Doing this would allow us to act accordingly and teach our children accordingly as their growing up in the house. The house is the first place they learn. Having that knowledge, inshaAllah, can allow us to give them the tools they need so when they have to face the world outside they’re able to handle themselves well.

Also, I think parents should understand the society and community the kids are involved in. Don’t just let the kids to go off without being involved in their activities, whether it be school, sports, friends, whatever. Never stop being part of their development. And inshaAllah by us being more involved in the community, we can have a good influence on others as well.

In what ways do you feel that Muslim fathers could come together to help and support one another?
I think being able to just come together for the sake of brotherhood, strengthening our bond for the sake of Allah, reminding and teaching one another is enough. We can all learn by surrounding ourselves with good brothers. Every family is different so the techniques we will use with our families will differ but if we’re around a good brother who shows us something good, we can take that thing and try to apply it at home. 

Just having the kind of community where we’re able to hang out and share things in common, I think would cover everything in terms of support.

How has being a Muslim father affected your relationship with Allah?
The main thing, even though I have a lot to learn and work on, is that this responsibility has made me more aware of my accountability to Allah. I just think more about Him, and try to be more conscious of the fact that He is in control of our affairs, and turn to Him.

What advice do you have for Muslim men considering becoming fathers?
To be patient and to accept the Qadr of Allah so that until that time arrives, you accept what Allah gives you and understand that He only gives you what you can handle. Also, prepare as much as possible deen-wise so that you can be good guides for your children inshaAllah. If children are given, appreciate them because they are a gift from Allah.