Sultana's Dream

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Sultana's Dream
April 2012


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The Golden Calf of Motherhood

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 woman.

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 Divine narration.

As a 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.

Susan Carland