Teaching our children and teenagers to perform obligatory prayers, and enforcing it, is a delicate and often stressful matter for families. What is the prophetic guidance on the matter? When and how is it best done? Parenting expert Hina Khan-Mukhtar sheds some light.
I was driving a girlfriend to her house when my son Shaan called me from high school on my cell phone. I had him on speaker, so his anxious voice reverberated around the inside of the vehicle for us both to hear: “Mama, can you please be sure to pick me up exactly at three? I need to make it home in time to pray my Dhuhr (afternoon prayer) and I don’t want to risk missing it.”
After I assured him more than once that I wouldn’t be late, I hung up and found my friend staring at me with a quizzical look on her face.
“What?” I asked.
“Explain that to me,” she said.
“Explain what to you?”
“How the heck do you get a teenage boy in public high school to actually care about not missing his prayer?”
It is a question that I’ve been asked more than once, and there has never been a simple, easy answer to give. The quickest and most honest one is to frankly admit that all guidance is a blessing and a mercy from God and none of us are in any real control of what our children choose to take — and not take — from our teachings.
But let’s face it — we all know that’s not what parents want to hear (even if they know it’s the truth). Parents are looking for tips and advice, some kind of handbook to follow, a checklist of do’s and don’ts. The fact of the matter is that saying “Tell me what else to do besides pray about/for it” is a false premise to begin with — every success is dependent first and foremost upon prayer for that very success. After hoping I’ve made that clear, I will say that for the purposes of this article, I did sit down and reflect on what has brought us to where we are now after almost 18 years of raising sons, alhamdulillah (praise be to God). I write this article with the full knowledge that we are no experts; we are no authority figures; we are no success stories (if for no other reason except the fact that the “story” simply isn’t over yet). We just happen to be parents who for whatever reason are blessed with children who choose to pray…for now (may the desire always remain with them and only grow in conviction — amen). I asked my kids what they think has helped make prayer a priority for them in their lives, and I informally interviewed some friends to get their insights as well. Here’s what has worked for our families so far, and we hope that our experiences may help others in turn, insha’Allah (God willing)…
1) For God’s sake (literally), leave those kids alone for the first 7 years!
We’re not contending that you shouldn’t teach your kids about their religion or that you shouldn’t encourage them to stand with you in prayer, but we are saying that you shouldn’t have any real expectations of them until after they are 7 years old. I still remember how I cringed when I once saw a well-meaning father pretty much forcing his 6-year-old daughter to join the congregational prayer. She kept running off, and he kept bringing her back, insisting that she fold her hands and stand silently by his side as he recited the Quranic verses aloud. His intentions were noble and sincere, no doubt, but the execution left much to be desired. It was painful to watch, and I remember hoping that his plans weren’t going to backfire on him one day. Another time, I heard a mother tell her son that “Allah will be mad at you if you don’t pray; the angels are writing down that you’re being a bad boy”, and it took all my willpower not to cry out loud, “Stop! Please don’t say that to your 5-year-old!”
There is a reason God has not made prayer incumbent upon children — what baffles most adults is trying to figure out how they are supposed to take the spiritual souls that have been placed under their care and then successfully prepare them for the lifelong duty of praying five times a day once their physical bodies have attained puberty. The responsibility on parents is no joke, and some of them can crack under the pressure.
In the early years, children should be allowed to join and leave the prayer at will, letting themselves get acclimated to the motions and the sensations of the ritual prayer at their own pace. Praying with the family should be an enjoyable experience — one that kids can partake in (or not) as much as they desire. Their association with prayer should be one of sweetness. I know one father who has all of his children share their duas (supplications) aloud one by one after the prayer is over so that everyone can join together in asking Allah (subhana wa ta’ala) to grant their siblings’ wishes. Once the duas are over, the kids often dissolve into tickling and wrestling matches while the father finishes up his supererogatory prayers on his own. Kids can be taught the basic adab (etiquettes) of prayer from an early age — i.e. being mindful of not walking in front of people while they are praying and resisting the urge to make loud, obnoxious noises while others are engaged in worship — but these guidelines about the prayer are all related to respectful consideration towards our fellow Muslims; as far as these little Muslims themselves are concerned, no one should be demanding any personal obligations of them just yet!
2) When the time to begin formally praying finally does come, go all out and make the initiation into prayer a celebration to remember! Treat it like an exciting honor, a real rite of passage.
When each of my boys turned 7 years old, I bought them beautiful journals which I gave to my friends and family to fill with inspiring messages about prayer. A few of my more “crafty” friends went all out and used their art supplies to create elaborate 3-D cards complete with embossed ink and sequined beads. My parents and my in-laws each wrote messages to their grandsons, sharing their hopes and wishes for their futures with them. Older cousins wrote about how prayer helps them in good times and in bad; aunties and uncles gave advice on what helps them get through “prayer slumps” which — if we are truly honest — are bound to come in one’s life at some point or another. I remember my husband Zeeshan getting teary-eyed as he read his message aloud to our middle son Ameen. The general theme was one of encouragement and excitement. It’s been almost 10 years since I put together those gifts for my older two sons, and even now, I will sometimes catch them perusing their Prayer Books with smiles on their faces as they read the heartfelt messages to themselves.
A friend recently organized an elaborate “Salah (Prayer) Party” for her daughter who had turned 7 years old earlier this year. There was a delicious cake and a colorful piñata and many goody bags, but there was also a “Prayer Mat Making Station”, a “Misbaha (Prayer Beads) Making Station”, and a “Pin the Moon Over the Mosque” Game for the kids to enjoy. Along with yummy treats, each little girl also left the party with a “Prayer Chart” where she will now be able to track how many prayers in a day she is able to complete. I overheard the birthday girl excitedly bragging to her guests, “Guess what? I get to wake up for Fajr (dawn) prayer now!”
Zeeshan and I have found that slow and steady wins the race. When each of our sons turned 7 years old, we allowed them to choose one prayer that they wanted to take on as their daily commitment. Every single one of them chose the Maghrib (evening) prayer — probably because that was a time their father was usually home from work, they could pray in congregation behind him, and worship at that particular time of day seemed to fit seamlessly into our hectic schedules. The understanding was that — no matter what — Maghrib would never be neglected from that day (i.e. their 7th birthday) forward. If the boys wanted to pray any of the other prayers, that was all well and good (and highly praiseworthy), but it was their choice and we made it clear that we would not be monitoring them or holding them accountable. Maghrib, however, was non-negotiable. Whether they were at a play date or in the middle of a shopping mall or at a swimming lesson, if the time for Maghrib came in, they made sure to take a few minutes to complete it. (One note: we didn’t expect more than the fard/obligatory of Maghrib from them at this age.)
We continued this routine for twelve months. When a year of praying Maghrib on time had finally passed by successfully, we told the boys that they were now “qualified” to take on a second prayer. We treated it like an honor that only the most responsible could be trusted to handle! Once six months of praying two prayers had passed, we announced that it was time for them to commit to a third prayer. We tracked the completion of their prayers with star stickers on calendars that we had made at home out of cardstock. Using this method, all three of our boys were praying all five of their daily prayers by the time they were 9 1/2 years old, alhamdulillah. By age 10, prayer was an established routine. After the age of 10, the boys eventually began adding on the sunnah (supererogatory) prayers as well.
It is important to note that during this period (i.e. before the age of 10), we did clearly explain to the children that we were not requiring them to stick with their prayers because we considered it sinful for them to leave them (we didn’t) but because we were trying to train them for the time when fard prayers would eventually be required. We told them that we were trying to teach them how to honor commitments, we knew that it took practice and discipline to do so, and we accepted that it was our job to slowly but surely teach them those tools for success.
During the course of writing this article, I asked my almost-16-year-old son Ameen why he prays all of his prayers on time, and he responded, “I don’t remember ever not praying, so I can’t imagine not doing it now. It’s a part of who I am.”
My most fervent prayer is that he always feels that way. I am no fool; I know prayer is a gift and, if not treated with gratitude and humility, it can be lost at any moment. May Allah (subhana wa ta’ala) protect us from ever experiencing such a devastating void in our lives. Aameen. (Amen.)
3) “If it was good enough for the Prophet (salallaahu alaihi wasallam), it’s good enough for me.”
When I asked Shaan why he is committed to his prayers, he said, “It was the last thing the Prophet (salallaahu alaihi wasallam) told us to hold onto; he was talking about it right up until the point he passed away. How can we ignore that? How important must prayer be if he (peace be upon him) was reminding us about it even with his last breaths?”
If children are taught the seerah (biography of the Prophet Muhammad) and Islamic history, they will learn that our pious predecessors performed their prayers even in the middle of a battlefield, even when they were ill and dying, even when they were being harassed and humiliated. They learn that missing a prayer just isn’t an option for anyone who has taqwa (God-consciousness).
4) Teach them what they’re saying, what they’re doing, and why.
Prayer should not be allowed to become a series of robotic yoga-like motions devoid of meaning or purpose. Zeeshan and I have been forthright with our kids and confessed to them that there will be times when prayer might feel like an inconvenient, rote duty that just needs to be discharged — and they may find themselves feeling disillusioned and disheartened when those thoughts come to them — but, nevertheless, the canonical prayer is never to be abandoned, no matter how ambivalent one might be feeling towards it in that moment.
“We worship Allah with our minds, bodies, and souls,” I remind my children. “If our minds and souls aren’t ‘into’ prayer for some reason, we can at least force our bodies to obey Him. And then we pray that He will eventually lead our minds and souls to follow our bodies in joy and submission as well. Allah is the One Who is in charge of our hearts. He can turn us to Him at any time He wills. We just have to make sure that we’re not the ones who’re turning away first.”
One of the ayahs (verses) of the Quran that I often quote to my kids is 51:56: “And I have not created jinn and mankind except that they should worship Me.”
“That’s the purpose of life right there,” I tell them. “If you want to know why we were created and what we’re supposed to be doing while we’re here, you have your answer in that one line. Look no further.”
When we discuss the creation of man and the time when Allah (subhana wa ta’ala) commanded Iblis (Satan) to bow down to Adam, we point out how it was nothing but arrogance that made Iblis rebel. “With every prostration, you are choosing to obey God and humble yourself before Him in a way that Satan refused to,” Zeeshan tells them.
We have made sure to make it clear to the kids, however, that God is not in any need of our prayers or our praise or our prostrations; on the contrary, it is we who are in need of Him.
We have also emphasized that none of us should ever feel self-righteous or holier-than-thou about the fact that we are choosing to pray when others are not. “We need prayer; it’s like taking medicine that the Doctor prescribes,” I tell the boys. “Would any of us go around bragging about taking meds or look down on others because they aren’t taking the prescription that we’ve chosen to take for our own health?”
At the same time, we have encouraged friendships with those families and children where prayer is a taken-for-granted part of the daily routine. We all know that you are only as good as the company you keep, and being in an environment where prayer is as natural as eating or drinking just helps create a new type of “normal” for the kids. My boys have grown up seeing not only their parents and their friends praying in congregation but seeing their parents’ friends and friends’ parents giving significance to the five daily prayers as well.
Teaching our children about the Isra and Mi’raj (Night Journey and Ascension) has been instrumental in getting them to understand how the prayer was revealed and what the different parts of the prayer mean to us on a spiritual level. The position of ruku (bowing) is compared to the way one would bow in front of a king. In the humbling position of sajdah (prostration), we point out how that is the only position in which the human heart is elevated over the human brain. “At a certain level, yes, we can recognize Allah by using our thinking minds,” we tell our kids, “but — ultimately — we come to Him via our hearts. It is the heart that truly knows God; it is the heart that truly recognizes Him.”
Once the kids are taught that the same “attahiyat” that we recite while we are sitting in prayer is in fact the actual repetition of the conversation between Allah (subhana wa ta’ala) and the Prophet Muhammad (salallaahu alaihi wasallam) and the angels, they will not be so prone to mindlessly speed through it, insha’Allah. The prayer will suddenly have relevance for them. When we sit and recite our dhikr (litanies) after prayer, we tell the kids that each whisper on our tongues is a polishing of the heart. “We want to have hearts that shine like mirrors and only reflect Him on the Day of Judgement,” we tell them. Making sure that we teach them what the Arabic words that they are reciting actually mean helps in bringing about some consciousness in the prayer, insha’Allah.
Finally, it’s really important to talk to the kids about intention. One of my favorite quotes by Imam Ali (radiAllahu anhu) that I like to share with the boys is his comparison of worshippers to three types — the first is the worshipper who worships out of desire for Heaven (he is like the businessman looking only for a profit); the second is the worshipper who worships out of fear of the Hellfire (he is like the slave who wants only to avoid punishment); and the third is the worshipper who worships out of gratitude because he recognizes that Allah is worthy of worship (he is the truly free man).
“Which one are you?” we ask our sons…and then we leave them to reflect.
And we reflect on ourselves as well.
5) Set them up for success.
We make sure to equip each of our cars with what I like to call “a prayer pack” — a small knapsack that contains a clean prayer mat, a bottle of water for wudu (ablutions), a squeeze bottle for istinja (ritual washing of the private parts after using the toilet), a compass for ascertaining the Qibla (direction of the Ka’aba in Makkah for prayer), and a prayer garment that will cover any woman who is in need of one. Before smart phones arrived on the scene, I used to keep a print-out of the month’s prayer timings in the pack as well. This prayer pack ensured that I didn’t need to worry about whether I had the ability to fulfill my prayers properly and on time or not.
Once Shaan started high school, I helped him create his own “prayer pack”. In his backpack, we placed a zip-up prayer mat made out of parachute material; it was light and compact and easily folded up and unfolded on a moment’s notice. I also included a digital timer that snapped around his thumb and could be discreetly clicked for dhikr while accurately keeping track of how many litanies had been completed. And I bought him a really cool compass that he uses regularly to figure out the direction for prayer. We recently invested quite a bit of money in some high quality khuffs (waterproof socks) for him so that he wouldn’t have to deal with the inconvenience of having to stick his foot in the sink while making wudu in the boys’ restroom at his high school. He can just wipe over his khuffs during school hours now. On Shaan’s first day as a freshman, his father and I helped him come up with talking points so that he could approach the principal with confidence when he requested a private space for prayer; we promised to have his back if he ran into any resistance. Our “support” turned out to be unnecessary however. It’s been three years now, alhamdulillah, and the high school front office staff knows Shaan really well — he’s the kid who comes in every day during lunch to go to the conference room to pray.
While all of these gadgets and gizmos may be great to have around for convenience’s sake, the kids understand that they will have to make do for prayer — one way or the other — whether they have their prayer packs on hand or not. “Guard your prayer” is the mantra in our home.
6) “Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.” – Rumi
For some kids, positive sensory associations are very important in creating an attachment to prayer. From a young age, my boys have taken great pride in dressing up for Jumah (Friday) prayers in their best clothes, wearing their best perfume and their best kufis (prayer hats). We always set out their most special clothes for the most special of days, and they feel noble and dignified as they wash and dress for going to the mosque on Friday afternoons. I know of one mom who created a magical “prayer corner” in her daughter’s bedroom, complete with a lace canopy that cascaded down over an intricately embroidered prayer mat and an ornate table that held a beautifully designed Quran and crystal prayer beads. Other parents regularly light sweetly scented incense or candles during prayer time in the home. One mother used to wear a silk prayer gown stamped with gold and silver block print for her night prayers; her children sometimes have compared her to a princess, other times to an angel. Another parent told me that she always baked the kids’ favorite treats to share after the congregational prayers on Fridays and also played nasheeds (devotional hymns) in the house after Surah Kahf had been recited for the week. These are all examples of kids who saw, heard, smelled, and tasted nothing but beauty and elegance when it came to prayer in their homes.
7) Aspire to be what you want them to be.
No one recognizes hypocrisy quicker than a child. The truth of the matter is that you can encourage and teach a child to pray all you want, but if you’re not going to pray, the chances are highly likely that he/she’s not going to pray either. And letting a child witness that you pray isn’t always enough either. What about how you pray? Are you rushed and distracted? Do you drag your feet when the prayer time comes in? Are you nonchalant if you miss a prayer? I know of an adult who remembers his own father weeping when he once missed a prayer, and that reaction made more of an impression on him about the importance of prayer than all the lectures in the world ever could.
In conclusion, I feel it’s important to confess how emotionally difficult it was for me to actually write this article. I’ve been analyzing what my hesitation was, and I realize that it was rooted in the fear that my words will come across as preachy and imbued with a sense of self-satisfaction when nothing could be farther from the truth. Another part of me worries that I will somehow jinx my family by admitting to the world that my husband and kids are regular with their prayers (for now). After a lot of back and forth debate with myself, I finally decided to pray to Allah to purify my intentions and asked Him to allow me to write just one thing that will benefit even one parent out there. I remember when I had my first son in 1997, how desperate I was to find any kind of reading material that would help motivate and guide me in teaching him the fundamentals of this beautiful religion. I didn’t need proofs for why I needed to teach the prayer; I was already more than convinced. But I did desperately crave real-life examples of how Muslim parents got down in the trenches and actually did the hard work of passing on this most important pillar of the faith to the next generation. I have been fortunate in that I have been surrounded by many inspirational parents and have had the opportunity to learn from them all, alhamdulillah. I am hoping that their techniques can now help a new generation of parents, insha’Allah.
A year ago, one of my girlfriends who has a son in college somberly told me that he had recently confessed to her that he was no longer praying because he “just wasn’t feeling it anymore”. This was a mother who had “done everything right”; she was a mentor to many of us when it came to raising children to be practicing and believing Muslims. I tried to comprehend what she was telling me and then thoughtlessly blurted out, “Why aren’t you panicking?” I didn’t understand how she could tell me such devastating news in such a calm and matter-of-fact manner.
“Because I have faith in my Lord” was her forthright response. “From Day One, I have been praying for my children’s imaan (faith), and I don’t think those prayers just disappeared into thin air. They have been heard and they will be answered, insha’Allah…but in His time and not mine. I’ve done my part; I’ve done what was commanded of me. Now I leave my children’s fate to Allah while I continue to pray for their guidance and His Mercy.”
As of this writing, her son is praying all five prayers once again.
Resources for Seekers:
Traditional Methods of Raising Children
Raising a Muslim with Manners
Raising Your Children with Deen & Dunya – Radio Interview with Hina Khan-Mukhtar
Raising Children with Deen and Dunya
Ibn Khaldun on the instruction of children and its different methods
Islamic Parenting: Ten Keys to Raising Righteous Children
The Prophet Muhammad’s Love, Concern, & Kindness for Children
On Parents Showing Righteousness to Children