THE STATUS OF the mother is greatly extolled in our religion. The Prophet ﷺ is reported to have said, Jannah lies beneath the feet of your mother, a metaphorical call to treat our mothers with excellence, as our attainment of Jannah may hinge on just that. And also:
A man came to the Prophet ﷺ and asked him: “Who deserves my good company the most?” To which the Prophet ﷺ replied: “Your mother” … [three times before saying]… “your father.” (Bukhari)
Many Muslim women feel as if they have reached some sort of pinnacle status when they become mothers. Finally we can appreciate the Quran’s reminder that it was our mother who bore us in her labor pains and saw to our suckling. We have experienced the sleepless nights, worry, and pains of this honored status to which none else on this earth is equivalent.
Mothers Need Nurturing, Too
However, there has also been a blurring of the lines between being a good mother and being a good Muslim. When many of us find that we cannot maintain the same level of worship we once did prior to motherhood—or cannot fast during Ramadan, or struggle to read the Quran each day because of the demands of motherhood—we are encouraged to embrace motherhood as a type of spiritual martyrdom.
We are given consolation by well-meaning people of knowledge that if we make motherhood our spiritual offering to the ummah, if we sacrifice ourselves for the sake of raising the next generation and align our intentions as an act of worship, then motherhood can be our ticket to salvation when so many other spiritual endeavors fall by the wayside.
Some would be cynical enough to suggest that mothering martyrdom is lauded because men do not want to take on parenting responsibilities or childcare tasks to ease this burden. I will not say this is definitely the case or that men are selfish and shirking parenting duties to uphold sexist norms. I will only say that a lot of parenting can be burdensome, tiring and draining and no human being wants to feel these things. Many mothers would escape or handover tasks to others if they could, and some manage to do so with the help of grandparents or positive polygynous living arrangements.
In spite of all our noble intentions and endless efforts, motherhood isn’t an act of worship like prayer, fasting, memorizing Quran, listening to a class undisturbed or going on a spiritual retreat. Motherhood may offer us uncountable amounts of ajr, but it does not nourish the soul like those acts of worship that our Lord has prescribed and mentioned repeatedly in the Quran that are meant to replenish the human soul, regardless of time, place or gender.
The Prophet ﷺ reminded us that indeed, any act can become an act of worship when one intends it to be, but one must not conflate these actions with the actions that are in and of themselves worship and worship alone. We are able to follow Prophetic guidance in our worldly endeavors, including marriage and parenting, but following the sunnah does not mean these actions will yield the same fruits as the sunnah of ṣalât al-ḍuḥa or qiyâm al-layl, for example.
Women themselves have so long been swept up in the role of martyr-mothers, that we feel we can no longer align ourselves with anything else, which puts us at danger for low imân and depression. How many of us have sacrificed so much to raise our children, to teach them their religion, to make Ramadan and ṭarâwîḥ and Eid occasions of joy and pride, to drive them to various Quran classes, to lay-out Arabic flashcards for fidgeting toddlers, to teach adâb to rival siblings, to reassure teenagers who are shaken by bullying. In some cases mothers have become the sole source of spiritual guidance and emotional connection in the family. We give so much only to find we feel startlingly empty.
Hu-man First, Wo-man Second
Before identifying as women, we are human beings. Allah has addressed humanity multiple times in the Quran. the most widely known probably being in Sûrat Al-Nâs (‘Humankind’):
Say,”I seek refuge in the Lord of humankind, the sovereign of humankind, the God of humankind…”
While there are gender-specific âyât in the Quran, the vast majority of the Quran as a reminder and book of guidance is not gender-specific. Women and men are the twin-halves of the human being, and in our substance we are the same: we are flesh and bone created from clay imbued with the rûḥ, or soul, which is from Allah and what truly makes us alive. Within each of us women is a heart, the vessel of our imân, and this heart is prone to the same weaknesses and temptation as that of men; the heart of a woman is no more or no less resilient–and needs the same care and attention for its welfare. Thus the acts of worship, with the goal of procuring a qalbun salîm (a sound heart), are equally applicable to both genders. Rather than seeing ourselves as women in the context of our religion, we need to see ourselves as human.
The Imbalance Caused by Gender Fixation and Polarization
No doubt there are gender-specific commandments, reminders and issues for the Muslim community. However after having been an active member of various Muslim communities for fifteen years, I personally believe we are too fixated on gender. Gender polarizing issues like marriage, barriers in the mosque, and ḥijâb have taken a spotlight, particularly in the west, at the expense of other, more pressing issues.
Even in the east it seems we cannot escape an obsession with gender and issues related to it. This isn’t to say that gender-related problems should not be dealt with, but I personally think it is a kind of sickness in our community that we have put aside more important, spiritual issues and their treatments in favor of gender discussions which often polarize humanity into two resistant camps. At the very least we need to have these conversations in a better way that encourages men and women to work together.
When one studies the sunnah of the Prophet, one gets the impression that gender was not such a focal point. It seems they viewed themselves as Muslims and worked in equal capacity to further the cause of Islam. Of course gender affected certain situations, but overall the community was unified and dedicated to its own spiritual welfare, enabling men and women alike to worship and contribute indiscriminately. Gender, to them, was not so crucial to defining religious or even worldly success. Gender dictated certain roles and rulings, but it didn’t define Muslims the way it does now.
Our community is saturated with people addressing problems in a gender-specific context, and the more we talk about it, the more people see their own lives defined by their sex. Motherhood is certainly an important role, but it is unhealthy when women begin to define themselves solely on gender-specific terms: mother, wife, ḥijâbi, etc. We mistakenly believe that these are the roles our religion has to offer us.
To the contrary, when one studies the ṣâḥâbiyât we encounter terms (in our modern lexicon) like worshipper, student, scholar, teacher, social worker, philanthropist, activist, and so on. No doubt these women were great wives and mothers, but they often found a niche beyond domesticity that connected them to the dîn, even if it was just perfecting one’s ṣalâh and becoming a devoted worshipper in one’s home. Their success as Muslims did not begin with marriage and end with children.
The Dangers of Extolling Maternal Martyrdom
Too often in our community motherhood martyrdom is extolled as if it were truly a sacrifice of mind, body and spirit that leads a woman to Paradise like the shahîd on the battlefield. Allow me to remind you that while motherhood earns a woman a high status in this worldly life with regard to her children’s treatment of her, nowhere are the pains of labor and child-upbringing equated with the worship or with the jihâd that makes one a candidate for Paradise.
Yes, having an intention to do something for the sake of Allah does make something an act of worship and deserving of ajr, but motherhood is not inherently a spiritual endeavor. All over the world, since time immemorial, regardless of religion, women have given birth to and raised children. This process is part of a biological component to proliferate the human race on the earth.
Indeed, labor pains expiate the believers’ sins, but it does not necessarily bring one in nearness to Allah, as does putting one’s head down in sujûd in qiyâm al layl. In fact, motherhood often hinders spiritual self-care and causes a drop in îmân. It is difficult to care for one’s self when one is tasked with caring for others who do not have the maturity to be responsible for themselves.
Motherhood causes many Muslim women to become depressed, longing for a return to days when spiritual care was more accessible, when fasting and praying qiyâm al layl or taking a class was an option that did not cause more exhaustion. This is when many community members, and leaders, will step in and remind mothers that this sacrifice is a noble one and that raising the next generation is laudable.
However, raising the next generation, creating a “good Muslim” in another person, does not create the same in herself. Like everyone else, she must come before her Creator alone on the Day of Judgment. Like everyone else, she wants to prepare for that day. Like everyone else, her soul craves nearness to its Lord in this life as well as in the next. Reminding her that her children seem to be succeeding does not mean that she is.
Rather than talk about motherhood and fatherhood, we need talks that address Muslims together as parents, talk that unite us in this– because, believe it or not, most parenting is not gender-specific, especially as children grow older. Our community needs parents united, not divided by gender-roles.
We also need more talks about marriage that address our human, spiritual needs and provide suggestions for how spouses can enable one another to become closer to Allah and remain spiritually healthy, rather than the cliché “husband-wife” talks that polarize us further and relegate spousal roles to domestic “rights and responsibilities.”
Motherhood martyrdom is unhealthy and we need more balance in our community to insure healthy families and a successful practice of our dîn. If there is one gender-specific issue we need to focus on, it should be combating motherhood martyrdom and encouraging men and women to see ourselves as counterparts in humanity who are tasked with helping one another to succeed and to attain Jannah, beginning in the home and with our own children.