“We live by the ideals of the Quran and the Sunnah and then we work to see how we can apply those to the context that we’re living in, without compromising our values.”
Sit Down with Shaykh Rami Nsour On Upbringing, Repentance, and More
Shaykh Rami Nsour is a scholar, counsellor, public speaker, teacher, and translator of Islamic texts. He has spent a great deal of his time teaching and aiding Muslims in prison and has seen how knowledge unlocks the human potential. His students in the prisons have in turn taught countless people and invited many people to Islam. In this interview, he speaks about inculcating akhlaq in children, the role of a murabbi (coach) in a child’s life, the importance of tauba, and the need to protect one’s speech.
As Muslims, we’re held responsible for our actions on the conditions of sanity, adulthood and sound knowledge of Islam. Childhood is then seen as the training period necessary before a person is ready to shoulder his/her responsibilities. What points should parents look out for while raising their children?
This is a very extensive area for us to speak about. There’s a lot that goes into raising into children. My general advice to the community would be to take it seriously and to actually study it. Not just think that raising children is some sort of knowledge they inherit on the account of being human. We’ve to take active measures to understand how is it that we raise children. So, of course, we go back to the sunnah of the Prophet (saws) and study his seerah and the sharia he brought and see what were his instructions to us on how to raise children. Additionally, we also have to realise that there is a lot of wisdom that is passed down through the generations in our cultures, amongst the elders, amongst our peers. Look out for people who’ve raised good children and ask their advice.
One of the things the Prophet said, is to raise children with three adabs, three qualities: love of the Prophet, love of his family and recitation of the Quran. So just those three alone are going to take a lifetime for a parent to really inculcate into their children. Beyond knowing him and believing in him and following his commandments, are we teaching our children, and are we training them to love the Prophet? And of course, after that comes the love of his family, and the love of his companions and the love of his ways and so forth. And then the recitation of the Quran, being able to read it, memorization of surahs and ayahs, learning the tajweed, the tafsir and so forth.
In a traditional Islamic curriculum, ta’alim and tarbiyah would go in hand in hand. This may not necessarily be the case with modern education. To meet this lacunae, are parents and community members required to go the extra mile?
Absolutely. I would say that they are absolutely required to go the extra mile. What I sometimes recommend to parents is to think about if they were ever in a situation that they were given 10 million in cash or in gold bars and they were asked to do everything humanly possible to protect it, otherwise they would lose it. What would they do? In the same way a person should think about raising their children and what it means to protect your children. Are you really doing everything that you can to raise them well? Not just giving them the academic studies, whether it’s on deen academics or dunya academics (the ta’alim portion) but also the tarbiyah, giving them adab, which goes beyond just what’s in the books.
Just as every child needs a teacher, they also need a murabbi, somebody who’s going to coach them and be there for them as a friend, as a mentor, as somebody to help them along. It should usually be somebody other than a parent, as they will probably not have as much success in teaching their child. So a parent really has to go the extra mile and find a good teacher and find a good murabbi.
This has to be done during the formative years. A parent who neglected this area, when the child is 18-20 years old, they then they rush to the Masjid or to the Imam or the Shaykh. They say, “Please help me with my child.” No, this process should begin before even choosing a spouse, but once the child is born, and when the child is growing up, that tarbiyah is happening all the time, so there’s tarbiyah that happens outside of the home and also inside of the home. The primary place of tarbiyah is in the home and the murabbi outside is only to accentuate what is being done in the home.
Another deep challenge when it comes to raising children today is the availability of easy access to the internet. Has the internet made the task of sustaining akhlaq much harder?
I don’t know. But I would say that it has made it a different process. Just as the accessibility to foul things on the Internet has become much more accessible and easy for children to access, at the same time, there’s a lot of resources of goodness, of pure things that is made easily accessible by the internet. So I think the internet should be looked on at just as we look at any tool or any forum where human beings engaged in interaction with each other. It can be used for good, it can be used for evil, and it’s really on the parent to make sure that they are monitoring the Internet access of their children. If a child has an email account, the parent should have access to being able to look at that, I don’t think parents should give children unfettered access to the internet, and especially unfettered access to a smartphone. Parents should be directly involved in what their children have and not fall into the idea that you have to give them complete freedom and just hope that they make the right choice. No, there has to be a higher level of monitoring, and making sure they don’t fall when they’re using that tool.
We find that many profanities, threats of violence have been normalized into the structure and usage of our language. Given the many warnings against ill-usage of the tongue, how do we guard our speech?
The first thing I would say is to study a book, which I was able to study in Mauritania, about twenty years ago, and since then have taught it many times. It really is a life-changing course and gives a powerful set of tools for a person to be able to start controlling their tongue. Because before we work on controlling the tongue, we actually have to know what it is that we should be guarding ourselves against, in terms of speech. And this we find in the Qur’an, we find it in the hadith literature, we find it expounded upon by the Sahaba and the Salaf and so forth, in various places. But this book, ‘Maharim al-Lisan’ [The Prohibitions of the Tongue], by the great Mauritanian scholar Shaykh Muhammad Mawlud, goes into this subject in depth and covers pretty much the majority of what a person should know.
It’s available as a course through Seekers Hub, which I teach. There are some other teachers who have taught is as well, I believe Shaykh Hamza Yusuf has an audio course of the same book available online. So I encourage people to access those courses and to go through it and to actually study it, not to listen to it as a lecture and not to think of it as a khutba lecture or a conference lecture, but to actually study the science of the prohibitions of the tongue. One of the things that scholars have mentioned is that the tongue is it the ‘translator of the heart.’ What’s going on in the heart, it becomes first apparent upon the tongue before it becomes apparent on any of our limbs. By analyzing our speech, we can really start to understand what’s going on in our heart, but we can’t understand what’s going on in our heart until we look at the symptoms of the disease of the heart and the symptoms are apparent on the tongue.
One of the quickest way into the heart is through the eyes. So guarding those, the eyes, the tongue, as also the ears, as a way to understand the information that’s going into the heart, and then to see what’s coming out as a response. Before we start working on understanding the diseases of the heart and the stations of excellence of the heart, we have to get control of our tongue.
There are two kinds of punishments, this-worldly, and next-worldly. The former is dealt today by secular laws, the latter by Divine Will on the Day of Judgment. In the unfortunate scenario that the two clash, what is one to do? (example: laws preventing the face veil, prohibiting halaal meat)
This is a case where I think Muslims really have to think about the power of lobbying and the power of their dollar or their currency, their buying power and also the hikmah of hijrah. We as Muslims, as our community, we have to really look at where we put our resources, both our human resources and our financial resources. So if we are in a community that is not respecting us and yet is benefiting from our human resources, our place in the workforce, our place in academia, so forth and also our financial resource, we should start thinking about how to leverage that.
We should also look deeply into the concept of hijrah and leaving a place where we cannot practice our deen. What are the implications of that, what are the rulings surrounding that, what is the discussion amongst the scholars on when it is an obligation and when it is recommended, and the discussions around when we have two difficult situations are two evils. So, say a person is faced with only one of two options, or they can’t leave one area. When do we take the lesser of two evils, and how do we do that process? This is not something that is easily answered and understood, it’s really important for this reason, that we go back as individuals, and really make a commitment to seriously learn our deen so that we can be engaged in these conversations, so that we can ask the right questions, so that we can have a dialogue. Each people in each area are going to have different issues that they deal with, so every area has to produce scholarship, from their area. People who know the issues that they are dealing with, the subtleties of their culture, the subtleties of the issues that they are dealing with, the nuances of living in that area and then address them in the light of the sharia.
Given that this life is meant to be a test, with trials of hardships, how do we distinguish between punishment (azaab) and trials?
That’s a very good question, and that’s actually the question I get whenever a person is going through something very difficult and they want to know, is this a trial where Allah is using this as a method to purify me and raise me in station; or is this a punishment? A lot of people jump and say, “Oh I think it’s a punishment and maybe I did something wrong.” The reality is, we don’t know. Whenever something afflicts us, a tribulation afflicts us, we don’t know why Allah has chosen this. And to assume that we are able to know that is an assumption that you know the unseen and you know the intention of Allah, and that’s something only he knows.
We have to have a balanced approach. I think it also reminds us of the two stations of hope and fear. We have a hope that it’s a trial to raise us in station, but we also have fear that it’s a punishment, and the scholars have said that when we’re balancing the two aspects of hope and fear it should be like the two wings of a bird. Just as a bird sometimes has to lean more towards one side, but it can’t lean too much, otherwise it would fall out of the sky. And so we have to do that in the same way where if we’re feeling that we’re too hopeful we start developing some of the reflections on the fear and if we find that we’re too fearful, we work on the hope aspect.
Tayba foundation works at rehabilitating prison inmates, equipping them with life skills and giving them a chance again at life. What has the experience been like?
After doing this work and being exposed to this area of our society for the better part of the last 16 years, I would say if I were to sum it up, it would be being able to witness the power of Tauba, the power of transformation. And the reason I say that is that whenever a crime happens in our society, especially if it’s towards a person themselves or their family members, one of the immediate reactions is one of wanting justice and revenge. Seeing people who have committed crimes, murder, rape, drug dealing that could have affected people’s lives, but then seeing those people change is really witnessing the power of Tauba and how a person can change.
If somebody commits a crime and they go through a process of Tauba, are we really accepting them once they have made that process? I sometimes think to myself, what about those families who were affected by the crime of this individual? They’re still looking at the person as the pre-Tauba person. And I think to myself, how many people out there are being viewed in multiple angles? Some people I might look at a person as a very devout Muslim who adheres to his deen, who has learned the deen who has changed, has become Muslim, and left his prior ways and yet there’s somebody out there, maybe the family of the victims or the victim him or herself, who still look at that person as a criminal.
It’s not enough, even in the Islamic understanding of Tauba, it’s not enough to feel just remorse. We have to have a sincere intention to change the way we have been doing things. So we might say, astaghfirullah, tauba tauba, any type of these verbal utterances of seeking forgiveness and we may feel bad about what we did, but we did we really dig down to the bottom of our soul and find out what it is that we did and why we did it, and then once we understand that, make a commitment to never do that again? That is a true Tauba and that’s the tauba that Allah refers to in the Quran, where he says taubah tan-nasuha, a sincere and complete tauba. So that’s something that I have been able to witness and see this process and the process also of forgiveness and seeing how people who were affected by crimes have forgiven the people that perpetrated that crime and that’s an amazing thing to see as well, to see how people can forgive those who have oppressed them, which is not as easy as one may think.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the Muslim community in the West today?
That’s a very difficult question to answer, but I will weigh in on the answer, I think this is an answer that we have to give as a community. One of the areas that I think we face as a challenge is our identity and making sure that as we develop in the West as minority communities that we do not compromise our identity as Muslim while allowing us to be part of, and to contribute to the society that we live in. And that we’re not on either end of the extreme, one extreme where we’re living in a society but we’re not feeling that we’re part of a society. This breed a type of resentment and frustration that can come out in many forms. That’s one extreme.
The other extreme would be to where a person feels that to be part of the society, they have to give up their identity and take on the identity of what they assume to be the identity of the community that they live in. The reality is that there is no one specific monolithic culture, that somebody has to identify with in any community, whether you’re living in a Muslim majority country, or a Muslim minority country.
So we never have to sacrifice our ideals, we live by the ideals of the Quran and the Sunnah and then we work to see how we can apply those to the context that we’re living in, without compromising our values. And so there are a number of attacks on the identities of Muslims. The most blatant attack would be from the extreme right, where people are saying they don’t want Muslims and the discussions of Islamophobia and creeping Sharia and so on and so forth. That to me is a more blatant direct attack and it’s not really something that is going to affect many Muslims. Most Muslims if they hear that rhetoric they’re not going to say, ‘Okay I will give up my identity, so that I could be accepted by this group of people.’
What I think is more of a danger to our communities is the ultra-left, which is in many cases more intolerant of Muslims and their values while still accepting them as individuals than the far right. At least the far right will say, “We don’t want the Muslims, whether they’re changed or not because there are all this secret codes and things that they live by, so we don’t want them.” The ultra-left, will say, we’ll accept them as Muslims, but underneath there’s a lot that they will not accept from us, so we have to be careful of that and understanding who are the people who are trying to help us, why are they trying to help us and what do they want to change in us before, they can help us.
And to be able to understand that we really have to go back to our theology, to our aqeedah, to understand what it means to be Muslim, where we can make compromises, where we cannot make compromises, where things can change to make applications for the context that we’re living and where things cannot change at all. And that’s a difficult process, but we have to do it as a community.
Shaykh Rami Nsour serves as Senior Instructor at SeekersHub Global. Rami is the co-founder of the Tayba Foundation which has a correspondence program for Muslim inmates. In addition to traditional teaching licenses (ijazah), Rami holds a B.A. in Human Development with a Focus on Early Childhood. A resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, he lives with his wife and three children.