Raising Kemal

TRADITION. What passes for it. What’s passed as it. What it is. Very different things. Here where I live at the moment, as well as in many other countries, what passes for tradition, as in “return to,” seems overshot. Sometimes. Wide off the mark. A parody.

Growing up without a father I spent most of my teens and twenties looking for men, a man, just one would do. One who could teach me what it means to be a man. I read books. Looked into the past. Read up on philosophers, poets, warriors, Samurais, Zen Buddhists. All manner of literature I scrutinized, picking my way through the ruins looking for men, a man, just one.

I would catch a glimpse of him in some Indian chief, some desert father, in Jesus, but trying to follow the latter amounted to blasphemy, then. The Buddha, same thing, man turned into a god and his teachings forgotten. He was too perfect to be followed. Fit only for worship. The silt, wash over wash, would shift the letters, warp the emphasis, fade the straight line. Just glimpses would sometimes shine through cracks in the parchment.

But all men seemed long gone. They belonged to a lost era. The last having died I thought probably around 1918 in the Great War. They were gone. The best of them long before. I wondered, did they ever even exist or do I but imagine?

I came upon Rumi, Hafiz, Sa’di, Ibn ‘Arabi, and found that these men spoke of one man. Yet again they were gone. Only their books remained. That’s when I began to pray directly to Him and back then He had no name, no other name to me except “You.”

“You who know me, send me a teacher, a man, one who can teach me what it is to be a man, to be counted amongst men.”

I prayed for years. Then one day He sent me to him, my sheikh. I took Islam at his hands and the tariqa. My man. And I realized there are yet men. I still pray.

I wrote all of the above thinking about how we raise our children today. How we consider our misconceptions to be tradition. And while trying to figure out how to fit Ibn Khaldun into this brief essay, I failed. So I’ll just quote him.

“Harsh punishment during lessons harms the students, especially the youngest children, as it is the foundation of bad habits. Students, slaves and servants who are raised unjustly and brutally feel oppressed. Such treatment depresses them and makes them weak, and leads to lies and dishonesty. Their outward manner differs from their inner thoughts, as they fear they will suffer (should they speak the truth). They deceive and dissemble. This becomes their second nature. They lose the qualities found in social and human organization, which elevate man, namely, the desire to shield and defend themselves and their homes. They feel dependent upon others. Their spirits become too lethargic to acquire the virtues and good traits. In this way they do not make use of their opportunities and do not reach the peak of their human nature. Ultimately, they return to the rank of “the lowest of the low” (asfiil as-safilin) . . . This is what happens to every nation that falls under the yoke of tyranny and thereby learns the meaning of injustice. One may ascertain this by observing every individual who does not have control over his own affairs, nor any authority to guarantee his safety. . . Hence a teacher must not be too severe toward his student, nor a father in educating his child.”

I read this and look at what we’ve become, what we’re accused of. What we accuse others of having done. What we’ve done to ourselves in the name of misunderstood fundamentalism that has little to do with our Prophet’s Tradition, with the fundamental. I read this and glimpse our true tradition. How we once raised our children. How much we’ve forgotten. How much we need to re-learn. So I write this as a reminder to myself. One God do we worship. One Book do we honor. One Man do we follow and seek to emulate. He raised men, who raised men, who, again, raised men.

We are in need of men. Not the biological type. Men. Islam is in need of men. Though we have the rudiments, the physical build, the beards, the flat chests, what not. It is the spirit we lack, of mercy over justice: the balance. We need to once again understand what it means to be a man. Lest we raise our children, ourselves even, to be less than men.

I read the passage from Ibn Khaldun in the wake of the bombings in London. And I’ve read it again. Yet again it struck me, how contemporary how discerning, how just, how manly is the Muslim man. Find one who can teach you.

If you pray for anything in these times that we’re living in, pray that God brings back the men. Make us men.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at islamicamagazine.com as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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