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My two Muslim kids can’t help but notice they’re ‘different’

“Is this our holiday or Grandma’s holiday?”

In our household, we used to hear this question repeatedly throughout the year. Jake and Sam are now old enough to remember which is which, but for a while, this was the big question. Christmas? Grandma’s. Ramadan? Ours. Easter? Grandma’s. Eid? Ours. Diwali? Neither, but it’s still fun to go to the festival, isn’t it?

One of the biggest challenges we faced as parents was teaching religious tolerance from a young age. Young kids think in absolutes, yes and no, right and wrong. The idea that something is OK for me but not for you is one that takes some emotional maturity.

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But right from a young age, we were explaining that no, we don’t celebrate Christmas because we weren’t Christian. And we didn’t celebrate Hanukkah either because we weren’t Jewish. No, Allah wasn’t mad at other kids for celebrating those religions. And, yes, it was OK to play with toys Grandpa sent as Christmas presents. Yes, you may work on Easter pictures for Grandma and wish her a Happy Easter.

The boys wondered a lot about what was right. As they learned to pray and recite prayers in Arabic, they asked how Grandma and Grandpa prayed. When we went to a family member’s funeral in a church, they compared the experience to another funeral they’d attended in a masjid. When Ramadan came around, they wondered if their cousins on their father’s side even knew what fasting was.

And the inevitable question: “If we do this because Allah tells us to, isn’t it bad that they aren’t?”

One of my favorite verses in the Quran helps me answer consistently and without hesitation: “To you be your way, and to me mine.” Allah told us we don’t need to worry about what other people are doing so long as we stick with what he told us to do.

The boys already knew that each family had different rules. Their cousin was allowed to eat dessert even if he didn’t eat dinner. Their friends got to watch scary movies at night. In our family, we always gave a hug when we said we were sorry, but it was OK if someone else didn’t give us a hug when they were sorry. This came in handy answering religion questions. We pray on Fridays, and some other families pray on Sundays.

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It’s easier to notice the differences, the “we do this but they don’t,” but it’s much more satisfying when we emphasize the commonalities. Sam was in kindergarten when he learned that the Orthodox Jews in our neighborhood observed Sabbath on Fridays; he was excited. “We have the same rules!”

There is a lot of rhetoric about Islam that we try to shelter the boys from.

No, it’s not true that Muslims want to kill Christians, or that Muslims hate everyone who lives in the United States. You know plenty of Muslims — is that true of your camp counselors, the cashier at the supermarket, your family and friends? No, it’s not true that Muslims can’t be friends with people of other faiths, that Allah will punish us if we go outside our own group. We want you to have a wide group of friends. Your family is already diverse. The current political situation doesn’t help, but we try.

Over dinner recently, Jake told us that his soccer team recites a prayer before every match. Since he plays in a Catholic school league, I said, “Oh, the Lord’s Prayer? Does it go like this? ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.’”

When he nodded, his father asked, “What do you do when the team is praying?”

It turned out he and two of his teammates stand behind the team and just wait for the rest of the team. When I expressed surprise that one of the boys wasn’t Christian based on the name (a mistake I routinely make and am teaching myself to stop), Jake said the boy’s family didn’t believe in God. I braced myself for questions about why some people didn’t believe in God.

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Sam shrugged and said, “Lakum dinukum, waliyadeen.”

“It’s up to their family to decide what they believe. Not mine,” Jake added.

We are doing something right.

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