Along with its infinite blessings, Ramadan brings with it loving memories that fill our minds and hearts. We may remember all the family members who joined us for delicious Iftars, some of whom may now have departed this world. We may remember an inspirational lecture which guided us or a friend we made at the mosque who has been dear since then. As parents, when we reminisce about our own memories of Ramadan and how they shaped our faith and connection with God, we realise the importance of such experiences for our children. Thus, aside from just the outer aspect of Ramadan, the fasting and feasting, the socialising and gifts, the excitement and celebrations of Eid, we are responsible for instilling those values which will have a more lasting effect on the minds and hearts of the little ones we are privileged to be role models for. Although there are numerous lessons from the month of Ramadan which we can teach our children, perhaps the ultimate virtue to instil would be that of patience.
“O you who have faith! Prescribed for you is fasting as it was prescribed for those who were before you, so that you may be God-wary. (2:183).”
By nature, children are innocent and quickly learn from their environment. For this reason, the Ahlul Bayt(as) instruct us to teach our children our traditions and values as soon as possible, before the opposers (to our beliefs) corrupt them. Hence, this holiest of all months is an opportunity like no other, to inculcate essential values like forgiveness, generosity, sacrifice, sincerity, good health, and of course, patience, and the home is the first place the child needs to learn true values. For example, a child may feel frustrated that he has to remain hungry for a long period of time if he has not been gradually guided to do so.
Indeed, it would be quite a task for a child who has reached bulugh (the age of adolescence) to suddenly start fasting if he has not been gradually introduced to it. Although the child may be able to keep the fast, it would no doubt be a difficult trial for her/him. Thus, it is advisable that parents gradually begin teaching their children about fasting. It would be unreasonable to expect children to learn to pray or fast the day it becomes obligatory for them. As a matter of fact, the same is true for any obligation. Therefore, parents have a great responsibility in guiding their children to Islamic traditions and values from a young age, especially before the child has been introduced to alternatives by those who do not share our beliefs.
An important verse in the Holy Qur’an states: “And take recourse in patience and prayer, (2:45).” Imam al-Sadiq(a) says about this verse, “patience means fasting”, as mentioned by ‘Allamah Tabatabai in al-Mizan. Patience in this verse is interpreted as fasting. Fasting is a form of worship that requires patience. Not only is patience a coping skill, but it is also a lifelong spiritual practice. Interestingly, in regards to hours, fasting is the longest act of worship. Perhaps that is the reason it plays such a vital role in developing the self and character. It is thus even more relevant that the Qur’an refers to fasting as patience. Undoubtedly, patience is a skill we strive to constantly develop, for it is certainly not something we are born with. Parents will be all too familiar with the cries of a hungry, impatient baby during the middle of the night. The great gnostic Khwajah ‘Abdallah al-Ansari said: “Patience means restraining the self from complaining about hidden anguish.” In order to develop patience, psychologists recommend that we train ourselves to bear little pains and irritations so that when the more formidable ones come, we will have developed the patience required to face these challenges. For example, when driving in heavy traffic, waiting in line, or being stung by insects, we should try to patiently bear these minor tribulations to develop our threshold of patience. This process can actually apply to developing any value. For instance, to develop generosity, we should try giving one pound a week or old clothes every month until gradually we reach a level where we are willing to give even more.
Patience is responsible for the fulfilment of all goals, whether long or short, individual or social. Imam ‘Ali(a) said, “The Messenger of God said, ‘Patience is of three kinds: patience at the time of affliction, patience in regard to obedience and patience in regard to disobedience (of God). And the third one is superior to the first two kinds.’”
Consequently, the key to patience is to be content that when facing difficulties, we are patient for the sake of the pleasure of God. If one is patient, then it gradually becomes easy for him/her to bear hardships. Patience during misfortunes is the source of contentment with the Divine decree, patience in regard to obedience is a source of intimacy with God and His love, while patience in the face of disobedience is the source of taqwa (God-wariness). If we look at the month of Ramadan specifically through the lens of patience, we see that there are many lessons our children can learn. Since the first type is at times of difficulty, we can teach our children to be patient when they feel hungry. We can teach them to be patient when a dear toy has been broken or lost, or when they hurt themselves.
The second type is patience regarding obedience, like praying and reciting the Qur’an. The child should slowly be introduced to these acts, like waking up in the cold night to pray and perform wudu (ablution), and observing hijab even though others do not. Children who are about seven or eight can try fasting for half a day, perhaps at weekends, they can fast as long as they are able. Younger children could skip a meal or even a dessert. It is even recommended that those not fasting in Ramadan should not eat to a full stomach.
Parents should provide a more spiritual environment and encourage their children to join them in their acts of worship, like staying up in Laylat al-Qadr (the Night of Power) and reciting the Holy Qur’an. Parents could set individual targets which would be achievable for their children. For instance, if their child normally reads about a page of the Qur’an, in Ramadan they could be encouraged to increase that to two or three pages a day. Imam al-Baqir(a) states, “Everything has a season and the season of the Qur’an is Ramadan.”
When a person learns the Qur’an it mixes with his flesh and blood, implying that his actions will then be in accordance with the Qur’an. Imam Zayn al-‘Abidin(a) says, “If everyone from the east to the west was to die, I would not feel lonely while I had the Qur’an with me.” Hearing traditions such as these will help children realise that the Holy Qur’an is not just for recitation, but is a way of communicating with our Creator.
Finally, patience regarding disobedience to God is the most superior type of patience. If one is able to fast in the month of Ramadan and refrain from what God has made permissible, then the faster will develop that moral strength and fibre in their character which will assist them regarding other forms of disobedience throughout the year. For example, the child will refrain from eating forbidden food and inappropriate social behaviours like swearing. In other words, fasting helps form a moral compass within children which develops with their character. The true spirit of fasting will be realised if we are able to control traits that juxtapose patience, such as anger, irritation, blaming and swearing.
Children will also learn patience through their interactions with other family members, especially siblings. Although sibling squabbles may never seem to cease, it is heartening to know that as children resolve their disputes they learn the foundations of compromise and cooperation. Moreover, this holy month offers a good opportunity to introduce children to community service, like donating toys and gifts for orphans and the poor. We should also involve children in meal preparations, informing them of the great reward of offering food to those who are fasting, even if it is one date. At the same time, we should remind them that the quantity is not as important as one’s sincerity and intention, for even a smile is charity. According to Lady Fatima(a), as stated in her sermon of Fadak, God has made fasting as a means of developing sincerity. Indeed, only God knows if someone has cheated in their fast. If someone fasts truly for the pleasure of God, then He states, “I am the reward of the person who fasts.”
In conclusion, fasting teaches us patience, which is a form of self-control. As children develop this quality, not only will they abstain from food and drink, but all those things which Islam has forbidden. As for adults, we have to develop the ability to teach our children about Ramadan in such a manner that when it is drawing to an end, they bid it farewell and long for it like an intimate friend. When this special relationship with the holy month is nurtured from an early age it will always remain embedded in their character.
Kubra Rizvi is an Honours Psychology graduate from Loyola University Chicago. She writes and lectures on various religious topics