I was driving my 5 year old son home from his swimming lessons when he told me about a conversation he had with his swimming instructor. It’s a conversation I imagine many Muslim kids and parents in the West have had in one form or another.
“He asked me what I’m going to be for Halloween,” Yunus said during the car ride home.
I said, “Oh. So what did you tell him?” Yunus just made a gesture of zipping his lips shut and said, “I didn’t say anything.”
“Why not? Why didn’t you tell them that you don’t believe in Halloween?” I inquired.
“I can’t say that! Next time I’ll just tell them my mom won’t let me celebrate Halloween,” Yunus replied.
“But that’s not fair, Yunus. Do we not celebrate Halloween because of me or your mom? Or do we not celebrate it because of Allah?”
“Because of Allah…” Yunus sheepishly admitted.
“So then why do you want to say it’s because of mama? Why not say it’s not part of your religion?”
He looked out the window and sighed, “I don’t know. They won’t understand.”
I grew up here in Canada just like my son. I know very well the experience of being a child during Halloween. I still have memories of when my parents would shut off all the lights in the house so that we could pretend that we weren’t home when the trick-or-treaters came along. Of course, there were cars in our driveway so that didn’t work too well!
But I remember my siblings and I peering out of the window and gazing at all the kids coming to the door. There’s no question that it would cause us to feel left out or even deprived of this great experience (and candy!) that all the other kids were enjoying.
And I definitely know the awkwardness of trying to explain to non-Muslim neighbors why I didn’t have a costume–that same feeling that my son is now experiencing.
I think a lot of Muslims who grew up in the West have similar memories. The feelings of being deprived or not knowing how to relate your experience to others might stay with many even into adulthood.
But I realized something important as I got older. Going through the experience of not celebrating Halloween in a society that overwhelmingly does helped me in my spiritual growth. It allowed me to grow thicker skin in learning to resist societal pressures. It absolutely came in handy years later when the neighbor’s kids offered cigarettes to me. I was already used to being different. It wouldn’t matter if I would be different once again.
In fact, the Qur’an really preaches the ideal of being different. It reminds us in so many verses and ways that “most people do not know” or “most people are not thankful.” Variations of these phrases are found 20 or more times throughout the Qur’an.
Moreover Allah brings us the example of Prophet Ibrahim, a young man who stood up against his entire society, refusing to participate in paganism.
There has already been for you an excellent example in Ibrahim and those with him, when they said to their people, “Indeed, we are disassociated from you and from whatever you worship other than Allah.” [Surat Al-Mumtahanah, 60:4]
As humans, we find comfort in the company of others, but “most people” will not take us where we need to go. And this isn’t only true in our religion but in our worldly lives as well.
To excel in our businesses, we have to develop financial discipline and an extremely strong work ethic–something that “most people” never do.
To excel in athletics, we have to eat very healthy foods in particular quantities and train extremely hard–again, something that “most people” will not do.
And this is true in our faith. To excel spiritually, to be on the right path, we have to be different from “most people.” As a child, the idea of being different made me feel a sense of inferiority, but now I understand that it actually forces you to be better. It forces you to be uncomfortable, in the best way.
So later, I sat with my son and I spoke to him about Halloween. We spoke about shirk and paganism, and why participating in any aspect of it is deeply wrong. This paper by Dr. Zohair Abdur-Rahman really helped me organize my thoughts.
We spoke about the history of Halloween and its connection to pagan rituals.
I also spoke to him about how I experienced Halloween as a child, and the feelings it brought to my heart, which he might experience too. But I focused on how obeying Allah brought me strength later on–that the sacrifices we make today for the sake of Allah will always bear fruit in the future.
And finally, and perhaps most importantly, I spoke to him about his swim class. “Are you proud to be Muslim?” I asked.
“Tell me, what are the things you love about Islam?” Yunus struggled for a moment but then slowly began to name things “Allah…the Prophet…Eid…going to the Masjid…the stories of the Prophets…the Qur’an…”
Soon he couldn’t stop naming the things he loved about Islam! “Ok Yunus, would you trade Islam for anything?” “Of course not!”
“Then shouldn’t we be happy to let other people know that we are Muslims and that we have this beautiful religion? Like in your swim class, if they asked you about Halloween, shouldn’t you be proud to tell them that Islam means a lot to you and that’s why you won’t celebrate Halloween?”
I’m not very sure how exactly he’ll deal with the question next time, but he seemed far more assured after our conversation. Spiritual growth is a process that your child will have to experience individually. All we can do is be with them, have open communication, and try our best to advise them.