Illustration: Hartley Lin
I wasn’t exposed to religion very much growing up. Or so I thought. Compared to my four children, I could be the esteemed leader of a sizable congregation. You can’t blame the kids, who range in age from three to 14—they’re far too young to drive themselves to the nearest place of worship. And even if they weren’t, they wouldn’t know which religious edifice to walk into, or what to do once they got there.
My wife, Madiha, is a Muslim who went to Catholic school for most of her life. I was a student in the public board but attended Muslim Sunday school every single week until the age of 15. Sadly, an award for “Best Attendance, Poorest Performance” could have been mine for the taking. I had no retention for religion. By the end of my tenure, my peers had all graduated, and my class consisted of me—miserable and the size of an adult male—and a bunch of perky 10-year-olds. That set-up wasn’t great for my self-esteem or my relationship with my faith.
Fast forward to today: I’m content to be a “cultural Muslim”—which is to say, Islam is a part of my social and creative life, but I don’t practise the religion. I’m also the father of two stepdaughters and two sons. I first met my girls when they were three and five years old—beautiful products of my wife’s first marriage. When Madiha and I wed, and she brought up the possibility of giving the girls a religious education, I said I’d look into it. But hockey was on, and I got distracted. For eight years.
When my son Maaz started junior kindergarten two years ago, he became curious about religion. Here’s one of our early conversations:
Maaz: Papa, are we Muslim?
Me: Of course we are.
Maaz: Do we go to the mosque?
Me: No, son. You’d have noticed if we went to the mosque.
Maaz: Papa, why don’t we go to the mosque?
Me: Honey! Your son has some questions for you! I know.
Not exactly helpful. But the truth is, I don’t know what I believe myself. I take comfort in the spiritual elements of religion, but how can I instill a faith in my kids that I don’t really have? My Muslim identity was forged following years of introspection, deliberation, discrimination… and that time I first tried pepperoni. It’s difficult to pass these kinds of things on to a six-year-old.
But I’m trying. These days, I’ve been asking Maaz what he understands. I started with the basics: “What do Muslims believe in?” I asked one afternoon.
He replied “In Jesus.” Then, about 10 seconds later, “Oh, and the prophet Muhammad.”
We’re getting somewhere! Here’s a more recent exchange:
Maaz: So, Papa, if someone is bad, then they go to hell, right?
Me: Who the hell knows.
Me: Sorry! Yes, son. Bad people go to hell.
It’s a small step. But at least I’m directly answering his questions now.