God Is Mystery: Motherhood and Islamic Mysticism

“If God made everything, the sun, the trees, the Earth, then … who made God?” “Where was I before God made me?”

Explaining God to our children can sometimes lead to our deepest contemplations about Him. Credit: Asma T. Uddin.

Some of my deepest contemplations about God happen during or because of my conversations with my six-year-old daughter, Zaynab. She is at that tender age where she’s wondering about her place in the larger scheme of things, why things happen, and what distinguishes good from bad (“Why do I have to follow your rules?!”). She’s wondering where her grandmother, who passed away two years ago, is now (“Why does God have to take people away?”).

In trying to answer these questions for her, I have to think of the simplest, most convincing but also truest way to explain complex phenomena. And in that parsing of deep theological conceptions of God, I have rediscovered Him.

In so doing, I understand more fully why, according to prominent Islamic scholars, motherhood is akin to Islamic mysticism: it not only refines our character through the small and big tribulations of raising children, but it also gives us a chance to experience and transmit a raw, almost pure spirituality to future generations of believers. As a mother, I am shaping the lives of—at least two—servants of God.

When they ask questions about God and religion, Uddin tells her children of Jannah (Heaven) with "rivers of wine, delightful companions, and reunions with our departed beloveds." Credit: Creative Commons.

There’s something so real, so down-to-earth, about that conception of God. It’s not the spirituality of cloisters and isolation from the world, a type of lofty mission that only a few can achieve or even attempt. God is instead embedded in every facet of our life. In parenting, I am serving God when I hug my children, do their homework with them, teach them their manners—and even when I am changing their diapers and managing their tantrums.

Coupled with the mundane is the magical. I get to tell my kids stories with characters, plots, and settings more fantastical than anything even Disney could dream up. I tell them about the angels sitting on each person’s shoulders, hastily scribbling down every right and wrong that we do. I tell them about the Prophet Muhammad’s journey to and through Heaven, his meeting with other prophets who had preceded him, and his final approach to God. I tell them of a place called Jannah (Heaven) with rivers of wine, delightful companions, and reunions with our departed beloveds.

And then there is depth. Why does God have to take people away from us? Where were we before we were born? Who created God? My daughter asks these questions determinedly but with some caution, understanding that she is entering territory that transcends her lived experiences. “We were with God, and then He put us on earth for a little while—and then one day He says ‘Times Up! Time to come back to Me.'” I convey that God is both authoritative and kind; I choose my words carefully in order to communicate both majesty and warmth.

Of course, sometimes, I don’t have the answers to her questions. And often, those are the moments of the most profound sharing: God is in the mundane, and He is in the magical. But most of all, God is mystery.

(This web-only article is part of a special series associated with Tikkun’s Summer 2014 print issueThinking Anew About God. Subscribe now to read these subscriber-only articles online, and sign up for our free email newsletter to receive links to future web-only articles on this topic, as well! Visit tikkun.org/god-anew to read the other web-only articles associated with this issue.)

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