Monday, July 9, 2012

Parenting: Spirituality and Science

Children are the best Gifts Almighty Allah bestows upon the parents. And good parenting is an Islamic virtue. Inculcating good habits and etiquettes in them and nurturing their inherent creative instincts are a huge responsibility and parents are accountable to the Lord Almighty for the same. In an age that offers too many ‘value’ systems and life styles, temptations and diversions are trying to take over the attention of today’s children. In this context, parenting has to go beyond the command/control/authority approach that parents usually deploy and be flexible enough to take account of the evolving realities: the growing reasoning power of children, their intelligence and age. The pride of being a practicing Muslim has to be demonstrated as a living reality to our children on an everyday basis. If the Islamic way is presented to our children with practical example and persuasion characterized by a relationship of trust and friendship, love and mutual respect, it will win over their hearts and minds.  

In his Friday Sermon of July 06, 2012, Khalifatullah Hadhrat Munir Ahmad Azim Sahib (atba) of Mauritius threw new light on the subject of parenting. Drawing upon recent scientific experiments and new knowledge available on the developmental biology of the human brain, the Khalifatullah underscores the critical importance of early years of a child’s life experiences in the eventual development of his/her emotional stability, personality traits and intelligence level.

Read the Extracts from the Friday Sermon: 

“The regimented way many raise their children is not appropriate to modern life and, more particularly, to life in the countries we now live in. At an early stage, regimentation is a  powerful method to activate good habits and the performances of regular activities such as prayer and reading of the Holy Quran. But as the reasoning of children develops, we must as parents also begin to change our approach to reflect their intelligence and the life of the child.

Particularly in the western world, there are many distractions and temptations fighting for the attention of our children. These, together with the fact that we are inclined to serve our natural desires (some might say naturally inclined to evil), mean that we are in danger of losing our children if we rely totally on obedience to our commands. Unless we build up a relationship of trust and friendship with our children as well as authority through mutual respect and love, we have little hope of retaining our children given the strength of the worldly distraction they are exposed to (TV being a prime example).

It is easy to say “we have lost this generation”, or “there is nothing I can do with my children”. It is easy to blame the society we live in. Will these excuses hold up before Almighty Allah when we have to answer for our care of the gift He gave us? We must accept that the situation we find ourselves in actually exposes faults in our parent-child relationship or, alternatively, that we must adapt to the change in the environment in which we are living by changing our ways with our children.

We live in a culture that rejects Almighty Allah and boasts answers to all of life’s questions. “There is no reason not to try everything in this life as there is nothing to answer after this life. Here and now is the only reason to life so enjoy it while you can”. If our response to this is to shut our doors, ignore the fact and hope it goes away, we have surely lost. Many foreign students are led to believe that they must do in Rome what the Romans do in order not to be rejected and in order to succeed. What they do not realise is that this leads them to a state of disrespect. The local society will continue to believe that they come from a backward country and that the way of life they have developed is the best that all aspire to. This is not true and we need to put pride in the way of life of Almighty Allah if we are to win the fight for the hearts and minds of our youngsters.

So let us go back to (the) basics. As Muslims we have been armed with a powerful code for life through the holy word of Allah. It furnishes guidance for every aspect of life that is of value wherever, and whatever circumstances we might find ourselves. Thus, as briefly indicated above, it has told us how we develop spiritually in such detail that we should be able to raise our children in whatever country and culture we live. Through the blessings of the Divine Manifestation, we have further insight into this developmental process.

Over the recent past, we also have scientific studies of mind and brain that confirm this process in minute detail. I have already mentioned in my previous sermon that man develops from a new-born, that is, completely driven by natural desires, to a spiritual being in equally complete control of his natural desires. Can science help us understand the basis of this transformation? And can such an understanding aid us in our quest for spiritual perfection?

Many of us have heard of the concept of brain stem death. Agreement on the criteria that define death in a situation where vital organs are still functioning has proven difficult. One thing that is agreed is that if the brain stem is not active (that is, not showing signs of electrical activity) then the body is simply a machine kept alive by the activity of the vital organs. There is no prospect for recovery of brain activity once this situation arises. What does this tell us of the organisation of the brain and its relationship to personality and soul?

I have a cousin of mine (who already passed away in 2000) who had lost great areas of brain through tumours or surgery. I made the observation that whatever is left of the working brain, it is sufficient to allow the expression of the original personality given a period of healing. This healing time presumably allows for a readjustment between soul and brain and demonstrates that, although the spirit of the person seems to be independent of the brain in terms of physical injury, it is intricately connected to the physical working brain for its expression. This is perhaps an example of the fact that the soul cannot exist without a body, whether physical for existence in this world, or spiritual for the next world.

The brain involving different levels, these have been recognised by scientists who spent a great deal of time studying the brains of different animals. Cold-blooded animals such as frogs and fish have a brain with no cortex. In mammals we see the development of a neo-cortex to its culmination in the huge, gyrated mass that is found in humans. However, all vertebrates, whether cold or warm-blooded, possess a brain stem that includes the Limbic system. This is a circuit of centres linked together within the lower brain structures that control all automatic, unconscious body functions

This is the complex system of nerves and networks in the brain that controls the basic emotions and all automatic, unconscious body functions that have two recognisable characteristics. Firstly, they have a desired level that is maintained by relatively simple feedback mechanisms and secondly, their control is unconscious, that is, we are not aware of the machinery that is being used to control them nor of their current status.

An example is body temperature. The human body is maintained at 37oC. If the temperature begins to fall below this there is activation of systems to generate heat, such as shivering for example. If the temperature rises above this we have mechanisms to lose heat such as sweating, opening blood vessels in our skin to lose more heat by radiation etc. These mechanisms are automatic. We do not have to think about them nor can we usually override them. Blood pressure, blood glucose level, water balance, hunger are all examples of such automatic systems. Damage to any part of this Limbic system leads to severe disruption of the automatic systems and resulting disease states. Our memory system also relies on this lower brain as it includes the hippocampus, the main area for storage of memories and this structure is also involved in automatic biological activities.

Given all this automatic activity, what is the function of the great mass of neo-cortex sitting on top of the lower brain? Although there is further refinement perception, particularly of vision, within the cerebral hemispheres, these structures provide a major increase in intelligence, in processing power, to aid the biological work of the brain below. Just as computers have evolved into powerful, mobile brains for our daily work, so the neo-cortex has evolved to provide survival advantage by allowing the individual to work out solutions to evade predators, survive the elements, find and cultivate food in ways no other animal can and satisfy all its biological needs ensuring that it passes its genes to the next generation through healthy offspring.

The neo-cortex is, like computers are to us, a servant to the needs of its master, the brain stem. If the brain stem says “hungry”, the neo cortex works out there and how to get the food to satisfy the hunger. But, just as we are now talking of computers with intelligence to think for themselves and to evolve their own future designs, so too the neo-cortex has developed to a stage in humans when it can rise above biological needs and take over from the brain stem in ruling the life of the individual.

There is little difference between the chimpanzee and human brain in organisation and function. The real difference lies in the service of the cortex to the biological brain (brain stem) in all animals except humans in which the cortex can override the biological drives and take over the life of the person. The human brain is dominated by the cerebral hemispheres that are deeply convoluted and completely cover the lower brain areas. The brain is limited from further growth by the physical size of the human head and the limitations on this for natural birth.

All the neurons for an adult brain are in place at birth. Although there is further growth after birth, this involves the formation of interconnection between neurons and the invasions by insulating cells to cover these connection fibres. Thus the maturation of the brain involves connections being made according to experience in life and these early years are critical for the rest of the life.

Here I will make the leap to say that lack of proper upbringing also has serious consequences for the later life of the children. A home that is filled with remembrance of Allah will undoubtedly foster a love of Allah in its children. Animal and human children deprived of their mothers are clearly miserable and show severe psychological disturbances in later life. Similarly, children brought up in a house of turmoil and constant argument between mother and father (or other family members) also suffer in their outlook on later life. We should not underestimate the power of early experience on later life.

It is becoming increasingly clear that these early years are critical to later life. In the Holy Quran, Almighty Allah says:

“I have created men and jinn so that they may know Me and worship Me” (51: 57)

“Indeed, the religion in the sight of Allah is Islam…” (3: 20)

“So direct your face toward the religion, inclining to the right state – the nature made by Allah in which He has made men. No change should there be in the creation of Allah. That is the correct religion, but most of the people do not know. (Adhere to it), turning in repentance to Him, and fear Him and establish prayer and do not be of those who associate others with Allah” (30: 30-31)

How can we understand Almighty Allah and thereby move closer to Him?

My answer to this involves another question, how do we get an understanding of any artist, writer, builder, painter etc? The only way we have of gaining understanding of such people is to study their works. Similarly, to understand the Divine Creator of all life, we can study His creation and come to appreciate Him through this. With our Creator, we have the advantage that He is still with us and we have the means to communicate with Him and form a life-long relationship.

The many ways that studies of nature have confirmed the teachings of Islam are witness to the truth of above. The Promised Messiah Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as) also admonished us to realise the true purpose of our lives:

“Different people, being short-sighted and lacking high resolve, appoint different purposes for their lives and limit themselves to worldly goals and ambitions. But the purpose that God Almighty has appointed for man in His holy word is as follows: “I have created men and jinn so that they may know Me and worship Me” (51: 57). Thus the true purpose of man’s life is the worship of God, his understanding and complete devotion to Him”. 

Why would Allah Almighty not want us His chosen creation, to appreciate His works? We must study His creation and support such studies by our children, thereby gaining an understanding of Allah that will aid our progress to His company. An understanding of the developmental biology of the brain leads us to challenge the ways we bring up our children in a way that should safeguard their future under Islam wherever we may be living in this small world. Insha-Allah, Ameen”.