The lost art of being helpful: Ramadan lessons

Today I want to talk about a Ramadan lesson that’s a little bit different. I’m not talking about the Qur’an today, or making du’a, or learning about the Prophet (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) or about salah. I’m talking about basic life skills — in particular, I’m talking about being helpful.

But the beauty of Islam is that it includes basic life skills, and being helpful is in fact a form of worship, if done with the right intentions.

A few weeks ago, my family and I went to a large park. It was the kind of park where you could walk for hours, and get lost in the various pathways. At the end of our trip, we stopped at the park playground. While Merry and Pippin played, I sat nearby on a bench and watched. And then something happened that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since that day.

There was a little girl trying to climb onto one of the swings nearby Merry and Pippin. She must have been about two years old, maybe a little younger. Old enough to speak clearly and tall enough to climb onto a swing, but definitely smaller than three year old Pippin who’s always hovered around 3rd percentile for both height and weight (Pippin is about the size of an average 18 month old). It struck me that the girl looked to be alone on the playground, but I assumed her parents were probably sitting on a bench somewhere just like I was.

Then I noticed her looking in different directions. She called out in another language, but I thought I heard something that sounded like “mommy.” She walked to each edge of the playground, calling out — she looked towards the hills behind the playground, then she looked toward the picnic area, she looked toward the path leading to the water, then she looked toward the parking lot.

At this point, I was looking around, too. I didn’t see anyone that I thought might be her mother. But what was very obvious was that there was a park full of people (it was so crowded, I had a hard time finding a place to sit near the playground and the picnic area looked completely full), and none of them were helping this little girl. A few people looked at her when she called out, but they went back to their own conversations. Most people paid her no attention at all.

This was all happening right at the moment that Pippin needed to use the potty and we were getting ready to leave. As Pippin went off with her baba, and everyone else in my family were packing up and getting ready to leave, I kept watching the girl. Seriously, no one was even looking in her direction. I asked a few families sitting on either side of us if they had seen anyone come to the playground with that little girl, and if they knew where her mom went, and each family said “nope” and that was all the help they would give.

So I made my whole family wait while I went to talk to her, hoping that she spoke English and hoping that I wouldn’t scare her off. I brought my stroller with Merry sitting in it, in case that would make her more comfortable with me. I asked her if she needed help. She said yes. Alhamdulillah that she spoke English. She wasn’t crying, but her voice was breaking as she answered. I asked her if she’s looking for her mom. She said yes. I asked her if she knew where her mom went — to the car, to eat, to answer a phone call? She shook her head. So I started asking her what colour her mom was wearing. She had to think for a while. I started naming colours one by one… eventually I figured out that her mom was wearing white. So I stood up to look for anyone wearing white, and lo and behold her mom was walking up behind me and the girl was safe again.

What I keep thinking about is, why didn’t anyone help? Why are we as a society so engrossed in our own lives that we can’t see a lost two year old right in front of us? If it had been Merry or Pippin lost at that park, despite hundreds of adults being right beside them, they may not have made their way back to me — and I find that a very scary thought.

So one of the lessons that I want to teach Pippin this month is the art of being helpful. Allah encourages us to be saabiqoon — the front runners. Those who race to do good.

We learn about three types of people in the Qur’an, in Surah Faatir:

ثُمَّ أَوْرَثْنَا الْكِتَابَ الَّذِينَ اصْطَفَيْنَا مِنْ عِبَادِنَا ۖ فَمِنْهُمْ ظَالِمٌ لِّنَفْسِهِ وَمِنْهُم مُّقْتَصِدٌ وَمِنْهُمْ سَابِقٌ بِالْخَيْرَاتِ بِإِذْنِ اللَّهِ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ هُوَ الْفَضْلُ الْكَبِيرُ

Then we caused to inherit the Book those We have chosen of Our servants; and among them is he who wrongs himself (dhaalimun linafsihi), and among them is he who is moderate (muqtasid), and among them is he who is foremost in good deeds (saabiqun bil-khayraat) by the permission of Allah. That [inheritance] is what is the great bounty.

Faatir: 32

The three groups in this ayah are:

  1. The one who wrongs himself (dhaalimun linafsihi): he obeys Allah sometimes and disobeys Him sometimes.
  2. The one who is moderate (muqtasid): he obeys Allah and does not disobey Him, but he doesn’t do anything that isn’t required of him, or he does extra only when he feels like it.
  3. The one who is foremost in good deeds (saabiqun bil-khayraat): he races to do good deeds. He does all the obligatory deeds and stays away from what is prohibited, and he does as many extra good deeds as possible.

This life is a race, and I want my family to be winners. We need to get ourselves out of apathy, stop being so self-absorbed, and start seizing the opportunities that are right in front of us.

This is a reminder to myself first and foremost because I’ll never be able to pass this lesson on to my children if I don’t learn it myself first. So I’m drilling it into my head as much as possible this month.

In Surah al-Qasas, we learn the beautiful story of Musa (‘alayhi salaam), when he came across two women needing help:

وَلَمَّا وَرَدَ مَاءَ مَدْيَنَ وَجَدَ عَلَيْهِ أُمَّةً مِّنَ النَّاسِ يَسْقُونَ وَوَجَدَ مِن دُونِهِمُ امْرَأَتَيْنِ تَذُودَانِ ۖ قَالَ مَا خَطْبُكُمَا ۖ قَالَتَا لَا نَسْقِي حَتَّىٰ يُصْدِرَ الرِّعَاءُ ۖ وَأَبُونَا شَيْخٌ كَبِيرٌ

And when he came to the well of Madyan, he found there a crowd of people watering [their flocks], and he found aside from them two women driving back [their flocks]. He said, “What is your circumstance?” They said, “We do not water until the shepherds dispatch [their flocks]; and our father is an old man.”

فَسَقَىٰ لَهُمَا ثُمَّ تَوَلَّىٰ إِلَى الظِّلِّ فَقَالَ رَبِّ إِنِّي لِمَا أَنزَلْتَ إِلَيَّ مِنْ خَيْرٍ فَقِيرٌ

So he watered [their flocks] for them; then he went back to the shade and said, “My Lord, indeed I am, for whatever good You would send down to me, in need.”

Al-Qasas: 23-24

He helped them as soon as he saw that they were in difficulty, without being asked once. And if Musa (‘alayhi salaam) is in desperate need of goodness from Allah, what about us? What can we hope to achieve in life (and afterwards) without the help of Allah?

‘Abdullah ibn Mas’ood (radhiAllahu ‘anhu) narrated that the Prophet (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “The entire of humanity is Allah’s family, and Allah loves him most from among this family, who benefits the family most.” (Mishkaat al-Masaabih).

He (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) also said, “He is not a perfect believer, who goes to bed full knowing that his neighbour is hungry.” (Also in Mishkaat al-Masaabih).

Raising our children to be helpful

Play a helpful game

Any time that you might play “I spy” (like while standing in line at the grocery store, or trying to pass time at home without anyone killing each other), you could try playing a helpful game instead.

Take turns looking around and finding any possible way to be helpful. Maybe that lady needs help putting her groceries on the checkout belt. Maybe there’s something lying on the floor that needs to be picked up before someone slips. Maybe the windows need to be cleaned. Maybe someone has forgotten to clean up her toys and needs help putting them away before amma puts them into long-term storage.

There are always opportunities around us, but we have to train ourselves to see them and take advantage of them. Think of the number of good deeds we could pile up during Ramadan if we just look around us.

Be helpful yourself towards them

We often place a lot of importance on our children being independent, to the point that we want them to do almost everything themselves. I won’t help you get the toy off the shelf, you can do it yourself. I won’t help you put on your clothes, you can do that yourself. I won’t cut your food for you, you can do it yourself.

Yes, children do need to learn the skills necessary to take care of themselves, but that doesn’t mean that we as parents have to be heartless and that we can’t ever help them do every day tasks. Pippin knows perfectly well how to cut her own food, but I still do it for her sometimes. I like helping her and the day will come when she won’t ask me to cut her food anymore. Families should have a tradition of lovingly helping each other.

If we always tell our children to do things themselves, why would they ever want to help us? After all, we can do it ourselves, too. Children imitate what they see and hear (if you have a toddler, you’ve probably heard him or her saying phrases that sound awfully familiar). If the parents help the children, the children will grow up helping others.

Show that you’re happy when they’re helpful, but let their reward remain with Allah

I know there’s a lot of emphasis on rewarding good behaviour, positive praise, and so on, but I honestly think that most of the time rewards are not necessary.

I mention to Merry and Pippin whenever they do something that makes me happy, and I also mention that it’s more important that Allah is happy. If they clean up, I would say, “wow that’s so nice that you cleaned up and now I don’t have to clean up! But even better, Allah loves when you’re being clean, and I’m sure He has something great waiting for you in Jannah because of this!”

Rewards from Allah are way better than any reward I could give. I typically keep my rewards to things like trips to the zoo, making a favourite meal, or occasional presents.

I don’t reward them for every little thing they do. But I do mention to them that Allah’s reward is always perfect. Sometimes it comes soon — like one time when there was a toy that Pippin really wanted, but I said no, and then she got it as a gift from someone else unexpectedly. Sometimes it comes later, after many years when you least expect it. And sometimes the reward is so amazing that it won’t even come in this world — it can only be in Jannah because it’s too perfect for the dunya. Those are the very best rewards and they are 100% worth waiting for.

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