The story begins in the ninth month of my pregnancy, as I was reading a book entitled, Special Delivery. While reading the detailed instructions on how to have a home birth, my curiosity was piqued by the author’s sharing of a “personal touch.” She described it as her “Persian tradition,” and explained the importance of blessing a newborn. This was something I had never heard of in my whole life.
At the time, I was not a practicing Muslim, even though I had been raised by Muslims parents (and grandparents). Despite the fact that I was the second generation born in America, I grew up without a mosque, because there was none in all of New England, not until 1964. Moreover, I had never been a part of any Muslim community.
That meant there was no place for me (or my parents) to learn about my religion, Islam. Consequently, like most Americans, I knew very little. But, there was one word in the book that was familiar to me. From my upbringing, I recognized the word, “Allah,” the word for God in Arabic.
The author stated that most babies are blessed by an imam, or a man in the family, such as a father, grandfather, or husband. But since I was having my child as a single parent, isolated from my family, and had no knowledge of what an imam was or did, I immediately considered the difficulty of my situation in a new light.
As I read on, I realized that there was something urgent at stake here. The author explained that if the baby heard the call to prayer as soon as h/she was born, there would be an immediate recollection of having just been in the presence of God, before birth. By reinforcing this memory at birth, the child’s iman (faith) would be guaranteed for the rest of his life. The tradition and its aim were similar to a Christening. Knowing this, I began to covet the blessing for my child, trusting that he would grow up believing in the Creator, who had gifted this life to me.
I carefully read the author’s how-to instructions, to whisper in the baby’s right ear at birth, and learned the “call to prayer,” which was in italics in the book:
(Allah whoo Akbar) God is the great
I bear witness that there is no god but One God
I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God
Come to prayer
Come to success
God is the greatest
There is no god but One God
Unencumbered by cultural taboos or religious traditions, I decided to do the blessing myself. I wanted my child to hear this word, Allah, and thus, renew his relationship with God, a relationship that I had somehow neglected to develop during my childhood and early twenties.
The fact that this book came into my possession at the exact time I was preparing to give birth, seemed to be Divine intervention. This strengthened my faith when I needed it most. Imagine, I thought, to have missed a moment that comes but once in a lifetime.
The Importance of Blessing a Newborn: Carried forward 25 years later
One day, during my chaplaincy residency at Brigham & Women’s hospital, where I was studying to become a Muslim chaplain, I was called to the room of a young Muslim woman on the maternity floor. Asma was 20 years old, with a soft brown complexion and dark curly hair that framed a sweet, round face. When I walked in, she was sitting up in bed. Unlike most new mothers who had just given birth and are tired but radiant, Asma was just plain tired. Her beautiful face was marred by a deeply troubled expression. With no baby present and no visitors, the room was lonely, joyless, and dark.
Asma asked me to arrange for the imam in the hospital to bless her newborn baby. I went downstairs and proceeded to check the imam’s schedule, only to learn that the patient would be leaving the hospital before he came on duty.
On my way back to tell Asma about the scheduling problem, I was intercepted by her social worker outside the room. She informed me that Asma was not married, and that she was in physical danger from her boyfriend. The social worker had just been advising Asma not to move in with the boy, once discharged from the hospital, because he had been violent on several occasions in the past. My colleague let me know that Asma would be better off moving in with her grandmother, who had offered a room for her and the baby, and that this was her best choice right now, even if it was only temporary.
As we parted, my thoughts turned to my own life, long ago: a single mother, a new baby, a lonely and difficult situation, and the book, Special Delivery. I knocked and entered the room, finding Asma sitting up in bed, her face still absent of joy or relief, and with no baby present once again. I explained that the imam was unable to do the blessing due to the scheduling conflict. I asked if she knew anyone else in her family who could do it; maybe a father or brother, another imam?
Asma started to cry silently and spoke in a small voice, “No. There isn’t anyone.” Pausing to dry her eyes, “But I want it done. It’s important to me. Can you do it?”
I had done the blessing before, at the request of new parents. And, I would have done it for Asma, if the baby had been present, and if my own schedule had permitted it. But I had no time either. Asma was scheduled to be discharged within the hour. Then, I had a better idea.
I said, “Asma, I’m sorry, but I don’t have time to do the blessing because my shift is almost over. But, let me tell you something. I think you should do it yourself.”
This elicited a big negative reaction, “But I can’t do it. I don’t know how to. I can’t do it. She pleaded with me, “Can’t you do it, please?”
“Asma, do you plan to raise this child to be a Muslim?”
“Absolutely,” she said, listening now.
“Okay, then. Since this is your child, your responsibility, and you are planning to raise her as a Muslim, you can take the responsibility. As her mother, you will always be the most important person in her life, and as the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, ‘the mother is a child’s first teacher.’” You can do the blessing yourself, right here and now.
Tentatively, Asma acquiesced, “Yes… but… will you show me how to do it?”
“Asma,” I said, looking into her frightened eyes, “I will show you how to do it. You, Asma, will give your child this most important blessing. Are you ready to learn?”
Asma paused, thoughtfully, and when she finally spoke, it was with a new resolve,
“Okay. I mean, yes, I’m ready. I want to do it.”
After explaining how the blessing was done, I asked Asma where she was planning to go when she left the hospital. I noticed that she had perceptibly changed, perhaps empowered by the simple idea that she could bless her own baby.
Without hesitating, she said, “I think I’m going to my grandmother’s house. It’s really nice there, and I love my grandmother. I’ll only stay for the first few weeks, so she can help me with my baby. She paused to restate her decision, “Yeah. I can’t wait to go there.”
Upon seeing her beautiful face, wearing a smile for the first time, I affirmed, “That sounds like a great idea, Asma. I’m sure you’re going to be a wonderful mother.”
We say, Inshallah to that!