Today is Valentine’s Day and as a Muslim I’m expected to write terrible things about it. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that the whole concept of sexual promiscuity dressed up as “love” is pretty awful and sends a very negative message to younger generations. I’m appalled at the seasonal displays at Wal-Mart and CVS and all the other stores where alcohol, chocolate and sexy nightwear jostle for space as if one cannot be used except with the crutch of the others. I am horrified when my five year old daughter comes home from kindergarten telling me some boy is always trying to kiss her but she’s not interested because he’s not handsome. Yet today all the parents of my children’s classmates sent home 26 Valentine’s Day cards and candy and little hearts because it’s so cute.
So yes, I do usually write a condemnation of our societal expectations – or rather standards – of love as romantic episodic non-binding relationships every year around this time. But this year I’m conflicted. Not just as an American but as a Muslim as well, because something happened last week to make me think harder about the conflicts that arise from Valentine’s Day and how faith groups and people of faith deal with it.
Last Sunday in my mosque Sunday school I discussed Valentine’s Day with my class of 5-9 year olds. Knowing that almost every parent in the congregation refrains from celebrating it, but almost every young student gets bombarded with it in his or her daily life, especially in school, I gave them a simple exercise. I told them to explain why it was okay or not okay to celebrate Valentine’s Day according to their own understanding of Islam, not what their parents taught them. A caveat, my own two kids, 5 and 8, are in the class, and they have been struggling with the whys and wherefores of it for a long time. So I was just a tiny bit biased in what I thought the responses would be.
Boy, was I wrong. When I got the responses back from my students, I was not only surprised but honestly a little rattled. Most of the students agreed that since Islam taught them to love everybody, celebrating Valentine’s Day was their religious duty. Imagine my dismay… celebrating Valentines Day is now an Islamic duty? I must be really failing as a teacher! Granted this group of students are young and hopefully not yet on that level of awareness of sexual and romantic love. Their schools make sure any gifts and cards and candy are distributed very equally to all in the class and no one person is singled out for a Valentines. Still, I was very startled at the result of my little exercise.
Then I tried to calm down and think about it. Really think. Talk about “out of the mouths of babes.” Sometimes we are so busy sermonizing and following religious tenets to the nth degree that we forget our own hopes, dreams and desires. These children had unknowingly helped me understand a truth about love. Take out the romantic, sexualized image of Valentine’s Day and it can be a wonderful concept. Love everybody, extend your hand in friendship to everyone around you, regardless of whether they are “cute” or not. Regardless of whether they are your friend or your enemy or someone you never even knew existed. Love is, after all, the only weapon we have against hatred and bigotry. Yet, love thy neighbor is a marvelous axiom so hard to practice, unless you’re a first grader who gives an “I Love You” card to the school bully.
I wish I was 8 again, so that I could think about love in these simple terms. I can’t of course, nor can millions of other adults who use Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to get drunk and lucky, whether with their partner of twenty years or a perfect stranger. But in order to make the world more kind, peaceful and loving, I think – I hope – we can also think of Valentine’s Day the way my Sunday school kids think of it. Love everybody, and there will be peace.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.