In recent years, many communities have been forced to address a lack of Islamically appropriate conduct on the part of their youth. We have typically attempted to remedy the situation through a set of predictable steps that include the following: sending the youth to Islamic lectures and events, immersing them in the culture "back home", or hoping that this is a phase they will tire of eventually. However, our approach to teaching our children about Islam consistently falls short of success because while we know that a child must be taught to read and write beginning at the age of five, we rarely instill in them the need to pray on time at the same age. Very often, the social surroundings of a person are blamed as the reason behind who and what they turn out to be. There is much to disagree with in this regard; however, the blame cannot be placed solely on the parents ever. The reality is far more complicated and to say "it's the parent's fault" would be absurd, considering that historically we have had Prophets and Imams whose children have disobeyed Islam. What is the solution then?
In many Muslim households, Islam is taught to children in isolation of other concepts and values and we rely far too heavily on the four hours of Sunday school to teach our children an ample amount of information. We also begin teaching basic Islamic values to children too late with regard to their age, and often we may not be teaching them what they need to grow into happy and practicing Muslims and human beings. The impetus is on us as a whole community, not just on those who are blessed to be parents already, to work together to make sure children are surrounded with Islamic values and actions rather than just empty rhetoric.
What Are the Rights of Children in Islam?
Before practical measures can be taken to teach important Islamic concepts and behaviors to children, we must recognize that all children in our community hold rights against us. We are currently failing as a collective Muslim community in fulfilling our obligations towards the youngest of God's followers and creations. On the Day of Judgment, each and every one of us is accountable for our work done towards helping our young in attaining an understanding of Islam.
What exactly are the rights of children in Islam? The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny) said to Imam Ali (peace be upon him): "O Ali, there are as many rights of children incumbent upon parents as there are rights of parents incumbent upon children." According to the The Family Life of Islam by Allama Sayyid Saeed Akhtar Rizvi, children have six basic rights in Islam:
- The right to life.
- The right to belong to a family.
- The right to have a good name.
- The right to have proper maintenance.
- The right to have a basic secular and religious education.
- The right to be brought up according to Islam.
Keeping in mind that the Prophet and His Household have set forth for us guidelines in how to raise children according to Islam, below are suggestions and steps necessary to facilitate a proper Islamic upbringing in our community.
Modeling Appropriate Behavior
Prophet Muhammad divided the life of a child from the age of infancy to 21 into three stages, each lasting seven years. During the first stage from 0-7 years old, it must be a priority to instill in children the values necessary for a proper upbringing and to work on character building. Those familiar with child development will agree that that is not the period to introduce complex concepts in Islam and nor is it appropriate to use fear and shame as a tactic to get children to comply with Islamic laws. Instead, Prophet Muhammad teaches us that at this stage we must model appropriate behavior and treat children with grace and respect: "Respect your children and teach them good behavior and Allah will forgive (your sins)."
We must model Islamically appropriate behavior before young children in our community at the mosque, community events and in day-to-day activities regardless of whether or not we are the parents. Children at this age absorb information quickly and it's up to us to show them what is and is not acceptable. It is important to also model certain behaviors out loud – for example, when beginning a meal we must say "Bismillah," or "in the name of God," and when we finish a meal we should thank God. It is also important to watch our language, keep calm and remain respectful before children because we are teaching them how to act. Children must be in a positive environment and the Prophet stresses upon the need for this too: "It is among the rights of the child on his father to teach him good manners and keep him in good society."
Imam Ja'far as-Sadiq (peace be upon him) also provides us with a sequence of steps to teach children important Islamic concepts during this age by advising: "When the child reaches three years, teach him seven times to recite 'There is no God but Allah' (la ilaha ill'Allah). Then leave him at that 'til he is three years, seven months and twenty days old; then train him to say 'Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah' (Muhammadun Rasul'Allah). Then leave him at that 'til he completes four years. Then teach him seven times to say 'Peace be upon Muhammad and the progeny of Muhammad' (sall'Allahu ala Muhammadin wa aali-Muhammad). Then leave him at that 'til he reaches the age of five years; then ask him which one is his right hand and which one is the left. When he knows it, then make him face the Qibla and tell him to do Sajda (prostration)."
Teaching Islam to Children
When children are 8 to 15 years old, they are in the second stage of their Islamic upbringing. Children during the first two stages are taught the steps of prayer and ablution, until eventually at the age of nine they should be able to master prayer. In many texts and traditions, it is mentioned that once a child has learned how to pray, God will forgive the sins of the parents. It is important to remember that teaching prayer in gradual steps is more logical than teaching prayer in a very short amount of time (a week, for example).
During this stage, children must be taught formal Islamic knowledge. Many families have opted to entrust this large task to Sunday Schools. This approach remains problematic because children are immersed in secular education five days a week and in religious education only a few hours a week. There must be a form of collaboration between parents and weekend Islamic schools so that children are getting the time and attention needed to meaningfully learn and implement Islamic laws and values. During this stage, females also begin to wear the headscarf; however, they must understand that the basis of Hijab is modesty, not simply wearing a cloth on their heads, and that modesty manifests itself in our speech, conduct, friendships, and dress. For both genders, it is important during this stage to limit and eliminate their exposure to un-Islamic television shows, books, and movies due to the large element of anti-religious rhetoric that lies within such things. Furthermore, we must work with the youth at this stage to develop fun and fulfilling alternatives to activities that are forbidden in Islam while also providing them with the reasoning as to why certain activities and television shows are not appropriate for a Muslim to watch.
The final stage of Islamic Upbringing takes place during the ages of 15 to 21, and at this point the hard work of the community in working together to raise a child should manifest itself in the child's conduct. Unfortunately, many families begin Islamic upbringing at this age! This is an ineffective method as we have witnessed and instead, during this stage, we should be reinforcing important ideas and behaviors taught in the first two stages. The Prophet has suggested that parents now act as a "friend" to their child rather than continue in the role of a teacher. However, we have seen some parents take this concept too far and are unable to remind their teenagers of Islamic answers to the typical teenage problems and concerns. For one, we see far too many Muslim families allowing their teenagers to mix freely with the other gender and attend events like prom. This lends itself to a lack of Islamic knowledge on the part of both parent and teenager. Prophet Muhammad said, "A virtuous child is a flower from the flowers of Paradise." He also said, "Among the good fortunes of a man is the virtuous child."
Islamic upbringing begins in the early childhood years and should continue throughout the teenage years. It is the responsibility of all members of the community to work together to instill in our children the best social, moral, and religious values – and these values are found only in Islamic behavior and knowledge.