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Teaching your Child about Islam


Freda Shamma   PhD  


            Children are born in a state of fitra (purity) and then their parents teach them to be believers or unbelievers. According to the Musnad Ibn Hanbal, "The children of the unbelievers are better than you grown-ups.  Every living creature is born with a righteous nature." It is our obligation and duty as parents to teach our children so that they grow up to be believing, practicing Muslims.  Sending the child to an Islamic weekend school or to a full-time Islamic school is an important but minor part of their Islamic education. The major 'institution of learning' for each child is his family, and the major 'professors' of this institution are the parents.




            The most effective way to teach anything to anybody is to be a role model.  This is why Allah sent human beings as prophets to all peoples.  Whether we willingly accept this job or not, it is a fact that your child learns how to function in life by watching what you do.  Even the absent parent is role modeling to the degree that a boy, whose father abandoned his family, will probably treat his own children the same way.


            Every time we deal with our children, we are teaching them, whether we intend to or not.  There is a famous poem by an anonymous author that depicts this vividly.  It begins:


If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn.

If a child lives with hostility, he learns to fight.

If a child lives with ridicule, he learns to be shy.


Therefore we must examine carefully how we deal with our child in order to have a desirable end result.  This same poem continues:


If a child lives with tolerance, he learns to be patient.

If a child lives with fairness, he learns justice.

If a child lives with security, he learns to have faith.  




            As the above poem indicates, negative comments and treatment result in negative attributes in our children, and positive comments and treatment result in positive results. The term 'positive and negative reinforcement' is popular in modern psychology, but it was advocated by the Qu'ran and the actions and sayings of Prophet Muhammad (May Allah's peace and blessings be upon him), 1400 years ago.  How do we use positive reinforcement to teach our children?


            Young children are basically good.  Furthermore they want to please their parents. When you praise them for their good behavior by telling them that Papa and/or Mama is happy with their action, you are using positive reinforcement.  Unfortunately many parents ignore their child's good actions and only comment on the bad actions.  Let us take an example.




            Iman is three years old and has a baby brother, Samir, who is one.  She gets out her blocks to play with and of course Samir crawls over to get involved.  She gives him a red block and then proceeds to build a tower. Samir grows tired of his one block and tries to get more.  In the process he knocks down the tower.  Iman reacts angrily and grabs all the blocks and tells her brother that he can't play with any of the blocks.  Her mother hears her and shouts at her angrily, "Iman you are a bad girl not to share with your brother. Give him some blocks!


            Iman did two actions concerning her brother: 1. She gave him a block and 2. She took the blocks away.  She received attention from her mother for the bad actions.  This teaches her that if she wants attention from her mother, she should NOT share.


            How else could the mother have handled it?  If she had praised Iman when she first shared ("Iman, what a nice sister you are, to share with your brother.  I'm so happy to see you do that."), then Iman would remember that her doing ‘good’ resulted in her mother's attention.  When her brother knocks over her blocks, her first inclination will probably be to grab all the blocks but if her mother is there to console her and encourage her to try again ("Oh Iman, it's too bad that Samir knocked over your blocks.  He was trying to play with you, but he is too little to be good at making towers.  Why don't you build a little tower for him to play with, and then you can build a big one for yourself."), then she will happily give him more blocks. She will want to share next time as well because that action got her mother's attention.  




            One of the most important aspects of raising your children to be Muslims is to introduce the idea that Allah is also happy with their good actions.  If you say that what they did or are doing is making you and Allah happy, then the child begins to associate good behavior with acting for the pleasure of Allah, which in a nutshell, is exactly what being a good Muslim involves.  Can you say anything better of a believer other than that he/she does everything fi sabillah (for the sake of Allah)?  




            The child who errs is forgiven by Allah, and if he dies in childhood, he automatically goes to heaven.  This mercy of Allah should guide us as we guide our children.  It is not necessary to make the child fearful of Allah or fearful of going to hell.  In fact, this approach is counter productive - it often achieves the very result we are trying to avoid.  Stressing the negative and the punishment makes the child want to avoid anything to do with the religion.  He or she grows up thinking that it is religion that keeps him from enjoying life.  




            When you are talking to children under the age of twelve, stress the characteristics of Allah that will give him security and assurances as he grows and encounters fearful situations and unknowns. He needs to be aware of the many blessings Allah has given to him to help him enjoy and cope with his life.  And he needs to understand which actions Allah will be pleased with, rather than worry over punishment for mistakes he knows he will make.  




            Too often when parents think about talking to their children about Islam, they concentrate on the ritual of the five pillars.  They teach them how to make salat (required prayer), and they teach them some short Qur'anic surat (chapters).  These are important, but don't forget that Islam is a total way of life, and every aspect has an Islamic element that you need to talk about and demonstrate for your child.  When the father goes off to work, the mother can say 'Good bye' or she can say 'Assalamu alaikum' and add its meaning in English, 'may Allah's peace be with you".  As she and the young child start to do something together, she can mention that the father is doing what Allah says a good father should do - working to take care of the family.  She can also mention, and the father should also mention it frequently, that she is trying to please Allah by doing many things to help her child and the family.  When the child helps her mother clean off the table, the mother should mention that Allah is pleased with children who help their parents.  Mentioning the Islamic aspect does not imply nor suggest that you need to deliver lectures about Islam to your child.  No child wants to sit still long enough to hear a lecture about anything.  The effective teaching comes as short comments or stories that point out the Islamic nature of the action.   When the parents pay zakat (yearly compulsory tax), they should mention the fact to their children. When they visit the sick, they should quote a Qur'anic ayah (verse) or hadith (story about Prophet Muhammad) which indicates that this action pleases Allah.  When there are two ways that a child can respond to a situation, the parent can mentions nicely which way will be pleasing to Allah.


            The constant reference to Allah, the constant encouragement to do what is right, and the constant praise and positive reinforcement for doing the right actions, will focus your child on the right path. 




            As our children reach adolescence, they begin to question what they have been taught, especially if most of the youth they associate with are non-Muslims, or non-practicing Muslims.

            If you have already established a positive relationship with your youth, then your teenage child will come to you with his/her questions and concerns.  Do not mistake these questions and worries as a rebellion against you or against their religion.  They see the kids at school dating, and it looks like fun. 'Why shouldn't we date?' they wonder.  Be happy that your youth feels comfortable coming to you with these issues.


            If you have not established a positive relationship with your child by this time, you will probably have a big problem on your hands, because your youth will have the same questions, but he won't come to you for a discussion about them.  He will be seeking his answers from his friends, and if his friends are not actively practicing Muslims, he may be getting answers that go against Islam.


            Why do some parents and youth have a positive relationship and others do not? There are at least two important factors here: time and what kind of time?  Did the parents spend time with their children as they were growing up?  Did they make a practice of asking their children about their school, their friends, their opinions on various things, and then LISTEN to their answers?


            Remember positive reinforcement?  What kind of time do the parents spend with their children?  Is it based on positive reinforcement, or does the child expects to hear angry and negative comments every time he/she tries to talk to a parent?   




            Thirteen year Omar is fasting for his second year, during Ramadan.  One Saturday he and another Muslim, Adnan, go to a non-Muslim friend's house to play.  At one o'clock, Omar phones home to tell his mother, " Johnny keeps asking us to eat lunch. We told him we're fasting and he should go ahead, but he says if we don't eat, he won't either. Adnan says if I break my fast, he will too.  What should I do?"


            "I can't believe you're asking me that," complains his mother.  "Allah is going to punish you if you don't fast!  You know better than that?  Why can't you act like a good Muslim.  Your father and I have taught you better than that!"


            How often will Omar asks his mother any questions after a response like that? By assuming that his behavior is negative and giving negative reinforcement, you can be sure that Omar is not likely to ask his mother for help again.  Instead, imagine if his mother answered this way:


            "You did the right thing by phoning when you weren't sure.  But I think you already know what you should do.  What do you think is the right thing to do?"


            Omar answers, "I think I should say no, I'm going to keep fasting."


            "You are exactly right," answers his mother. "I'm so proud of you for the way you are thinking."



            When you have discussions with your youth, you may be alarmed at his rudeness, or his apparent rejection of everything you say. He may even tell you that you are stupid or you don't understand, or you don't care about him.  This does not mean what it sounds like.  It means that he does not feel comfortable with the answers he is getting.  Maybe what you say is opposite to what he is feeling at that moment, or maybe he has given that answer to his non-Muslim friends and they have rejected that opinion.


            Although it is very hard, remain kind and positive with your youth.  It really hurts the parent to hear these comments, but they are not really aimed at the parent, but at the thinking process he/she is now undertaking. 


            During your discussions with your youth, you will now want to include both positive and negative reinforcement.  'Yes', you may agree with your youth, 'it is very difficult not to drink when everyone else is, but remember that Allah will reward you for your good behavior, and remember His punishment if you follow someone other than Allah.'


            When there are so many unIslamic forces putting pressure on your youth, he now needs to understand that Allah will hold him accountable for his actions.  Allah will help if the youth ask Him for help, and he will be rewarded for following the right path, but accountability also means he will receive punishment for his bad deeds.


            Life is too difficult to do by oneself.  The young child has his parents who protect him, and encourage him and who 'know everything'.  Then he/she grows up and discovers that mother and father don't really know everything.  Furthermore at school he/she is hearing and seeing other philosophies of life, and the selfish, materialistic one most readily seen at school seems like fun, and besides, 'everyone else is doing it'.  How is the youth supposed to figure out who is right?  It is a difficult time for him/her, and it is up to the parents to be supportive, to encourage discussions, to make allowances for mistakes, but at the same time, to remain firm in their teaching of Islamic values.  




            While teaching and talking to our children about Islam, we need to be aware of certain hidden issues.  These are secular vs. religious actions, facts vs. behavior and acquiescence vs. critical thinking. These issues affect our thinking and acting although few of us are aware of them.




            Hina was an attractive fifteen-year-old with a slender, attractive figure. She attended the Islamic weekend classes on a regular basis, wearing very short skirts and skintight sweaters. The teacher mentioned to her mother that she might want to encourage her daughter to dress more Islamically because her way of dress would attract undesired attraction of the boys at school.


            "Hina, you have to change the way you are dressing. It's unIslamic. No more short skirts and you have to wear overlarge sweaters to hide your shape!" scolded her mother.


            "Who are you to say anything?" responded Hina angrily. "Look at yourself, your dress is up to your knees and I can see everything about your shape!"


            Hina's mother has a split personality when it comes to religion.  On one hand she prays her prayers and fasts during Ramadan.  On the other hand she likes to be 'fashionably' dressed when she interacts with non-Muslims.  She reads the Qur'an most evenings, but spends her afternoon gossiping with her friends.  What is her daughter learning?


            Hassan is no better off with his father, who takes him to the weekend Islamic classes but tells him he can skip Juma because his academic studies are more important.  Hassan's father is a leader in the Muslim community, but Hassan overhears him bragging to his friends about how he cheated on his income tax and got away with it.


            If we as parents pick and choose which aspect of Islam to apply and which to omit from our own lives, we can hardly expect our children to live purely Islamic lives.  If Hina's mother chooses her clothing based on what her non Muslim associates are wearing, then of course Hina will demand the same right, even though her mother feels like her clothes are too short or too tight.  The question is, who is the authority and who has the right to decide?  If it is Allah who has the right to decide, then parents have no right to pick and choose which practices they will follow.  If it is the individual who decides, then children have as much right as their parents, once they reach puberty. Parents who think differently will have their youth point this out to them (if they are on speaking terms).  For sure the youth will be thinking this. If you know you are not following what Allah orders, you can attempt to change your own behavior, admit to your youth that you are also still growing in your faith, and tell them frankly that you are trying to help them on the right path now because it will make their life easier and better. Then you will need to point out the times when your deviation from Islamic values has caused problems for you.


            If you choose to ignore this aspect, most likely your children will choose to ignore your advice.  




            This aspect has already been alluded to in this paper, but it needs a bit of explanation.  We expect the masjid (mosques) classes to teach our children how to read the Qur'an in Arabic, but not to understand what it means.  We expect the masjid to teach our children how to pray, how to fast, etc. but NOT HOW TO LIVE, how to behave.


These are facts, not behavior.  Many children know how to pray; very few feel the need to pray because they understand its importance.  Quite a large number of children know how to read the Qur'an. Only a few read the Qur'an in order to understand what it is saying, or in order to answer their questions.


            Islam is a complete way of life.  The facts (the 5 pillars, the biography of Prophet Muhammad) are useful when they help the person learn how and why they should do something.  The fact that Prophet Muhammad lived 1400 years ago is a fact.  By itself, that fact is worthless.  The fact, that he lived as a Muslim in a city where Muslims were few and persecuted, is worthless until it helps us realize that if he and the early Muslims could flourish in that setting, then so can we. When we teaching our children about Islam, we need to teach them how to behave, not just to memorize facts.   Instead of giving them lists of facts to learn, set them an example and mention the Islamic connection while you are doing it.  You visit someone who is sick; mention that this is an Islamic requirement, discuss with your child why it is good to do this act.  Make sure you visit with sick people who are not part of your cultural group and non-Muslims as well. One important lesson for your child to learn is that Islamic behavior is good for everyone, even non-Muslims.


            Watch TV with your children, especially the pre-teens.  Don't preach, but discuss the behavior of the characters in the sitcom (comedy). Make comments like, 'Aren't you glad you're a Muslim so you don't have that problem' (concerning problems with dating, drinking, etc.)


            Initiate discussions with your children.  Bring up situations like, 'What should you do if a friend in school is out sick for a week?"  It is extremely important to really listen to what your children are saying.  They know in a second if your mind is preoccupied with something else.  When you ask for their opinion, really listen to their answer, and make your next comment reflect theirs.  




            Many parents grew up in areas where colonizing rulers maintained schools for acquiescence. That is, pupils were taught to repeat exactly what the teacher told them. If the test question asked for 3 reasons why it is good to brush your teeth, the answer had to be the exact three reasons that the teacher had told them in class. The pupil is not supposed to think; he is supposed to accept everything without questioning. This is too often the way we teach our children about Islam.  Do this action because Islam says you have to.  Do this exactly the way I say because every other way is haram.  Our children need to learn that there are two kinds of knowledge, that which is revealed and that which is humanly acquired.  Knowledge revealed in the Qur'an and hadiths is unchanging and unarguable.  Knowledge that is derived from our five senses and our own thinking is subject to error and can and should be questioned.


            North American schools, including good Islamic schools, stress critical thinking.  For children who grow up here, it is not sufficient to say you have to do this because I say so.  You can expect your children to honor and obey you because Islam requires obedience to parents, but you must also explain and discuss why you are asking for their obedience.  Your youth should be required to pray, because Allah says for them to pray, but you must also be open and willing to discuss why Allah would ask us to do that.  What are the possible benefits of praying, what should you do if you feel like the prayer is empty of meaning to you, and so on.  These questions don't mean your youth are turning away from Islam; they mean that your youth are thinking seriously about their religion.  One of the most wonderful things about Islam is that because it is the truth, it can stand up to the most critical of questions.


            Parents must also learn to acknowledge that they make mistakes, and they are ignorant of certain answers.  Your child does not have the right to expect you to be able to explain every Islamic injunction.  He/she does have the right to expect you to give an honest and open response to their questions. When you tell your youth, "That's an important question.  I don't know the answer. Let's see if we can find out what the Qur'an says about it." then you have created an open, honest exchange of thoughts with your youth.


            Discuss Islam with your children from the time they are young, stressing the positive, and encouraging them to speak frankly and freely to you.  Be an Islamic role model for them. By the time they have emerged from their troubling, questioning adolescence, you will have children who have actively embraced Islam, and who want to be Muslim because they know that it will make their life better in this world, and in the hereafter, in shaa Allah (Allah willing).  


This paper was first presented at the Annual Convention of the Islamic Society of North America, Chicago, Sept. 2, 2000.


Dr. Freda Shamma has her doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction, which she received from the University of Cincinnati.  She has worked on curriculum development in several Muslim countries as well as for Islamic schools in North America.  Currently she is the Director of Curriculum Development for FADEL (Foundation for Advancement and Development of Education and Learning) in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her latest publication can be found in Muslims and Islamization in North America: Problems and Prospects, ed. Amber Haque. Amana Publications.


Dr. Shamma has five children, the oldest of whom is married with two children, and the youngest is in high school.  All of her children are active in Islamic work, and particularly active in MYNA, Muslim Youth of North America.



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