Due to widely publicised changes in education policy in the UK, Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) will be taking on a new shape and form in the British education system, and classrooms across the country. Within pockets of the Muslim community, the debate concerning this wind change in policy have been largely overblown and hyperbolic, causing a moral panic and setting a social media frenzy alight in corners of the British Muslim world. This knee-jerk reaction seriously threatens our ability as a community to take stock of, and fully understand, both the root and impact of Government measures, and therefore jeopardises our chances of taking productive steps forward when it comes to our children’s academic and moral education. It also has the potential to stymie attempts to devise a coherent, wider community stance on a subject as integral to modern day identity as RSE. As a British Muslim community, we have come a long way both in terms of religious literacy, our social and legal standing, and our political representation. We want to continue a trajectory that safeguards our position in British society as British Muslims, with a consensus based on true evidence from the Qur’an and Sunnah, not cloaked in cultural superstitions and myths.
By the Will and Mercy of Allah, these new policy positions present an opportunity for Muslim families and institutions to take a long overdue, proactive approach to shaping our children’s view and impressions of core Islamic principles such as family values and relationships. This is something that we cannot afford to neglect and which, due in part to generational differences, we have been reticent on so far. By educating ourselves and our children on Islamic scriptural approaches to RSE, Muslim families, schools and communities have an opportunity to begin a productive and behaviour changing dialogue concerning children and young people’s outlook on RSE, one that fully foregrounds Islamic principals and etiquettes. It has the potential to create confident, resilient, socially-conscious and empowered Muslim youth, ready to tackle the challenges of modern Britain.
In line with statutory guidance, a primary school Islamic RSE curriculum need not address issues pertaining to sex. Rather it can address vital issues such as families, caring friendships, respectful relationships and being safe. These are all aspects of life children are forced to navigate, often without the religious instruction that enables them to be cognisant of their individual and social potential, and to be responsive in an Islamically cogent way. In centring subjects such as puberty in Islamic morals and principals, we are giving Year 6 children for whom these changes are present, or around the corner, an opportunity to marvel at how Allah created their bodies, and to reclaim the narrative concerning body positivity and agency, repurposed as a blessing from, and duty to, Allah. We have an opportunity to take control of the narrative and define these core principles within an Islamic paradigm. We also have an opportunity to reinforce wider Islamic edicts regarding social and familial responsibility that will lead to a stronger, healthier and more successful ummah in sha Allah.
A secondary school Islamic RSE curriculum can build upon the above and include age appropriate guidance on intimate and sexual relationships, including sexual health, from an Islamic perspective. Issuing guidance, and grounding young people’s understanding on this issue in the wisdom of Islamic scripture, will enable them to make responsible choices, consistent with an Islamic lifestyle.
The aforementioned curriculum areas are all pressing and relevant issues to today’s youth that will be brought to their attention via a number of institutional and social channels. The social anxiety concerning the teaching of these subjects in some Muslim communities centres on the false notion that being exposed to these subjects will dilute or weaken Islamic identity. To the contrary, studying them through the illuminating light of shariah will undoubtedly strengthen young people’s Islamic identity, in sha Allah – both because of the beauty and wisdom inherent in them, but also because we are shaping their basic understanding of these notions in accordance with Islam, rather than leaving them vulnerable to dominant culture. It will contribute to a greater understanding of Islamic values and our approach to this subject as a wider community has the potential to aid them to form a more positive and affirmative outlook on Islamic life – something we sorely lack.
As it stands, sex education in schools, which under new legislation is mandatory only in secondary schools, teaches young people about the mechanics of sexual relationships and health only. By not supplementing this education as a Muslim community, and in Muslim homes throughout the country, we are doing Muslim children a great disservice, by leaving out the most key elements of sex and relationships education – their purpose in the noble light of shariah. By learning about these subjects in isolation, Muslim children will be unable to anchor sex and intimacy in a sense of moral duty, or connect them to a higher, more lofty purpose, creating a moral void. These are both key elements in enabling young people to make conscientious choices, and to understand the true consequences of sexually risky behaviour.
A comprehensive approach to Islamic RSE, which provides the moral and ethical framework in line with the Qur’an and Sunnah, can help to enrich this integral topic, elevate it in the wisdom of the shariah, and embolden young people to make choices consistent with Islamic values. It can also help to embed other key issues relevant to their everyday such as internet safety, boundaries in friendship, what love from Allah is, and conflict resolution through the prism of Islam, all of which will supplement a better understanding, and in sha Allah appreciation and application of Islamic values.
The benefits of teaching Muslim children about Islamic RSE are many:
Hadith narrated by Abu Hurayrah, The Messenger of Allah (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said, “Allāh makes the way to Jannah easy for him who treads the path in search of knowledge.”
Narrated by Muslim (2699)
Unfortunately for many Muslims, our approach to Islam contains an imbalance in favour of the emotional and visceral, and can often neglect a knowledge-based, cerebral approach to religious practice. As a community we are often guilty of creating a deficit model of Islam, creative a negative, shadow impression of our religious identity in light of liberal values. How often do we define our identity against prevailing norms, rather than build positive, affirmative identities and perspectives of Islam. We know as Muslims, that Islam itself contains no deficiency, and so we must look at how it is we are presenting it to those that are under our guardianship if Islam is being internalised entirely as a list of things we aren’t and do not do. This constant back-foot position that we allow ourselves to fall into as parents and educators, means we are often reacting to the world around us, rather than taking hold of the reigns of our identity – educating ourselves and fully understanding the responsibility of being amongst those that will be passing the baton of Islam on to future generations of British Muslims.
Hadith narrated from ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar who said: I heard the Messenger of Allah (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) say:
“Each of you is a shepherd and each of you is responsible for his flock. The ruler is a shepherd and is responsible for his flock. A man is the shepherd of his household and is responsible for his flock. A woman is the shepherd of her husband’s house and is responsible for her flock.”
Narrated by al-Bukhaari (853) and Muslim (1829)
RSE is no different as a subject of practical Islamic knowledge. Muslim parents and community leaders need to ground ourselves in knowledge pertaining to the building blocks of our community – the family and home. We need to understand how, and why, the Prophet SAW addressed issues regarding sex and intimacy, as well as relationships, the rights of our body, our families and society. And, crucially, we need to be sensitive and astute enough to understand how and when to communicate this to our children in a proactive way – one that will not leave them rudderless in the strong current of the information age, and one that conveys how honourable these laws are and how much dignity they contain. We want to position ourselves as the primary source of information, and Islam as the only source of authority on an area that will determine the shape of their lives. This can only occur if we couch these issues in Islamic theology and fiqh, if we are proactive, rather than reactive.
As Muslim parents, we need to have the imaan to do this from a position of faith and strength, and not fear. We know temptations abound, and we know our youth are particularly vulnerable. Understanding and fully acknowledging Allah created us weak, and that Islam is a guiding force to overcome this weakness, will help us to continually foreground Islamic values and principals to act as support and direction during the turbulence of youth.
Qur’an Surah An-Nisa 4:28 Allah wishes to lighten (the burden) for you; and man was created weak
Furthermore, having a candid, non-conspiratorial, approach to the policy and demographic context of these changes in British law can only help us to engage with our legal and social institutions, and community at large, in a productive manner. Concerning the issue of the LGBT community and their quest to be recognised, this needs to be understood as a civic right that is equally expressed by all minority communities in Britain, and not a targeted attack on Islamic values. This is not an invitation to debate the Shariah ruling on issues pertaining to sexual identity, orientation and practice, which are clear, resolute and undebatable in and of themselves. Rather, this is an attempt to encourage Muslims not to create our own strawmen and waste energy fighting them – but to fully and pragmatically asses the material circumstances that have led to this policy direction and to connect this to the fact that our children will see and be aware of different orientations and family compositions in child and adulthood. To deny this reality is unproductive, and to loose focus of the wider issue of sexual education of our youth is to divert attention from the issue at hand – that our children need to be well equipped to understand and respond to a sexually liberal society, largely according to heteronormative ideals, that is at odds with Islamic values. This issue must take precedence, and not a sense of victimhood or outrage that blindsights us, if we are to create a generation of Muslims who are confident in their Islamic identity and at ease with their national belonging. We must take this as an opportunity to inform our children about our values, and of course to be respectful to those that differ from them.
Strengthening our connection with our children
A co-ordinated approach to RSE, led by the family, but which takes into account school education and community grounding, will help to position the Muslim home as a safe environment for young people to get information about a critical, and ubiquitous, issue in a way that is consistent with their beliefs. Children and young people are naturally curious – as Muslim parents and communities we must harness this gift of curiosity that Allah has bestowed upon our children and position ourselves as approachable adults so children do not seek information, or validation, from external sources.
Rather than allow our children to become peer oriented, and have a greater peer attachment – something that is proven to result in more risk taking behaviours – we want to build and develop the kind of relationships with our children that will enable them to feel more compelled to speak to us about the challenges and temptations of youth.
Qur’an Surah Al-Isra 7:16 Because You have sent me astray, surely I will sit in wait against them (human beings) on Your Straight Path.
Naturally, while peer interactions are part of a healthy upbringing, we cannot expect young people to transition into responsible adults if their only influence and information on the subject of RSE is their peers; adult interaction and guidance is crucial to enable children to see and respond to the world responsibly, particularly from an Islamic perspective.
With a plethora of information entering their intellectual space, and an ocean of misinformation on social media always at hand, we must keep channels of communication open and position ourselves as the primary source of information on critical issues, and this means an open and honest dialogue between parent and child.
Strengthening Islamic Identity
Perhaps the most compelling case for taking a proactive, Islamic-centric approach to RSE. Children want to belong and feel significant, with Muslim parents and community organisations leading the conversation on an RSE which centres Islamic scripture, it will undoubtedly help children anchor their identity in notions such as chastity, virtue and obedience, and how they are tied to the worship of Allah. Furthermore, knowledge of both their body and the sacredness of family and social bonds will encourage veneration and awe of our Creator, and how He has made us as both individual and social beings in sha Allah.
“A strong, positive self-image is the best possible preparation for success.” Joyce Brothers, American Psychologist
In the same way we need to inform children about the real life application and benefit of maths and science, we need to endow our children with age-appropriate information on how Islamic relationships are formed and maintained according to the Qur’an and Sunnah. Empowering young people with Islamic knowledge, the most superior of all knowledge, will only ever benefit them. Taking a proactive, Islamic approach to RSE will help to code basic notions such as love, respect, the rights of our body, and cement them within an Islamic framework. This will empower Muslim children and young people with self-esteem and build confidence in their Islamic identity.
Qur’an Surah Taha 20:123 “..Then if there comes to you guidance from Me, then whoever follows My Guidance shall neither go astray, nor fall into distress and misery.”
Often, as Muslim parents, we fall into the trap of expecting our children to respect and honour Islamic legislation regarding treatment of the opposite gender, and protecting and guarding their chastity, but this is often done without having productive, extensive and scripturally sound conversations about these vital topics. Privacy and modesty, for example, are learned traits, and Islam has codified rulings regarding these notions. Reinforcing these will help to safeguard children from making those very same mistakes that fear most parents into a reticent approach to this issue.
Qur’an Surah An-Nur 24: 30: Tell the believing men to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things), and protect their private parts (from illegal sexual acts, etc.). That is purer for them. Verily, Allah is All-Aware of what they do.
Furthermore, as a minority group in Britain, teaching Islamic values in relation to family and society means we are helping children and young people develop the critical thinking skills necessary to resist dominant notions regarding sex and relationships. If we allow children to learn about social and familial relationships through passive absorption of dominant culture, we are allowing those ideas to take root and form the basis of their understanding and practice.
The Qur’an and Sunnah has very clear and well-defined principles regarding body literacy and how and when it is permissible to express love and develop relationships, we are disarming our children by not informing them of these, so they are better able to see understand the world and their place in it as Muslims.
Islamic RSE is more relevant than ever
Many Muslim parents assume that these subjects are irrelevant to their youth because Muslim children are not engaging in sexual activities or developing romantic relationships. While this might be true in the majority of cases, it is not an excuse to deprive children of information that is relevant to their Islamic identity. Abstinence and chastity need to be connected to a greater purpose. Muslim youth face being ostracised by the British Muslim communities overwhelmingly taciturn approach to RSE which leaves them devoid of an understanding and clear reference points for what they are seeing unfold in the world around them. Secular approaches to RSE equally fail to cater to Muslim youth due to the underlying assumption that many of these options are predetermined – youth will engage in sexual activity and relationships. This information is both relevant and necessary to youth to develop armour, embolden them to understand the Islamic stance on positive, healthy marital relationships and aid them to make the right choices, with religious grounding, and resist peer pressure.
In the ever-developing word of media and technology, our children are future consumers that various lucrative industries want to tap into. They will invariably be witness to media content, and friends, that promote liberal lifestyles. We want to ensure our children respectfully understand Islamic values differ, in a positive and affirmative way, so what they may see in the world around them that contradicts this is contextualised. We want to lay the foundation of belief for strong-minded, confident Muslim youth.
A study undertaken in America shows that an educative approach to sex education delays initiation of sexual activity amongst young people – proving the long-held assumption that age appropriate learning on the issue enables children to make more informed decisions and understand consequences. There is much to be said about the potential of an Islamic-based curriculum in ensuring Muslim children see and feel the benefits of an Islamic lifestyle by extension, and as a community we should be feeing positive about the long term impact of this on Islamic identity and practice, in sha Allah.
All these factors make a strong case for us to issue clear, age appropriate guidance to young British Muslims, that takes into account the world they are growing up in, and most crucially, connects everything back as it should – to our Creator. Almost 50% of British Muslims are aged 25 and under, as a young and growing population, we are at the crossroads of our development as a community. If we continue to tow cultural lines, creating a culture of silence around topics that are seen as culturally taboo, we are creating a moral vacuum amongst the most significant faction of our demographic, in one of the most significant and defining topis of our age. We know that knowledge is linked to action, and that knowledge lives in our minds as narrative. If Muslim children and young people, in their journey of development and transition into adulthood, do not see how the components of their life and the modern world – how their bodies operate, how relationships are formed and maintained – join up to form a coherent narrative of tawheed, we are failing to convey the truth and beauty of Islam. Rather than complacently allowing our children to get swept up in a tide which centres impulse and desire, the modern illusive narrative of liberalism, Muslim parents and communities have a duty to give our youth the gift of understanding our overarching purpose as believers. We must teach and demonstrate how their daily duties, struggles and functions connect to that noble narrative of obedience and worship of a sole, All-Merciful, Omniscient Creator. As Muslims with the benefits of the information age, we have a very promising opportunity to create positive and impactful change, in sha Allah. And this comes from a place of knowledge, integrity, confidence, and most importantly, imaan.
By Anonymous mother, 28/02/2021
The views expressed on AMS and its connected channels do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation.