We have a narration in Islam that translates as the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, saying, “Islam began as something strange and will return as something strange as it began, so give glad tidings to the strangers.” The essence of this statement gives context to some conversations I have with my children when discussing things that we see on TV, hear in the news or things they’ve been told at school.
Distinguishing ourselves from the norm
It may sound distant – describing ourselves as strange, or ‘strangers’. One way to view this is how there are ‘normal’ things in British society that I don’t take part in or embrace – drinking alcohol, intimate relationships outside of marriage, concerts, or some of the swinging pendulum of ideologies surrounding identity and freedom. It’s usually not difficult for me to avoid most things that fall outside of my beliefs; it takes more effort to ensure the temptations and influences my children see from friends, films or social media are framed in ways that uphold their faith.
Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) done appropriately, given context and covering areas relevant to the young people hearing it is a vital part of safeguarding. It’s important in order to help keep young people safe now and ensure they have healthy relationships throughout their lives. In our home we try to have open discussions around the kinds of topics that are covered in RSE, like private parts and their functions, different types of relationships including where they falls outside of our beliefs, and different ideas and convictions others have around sex and gender. We talk about what this all means for us as Muslims and how we can uphold Islamic teachings of kindness, respect, mercy, and modesty in speech and actions, while not compromising our own values or transgressing against others.
Nurturing childrens’ view and understanding of themselves and the world
There are lots of examples in the Qur’an of good and bad traits and behaviours, framing different kinds of relationships and interactions (2:188, 2:263, 2:277, 4:1-2, 4:35-37, 4:58, 4:86, 4:148-149, 31:13-15, 31:18-19, 31:22, 49:6, 49:11-13, 60:8-9, to list a few). The Qur’an also discusses biology (23:12-14), menstruation (2:222), marriage (2:228-2:237, 4:2-4:4) and intimacy (2:223, 2:187) with clarity and necessity. Within this guidance are instructions and wisdom including when to seek counsel, and the benefits, harms and consequences of our actions.
Young people are vulnerable to seeing potentially harmful things online, hear polar conversations surrounding identity and what’s right and wrong, and are influenced by norms which may promote sexualisation and pressure them into adult situations. It’s important that they can have discussions with appropriate adults to help shape their understanding of these things in healthy ways, and in ways that align with their religious values.
Concerns arise when these discussions and learning happen in ways that do not always align with those values. Particularly contentious areas include intimate relationships outside of marriage, ideas around sex and gender, and sexuality. Islam is clear that marriage, between a man and woman, is the context in which intimate relationships should happen, and that humans were created as men and women, while acknowledging people who are intersex and how to categorise them for the purpose of religious law. Perhaps it’s because of these areas of difference that some of us find it difficult to engage with other topics related to Relationships and Sex Education.
Who should be teaching our children?
In Islam, parents hold the primary responsibility for ensuring our children are educated. Although it may not be possible or practical for various reasons for parents to be the only educators. We may not have the knowledge or time to formally teach our children about the different forms of friendships and relationships, feelings and desires, marriage, sex, consent, risks online and offline, gender, sexuality and various other topics they will ultimately come across in life that we want to prepare them for. We may much less feel confident enough to discuss and give advice while balancing religious teachings against what society tells us is the overwhelmingly correct way to think at the time.
Sometimes embarrassment and awkwardness around talking about sex and relationships prevents us from having necessary conversations. We can encourage the confidence and comfort needed in our children and in ourselves by talking frankly and frequently about religion, including our boundaries relating to relationships and marriage, as well as different topics covered in the news or what’s ‘trending’ at the time, like ideas around sex and gender or grooming.
When our children start a conversation – by sharing what they’ve done at school or pointing out something on the TV, it invites an opportunity to discuss and unpack the issue further. It normalises sharing – and forming – our own ideas about things rather than simply accepting what others say. It makes sure we, as parents, can include a religious lens in our view of the world. It adds a more informed, experienced opinion about what could be a new topic they’ve been introduced to, rather than them figuring things out alone or with only their peers.
Whether it’s in high school or college, from friends or parents or colleagues, from TV, online or a real-life experience, all of the topics that should be covered in RSE will reach our children in one way or another. I would rather this happen in a learning environment, with the assurance that I can follow up with a deeper conversation that gives the framework of our religious values, and underlines morality and the nature of living in a society where people will make different choices.
Maybe we’re not so strange?
The essence of being strangers still remains; there are things I hope my family always stay distant from. Yet it’s because of this hope that I find myself accustomed to and familiar with those things which fall outside of Islam, so that we can draw lines around and between issues and areas where it’s most important to give clarity and set boundaries. I don’t really think this is unique to me as a Muslim – isn’t this what parenting is about?