Education for Muslim families will always carry a deeper significance than for our non-Muslim counterparts. The role education plays in Islam cannot be overstated. Allah tells us we are near to Him in knowledge. The Quran began, and according to most scholars, its name is linguistically derived from, the command to read or recite. Our religion is made up of, encourages and rewards the endeavour to better yourself through religious learning. The scholarly processes and traditions that refine these systems of knowledge are admirably scrupulous. The role of learning in Islam isn’t one that’s taken lightly.
And so education and its institutional and systemic realities should be sites of interest for those of us that ascribe to an Islamic world view.
Relationship and Sex Education – the context
This interest appears to be roused and intensified against a backdrop of late-stage capitalism and its educational institutes scurrying to catch up with the many imbalances that it, by its very nature, has given rise to. Rightfully, there is a growing significance in relationship education in western schooling. This comes from the fact that, for Britain, a sexually liberal, post-religious society which is moving away from the anchor of the nuclear family, and has effectively ripped up the rule book, there is a need to re-root its ethics in a redrafted social contract. What ethical forces govern relationships today? On what basis and how do we form and sustain healthy relationships with our families, peers, colleagues and romantic partners? These questions are equally relevant to Muslims today as they are to liberal societies, and irrespective of the social, political or educational climate, these are questions Muslim families should be posing, and seeking answers to, in the home. They constitute our moral fibre and are integral to our identity as Muslims.
Some of the British Muslim response in the UK to the introduction of RSE to British schooling has been hyperbolic. This is despite what research tells us about the potentially positive impact of effective RSE, and – certainly, more worryingly – the rising prevalence of increasingly dysfunctional approaches to both sex and relationships in Muslim youth and technoculture. Muslim digital spaces are flooded with Red Pill and Muslim Incel (involuntary celibate) content that speaks of very worrying online and real-life trends.
Red Pill and Incel thought: the poison ivy in Muslim discourse
Red Pill and Incel movements are online communities, formed on forums like Reddit and 4chan, whose defining feature is their virulent misogyny. Their influence has spanned out to various other mediums and online sites, creating a spectrum of harmful misogyny across the digital landscape. They are the result of a deepening insecurity in the role and shape of masculinity in the modern world, and consist of assigning personal blame outside of the self to women and society at large. They are, it goes without saying, antithetical to Islamic thought and practice, however as the result of a cocktail of unfortunate factors, they have lit the tinder of religious ignorance in Muslim spaces, and are now spreading like wildfire.
Most obviously, due to their tenuous claim to gender orthodoxy, these ideologies have been unquestioningly welcomed amongst some communities of Muslim men. Of course, they are borne of a false logic that Islam itself espouses a gender orthodoxy compatible with that of traditional western gender dynamics. Their popularity here is the result of a reductive, binary thinking which traps Muslim men, in particular, into assuming that anything countering liberalism must by default be compatible with Islamic thought. This binary also falsely equates a kind of cruel orthodoxy with Islamic practice – this construction in Muslim popular thought wrongfully attributes the subjugation of women to Islam. For Muslims in the West in particular, whose whole conception of Islam is built on a false binary of illogical and regressive, compared to the progressive enlightenment of Western thought and culture, this ideology will hold more salience. When Islam is irrationalised and juxtaposed with ‘mainstream’ society, then what’s irrational and oppositional to ‘mainstream’ society becomes a measure by which you judge how Islamic something is. Retrogressive approaches to gender have effectively been remarketed and repackaged as Islamic, and some young Muslim men are embracing an ideology which is alien to Islam built upon this false equivalence.
This hateful tide in online opinion also has a political dimension, with these views being espoused by the hard right, the unhelpful conflation of right-wing politics as ‘socially conservative’ and therefore inherently Islamic means there is a blanket acceptance amongst some factions of the digital Muslim world. In reality, we know shariah defies definition in either right- or left-wing ideology, and indeed any attempt to align it entirely with either side of the political spectrum is to do it a disservice.
Their popularity also speaks of a growing diffidence borne from internalised Islamophobia, which in this instance sees young Muslim men seeking approval from white, Christian culture. This is indicative of a wider trend amongst Muslims online, of chasing spiritual highs, and an appetite for easy, self-affirming solutions to complicated modern problems, rather than embedding their Islam in an enduring and more detailed understanding of fiqh and shariah. Ultimately, women are the greatest victim of this trivialising and sensationalising of our sacred moral code when we see domestic violence being played down, for example, or an attempt to assert masculine dominance in a way that isn’t sacredly prescribed. The prince of inceldom, Andrew Tate – who has been accused of violence against women, rape and human trafficking and continually makes light of sexual abuse – has garnered over 11 billion views on TikTok and is not only a rising star amongst Muslim Red Pill culture, but is also invited onto Muslim shows and podcasts and heralded as a hero and friend of Islam. Despite his on the record Islamophobia, he is often cited as a role model amongst young Muslim men. For Gen-Zers in particular, for whom Google is no longer the prevailing verb, and 40% of whom use TikTok or Instagram to search for information, his content is increasingly accessible. While, at the time of writing, he has just been banned from both Facebook and Instagram, his account remains on the Gen-Z app of choice, TikTok, and his content is still widely circulated, and searchable, on all platforms via fan accounts promoting his content and courses on Hustlers University.
These movements, which rely on virality and purposefully provocative and controversial content, are filling a vacuum where Islamic knowledge and understanding should exist, and their popularity and influence by algorithm is only increasing with time. One in five internet users in the UK are children, and due to both corporate negligence and legislative inertia, children are able to access, and are increasingly exposed to this damaging content, now dressed up in pseudo-Islam.
Most recently “Mincel” (Muslim incel) and Red Pill proponents have been advocating for a ‘no-strings-attached nikah’approach to relationships, unironically, as a panacea to many of the relationship issues facing young people today. While Islam was sent to free society (and women in particular) from this pernicious and exploitative promiscuity, some in the modern-day Muslim manosphere call for a return to pre-Islamic regressive relationships, paradoxically, in a claim to harking back to traditional Islamic masculinity.
The Case for Islamic RSE; righteousness through knowledge and action
If there is one thing this online dystopia demonstrates, it is that many Muslim youth – and young men in particular – are woefully ignorant when it comes to Islamic education, relationship education and the crucial conflation of the two. The shape that these movements take within the Muslim community shed a blue light on the chasmic gaps existing in our communities pertaining to RSE. And while this is certainly a low point for British Muslim culture, its advent represents the potential and opportunity for our own renaissance in RSE.
There is a contradictory belief within some Muslim cultures, that to remain reticent on sex and relationships is itself a form of piety. Hypercapitalism, and its focus on incessant consumerism, has eroded the thirst and appetite for knowledge and learning that defines our faith community, and so this very critical area of human existence isn’t understood or seen as something we should seek to conceptualise within an Islamic framework. Rather it’s considered an area that we need to remain silent on to avoid an awakening of interest amongst those who we deem to be most vulnerable to sexual transgression – our youth. Some Muslim cultures have misappropriated modesty to shame, and counterproductively, shrouded this topic in a cloak of silence.
And although we can trace the roots of some of these misunderstandings to thought and practice in only some Muslim cultures which are based upon a ‘shame/honour’ model, worryingly, the impact has resulted in a movement that has been taken up indiscriminately across a large faction of young Muslim men, cross-culturally, creating a homogenised youth culture that needs to be addressed.
Part of the reason Islamic knowledge has such a high value in Islam is because of the practical function of Islamic theology. Knowledge and understanding precede action, and by starving Muslim youth of education on RSE, we cannot in good faith expect righteous action. So our silence and inaction represents a complacency at a time when the moral grounds on which our understanding of the relationships which govern our lives is most volatile and prone to manipulation.
RSE and our relationship with Allah
What compounds this cultural anxiety amongst British Muslims is the several myths which obfuscate the debate concerning RSE – most of which lie in its very conception, and underscore the absolute need for an Islamic approach to RSE in our homes and institutions. Muslim communities appear to be fixated on the idea that RSE in its academic context is restricted to sex and romantic relationships. While these topics are obviously relevant to RSE, and certainly need to be addressed amongst Muslim youth, relationship education constitutes a much wider remit. According to the Department for Education in this instance, RSE encompasses the very building blocks which constitute our relationships with family, friends, partners and wider society.
In this conceptual misapprehension, the Muslim community is blindsided to the true meaning and potential of relationship education. When our most important relationship as Muslims is with our Creator, and this single relationship mediates all others, aiding children and young people to understand that the whole notion of relationships rests upon tawhīd is a priori that we are unfortunately ignorant to. Like all aspects of Islamic education in the home it is entirely consistent with our wider sense of purpose and meaning as believers. To not unequivocally centre our relationship with Allah in the entire framing of relationship education is to do our children and young people a disservice, and to leave them to conceptualise relationships on the terms of perverse internet content.
This reaffirms another misunderstanding – that RSE is an academic subject entirely, one that is restricted to the classroom, whether we like it or not. In praxis, RSE should be a live and evolving conversation, rooted entirely in the reality of children and young people’s lives. It involves Muslim homes and institutions being socially astute, creating open channels of dialogue and providing a firm and evidence-based approach to Islamic scripture when it comes to sex and relationships. This is an area of human experience we cannot afford to be complacent on, and which we need to be actively responsive to in order to give children and young people the best tools to form happy and productive relationships and function and contribute to society. What the introduction of RSE into British and American education systems demonstrates is that our propensity to be productive and happy citizens isn’t a natural faculty, young people need guidance on how to navigate relationships and the modern world. While this need is non-negotiable, we as a community have a choice as to where that guidance comes from and what shape it takes.
RSE in schools: the evidence
A look at the evidence base when it comes to RSE is telling. From an abstinence perspective, studies demonstrate that good RSE has a protective function. Research shows that young people receiving effective RSE are more likely to choose to have sex for the first time later, for example. It also demonstrates a positive correlation between RSE and fidelity. Data from Finland, which dropped a compulsory ‘sexuality education’ that had been implemented since 1970 in the mid-1990s, also supports the argument that educating children and young people on relationships and sex can result in less sexually risk-taking behaviour. At the point that sex education was no longer statutory, the quality and quantity of provision declined, and resources for sexual health services were cut. Finland subsequently experienced a 50 % increase in teenage abortions in the late 1990s as well as an increase in girls starting to have sex at the age of 14 and 15, and a fall in use of contraception. A decade later a new subject called ‘Health’ was introduced in schools and has been compulsory in primary and secondary schools from 2006, and has seen a reverse in this trend.
But this does not mean of course that Muslim families can afford to be complacent on either the sex education children are receiving as a result of changes to education law in the UK, nor to young people’s understanding of either sex or relationships more generally; the emphasis, of course, remains on good RSE.
In the context of schooling, there is a legitimate need for British families, Muslim or non, to familiarise themselves with the RSE grounding their schools are providing. The window between the Government legislating for mandatory education in British schools, and its implementation, was fine. With schools facing mounting pressures due to a lack of funding, and a whole host of external influences, the selection and implementation of RSE schemes in British schools, in many cases, will be less than ideal. With private, profit-driven companies providing off-the-shelf curriculums, and schools adapting these as they see fit; depending on any given school’s connection and understanding of its community, and the time and cultural humility it has to do either, appropriate RSE offers will vary wildly. Additionally, as research cited later demonstrates, much of that RSE is geared towards a sexually liberal lifestyle, further alienating the Muslim experience.
RSE has a safeguarding function, and this is one Muslim families need also be aware of. Naturally, as a curricular effort in its nascent stages, the statutory framework provided by the Department for Education itself has flaws in this regard also. The drive for safeguarding which the RSE train is fuelled upon, is undermined by the Government’s lazy insistence upon including a disproportionate emphasis on ‘stranger danger’. This is despite the well-known evidence which states over 90% of sexually abused children are abused by someone they know. In short – the answer to imbalances in how we form and develop fundamental relationships cannot be found in the British government’s curricular efforts, nor the corporations that profiteer off that.
Hidden lives of young Muslims
The indisputable need for a broad understanding of RSE, beginning within Muslim communities and homes is not only evident through controversial podcasts and the magnetism of virulent misogyny online. Data also hints at the hidden lives of young Muslims, who arguably possess the greatest vacuum of all British communities when it comes to information on sex and relationships. In a sobering comparison to data from Finland, national statistics show that Tower Hamlets, an area with the highest percentage of Muslim residents in England and Wales – 38% compared with a national average of 5% – has amongst the highest abortion rates for under 18s in the country, which in 2009 measured at 66% of conceptions, compared to a 49% national average. Clearly, the Muslim communities reticence on sex, in an increasingly sexualised world, is not furthering young people in their spiritual health.
This itself exposes another fallacy driving some of the resistance to RSE from British Muslim communities – the idea that young Muslims aren’t engaging in sex and romantic relationships therefore RSE isn’t necessary. Not only does the research quoted above, and research we come to later, suggest this isn’t always the case—naturally as we are not providing young people with enough tools to make responsible decisions—additionally, abstinence and a religious-centric approach to sex needs to be represented in RSE for children to understand it as a legitimate social option. When asked, Muslim young people have expressed the difficulty of being presented with sex in RSE as a foregone conclusion; in many schools it is being presented as the only option. Recent research exploring attitudes of children and young people of faith concerning RSE reveals that only 39% of respondents said they had been taught about ‘the choice not to have sex’. Young people involved in the study expressed they found the social norms of ‘mainstream’ youth culture particularly conflicting. A resounding 87% of young people involved in the study said they wanted RSE to take religious beliefs and backgrounds into account. The will to learn about sex and relationships within a religious framework is indisputably there, unfortunately, it is us not delivering on our end of the bargain. The study also, unsurprisingly, reveals the weight of prejudice facing young Muslims in particular. Islamophobia is a key area when it comes to understanding how RSE fits in young Muslims’ lives—particularly as we know the role peer pressure has in young people’s lives—and the effects of this we are seeing tearing through our moral fabric through this restless desire for approval at any cost.
The sad reality is that we must turn to objective and anonymised research to unearth children and young people’s internal and external worlds—in the same way, depressingly, that suicide rates correlate much more closely to related Google searches, than other stats; because the internet has become our closest confidante. And this stands as another damning social truth which reiterates the need for relationship education. It is both crucial because, and it bears repeating, RSE must be about children and young people’s realities and not our own sanitised understanding of it. And because, a timeless feature of parenting is our inbuilt delusion when it comes to our own children. Just like relationship education centres on a better understanding of oneself, and developing soft skills which aid social intelligence, we require these very same skills in order to impart effective relationship education onto a new generation of young minds who have yet to be tarnished with the issues we are facing due to the lack of it.
A comprehensive research project undertaken by the Children’s Commissioner late last year, exposes the level of pressure children and young people are under. Young people reported high levels of harmful attitudes and behaviours amongst their peers, shaped by exposure to inappropriate content and culture online. This includes pornography, but also other harmful content and culture such as: hyper‑sexualised material on social media platforms, often directly promoted by recommendation algorithms; extreme dieting content and material promoting body dysmorphia and eating disorders (e.g. “pro‑ana” content), heavily‑edited and filtered, contributing to negative self‑perception and body dysmorphia; exposure to trolling and misogynistic cultures which promote sexual violence on social media, messaging, and gaming platforms and on other online forums. In particular, teenagers surveyed said they felt the depiction of unrealistic bodies and sexual activities normalises sexual violence and rape. This damaging content negatively impacts the way children perceive themselves, as well as their relationships.
Furthermore, a recent survey conducted by the Muslim Census presents worrying results regarding pornography consumption amongst Muslims. Their survey shows it is on the rise amongst younger Muslims. 83% of Muslims responding said they had consumed pornography at some point in their lives and this trends upwards amongst younger groups showing a higher consumption and frequency of consumption rate. Unsurprisingly, 77% say it has detrimental effects on their spirituality and 65% on their physical or mental health. Most tellingly, 50% of all respondents claim this was for educational purposes. 
Arguably, it is because of this early online exposure to graphic and illicit content which appears to be cemented in later life, that we see sexual entitlement and misogyny existing in male Muslim online spaces. Worrying, now under the guise of Islam. If the implied trends we see in Tower Hamlets amongst young Muslims is met with the misinformation available in some online Dawah communities, the natural consequence is Red Pill and minceldom and the pernicious effect this has on real life families and relationships.
RSE in the Muslim home
So what does good RSE in the Muslim home look like? And how do families satiate that natural curiosity and fill that gaping educational cavity in young Muslims’ lives?
As with all forms of moral education, the key to good RSE lies in effective parenting, and modelling based on the Sunnah—it needn’t always be an academically driven endeavour with a flip chart and a pen. Ultimately, living by the Quran and Sunnah is to form and sustain positive, productive, thriving relationships and therefore it should be a natural part of a balanced, happy and productive Islamic upbringing.
One of the key components of effective parenting is defining and living by your values as a joint family unit—something even secular science acknowledges as key to healthy, happy relationships in the home. The benefit of being a Muslim is our values are not defined by our own faulty understanding, nor changing social mores. They are sent to us by the Almighty, and understanding this ourselves is the first step to passing that love and understanding onto others. Articulating this and living by it uncompromisingly provides a robust ethical framework by which children can safely navigate relationships in the context of their greater sense of purpose. Ultimately, relationship education must begin and be defined by our most important relationship – that with Allah.
Knowledge lives in our mind as narrative, we must ensure the knowledge we present to our children regarding relationships, and by extension, sex, conforms to the narrative of tawhīd and our purpose as creation. This begins by knowing Allah, and understanding His Beauty and Mercy. Our relationship with Allah as The One is unique and it defines our relationship with all of creation. Good RSE at home means us embodying and living by this uncompromising narrative, holding ourselves to account and leading by example.
For many Muslims, our approach to Islam also contains an imbalance in favour of the emotional and visceral, and can often neglect a knowledge-based, cerebral approach to religious practice. This means that despite our religious obligation to learn and know our religion, we attach our commitment to our faith to our feelings and emotions. Creating a culture of Islamic learning in the home is the best thing we can do for our children in every possible sense, and is amongst the greatest ways to safeguard their happiness and morality. We need to model to our children that being a Muslim is an active endeavour, and not a passive identity.
Understanding the moral and social purpose of Islamic principles that govern our relationships with others is integral to good Islamic RSE. Islam was sent to benefit mankind, and Allah wished ease for us in our legislature, all of the shariah principles which guide our relationships are about individual and collective benefit and betterment. This must be communicated in an open, non-condescending way.
Just like relationship education begins with our relationship with Allah, our relationship with creation starts with our relationship with ourselves. Understanding oneself is key to both relating to our children, and in turn helping them to be more attuned with themselves and therefore others. Research regarding theory of mind, and emotional intelligence demonstrates that in order to relate to and empathise with others, you must understand your own self first. Given the social and emotional intelligence of the Prophet ﷺ and what we learn through the hadith corpus in how he would conduct himself, it is obvious that good Islamic RSE is as much about developing children’s skills, and character, as it is about imparting knowledge. It is about helping children with communication, reaching agreement and listening – all areas the Prophet ﷺ himself excelled in.
In order to help children have an unadulterated relationship with faith, it also means addressing our own spiritual and religious baggage. This means framing Islamic choices in a positive, affirmative way, from a place of love and knowledge, and not reactionary and fearful based on our own warped interpretation of Islam as a negative impression of western liberalism. Very often, we ourselves see Islam as deficient and we project this defective understanding onto our children, and parent from a place of fear. When this same insecurity in faith is spurring obsequiously misogynistic movements online, it is clear it needs to be aired and dealt with.
So what does this look like in practice? Knowledge of Allah, our self, our duty to others, and the skills we must develop to do each of these areas justice, without being tainted by our own internalised Islamophobia and fear.
RSE is as much about context as anything else. What instances might we need to aid our children in their moral development, what moral compass must they be oriented to and what tools do they require? One example is the inevitable scenario in which your child will be privy to playground gossip. How do we personally feel when we hear something about others, and what instincts kick in? Self-righteousness, tribalism and seeking belonging/understanding through certain social allegiances, moral complacency, disassociation and projection of our own poor traits? It’s almost certain your child will be subject to those same emotional, social and moral complexities through this seemingly harmless exchange. That is why Islamic law concerning speaking ill of others is so clear and concise, and part of why gossip culture is so prevalent today. Help your child to systematically unpack this, to centre Allah in their response. Give them the Islamic precedent regarding the act in all its positivity and fullness, quote the hadith, explore its roots and speak about its positive impact in a micro and macro sense so it imprints on their very values and norms. Help them develop the psychosocial tools to recognise gossiping as a social function. This live coaching enables them to understand themselves, and empathise and relate to others. It gives them the confidence and self-efficacy to act upon this knowledge, against any peer pressure, and helps them to understand that by adopting this moral code they are on the side of truth, and that’s all that matters. If your voice ultimately becomes your child’s inner voice, using it to imbue confidence in them toward the truth is the most powerful way to use it.
In ignoring the reality of something as seemingly harmless as playground gossip, we are allowing that human experience, with all its nuance, to be collapsed into a thoughtless, shallow act without the conscientiousness, knowledge and belief that helps us to overcome it as a base instinct. We are allowing pernicious habits to take root. And we are ignoring the moral intricacies involved in being a good Muslim. It is the immediate and self-gratifying nature of modern existence, and particularly internet culture, which is doing most damage to young people and their sense of wellbeing. The instantaneous culture in which you can take and upload a picture of yourself within a split of a second without any thought or consideration. To short circuit that instant loop of gratification, by injecting consciousness, meaning and purpose into it is to develop moral muscle memory. This example also illustrates the hidden dimension we account for as Muslim parents, and how crucial this is to our child’s upbringing. Accounting for barakah in your child’s life, strengthening your du’ā and commitment to Islam is one of the most effective tools of parenting.
And of course, identifying this is about a constant, open and honest dialogue with our children, and involves being attuned to their stage of development, understanding and social reality. And this applies all the way up to the online etiquette of those that are the target of the Red Pill attention economy.
The wealth that we impart onto our children when we provide Islamically loving, supportive and nurturing units will provide the blueprints by which they will build the relationships in their lives going forward. It will give them the ability to grow up confident, self-assured and emotionally balanced, arming them with strong foundations and building blocks to navigate life with. And while the tests and challenges they face as they grow older get more complex and alluring, understanding that the truth and code of conduct we possess is greater than anything else society has to offer us will provide the armour that we all need to resist the constant social pressures we all face. Knowing that to possess that insight, discipline, control and generosity that Islam promotes is the path to happiness. Understanding that there is so much room in the halal for us to grow and be joyous with. While the journey to effective RSE isn’t an easy one, the knowledge that we have the truth on our side is, al-hamdulillāh.
There has been a lot of misinformation about changes to sex and relationships education in schools from September 2020. Yusuf Patel joins Salman to separate fact from fiction and empower parents with exactly how to go about having a good relationship with schools and make their voices heard in a constructive way.
 SRE – the evidence – March 2015.pdf (sexeducationforum.org.uk)
 Fact Sheet Template (towerhamlets.gov.uk)
 YS_SL_They_Believe_This_Executive_SummaryWeb_Singles.pdf (faces.org.uk)
 cco-online_safety_commission_from_government_our_recommendations_for_making_the_online_world_safer_for_children_report_mar_2022.pdf (childrenscommissioner.gov.uk)