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Relationships & Sex Education: Taking Back Control

Due to widely publicised changes in the United Kingdom’s education policy, Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) will be taking a new shape and form in the British education system and classrooms across the country. Within pockets of the Muslim community, the debates concerning this wind change in policy have been largely overblown and hyperbolic. This has created a moral panic and social media frenzy in corners of the British Muslim community. This knee-jerk reaction seriously threatens our ability as a community to take stock of and fully understand both the root and impact of these government measures. It therefore jeopardises our chances of taking productive steps forward when it comes to our children’s academic and moral education. It also stymies attempts to devise a coherent and 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 in terms of religious literacy, social and legal standing, and political representation. We want to continue in 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 and 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 principles and etiquettes. It has the potential to create confident, resilient, socially-conscious, and empowered Muslim youth who can 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 that 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. By highlighting subjects such as puberty in relation to Islamic morals and principles, 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. That way, they can reclaim the narrative concerning body positivity and agency, which can be reconceived 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 inshā’ Allāh.

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, as well as grounding young people’s understanding on this issue in light of Islamic scripture will enable them to make responsible choices consistent with an Islamic lifestyle.




The highlighted curriculum areas are all pressing and relevant issues to today’s youth, which need to be brought to their attention through a number of institutional and social channels. The social anxiety concerning the instruction of these subjects in some Muslim communities centres on the false notion that being exposed to them will dilute or weaken Islamic identity. To the contrary, studying them through the illuminating light of the Shariah will undoubtedly strengthen the Islamic identity of young people, inshā’ Allāh. This is not just 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. These changes will undoubtedly facilitate a greater understanding of Islamic values. Our approach to this subject as a wider community has the potential to aid them in forming a more positive and affirmative outlook on Islamic life, something which we sorely lack in the present.

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 failing to supplement this education as a Muslim community, and in Muslim homes throughout the country, we are doing Muslim children a great disservice. We are actually leaving out the most key element 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 to a sense of moral duty, or connect them to a higher and more lofty purpose, and therefore creating a moral void. These are both key elements which enable young people to make conscientious choices, and help them to understand the true consequences of sexually risky behaviour.

A comprehensive approach to Islamic RSE – which provides moral and ethical frameworks in line with the Qur’an and Sunnah – can help to enrich this integral topic, capture the wisdom found in 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 life, such as internet safety, boundaries in friendship, what love from Allah is, and conflict resolution through the prism of Islam. The incorporation of these dimensions will inshā’ Allāh provide a better understanding and appreciation of how Islamic values apply in real life.

The benefits of teaching Muslim children about Islamic RSE are many:

Educating ourselves

There is a hadith narrated by Abu Hurayrah (Allah be pleased with him), where the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said,

“Allah makes the way to Jannah easy for the one who treads the path in search of knowledge.”[1]

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, whereby we create a negative shadow impression of our religious identity in light of liberal values. It is often the case that we define our identity against prevailing norms, rather than building affirmative identities and perspectives of Islam. We know as Muslims that Islam itself contains no deficiency. But we must consider how those who are under our guardianship will perceive Islam if it is internalised entirely as a list of things that we should not do. This constant back-foot position that we allow ourselves to fall into as parents and educators means that we are often reacting to the world around us, rather than taking hold of the reins of our identity. Instead, we must educate ourselves by fully understanding the responsibility of being amongst those who will be passing the baton of Islam on to future generations of British Muslims.

There is a hadith narrated by ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿUmar (Allah be pleased with him), who said: “I heard the Messenger of Allah ﷺ 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.’”[2]

RSE is no different than a subject of practical Islamic knowledge. Muslim parents and community leaders need to ground themselves in knowledge which pertains to the building blocks of our community: the family and home. We need to understand both how and why the Prophet ﷺ addressed issues regarding sex and intimacy, relationships, the rights of the body, as well as the rights of families and greater society. Crucially, we need to be sensitive and astute enough to understand how and when to communicate this to our children in a proactive way. In a way that will not leave them rudderless in the strong current of the information age, and instead will convey to them how honourable these laws are and how much dignity they contain. We want to position ourselves as the primary source of information, with Islam being the only source of authority in an area that will determine the shape of their lives. If we aspire to be proactive, rather than reactive, this can only occur if we couch these issues in Islamic theology and fiqh.

As Muslim parents, we need to have the īmān to do this from a position of faith and strength, not fear. We know temptations abound, and we know our youth are particularly vulnerable. Understanding and fully acknowledging that Allah created us weak, and that Islam is a guiding force to overcome this weakness, are key starting points. They will help us to continually foreground Islamic values and principles to act as support and direction during the turbulence of youth.

 “Allah wishes to lighten (the burden) for you; and man was created weak.”[3]

Furthermore, having a candid and non-conspiratorial approach to the policy and demographic context of these changes in British law is crucial. It can 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. For the rulings on these matters are clear, resolute, and undebatable in and of themselves. Rather, this is an attempt to encourage Muslims not to create their own strawmen and waste energy fighting them. Instead, they must fully and pragmatically assess the material circumstances that have led to this policy direction. Furthermore, they must connect this to the fact that our children will see and become aware of different constructed identities and family compositions during their childhood and adulthood. To deny this reality is unproductive, and to lose focus of the wider issue of sexual education of our youth is to divert attention from the most pressing issue at hand. Our children need to be well equipped to understand and respond to a sexually liberal society which is largely based on heteronormative ideals, which go contrary to Islamic values. This issue must take precedence, 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 are at ease with their national belonging, this shift in strategy is needed. We must take this as an opportunity to inform our children about our values, and of course be respectful to those that differ with them.

Strengthening our connection with our children

A co-ordinated approach to RSE should be led by the family, but at the same must take into account school education and community grounding. This 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. That way children will not seek information or validation from external sources.

We should avoid allowing our children to become peer oriented and having greater peer attachments, something that is proven to result in more risk taking behaviours. Instead, we want to build and develop the kind of relationships with our children that will enable them to feel comfortable speaking with us about the challenges and temptations of youth.

“Because You have sent me astray, surely I will sit in wait against them (human beings) on Your Straight Path.”[4]

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 for enabling 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. We must position ourselves as the primary source of information on critical issues, which logically requires open and honest dialogue between the parent and child.

Strengthening Islamic Identity

Perhaps the most compelling case for taking a proactive and Islamic-centric approach to RSE. Children want to belong and feel significant. If Muslim parents and community organisations lead the conversation on an RSE which is based on Islamic scripture, it will undoubtedly help children anchor their identity to notions such as chastity, virtue, and obedience, and how all of these notions 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. It will also lead to an appreciation of how He has made us both individual and social beings.

“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 likewise 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 the 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.

“…Then if there comes to you guidance from Me, then whoever follows My Guidance shall neither go astray, nor fall into distress and misery.”[5]

As Muslim parents, we often fall into the trap of expecting our children to respect and honour Islamic legislation regarding treatment of the opposite gender, as well as protecting and guarding their chastity. But this is often done without having productive, all-encompassing, 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 concepts in a practical manner will help safeguard children from making the very same mistakes that scare most parents and cause them to take a reticent approach in the first place.

“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.”[6]

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 have 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 guidelines. But if we do provide them this necessary information, they are better equipped to 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 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 the risk of being ostracised as a result of the British Muslim community’s overwhelmingly taciturn approach to RSE. This zero-sum approach leaves them devoid of any clear reference points for what they witness unfold in the world around them. Secular approaches to RSE equally fail to cater to Muslim youth, due to the underlying assumptions that many of these options are predetermined, i.e.youth will engage in sexual activity and relationships. This information is both relevant and necessary for youth in order to embolden them to understand the Islamic stance on positive and healthy marital relationships, as well as to aid them to make the right choices. With the proper religious grounding, they will be able to resist peer pressure.

In the ever-developing word of media and technology, our children are prospective consumers of lucrative and aggressively marketed industries. They will invariably witness media content, and have friends that promote liberal lifestyles. We want to ensure our children respectfully understand that Islamic values differ in a positive and affirmative way. That way, they will be able to contextualise any contradictions that they may see in the real world. We want to lay the foundations 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. This proves the long-held assumption that age appropriate learning on the issue enables children to make more informed decisions and better understand their consequences.[7] 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, as a community we should be feeling positive about the long term impact of this program on Islamic identity and practice, inshā’ Allāh.

Conclusion

All of these factors make a strong case for us to issue clear and age appropriate guidance to young British Muslims. This education model must take into account the world they are growing up in, and most crucially, connect everything back –  as it should – to our Creator. Almost 50 percent 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 by 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 topics of our age. We know that knowledge is linked to action, and that knowledge lives in our minds as narratives. If Muslim children do not see how the components of their journey to adulthood and the modern world – how their bodies operate, how relationships are formed and maintained – link up to form a coherent narrative of tawḥīd, 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 emphasises impulse, desire, and the modern illusive narrative of liberalism, Muslim parents and communities have a duty to give our youth the gift of understanding and 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 benefitting from the information age, we have a very promising opportunity to create positive and impactful change, inshā’ Allāh. All of this comes from a place of knowledge, integrity, confidence, and most importantly, īmān.

Watch: How to Effect Positive Change in Schools

Source: Islam21c.com

Notes:

[1] Narrated by Muslim (2699)

[2] Narrated by al-Bukhārī (853) and Muslim (1829)

[3] Al-Qurʼān 4:28

[4] Al-Qurʼān 7:16

[5] Al-Qurʼān 20:123

[6] Al-Qurʼān 24:30

[7] The impact of abstinence and comprehensive sex and STD/HIV education programs on adolescent sexual behavior | SpringerLink

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One comment

  1. Abdullah Al-Mamun

    Assalamu’alaikum.

    I used to get regular article from Islam21c to my email
    address but for some reason I am not getting any email from Islam21c.
    Can you please check if there is any problem from your side.

    Jazakallahkhairan
    Abdullah Al-Mamun

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