Elements of Religious Teaching

Our master Ali ibn Abi Talib said something deeply profound:

“Do not raise your children the way your parents raised you because their times are not like your times.” 

This was during a time when we may think that things were not so fast-paced but each age has differing circumstances. One example from the life of Ali himself is that the Arabs took their language very seriously. There were people who did not make mistakes in speech. That is why the Quran came in Arabic because of its beauty and eloquence. 

One of the students of our master Ali was Abu al-Aswad al-Du’ali who had studied under him extensively. One day his daughter came to him on the rooftop of their house and said: مَا أَجْمَلُ السَّمَاءِ which literally means “What is the most beautiful thing in the sky?” Abu al-Aswad al-Du’ali told her about such and such star (which was the brightest star on the horizon). 

The daughter said, “That is not what I meant.” What she meant to say was: مَا أَجْمَلَ السَّمَاءَ – “How beautiful is the sky!” There was a change in the meaning. Abu al-Aswad was so shocked he went straight to Ali and said, “Something devastating has happened.” His daughter made a mistake in speech.

They worried about this because if the Muslims lost the Arabic language, they felt they would lose their connection to the meanings of the Quran. 

The point is that different times have different challenges.

Children’s Islamic Education

Our beloved Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said:

“Each of you is a shepherd, and each of you is responsible for their flock.” 

The flock here is not saying that the people you are responsible for are sheep but that they are under your care.

The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “The man is a shepherd to his family and is responsible for his flock and the woman is a shepherd in her husband’s household and responsible for her flock”

Each person has their circle of responsibility. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) closed by saying, “Truly each of you is a shepherd and each of you is responsible for their flock.” 

This responsibility of being a shepherd summarizes our duty in raising our children. Our duty is not religiously to give them a body of knowledge but rather, what does a shepherd do? A shepherd leads the flock towards the pasture. He has a destination in mind. The shepherd inspires the flock to follow or to go towards a direction. 

That metaphor is very powerful because only a failed shepherd would drag his sheep. That does not work. The ideal case is that the shepherd, with calm, patience, and wisdom inspires the flock. He essentially steers them so that the flock is going towards where the shepherd knows they should be going. This is at the heart of Islamic education. 

Abdullah ibn Umar said, “Instill proper manners (Adab) in your children. You are responsible for them, for what you instill in them of proper manners, and you are responsible for their religious education” 

Our master Ali said:

“Teach your children their religion and instill proper manners (Adab) in them.”

Proper manners (adab) are in many ways one of the three core components of religious teaching and guidance. These three key elements of religious teaching are first, education (tarbiya). Education is not the same as learning or teaching. 

Education (Tarbiya)

The word tarbiya is actually related to the divine name Al-Rabb (the Lord) because Allah is our Lord. The Lord is the One who takes care of His creation of those under Him and He nurtures them and cultivates them towards what is ultimately for their good. The divine name Al-Rabb is one of the names of divine mercy. There are names of majesty and there are names of mercy. 

Tarbiya is one’s educational vision and plan for one’s children. What are you trying to do with your child long-term? How do you break that down through the stages of their life? What are you seeking for the child? That is very important as it is the bigger picture. 

Sometimes, we have a concern and we have a placeholder solution similar to those who gain much weight because they say, “I’m hungry,” so they open the fridge and grab whatever is quick and tasty. However, if you ask many parents who are deeply concerned about their children’s religious well-being, “What do you want your child to achieve religiously?” they have not really thought it through. They may say, “Well I’d like them to be a good Muslim.” However, that is not really a plan. 

Education is said to be related to edification (to building). This is how we want to build our child towards a future plan. In some parts of the world, people build their houses in very interesting ways (partly due to circumstances). Initially, they build one floor but then ten years later materials and fashions change so they build a second floor and it is different. Then they build a third floor and it looks like a madman designed it. 

Instilling Proper Manners (ta’dib)

Instilling proper manners (ta’dib) is often thought of as disciplining the child. Disciplining is not policing. That is not the role of disciplining. Its role is instilling proper manners. 

That is what one does on an ongoing basis. When we encourage, correct, and tell our children, this is part of their education. It is part of their overall building as a believer. It is not to discipline them just in a punitive manner. Rather, one tries to build them up. There are many ways of disciplining but none of them are merely punitive.

Teaching (ta‘lim)

In order to achieve your goals (which is the big picture of education) and in order to instill proper manners in the child, you need teaching. If you want them to be faithful believers who pray, fast, and do good, you have to teach them. This teaching is the means. It is like the fuel. The purpose of the fuel is that you are trying to do something with it. 

Knowledge is like fuel. Education is how you actually make something of the child long term and instilling proper manners is to make sure you do it right. Have the bigger picture of education in mind, What do you want your child to achieve? 

Often we have great aspirations for our children’s worldly education and we will save for that. Parents may even buy or rent in particular areas because the schools there have a better rating etc. But, What is the plan for the religious success of the child and what are the outcomes?