Friday – 18 November 2016 – Tarbiyyah: A framework for Intersectional Justice by  Nafisa Patel

Friday – 18 November 2016 – Tarbiyyah: A framework for Intersectional Justice by Nafisa Patel

In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Dispenser of Grace

                                                    Claremont Main Road Masjid

 nafisa17 Safar 1438 AH

All praise is due to Allah SWT, The Most High, The Bestower of Grace, The Eternally Merciful. We offer salat & salams upon the beloved prophet Muhammad SWA, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him and upon all those whose hearts have been illumined by his presence, Amin.

Universal Children’s Day is commemorated annually on 20th November as it marks the 1989 United Nation’s adoption of the “Convention on the Rights of the Child” and serves as both a reminder to the signatories of the convention about their commitments towards childhood justice; and as an assurance to the rights holders, the world’s children, that their well-being is being tended to by the human adult world. In light of this commemoration, my talk will reflect upon the notion of childhood justice from an Islamic teaching and learning perspective. 

Within the Islamic tradition, childhood teaching and learning is commonly referred to as Tarbiyyah – a concept derived from the word Rabb, one of the beautifully sublime and one of the most intimate of the Divine names, that reminds us of our divine origins and our connection with the divine. The aims of Tarbiyyah essentially involve nurturing children, their young hearts, minds and bodies, towards that which keeps them in the remembrance of and attachment to our collective and connected divine natures.

In more practical terms, when we talk about Tarbiyyah we are really referring to a whole host of teaching and learning processes and opportunities that young children are exposed to. Some of it, we as parents, teachers and faith communities set out to do consciously, as a matter of religious duty or obligations or as part of normative responsible adult expectations, however, many other important forms of childhood learning occurs outside of and beyond our well-intentioned gazes. 

Therefore when we speak about Tarbiyyah, or the processes of childhood teaching and learning, it does not only refer to parenting duties or the time a child spends in madrassah – although these to tend to form the primary sites where religious instruction is most opportune therefore most likely to occur – rather, a child’s worldview or their faith understandings and experiences are simultaneously shaped by multiple sites.

In educational terms this is referred to as the intertextuality of learning. What this means is that – every space, every sensory stimuli, every relationship, everyday languages, conversations, words, attitudes, imageries, gestures, actions – all form part of a young child’s learning text, a textbook if you will, in that such imprints and impacts upon how children make sense of, learn about and process their own understandings of themselves, their community and the broader world around them.  So cumulatively, these multiple experiences give shape, form and expression to a young being that is aware but is also becoming more astutely aware in the process of growing up.

There is no singular experience of nor a methodology forTarbiyyah – and that is why it is not effective nor useful to have conversations about a “proper” Muslim upbringing or talk about “Islamic” education for young children without also taking in to serious consideration and paying careful attention to the contexts and conditions within which Tarbiyyah does occur. Since our capacities to adequately raise and lovingly nurture children into and within an ideal Islamic framework is often dictated to or limited by our lived realities.

In South Africa generally and in Cape Town particularly, this context is one that is steeped in a myriad of socio-economic challenges. Many live, learn and raise their families in communities that bear the violent and brutal burdens of its colonial and apartheid past. Our communities are often gang ridden, have ever-increasing problems with crime, drugs and alcohol, face continuous cycles of poverty and other types of economic and racial inequalities, many lack access to basic health care, housing and quality education, some have high unemployment rates and are very often also violent, unsafe, unhealthy with extremely high rates of HIV infections and other diseases and where the threat of rape, sexual violation and domestic abuse are also most rampant. However, despite this, and in most cases because of these challenging conditions, such experiences also hold profound life lessons about community spirit, creativity, mutual sharing, purposeful hope and collective vigour. 

Recent studies by The Children’s Institute at UCT and the 2015 report in the South African Child Gauge have indicated that over half of South Africa’s children experience some form of violence in their early developing years. Included herein are the violences of malnutrition, trauma, and neglect, lack of emotional support and inadequate mental stimulation or compassionate motivation. Advocacy group Equal Education recently released a damning report detailing the violent, abusive and unsafe conditions of schools in the Western Cape, where the educational experiences of many learners and their educators is one that is based on fear and anxiety.  South Africa not only has one of the highest levels of rape and other sexual violations in the world, with just a cursory glance at our daily local news headlines – we know that by far women and young children are more at risk to such types of violence and abuse than their male counterparts. Most notably, is the fact that whilst impoverished and marginalized communities tend to bear a disproportionate brunt of these statistics, wealthier and more affluent communities are not at all immune to this, they may however have the privileges and resources of masking these realities better.  In most instances, we find that there exists widespread occurrences of gender discrimination and prejudice against females, in various forms, that often render women and children most vulnerable to abuse. 

As a nation we are hurting and we are hurting each other in the most brutal of ways. And the reality is that this hurt is a deeply gendered one. 

How then do we even begin to think and speak about, in the face of this terrifying reality, what it means to nurture a child – how to raise functional and caring young girls and boys – when the hands that should nurture, often need nurturing too? How can we, as a community of faith, teach, learn and practice the forms of human relationships that breed gentleness, love and mutual nourishing? It is from this perspective that I would like to reflect upon the notion of childhood justice, and ask how can Muslims who are committed to Quranic egalitarian ideals, who hold a vision of social justice through gender justice, how can we connect this vision with groundwork investments, the spaces wherein sophisticated and complex discourse gets translated into practical and meaningful impact?  

I am reminded of an exchange that Paulo Freire relates between himself and an audience member, whilst he was on a speaking tour as a much celebrated revolutionary educationist that spoke to, of and for the oppressed and marginalized masses around the world. He recalls the discomfort he felt after giving a talk on children’s moral training, arguing for a dialogical, loving relationship between parents and children as an alternative to violent punishments, as a more viable means of developing children’s moral codes, but essentially as a way helping them break the cycles violence and oppression that defined and confined their existence.  After presenting what he thought was an important message of solidarity with poor and working class parents about child raising, an audience member, a concerned yet visibly despaired father questioned him and pointed out, not just how their class differences positioned them differently, but how far removed and practically dissonant it is for him as a father to be spoken to about the underlying causes of his oppressed state, to listen to grand theories about the structures and modalities of that oppression and then to be offered  well -articulated suggestions and clever slogans as a means for him overcoming that state. In this distressed father’s own words it is one thing to come home, even tired, and find the kids all bathed, dressed up, clean, well fed, not hungry – and another thing to come home and find your kids dirty, hungry, crying and making a noise. And people have to get up at four in the morning the next day and start all over again – hurting, sad and hopeless. If people hit their kids, and even go beyond their bounds, it is not because people don’t love their kids. No it is because life is so hard they don’t have much choice.

This father’s sentiments is a plea for not only recognizing and validating the intersecting complexities of his life and his parenting choices, but it also highlights the limitations and discursive blind spots when identifying and speaking about this reality and perhaps even  when sincerely trying to help him make better choices and create a better world for his children.

I mention this incident as it holds some useful lessons for how we understand the notion of childhood justice, more specifically justice that is intersectional.  As Muslim parents, educators and as a community we might all draw from the same referential pool of inspiration and instruction, so we might all agree and even share common aims of tarbiyyah, that is to guide, nurture and spiritually develop our children, to raise morally just, socially engaged and god-conscious citizens and believers. However, it would be extremely trite for me to use this positional space of privilege to speak about how Islam teaches compassion, gentleness, and promotes gender justice without also recognizing how such concepts speak to and of an ideal that can be very exclusionary. Instead, I invite you to think about how as a community we might consider ways of rendering those concepts not only possible, but also visible so through practice.

Whilst there is no singular framework or linear path towards addressing or even eradicating the conditions of our communities that I described earlier, the framework of tarbiyyah however offers a uniquely opportune instrument for the teaching and the practice of intersectional justice.

I will mention a very apt example to help illustrate what an intersectional practice of tarbiyyah entails. One of the projects of this masjid is the Muslims for Eco-Justice project, as part of its many activities, which includes madrasah teachers and úlamā training workshops, monthly nature hikes, campaigns against nuclear energy and other climate change awareness programme, helping communities establish food security through sustainable and local support, as well as presenting and publishing a collection of Khutbahs on the environment, Muslims for Eco-Justice has developed a children’s resource guide to be used in madāris, schools and other community initiatives on nurturing environmental ethics in young children. This, in my opinion, is a particularly important intervention in articulating what childhood justice means from an Islamic perspective and demonstrates this understanding through practice.

Eco-consciousness is not only a faith imperative, but it is intimately tied to invigorating children’s spiritual connections with all life forms and contributes to developing their broader social consciousness. This approach reflects a judicious recognition of how various forms of injustices, violence, oppression, corruption and social inequalities are rooted in and intersect with human attitudes of greed, wanton disregard and abuse of resources, contestations for power, unfair labour practices, worker exploitation, gender discrimination and so forth and how this inheres in and becomes part of children’s worldviews and informs their life experiences.

Thus the lessons this approach promotes is intricately linked to the types of gendered relationships we seek to instil in our children, so the compassion and gentleness that we regard as a the building blocks of positive human relations, begins and extends to how children understand the use and abuse all of Allah’s blessings and their relationship to all of His creation, how they interact and relate to both the animate and inanimate, how they learn to become informed and responsible consumers, rights holders and rights bearers. The lessons are aimed at teaching children how to use creative expression and develop more sensitive means of communicating their emotions and importantly to recognize commonality and view differences more kindly and appreciatively.

Sexism, racism, ableism and all other forms of discriminatory attitudes and practices are learnt behaviours, they are constructed and perpetuated by and through childhood modalities that differentiate and normalize the hierarchal organizing of societies. Many research studies have shown how childhood environments are gendered and contribute to developing unhealthy attitudes about gender and gender roles. Where various forms of hyper masculinities and fragile femininities are formed, that contribute to unrealistic relationship expectations that can lead to abuse and violence. Within Islamic educational contexts too, we often find that children are taught particularized notions about male and female identities that not only emphasize gender differences but are also used in problematically restrictive ways so that male role models are mainly characterized through their physical strength and authoritative power and females as demure, emotive and unstable.  Furthermore, there exists huge global industries and corporate interests outside of religious and educational frameworks that feed off and into these hyper masculine and fragile feminine stereotypes, so that girls and boys interests and natures tend to be presented as and consumed in neatly packaged colours of pink and blue. It is not uncommon to find that such often gets uncritically invested as part of Islamic faith teachings. Children who fail to conform to these norms or fall outside of such narrowly defined gendered expectations often face very troubled and lonely childhoods that can contribute to feelings of inadequacy, shame and can lead to various types of body dysmorphia and other forms of self-harm.  .

However, what an intersectional approach to tarbiyyah can offer is a more nuance critique that is not only inclusive but more congruent with our divine natures. To be clear, that nature is neither masculine nor feminine – but instead, as we learn from the divine Names –  that it encompasses a full spectrum of human qualities that can reflect both the jamāl and the jalāl of Allah’s attributes. In other words our human natures holds neither a preference for pink nor blue only, grace or strength – instead we hold within us the capacity and potential to develop and to teach and learn the types of social relationships and gendered understandings that respect and afford equal value to an infinite range of human possibilities, not limited to or restricted by our physical bodies – simply because we originate from and will ultimately return to that which is infinite.    

Therefore, an intersectional approach to tarbiyyah means not only nurturing and guiding a child towards being more god-conscious and helping them give witness to an inner spiritual intimacy,  or simply evoking their environmental concerns at a superficial level. It is a more holistic teaching and learning experience that recognizes the interconnectedness of privilege and oppression and is based on pedagogic practices that tends to the child who might never know what a loving touch of the gentle may feel like, simply because they can only draw from an experiential inventory of hurtful touch – as well as a child that may fail to see how their indulged lifestyle might impact upon the well-being of others.

In other words, it simplifies all of our complex social analyses, our social justice commentaries and gendered theories and locates this vision in a space of hope.  

To return to Paulo Freire’s exchange with the despaired father I mentioned earlier, and the conclusions he arrives at after reviewing his own blind spots and re-considering his positional privilege, what we may now call his intersectional turn – a turn that he refers to as a “Pedagogy of Hope” – I think holds an inspiring lesson. He states: while I certainly cannot ignore hopelessness as a concrete entity, nor turn a blind eye to the historical, economic and social reasons that explain that hopelessness – I do not understand human existence, the struggle needed to improve it, apart from hope and dream. Hope is an ontological need. Hopelessness is but hope that has lost its bearings, and it becomes a distortion of that ontological need.

Hope however needs to be anchored in practice, and the framework of tarbiyyah through environmental education can offer one way to locate our community’s hopes in very concrete and practical ways. Let us remind ourselves, that as a community we hold a unique legacy of creative childhood teaching and teaching investments that emerged organically under exceptionally challenging circumstances, that we can draw inspiration from, and that we need to keep invigorated within our communities so that children today and future generations may flourish and be the bearers of hope.

To conclude, I invite you to join me in offering a prayer for the well-being of all our children.

Bismillahir rahmanir Rahim,

Ya Allah we give loving thanks for all of your bounties;

Ya Rabb al Jamil, O Lord of Manifest Beauty, we thank you especially for beautifying our world with the blessings and innocence of children;  

Ya Rabb al Jalil, O Lord of Grandeur, we besiege you to keep them in your protection, especially in times of hardship and strive;

Ya Rabb al Latif, O Lord of Beauty and Grace, embrace and illuminate each young heart with your beautiful graces;

Ya Rabb al Qist, O Lord of Justice, save our children from all forms of oppression and conflict – keep them safe from the hands of the unjust and the corrupt.

Ya Rabb al Wadud, O Lord of Infinite Love, assist the parents and care-givers of our children in easing their tasks, and fulfilling their duties with the gentle hands of love and tenderness.

Amin, Amin Ya Rabb al Alamin.      



Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town:

Equal Education:

Freire, Paulo. 1992. Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed, with Notes by Ana Maria Araujo (English translation, Robert R Barr).  Bloomsbury Academic.

Islam and the Environment: A teaching resource for children aged 7-14 years. Muslims for Eco-Justice, A project of the Claremont Main Road Masjid (forthcoming).

Universal Children’s Day, United Nations:


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