7th SAFAR 1437.
All thanks and praises are due to Allah, Our Creator and the Creator of our Children; He is our Lord, our Cherisher and our Sustainer. We Beseech of Allah to bestow His Choicest Mercies, Blessings, Peace and Salutations upon our Leader and Master, Muhammad, (S.A.W).
Today’s khutbah coincides with the United Nations designated Universal Day of the Child. 1 It serves as an appropriate occasion for us to pause and reflect on our relationship with children. I want to share with you some of my reflections on the spirituality of children, a subject hitherto overlooked and often neglected. 2 Children are regarded as minors in terms of responsibility before the law, whether it be religious or secular. This should not detract us from appreciating the level of spiritual development they are endowed with at birth.
There is an increasing body of scientific evidence showing conclusively that children are hardwired to act as spiritual beings. The existence of this spirituality is independent of the religious affiliation or practice of their parents. 3 There is also strong evidence that if this spirituality is acknowledged and supported, it has a protective effect for children and especially adolescents, safeguarding them against developing serious mental health diseases such as depression, substance abuse disorders or participating in high risk behaviours. 4
Childhood spirituality is regarded as a template upon which skills associated with emotional intelligence, such as empathy and compassion can develop. Respect for human diversity, a capacity for reflective behaviour and better ethical and moral judgement are further benefits associated with an enhanced level of spiritual development in children 5
Children are cute, dependent, immature and helpless beings. Yet they are blessed with an innate capacity which makes them acutely aware of a Transcendent, Spiritual, Soulful or ruhani dimension to life. This manifests itself at all ages. 6 Adolescence, in particular is increasingly seen as a period of rapid physical maturation as well as one which experiences a surge in spirituality. This leads to a more enhanced level of perception of the world which surrounds them. 7
The central question I want to address in this presentation is what does our faith tradition have to say about this phenomenon of childhood spirituality? Can we contribute towards a better universal understanding of childhood spirituality by re-visiting some of the salient teachings of our din regarding children? I believe there are three important phases in the care we give for our children especially when it comes to their spiritual development. First we must recognise or acknowledge that it exists, secondly we must nurture and support its growth and lastly we must enhance its development to ensure our children are well adapted to an adult role of duties and responsibilities one day.
I want to make two admissions here. Firstly, on becoming parents, we are not just fulfilling a biological imperative; we are embarking on a Sacred Journey. It’s a journey which will change us and benefit us as well; it is a journey, which if we perform our duty very well has the capacity to ensure our children can surpass us spiritually and reach out in support and understanding when we are weak and frail one day.
Secondly, as Muslims we believe all children are Blessed with a Fitrah or a natural disposition to Worship a Supreme or a Transcendent Being. 8
Acknowledging Childhood Spirituality
I want to share with you an extract from a commonly referenced hadith
الْفِطْرَةِ عَلَى يُولَدُ إِلَّا مَوْلُودٍ مِنْ مَا
Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “No one is born except upon natural instinct, then his parents turn him into a Jew or Christian or Magian.
This makes all children muslim, or beings who are in a state of submission to Allah. We make no distinction between children based on the faith professed by their parents. All children are equally honoured and respected for their purity, innocence, their natural inclination towards that which is good, their response to love, their ability to love others and all creation, their ability to ascribe human feelings evens to inanimate objects, their curiosity and sense of awe.
If we develop the idea of parenthood as a journey, we have to acknowledge that we must start somewhere. I have found a trilogy of verses which attests to our responsibility to acknowledge, nurture and enhance our children’s spirituality. In the first instance let us refer to verses 189-190 in Surah Al A’raf.
It is He who has created you [all] out of one living entity, and out of it brought into being its mate, so that man might incline [with love] towards woman. And so, when he has embraced her, she conceives [what at first is] a light burden, and continues to bear it. Then, when she grows heavy [with child], they both call unto God, their Sustainer, “If Thou indeed grant us a sound [child], we shall most certainly be among the grateful!
And yet when he gives them a good child they ascribe some of what He has granted them to others.” 9.
These verses struck me as being of cardinal importance for the topic under discussion. In my humble estimation these words of the Qur’an are perhaps the most sensitive of the intimate and tender relationship Allah has created between the hearts of a man and a woman. It also attests to the very important spiritual attribute of gratitude or shukr to the Divine which characterise parental attitudes towards their new born child. It is from this deeper well of gratitude to Allah, that there resonates all the strength and courage to deal with all the difficulties and challenges of raising a child.
Any child born brings forth his or her own joy and happiness and it is almost instinctive for any mother and father to be drawn with love to their newborn child.
It is common knowledge that when a child is born, it is customary to recite the athan or the call to prayer in a child’s ear. Fathers’ are quite proud of it for they feel they are responsible for imprinting the Divine name on the soul of the newborn.
Research has shown that the unborn child can hear the mother’s voice above that of the noise of the blood circulating in the womb. In this regard there are two very interesting findings I would like to share with you. 11
Firstly, soon after birth, if one has to play a recording for a child of his mother’s voice, it has a calming and soothing effect on the child’s heart rate and other bodily functions. It is also established that an infant will listen with greater predeliction to a recording of his or her own mother’s voice than that of any other woman. It also listens more intently if the voice or recorded speech of his biological mother is characterized by a certain cadence or rhythm. 12 13 Just bear in mind that in the Islamic tradition, the speech act par excellence which displays this cadence is the reciting of the Qur’an. 14
Secondly, another significant finding is that when you play a recording of the voice of another woman (not his or her biological mother) and compare it with that of the biological father, it is found that the infant responds more positively to the sound of….. another woman, and not evens their own father! 15 16 17. Just what lessons are there in terms of childhood spirituality that we can draw from these experiments?
Firstly, a mother’s voice and her love for reciting the Qur’an can confidently be extrapolated as having a special appeal to the as yet unborn child. There is a unique process underway which imprints a special memory on the child’s mind. She or he develops a love for the Sacred Word, evens before they have mastered any rudimentary knowledge of the language of the Qur’an. Before you come to learn the Word, you come to love the Word! This is just one small example of the inborn spirituality and special capacity infants and children are born with to experience and appreciate that which pertains to the realm of the Sacred.
As far as the comparison with the father’s voice is concerned, just imagine for one moment the plight of an infant who looses its mother during childbirth? Would finding the voice of another woman as a surrogate mother not be in the child’s best interest? One can never fully fathom how Allah’s All Encompassing Mercy works at times. It lends a new dimension to the oft qouted hadith of “heaven lying beneath the feet of one’s mother.”
What one can conclude here however, is that the spiritual link between mother and child is more intrinsic, (17*) whereas that between father and child is something which still has to be actively cultivated and nurtured. This is where the symbolic ritual of the athan recited in the child’s ear at birth plays such a significant role.
It has deep meaning and significance. It is the first message connecting us with the Transcendent. It takes us away from this purely materialistic existence and focuses our attention on our spiritual capacity or ruh we have been blessed with. 18 19 It is the words of the athan that secures the first steps of a child on a lifelong spiritual journey and symbolizes the common spiritual destiny both have to strive for. 20
Would it not count for an enhanced level of consciousness and spiritual commitment on our part that whenever we hear the athan, just simply to take a pause and let its words penetrate our souls? It serves as a reminder to ourselves of our own journey towards our Creator, but equally of our responsibility to cultivate a field or a space where the spirituality of our children can flourish, where the message of the athan can find a fertile soil that will nurture their natural spiritual talent and lead them to live a life wherein they will thrive or attain falah.
There are many success stories which are a testimony to the power of spirituality which I can relate to you. There is one which is foremost in my mind.
I am reminded of a mother who brought her child to me with concerns about his muscle strength, posture and handwriting abilities. Clinical examination revealed that he had fine motor coordination problems which required therapeutic intervention.
Some weeks later his mother informed me about his progress and also in particular the impact this diagnosis had had on this child’s sense of self awareness and confidence. A few days prior, whilst the family were preparing for lailatul bara’a he surprised his mother by his comments.
“Tonight”, he told his mother, “I am going to ask Allah to make the muscle in my neck very strong.”
She was utterly dumbstruck. Here was a mere six year- old, not only getting to grips with his level of handicap, but realizing that ultimately it is only through an earnest appeal to Allah, on an auspicious night at that too, that he will find an answer to something which must have been a great source of stress for a small child like him. An amazing level of spiritual intelligence and maturity for a child of his age!
Nurturing Childhood Spirituality
Like children are born with a musical, mathematical and a language ability, they are also born with a spiritual ability. If they are not exposed to rhythm, numbers or words, they will not develop these abilities. Similar is the case with spirituality. This is something which needs to be nurtured in them.
The first two decades of a child’s existence are of crucial importance not only for their long term adjustment to an adult life but crucially to allow them to live a fully integrated life. A developed spirituality sits at the core of this concern. The world is full of hatred, prejudice, corruption, destruction, ideological divides, extremism, wars and evils of all kinds. None of these problems can be solved in our lifetimes. 21 22 23.
It is here that I believe, we need to take a hard look at the natural capacities our children have been blessed with. The spirituality they display, as distinct from religiosity, has all to do with the sense of awe, wonder, curiosity, compassion, care, sensitivity and tenderness children display. You will see it when you share a moment with them watching the sun rise at dawn, a walk in a forest, a visit to the elderly, getting them to share what they have with those less fortunate and many such examples where they can connect their spirituality with something higher, something Transcendent, which can lift their spirits and make them reach for higher ethical and moral ideals.
I find the Qur’anic story of the engagement with the Prophet Yusuf (PBUH) and his father Prophet Ya’qub (PBUH) very instructive. (12: 4-6) 24 When he has a dream which causes him a sense of unease, he turns to his father for comfort, guidance and explanation. Yaq’ub is not dismissive of his child’s concerns. He gives him a more realistic explanation of how to protect himself against all forms of evil, such as envy, jealousy and hatred. Yaq’ub loves his son, but he also directs his son’s attention to the Ultimate Love or Always Greater Love of the Divine which will always be his source of Strength and Refuge.
Children who experience unconditional parental Love get some idea of what Divine Love is all about. In the child’s brain, parental Love and God’s Love speak the same language. This activates their latent spirituality which will manifest itself verbally as they develop their language and communication skills. 25
It is easy to imitate someone you love; I know this holds true for infants and children. Just observe two young people deeply in love; they mirror one another’s behavior. She plays with her locks and curls; he runs his fingers through his hair!
Over a period of time evens their neural architecture begins to shape around such behaviors that they become hardwired to act in a way similar to what they have observed without them evens being consciously aware of it. Thus they learn by what we say and what we do rather than by what we preach to them. If we are accustomed to remembering Allah, in everything we do, starting every activity with a Bismillah, or Alhamdulillah under any circumstance, for example, it will rub off onto them.
Children’s inherent assets make it easier for them to develop their spirituality. They have a natural love of spiritual ritual and worship; a natural capacity for receiving intuitive guidance, love and a sense of oneness with others; a desire to be helpful, giving, contributing and sharing; an innate sense of the special place of the family in their lives and an affinity with nature, showing a fascination with all forms of creation all help to develop their spirituality 26
What does one do to child protect one’s child so that they do not loose this natural spirituality against the onslaught perpetrated by what they pick up from other children or online? Our children are more often than not exposed to a shocking dose of mixed messages and our task becomes steep and difficult as we try to cultivate a deeper and more spiritual life for them resonating with higher meaning and purpose. Here, the concept of a field of love becomes important. 27
The family is no doubt the cocoon or the embryo from which this field of love germinates from. It can include many outside the child’s immediate family. It is more of an inspired space, a sanctuary where acceptance, tolerance, forgiveness, commitment and compassion are the main operative values. It becomes the most ideal vehicle to transmit spirituality.
It is where a child learns to develop his or her own spiritual compass; they develop an inherent sense of what is right and what is wrong, what is acceptable and what is not, what is just and what is taking an unfair advantage of. This only develops when we take them through the consequences of their own thinking; in this way they begin to discover for themselves what is morally acceptable behavior or not. 28
To sustain this field of love one has to sanctify and strengthen the family bonds. This is best done by creating everyday moments of focused attention to qualities like commitment, forgiveness, generosity, resilience and loyalty. It comes about when the gift of family is celebrated and gratitude expressed for it
Fields of love coalesce into a vast spiritual community. This is like an extended family of concerned neighbors, a religious congregation, a sports association etc. They all have a role to play in the socialization process of our children.
Lastly, it is by encouraging our children to become spiritually multilingual by learning to respect the transcendent values and teachings of those who differ from us culturally and religiously, that we teach them the true meaning of tolerance and respect for human diversity. 29
Enhancing Childhood Spirituality
It is with the Qur’anic chapter, an early Makkan surah, Al Balad, chapter 90, that I want to end off my presentation about the inherent spirituality of childhood. This is a short, intriguing chapter of the Qur’an comprised of 20 verses of which the first three express an oath or a qasam.
I do call to witness this city
And thou art a freeman of this city
And (the mystic ties) of parent and child 30
The literary style with many a makkan surah, involves using an an oath to emphasize a point to its audience. There is usually a relationship between the oath as well as the rest of the subject of the surah which follows 31
Interestingly, the oath in this surah has two parts; I wondered what the relationship is between them? In other words, what is the relationship between balad and walad, between land and child, city and citizen?
The central message of this Surah is to remind mankind to worship One Allah and to be socially conscious of the poor and marginalized; in pre-Islamic Makkan society this was nothing short of a major social revolution. Such change is also never a one generation problem and challenge.
This means a constant sharing of our vision with our children, directing their energies and enthusiasm towards worthy causes. Nowhere do I find the application of these principles more important than when we deal with our adolescent children.
As they struggle with the biological imperative of becoming individuals in their own right, of separating from their parents and defining their own spirituality, thinking and responsibility, we must remain more connected to them by sharing with them that which we hold dear.
We help them mature by passing onto them the batten of social responsibility.
The following quotation is very insightful of the relationship between adolescence and social responsibility
Social responsibility is multidimensional in that being responsible goes beyond just being respectful of others; it means experiencing, as well as appreciating our interdependence and connectedness with others and our environment (Berman, 1993). The ability of the adolescent to identify and define social responsibility is important in defining who they are, where they fit in the social world, and building confidence in their sense of agency. 32 (emphasis added).
These verses, according to Maulana Fazlur Rahman Ansar Alqaderi, (rahimahumullah), were in fact revealed, in the very first year of the mission of Islam, evens before Salah, Saum, Zakat or Haj, the main pillars of the Islamic faith were made compulsory. This underlines the importance our faith tradition attaches to acts of selfless sacrifice for others coupled with efforts at self purification.
The mystical relationship between parent and child affirmed in the oath or qasam implies a duty upon parents to enlighten and inform by example of the relationship between advancing spiritually by overcoming one’s inclination to evil and being sensitive to the plight of the marginalized and downtrodden. Our children are born with an innate spirituality which makes them more attuned to the plight of the helpless; it would be a great disservice to them if we let this sensitive phase of their lives slip through our fingers without leaving them with a worthy cause they can embrace.
Let us remind ourselves of the plight of our Beloved Rasul, Leader and Master, Muhammad (S.A.W.) when he faced one of the most daunting days of his Prophet hood when he was stoned by the street urchins on his visit to Tai’f. We will recall his heartfelt supplication but also his expectation that if the elders of Tai’f refused to listen to his message, perhaps their children or their children’s children will some day mend their immoral ways and turn in Submission to Allah. It is in children and the purity of their hearts that he vested his hope for the future. Tai’f as a balad will only really change when its children become spiritually accomplished.
In conclusion the spirituality of our children is something they are blessed with at birth; it is something that must be acknowledged, nurtured and enhanced as they grow older. We pray to Allah to protect our children and grant us abundant strength and insight to meet up with this truly great and honorable responsibility He has us Blessed us with.
1). See www.un.org/universal day of the child .By resolution 836(IX) of 14 December 1954, the General Assembly recommended that all countries institute a Universal Children’s Day, to be observed as a day of worldwide fraternity and understanding between children. It recommended that the Day was to be observed also as a day of activity devoted to promoting the ideals and objectives of the Charter and the welfare of the children of the world. The Assembly suggested to governments that the Day be observed on the date and in the way which each considers appropriate. The date 20 November, marks the day on which the Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, in 1959, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in 1989. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child refers to spiritual rights in four of its articles with further articles also outlining specific religious rights.
Downloaded 16th November 2016.
2). See Rebecca Nye, Children’s Spirituality. Church House Publishing, London, 2009, page 15. She makes the very salient point that spirituality in children must not be treated as a luxury, like the icing on top of the cake and we need to recognize the sense in which it is a basic necessity, particularly for childhood.
3) Miller, Lisa, The Spiritual Child, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2015, p.7-8
4 Ibid, p.3
5). See Unesdoc.unesco.org, “Learning to live together”. an Interfaith and Intercultural program for ethics education, published by Interfaith Council on Ethics Education for Children, Global Network of Religions for Children Arigatou Foundation, endorsed by Unicef and Unesco, 2008. Downloaded 2 November 2016.
6). Mercer, J. A. Children as Mystics, Activists, Sages and Holy Fools: Understanding the Spirituality of Children and Its Significance for Clinical Work. Pastoral Psychology, Vol.54 No 5, May 2006.
7). Roelkepartain, E.C, Benson, P.L, et al, Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence: Moving to the Scientific Mainstream. In The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence. Pages 1-15. Downloaded 10th November 2016. See also Miller, L, Window of Awakening: The Science of Spirituality in the Adolescent, in The Spiritual Child (see above), page 207.
8). Mohamed, Y, Fitrah and Its Bearing on the Principles of Psychology in The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, 12:1 downloaded 27th October 2015.
9). Asad, Muhammad, The Message of the Qur’an, Dar al Andalus, Gibraltar, 1980, p.233.
10). Ibid. 14; 7, page 371
11). “Babies listen and learn whilst in the womb”, WebMD News Online. Jan.,3,2013
12). Daniela Peroni, et al Functional specialization of music processing in the human brain, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Vol107.no 10, p 4758-4763.
13). Partonen, E, et al, Prenatal Music Exposure Induces Long- term Neural Effects, in Journals.pios.org, October30, 2013
14). Faruqi, L, in Cultural Atlas of Islam, Macmillan, London, 1986, p441.
15). Mehler, J, Bertonini, J, Infant Recognition of a mother’s voice, in Perception. 1978; 7 (5): 491-7
16). “Baby talk”, Pediatric services in www.pediatricservices.comparents/pc-34.html
17). Fletcher, P, O’toole, Ciara in Language Development and Language Impairment, Wiley, p77.
17*) Varon, Stuart, R, and Riley, Ann, W, Relationship between Maternal Church Attendance and Adolescent Mental Health and Social Functioning. In Psychiatric Services 50:799-805, 1999 Adolescent children of Mothers who attend religious services at least once a week report overall better levels of satisfaction with their lives, more involvement with their families, better skills in solving health related problems and greater support from friends.
18). Abd-el-Meboud, Karriem Hassanein Ismail, Human Life Cycle and the Beginning of Life: An Islamic Perspective. In Periodicum Biologorum UDC 57:61 Vol3, no 3, 365-372
19). Hussain, Arif Abdul, Ensoulment and the Prohibition of Abortion in Islam, Al Mahdi Institute, Birmingham, U.K. Downloaded 26th October 2015.
20). Taylor Pamela.K, Personal Responsibility with Communal Support: The Spiritual Education of the Muslim Child, in Nurturing Child and Adolescent Spirituality: Perspectives form the Various Religious Traditions. Ed. Yust, K. Marie, et al, Rowman and Littlefield, London, Boulder, 2006, p352.
21). Graham, Phillip, The End of Adolescence, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York,
22). Hamburg, David, A. and Hamburg, Beatrix A in Learning to Live Together; Preventing Hatred and Violence in Child and Adolescent Development, Oxford University Press, 2004, p303.
23). Bigelow, Martha, Somali Adolescents’ Negotiation of Religious and Racial Bias, In and Out of School in Theory Into Practice, 47: 27-34, 2008
24). Asad, M p. 337
25). Miller,L p. 138-139
26). Ibid. p. 110
27). Ibid. p. 135
28). Ibid. p. 179
29). Ibid. p. 191
30). Asad, M. p. 952. See also, Sells, Michael in Approaching the Qur’an, the Early Revelations. White Cloud Press, Ashland, Oregon, 1999, p. 82
31). Mir, Mustansir The Qur’an Oaths: Farahi’s Interpretation in Islamic Studies, 1990, Spring issue.
32). Polk K. Roselyn, Social Responsibility in Evaluating the National Outcomes. www.ag.arizona.edu