Any child of Muslim parents is considered a Muslim, and Islamic law contains precise and detailed provisions regarding children. Islam is the system of beliefs, rituals, and practices traced back to the Prophet Muhammad (c. 570–632 C.E.), who reportedly started his mission in Arabia in 610 C.E. Islamic law is contained in the Muslim holy book, the Qur'an (or Koran), as revealed to Muhammad. The Qur'an contains 114 suras, or chapters, that were revealed to Muhammad over the course of twenty-three years. There are over one billion Muslims in the world, who inhabit forty predominantly Muslim countries and five continents, traversing a diverse geographical and cultural area. As Islam spread and established itself in these diverse areas, some of the many local cultures and customs became assimilated into Islamic practices. Thus, there may be slight variations on classical Islamic practices from country to country. There are also variations between the two major sects of Islam: the Sunnis and the Shi'is (also spelled Shiite).
Islamic life is determined by the Shari'a (the Way), which is Islamic law, although in the strict sense of the word it is much more than law, as it contains prescriptions for every aspect of life, ranging from rituals, customs, and manners to family law–including the treatment and rights of children. The primary source of the Shari'a is the Qur'an, which is considered to be the direct and unmediated word of God. Although there is only one Shari'a, there are slight differences in the constitution of the Shari'a amongst the Sunnis and Shi'is. These differences are due on the one hand to different interpretations of the Qur'anic text, known as tafsir (sing.), and on the other to legal interpretations, or fiqh (sing.), by the jurists. This exercise is known as science of the law (usulal-fiqh).
According to the Sunni jurists, four principal sources (known as legal indicators) provide the basis for the Shari'a: the Qur'an (the word of God as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad); the Sunna of the Prophet (Muhammad's words, actions, and habits); ijma (consensus among Muslim jurists on a particular subject or the consensus of the Muslim community); and qiyas (reasoning by analogy), in which jurists develop new laws based on the Qur'an or the Sunna. The primary sources for the Shari'a used by the Shi'is are also the Qur'an and the Sunna of the Prophet, as well as the Sunna of the Imams, who are the descendants of the Prophet and who, for the Shi'is, also carry the spiritual mantle of the Prophet. The historical differences between Shi'i and Sunni Islam affect the structure and method by which they formulate laws from original sources. In place of qiyas, the Shi'i faqih, known as mujtahid, uses a method of legal inference called ijtihad, which is essentially a personal soul searching and reasoning. These variations are also due to the cultural differences of the diverse areas which Islam encompasses. However, the major provisions for the rights of children are the same within all the sects of Islam as they are based on the Qur'an and the Sunna.
Before the advent of Islam in Arabia, children not only had no rights but newborn babies were frequently buried alive, either because of poverty or because they were female and considered a burden. There are several Qur'anic verses on this subject: "And when the birth of a daughter is announced to one of them, his face becomes black and he is full of wrath." (Qur'an XVI: 58); "And kill not your children for fear of poverty–we provide for them and for you. Surely the killing of them is a great wrong." (XVII: 31); "And when the one buried alive is asked for what sin she was killed …" (LXXXI: 8–9). These verses support the fact that the custom of infanticide was practiced in pre-Islamic Arabia.
In Islamic societies the main purpose of marriage was, and still is, procreation, which is an obligatory religious duty. The advent of a child is not only welcomed and considered a blessing, it is also regarded as essential for strengthening the marriage bond, for the perpetuation of the line of descent, and for enlarging the community of the faithful. A house in which no child is born is seen to lack God's blessing. Childlessness frequently results in divorce, or at least the addition of another wife (as polygyny is permitted in Islam) who is able to bear children, as the inability to do so is always considered to be the fault of the woman.
There are various rituals associated with the birth of a child, and it is the duty of the father or legal guardian to see
that they are fulfilled. The first of these dictates that when the child is born the Muslim call to prayer is whispered in both its ears. The parents choose the child's name, but if there is a disagreement it is the father who chooses the name. On the seventh day after the birth a ceremony known as aqiqa takes place, during which a sheep is slaughtered and the child's hair is cut. Another rite, considered by some to be an aspect of incorporating the child into the community of the faithful, is male CIRCUMCISION. This can take place at any age ranging from seven days to fifteen years, depending on the local culture, and is usually accompanied by festivities. Female circumcision does not exist in the Qur'an and there is no evidence that the Prophet recommended it. In the Muslim areas where it is practiced, as in parts of northeastern Africa, it is the consequence of local pre-Islamic practices.
In Islam, childhood is considered a special period in an individual's life. The different stages of childhood are well defined, and there is a rich vocabulary for them in Arabic. For example, the general term for the child is walad; the baby in the mother's womb is called janin (fetus); at birth, tifl; and at completion of seven days, sadigh. A baby who has not yetbeen weaned is called sabiyy if male and sabiyya if female. Aboy is called ghulam; a young man, habab. Once he attains the faculty of discernment and is able to differentiate between good and evil, he has reached the stage of tamyiz. There are other terms for the various stages until the child reaches maturity. For instance a child who dies before adulthood is farat.
Physical maturity in either sex establishes majority (bulugh) in Islamic law. There is a difference of opinion in the legal schools about the exact age, but it ranges from nine for girls to eighteen for boys, although for girls the age of menstruation is generally acceptable. If there is doubt, however, a statement by the person that he or she has reached PUBERTY is adequate. Before reaching majority, a minor is not legally recognized, does not have social responsibilities, and is under the care of a parent or guardian.
Islam considers children to be vulnerable and dependent beings. Therefore, Islamic law provides diverse rules for the protection of their body and property. According to these rules both parents have well-defined duties toward their children before they reach the age of maturity. In Islamic countries the patrilineal system of descent is the norm, so these duties are incumbent upon an established paternity resulting in mutual rights of INHERITANCE, guardianship, and maintenance. Any child born within wedlock is considered legitimate, and provisions have been made regarding paternity in cases of divorce or the death of the father. Due to the importance of patrilineal descent, adoption is not permitted in Islam (Qur'an XXXIII: 4–5), although before the advent of Islam it was practiced in Arabia. Muslims are enjoined to treat children of unknown origin as their brothers in the faith.
The father of a child should provide the mother with the necessary material for the child's growth and survival. The baby has the right to food, clothing, and shelter (Qur'an II:233). The father should also see to the child's education (both secular and religious). Should the child's father be dead or unable to provide for the child, and if the child does not have any inherited property, then providing for the child becomes first the duty of the paternal grandfather, then other paternal relatives, and finally any other living relatives.
It is the responsibility of the mother to take care of the child during infancy. The mother must breast-feed the child at least up to the age of two (Qur'an II: 233), although even in present-day Islamic countries breast-feeding usually continues as long as the mother has milk. If a mother is unable to nurse, it is permitted to employ a wet nurse who is in good health and of good character (it is believed by some jurists that traits are inherited through human lactation)(Qur'an II: 233, LIV: 6). If the family cannot afford a wet nurse, frequently a neighbor or a friend who has recently given birth may fulfill the role.
If there is a dispute between parents, it is generally agreed that mothers have the right of custody for the first few years of a child's life. If a mother dies, custody reverts to a female relative, preferably in the mother's line. However, aside from these facts, the different schools of fiqh hold dissimilaropinions on this matter.
Children also have well-defined rights in respect to inheritance. Provisions have been made within the Qur'an and the Shari'a for the inheritance rights of both female and male offspring. In pre-Islamic Arabia, women and children had no inheritance rights. In Islam, boys inherit two times the amount that girls inherit. There are also provisions for the inheritance rights of parents (Qur'an IV: 11, 12).
The child is also entitled to a guardian. This may be the father, or it may be someone the father appoints to protect the child's property interests. Under Islamic law a child, as a minor, is not permitted to enter into any contractual arrangement. It is therefore the duty of the guardian to ascertain that any intended contract is to the child's advantage.
The religious education of the child is the responsibility of the parents, with boys being educated by their fathers, and girls by their mothers. Through the initial rituals at birth, the child is incorporated into Islam, and the basic principles of the faith are explained when the child starts talking. However, the systematic religious education of the child does not begin until the age of tamyiz. In the past, this education frequently began by sending boys to the maktab (Qur'anic school), where they learned the recitation of the Qur'an and instruction on the performance of religious commandments. Female children did not go the maktab, although female maktabs were available in some countries. Girls frequently received their religious instruction at home from their mother and were taught household work. However, although maktabs exist in all Islamic countries today, religious instruction is also incorporated into the general curriculum of modern state education, and special religious books have been written for children. In some Islamic countries, such as Turkey, schools are coeducational, while in others, such as Saudi Arabia, any kind of schooling for girls is of recent origin, and children are taught in separate male and female facilities.
The ritual five daily prayers, which constitutes one of the five pillars of Islam, do not become incumbent upon the child until she or he reaches his or her majority. (As explained above, although different schools of law hold diverse opinion on the actual age of majority, fifteen is generally considered the age that separates the minor from the major.) Corporal punishment is permitted for children who do not fulfill their religious obligations or who show signs of unacceptable traits or behavior. In addition, children have duties toward their parents. They are enjoined to be kind, obedient, and respectful toward their parents, and to look after them in old age (Qur'an: XVII: 23; XXIX: 8; XXXI: 14, 15; XXXXVI: 15).
It must be remembered that Islam encompasses many different cultures, so it is difficult to generalize about the rights of children in present-day Islamic countries. But it can be seen that within Islamic law there are definite rights and duties granted to children. Although most modern-day Islamic societies have incorporated parts of the Shari'a into their constitution, they have not necessarily incorporated all rights accorded to children by Islam. However, there is one institution in most Islamic societies that is of great importance in the upbringing of children, the extended family system.
The number of people living in one household varies according to the economic status of the family. But the minimum number would include grandparents in addition to the nuclear family and any unmarried siblings. This often results in early indulgence of the child. The child spends a considerable amount of time with its mother and is breast-fed on demand. It also receives much affection and pampering from its mother, father, older siblings, and other members of the extended family.
In spite of differences from country to country, there are certain cultural norms regarding children that are shared by most Islamic societies and have continued from the past to the present. These include the importance of the group over the individual, the importance of children (particularly sons) to continue the line of descent, and responsibility for parents in old age.
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Fernea, Elizabeth Warnock, ed. 1995. Children in the Muslim Middle East. Austin: University of Texas Press.
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Momen, Moojan. 1985. Introduction to Shi'i Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi'ism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Ruthven, Malise. 1997. Islam: A Very Short Introduction. Albany: State University of New York Press.