Why don’t We Teach Sex Ed in Islamic Schools?

I was recently approached by a sister I know who said to me: “Nadeem, you need to have ‘the talk’ with my little brother. I think he’s at that age.”

I turned and said: “Doesn’t he go to an Islamic school?”

Thinking back, I’m not sure why I asked. I should’ve known the answer.

“Yes, he goes to an Islamic school but the school doesn’t believe in teaching sex education” she says.

Curious me, I continued: “But doesn’t the school have a Phys Ed class where Sex Ed is part of the curriculum?”

“Yeah” she said – “they just skip the chapter.”

So now I am tasked with having this conversation with a 13 year old whose parents aren’t going to broach the topic and his school doesn’t see the importance.

So I thought about it for a while.

I didn’t want to mess this up. It’s a crucial conversation that I myself wish I had with someone – I went to a public school where my parents asked for me to be exempted from that part of health class. So I asked myself what would this young man think I am going to talk about when I broach the topic since he was already told I’d be approaching him “to talk.”

I figured he’d expect me to talk about feelings related to girls, how dating is haram, and how he should lower his gaze and take cold showers until he’s married.

I’m not trying to be facetious but this is how it’s often thought of. This was too conventional for me – too pre-packaged and too reactive to contemporary social norms. So I flipped the script a bit.

After maghrib one day, I pulled him aside – he knew “the talk” was coming. I spoke about three things:

1. Responsibility
I explained that at the turn to adulthood (puberty) his responsibilities become real: prayer and being in a state of purity for prayer becomes mandatory – briefly making mention of wet dreams and the responsibility of ghusl. Respect to his elders and responsibility to society become real. That he needs to learn his fard ‘ayn (his individual religious responsibilities are now things that he will be accountable for).

2. Implications
I told him that his choices now how have implications. We spoke about social and peer pressures, access to information, images, and thoughts all now have the potential to harden the heart and lower one’s spiritual state.

3. Repentance
I emphasized tawba and that we all inevitably make mistakes or do things that we are not proud of. But that he should be conscious of decisions he makes, understand the implications, and then deeply acknowledge that Allah is the most merciful, if we but ask for forgiveness.

When we finished the talk, he was a bit flabbergasted. He left realizing his prayers counted now. Not the message related to puberty he thought he’d get. He also realized that choices have implications on his spiritual state, on his family, on his well-being, and on his akhirah.

He matured ten-fold in an instant his sister told me. AlhamduLillah, I’m glad. But I remained concerned about all those adolescents in Islamic schools that are still not having these conversations.

What I learned from this experience about teaching sex education in Islamic schools are two things:

  1. Adolescent students NEED these conversations – it’s not about avoiding the conversations around sex education – it’s about reframing them.
  2. Timing and repetition is essential — this cannot be a chapter in a textbook or a unit in a course. Conversations related to sexuality and sexual feelings need to be reiterated year after year and both formally in the curriculum and informally in personal conversations with students.

What I have mentioned above is but one experience and I know I have a lot to learn myself. I’d like to hear about whether conversations related to sex education are being had in your Islamic school – if not, why not? and if so, how are they being framed?

Nadeem Memon

About Nadeem Memon

Dr. Nadeem Memon serves as Director of Education for Razi Education. He holds a Ph.D from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto on the history and philosophy of Islamic schooling. He also serves as Program Director for the Islamic Teacher Education Program, a project of Razi Education.
Click here to read more posts by Nadeem.


  1. A salaam au Laikum,

    This is extremely important…sex Ed is part of health. I could go on and on, but it is as important for girls as for boys. It doesn’t mean that kids will be promiscuous if they have this info.

    Jazakallah

    cC

  2. Salaam. Very well said. Your approach to the conversation was very mature. I will definitely discuss the same with my kids.

    JazakhAllah khair,
    A

  3. Assalaamu Alaikum,

    My school is one of those Islamic Schools where the issue of sex education is definitely skipped, for various reasons. This issue has never openly been raised for discussion at the school, so I am not really sure where parents stand on it. I do know that most teachers in the Islamic Studies department would rather not be tasked to teach it.

    Recently, an ex – student of our school is reported to have expressed “shocking” views about homosexuality: That it is a human condition, like race, and that “homophobia” is a sort of discrimination. I took this opportunity to bring up the subject, stating that this type of thinking may very well become the norm, in the absence of parental and school openness to educate on matters of sexuality. I argued that there is a knowledge vacuum among the adolescents on these matters that is being filled by tv, the Internet and peers. Since then, one of my colleagues has opened the door for discussion of homosexuality in her class, via the story of Lut (A).

    I think that culture plays a big part. Immigrants often feel like openness on these matters are considered tabboo in their respective cultures, where, if discussed, it should be done so by the student’s family. So teachers don’t, out of anxiety to cross boundaries , in addition perhaps, to a personal attitude of shyness or embarrassment.

    Furthermore, it is my humble opinion as an immigrant, that there is sometimes a failure to recognize that culture is not genetic. Kids who grow up in the US, are in fact, American and have to deal with growing up in America.

    I feel that there is a great need for sex education in Islamic Schools. I feel strongly, that the initiative must be lead by the Islamic Studies department, but have thus far not been able to bring about meaningful change. It seems like the inertia can only be overcome by request of the parents or the board.

    Rahima

  4. i think tahara and purity need to be added here – and i mean inner purity and how to make sure we are not wtching, listening to, or exposing ourselves to things that are filling our hearts and emotions with haram,
    another whole topic is homosexuality. complex issue. not easily explained.
    we really need to think hard about these things and not give silly answers.
    some people ARE born like that. but just like a young man who is not married, they are not to express sexuality. expressing sexuality is a choice. it is up to us whether we stir up feelings related to this part of our being or not. we can stir up feelings related to loving Allah. or we can not. these are our choices – they all depend on how we dress, how we act, what we focus on. Imam al Ghazali said that when the child hits adolescence, they have either a spiritual awakening or a sexual awakening. which one have we (and society) prepared them to have?

  5. AsSalaamu Alaikum. I believe the youth(young brothers) should be taught sex education by a male instructor, when they(male) reach the age of puberty under a class setting for male,only.Likewise, the youth(female) should be taught sex education by a female instructor,when they(female) reach the age of puberty under a class setting for female,only,It is definitely, our obligation to have sex education in our school as stated in the above statement,then to have the those instructions on sex education comming from the world’s instructors to our youth(male and female).Thank You.Your brother in trust,Talib Abdulhaqq.

    youty

    9they) reach the age of puberty under a class room setting for males ,only.Likewise for the youth(females) should be taught sex education by a female instruction when they(female) reach the age of puberty under a class room setting for female,only.

  6. Assalamu Alaikum,
    I love your website. May Allah bless you for these wonderful entries.
    At our school, we usually get a Muslim female family doctor who speaks to our female students in grades 5th-6th & 7th-8th in two different sessions. She talks to them about the physical and emotional changes they go through as they mature and shows them an appropriate video that supports the points she stresses . The Islamic studies teacher discusses with them their responsibilities and implications of maturity in their lives. She emphasizes the importance of Hayaa’ especially when dealing with the other gender. wet dreams, Ghusl, and other issues are discussed, too. The same type of session is organized for the same age group boys with a male doctor and a male Islamic Studies teacher.
    We have been doing this for the last 12 years at least, and there is a slight improvement every year.
    Jazakum Allah Khair, Wassalamu Alaikum.

    Majida Salem

  7. Assalamualaikoum wrwb
    I really appreciated brother Nadeem`s approach to that young atudent and I think it should be done this way only i Islamic schools.Well , in my school also, sex education is being taught included in islamic subjects itself.The students have specific islamic books related to the topics like puberty, haya, hijab, and all..
    They are all in touch with the subject Alhamdulillah!

  8. Assalamu Alaikum,
    I really appreciate this fruitful discussion ,the most thing i admired is how simple it appeared compared to the complicated fear we have against it in our ordinary interaction with our teens ,in my islamic school in Egypt we suffer alot from the incorrect treatments of most of teachers and parents ,lately we thought of bringing a specialist to speak with the high and middle school students in this issue it was very fruitful the asked us to repeat it

  9. As Salaam Alaikum,
    I think that the first reaction by many teachers and parents is to skip the chapter or exempt the child from attending that class session–thinking that they are protecting the child from the wrong information or the wrong message. They may think that if we give the children this information they will do the wrong things with it.
    However, in this age of information, we can be sure that children will get information one way or another, and wouldn’t it be better to have them get it in the frame of their faith, their way of life, the Islamic world view?
    JAK, Dr. Nadeem, for your example. It breaks through all the unnecessary (but all too common) embarrassment and discomfort about a ‘taboo’ topic.
    In conjunction with a counselor and youth leader, an imam, and our teachers, we are organizing special workshops to speak with our students. First we met with parents to present the idea to them. We now have a parent group to contact other parents and spread the objectives of our workshop and garner more support. (This will also allow parents to have both the information and the Islamic framework to continue the discussion at home in the same manner. Many parents do not know how to discuss these issues with their children, so we hope to help create a dialogue between parent and child.) The next step will be meetings in which parents will receive the same information as their children will (in separate meetings for the boys and girls). And the final step will be the student workshops.
    May Allah help us to guide our children.

    • Assalaamu Alaikum,

      Yes indeed, may Allah guide our children. I really like the sound of the approach you outline, Sr Sumaiyah. Do you have newletter templates, references that you can share, please?

  10. Assalam alaykum,
    What about teaching about sex ed in the context of teaching about marriage, since these two things go together in Islam! I really think that we don’t need to go into the nitty gritty – we can save that for later – but we need to give general brushstokes and outlines about the physical aspect of it; and then i think we need to give very clear guidance on personal physical things (physical tahara and the fiqh of it); personal spiritual purity (what not to look at, dangers of stirring up sexual desire through movies, songs, magazines, and pornography – and by the way, this is a big issue with Muslim youth); and then preparation for the roles of marriage. We do so little of the latter in the Muslim community that it is shocking. No wonder so many marriages fall apart.
    What we have is the general society around us giving us and our youth a certain perception and way of relating to the opposite sex (objectified, sources of sexual pleasure, “eye-candy”, chances for flirting); so we have to give them the ISLAMIC way of relating to the opposite sex. In Islam, there are two categories of this: mahram and non-mahram. When the child reaches puberty, these two categories become real for them. So the main thing is to talk about non-mahram women and what that means. How to respect them, how to honor them (in Islam, respect between sexes is generally shown by the personal space you give each other – lowering of the gaze, not physically touching or crowding that person, not embarassing them with your stares, not forcing them to converse with you about laghu topics, etc). And then, we must talk about what it means to one day be a husband or wife and what the adolescent should be doing to prepare for this. A girl should be putting together a “hope chest” – whether she is able to get married in the end or not – and i love the idea of an invisible hope chest: http://www.abowlofmossandpebbles.com/?p=4040
    I think you will see that our Christian brothers and sisters are far ahead of us on this:
    http://solochristo.com/theology/Familly/einwecher-preparingsonsanddaughters.htm

    In general, puberty is a time to talk about being a real man, and being a real woman; and to start to provide gender specific training if we haven’t already: boys need to become men, girls need to bccome women. There are a lot of resources on these topics, again many from the Christian community – and we need to think about how to use these and apply them in our communities so that adolesence is a door to adulthood and not just an opportunity to waste time, churn with hormones, and generally stew in excess energy that is not being directed in any way. Less freedom for teenagers is what i say; it is time for them to become our friends as the Hadith says; i believe this means our apprentices – learning the art of life so that one day they can take it on with courage and faith.

  11. that last comment was mainly considering the needs of boys; i want to mention of course that for girls hitting puberty it’s a whole other ballgame. We need to really talk to them about their independence. They need to understand this concept as coming with adulthood. Women in westeern society, and also in many Muslim contexts, are dependent on men for positive self-image. and this is where we have to really try to empower them to value themselves for who they are in God’s Eyes. We really should have the corner on this – because our very religion teaches both men and women the way to get out of being slaves to other people and society’s expectations, yet we don’t seem to be getting through to our girls. I recommend a couple of books for educators of youth – Girls on the Edge and Boys Adrift by Leonard Sax – to get a picture of what youth are really facing. There is also this very informative (if scary) documentary on what life is like for youth today:
    http://www.nfb.ca/film/sexy_inc/
    ** I advise you to skip the part from 20:16 to 20:54 and from 25:17 to 26 **
    It is important to also raise boys to value with the same valuation system God uses, or we face a growing contradiction in our community: we claim that piety is what matters, but when it comes to girls, our men demand supermodel looks in their wives, tell their wives they look fat after having given birth, and generally let it be known that they appreciate a pretty girl (so women respond, as one might expect them to, and accommodate the desires of men by wearing a scarf on their heads but combining it with several markers of sexual invitation: stiletto heels, skinny jeans, make-up, etc). Thanks to this blog for bringing up a great issue. I have heard many scholars say that the disease of our time is hypersexuality – so we have to be aware of this and err on the side of caution so that we raise people who are pious and have taqwa inside and out. Sadly, i know of many cases where this is not the case; i once taught a young man whose mother and sister were huffaz and whose whole family was very religious – he too was memorizing Quran. But they had a closed off space in their house where the computer was…you can guess where this is going…his sister wrote to me one day in desparation to say she had discovered he had an addiction to porn…and she could not of course tell her mother….
    Finally, this is a great resource for learning about gender and gentility:
    http://cambridgekhutbasetc.blogspot.ca/2008/10/gender-gentility.html

  12. “They are triumphing over us through this matter” – Habib Omar on the topic of modesty and how Muslims dress today. I think this matter needs to be covered in our teaching or we need to advise Parents. It is a big problem today and it is tied to notions of sexuality. I would ask you to please watch this video, as educators, as people who care about our youth and their Islam, and think of how to apply the counsel. We are not doing a good job of educating on PURITY and MODESTY.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6AUyzxDz0w
    PLEEASE everyone, let us try to work on this matter to save our futures.

  13. It’s humbling to see the number of responses to this post. In particular the variance of responses — from those agreeing about the need to taking such conversations seriously in schools to those that already are — illustrates much promise for a shifting discourse.

    Thank you also for those suggestions about the types of topics that should be discussed as well as those of you who have shared links to deepening this thread.

    By the sounds of it, I think the challenge remains in developing a curriculum that outlines aspects of modesty, cleanliness, responsibility in the Islamic tradition with the contemporary pressures that students raise.

    I would love to hear more (I am sure we all would) from those who responded stating that Sex Education in some shape or form is currently being taught in your Islamic school. What topics are being taught and do students find it useful, relevant, settling?

  14. Assalamoalikum! Thank you for bringing this up. There is no doubt that we need to take these kind of initiatives. As we have been discussing, taleem and tarbiyyah involve not only teachers but also parents, neighbours, friends, relatives etc. I think that one of the most important things is to bond with our kids (students) as I recall a mafhoom of one hadeeth, love your kids till the age of 7, bond with them for next 7 (till 14) and train them for the next 7 (till 21) and then set them free (for the challenges). Do we as teachers or parents have that love bond with our kids/students? I think this is where we need to invest the most. JAK for all the input and sharing your experiences.
    duas wassalamolikum

  15. Pingback: Sex Ed in Islamic Schools « black board, white chalk

  16. Great post, I wish I had found this sooner! I work at an Islamic School in Calgary and we’ve created a comprehensive “gender education” curriculum, as we call it here, for boys and girls (separately) for grades 5 and up. We ran it this school year and are modifying it with more information for this year in the fall. I would love to share it with other Islamic schools since it’s critical to have a formalized curriculum, according to research, rather than one off conversations that aren’t repeated, as you mentioned above.

  17. Bismi Llah. Wa l-salatu wa l-salamu `ala Rasuli Llah.

    Sexuality is simply not a taboo subject in Islam. It just isn’t. There is too much of Allah’s command tied to sexuality. But it is meant to be addressed with dignity and maturity. The problem is that many Muslim adults aren’t dignified and mature about sexuality, so can we expect the kids to be.

    Part of the problem is, itself, the very running from the subject. Islam doesn’t run from it; the Prophet, salla Llahu `alayhi wa alihi wa sallam, the most bashful and dignified of people, spoke about sexuality openly, as needed. In the most polite and dignified manner. Sometimes alluding to it using metaphor and sometimes addressing it very explicitly, as appropriate. Salla Llahu `alayhi wa alihi wa sallam.

    I personally think that much of our complex around sexuality is inherited from the Christian understanding of sex, not the Islamic one. And, really, how are you going to avoid the subject? Are you going to have kids skip the parts of the Qur’an that speak of menstruation? Of ejaculation? How often are we reminded that man is created from ejaculate? Maniyy literally means ejaculate. “Min maniyyin yumna” from ejaculate ejaculated. Some of these matters are addressed and expressly articulated in the Qur’an, itself.

    On top of that, take any basic book of fiqh and you’ll find, for example, when covering the necessitators of bathing in the conditions of prayer that ejaculation, sexual intercourse, menstruation, and childbirth are all addressed. Guess what: these are directly tied to sexuality, and students are expected to understand these matters, what they mean, and their implications. And guess what: these are texts that are meant to be taught to kids as young as six and seven, and maybe sometimes even younger.

    Which brings me to the next point… Another part of the problem is our understanding about responsibility and puberty and the age that we are supposed to be ascribing a certain maturity to children. The Prophet, salla Llahu `alayhi wa alihi wa sallam, instructed us to command children to pray at seven (lunar) years of age. And ordered us to essentially *force* them at nine or ten. And the scholars explain that by extension that applies to other matters of the Muhammadan Law, as well. And so children *at seven* are supposed to be mature and fulfilling the commands of the Shari`ah. That means that they should be getting familiar more and more with its demands, including sexuality, since it relates to many rulings.

    Yes, people (notice I didn’t say children, because they are technically adults the moment they reach puberty) are not accountable until the moment they reach puberty, but there are a couple of considerations: 1) puberty can happen as young as nine; 2) even though they are, themselves, not accountable for fulfilling the commands, *we* are accountable for readying them to fulfill those commands. Hence the obligation upon *us* as their guardians to get them practicing the commands and demands of the Purified Law. Basically, before they are thrown onto the battlefield of accountability, we are obligated to have started their training years before.

    And how terrible of us as their caretakers to wait until they are on the battlefield before we even start training them, letting them get slaughtered by life’s challenges and dreaming that they’ll be fine. What a travesty!

    (Not to mention that the problem becomes compounded a hundredfold when we live in such a sexualized society with all kinds of confused understandings around sexuality.)

    There is so much that could be said, but I hope that’s enough to get us thinking a a little differently.

    I pray what I’ve said is accurate, understood, and helpful.

    Wa salla Llahu `ala Sayyidina Muhammadin wa `ala alihi wa sahbihi wa sallam.

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