Nadiah Mohajir has made a compelling case for why Muslim schools should offer sex education for their youth to avoid unfortunate misunderstandings and problems. But the question is – how can we do this? Is the syllabus really good enough to address these problems? As a teacher and a parent, I had my own concerns with the issue of sex education in Great Britain, and wonder how it can be incorporated into Islamic education.
What does it mean to be sexually educated? What does it mean to be ISLAMICALLY sexually educated? Or is that something of an oxymoron?
I remember being sexually uneducated; I can’t say it was much of a problem. I found out what I needed to know when I needed to know. But that was back in the dawn of time when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Today, the needs are different.
What has changed? Well, there is a universal assumption today, in mainstream western society, that you will have plenty of sexual encounters before getting married (if you ever do) which wasn’t the case as little as a couple of decades ago. Similarly, issues such as hetero/homosexuality which were once private matters between adults have been normalised to the degree that our old concepts of what constitutes ‘normal’ have been shifted. Then there is the ease with which you can view any amount of hardcore pornography. And finally, the age at which it is considered sensible to begin to educate children about the pro’s and con’s of sexual activity is getting lower and lower because of the assumption that some of them will probably be at it sooner rather than later.
Nadiah and the HEART foundation are right – education is absolutely appropriate here. It seems to make sense that children should be educated in these matters. But what is the educational content? How can we educate the Muslim youth while keeping in line with Islamic values and traditions? I’m afraid that, as far as sex education on offer goes, the human elements of the syllabus have been removed entirely. Attempting to bring them back through teaching is a very long way off. The problem of our over-sexed society has its roots in the metaphysics of the ancient Greeks who sowed the seeds of today’s nihilism. That is to say, our society today seems to lack any real direction or meaning and mainstream education only reinforces this by trying to separate our material from our spiritual sides. This is what lies at the heart of the failure of sex education in state schools in England. It has lost sight of all that was essentially human and programmed us to begin to think of ourselves as lumps of matter – handfuls of carbon-based chemicals and nothing more.
This basic dysfunction is not something you can escape by simply being Muslim: the programming is global in its reach. Neither is it realistic to think we can turn back the clock to a time of simpler certainties, especially in the name of education. Problems such as teenage pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted infections do need to be addressed with education, but this is not a single issue that we collectively need to find a response to. In fact it cannot be separated from the many challenges and concerns that face us today – from environmental to economical and social issues.
All of these are symptoms of a deeper malaise: the victory of technological thinking, which, among other things, sees human beings as objects in the world. This is incompatible with spiritual thinking, which primarily sees human beings as God’s way of knowing Himself. Sex education today is incompatible with spiritual thinking.
Everything that is human is spiritual. That this can be ignored or denied is a measure of the peculiarity of the mental trap that western thought has produced. Human sex is spiritual, if only because we are spirits. That means it will do no good trying to come up with new plans for sex education just to be imposed by spiritually unconscious teachers on children whose education is otherwise designed to render them equally unaware of their own spiritual reality.
So is this a counsel of despair? Is there nothing we can do in the meantime? I think there is, and that there certainly is a way for children to receive sex education, provided that a certain amount of caution is applied. This needs to be combined with an appropriate sense of modesty and common sense about child development. These appear to be relatively rare virtues these days, not least because people have started thinking about them merely as cultural constraints without foundation. I believe that this is what has happened to previously accepted moral standards in society too – so to educate a child in matters of sex and sexual relations, one must be careful not to fall into the trap of making modesty and spirituality seem incidental. In fact, modesty and spirituality should form the basis of our children’s education in this area. Of course, the problem is, there is no one simple way of doing this.
I believe that Rudolf Steiner was right when he understood that children are not merely little adults and that childhood has definite spiritual stages. Sex education should be based on preparing the child spiritually from a very early age, respecting the soul that has entered the world and, crucially, leaving the technological approach until puberty when the mind has developed to a point where it can grasp that way of thinking for what it is.
Unfortunately, this is never going to work within an education system where teaching children to use computers in nursery school is seen as “progress” or detailing the basic physical technicalities of sex to under-16s is viewed as a necessary force for good. It’s clear that we all need some new thinking.
Ibrahim Lawson is a shura member of the Association of Muslim schools and the head teacher of Islamic faith school Al-Risalah, in South London UK.