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What exactly do we mean by Islam when referring to "The Child in Islam"? Do we mean the beliefs and practices of the about 213 million Muslims, who constitute 88 percent of the population of Indonesia, making it the largest Islamic country in the world? Or those of the about 380 million Muslims living in the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh)? Is it the religious world view of the 73 million Muslims in Egypt, of the 70 million Iranians, the 33 million Moroccans or the 65 million Muslims in Nigeria that we have in mind? Is it the Islam of the 26 million inhabitants of Saudi Arabia or that of the members of the Muslim communities in Great Britain (1.5-2 million), in France (between 3 and 6 million) or in the United States (between 5 and 8 million)? In other words, what, if any, is the common denominator uniting approximately 1.3 billion Muslims who are spread out today over fi ve continents, and who between them reveal all the differences likely to be found between such disparate population groups as city dwellers, villagers, and nomads? In what way can we call Muslim communities that are geographically so remote from each other, have adopted Islam at different times and through different historical processes during more than 1,400 years of Islamic history, and often incorporated local social customs and cultural characteristics into their new faith? The Arabic word Muslim refers to a person who by accepting Islam ("Obedience") surrenders himself/herself to "God One (Allahu ahad), God the everlasting Refuge,"1 as revealed through the message and life of his Prophet Muhammad (570?-632 CE). It is this purely monotheistic concept that has become the cornerstone of the "Great Tradition" of Islam as it fi rst emerged in Mecca and Medina (in northwest Arabia), in the seventh century CE, propounded by the Prophet of Islam and his adherents, and then, with the sweeping Islamic conquests that followed, developed in the new centers of religious learning in Iraq, Syria, Iran, Central Asia, Egypt, North Africa, and Spain throughout the classical period (the fi rst three to four centuries) of Islamic history. The Qur'an (lit., "recitation"), the Islamic scripture, is the foundation of this "Great Tradition." Preserved, according to Islamic theology, as the eternal word of God, in a "heavenly tablet"- The source of all monotheist sacred books- The Qur'an was revealed, in installments, in the Arabic language to the Prophet Muhammad through the mediation of the angel Jabra'il (or Jibril-Gabriel). It was then disseminated, still in the Prophet's lifetime, by way of recitation, among the inhabitants of the Arab peninsula, as they converted to Islam. With the spread of Islam in the Middle East and beyond, the Qur'an began to be taught to the newly converted as an essential part of their socialization into the new religion. It was probably the Prophet Muhammad himself who initiated the assembling of individual Qur'anic revelations and the editing of their written texts. This task was accomplished, by the middle of the seventh century CE, under the supervision of his fi rst successors (caliphs). The Qur'an is composed of 114 chapters (sing. sura), each consisting of verses (sing. aya). According to the Islamic tradition, some ninety of the suras were revealed to Muhammad while he was preaching in Mecca, the city where he was born and raised; the rest-in Medina, where he settled after his emigration (hijra) from Mecca in 622 CE. Heavily relying on biblical heritage, the Qur'an lays the foundations for later formulations of the Islamic creed and the emphasis it puts on the belief in one, eternal, and omnipotent God, merciful and compassionate; in Muhammad as "the seal of the [monotheist] prophets," God's last messenger to humankind, in general, and to the Arab people, in particular, and in the resurrection of the dead which leads to the Last Judgment and either eternal bliss in Paradise or everlasting torment in Hell. The moral and legal rules the Qur'an contains form the basis for the Islamic law (shari'a) as it consolidated during the four centuries following the revelation of the Qur'an to Muhammad. A central part is taken up by the ethical rules of family life in the spirit of Islam, including the attitudes Muslims ought to adopt toward children. When they found they needed to adjust the teaching of the Qur'an to different social, cultural, and historical circumstances after the death of Muhammad and began interpreting the holy text accordingly, Muslim scholars developed one of the most fertile branches of Islamic thought and writing, namely, Qur'an exegesis (tafsir). Tafsir emerged side by side with the literature of the tradition, the hadith, that brings together sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and his close companions as well as descriptions of the Prophet's actions and of events that occurred during his lifetime. With the canonization of six collections of sound (sahih) traditions in the ninth century CE, they, particularly the two compiled by Muslim Ibn al-Hajjaj al-Naysaburi and Muhammad Ibn Isma'il al-Bukhari, became an integral part of the Islamic sacred books, ranking only one degree below the Qur'an, the word of God, itself. Derived, in principle, from the Qur'an and hadith, it is the shari'a, the Islamic religious law, that sets out the rules and regulations governing the lives of Muslims. In fact, the interpretative activity of Muslim jurists, no doubt infl uenced also by pre-Islamic local, regional, and imperial systems of law, came to play an important role in the construction of the Islamic legal system. This process took place in various centers in the Middle East, in the classical period of Islamic history, within the circles of disciples of commanding jurists who all differed somewhat in their attitude toward the sources of Islamic law. Four of these circles of jurisconsults, namely, the Hanafi s, Malikis, Shafi 'is, and Hanbalis, became recognized as the authoritative schools of Sunni Islamic law. Like Judaism, Islam is an orthopraxis, which means that the proper behavior and way of life of each believer is given priority over his or her orthodoxy, proper faith. Islamic religious law is therefore comprehensive: it covers all aspects of human behavior and it is in the heart of the life of individual Muslims, determining to a great extent the pace and nature of communal life, even for those members who do not fully subscribe to the beliefs and practices of the faith. The spread of Arabic as the lingua franca of Islam, the foundation of certain common types of educational institutions (mainly the kuttab and the madrasa for elementary and advanced education, respectively), and the "journeys in search of knowledge" between the great centers of learning, a highly popular custom among medieval Muslim scholars, helped establish the "Great Tradition" and a corpus of written learned texts that it encompassed, in addition to the Qur'an: Qur'an exegesis, prophetic tradition and law, theology (kalam), mystical theories (tasawwuf), biography, and hagiography. In its diversity and complexity refl ecting the contribution of thousands of individual thinkers, each, again, inspired by various sources of theory and practice, this "Great Tradition" emerged as a uniting force for Muslim scholars everywhere, and through them, for the masses of believers. When, during the fi rst centuries of Islamic history, selective borrowings from ancient Indian, Persian, and Greek sources in the domains of the arts, philosophy, and sciences were adapted and absorbed into the Islamic worldview, they added a further dimension to Islam as civilization. Social historians and particularly historians of the family in medieval Islamic contexts fi nd they are up against an almost total lack of archival sources, from which they would normally extract concrete aspects of every day life, or documents relating how people actually practiced their beliefs. Instead, they are left mainly with theoretical, normative, or purely literary texts. In this chapter we shall deal with concepts of childhood and attitudes toward children as we fi nd them refl ected in these sorts of texts, the distillation of the collective efforts of the spiritualintellectual elites in urban centers of the Muslim Middle East in premodern times. Once incorporated into the "Great Tradition" of Islam, these texts served, on top of local traditions, as a source of inspiration for Muslims in various places and times, including, of course, our own. To be sure, the ideas and images of childhood we encounter in these texts were not created in a vacuum but are the product of particular historical circumstances. At the same time, they manifest common literary conventions or strict rules of scholarly argumentation that make it difficult to ascertain the authenticity of the historical details they contain. And, of course, given the patriarchal nature of Muslim societies, these ideas and images of childhood were exclusively articulated by men. Therefore, their main importance for us lies in the normative-educational role they have played throughout Islamic history and still, to a certain extent, play today. Altogether this means that, while focusing on Islamic cultural elements in rearing and educating children in premodern Muslim societies, the picture that this chapter draws can only be partial: missing will be the huge variety of the more practical aspects of children's lives and adult-child relations in these societies.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationChildren and Childhood in World Religions
Subtitle of host publicationPrimary Sources and Texts
PublisherRutgers University Press
Number of pages66
ISBN (Print)9780813545172
StatePublished - 2009

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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