Exposition of the Method of Bringing Up Children from Earliest Childhood, Teaching Them Good Behaviour and Refining Their Character

Excerpt from Imam al-Ghazali’s Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihya `Ulum al-Deen)

Translators note: Praise be to Allah, and peace upon His Beloved.

There is a conspicuous paucity of material available in English that provides sound Islamic guidance for Muslim parents on bringing up children. Recently, I noticed that Imam al-Haddad (Allah have mercy on him) mentioned some very useful but brief comments on the issue in his amazing, baraka-filled book, ‘Lives of Man’. He alluded therein to ‘The Revival of Religious Sciences’ by the Proof of Islam, al-Ghazali, and advised those desiring more detail to seek it there. Following this lead, I was pleased to find this invaluable chapter in the Ihya which is full of practical, down-to-earth advice for the Muslim parent, written with the usual authority of the great Imam (Allah have mercy on him). I found it so useful and insightful that I decided – insha Allah, with tawfeeq – to translate it for the benefit of my Muslim brothers and sisters, especially those who have children.

I hope that any who do find some benefit from it may make a brief mention of me and my family in their supplications.

In the name of Allah the Beneficent the Merciful

Know that the method of bringing up children is one of the most important and essential matters. The child is a trust in the hands of his parents, and his pure heart is an unblemished precious stone, free of any engraving or form. It is amenable to being engraved and moulded in any direction. If it is habituated and taught to be good, it will be raised upon this. Such a child will be felicitous in this world and the next, and his parents, teachers and educators will all share in his reward.
If the child is habituated to evil and neglected like an animal, he will be wretched and fall to destruction, and his sin will be shared by those responsible for his upbringing.

Allah the Exalted says, “O You who believe! Save yourselves and your families from a fire”. So, just as the father protects the child from the fire of this world, protecting him from the Fire of the next world is more appropriate.
Saving him from the Hell-Fire is by teaching him good behaviour, manners and excellent character, and protecting him from bad company. The child should be prevented from becoming accustomed to ease and comfort, and should not be taught to love adornments and luxuries, lest he waste his life seeking after them when he grows up, and end up in
eternal doom.

Rather, it is incumbent to supervise the child from his earliest infancy. Even when selecting a wet-nurse for the child, only a righteous, religious woman who eats only the halal is appropriate, as the milk produced from the illicit is devoid of blessing. The physical constitution of a child raised on such milk would be mingled with impurity, causing his nature also to deviate towards impurity.

When the parent sees in the child the beginnings of discernment, he must pay extra attention to his supervision. The first sign of this is the appearance of shyness in the child. When he begins to show modesty and shyness and leave certain behaviours, it is nothing other than the shining of the light of intellect in him, which leads him to view some things as wrong or bad. Thus he begins to be shy doing certain things not others. This is a gift to him from Allah, and a good tiding indicating a balanced character and a pure heart, and predictive of a healthy intellect when he reaches adulthood. It is imperative not to neglect the child who displays such shyness, but to use his shyness and discernment to further refine his behaviour.

The first characteristic to take hold of a child is greed for food. It is essential to discipline him in this matter. For example, he should not take food except with his right hand, say “bismillah” before eating, only eat what is on his side of the platter, and not rush upon the food before others. He should not ogle at the food, or at one who is eating. He should not rush while eating, should chew the food well, pause between mouthfuls, and take care not to soil his hands or clothes.

Also, he should be accustomed to eating plain bread sometimes, so that he does not come to deem soup/curry a necessity. He should be taught to despise overeating. This may be achieved by telling him that those who overeat are like animals, and censuring children who overeat in front of him,, and praising those who exhibit good etiquette and eat conservatively.
He should be taught to love sharing food, to attach little importance to it, and to be content with simple food, no matter what it is.

The male child should be brought up to prefer white clothing, not colourful or silken. He should be told that these are garments of women and effeminate men, and that real men would look down upon them. This should be repeatedly emphasised to him.
If he is found wearing a silken or colourful garment, he must be rebuked and reprimanded. He must be guarded from children who are accustomed to comforts and luxuries, and wearing expensive clothes, and from anyone who would cause him to desire these things.

If the child is neglected in his infancy, he will most likely turn out bad-mannered, lying, envious, thieving, tale-telling, lazy, idle in word and deed, frivolous and crafty. He can be saved from all of that by good upbringing.

Later, when the child goes to primary school, he should be occupied in studying the Quran, prophetic narrations, and stories of the righteous and their various states, so that love for the righteous becomes ingrained in his heart.
He should be shielded from poetry about love and related matters, and protected from mixing with people who consider themselves ‘literary types’ and believe that indulging in this type of poetry is all part of grace and refined character. On the contrary, it plants in children the seed of corruption.

Any time the child does a praiseworthy act or exhibits a beautiful characteristic, he must be honoured, given a reward pleasing to him, and praised in front of everyone.
If he does something contrary to that just on one occasion, it must be overlooked and ignored, and he should not be exposed. He should not be given the impression that anyone could conceivably have the audacity to do such an action, especially if the child is hiding it himself, and making efforts to conceal his action. If his secret is exposed, it may just increase him in daring and lead to him becoming unconcerned about being discovered.
If he does the undesirable act a second time, however, he must be told off in private, and the enormity of his act must be explained, and he should be told: “Make sure you do not do such a thing again, for if you do, and people find out about it, they will all think you are bad”. Parents should beware of telling the child off all the time as he will stop taking it seriously after a while, will make light of doing wrong actions, and words will no longer affect him.

The father must maintain respect in the child’s eyes and should only tell him off occasionally. The mother should put awe of the father into the child’s heart, and rebuke him when he does something bad.

It is incumbent that the child be prevented from sleeping during the day, as this generates laziness, but should not be prevented at night. Soft mattresses must be avoided so that his limbs become strong, body remains lean, and he is able to tolerate absence of comforts. He must be accustomed to rough bedding, clothing and food.

It is incumbent that he be prevented from things he does secretively, for he will only hide his actions if he thinks he is doing something wrong. If he is allowed to do this, he will become accustomed to doing wrong.

The child must be habituated to spending part of the day in physical activity, walking and exercise, so that laziness does not become his trait. He should be habituated not to uncover his limbs or to walk hurriedly. He should not let his hands hang loose but should clasp them upon his chest.
He must not be allowed to boast to his friends about his parents’ wealth or possessions, or his food, clothing, books or stationery. Rather, he must be taught always to be humble and generous to all he associates with, and to speak kindly with them.

He should not be allowed to take things from other children if given the opportunity, out of decorum if he is from a well-to-do family. He should be taught that status is in giving not in taking, and that taking is blameworthy, degrading and low. If he is from a poor family, he should be taught that taking and being greedy are traits that are demeaning and lead to humiliation, and are the traits of a dog that is always wagging its tail greedy for the next mouthful

Children must be conditioned to acquire a general distaste for money and even for desiring it. They must be warned of this more than they are warned of poisonous snakes and scorpions, for the calamity of love of money and desire for it is worse than the calamity of poison for children – nay, for adults also.

The child must be habituated not to spit, blow his nose, or yawn in public.
He must not turn his back to people. He must not rest one foot upon the other, or his chin in his hands, or support his head upon his forearm, as all these are signs of laziness.
He should be taught how to sit properly. He should be stopped from talking excessively, with the explanation that it indicates shamelessness and is the behaviour of naughty children.
He should not be allowed to make oaths, whether true or false, so that this does not become a habit while young.
He should be taught not to initiate conversation when in company of those older than him, to get in the habit of not talking except in reply to a question, to keep his answer appropriate to the query, and to listen attentively when they speak. He should stand for one who is above him, make space for him, and sit in front of him.

The child must be prevented from idle chatter, vulgar speech, cursing and abusing, and from mixing with people who have any of these behaviours, as there is no doubt that these habits are acquired from bad company. In fact, the main principle in bringing up children is protecting them from bad company.

It is incumbent that if the child is hit by his teacher that he does not scream and cry excessively or call for help from anyone. He must endure it patiently and be taught that this is the trait of brave men, and that excessive crying is a characteristic of slaves and women.

It is necessary that the child be allowed to play suitable games and rest after a tiring day at school, but not to the extent that he tires from playing. For preventing a child from play and forcing him to study all the time will cause his heart to die, his intelligence to fade, and life to become bitter, so that he begins looking for tricks and ways to get out of it.

It is imperative to teach the child to obey his parents, guides, teachers and anyone older than him, whether related to him or not, to view them with respect and honour, and to stop playing when in their presence.

When the child reaches the age of discernment [six or seven], it is incumbent not to allow him to neglect ritual purification and prayer. He should be told to fast some of the days of Ramadhan, and must not wear silk or gold. He must be taught all he needs to know of the prohibitions of Islamic law, and trained to be fearful of committing theft, eating haram, being treacherous or lying, committing vulgarities, and other such behaviours of childhood.

If the child is brought up in this way from infancy, when he nears puberty he will come to understand the secrets of these matters. He should be taught that food is a medicine whose only purpose is to strengthen a person’s body to engage in acts of obedience to Allah the Mighty and Exalted, and that this world, in its entirety, has no reality as it does not last, that death ends all its pleasures, and that it is an abode we pass through, not settle in. Also that the Hereafter is the abode of settling in, not of passing through, that death is waiting at every moment, and that the intelligent, wise man is he who prepares in this world for the Next, thereby elevating his rank in front of Allah the Exalted, and increasing the pleasures awaiting him in the Garden.

If his upbringing is righteous, such words spoken to him at the age of puberty will be effective, impactful and penetrating, and will be fixed in his heart like engravings in stone. If his upbringing is not good, and he is grows accustomed to messing around, vulgarity, shamelessness, greed for food, clothing and embellishment, and boasting, his heart will desist from accepting the truth, just as a wall desists from dry earth.
So the early period is the time that should be monitored carefully. The child in his essence is a creation capable of accepting both good and evil, and it is only his parents who mould him in one of these directions. The Prophet (may mercy and peace be upon him) said, “Each newborn is born upon the primordial nature (fitra). It is only his parents that judaise, christianise or magianise him.”

Sahl ibn `Abdillah al-Tustari said: “When I was three years old, I would wake up at night and watch my maternal uncle, Muhammad ibn Siwar, praying. One day he said to me, “Do you not remember Allah who created you?” I asked, “How should I remember Him?” and he replied: “Every night when you are getting changed, say in your heart without moving your tongue, ‘Allah is with me, Allah is watching me, Allah is witnessing me ’” I did this for some nights, then informed my uncle, and he instructed me to say it seven times each night. I started doing this, then informed him again, and he told me to increase to eleven times. I did this, and the sweetness of it impacted my heart.

After a year had passed, my uncle said to me, “Remember what I have taught you, and persist in it until you enter your grave, for it will benefit you in this life and the hereafter.”
I maintained this practise for some years, and I found its sweetness in my innermost soul. Then, one day my maternal uncle said to me, “O Sahl, If Allah is with someone, and watching him and witnessing him, can he disobey Him? Beware of disobedience!”
I used to seclude myself. I had to begin school, but I was afraid it would interfere with my aspiration [of worshipping Allah]. However, it was agreed with the teacher that I would go and study with him for a set time every day and then return home. During primary school, I studied the Quran and memorised it by the age of six or seven. I used to fast every day, and I ate only barley bread until the age of twelve.

When I was thirteen, a question occurred to me that I could not resolve, so I asked my family to send me to the scholars of Basra, that I may consult them. Thus, I came to Basra and consulted the scholars of the city, but none were able to resolve it for me. I then left for `Abadan to see a man known as Abu Habib Hamza ibn Abi `Abdillah of `Abadan, and I asked him my question. He answered it for me, and I remained with him for a while, benefiting from his words, and learning from his refined behaviour. Then I returned to Tustar and became more sparing with my food, so that I would purchase one dirham’s worth of barley which would be ground and made into bread for me, and I would break my fast with it every night before dawn, just a little bread without salt or soup. This one dirham’s worth would last me a year.

Then I decided to go three nights without food and eat one night, then increase to five nights [and eat one night], then seven, then twenty-five. I maintained this for twenty years. Then I set out and wandered the earth for some years, after which I returned to Tustar; I then used to spend the whole night in prayer, ma sha Allah ta`ala.”
Ahmad said: “I never saw him eating salt until he returned to meet Allah the Exalted.”

Translated from Imam al-Ghazali’s Ihya `Ulum al-Deen
by the slave of al-Rahman,
Ridhwan ibn Muhammad Saleem
London, Muharram 1429/February 2008
West London School of Islamic Studies

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