O You who believe! Save yourselves and your families from a Fire whose fuel is people and stones… [Surat Al-Tahrim, 66:6]
OUR COUNTRY IS in the midst of a searing crisis. Promiscuous lifestyles and attitudes have become so pervasive within our society today that many people who fall victim to the illusions of enjoyment they conjure fail to see any harm in them at all.
Social interaction boundaries, once established by religious principles, have been transgressed with such ubiquity and regularity, that they may well be irrevocably breached. The fact is, sexually suggestive attitudes permeate our society. They scream out from our billboards, assault us from magazines at the checkout counter and the waiting room, and entice us the moment we set foot on college campuses across the country. Nor have I even mentioned the demons we pay to come into our homes, cable and the Internet.
In our modern era, it is nearly impossible to avoid the consequences of an increasingly licentious and loose society. As a result, it becomes extremely important for us parents to teach our children at an early age about the virtue and merits of chastity and to forewarn them about the many perils of sexual immorality that lay in ambush for them upon their life-paths.
In a very (I won’t say open but) “unfastened” society such as ours, where promiscuity has shed its once stigmatic label, what is the best way for parents to educate their children about the often-difficult subjects of gender interaction and sexual education? Direct communication.
Daunting as it is we must take a deep breath and confront the issue in a comprehensive manner. I do not mean the old “birds and bees” speech about racing hormones and pubescent development. Oh, for the old days!
That is only a small part of what truly needs to be addressed now. Parents must be willing to help their children navigate through all facets of life, including gender interaction, very early on, because the issue is simply not going to go away. For, where else will they get information on proper Muslim etiquette? The local school’s sex education program? Unsupervised internet searches? Street lessons from high voltage peers?
We must arm ourselves with current information through research and staying in touch with what goes on in our children’s lives. A program of inaction will not work. A raft of recent studies reveals that American boys and girls engage in sexual conduct for the first time at an average age of 16 and 15, respectively.
We must realize that, despite being Muslim, these statistics still concern us and are thus extremely relevant. On the Day of Reckoning, every person will be judged according to his actions. Yes, our children will be called to account for how they honor and obey their parents, but we parents are just as accountable for how we respond to the command in the ayah at the start of this essay. How did we work to save our children from the Fire? Our identity as Muslims does not mean that we are immune from social ills. Rather, we must strive as parents and educators to inform ourselves about the inner dynamics of this culture of sexual promiscuity in order to raise strong, morally conscious sons and daughters.
Our children and all young adults need to be assured, however, that sex in and of itself is far from improper. In fact, Allah has characterized the relationship between a husband and wife as being of His ‘signs’ (ayaat):
And of His signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between your hearts. Undoubtedly in these are signs for those who reflect. [Surat Al-Rum, 30:21]
The question is how can we properly activate that sign of love in our lives. Through marriage. This is the mechanism by which we can share this intimacy with our husband or wife in the comfort that it is not only entirely permissible, but rewarded. Some Companions asked the Prophet: “O Messenger of Allah! Can it be that one of us follows through on his passion [i.e. have sexual intercourse with a spouse] and there is reward for him in this?” He said: “Have you considered that if one were to fulfill his passion unlawfully he would bear the burden of this? Thus in fulfilling one’s passion lawfully does such a person gain reward for it.”
Our current culture of rampant promiscuity, however, seems to be on a mission to normalize non-martial sexual behaviors which Islam has unequivocally forbidden. Television sitcoms, for example, often depict adultery, fornication, and homosexuality as part of a “normal” life. Popular cinema, magazines, and the Internet only serve to reinforce the message that time-honored ethics and virtues, such as chastity and modesty, are old-fashioned and out of step. Believe me, this is war.
Cultivating a Muslim Disposition— Starting Early
To both raise strong Muslims and combat the dangerous culture of promiscuity, discussions about sexuality should begin as early as possible in a manner that is appropriate to each age. Ideally, one would not be delivering this information for the very first time in a thoughtless manner to a middle-to-late teenager.
Starting this education in modesty and chastity much earlier is beneficial because it fosters an environment of trust and openness between a parent and child that should last a long time. By initiating discourse early, a parent wisely avoids the awkwardness that inevitably accompanies such conversations that take place at a later age, say at 16 or 18.
Early equals easier for a child to approach a parent with sensitive questions and concerns, and for a parent to likewise talk to his or her child with additional advice or remarks. It is also important that parents regularly teach and remind their children about Muslim values and ethics as a whole, not merely as a point-by-point rejection of a child’s behaviors or requests as they emerge. For it is in the whole that we appoint the outlook on life of our children (and ourselves), that we create the culture that every human community needs to really foster full and subtle growth and satisfaction. What is important about culture is that it is a dynamic expression of a group’s vision of human life that frees the imagination and creativity of the individual.
This inculcation of Islam’s heavenly values and earthly ethical vision is, again, best done at an early age before children begin to adopt certain elements of culture-at-large which are irreconcilable with Muslim behavior. Parents must work hard to explain the underlying reasons behind our objection to sexual promiscuity from a religious standpoint. We must teach our children to understand Muslim values so that they may embrace and uphold them as their own. Many a study shows that religious commitment in an individual consistently decreases the likelihood of adolescent sexual activity. Parents must begin sowing the seeds of Muslim morality and high self-esteem in their children at a very early age.
The Road to Self-Sufficiency—Cultivation of Character
Step one, parents. Be honest with your children about choosing to act responsibly. We ought to be straight up with them and acknowledge that it is difficult at times to stick to one’s principles and values instead of following the proverbial crowd.
And in the context of that struggle to hold to the godly high road, we need to let our children understand that our sexual natures make that part of life so utterly compelling, not just for them, but for all human beings, that, in fact, we are all subject to its enormous gravity, that this feeling that rages within us is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. But that that sense of pull within our clay natures is the contraction that produces our humanity, for morality is born out of the insistence of the heavenly spirit that Allah has blown into us not merely to resist the carnal call of our souls in order to express itself, but rather to have the final word in the kind of creature we truly are.
Yet this spirit within us must be guided. And that means we need to make certain that our children really understand their religion, and do not treat it in a ritualistic way that is devoid of any meaning and relevance. It is important to help them develop their own relationship with Allah so that they may understand the purpose of life and the obligations of the Shari‘ah within that context.
The Prophet warned that the level of promiscuity would increase as the Day of Judgment draws closer:
From among the portents of the Hour is that…(open) illegal sexual intercourse will prevail… (Bukhari)
And true to course, with each generation, we have seen a marked increase in the normalization of sexual promiscuity when it had previously been a morally repugnant act.
Even so, we Muslims are not alone in recognizing that the long-term harm of such behavior far outweighs any momentary satisfaction. Guarding one’s chastity is a serious test from Allah that takes a lot of discipline and will power. Engaging in sexual activity does not “just happen.” The mind plays a powerful role in choosing to do so or not.
An individual who suffers from low self-esteem and wishes to win the acceptance of friends is more likely to engage in illicit behavior. A young person firm in their understanding of Islam and with high self-esteem, however, will exercise will power and tend to control temptations out of devotion. Knowledge, faith, and devotion begin in the house with the nurturing techniques of one’s parents.
The Consequences of Succumbing—Physical and Emotional Danger
In addition to the religious instruction, our children need to understand the great health risks, physical and psychological, that anyone who engages in promiscuous behavior risks. Recent disease statistics mark American teenagers and young adults as the most afflicted segment of population with regard to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). STDs are the result of almost 40 years of sexual “free-dom.” Today, there are at least 15 well-known STD’s, while only two were extant in the 1970s.
Most STDs are transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids during sexual activity. According to the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, it is estimated that one in five Americans between 15 and 55 are currently infected with one or more STDs. About 12 million Americans are diagnosed as newly infected each year, that’s an incredible 5 percent of the entire population of the United States. Of these new infections, 63 percent are under the age of 25, and 50 percent of those diagnosed with HIV are between the ages of 15 and 24.
While these statistics make the health risks of casual sex outside of a marital relationship clear, there are severe emotional hazards as well. Today, many simply focus on the physical act of intimacy and neglect emotional aspects. Parents must explain to their children that sex is as emotional an experience as it is physical. It is meant to maintain an intimate marital bond as well as to conceive children.
Engaging in illicit sexual activity can emotionally affect one’s life in ways a young person can never have imagined. For example, adolescent teenagers are often overwhelmed with feelings of guilt, embarrassment, resentment, and tension after being pressured or coerced into intercourse. An unplanned pregnancy only exacerbates these complex emotions and creates even more confusion. Clearly an unplanned pregnancy changes the life of a young, single mother forever. These feelings can very easily give way to a deeper, clinical depression. In the current promiscuous climate where the emphasis on intimacy is overwhelmingly physical, the very meaning of intimacy and marriage is replaced with shallow notions of pleasure and enjoyment.
The Digital Age of Easy Access—All the Way on the Internet
Recent surveys reveal that teenagers and young adults spend an average of 16.7 hours a week on the Internet. That’s excluding email. Add in another 13.6 hours watching TV, 12 hours listening to the radio, 7.7 hours talking on the phone, and six hours reading books and magazines (personal, not scholastic) and that means that our children are getting bombarded with sexual messaging for more than a third of their waking day every day. That the Internet serves as a repository of illicit material for lustful teens proves that parents must show discretion in the amount of freedom they are willing to give to their children on the Internet.
Whether checking e-mail or simply booking a flight, there remains a tremendous amount of inadvertent exposure to sexually suggestive advertisements and websites. Teens are routinely exposed to websites and images on the Internet that would make any parent nervous. Constant exposure to this environment of sexual promiscuity on the Internet desensitizes teens and generates feelings of indifference to or even acceptance of this culture of promiscuity. As a result, many young people today do not consider clearly forbidden acts, such as fornication, to be “all that serious.” It is treated as nonchalantly as the act of shaking hands.
With teens spending such an exorbitant amount of time on the Internet, it is important that parents realize how vulnerable children truly are in cyberspace. Rather than suffer through the embarrassment of posing questions about sex to their parents, many teens resort to searching the Internet for answers. This can be trumped by a parent simply initiating discussions about sex with his or her child. Parents need also to remind their children that eliminating their exposure to this sort of material on the Internet is an important part of maintaining modesty and piety.
The Best Guidance—Leading by Example
Everyone knows—including countless empirical researchers who have applied the survey science to prove it—that the very best way to teach is by example. The actions of parents play a far greater role in influencing children than mere words. Parents should exemplify the characteristics they want their children to have.
The ideals of commitment and partnership, for example, can be exemplified by one’s own marriage. Parents should try to nourish and celebrate their own marital union and demonstrate respect and affection for each other regularly, in whatever ways they feel appropriate.
The topic of how parents should show affection to one another in front of their children to teach this value has been discussed before in these pages. And I know that different cultures hold their own values on this topic. But parents ought also to understand how affection is commonly displayed, not merely in the culture they have come out of, but also in the culture they now live in—with their children, for our children are surely taking competing cues from the external environment of their total immersion.
Our children need to see that their parents do love and honor one another. This demonstrates a feeling of security and solid belief in one’s own values. The example of a father’s dealings with his own mother, wife, and daughter sends a very powerful message to his son about respect and treatment of women.
None of our native cultures outweighs the Sunnah of the Prophet, and it is abundantly clear in the hadiths that he clearly expressed his love and commitment to his wives in an unmistakable way and through a variety of behaviors, from playfulness, to attentive listening, to service, to dutiful and indulgent intimacy—indulging his wives, that is.
By applying and teaching the standards of behavior found in the Quran and in the life of Prophet Muhammad, parents have the very best mechanisms with which they can counteract the pervasive influence of sexual promiscuity in our communities and times. This is the straight path upon which to raise morally God-conscious and sexually healthy human beings—who have a message of salvation and modesty to give to society.