My child loves to read books. Some of the books she wants to read mention sex. She is 13 years old and I don't know when to allow her to read those books or even when to tell her about sex. I need help with this. Thank you!
When a child reaches puberty (and I assume your daughter has), in Islam they are considered mukallaf (responsible for their actions, i.e. legally adults). This means that parents should start to treat them like adult humans, respecting their intelligence and freedom of choice as humans. Parents should no longer treat them like children whose lives they control and dictate.
At that age, they have the right to demand honest answers from their parents regarding sex, and they have the right to be educated about the Islamic rules and etiquette regarding sex and marriage. In Islam there is no difference between the rights and responsibilities of an adolescent 13-year-old and a 25-year-old, legally they have the same status, although developmentally they are not exactly the same.
It is natural to be wary of letting an adolescent learn about sex because of the vague potential for harm that we perceive, but we should also take into account the even greater potential for harm that comes from belittling them and restricting them for no obvious reason. There is no Islamic or scientific reason to prevent an adolescent from learning about sex, and the great scholars of the past, such as Ibn al-Jawzi, would have memorized thousands of hadith narrations, some of them explicitly dealing with sex, before the age of 10.
If she has reached puberty, then it is your duty to teach her all of the Islamic rules that surround menstruation, such as by getting her a book on this matter. You do not have to give it to her specifically if this would be too embarrassing, it can be somewhere in your house where she can look at it when she wants. It will be largely your failing if she prays in a way that is invalid because no one told her any better.
You probably know much about sex, but your appreciation for Islamic principles enables you to stay devout and to put sex in its proper context. An adolescent can do the same if the parents have done their duty of giving them an Islamic upbringing, and if inside the home they maintain Islamic manners and standards. Trying to control a child’s knowledge about sex is a futile effort, especially today when they can easily find out everything they want on the internet. There is no way you can take away all possible opportunities for them to learn about it. The logical thing to do is to be moderate, letting them learn about sex and read books that you yourself would read, while not letting them have unmonitored access to the internet and not letting them read erotic books that you yourself wouldn’t read.
There is No Conflict Between Islam and Sex Education
Is a 13-year-old who knows much about sex from books less likely to be religious and devout than a 13-year-old who has been forbidden to learn anything about it?
I would hazard a guess that the one whose intelligence and dignity has been respected to the degree that he or she is allowed to read books on sex is going to be more religious and devout, because they are not made to feel that Islam is against human nature, that there is something wrong with them when they think about sex or want to learn about it.
Devoutness has nothing to do with how much a person knows about sex. Regardless of whether an adolescent knows nearly everything or nearly nothing about sex, they will have the same level of desire for the opposite sex. This desire is not about knowledge, it is about hormones and the human brain. To be able to resist this desire, what is needed is an understanding of Islamic principles and internalization of Islamic values, so that the adolescent knows that there is a good reason why they should resist their sexual desire, instead of feeling like they are being prevented from sexual pleasure for no good reason (like some adolescents brought up in extremely strict Muslim and Christian homes feel).
For an adolescent, learning about sex is like learning about any other topic, such as physics. The mere knowledge of sex is not going to push them into sinful behaviors, the same way that a divorced 30-year-old is not going to be more likely to sin just because they know very much about sex from their previous married life. Their knowledge of sex and their knowledge of Islam are two separate things.
Once a child reaches puberty, their sex hormones make it certain that they will have highly detailed and explicit daydreams and nighttime dreams about sex, and that sex will be on their minds often. Muslim adolescents generally spend ten years thinking about sex, whether they want to or not, before they get married, and reading or hearing a story or anecdote about sex, whether in an Islamic book or non-Islamic book, is going to be little more than a drop in the ocean of sexual thoughts that is in their heads.
As for books that are designed to be read for sexual pleasure (erotic and explicit romance books), then neither you nor your child should reach such books, because it is against Islamic manners to seek sexual pleasure outside of marriage, and no one who reads such books can honestly claim to be reading them without sexual intent.
The Developmental Concern
The one serious concern regarding exposing an adolescent to information about sexuality is that with their as-of-yet undeveloped minds, and their heightened sexual desire, they may be more likely to fall into sinful behaviors.
Isn’t it better to let them grow some more, garner more experiences, before they are exposed to such things?
It is true that the human is not fully developed until the late twenties, that is when a person’s impulse control matures. It is for this reason that insurance companies charge higher rates to people under the age of 25, because such people are more likely to engage in risky behaviors and cause accidents.
The problem is that, their lack of wisdom and development also means that will be unable to understand why information about sex is being kept from them, and their impulsiveness means that they will be extremely unlikely to be content when a parent says they are too young. They will probably jump on any chance to learn about sex from friends, from the internet, from libraries, from anywhere they can.
Preventing an adolescent from learning about sex is in fact telling them, “You are too impulsive and not enough of an adult to learn about sex, but you must act like an adult and control your impulses when you desire to learn about it.” It is placing a contradictory demand on them. If they are too impulsive to safely read about sex, they are too impulsive to be prevented from reading about sex out of your sight.
Therefore the argument that they are too young to learn about sex is an empty argument. If they are treated like they are too immature and foolish to be allowed to learn about sex from proper sources, they will only be right to act immature and foolish by seeking information from harmful sources, they are acting exactly the way we say they will act, and they are likely to do it just out of spite. If we belittle them and make them feel they are not proper members of society, they will naturally feel like outcasts, and they will be right to act like outcasts, ignoring custom and people’s expectations. If they are not allowed to enjoy the privileges of being full members of society, why should they suffer its restrictions?
It is best to treat them the Islamic way, to acknowledge their status as full members of society while also acknowledging the fact that they are not fully developed yet. This is the best way to prepare them for adulthood; by treating them like adults. Treating them like children is not going to do any good–they are going to resent it.
Once an adolescent is given the freedoms and privileges of an adult, they will stop thinking of themselves as children who selfishly think of their own needs the whole time, and will instead start to think of themselves as respected members of their families and societies. This is very important for their growth. By being treated like a growing adult, being given both rights and responsibilities, they will try to live up to the expectation of acting like an adult.
If a parent is too strict, this can cause the child to feel oppressed and controlled, and this can cause them to dislike the parent and the religious motivations for the parent’s choices. It is better to give the child sufficient freedom to not feel oppressed, but not so much freedom that they can do whatever they want in private. Since they live under your roof, you can set standards of behavior and etiquette that must be observed by them and any other adult living with you.
I have rarely seen children brought up in strict families grow into sincerely devout adults. They generally consider Islam a burden that’s placed on them, rather than something they love and follow by choice. They sometimes have a child’s mentality, thinking that their families and societies are against them, that what is good and fulfilling in life is one thing and society’s expectations another thing, because they do not feel like full members of Islamic society.
The Islamic Way of Bringing Up Devout Children: Balancing Conservativeness and Liberality
The best Muslims I have known in my life have been brought up in families that mixed conservativeness and liberality, conservative in the most important things, liberal in the rest. This means that the children are taught to carry out all their obligatory duties like prayer and fasting. It is not accepted of them to abandon these like some misguided liberal Muslim families allow. They are taught the Quran and encouraged to read beneficial Islamic books, most importantly the life of the Prophet peace be upon him and the lives of his companions. If the child is female, she should have access to at least 10 books dedicated to famous Muslim women in history and encouraged to read them (but not forced).
What are Islam’s priorities? It is to believe in God and the Day of Judgment and the rest of the Islamic items of faith (aqeedah). The entire family must act and live by these beliefs. The next priorities are the obligatory deeds, the entire family must carry them out (except for children who cannot), it should be an unspoken assumption in the family that abandoning the Islamic obligatory acts of worship is entirely unacceptable.
The next thing after the above is abandoning sinful behaviors. It should be unacceptable for anyone in the family to engage in anything clearly sinful, such as drinking alcohol. It is the job of the parents to ensure that Islamic standards are maintained in the family, that no one engages in anything sinful.
The above is the core of Islam. A child brought up in a loving family to believe in the Islamic items of faith, to carry out the obligatory deeds and to follow Islamic manners is guaranteed to grow into a devout Muslim, unless at some point they make a conscious choice to abandon Islam. Humans have free will, which means that regardless of their upbringing, they will forever have the choice to abandon Islam, this ability cannot be taken away from them.
A family that focuses on the above and gets it right can then be liberal in everything else. This liberality is very important. Islam must feel small and simple to a child, it must not feel like something that controls and burdens them. This means that filling one’s home entirely with Islamic books, always having Islamic channels on TV, allowing the children to visit the mosque and no other venue, forcing them to go to Quran schools instead of learning about other things they are interested in, are all exactly the correct way to make a child hate Islam. There is only so much religion a person can take. Religion is a tool to help us develop a spiritual connection with God and to guide our manners as we go about in the world living our lives. Once a person has the correct aqeedah, performs the obligatory deeds, loves the Quran and fears God’s punishment, religion’s goal has been accomplished in them. Religion is not there to dominate them and take their humanity away from them, it is to guide them to be better humans, as they continue to be humans, doing and enjoying human things.
This means that once the core of Islam has been actualized in a family’s life, from then on everyone should be free what they do with their time. Islam does not forbid children from playing video games, women from enjoying shopping or men from playing soccer, even if none of these things serve a productive purpose. The clearest proof of this is that in Islam it is acknowledged that people have sex for pleasure, unlike among some Christians who think that sex must always be done with the intention of procreation. Sex that is done for pleasure does not serve an obvious productive purpose, except for the fact that it improves the relationship between the husband and wife and makes them have a more positive view of life.
And the above reason is also why many other enjoyable acts that strict Muslims may scoff at are actually lawful and even encouraged. A child who is allowed to play the video games he or she likes, while also being expected to follow Islamic manners and carry out their Islamic duties, is going to grow up knowing that Islam is not against human nature and the enjoyment of life, that Islam is there to help them live better lives that they define themselves, instead of being there to force them to live a narrowed down life defined by ancient texts and society.
On Books that Mention Sex
As for your original question, there is no clear Islamic text that deals with her reading books that mention sex, but if you yourself would read that book and think that it is permissible for you, then she too can read it.
Since Islam is vague on this topic, one should act based on maslahah (“what is in the best interest of the person, family and society”) with regards to it. Allowing her to read a book she likes is a good thing, because it reaffirms her dignity and freedom, and reaffirms the fact that she can enjoy what she likes while also being a devout Muslim, that Islam is not her enemy like some teenagers mistakenly think. If the book contains casual mentions of sex but is not dedicated to arousing sexual desire in the reader like erotic books are, then I see little harm in it. Adolescents are perfectly capable of imagining sexual scenes in their heads, reading about one more sexual scene is not going to be anything significant.
Philosophically, there is no difference between an Islamic book that describes a sexual act and a random non-Islamic book that does the same, since in both cases the reader is made to imagine a sexual scene in their heads. If reading about a sexual scene is sinful, then this means reading many hadith narrations and Quranic commentaries is sinful, since they too describe sexual scenes.
Your child has the right to read the Quran, books of interpretation of the Quran (tafseer), and books of hadith, and you should encourage her to do so, and if she does, then there is no avoiding the topic of sex, since the Quran, its interpretations and books of hadith cover various sexual topics in detail. Some scholars, in fact, consider it highly recommended that the child should be taught all of these things, meaning that to them sex education is part and parcel of Islam.
A person may say that the sexual acts described in a novel might be sinful acts (they might be between unmarried people), and that this makes it forbidden to read them. But this is logically a false argument. The Quran describes various sinful acts of previous nations, if reading the description of a sinful act is sinful, then reading the Quran would be sinful. And if reading the description of a sinful sexual act is sinful, then reading various books of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) would be sinful, since they are full of mentions sinful sexual acts. The reader is expected to understand that it is sinful, and to have their core of Islamic belief prevent them from engaging in similar acts.
A person may go on to say that novels would describe sinful sexual acts in a context that approves of them, while Islamic books do not. This too is an invalid argument. The Quran mentions in detail the arguments of Islam’s detractors, arguments which support disbelief if they are read out of context:
But the notables of his people, who disbelieved, said, “This is nothing but a human like you, who wants to gain superiority over you. Had God willed, He would have sent down angels. We never heard of this from our forefathers of old. He is nothing but a man possessed. Just ignore him for a while.” (The Quran, verses 23:24-25)
If you obey a human being like yourselves, then you will be losers. Does he promise you that when you have died and become dust and bones, you will be brought out? Farfetched, farfetched is what you are promised. There is nothing but our life in this world. We die, and we live, and we are not resurrected. He is nothing but a man, making up lies about God. We have no faith in him.” (The Quran, verses 23:34-38)
Since the person is reading the Quran, we assume that they will also know about counter-arguments the Quran offers. There is nothing sinful in relating a sinful behavior as long as the person is educated sufficiently to put it in context. The above verses relate the sin of shirk (denying God’s oneness), which is a far greater sin than any sexual crime, because it is the one sin that God says He will not forgive.
Someone who reads about a sinful sexual act is not going to be led into sin by it when they also read the Quran constantly, when they have had an Islamic upbringing and have internalized Islam’s values. Any novel a devout Muslim reads is already in proper context, because the context is their own minds, which is already firm on the belief in God and the Islamic principles. Reading a random sexual scene in a novel is only the feeblest challenge to someone’s faith.
I do not recommend letting adolescents read just about everything they want. Reading a book that is designed to be read for sexual pleasure is going to be an insult to the maintenance of Islamic manners in your home, and this should not be allowed. But as for the average Western-written novel, whether you let your daughter read it should rely on what you consider to be in her best interest. Preventing her from reading a book or a category of books she likes is going to harm her faith, because her freedom is restricted in something that is not clearly harmful, and her own interpretation of Islam is discounted and your interpretation imposed upon her, which always has a psychological cost on her and on her relationship with you.
We all want to bring up devout children, and our policies toward them should be geared toward this. If being strict in the Islamic matters of priority mentioned above while being liberal in everything else enables us to bring up children who are more devout and more likely to love Islam, then that is what we should do.
In general, arbitrarily forbidding children things because of a vague potential for harm is going to do more harm than good. I know someone who started to steal from his relatives in his childhood in order to be able to go to an arcade to play video games, because his strict father refused to buy him a video game console to play with at home, since according to him it was harmful. The child was forced to engage in a clearly sinful behavior due to the father’s misguided apprehension of the possible harms of video games.
Whenever you think of forbidding your child something that you consider potentially harmful, always keep in mind that the act of forbidding itself is also always potentially harmful. You must balance between these two concerns. Being too strict is always harmful, and being too lax is also always harmful. One must find a balance. The best balance I have seen is for the parents to focus on the core Islamic principles, manners and acts of worship, then be liberal in most other things, respecting their children’s right to make their own choices even if we are not always perfectly comfortable with their choice. It is in their best interest to feel free and to be treated like respected adults whose choices are respected, it is also in their best interest to follow Islam devoutly. These two interests must be balanced, neither of them should be neglected.
I would never forbid an adolescent from reading a book I would read myself, because there is no Islamic basis for creating such a rule, and it is disrespectful and belittling toward them, and they can probably find ways of reading it out of my sight.
If your child has not read the Quran, books of tafseer, books of hadith and Islamic biographies, then this should be corrected as soon as possible. They should have sufficient appreciation for Islam to follow it in public and in private of their own desire, and if they read or hear anything that challenges their Islamic belief, they should be able to counter it themselves.
If you worry about the influence of the non-Islamic books she reads, you can ask her to read one Islamic book for every few non-Islamic books she reads, or find some other arrangement.
I would have a library in my house filled with all kinds of books, and I would give the adolescent the right to read what they want. As long as they have had a proper Islamic upbringing, as long as they have been encouraged to read the Quran, hadith, Islamic biographies and other beneficial books, then there is no danger in this. I would never forbid my daughters from reading any of the hundreds of books I have in my house even though I may have the authority to do this. What right do I have to decide for her what she can and cannot read? If I give myself the right to read something, it feels highly hypocritical to me to forbid others from reading it.
Saying that she shouldn’t read a book she wants to read will make her feel insulted and belittled. I want to treat her like an adult, like a dignified and respected human, doing that will show her that I am not really honest in that treatment, that I still consider her a child even if I say otherwise.
Is it worth it to do this? Does it improve our relationship and her love for Islam or does it harm it?
My philosophy is that influences should be countered by influences. It is true that most of the West’s media and publishing contain harmful influences.The right way to counter this is to expose my children to good influences, such as from Islamic books and TV shows like the beautiful series The Companions of the Cave, instead of following the futile strategy of forbidding them from all potentially harmful influences, which would cause them to feel restricted and belittled, and which would reduce their love for their family and for Islam. As long as my children practice the core of Islam with understanding, this by itself is a strong influence helping them counter bad influences. And this understanding can only come from being educated in Islam, learning about the purposes of the acts of worship, the meanings of the verses of the Quran they recite, and biographies of the great Muslims of history.
Out of the fear of God, if a reader starts to feel sexually aroused by a sexual scene in a book, they can skip it. What is sinful is intentionally seeking sexual pleasure outside of marriage, and a person can use an Islamic book or non-Islamic book for this purpose if they want, and they can do it even without a book using their imagination. This is a small matter between a person and God, and it is not sufficient justification for forbidding someone from reading a book.
Films are a different matter, because it is impossible to watch a sex scene without becoming aroused by it, especially when the watcher is a young and healthy person. Since a person who fears God can never be sure that God approves of this, they will not engage in it. Parents should make sure that no one under their roof, child or adult, watches sex scenes under their roof, as a matter of maintaining Islamic standards. They, however, should not make a big deal out of this, keeping an authoritarian watch over everyone’s activities. They should put it in its proper context, which is that compared to the important matters of Islamic belief and practice, it is a relatively unimportant matter and no one should be condemned and harassed for it, the same way that if a man sees his son admiring an attractive woman on the street, instead of beating him up or shouting at him, he should gently tell him it is not polite to do that, and that should be the end of it, he should immediately go back to treating him like normal, with love and kindness. The son is treated like an equal, with dignity and respect, not like a piece of property to be beaten into shape.
In summary, what we allow our children to engage in should be decided based on their best interests. An important part of their interests is to be treated with dignity and respect, and to be given freedom instead of being made to feel oppressed and controlled. Another part of their interests is to ensure that they are not given so much freedom that they develop sinful habits and engage in them without restriction. Good Muslim parents will find a balance between these two concerns, neither being too strict nor too lax, but being strict in the Islamic matters of priority and liberal in everything else, while also ensuring that many good influences are available to counter bad influences, including Islamic books and TV shows.
Adolescents have the right to sex education. There is no conflict between Islam and learning about sex. And just because a book contains mentions of sex is not sufficient reason to forbid adolescents from reading it. Any book we think we can read ourselves, they too should be allowed to read. We should not approve of their reading erotic books or watching sex scenes in films. But we should also not turn these into a great matter of concern. We should instead treat it the same way we treat a son admiring an attractive woman, with politeness and gentleness, without condemnation, respecting them as our friends and equals.
Adolescents have poor impulse control due to a not-fully-developed prefrontal cortex. This means that even if they love Islam and want to follow it, they are more likely to fall into sinful behaviors without parental guidance. They should not be allowed to spend long periods of time in privacy, and they should not be allowed to have private access to the internet or television. They should be treated like good friends who are more likely to engage in minor sins if they are not watched, they should not be held to the same standards as older adults, and if they make mistakes, they should be quickly forgiven and not condemned, acknowledging that they are good people who do not have very good impulse control at the moment, but who will one day have it.
So if the child reads a book and the book contains just one scene of sex and there is some love triangles in the book, she can read it, right?
The general rule is that anything you can read, she can read too. As long as her life is filled with good influences, one book is a minor influence and of little concern. It will become a cause for concern if someone constantly seeks that type of book to the exclusion of other books. But if a person reads such books because they are famous or classics, then there is no issue with it.
It is about intentions. A person can peruse a medical textbook with the intention of learning. Another person can peruse it for the pictures of naked people it contains. Since adolescents have low impulse control, you cannot just let them read every romance novel they want, since it can become a habit like it becomes in some people in the West, who use romantic novels as a more refined alternative to pornography. The sexual arousal that comes from reading such books can make a person want to seek more of it.
But if I have a large library and some of the novels are romance novels, and the child likes to read every type of novel, then I will not prevent them from reading what they like. The context and the child’s reading habits matter.
The most important point is that, as a matter of maintaining Islamic manners, no one in the household should make it a habit to seek sexual arousal and pleasure in a non-marriage context. Your son should not be allowed to watch erotic music videos and your daughter should not be allowed to read books designed to be read for their erotic content. But a parent who harasses them by trying to control everything they can see and read is going to do more harm than good.
For the child’s own spiritual good, they should be given enough freedom of choice and privacy not to feel oppressed and controlled, but not so much that they develop sinful habits.