Muslim youth of today face the worse of times: we are being raised in a culturally imperialistic society and are constantly faced with covert assaults on our iman (faith). This is not just confined to Muslim youth in the West; the monoculture has also seeped into the traditional Muslim world. Though parents who immigrated to the West may lack awareness of the external influences on their children, fitnah is rampant and unavoidable. Unlawful acts such as smoking, drug use, and drinking are widespread. To be viewed as “cultured,” hookah lounges remain popular, and zina (unlawful sexual behavior) is commonplace. While these issues are related to faith, they are also health behaviors that would be strongly discouraged or outright prohibited from an Islamic perspective. Thankfully, we do have a potential asset at our disposal that can help protect current and future generations: Islamic school education.
Like many Muslims, I grew up attending Sunday school, where we had courses dedicated to learning about the Seerah of the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ), Qur’an memorization and recitation, and lessons on tafsir (exegesis) of the Qur’an. For the most part, Islamic school was one of the earliest spiritually enhancing experiences I had. Especially for working class parents from immigrant backgrounds forced to work long hours, Islamic school gave me the religious education my parents were unable to dedicate time to. I do acknowledge that arguments can be made about the adequacy of this education and the many criticisms of the Islamic school model are valid. These institutions are severely underfunded, lack regulations on credential requirements for instructors, and are inconsistent with respect to lesson plans. Many of these shortcomings fall on institutional leadership, but I would argue that the fragmentation of Islamic schools is more so the result of secular liberalism and its tirade against Islam. Although there are several curricular deficiencies in Western Islamic school education, and in the Madrasas of the East, a major one that needs immediate attention is health education.
Health education includes lessons on puberty, reproduction, sex, substance use, mental health, and reduction of screen time. Instead of learning about these topics from a Western/secular paradigm in public schools, Muslim youth should have access to Islamically conscious health literacy. Here, I will present some cases that pertain to health-related experiences Muslim youth have, discuss how they are currently being addressed by Western public-school education, and elucidate how an Islamic education in these scenarios would be more beneficial.
Case 1: A 15-year-old Muslim high school student is persuaded to engage in risky activity by a peer group. He is pressured to experiment with marijuana. His parents, who are both hardworking Muslims that moved to the US in hopes of better opportunities for their children, are unaware of their child’s friend group nor do they realize the prevalence of drug use in adolescents. His friends emphasize to him the following sentiments: “marijuana is not even bad for you,” “it’s not as addictive as other drugs,” and “there is a reason why it’s being legalized.”
Currently, the only dissuasion from marijuana usage this child has is public school health education, which consists of merely relaying facts about the adverse side effects of substances and the negative impact substance use can have on one’s future. Even though this rigid education model may work for some, it severely lacks substance and does not appeal to any moral code, nor does this model fully protect from using drugs that are less addictive and arguably less severe, as evidenced by the high rates of drug use in adolescents. Health education provided by Islamic schools on this subject would have the underlying reminder of submitting our will to our Creator. Moreover, it would involve instilling knowledge about our body being an amanah from our Lord, and how intoxicants pollute our purpose as Muslims. Several studies have shown an association between religion and self regulation of risky behaviors in adolescents.  I argue this is a better motivator for health promotion and protecting the youth from peer pressure.
Case 2: An 11-year-old Muslim girl experiences her menarche. She has a vague idea of what is happening due to a reproductive health lesson delivered by her school. She tells her mother who provides her with a sanitary pad and that is it. Her father is not made aware of what happened, and he asks his daughter to do wudu and pray. The mother informs the daughter that she cannot pray nor fast while menstruating with no further rationale, so the daughter resorts to pretending to pray and fast during her periods for her entire upbringing.
The girl in this case only has the resources of Western education to guide her understanding and experience with menstruation. Similar to the girl in this case, many Muslim girls feel ashamed due to the lack of open communication from their parents on the topic of periods. This girl was not taught about the Islamic significance of this event nor the rulings of Islamic jurisprudence about the spiritual activities she is expected to refrain from performing and why.
Administrations in Islamic schools can easily fill these gaps in reproductive health education by explaining: believers submit to the will of Allah and there is profound wisdom behind every ruling He prescribes. It would teach that, among other reasons, Muslim women are not permitted to fast during menstruation due to the negative impact it may have on their health and that this ruling is a mercy from Allah (swt). Or, that the reason women are not permitted to pray is not because they are inherently naajis (impure) during this time (which is what many cultures falsely proclaim), but it is instead because blood is regarded as an impurity. It would teach that menstruating women are excused from prayers, and this is not a burden on them because these women are not obligated to make up the prayers they missed during their periods. In addition, Islamic education on menstruation would be delivered in a modest way to Muslim boys as well, so that they grow up with an understanding of what their sisters in faith go through. Muslim girls should also be taught that in Islam menstruation is nothing to be ashamed of as it is an occurrence bestowed by the Will of Allah (swt).
Case 3: A 13-year-old Muslim child has high screen usage time. During breaks at school this child is on his phone and as soon as he comes home, he either binge watches a show on Netflix or plays video games for hours. Both of his parents work long hours and come home at night. His overuse of screens results in a sedentary lifestyle with little physical activity. He is often too distracted to eat properly, and resorts to consuming junk food. He remembers a single lesson delivered in his health education class about the importance of limiting screen time, but it seemed to have little impact.
Increased screen time is a global issue that affects all demographics. Children especially have demonstrated an increase in screen use due to the popularity of social media, streaming services, and video games. Western medical bodies, like the American Academy of Pediatrics, have not yet set recommended time limits on digital use for school-aged children. Therefore, screen time is rarely discussed in traditional public school health education. However, there are certain guidelines Muslims can establish that indicate when screen use is at the “excessive” stage. For example, the child in this case engages with screens for hours and loses track of time; as a result he may miss several prayers. Since salah is a main pillar of Islam, if we are so absorbed in an action that causes us to skip praying, we realize that this activity is now a major issue. Discussions in Islamic schools about the importance of adhering to your prayers, how physical activity is Sunnah and how moderation is an Islamic virtue, can help children recognize how their habits are at problematic levels and encourage them to seek help or implement strategies to decrease their addiction. Muslim counseling services and mental health care is also a need that should be implemented in Islamic schools for cases like these and others.
More development and input is needed on the matter of health education in Islamic schools before it can be implemented in practice. Feedback from licensed health professionals and scholars should also be considered when attempting to build an Islamically-oriented health education curriculum. In writing this piece, I hoped to convey the urgency around this issue and reemphasize that health is a barakah (blessing) from our Creator — teaching younger generations how to live healthily is a matter of faith.
 Holmes CJ, Kim-Spoon J. Positive and Negative Associations between Adolescents’ Religiousness and Health Behaviors via Self-Regulation. Religion Brain Behav. 2016;6(3):188-206. doi: 10.1080/2153599X.2015.1029513. Epub 2015 Apr 27. PMID: 27595048; PMCID: PMC5006752.
About the Author: Fajar Alam is a current medical student based in the US with a background in Molecular and Cell Biology. Her interests include Islamic sciences, medical ethics, social determinants of health, and Hanafi jurisprudence.