Recently in an online Muslim parenting forum, there was a mother who asked for recommendations on how to teach her 5-year-old the 99 names of Allah with an in-depth meaning of each name in a weekly lesson. She got lots of advice and links for activities, but it left me wondering. How practical is it to plan meticulous lesson after lesson for a child that age. How much of the information would they actually retain? While the idea of learning the names of Allah is both noble and commendable (and encouraged by Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, in multiple ahaadith) breaking down the meaning of each and how it relates to us may be very complex for young minds. In these cases, it is best to keep it simple when teaching young children.
It is a huge challenge but here are six tips to help you make learning easy.
1. Prepare to be a teacher.
My first rude awakening about how to handle education for preschool and elementary age children came when I was still in college (before I had children of my own). I followed a teaching track, so I shadowed many educators and completed classroom observations at both the elementary and secondary levels. During my last year of college, I decided to take a job as a special education assistant at an elementary school. On my first day there, as I was walking down the hallway towards my classroom, a little girl stopped me and asked me where the office was. She must have been in kindergarten or first grade. I greeted her with a smile and pointed towards the end of the hall, and said, “It’s right over there to your left.” She nodded and was on her way, but before long, she turned around and called my attention again. She held both her hands up and asked, “Is this my left or is this my left?” Poor baby! Realizing my mistake, I ran quickly to her and showed her which hand was the left, walked beside her, and did a better job (I hope) of guiding her to where she needed to go.
I realized then that I needed to take a step back and reframe the way I presented information to my early learners. Younger children need things explained in simple terms. They require more of our emotional intelligence than our book smarts. As a parent now, I often have to remind myself to repackage information in a manner that is easily digested by my smaller children. Teaching them tangible things like their right from left can take a lot of time, patience, practice, and repetition. Imagine explaining the concept of an All-Seeing, All-Hearing, Creator Who no one, not even the Prophets, peace be upon them, have seen. What a challenge!
First, give yourself credit as a parent for even taking on this tremendous task, and know that you will be rewarded in abundance for it. We are our children’s first teachers, and we set the example and tone for Islamic knowledge and manners. Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said,
“Whoever guides someone to goodness will have a reward like the one who did it.”
In another narration, he said,
“Whoever teaches some knowledge will have the reward of the one who acts upon it, without that detracting from his reward in the slightest.
Many of us understand this hadith in terms of dawah, calling someone who is not Muslim to Islam, but it also applies to our children.
2. Learn about how children learn.
Secondly, we must learn about early childhood development and the most effective ways young children learn. Play is a huge component from the moment a baby is old enough to sit up until they go into first or second grade. There is a famous saying attributed to Ali ibn Abi Talib, may Allah be pleased with him, when it comes to raising children: Play with them for the first seven years (of their life); then teach them for the next seven years; then advise them or befriend them for the next seven years (and after that).
Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, similarly called to educate children about prayer starting at seven. He said,
“Command your children to pray when they become 7 years old and reprimand them for it (prayer) when they become 10 years old …. ”
Interestingly, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the median age at the start of primary school for children is six or seven in the majority of countries around the world (data as of September 2021). Even in the U.S., the compulsory school attendance laws vary by state, with some states requiring children start school at seven. Unfortunately, many parents feel pressured to have their children begin reading, writing, and doing busy work by age four or five. Some programs promote “school readiness” for children as young as two and three. In these settings, students are often regularly assessed to make sure they are up to par with a set of standards. The same requirements are demanded of all students, when every child is unique, and their learning styles differ. Except education is not “one size fits all.”
Early learning is organic – children often learn at their own pace and their development is affected by their environment. They thrive when they experience love, kindness, compassion, and affection. They are curious about the world around them and their parents, caregivers, and educators are their guides. Their job is to provide them with a safe, nurturing space where they can explore and ask questions. Children will learn through games, manipulating toys, activating their imagination, outdoor time, getting dirty, and using all their five senses to take everything in. Rather than expect them to sit, learn, and memorize a great deal of information robotically, knowledge should be presented gradually – activities and crafts alongside, but always age-appropriate. Care should be taken to make learning easy and relevant for their age and abilities.
Sheikh Muhammad ibn Salih al-Uthaymeen, may Allah have mercy on him, made some great points about teaching young children. He said the following:
"Children should be taught rulings with their evidences. For example, if you want to say to your child: 'Mention the name of Allah upon eating and praise Allah when you've finished', if you say that, then you have achieved the objective. However, if you say: 'Mention the name of Allah upon eating and praise Allah when you've finished, because the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, commanded us to mention Allah upon eating. He said: 'Indeed Allah is pleased with the servant who eats food and praises Him over it, and who drinks and praises Him over it.'
If you say that, you will have achieved 2 benefits:
- You accustom your child to follow the evidence.
- You nurture them upon love of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, and instill in them the belief that he is the leader who is followed and whose directions we must take.
This is, in reality, something which many are heedless of; most people only teach their child the rulings, but they don't attach these instructions to their source, which is the Qur'an and Sunnah." (Al-Qawl al-Mufeed Alaa Kitab al-Tawheed 2/423)
3. Teach like the Prophet.
One way to approach their Islamic upbringing when they are toddler and preschool age is to use the methodology of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. Every situation was a learning opportunity for his followers. When it came to children, he was patient, loving, playful, and respectful. He corrected mistakes by explaining or modeling better ways to do things, not through reprimanding or punishing.
Anas ibn Malik, may Allah be pleased with him, who served the Prophet from when he was a young child, said,
“I served the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, for ten years. By Allah, he never even said to me, ‘Uff!’ He never said harshly, ‘Why did you do that?’ or, ‘Why did you not do that?’” (Bukhari, Muslim)
Abdullah ibn Abbaas, may Allah be pleased with him, was only about 13 years old when the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, passed away. Before that, he was a very young follower, not even a teenager, but this did not prevent him from learning from the best teacher. It was narrated that he said:
“I was behind the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, one day and he said: ‘O young man, I shall teach you some words (of advice): be mindful of Allah, and Allah will protect you. Be mindful of Allah, and you will find Him in front of you. If you ask, ask of Allah; if you seek help, seek help of Allah. Know that if the nations were to gather to benefit you with anything, it would benefit you only with something that Allah had already decreed for you, and that if they were to gather together to harm you with anything, they would only harm you with something Allah had already decreed for you. The pens have been lifted and the pages have dried.’” (At-Tirmidhi)
4. Draw attention to Allah routinely.
Children should be taught about Allah according to their level of understanding. While they are outside for example, a parent can ask them, “Who do you think created the world?” or “Who made this tree?” At home, they can discuss being grateful for their shelter and nourishment, mentioning that it is Allah who sustains us. Striking these types of conversations, can lead a child to ponder and make a connection between their world and the Creator. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, once asked a girl, “Where is Allah?” She responded that He was above the heavens. He then asked her who he was, and she responded, “the Messenger of Allah.” (Muslim, Abu Dawud)
Asking questions about Islam during everyday activities helps to draw the child’s attention to Allah. Once they know Allah, then His names of Mercy, Love, and Justice can be introduced. These concepts should still be made easy and great care should be taken to instill love of Allah in the child’s heart. It should never be seen as a chore or “busy work” that we cross off a to-do list. We must mention often that Allah loves us and wants us to do our best. One way to do this is by tying in a verse of Quran or a hadith to whatever conversation we have with our child. For example, in a hadith Qudsi, the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said,
“Allah Almighty says: I am as My servant expects of Me and I am with him as he remembers Me.”
We can say, “You are being so good, Allah loves those who do good!”
Once a child knows Allah as his Creator, he may have more complicated questions. He may ask what Allah looks like, or where He came from, etc. At this point, we should not react with shock or be upset. Instead, we should celebrate their inquisitiveness as a win. The idea is to get their little brains thinking about Allah.
5. Be a model of the lessons yourself.
Remember that as parents and educators, we must prepare ourselves for teachable moments by studying and strengthening our own knowledge of Islam. We will then be able to tackle all the why’s, how’s, and how come’s from our children. Most of all, we should put our teachings into practice by constantly mentioning Allah, praying, making dhikr, studying, and supplicating. When our children, who love us dearly, see that we love Allah, they will also want to love what we love. In this manner, we will show and not just tell about Allah and build the strong foundation our kids will need as they get older.
6. Utilize available resources.
There are many resources available that can reinforce these lessons and help parents introduce their children to Islamic topics in a fun and effective way. Online resources abound and there is a myriad of Islamic children’s books now available on various topics. Every year, there are vast improvements in the quality of the content and diversity of the characters. Additionally, there are easy ways to present new information – through rhymes, children’s nasheeds, puppet shows, and games. Many of these are only an internet search away.
Sound Vision’s weekly online parenting newsletter Muslim Home: Nurturning Our Next Generation is filled with articles written by parents and educators on a diverse array of topics related to contemporary challenges facing Muslim parents with children of all ages.
Sound Vision also offers children’s programming like educational videos featuring the popular puppets Adam and his little sister Aneesah who have been teaching Muslim children about Islam for more than 30 years. During the pandemic, the organization also developed live online classes for children ages 4-12 and they are still going strong. For a full lineup of courses, visit https://academy.adamsworld.org/.
Remember to be balanced in teaching those under your care to nurture their natural inclination to worship Allah. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said,
“Make things easy and do not make things difficult. Give glad tidings and do not frighten them away.”
Make lessons flexible, easy, relevant, and fun. Take cues from your children to know when they are feeling overwhelmed. Stick with the basics of knowing Allah, His Prophets, and His Deen. Build upon that foundation to raise confident, pious children. Knowing our Creator and our Deen should serve to uplift us all and make us better versions of ourselves, inshaAllah. Keep it simple. It’s not rocket science, it is Islam!
Wendy Díaz is a Puerto Rican Muslim writer, award-winning poet, translator, and mother of six (ages ranging from infant to teen). She is the co-founder of Hablamos Islam, a non-profit organization that produces educational resources about Islam in Spanish (hablamosislam.org). She has written, illustrated, and published over a dozen children’s books and currently lives with her family in Maryland. Follow Wendy Díaz on social media @authorwendydiaz and @hablamosislam.