Child-Rearing Methods

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Child-Rearing Methods


Procreation . Although sexual activity was not necessarily linked to procreation—as it was in the medieval Christian tradition—children were often an outcome. The Qur’an says that children come by God’s will: “The kingdom of the heavens and the earth belongs to God. He creates what He pleases, for some He grants females, for some He grants males, for some He grants males and females, and some He makes childless. He is Wise and Capable” (49: 50). It also says that all children should be welcomed, explicitly condemning the pre-Islamic practice of female infanticide and asking for what crime the infant girl should be killed. Despite such Qur’anic positions, Muslim religious thinkers in the medieval period had to remind people that male and female children should be equally valued. In a critique of what was no doubt customary behavior, al-Ghazali (1058–1111) called on men not to make a great show of joy at the birth of a son or to express sadness at the birth of a daughter, for “there is no way of knowing who will prove to be good.” Both religious and medical scholars of the period understood that, through sexual intercourse, mother and father contributed equally to the making of a child. These scholars believed that the developing fetus was bestowed with a soul at the end of the fourth month of gestation, at which point it became a human person. After 120 days of gestation, they concluded, abortion was no longer permitted, and a miscarried fetus should be properly buried. A fetus acquired full rights as a person (such as inheritance rights), however, only after birth. A baby who died at birth must have breathed or moved in order to qualify for its inheritance (which in the case of its death belonged to its heirs).

Infancy . The infant lived in a perilous world. Although there is no data on infant mortality for this period, historians assume that it was extremely high by modern standards, probably peaking in the fourteenth century when the region was swept by epidemics of plague, which took their highest toll among children. Medical and religious authorities devoted considerable thought to the care of infants, and both medical and legal treatises emphasized the special needs and vulnerabilities of infants and children. Care of the infant focused on the basic issue of nutrition.

Breast Feeding . The importance of breast feeding to the health and survival of a baby was clearly understood and discussed as a right of the child. Medical literature of the time preferred that the mother nurse her own child for a period of approximately two years if she were able to do so. Both medical and legal thinkers encouraged couples to avoid the risk of pregnancy during this period so that the baby could enjoy a full and uninterrupted period of nursing. Islamic legal scholars held, however, that a mother could not be coerced into breast feeding her baby: she must have some choice in the matter. But if the baby’s mother was not breast feeding—whether through inability or choice—then the baby’s father was responsible for securing the services of a wet nurse; animal milk and other foods were not recommended for an infant. If the father could not find or afford a suitable wet nurse, however, the mother did have an absolute responsibility to nurse her child. There was much discussion, both medical and legal, about the qualifications for a wet nurse, suggesting that wet nursing was part of the culture, at least in more-affluent urban circles. It seems to have been a common practice in the towns of the Arabian peninsula at the time of the rise of Islam, when town dwellers thought that putting an infant out to nurse with the desert tribes was a healthy practice. Early biographers of the Prophet Muhammad say that he was sent to a wet nurse named Halima. ‘Abd al-Malik Ibn Hisham included her account of how she acquired Muhammad as a nursling:

So I went and took him for the sole reason that I could not find anyone else. I took him back to my baggage, and as soon as I put him in my bosom, my breasts overflowed with milk which he drank until he was satisfied, as also did his foster-brother. Then both of them slept, whereas before this we could not sleep with him. My husband got up and went to the old she-camel and lo, her udders were full; he milked it and I drank of her milk until we were completely satisfied, and we passed a happy night. In the morning my husband said: “Do you know Halima, you have taken a blessed creature?” I said, “By God, I hope so.” . . . We ceased not to recognize this bounty as coming from God for a period of two years when I weaned him.

Muhammad maintained a close relationship with Halima throughout the rest of his life, referring to her as his mother

and weeping at the news of her death. The ties established by wet nursing were the equivalent of a blood relationship—milk brothers and sisters, for example, were considered siblings and therefore not eligible to be marriage partners. The well-being of the infant was paramount in the discussion of breast feeding. The Qur’an 2:233 states:

Mothers shall suckle their children for two whole years; (that is) for those who wish to complete the suckling. The duty of feeding and clothing nursing mothers in a seemly manner is upon the father of the child. No one should be charged beyond his capacity. A mother should not be made to suffer because of her child, nor should he to whom the child is born (be made to suffer) because of his child. And on the (father’s) heir is incumbent the like of that (which was incumbent on the father). If they desire to wean the child by mutual consent and (after) consultation, it is no sin for them; and if ye wish to give your children out to nurse, it is no sin for you, provided that ye pay what is due from you in kindness. Observe your duty to Allah, and know that Allah is Seer of what ye do.

Parents were advised to give an infant only breast milk until the first teeth appeared at about seven months. Then the infant could be gradually introduced to supplemental solid food. Full weaning should not occur until the age of two or so, and then it should be done slowly and cautiously to preserve the health of the child, preferably in the fall when the cooler weather would stimulate the child’s appetite. Many mothers probably nursed their children longer than the recommended two years, for there is ample evidence of children who were nursed at least partially until they were four or five.

Nurturing . Pediatric medical treatises also included other information on the care of the young child. Parents were instructed on bathing and swaddling a baby, on the best kinds of beds, on comforting a crying baby, on the importance of association with other children, and even on the benefits of introducing infants to music and dancing. Throughout this literature there is a clear sense that infants and children have bodies and minds that are different from those of adults. The authors were interested in the stages of infancy and discussed such issues as the use of baby walkers for the child who is ready to take steps and the encouragement of first attempts at speech. They were also aware of the pathology of childhood: one such text had fifteen chapters on childhood diseases and their treatments. Mothers were presumed to be not only the safest feedersbut also the best caretakers for their own infants. If a man died or divorced his wife, she retained the right to keep her infant, in accordance with a hadith reporting the ruling of the Prophet in such a case:

If a separation takes place between a husband and a wife who are possessed of an infant child, the right of nursing and keeping it rests with the mother, because it is recorded that a woman once applied to the Prophet; saying “O Prophet of God! this is my son, the fruit of my womb, cherished in my breast, and his father is desirous of taking him away from me into his own care” to which the Prophet replied, “thou hast a right in the child prior to that of thy husband as long as thou dost not marry with a stranger.”

A divorced or widowed woman thus had the right to keep her infant with her unless she subsequently married a man who was a “stranger,” that is, someone not related to the child. In that case, she could lose custody of the infant.

Weaning and Childhood . After infants were weaned (and presumably toilet trained) at approximately the age of two, they would usually remain with their parents during childhood. The common practice in medieval Europe of sending a child out to be fostered in another family as part of a period of training or apprenticeship does not seem to have been prevalent among Muslims. On the contrary, religious and legal thought assumed that children would be raised within their families of birth. In the patrilineal society of this period, children ultimately “belonged” to their father’s family: their father’s name formed part of their name. That is, everyone was known by a given name plus the name of his or her father, as in “Muhammad son of Ahmad” or “Fatima daughter of Ahmad.” The child’s father was his or her natural guardian,

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who was fully responsible for the child, the child’s property, and decisions about the child’s upbringing until he or she reached legal majority. If the father were absent or deceased, guardianship was supposed to devolve on another member of the paternal line, such as the paternal grandfather or uncle. But, as in the case of infants, divorced or widowed mothers also had some rights to their children who were past infancy. Generally speaking, children were presumed to be better off with their mothers at least until they reached an age when they could look after their own basic needs. A mother, should she be divorced or widowed, had the right to custody of young children, usually defined as boys up to the age of seven and girls until age nine or even puberty (depending on the school of law). In the standard legal texts of the period, such as that written by al-Marghinani, a prominent jurist of the twelfth century, the mother was held to be more capable of providing for the basic needs of the child, but a father should be entrusted with the education of his son after the age of seven or so and with the protection of his daughter after puberty:

The right of hidanah (custody), with respect to a male child, belongs to the mother, grandmother, or so forth, until he becomes independent of it himself, that is to say, becomes capable of moving, eating, drinking, and performing the other natural functions without assistance; after which the charge devolves upon the father, or next paternal relation entitled to the office of guardian, because, when thus far advanced, it then becomes necessary to attend to his education in all branches of useful and ornamental science, and to initiate him into a knowledge of men and manners, to effect which the father or paternal relations are best qualified.... But the right of hidanah with respect to a girl belongs to the mother, grandmother, and so forth, until the first appearance of the menstrual discharge (that is to say, until she attains the age of puberty) because a girl has occasion to learn such manners and accomplishments as are proper to women, for the teaching of which the female relations are most competent; but after that period the charge of her properly belongs to the father, because a girl, after maturity, requires some person to superintend her conduct, and for this the father is most completely qualified.

Such a division treated boys and girls quite differently. The tasks of coddling and meeting the physical needs of boys was assigned to the mother, but the father was viewed as essential to a boy’s socialization process. For a girl, however, a mother was capable of meeting basic needs and providing the required socialization and training, underlining the diverse roles males and females would be playing in society, where the definitions of “manners” and “accomplishments” differed for men and women. A well-known hadith reported by al-Bukhari emphasizes the lifelong importance of the maternal link over the paternal one, which has bearing on the emotional attachment, the duties it entails, and its enduring cultivation throughout the sons’ or daughters’ lives: “A man came to Allah’s Apostle and said, ‘O Allah’s Apostle! Who is more entitled to be treated with the best companionship by me?’ The Prophet said, Your mother.’ The man said, Who is next?’ The Prophet said, Tour mother.’ The man further said, Who is next?’ The Prophet said, Your mother.’ The man asked for the fourth time, Who is next?’ The Prophet said, Your father.’” (Sahih al-Bukhari, 8:2)

Islamic Instruction . The inculcation of belief and religious training began immediately after birth. The Islamic call to prayer and the initiatory words of prayer were recited in the ears of the newborn. On the seventh day after birth, the father named the child and slaughtered an animal to express gratitude and joy for his or her arrival and survival. Boys were also circumcised in a religious ceremony, although this operation could be performed at any point from infancy up to the beginning of adolescence. As soon as the child began to talk, he or she was supposed to be taught the basic principles of faith.

Systematic religious training began at the age of seven, when a child reached the age of “discernment.” At this point, boys were sent to the primary school, or kuttab, for instruction in the Qur’an and basic literacy skills. Most boys completed their educations around the age of puberty, after which their fathers were responsible for helping them choose and train for a vocation. Although there are no statistics on child labor during this period, the presence of many primary schools and the high value placed on at least some form of elementary religious education probably limited the use of child labor, at least in urban areas. The children of the ruling and intellectual elites enjoyed a longer period of education. Those from ruling families were often tutored at home, and their education included training in the martial arts as well as the religious sciences, history, and poetry. Children of the intellectual elite often undertook long years of study as they trained for scholarly careers. Information on the training and education of girls is less reliable than that on the schooling of boys. Many were educated at home, where their parents might teach them a combination of basic literacy and household-management skills. There is some evidence that girls could attend kuttabs, where they studied alongside boys, and at least a few kuttabs for girls did exist in the medieval period. In general, girls were supposed to be educated to their religious duties just as boys were. Girls should be taught to pray and fast so that they could be ready as adults to participate fully in religious life. Daughters of the elite had other educational opportunities, usually through the employment of home tutors or the attention of literate family members.

Legal Ties . Marriage was presumed to be an important part of almost any child’s future. The father played a special role in arranging marriages for his children. As long as children were still in their legal minority (before puberty), a father as natural guardian had the right to arrange a marriage for his son or daughter. While it is unlikely that many marriages contracted for children were consummated before the children reached puberty (at the earliest), the father’s arrangements were binding on his children. If children reached the age of puberty without having a marriage contract signed for them, they then acquired some rights to choose a spouse or at least refuse a marriage (depending on the legal school). It may be, however, that the weight of local custom prevented many young people from exercising these rights. The idea that boys and girls should be subject to the authority of their fathers or other paternal relatives was not always realized in practice, however. The higher mortality rates of premodern society meant that many parents died while their children were still relatively young. In the case of the death of a father, mothers were often able to retain custody of their children beyond the statutory limits and play an active role in managing their affairs. Court records from fourteenth-century Jerusalem, for example, include cases of widows who were retaining custody of their children, both boys and girls, while collecting income for them and managing their property. Divorced women were apparently not likely to be able to keep their children with them, especially if they remarried, but there are many cases of widows who became their children’s legal guardians.

Orphans . Orphans (children who had lost their fathers, not necessarily both parents) were of particular concern to medieval Muslim society. The Qur’an and subsequent legal discussion accorded orphans special protections. The Qur’an calls on all Muslims to deal justly with orphans, and Islamic law put safeguards on their property and affairs. For example, the process of dividing up an individual’s estate, the procedures for which are carefully prescribed in Islamic law, did not have to be done in a court of law unless the rights of a minor orphan were involved; in that case it was the responsibility of the Islamic judge to make sure the orphan received his or her due. There were also many religious endowments (waqfs) set up to benefit needy orphans in various ways. For example, a property could be endowed so that the income provided trousseaus for orphaned girls or educational fees for orphaned boys. Although some waqfs were established to support institutions for orphans, there is little evidence that these places were orphanages in the usual sense of the term but rather schools or other training facilities. The prevailing view was that children belonged in families, and an orphan typically found a home with relatives or neighbors, even though formal adoption, including the taking of another family’s name, was forbidden under Islamic law.

Legal Majority . Once any child reached puberty, he or she entered legal majority and was no longer considered a child, at least under law. Both boys and girls at this age were adults in the sense that they could enter into contracts and generally manage their own affairs. But since unmarried adolescents continued to live with their parents or other relatives, it seems unlikely that they enjoyed much individual freedom at this stage. There is also evidence that boys tended to work with their fathers and follow them into their professions, an arrangement that would preclude much independence. Even marriage did not necessarily entail separation from parents: many young men brought their wives to live in the paternal household. Girls, on the other hand, usually stayed with their parents only until they married, often in their teens, and then moved to their husbands’ parents’ houses.

Emotional Ties . Many other ties continued to bind parents and children beyond the formal termination of childhood. A young woman who experienced difficulties in her marriage often returned to her parents’ house for a period. If she could not be reconciled with her husband, and a divorce ensued, she would ordinarily remain with her parents until she contracted another marriage. Parents were expected to help their children if they needed financial assistance, and grown children were considered both legally and socially responsible for their parents. The Islamic laws of inheritance, which specified which relatives must inherit and in what proportions, made parents and children reciprocal heirs: all children shared in their mother’s or father’s estate, although boys inherited double the share of girls based on the greater share of financial responsibility they shouldered within the extended-family system. Should a child predecease his or her parents, both the mother and father inherited from him or her. It is more difficult to understand from such a distance in time what kinds of emotional ties bound parents and children. Not only did the law recognize the special love of mothers for their children, but the Qur’an also includes a moving testimony to maternal love in the story of the infant Moses. The biblical version of this story does not go into the emotions of Moses’ mother when she bears a male child who is under the threat of the pharaoh’s decree that all such children born to the Hebrews must die, nor does it describe her feelings when she takes the dire step of placing him in the river. The Qur’an, by contrast, tells the story with particular attention to the mother’s emotional turmoil. A hadith recorded by al-Bukhari tells about the Prophet’s tears of grief on the death of his infant son Ibrahim, providing an example of fatherly bonds to infants; according to Anas ibn Malik: ‘We went with Allah’s Apostle to the blacksmith Abu Saif, and he was the husband of the wet nurse of Ibrahim (the son of the Prophet). Allah’s Apostle took Ibrahim and kissed him and smelled him and later we entered Abu Saif s house and at that time Ibrahim was in his last breaths, and the eyes of Allah’s Apostle started shedding tears. ‘Abdur Rahman bin ‘Auf said, ‘O Allah’s Apostle, even you are weeping!’ He said, ’O Ibn Auf, this is mercy.’ Then he wept more and said, The eyes are shedding tears and the heart is grieved, and we will not say except what pleases our Lord, O Ibrahim! Indeed we are grieved by your separation’” (Sahih al-Bukhari, 2:390).

Consolation Treatises . Another source of evidence for the strong emotional attachment between parents and their children, including infants, is the popularity of the consolation treatise from the thirteenth century to the sixteenth. Consolation treatises, written for parents whose children had died, offered solace through several themes. For example, parents were told that the unweaned infant would continue to nurse in paradise, where he would be loved and cared for; and bereaved parents were promised that their child’s death gained them entrance to paradise, where they would be reunited with their child and be automatically saved from hellfire. Most of these treatises wavered between comforting the parent by dwelling on the child’s happiness in the hereafter and exhorting the mourning parent to remember that these children were given to God, so excessive displays of grief were unwarranted, if not sacrilegious. Even the existence of these treatises suggests that despite high rates of infant mortality, parents did allow themselves to develop strong bonds with their infants and young children and deeply mourned their loss.


Avner Giladi, Children of Islam: Concepts of Childhood in Muslim Society (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992).

Giladi, Infants, Parents and Wet Nurses (Leiden: Brill, 1999).

Alfred Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of lshaqs Sirat Rasul with Introduction and Notes (London: Oxford University Press, 1955).

Muhammad M. Khan, The Translation of the Meanings of the Sahih al-Bukhari, 9 volumes (Madinah: Dar al-Fikr, 1981).

’Ali ibn Abi Bakr al-Marghinani, The Hedaya, translated by Charles Hamilton (Lahore: Premier Book House, 1957).

B. F. Musallam, Sex and Society in Islam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

Barbara Stowasser, Women in the Quran, Traditions, and Interpretations (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).