The Prophet (pbuh) was the best husband, father and parent. As a parent, the Prophet’s life is filled with many examples of how he showed mercy to his children and to other children. When a man informed the Prophet (pbuh) that he had 10 children and never kissed them, the Prophet (pbuh) commanded him to show love to his children by saying, “Whoever is not merciful will not be shown mercy by the Merciful,” Bukhari. We find that the Prophet (pbuh) would show love to Hassan and Hussein by welcoming them to the masjid. Should they climb on his back and play while he led the community in prayer, the Prophet would not chastise them but in fact wait until they dismounted from his back so as to not hurt them. Not a single narration can be gleaned from the hadith corpus showing that the Prophet (pbuh) ever employed hitting as a method to discipline. He never hit his daughters, sons, sons in law, or even those who served him. Anas bin Malik remarked that the Prophet would never say, “Why did you do as such,” or, “Why didn’t you do as such.” This doesn’t mean that Prophet (pbuh) was lax in his parenting or teaching; rather, he was an effective teacher who did not resort to hitting.
Therefore, what can be said about the Prophet (pbuh) permitting parents to hit their children for ritual prayer? An authentic narration in Abu Dawud illustrates this, “Command your children to pray at seven and [you may] hit them at [age] 10 and separate them [individually] where they sleep.” At first glance, this hadith shows that the Prophet (pbuh) put a great deal of emphasis on ritual prayer. But does this narration allow physical abuse? How can parents reconcile between the Prophet’s living example and this narration?
The Prophet (pbuh)’s words, “hit them at [age] 10,” are not to be taken as a free license. The word “hitting,” or, “Darb,” in Arabic can connote many things. Specifically, it does not mean to whip, slap, belt, punch, or employ hangers and slippers. Instead, the scholars defined this form of hitting as light that does not bruise or scar. But more importantly, a parent should not use hitting as an outlet for one’s anger. One may lightly strike on the arm or leg, and definitely not the face as a gentle reminder and discipline. It is a stern reminder from a parent to a child that prayer is a very serious matter.
Additionally, the Prophet (pbuh) instructs that hitting is the final attempt a parent can employ. In other words, a parent should not resort to hitting as the first technique to teach. Ibn ‘Uthaimin in his explanation of Riyādh al-Sālihīn notes that “a parent should only resort to this as a final step should the child fail to heed all attempts and calls to prayer.” Every parent knows their child. And while every child is unique and responds different to various forms of discipline and order, the hadith does not encourage hitting, but as a last resort.
And before people jump in rage as to why the Prophet allowed hitting, one must look at the bigger picture. The Prophet (pbuh) did not give a blanket license to hit, but only as a last resort for ritual prayer. But why did the Prophet (pbuh) specify prayer and not any other ritual worship? Because prayer is the most important ritual that a Muslim must uphold, making sure that the child understands it at this age is critical. If a child is not taught to heed the importance of prayer at this age, it becomes increasingly hard to enforce and maintain once a child reaches the teenage years. And since puberty demarcates adulthood and childhood, ritual worship is what demarcates faith and disbelief. As a result, in light of the gravity of missing ritual prayer, a parent is given this license.
Importantly, all parents need to be honest when it comes to prayer. Do parents enforce prayer in the house? Is the call to prayer made? Is the TV stopped for prayer? Is there a communal prayer that a father leads his family in? A child does what they see. If a parent doesn’t take prayer seriously, a child will also not take prayer seriously. Here are a few tips parents can use to encourage salat without ever resorting to hitting:
- Have a dedicated prayer space in your home.
- Pray your prayers on time and in congregation.
- Hold meetings with the family regularly after prayer.
- Start a salat chart for your children.
- Praise and celebrate when your toddlers and tots playfully join for salat.
- Be stern in your commandments on the importance of prayer.
- Have your sons lead in prayer.
- Set up times where your children know the meaning of the Surahs that are being recited.
- Understand the meaning of the words being said in each step of the prayer.
Therefore, the allowance to hit as a last resort does not eclipse the Prophet’s example in parenting and teaching. Arguably, given the magnitude of prayer, physical discipline is the only exception the Prophet allowed. It is not to be used as a blanket license to hit and abuse children. Patience and leading by example are far better techniques to inculcate the importance of prayer in children. The Prophet (pbuh) said, “I was not sent except to perfect manners.”