Physical Beatings and Sexual Abuse in Islamic Schools

Physical Beatings and Sexual Abuse in Islamic Schools

This article was first posted in MuslimViews. Danish discusses beatings and sexual abuse in Islamic Schools.


Confronting Spiritual Abuse at our Islamic Institutions


SPIRITUAL abuse is any type of abuse (emotional, physical, sexual, financial) that occurs within a religious setting.

It is particularly damaging because, in addition to the effects commonly seen from the  particular form of abuse, abusers use religion to cause harm, which harms the religious lives of the victims.

Parents with religious concern often put their children in Islamic schools or Sunday schools to learn how to read Quran and obtain a basic Islamic education. They often trust that the children will not be harmed but, unfortunately, abuse is common in these settings, and may harm the children’s religious development and education, which was the very thing the parents were seeking to secure.

Physical and sexual abuse of students is an issue in Islamic schools across the world. Physical abuse of students often happens overtly, being excused in the name of tarbiya, although this is far from the Prophetic model. Sexual abuse often occurs in secrecy, and with few safeguards or policies in place, often continues unchecked. Enforcing a strict code of conduct in Islamic schools is a first step towards preventing spiritual abuse.

Physical abuse is a major issue in Islamic schools. It is essential for us to ask ourselves what effect the normalisation of abuse within Islamic environments, when considerable efforts have been made to stop abuse in secular environments, teaches children about Islam.

Children studying the Quran are often beaten and humiliated, and sometimes even adults are physically struck by angry teachers. This is far from the Prophetic way, as we know from the hadith of Aisha that the Prophet (SAW) never struck anyone outside of battle. (Muslim 2328)

We must then ask ourselves, why, as adults, we believe that physical abuse is normal in Islamic contexts. The conditions that allow for harsh reprimands to students as tarbiya are seldom met, let alone those for physical discipline, which may never be abuse. It is commonplace to see teachers make these transgressions out of anger, which itself  undermines any justification of moral edification (tarbiya) for the student.

Ibn Jama’a mentions in Tadhkirat as-Sami wal -Mutakallim fi Adab al-Alim wal Muta’allim that in some cases, a teacher’s harsh reprimand is acceptable if there is no fear of the student being discouraged by it. The best interest of the student has to always be at the forefront of even harsh verbal reprimands.

Imam al-Ghazali reminds teachers that they have a responsibility to be positive role models, and to treat students well in his Book of Knowledge. He mentions that a teacher should correct a student’s bad character in an indirect manner if possible and avoid directness,and that he should do so in a merciful way, not a harsh one.

The role of a teacher is to be an example in character and a conveyor of correct information. Instilling love in children for learning and in Islam is of the utmost importance. Love will last longer than intellectual arguments.

I know of shayukh in Muslim countries who have taken it upon themselves to preach to heads of Islamic schools to disallow any type of physical disciplining of students. One of the main reasons cited are the bad effects it has on students, even in their older age. This is compounded when leaving Islam is an easy option.

Another issue is that young and untrained students are often put in charge of children learning the Arabic alphabet or Quran, and these students often do not have the patience to teach children, and end up hitting them quite mercilessly. In such schools, there is no oversight or any checks and balances for how children are treated.

Being beaten in Islamic schools often leaves a lifelong negative association with Islam or religious figures in general. It is imperative that Islamic schools establish clear guides for how teachers may discipline students that centre the student’s dignity and do not justify outbursts by teachers. If teachers break these rules, or any law, it should be reported immediately with zero tolerance for the crime.

We need to show children that their wellbeing is our most important concern, and Islamic tarbiya simply does not allow for abuse. Every child has an inviolability, and abuse is a vile transgression of that inviolability. Another issue is sexual abuse.

This may be with children or young adults. There have to be preventative rules in place, such as no child ever being alone with an adult, there being more than one adult with children, and accountability for violating any of these rules.

Children should also be taught about boundaries, and what is or is not acceptable touch or conversation. It is imperative for parents to understand that being Muslim, an Islamic teacher or in an Islamic school does not make someone less likely to commit these horrific acts.

Parents must learn to notice signs of abuse in their children, let their children know to communicate any inappropriate behaviour, and not teach them to be submissive to authority figures. There is a major difference between respect and obsequiousness, and the more assertive a child is, the less of a target. Staff should also have training on sexual harassment, child sexual abuse, learn the laws regarding abuse and reporting it, as well as being trained on the school’s policies.

It is often difficult to prove sexual assault, and, unfortunately, in many cases, if the alleged crime cannot be proven it is dismissed as slander. For the protection of both students and staff, against assaults as well as false accusations, there have to be policies such as what we have come up with in our code of conduct so lesser violations can be proven, which have a lower standard of proof, such as being alone with a student or getting contact information of a student without permission from the administration.

By matching corresponding professional expectations, the basis of terminating such an employee is a violation of professional ethics and standards when a criminal offence may not be proven.

I have been involved in several such cases where the accuser did not feel there was enough evidence but, upon looking into the facts, many boundary violations were uncovered that sufficed in proving that the Islamic figure acted outside of professional ethics. When these standards are ambiguous, however, it is easy to exploit grey areas, and that is what a code of conduct eradicates, hence making accountability practical.

Teaching Islam is an amanah (sacred trust). Teachers and institutions are responsible for the students in their care. They must show that they make the well-being of their students a priority.

This is done by setting up policies, procedures and accountability mechanisms to ensure no abuse is tolerated. We need to win the hearts of Muslims to show that we care about safety, dignity and justice.

We can do this by being proactive in ensuring we deliver these ideals and that we are not concerned about just responding to scandals or having a good image but we are invested in the well-being of our present and future generations.


To contact, please email  To learn more about Code of Conduct for Islamic Leadership, click here.



This article was first published in Muslim Views, South Africa.

Share this post:

Comments are closed.