Part of our “Planting the Seeds” series
We all have fond childhood memories that warm our hearts, but “learning how to pray”, for many of us, doesn’t rank among them. Often, those memories are of being spoken to sternly, or even being yelled at. Perhaps, for some, it sadly contains threats, shame, criticism, or even hitting. Many parents today reject those methods, but are left at a loss of what to do instead. If not wagging a finger and commanding “Go make wuḍūʾ right now!”, then what?
I myself am in the midst of training our kids to pray. I don’t need to tell you, it’s challenging. My intellect tells me, “What can be gained by forcing my reluctant 7 year old daughter to stand and mimic a conversation with God?” My ego tells me, “Your own offspring won’t listen to you. What are you going to do about it?” I can’t resort to the old methods, but can’t rely on my natural instinct either. How can I walk the line between not forcing, which often creates rebelliousness, and stressing the necessity and value of prayer, such that my children respect prayer and know never to leave it? What can I do for my younger daughters to make things easier for them, and me?
The Necessity of Prayers
The five daily prayers are, unequivocally, a cornerstone obligation in Islam. The Noble Prophet Muḥammad (ṣ) stressed, “The position of prayers with respect to religion is similar to that of the head with respect to the body”1. He (ṣ) also taught us, “For every thing there is a face and the face of your religion is prayers. So see to it that none from amongst you damages and disfigures the face of his [or her] religion”2. Prayers are absolutely necessary – and with reason.
In the Noble Qurʾān, Allah (swt) says, “and establish regular prayer for prayer restrains from shameful and unjust deeds.”3 The Noble Prophet Muḥammad (ṣ) has explained: “The example of the five (daily) prayers is like that of a clear-water river flowing in front of your houses in which a person washes himself five times a day – cleansing him from all dirt”4. Sayyidah Fāṭimah az-Zahrāʾ (ʿa) said, “Allah made the prayer incumbent in order to eliminate one’s pride”5. We are told, also, that ṣalāh is the Miʿrāj of the believer, ascension to God is attainable for us through prayer. So it’s understandable we want to train our littles to take prayer seriously. So how can we start?
A Gradual Approach
Imām Muḥammad al-Bāqir (ʿa) advised: “We [the Ahl al-Bayt] command our children to offer prayers when they are five years old, so you too order your children to offer prayers (but only) when they are seven years of age.”6
Sayyid Sa’eed Akhtar Rizvi mentions in his book, Islamic Family Life, a lengthier ḥadīth from Imām al-Bāqir (ʿa) or Imām aṣ-Ṣādiq (ʿa), in which it is stated, “When the child reaches 3 years, teach him seven times to recite lā ilāha illallāh (There is no god but Allah). Then leave him at that till he is 3 years 7 months and 20 days old; then train him to say Muḥammadun rasūlullāh (Muḥammad is the Messenger of Allah). Then leave him at that till he completes 4 years. then teach him seven times to say Ṣallallāhu ʿalā Muḥammadin wa āli Muḥammad (May Allah bless Muḥammad and his progeny). Then leave him at that till he reaches the age of 5 years; then ask him which one is his right hand and which one is the left. When he knows it then make him face the qiblah and tell him to do sajdah (prostration).This is to continue till he is 6 years of age. Then he should be told to pray and taught rukūʿ (to bow down) and sajdah. When he completes 7 years, he should be asked to wash his face and hands, and then told to pray. This will continue till he reaches the age of 9 years, when he should be taught proper wuḍūʾ; and proper ṣalāh. When he learns proper wuḍūʾ and ṣalāh; Allah forgives the sins of his parents.”7 This ḥadīth gives us a framework for how to teach prayers. The approach is gradual, relaxed, and appropriate for the child’s developmental level. The most essential acts are taught at the earliest ages, adding on the rest in succession.
What Message Do We Send?
Even earlier than three years, there are things we can do to communicate to our child the value of prayer. When our child is an infant, we can pray in their presence, even placing them on our prayer mat. We can attempt to pray as much on time as possible, neither sacrificing the baby’s immediate needs nor delaying the prayers unnecessarily. When a baby sees you in your chador or prayer clothes and cries, your reaction to their reaction can communicate that praying-you is just as warm, safe, and comforting as you when you’re not in chador. One ʿālimah I spoke with stressed that after prayers, we should call our children to us, hug them, kiss them, and express our love and gratitude for them. She mentioned that we should become extra loving at prayer time so that the child feels that prayers enhance our bond with them. Sometimes, we do the opposite. When a toddler climbs baba’s back while he is in rukūʿ or pulls mamma’s chador while she is in sajdah, sometimes parents can snap at their child afterwards, frustrated that the decorum of prayer may be lost. What is actually lost is the parent’s akhlāq. This is detrimental to the parent-child relationship, the child’s relationship with prayer, and even the parent’s relationship with God. The child may feel that ṣalāh is a competition for mom’s attention and love, or that their needs for affection are sidelined when baba is praying. It’s a lose-lose-lose. Instead, dole out plenty of affection, then gently convey your age-appropriate behavior expectations to them. As Shaykh Ali Reza Panahian has mentioned, “Train your children with magnanimity. When they make any mistake, call them to account a little bit later. Or not at all is even better”8. We must think critically about the messages we convey to our tiny tots about their value, about ṣalāh, and about religion.
An Approach of Love
As the Imāms (ʿa) advise, training for prayer begins around the age of 3, and just mildly. One of our Al-Kisa advisors recommends supplying your three year old with their own prayer mat, turbah (earth for prostration), and tasbīḥ (prayer beads). Keep it with your own prayer mat and invite her to spread it out when you open yours for prayers. Even better is to pray as a family. She also stressed making prayers attractive to children, and nothing is more attractive to the little ones than seeing their mother and father praying in unison, connected to each other by God and for God. They may complain, tug on your clothes, or try to distract you, but in their psyche, it’s extremely comforting for them to see this level of unity and bonding between their parents and amongst the family. She also mentioned inviting the 3 or 4-year olds to come pray with you. It should be an invitation, not a command.
One family’s training method struck me as particularly genius. My friend, who has studied a number of years in Qom, told me that their whole family gathers for congregational Maghribain prayers. For a few years now, their 9-year-old has had the role of laying out prayer mats and turbahs9 for each member of the family. From when their younger son was two years old, before they begin prayers, her husband, a local scholar in Los Angeles, turns to him and asks, “Hadi, are you ready?” They won’t begin prayers until Hadi says yes, even if he isn’t standing on his muṣallā (prayer mat), even if he is playing in the corner of the room. He feels connected to the family practice of praying together. His father makes a conscious effort to make it so.
In truth, there are so many things we can do to help our children connect with and eventually adhere to prayer. My kids love applying ʿitr (perfume oil) for prayer. Choosing from among my collection of small glass bottles, all tinkling together in a cloth pouch, gives them just that much more agency. My husband shared with our kids that each prayer belongs to one of each of the Ahlul Kisāʾ10. My daughter likes standing for “Sayyidah Fāṭimah’s ṣalāh” at Maghrib time. Another parent “gave” her daughter the prayer of ʿAṣr “as a gift” when she turned 7, turning it into a privilege, something to cherish. My friend has her 9 year old son recite verse 33 of Sūrah al-Aḥzāb: after prayer, because he enjoys doing so in a booming voice that fills up the room11. He is also asked to partake in at least one of the daily prayers of his choice. Many children love the tasbīḥ beads, so teaching them the tasbīḥ of Sayyidah Fāṭimah (ʿa) focuses that love. Use their interests and inclinations as a doorway into ṣalāh. A family can make duʿāʾ (supplication) together after ṣalāh, praying for each other and for others out loud. Imagine what effect it has on a child to hear his or her parents’ making duʿāʾ and expressing gratitude for him or her. It is food for the soul. So long as you have love and attraction as your criteria, you can probably think of a dozen creative techniques for reigning your child into the practice of prayer.
These recommendations are all icing on the cake, though. The cake itself is our own relationship to prayer. When we model a dread and disenchantment with prayer, our children may also internalize that. When we model prayer as a checklist item to get done with, so too will our kids. When we model prayer as the last priority of the day, it will be hard to convince our children of its importance. In the Noble Qurʾān, Allah (swt) says, “O you who believe! why do you say that which you do not do?”12 Imām ʿAlī (ʿa) similarly warned, “If you wish to reform others, then commence the exercise with reforming yourself. If you like to correct others and keep yourself flawed it will be the biggest blemish”13. Practicing what we wish for our children to practice is the clincher. Without our own conviction in prayer, our children will be ill equipped to give prayer the value it deserves in their life.
As parents, we can reflect on our prayer practice. Ask yourself, how do you model its importance? Where can you improve your ṣalāh? Can you work on your timings, concentration in prayer, savoring of the prayer, understanding of it, or not missing some prayers? Making goals for our own improvements, even if we don’t explicitly share them with our kids, sets a tone in the household. Of course, many of us do not experience that magical prayer of ascension. Spirituality is a journey, with ups and downs, and we have been advised to leave off from doing mustaḥabāt (recommended actions) at the times it feels forced – but never the wājibāt (obligatory actions). We must show our children that we do things we don’t entirely understand, things we don’t taste the sweetness of ourselves, because Allah (swt) has asked us to perform them. Whatever obligations Allah (swt) has asked of us we trust have benefits. That’s also an important concept to model.
Lastly, remember that we don’t train our children to pray in a vacuum. They are learning through our other qualities and actions, too. Shaikh Ali Reza Panahian notes, “I can show you many parents who pray, and even pray on time, but their child has become corrupted”14. He goes on to stress that parents who do not model patience in hard times will “corrupt their children”, and “no goodness is like patience”15. He also stresses the importance of keeping a schedule to develop discipline, and through discipline, obedience to Allah (swt)16. We have to create structure and schedule in our children’s lives to help cultivate discipline in them.
May Allah (swt) give us all tawfīq17 in the monumental task of raising our children on the straight path, inshāʾAllāh. If you would like to share suggestions and ideas on what you’re doing to instill a love and appreciation of prayers in your little ones, please comment below. If you think this will help fellow parents, share on social media!
1 Kanz al-ʿUmmāl, Vol. 7, Ḥadīth 18972
2 Biḥār al-Anwār, Vol. 82, P. 209
3 Qurʾān, Sūrah al-ʿAnkabūt (29), Verse 45
4 Kanz al-ʿUmmāl, Vol. 7, Ḥadīth 18931
5 Biḥār al-Anwār, Vol. 82, P. 209, Ḥadīth 19
6 Wasāʾil ash-Shīʿah, Vol. 3, P. 12
7 Man lā Yaḥḍuruhu al-Faqīh, Vol. 1, P. 281, Ḥadīth #863
9 earth for prostration
10 Ahlul Kisāʾ – means ‘the people of the cloak’ and refers to Prophet Muḥammad (ṣ), Imām ʿAlī (ʿa), Sayyidah Fāṭimah (ʿa), Imām Ḥasan (ʿa), and Imām Ḥusayn (ʿa)
11 Qurʾān, Sūrah al-Aḥzāb (33), Verse 56 – إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَمَلَائِكَتَهُ يُصَلُّونَ عَلَى النَّبِيِّ ۚ يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا صَلُّوا عَلَيْهِ وَسَلِّمُوا تَسْلِيمًا – Indeed Allah and His angels bless the Prophet; O you who have faith! Invoke blessings on him and invoke Peace upon him in a worthy manner.
12 Qurʾān, Sūrah aṣ-Ṣaff (61), Verse 2
13 Ghurar al-Ḥikam, p. 278