My wife Hadiyah is creative. When she recognized that our eldest daughter Aasiyah was approaching her thirteenth birthday, she started planning a “coming of age” party. Part debutante ball, part “bat mitzvah”; it’s an original vision. As a new teen, Hadiyah contends, Aasiyah should be introduced to her “village” and celebrated as she assumes responsibility (taklīf) for her religious obligations. I’m fascinated by my wife’s vision: a party that occasions “coming of age”, in which taklīf would be a central theme. What exactly would we be celebrating? Seeing as though legal adulthood or majority begins at the age of 18 in most states, does the concept of adolescence militate against an embrace of taklīf? And lastly, with the spotlight recently placed on statutory rape, does our commitment to taklīf dictate any specific intervention we might make in order to prepare our young people?
In an authentic tradition recorded in the collection of Abū Dāwud, the Prophet (upon him be peace) said,
“The Pen is lifted from three. A child until he reaches puberty; an insane man until he comes to his senses; one who is asleep until he wakes up.”
This tradition uses “Pen” as a metonymic reference to record-keeping and by extension accountability. Based on the above, Islamic scholars are unanimous in their opinion that accountability is predicated upon tamyīz or discernment. This is straightforward. The corollary, however, is intriguing : All people with the exception of those mentioned by the Prophet (upon him be peace) are responsible for discerning right from wrong. As a term, Taklīf is of unmistakably legal character. When thinking of it, the do’s and dont’s, wills and wont’s, ḥalāl and ḥarām of religious practice come directly to mind. Yet, for all the necessity (rightly) attributed to ritual and morality, they are inadequate as sources of ultimate religious inspiration. The Cambridge based scholar, Abd al-Hakim Murad once mused that the new shahadah appears to be: There is no Islam but Islam and Muhammad is the Messenger of Islam. Highlighting at once the intolerance and absence of God that marks some of our contemporary practice of Islam. His wit is eye-opening. If, in fact, individual religious responsibility begins at the onset of puberty, so too does an intentional relationship with God:
“…My servant does not draw near to Me with anything more beloved to Me than the religious duties I have enjoined upon him…”
This well known hadith qudsī (sacred tradition) describes the path of wilāyā’(intimate friendship with God). While the most impassioned bit involves God “becoming the eye with which the servant sees, the ear with which he/she hears, and the hand with which he/she grasps” the path begins with the faithful performance of religious duties. Taklīf, in other words, may be seen as a gateway to an endless path of friendship with the Divine. The etymological root of the word itself notwithstanding, we often fail to inspire our young people when we speak of being “mukallaf” as though it were a prison sentence. We want our daughter to value and esteem ritual. When performed intentionally, it opens the door to transcendence. However, we would like to celebrate this new phase of her life as the beginning of a relationship with God and not merely a relationship with Islam.
In the US, compulsory education–and with it the concept of adolescence–began in the state of Massachusetts in 1852. Soon after, every state (ending with Mississippi in 1918) enacted laws mandating school attendance for children between the ages of 8-16. For American industrialists at the turn of the century in need of a functionally literate workforce, adolescence proved to be a boon. However, in addition to promoting widespread literacy and responding to changing modes of economic production, compulsory education also produced some social dislocation. In an article entitled Reflections on the History of Adolescence in America, Joseph F. Ketts observes:
The concept of adolescence was developed in the United States between 1890 and 1920. In the hands of G. Stanley Hall and his many followers, adolescence required a moratorium on the assumption of adult responsibilities by teenagers. This prescription of a moratorium broke sharply with the advice given to youth in the 19th century, which urged the quick assumption of adult responsibilities.
When viewed through the lens of adolescence, the potential attrition produced by taklīf becomes clear. In a culture in which teens are intentionally “shielded” from adult responsibility, we’re celebrating a young woman “coming of age” at thirteen. This is daunting. However, the following statement often attributed to ‘Ali ibn Abū Ṭālib might be instructive:
“Play with your children until the age of 7. Discipline and teach them until the age of 14 and then befriend them after the age of 14.”
Recreation, discipline, and education are important. However, reflecting upon the unique challenges awaiting our teens, I think friendship is the most important thing we can offer them. How can we expect them to “come of age” by embracing the religious responsibilities of an adult as we treat them like children? So as not to be misunderstood, I don’t think it’s wise or advisable to make peers of our teens; still clearly in need our guidance and oversight. Rather, the friendship I have in mind entails reshaping the flow of learning and sharing within the relationship from a unidirectional model in which a sage-like, unerring elder inscribes the tabula rasa that is the personality of the child to something more collective.
Friendship means honesty. If we have strategically limited our children’s access to our challenges; perhaps in an effort to perfectly model the Islamic fundamentals we’ve taught them, it might be time to strategically “get real.” As young people move into an intentional relationship with God, we should talk openly about repentance, hard-learned lessons, and continued struggles. Secondly, befriending young people entails taking their ideas seriously. They will inevitably feel the incongruity of being told: “You’re old enough for God to judge your eternal fate for your choices but not old enough to choose your own major in college.”
Lastly, the current moment makes any discussion of aged-based morality that doesn’t include at least a mention of statutory rape seem either evasive or cryptic. And although a full treatment of the topic lies beyond the scope of this op-ed, I hope it won’t be regarded as impudent to introduce a few thoughts. Statutory rape is a serious crime and I understand its rationale:
Statutory rape laws are based on the premise that an individual is legally incapable of consenting to sexual intercourse until that person reaches a certain age. Additionally, minors are generally economically, socially and legally unequal to adults. By making it illegal for an adult to have sex with a minor, the law aims to give minors some protection against adults in positions of power over them.
This is the law of the land (I pray that its provisions deter abusive behavior.) The moral education of our young people; however, should emphasize that their ability to consent to sexual intercourse with any other morally responsible person–regardless of age or position–is taken for granted in their being mukallaf. Taklīf is responsibility and responsibility entails ownership. You will be questioned by God concerning how you used YOUR body. It is YOUR body. Your reckoning is rooted in your agency. No one, regardless of their position of nearness to you, authority over you, or comfort in your care, has the right to uncomfortably gaze upon you, much less shake your hand, hug you, or touch you in any way without your consent. In our society, an embrace of taklīf must involve a complete elimination of the prudish, Victorian social mores that have frustrated meaningful conversation about the body, sex and relationships in some of our communities.