A Muslim is one who submits himself to the Will of Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He). Therefore being a Muslim not only involves maintaining faith (iman) in the heart, and knowledge (ilm) in the mind. It also involves struggle and striving to live a life in this world that will earn the pleasure of Allah and success in the next world.
This ability to strive and survive in this world that is designed to test us has to be developed through an Islamic moral education and training in sound principles and correct responses. This is the process of tarbiya.
Tarbiya is an Arabic word that means development, increase, growth, and loftiness. In Islam it means the development and the training of people in various aspects, especially the discipline and training of the soul. As the saying attributed to Aristotle goes, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.”
مَثَلُ ٱلَّذِينَ حُمِّلُوا۟ ٱلتَّوْرَىٰةَ ثُمَّ لَمْ يَحْمِلُوهَا كَمَثَلِ ٱلْحِمَارِ يَحْمِلُ أَسْفَارًۢا ۚ بِئْسَ مَثَلُ ٱلْقَوْمِ ٱلَّذِينَ كَذَّبُوا۟ بِـَٔايَـٰتِ ٱللَّـهِ ۚ وَٱللَّـهُ لَا يَهْدِى ٱلْقَوْمَ ٱلظَّـٰلِمِينَ ﴿٥﴾
“The example of those who were entrusted with the Torah and then did not take it on is like that of a donkey who carries volumes [of books]. Wretched is the example of the people who deny the signs of Allah . And Allah does not guide the wrongdoing people.” [Quran; 62:5]
Application of Tarbiya
Tarbiya is more than just education or parenting. It is more than just the acquisition of knowledge regarding right and wrong. Although the crucial seeds of tarbiya are best planted in early childhood, it is in fact a lifelong process of continuous development of character and moral values. It is a process of implementation rather than merely acquiring information.
وَٱلَّذِينَ جَـٰهَدُواْ فِينَا لَنَہۡدِيَنَّہُمۡ سُبُلَنَاۚ وَإِنَّ ٱللَّهَ لَمَعَ ٱلۡمُحۡسِنِينَ
“And those who strive for Us – We will surely guide them to Our ways. And indeed, Allah is with the doers of good.” [Quran; 29:69]
Acting upon what one already knows will lead the way to more knowledge and guidance. Growth and self-development occur by constantly putting into practice the information that has been acquired; by applying theory to practical life.
Tarbiya occurs at the individual level as well as community level. At individual level it can be termed as introspection and self-development. Tarbiya at community level enables individuals to reach for growth that cannot be attained independently and involves receiving feedback and advice from external sources.
The process requires humility and acknowledgement of one’s weaknesses and flaws, as well as a willingness to learn and improve. There is a connection between the word for guidance (hidayah) and a gift (hadiya) in the Arabic language. In other words, there must be appreciation for a higher level of being and an eagerness to embrace the gift if one is to be given. It requires repentance and the desire to become better everyday, for it is natural for man to sin, but those who are sincere about getting close to Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) are frequent to seek forgiveness and evaluate themselves.
Parents bear the responsibility for providing sound tarbiya in early childhood.
يَـٰٓأَيُّہَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُواْ قُوٓاْ أَنفُسَكُمۡ وَأَهۡلِيكُمۡ نَارً۬ا وَقُودُهَا ٱلنَّاسُ وَٱلۡحِجَارَةُ
“…O you who have believed, protect yourselves and your families from a Fire whose fuel is people and stones…” [Quran; 66:6]
The fruits of their effort will be seen not only in this world when the parents become dependent on the children, but also after they pass away.
Abu Hurairah (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said, “When a man dies, his deeds come to an end except for three things:
- sadaqah jariyah (ceaseless charity)
- a knowledge which is beneficial, or
- a virtuous descendant who prays for him (for the deceased).” [Muslim]
Good Teachers and Companions
As with all cases, the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) has set the best example for us on how to develop individuals and communities to maximise their human potential and bring out the best. He (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) was able to inspire, lead, and change the entire community from a lifestyle of ignorance (jahiliyya) to the lifestyle of a model community. At the same time, he influenced people with a personal touch, addressing them and advising them specifically according to their circumstances.
Therefore even in present times, it is important to find teachers who possess deep understanding of the religious teachings as well as its practical application to guide our tarbiya. Knowledge and tarbiya go hand in hand. Knowledge without tarbiya can lead to chaos and tarbiya without proper knowledge cannot exist. Satan, for instance, possesses a great deal of knowledge, yet he is accursed.
A suitable teacher is one who can not only inspire to higher ideals but can also translate those aspirations into everyday guidance, who can understand the context of the people they are leading, and thus be relevant. A good teacher has the wisdom to push the student out of his comfort zone but without breaking him, so that the student may realise his own undiscovered potential.
It is narrated that Ibn Umm Maktum asked the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), “Messenger of Allah, I am a blind man, my house is far away (from the mosque), and I have a guide who does not follow me. Is it possible that permission be granted to me for saying prayer in my house?” The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) asked, “Do you hear summons (adhan)?” He said, “Yes.” The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said, “I do not find any permission for you.” [Abu Dawud]
In addition to good teachers, one also needs to be surrounded by good friends who help persevere, who provide the right influence and companionship especially at difficult times, who are themselves committed to high ideals and are willing to provide and receive feedback on the journey to becoming better every day.