Raising children to be knowledgeable, practicing Muslims poses many challenges. The Internet, television, movies and the iPod inundate children with visual and auditory messages, often competing and being contrary to Islamic values.

Technology alone, however, cannot be blamed. Long before this communication revolution, Muslim children were learning un-Islamic values. Since the time of our beloved Prophet (sa), may Allah (swt) bless him and grant him peace, cultural beliefs and practices have seeped into the Deen, often masquerading as authentic teachings.

No one should be surprised that purity of belief and practice is deteriorating, and holding onto the Deen is becoming increasingly difficult. The Prophet (sa) stated: “Islam began as something strange, and it shall return to being something strange, so give glad tidings to the strangers.” (Muslim)

“You are in a time when, whoever abandons a tenth of what he has been ordered, he is ruined. Then, there will come a time in which whoever does a tenth of what he has been ordered shall be saved.” (At-Tirmidhi)

One of the areas, where this is evident, is the emphasis placed on beauty. Worldwide, the beauty industry accounts for $500 billion of revenues a year. It has been forecasted that the global market for cosmetic surgery will reach $40 billion by 2013. Plastic surgery in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has skyrocketed over the past decade. An Associated Press article (August, 2009) noted that there are thirty-five plastic surgery centres in Riyadh alone. The most popular surgeries among women are liposuction, breast augmentations and nose jobs, while men opt for hair implants and nose jobs.

Plastic surgery for cosmetic reasons presents a problem. Despite reported Fatwahs drawing the line between Islamically acceptable and unacceptable surgeries, it is hard to deny where things are heading.

But one does not need a cosmetic surgery to become infected with the beauty pandemic. A look at some Muslim fashion magazines and Islamic clothing websites tells its own story. Although the models have properly covered their Awrah, some are breathtakingly beautiful and stylish, completely defeating the purpose of not drawing attention to one’s beauty publicly.

Advertisements for marriage reveal the inordinate emphasis placed on fair skin. A few representative examples are copied below:

“Attractive well-established South Asian Sunni Muslim guy seeks a light-skinned South Asian Sunni Muslim girl…”

“…I am 34, single and never married, graduate [Kashmiri female]…5 ft 5.5 inches tall, very slim and very fair, considered to be very attractive by most people…”

While equating fair skin with beauty is not exclusive to Muslim cultures, the emphasis on fair-skinned mates raises issues in Islam. The Prophet (saw) reminded us in his farewell sermon:

“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black, nor a black has any superiority over white, except by piety and good action.”

It is reasonable to pay special attention to what our beloved Prophet (saw) chose to emphasize in his farewell sermon. Judging someone by their skin tone is clearly discouraged.

This does not mean that physical appearance is not a consideration when choosing a mate. Both Bukhari and Muslim report similar versions of the following Hadeeth:

“A woman may be married for four reasons: for her property, her rank, her beauty and her religion; so get the one who is religious and prosper.”

Thus, beauty is a legitimate consideration, but certainly does not take precedence. The Quran and Sunnah repeatedly stress that one’s inner beauty is what ultimately counts. For example, the Prophet (sa) has stated: “Verily, Allah does not look to your faces and your wealth, but He looks to your heart and to your deeds.” (Muslim)

And this is where parental responsibility comes in. Muslim parents need to teach their children that while it is okay to appreciate physical beauty, stress should be placed on a person’s character.

To this end, drawing attention and comparing children’s looks should be avoided. It would be highly inappropriate, for example, to discuss with another parent, especially in the presence of a child, that you think a particular child is so cute, while another child is unattractive. Parents should teach their children not to identify others by appearance, avoiding such words as dark, fat, ugly, etc. And the first step in this lesson is for parents to practice what they preach.

Pick up almost any book on child rearing, and experts will stress that children should not be labelled. When children are repeatedly called ugly, stupid or clumsy, they come to believe it with hurtful and destructive consequences. A child, who believes that he or she is stupid, will give up on intellectual efforts, and a child, who thinks of himself as clumsy, may avoid activities that require agility. A child identified as ugly is likely to develop low self-esteem, possibly leading to permanent emotional and physical trauma and potentially life-threatening behaviour.

Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Ugly Duckling” concerns a homely, young bird that matures into a graceful, beautiful swan. It is a tale of personal transformation – a transformation resulting from nature, not effort. By contrast, the human story of “The Ugly Duckling” entails personal struggle with one’s base desires or ‘the greater Jihad’ as a famous Hadeeth states.

“An old woman came to the Prophet (sa) and said: ‘O Messenger of Allah, pray for me that I will enter Paradise.’ He replied [jokingly]: ‘O mother of so-and-so, old women will not enter Paradise.’ The woman turned to go, weeping, but then the Prophet (sa) recited: ‘We have created them in new creation and made them virgins; faithful lovers, equal in age.’ (Al-Waqiah 56:35-37).” (At-Tirmidhi)

Islam teaches us the difference between ephemeral and eternal beauty. It teaches us that we are all ugly ducklings with the potential to become magnificent swans.