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Can Spirituality Be Taught?

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bismillah.gifMadrasahs, Sunday schools, Muslim schools: wherever you send them, it’s pretty much expected that that’s where your kid is going to learn a great deal about being a good Muslim. There, they learn about the five pillars of Islam, the six pillars of Imaan, and obedience to parents… amongst other things, of course.

Yet a common scenario that I’ve heard of (mostly through my dad, who’s had dual experience as the Islamic studies teacher at a Muslim school and as a counsellor) is that though a kid might attend the Madrasah/ Sunday school/ Muslim school and even do well in terms of getting good grades, it doesn’t mean that they actually practice it. Students at a Muslim school can and do go out drinking, partying, doing drugs, committing zina just as much as any non-Muslim kid at a public school can and does. They may be Muslim in name, but not in deed – despite an ‘Islamic education’.

So my question is: Can spirituality (not religiousity, which in the context of this post has a different definition) be taught?

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We spend so much time and money trying to ensure that these kids memorize large amounts of the Qur’an, that we can pose a question on fiqh to them and have them answer perfectly – but has the true essence of Islam, has true Imaan penetrated their hearts?

Can a classroom setting work in trying to accomplish this feat, of teaching kids to not just know about God, but to believe in Him?

I ask this question partly because though the main goal of the Madrasah is to do exactly the above, I have no idea how effective it is. I see the children memorizing the Qur’an, learning how to read it, listening to the stories of the Prophets (‘alayhumus-salaam) and answering the questions we pose to them – but I can’t see into their hearts and know whether or not they’re praying because they know how important it is and believe in it and see it as a form of communication with Allah, or because we make them.

And there’s another thing – how do we know when Imaan has entered the heart of another? I guess we can’t, really… it’s something that Allah alone can know, for He alone has the ability to know us better than we know ourselves. Yet it irks me, makes me worry incessantly – to me, the Madrasah isn’t just to teach, it’s to make them understand… I want them to be able to leave the classroom with something much more than Arabic words memorized and answers learnt by rote; I want them to leave with their hearts alive with taqwah, their souls prostrating with ihsaan, their limbs moving only in ‘ibaadah to Allah.

Since it’s impossible for me to know what the final result is, perhaps a better question would be: What kind of teaching environment would be most conducive to arousing a sense of spirituality in the students? Do classroom settings (which we have) work just fine, or is something closer, more emotional (in terms of teacher/ student relationship, and even student/ student relationship) needed?

For those with experience in teaching children, especially teaching Islamic studies, please do let me know your tips, tricks, and wise words of advice! :)

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Zainab bint Younus (AnonyMouse) is a Canadian Muslim woman who writes on Muslim women's issues, gender related injustice in the Muslim community, and Muslim women in Islamic history. She holds a diploma in Islamic Studies from Arees University, a diploma in History of Female Scholarship from Cambridge Islamic College, and has spent the last fifteen years involved in grassroots da'wah. She was also an original founder of MuslimMatters.org.

30 Comments

30 Comments

  1. Hafsa

    August 24, 2007 at 11:31 AM

    interesting..

    I went a muslim school until i was 13 years old – did that make me more spiritual than my cousins who attend catholic schools? Maybe not spiritual – but I’d say our (my sibblings and i) islamic values were stronger – more deep rooted. Somethings were just never questioned. Like hijab for example, was just so obvious for my sister and i – than it was for our cousins. I think it did build grounds for spirituality – we knew the knowledge, we just had to take that extra leap to practice it.

    And also, from parents’ view – they can only do so much for their kids – they can send the kids to islamic schools/ madrasahs, and hope and pray that Allah guides them.

  2. Nuqtah

    August 24, 2007 at 11:37 AM

    Tssawuf

  3. Abu Noor Al-Irlandee

    August 24, 2007 at 11:39 AM

    This is an important topic you raise Anonymouse. From the perspective of work I’ve done with youth I’d say the following:

    — I’ve begun to think that very little can actually be taught to children. They can memorize things, and they can learn to imitate behaviors they see, but it takes life experience and maturity to actually understand and internalize things. Perhaps this is why traditionally people would concentrate more on having children memorize, which they can do. I know we look at someone who has memorized a large amount of Qur’an and doesn’t understand much of it and sometimes even behaves badly and we get very discouraged by this but certainly people in the past also saw this and maybe they just had more patience to realize that the benefits will come when maturity and experience are added to what has been memorized.

    — As I mentioned above children do imitate and to focus on your explicit question, spirituality cannot be taught like a school subject but it can and must be modelled. Again, one may not see the results right away, but if one develops a relationship with younger people, one’s behavior (not so much one’s words…which will be hardly listened to and quickly forgotten) will have a long term influence on the youth. And while it helps to be very charismatic or have other qualities that the kids will naturally look up to, at the end of the day in my experience kids will love and respect anyone that actually takes an interest in and devotes time to them. Lectures don’t help much and will often turn the kids off, but if you actually show you care about the kids through your actions, they will even let you lecture them and they will still love you.

    So, I believe in two things — first, we should enable our kids to have opportunities to memorize certain things about the deen so that they can draw on it later, I mean which one of us that is not a hafidh doesn’t wish that we had been forced to memorize at least some of the Qur’an when we were younger? Second, we should create opportunities for youth to form relationships with young adults who can be role models of positive behavior and who are willing to care about and invest time in these youth.

    One thing I think you and others have written about before Anonymouse is the reality in our time and place of this extended adolescence where youth are taught to basicaly rebel against any authority figures around them and to act as if they don’t care about anything. (Some of our youth, for example those in the suburbs are able to become completely absorbed in superficial things…other segments of our youth population, while also caught up in material concerns also have to worry about real issues like poverty and the threat of violence as a daily reality). During this time, youth are forming their own identity so it is extremely important for good role models to be around them but being around them at this stage often requires a tremendous amount of sabr, for you need to persevere thorugh a lot of frustration and trials and you may not really see results for years into the future.

    Those are just some of what my experience has taught me, I really look forward to what others have to say.

    Allaah knows best.

  4. Umm Layth

    August 24, 2007 at 11:48 AM

    Honestly, you need teachers that are the reflection of their words, not mere speech. Children see right thru people. If you are evil, trying to preach the Qur’an, do you really think kids are going to take it? Kids will know if the medicine you are giving them is something you have chosen to take in your life, if it works and if the outcome is something you hold on to dearly.

    No offense, but our Ummah is lacking seriously in spirituality. Just like the kids need to regain a sense of true understanding and love within the heart, so do we, as adults.

  5. joyhamza

    August 24, 2007 at 11:52 AM

    sister anonymouse,

    in our country we are planning to form islamic schools for little children. Can you please tell me about ur curriculum, teachers (their qualification) etc ?

    sorry to divert from the topic.

  6. joyhamza

    August 24, 2007 at 11:53 AM

    sorry i forgot to gave you salaam

    salaam alaiki

  7. Umm Layth

    August 24, 2007 at 11:55 AM

    I pressed submit too soon.

    We need to work on the real issue within our Ummah. The main issue is lack of certainty in our faith. This is the problem we have. Our children probably see their parents not practicing, or someone near them not practicing. They don’t see them really believe what they claim to believe, even if they do ‘believe’.

    We need to work on our adults in order to really make a change in our children, in my honest opinion. How can we expect them to be right if we are all over the place? SubhanAllah, sometimes I think it’s better that some people had no kids. The responsibility is too much, way too much. If we aren’t going to do our part (because things may still go wrong), we will be held accountable for it.

    Also, in my opinion, I think we have many side issues which children see, do etc. I could start naming them based on what I saw in my parents that made me look for my emptiness in the dunya, but maybe not.

    I also disagree that spirituality can’t be taught like a subject. It can be taught. But it needs the right person, and that person has had to have taken the medicine and that medicine has had to work on them to a certain degree.

  8. ahmed

    August 24, 2007 at 1:09 PM

    Can spirituality be taught?

    No.

    The best teacher of all time, the Prophet SAWS, had munafiqeen hiding themselves, pretending to be among his followers.

    Surely you cannot guide whom you love, but Allah guides whom He pleases, and He knows best the followers of the right way. [Qasas 28:56]

    wa Allahu ta’aala a’lam

  9. Nirgaz Abdullah

    August 24, 2007 at 2:14 PM

    I think a lot has to do with the parents.
    What is the relationship between the parents and children? Also has a love of Allah and Islam been instilled in the child’s life since a young age.
    In my own experience with my four children for example…I have exposed them to my love of nasheeds and dhikr from a young age and they too love these things. So I think that what surrounds them has a profound effect on them.
    So do I think spirtuality can be taught, I think its 50/50. 50 percent is taught by outside influences…parents, community, etc…and the other 50 percent is you.

  10. Habibi

    August 24, 2007 at 3:22 PM

    True that we can never be sure if the children are becoming more spiritual or religious by heart, but that shouldnt stop us from trying. Munafiqoon were present even in the time of the beloved Prophet ( PBUH ) but that didnt stop him from trying , for only Allah knows and decides when can one get true guidance.

    And as someone pointed out earlier, children like to imitate . If they see their elders or parents doing something they usually try to imitate, and if parents communicate with them WHY they should do that as well, it would reinforce the idea and logic behind prayers and like.

    Bottom Line : We should never loose hope and/or stop trying.

    Allahu Alam

  11. Abu AbdurRahman

    August 24, 2007 at 3:27 PM

    Assalam Alaikum,

    Let me tell you my experience of how I grew up so that insha’allah it will help others understand what we really need to help create good muslims.

    Until 6th grade, I went to public school. Both my parents, alhumdulilah brought me up in an Islamic environment AT HOME. Now that I think of it, if I still stayed in public school I would have been doing all the same things that other not-so-good-muslims do.

    The turning point was when my parents decided to send me to a Maddressah. At that point, the dual personality I had(act muslim at home, not at school) was totally destroyed because now I was being taught the same thing in school and out. Though I stayed there for only about 2and a half years, it changed me a lot. After that two and a half years, I had my thinking all straightened out. (Mainly thanks to my principal)I was in my heart a muslim at all times.

    For the next two years in high school, I admittedly had an awful time but not because I didn’t want to fit in. It was more because I didn’t want to fit in. I didn’t want to go hang around with girls, I didn’t want to listen to music, and I didn’t want to do drugs, etc. These were all things that my fellow Muslim brothers & sisters did. I stuck around as much as I could with YM. The brothers in my neighbornet really helped me alot. At this point though, I would call myself a muslim on the outside. That’s because I was the perfect Muslim label but on the inside it was a whole different story.

    After that two years, I moved to Pakistan and then I totally changed again. I already had my beliefs straightened out.Now I started acting on those. I started missing less prayers, praying on time, in Jama’ah, started making du’a more often, and thinking about Allah much more. Now Alhumdulilah, I feel that I can actually call myself a bit spiritual.

    From my experience, what I can say is that muslim schools can do a lot but you have to have a good administration. I mean excellent. The administration has to be able to communicate with the students in their everyday life not just at school time.

    Also, I agree that parents have quite a big role(more in terms of religiousity than spirituality) but the as Nirgaz said the main part comes from YOU.

  12. Medinah

    August 24, 2007 at 4:32 PM

    Assalamu Alaikum,
    I believe it all starts in the home. The parents are the first teachers of the child, and it starts there.My children go to public school, but they have not lost their islamic identity. As a single mother of three, I struggle to teach my children Quran, Hadith, tafsir etc… AND understand it. We watch beneficial lectures, listen to islamic nasheeds to keep their mind focused on islam. They pray and fast even in school, Alhamdullilah. Both school AND parents play the crucial role in bringing up our pious leaders of tomorrow. Allahu Alim. Masalaams

  13. BintMuhammed

    August 24, 2007 at 5:04 PM

    Assalamualaykum
    I went to an islamic school all through high school, I would say that it didnt make me a better person, but rather it just taught me the basics of my deen. In my school if the children were forced to go to the school, and were corrupted when they entered the school; they got out still corrupted. Muslim parents assume that Islamic schools protect their children from harm, rather what they neglect is that the only prevention starts with the home. The only time i truely appreciated and learned the deen was when I graduated from an islamic school and went to university, and saw as some might say it “the outside world”, I was exposed to things I have never seen in my life. I mean i couldve joined the masses and abandon my hijaab, but all of a sudden I joined the MSA and quickly associated myself with Muslims. Unfortunately sisters I knew who graduated from the same islamic didnt have such a happy ending..why? Walahu alam
    But nowadays Islamic schools are only focused on teaching secular knowledge and not islamic knowledge. I remember we had an arabic class every semeseter and we were always taught the same words, and religion class was a joke, how many times does somebody have to tell you about the 5pillars of islaam and the 6 branches of imaan.

    My suggestion would be not to limit your children to just an islamic school, but rather help them test the waters and see the other side. Its risky, but it is the only way to know whether the knowledge you teach your children or the islamic school teaches them, benefits them in any way. One of my sisters was the only one who never went to an islamic school in my family, we always thought she would be a rebel, but alhamdulilah she’s turned to be a good muslimah.

    What kind of teaching environment would be most conducive to arousing a sense of spirituality in the students?

    not a classroom setting thats for sure. They automatically assume that what they will learn is something they need to memorize, and not feel it in their hearts.
    And again it depends on the age group your teaching, you cant expect 10 year olds to feel something in their hearts when you talk about taqwa as opposed to 17 year old who knows that at their age, they should be fearing Allah.

  14. Abu Noor Al-Irlandee

    August 24, 2007 at 5:39 PM

    One of the most beautiful short resources on this topic of raising children is Ustadh Muhammad AlShareefs khutbah classic

    “When I Grow Up I Wanna Be Abu Bakr”

    http://www.khutbah.com/index.php?type=5&id=1205&language=8

  15. Dawud Israel

    August 24, 2007 at 6:30 PM

    If you are in a regular highschool—you wish you were in an islamic one. If you were in an Islamic highschool–you wish you were in a regular one.

    I think it’s all up to Allah–I went to madrassah and sunday school and it got me interested but it was more entertainment type (jinn stories, qiyamah signs). I didn’t get spiritual until I started meditating and doing hifz on my own.

    I think the only way to get spiritual is when you feel as if Allah is teaching you–not directly, but through channels.

  16. Dawud Israel

    August 24, 2007 at 6:40 PM

    “We need to work on the real issue within our Ummah. The main issue is lack of certainty in our faith. This is the problem we have. Our children probably see their parents not practicing, or someone near them not practicing. They don’t see them really believe what they claim to believe, even if they do ‘believe’.”

    This is MAJOR point. People view Islam as ‘a part’ or separate from life. One scholar put it best when he said (paraphrased), “Iman is as if the Shahadah has bonded with the soul and become a part of it.” When this happens people no longer discuss aqeedah lightly nor do they have the “progressives” mentality of restructuring Islam as if it is ‘just another religion’ or some sort of fake construct. For those who have Iman Islam is there world –and they may sin still, but they cannot let go.

    I think AnonyMouse said it best: they need to understand.

  17. Umm Layth

    August 24, 2007 at 7:34 PM

    Exactly brother Dawud. Islam is everything. It’s not a set of laws and that’s it. Rather, the purpose of these laws is to reform us as people, to bring us closer to Allah.

    I think I may right about my upbringing and the lack of spirituality I had as a child on TM insha’Allah.

  18. Umm Layth

    August 24, 2007 at 7:35 PM

    write*

  19. AnonyMouse

    August 24, 2007 at 9:55 PM

    Jazaakumullaahu khairan to all for your insightful comments!

    While I wrote this post thinking mostly about children, I’m also starting to think about young adults. The girls (young women!) I know don’t seem to feel very spiritual either, and the first couple attempts at making it seem more relative to them were greeted with cynicism and confusion.

    I’m also thinking more about one-on-one talks with those aged 11 – 15, because sitting in a small circle and making concepts such as taqwah and ihsaan no longer abstract, but practical and applicable to them as individuals, really does seem to work – the expressions on their faces aren’t ones of boredom, and if you get them to speak as well, they’re forced to pay attention and really think about it.

    Once again, jazakumullaahu alfu khair!

  20. Abû Mûsâ Al-Habashî

    August 24, 2007 at 11:58 PM

    “What comes from the mouth, enters the ear. What comes from the heart, enters the heart.”

  21. Hassan

    August 25, 2007 at 12:41 AM

    Surah fatir:

    [28] And likewise of men and Ad-Dawâbb (moving (living) creatures, beasts), and cattle are of various colors. It is only those who have knowledge among His slaves that fear Allâh. Verily, Allâh is All-Mighty, Oft-Forgiving.

  22. Augustus

    August 25, 2007 at 10:28 AM

    Interesting piece there…

  23. Umm Layth

    August 25, 2007 at 2:32 PM

    Hmmm. I went back to re-read this, and I believe that it all depends on how we define spirituality. In terms of Iman, only Allah bestows that on a person.

  24. SrAnonymous

    August 25, 2007 at 5:54 PM

    Assalamu alaykum
    Anonymouse have you read concentric circles by (I hope I got the name right)Elma Ruth Harder? I had a look through it this summer and was struck by its section on teaching neeyah to our young children. I don’t often see neeyah as a subject in a child’s Islamic curriculum. I have some neeyah teaching tips that I’ll post when I get a chance. But really they are just a condiment compared to the main course of relationship building and establishing that with children.

  25. AnonyMouse

    August 25, 2007 at 8:14 PM

    Wa ‘alaikumus-salaam wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatu,

    @ SrAnonymous: Nope, I haven’t read that book… I’ll look it up, though – shukran for the suggestion!

  26. SrAnonymous

    August 25, 2007 at 10:22 PM

    http://www.al-qalam.org/
    is the link for the book

  27. MR

    August 25, 2007 at 11:36 PM

    It’s called tasawwuf.

  28. Zohra

    August 26, 2007 at 10:48 PM

    Asalamalakium Wa Rahmatullhe Wa Barakatoo,

    I will tell you from my experience and many experiences that I have read about and many families I have dealt with.

    I honestly feel that one has to plant their seeds, water it, add fertilizer, water it some more, make sure it recieves sunshine, etc…

    That is waht I think of our children. I send my daughter to an Islamic school that I loved, and still love. However, there were many things I could not control even in an Islamic School. Especially the friends that were there.

    Children are sponges, they pick up good habits from people around them, and bad habits from people around them. My daughter picked up some habits that I still hate, like cracking her fingers. Which can give arthritis.

    Due to my same concerns as yours, I did extensive research on what is the best way to raise your kids to become the best of who they really are. I made the decision to Home School. Since then, my whole family has changed dramatically. Alhamdillilah..I listened to a set of Cd’s called “The children around the Prophet (PBUH)” It inspired me tremendously.

    Also my daughter’s education is accelerated much higher now, and her role model for Islam is her parents. I pray and leave the rest to Allah (SWT)… I am trying 110% to do my part as best as I can, but we always need Allah (SWT) to truly guide them, and give them Eman and love for Islam…

    I hope this helps!!

    Jazzakullah Khair!

  29. Muslimah

    August 28, 2007 at 12:22 AM

    Can Spirituality be taught…Im not so sure. I went to both Islamic and Public schools growing up and so did all of my childhood friends..unfortunalty many of them have now gone “bad”. You cant have spirituality without knowledge, so what the Islamics school do is provide students with the knowlegdge they need to “Know Allah” and then all you can do is pray for Allah to guide them on this path, in the end He willl choose who He leads on his path and who He will lead astray, but you need that knowledge to start off with.

  30. Pingback: Can Spirituality Be Taught? « BhattySaab

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