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Monday, February 9, 2015

Spiritual Development in Childhood: Islamic and Western Perspective

Notes: This is a paper written as a partial fulfillment to the requirement of  Spiritual Dimensions of Educational Psychology subject. Any citation is allowed as long as it does not breach the rules and ethics. Reference should be made accordingly.

Human Nature
Man is dual in nature. It is a physical being, an also spiritual being. In Islamic perspective, many Muslim scholars have contributed ideas and concept in discussing the nature of man. Among them Ibn Sina and al-Ghazali who talk about soul and its divisions, Mulla Sadra who proposed that soul is a single entity with different levels and interpretations, and also Sufi practitioners who put a great emphasis on soul and spirit on man’s development and perfection. Syed Naquib al-Attas came later and further discuss the complexity of the nature of man in a more comprehensive, fathomable manner.

Allah breathed into Adam ruh, or spirit, which makes him a man. Ruh is something that could not be understood by senses, and little that we know about it, “And they ask you, [O Muhammad], about the soul. Say, “The soul is of the affair of my Lord. And mankind have not been given of knowledge except a little.” (Quran, 17:85). However, ruh could be known by looking into the actions that originate from it. Ruh is pure, as it comes from God. It is the centre of human being, the very essence of a man, and it is indivisible.

In  Western perspective, ruh is referred to as spirit, but it also denotes the ‘nafs’; that is ‘soul’ or ‘ego’ as discussed in Western spirituality ( Hermansen,2008).

Both physical and spiritual aspect develop, however if physical development could be seen through height, weight, change of skin elasticity and texture, how about spiritual development? How could we say that someone has developed spirituality? What is spiritual development?

            In Pargament (1999, as cited in Boyatzis, 2005, p.125), spirituality has been defined as “the search for and relationship with whatever one takes to be a holy or sacred transcendent entity”.  In other literature concerning qualitative work done on children and spirituality, spirituality is marked by the perceptiveness of the child of his relation with God, other people or self (Hay & Nye, 1998; Reimer & Furrow, 2001, as cited in Boyatzis, 2005).  Spiritual development could be understood, therefore, as the process of growing intrinsic human capacity to attain self-actualization or self-transcendent, and develop the commitment and responsibility to contribute to others (Benson, 2003; Lerner, Dowling, & Anderson, 2003, as cited in Boyatzis, 2005).

            In Islam, spirituality is closely related to religion; Islam itself. Spirituality in Islam is based on the Quran and teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), the essence or nature of man’s being, which lead to the discovery of the true understanding of man’s inner being which is related to the outer being of it and everything around it (Yildirim, 2006).  Spiritual development in Islam then, could be related to the progress towards being a practising Muslim based on the Quran and teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) with reference to the nature of man as created by Allah.

Spiritual Development in Childhood
            Children are the gift of God, and we are the bearers of the trust (amanah) to educate and nurture them according to Islamic practice and teachings, with reference to the nature of man as created by God.

            Spiritual development, according to Yildirim (2006) is to be attained and learned. Though man has been engineered with the innate nature to conform to God, however that innate nature should be guided and shaped accordingly so as to conform to the right path; i.e Islam. There are many factors that could be contributed to the spiritual development of a man. Spiritual development starts from the very beginning of man’s creation. Therefore childhood is really crucial in spiritual development.

            As children learn more through social learning such as imitation and observation of adult’s behaviour, Yildirim (2006) stated that children learn through observing spiritual practice of adults in their environment, especially the one closest to them such as close family members. Nursi is in line with this as he wrote that childhood is a vulnerable period, as children are strongly influenced by the parents’ attitude. Positive attitude depicted in front of the children will give positive impact towards the mental scheme and affective dimension of the children, thus lead to the growing of a healthy and functional adults, insyAllah (Hermansen, 2008). Boyatzis (2005) also spoke about social learning in spiritual development, as he stated that “the child interpersonal contexts – family, church, peers – help children articulate their views on the metaphysical, and these contexts are, for much of the world’s children, embedded in cultures that publicly discuss or worship the divine (p. 124).

 Studies in religious and spiritual cognition have shown that every child was born with their own intuitive belief system that would help them to form their own understanding and faith about metaphysical and religious thing (Boyatzis, 2005). They would not fully accept and believe inputs of spiritual or religious practices and beliefs that they receive from their surroundings, as they are able to filter it before they form it as their faith. However, this will only happen when they are older.

Author has conducted an observation in an Islamic private preschool in Ampang for two months. The subjects of study are 23 students aged 5 years old; 13 boys and 10 girls. They are in the same class, and being taught and handled by two female teachers. Both teachers are the class teacher and assistant teacher. They are responsible to teach all subjects including Islamic studies. As this particular preschool adopted the module specially design for integrated Islamic and English education, it was easier for the researcher to observe the application and nurturance of spiritual issues in class as Islamic education is integrated almost in all subjects. To get richer data of this research, the author also interviewed the children to get in-depth understanding based on the observation.

 From the observation, kids around the age from 4 to 6 years old were much influences not only by what they see their parents do, but also they put much or full believe in what their parents tell them about metaphysical things and about God. When they come to school, they will reflect it in their social interaction with their friends. For example in Malay Muslim culture in Malaysia, it is quite a norm that parents threat the children with the notion of Hellfire to abstain them from doing bad things or saying bad words. The children would then use the threat when they see their friends are going to do the bad things. In this sense, their conception of God and spirituality has been formed through parental sayings and threats.

Besides social learning, a kid needs to feel love, trust and confident in God to develop as spiritually healthy person (Yildirim, 2006). How could we nurture the love, trust and confident in God at this early age? It is the environment that plays a vital role in nurturing these values in the children’s affective and spiritual dimension. This could be linked to the education that should be given to the children in the early age.

According to al-Ghazali, children should be taught firstly of the Islamic creed (aqidah) and good character (akhlaq).  To learn aqidah , which is an abstract or unseen thing is quite hard for a child aged 4, 5 and 6 years. However, the concept of aqidah could be instilled through the environment and the physical things that exist in the surrounding as they are the creations of God. As God is unseen and abstract in concept to be understood by the children, nurturance of love towards God could be done starting with loving the creations of God. To nurture the love in God, children should be taught first to love the words of God which is al-Quran, to love the Prophet through His teachings, and to love the family members.

Love of al-Quran and the recitation of Quran, love of prophet and love of family members are the symbiotic relationship that will lead to the healthy spiritual development of a child. How could it be? A child that is nurtured by good family members with love, trust and confident will build a sense of security within himself. From this sense, he would be brave to explore more and to learn new things around him. The family members are responsible to nurture the love of Quran and teachings of Prophet (pbuh) by integrating both in their daily life, through ibadah such as prayer, through good deeds that is practised in the house, and through akhlaq or good character/ attitude.

Based on the observation, some of the students were able to recite verses of Quran fluently, and some of them were not. From the interview, it is clear that those who were able to recite verses of Quran such as al-Fatihah and other short chapters have been trained by their parents or grandparents at home. The students have practise to recite and memorize the short chapters and also prayers before they were sent to school. It is a normal practice way back in the 90’s but it is common for parents to send their children to school and rely on teachers to teach their children.

Quoting al-Ghazali, Yildirim and Nursi who are in line with the notion that spiritual development starts with education and moral development, it would be best to refer to the al-Ghazali’s idea on the formation of good character as the kick start of childhood education.

            Though it start with nature; from choosing of spouse to genetics, however it is noted that environment play a major role in shaping and influencing character and attitude of a man, regardless of the phase of life he is in to. The four influential factors in child education are; heredity (nasab), habituation (al-i’tiyad), socialization (al-mukhalatah), and learning (al-ta’allum).

            Spiritual development starts with education or formation of good character, as heredity provides the foundation of the development itself. Heredity plays important role as choosing the right spouse will lead to transmitting good genetics to the child. Good genetics with good upbringing from the good spouse will lead to a strong foundation to positively developed man in spiritual domain. Habituation of good character could employ the reward and punishment concept, alongside cultivating it through daily chores and routine. In this sense, parents who practise teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) during eating, working, social conduct and many more could be a good example to the children.

Socialisation sees that parents have the utmost authority in determining children’s peer group and to prohibit the children from bad friends and amusements that would expose children to the negative things such as nonsense talks, insults and luxuries. Teacher on the others hand could promote and teach the students the healthy and right way to socialize with others and mingle around in class or in school. Learning factor utilised the concept that teacher (mu`allim) has the right to punish and educate the students while parents should prepare children to bear the punishment.

In the preschool, children actively participate in their own spiritual development through three of the four factors of formation of good character.  The 22 students being observed have been taught by the teachers to practise good habits in class, such as lining up to wash hand, washing hands before eating, and recite prayers before learning and also  eating. These practices were repeated daily, and as time went by, the children has understood the instruction and were doing it automatically. Though sometimes there are numbers of children who forgot to do it, but other friends will remind those who forgot. This is the impact of positive socialization that is influenced by both parents and family members at home, also the way teachers taught them in school on how to mingle with and treat their friends. From the observation, both class teacher and assistant teacher involve the children in the class management, by appointing numbers of student each day to help the teachers with the class chores. Among the tasks given to the children are; sending used plates and cups to the pantry, organizing their school bags, keeping the toys.

Along doing the chores, the children are learning to communicate among each other. It is normal to see them fighting each other to be the first to organize the beg, to be the one who get the chance of sending the used plates to the pantry, however this is the part where teachers play the role as mediator and also tutor to guide the children on how to behave appropriately and how to respect other’s right. For example, in one scene, several children were rushing to the teachers, trying to grab the used plates from the teacher’s hand while pushing one another. The teacher put the plates on the table, and said “okay, please stop. I will select those who will send the plates today.” Then the students shouted their name, hoping that they will be chosen for the chores. Pushing and pushing one another again. This time the teacher warned the students to behave and the plates will only be given to those who show good behaviour. They stopped. The teacher immediately gave the plates to four students and quickly announced four other names that will send the plates tomorrow. She promised the student that everyone will get the chance of sending plates, and it will be listed on the whiteboard. In this case, the teacher has shown that everyone has equal rights to be responsible, and she has taught the students to be patient and to wait for own turn.

The famous Muslim scholar, Bediuz Zaman Said Nursi’s idea on spiritual development seems parallel with Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. Both scholars emphasized on the idea of overcoming conflicts and the importance of moral education (Hermansen, 2008). Therefore, it is clear that in Islam, spiritual development is closely related to religious practices and proper education especially by the parents and family members.

In Nursi’s writing and other Muslims mystics, a model of progressive psychospiritual development has been traced, proposing the concept of soul (Hermansen, 2008). According to the Islamic scholars like Ibn Sina, al-Ghazali and Syed Naquib al-Attas, there are three main level of nafs or soul that shape and influence human actions. The first is nafs al-ammarah bi al-su’, the nafs or soul that is prone to lust and evil. This type of soul is in the lowest rank, and it paralyzes the use of ‘aql or intellect in making choice and decision. The nature of this type of soul is it directs the man to every wrong direction and action, as Allah says in the Quran, “And I do not acquit myself. Indeed, the soul is a persistent enjoiner of evil, except those upon which my Lord has mercy. Indeed, my Lord is Forgiving and Merciful” (Quran, 12:53).

            The second level of soul is nafs al-lawwamah, which direct man to internalize his own actions and the effect of it. Nafs al-lawwamah is the blameworthy self, which is constantly aware and criticise the shortcomings done by the man. It could be referred back to the creation of man from clay, as the nature of this self is it often change and alter. After nafs al-ammarah bi al-su’ has done mistake, nafs al-lawwamah directs man to feel guilty and remorse. This will lead man to repent to God of the sin he has done. Nafs al-lawwamah has been stated in the Quran (Quran, 75:2), “And I swear by the reproaching/accusing soul.” In the case of Adam a.s and Eve, after they have been sent down to Earth for following the desire of their nafs ammarah bi al-su’, they have come to their consciousness and awareness of their mistake, and they repent to God.

            The third level of soul is nafs al-mutmainnah, or the self at peace. It is the highest level of soul, as it is in peace, tranquillity and satisfaction. Nafs al mutmainnah is very hard to achieve, and only the one who immerse himself in love to God can attain it. It is the state of hate doing sin and love of good, righteous acts. It is the aim of every man to attain nafs al-mutmainnah, and the reward is enormous. “[To the righteous it will be said] O reassured soul, return to your Lord, well-pleased and pleasing [to Him], and enter among My [righteous] servants, and enter My paradise.” (Quran, 89:27-30).

            In developing healthy spiritual development, it is important to train the soul to submit to the iman as it is the highest authority or agent. In childhood development, particularly spiritual development, the child does not have the ability or skill yet to control his action, moreover to train and control the soul from misbehaving or from deviate from the right path. Therefore, education and good character formation is important in this phase. From the education and good character formation, the child will insyaAllah be able to subtly train the lowest soul to abide by the moral conduct, and as he get older is able to internalize and reflect back (muhasabah) the wrongdoings or misbehaving, then avoid himself from repeating the same mistake.

Issues in Spiritual Development in Childhood
There are several topics or issues that are interesting in spiritual development, namely; origin or existence of things, conception of God, soul and the After Life, and spiritual or religious practices.
On the origin of things, “when interviewed about the origin of a variety of natural things (i.e., plants, animals, the earth, the sky, large rocks), pre-schoolers are about seven times more likely to attribute responsibility to God than to people (Petrovich, 1997, as cited in Richert & Granqvist, 2013). In Islamic preschool, the students have been exposed to the concept of everything in the universe is of Allah’s creation. When asked, most pre-schoolers will attribute all the things even chair and table to God. They could not differentiate in the first time, which things are created by God and which is invented by human.

On the conception of God, psychologists in the West are interested in studying children’s developing mind. From the studies done with the children, several interesting results have been found. Among them are; children come to the understanding that humans have different personal perspective and knowledge, and could do mistakes in ideas and thinking, around the age of four to five years (Wellman, Cross, & Watson, 2001; Sabbagh, Xu, Carlson, Moses, & Lee, 2006, as cited in Richert & Granqvist, 2013), and human’s mind limitation is not attributed to God (Barrrett, Richert, & Dreisenga, 2001; Barrett, Newman, & Richert, 2003; Richert & Barrett, 2005, as cited in Richert & Granqvist, 2013).

 In Muslims context round the world, the understanding of God is delivered differently according to culture. In Malaysia, way back then, God has always been illustrated to the preschool children in a negative way, for example; God will punish whoever did something wrong, God will send those who say bad words to Hell and God does not love those who not pray. However, as psychology consciousness has been permeated extensively in early childhood education, many pre-schoolers have been given the right conception of God through their Islamic education in preschool, such as God is all-loving, God loves people who help teachers, God loves children who say good words to friend. This is a good example of how education should promote positive attitude and not abstaining and talking about bad behaviour in promoting positive spiritual development. During observation, researchers has overheard for many times students approaching the teacher saying, “Teacher, he hit me. People who hit other will be sent to hell, right?” The teacher then replied, “Who hit you? Oh, Rizqi? Come here boy. (and the student who hit the other boy who complaint came near the teacher) Why do you hit him? Look, it is not good to hit others. Do you like others to hit you? Punch you? Kick you? (the boy said no in a low voice) See, you also do not like it if others hit you. then, you must not hit others alright? Allah loves child who love his friend, who do not hit his friend.” The teacher has done her task excellently, as she promoted God in a positive way, and this would help the children to feel encouraged to behave properly. Their conception of God will be a positive one.  

On the issue of soul and the After Life, studies found that as early as 4 years old, children have the understanding that dead person has no agency and could not come to live again (Barrett & Behne, 2005; Poling & Evans, 2004, as cited in Richert & Granqvist, 2013). Soul was understood as the only thing that could connect a person to God and soul will go to Heaven when the person died (Richert & Harris, 2006, as cited in Richert & Gonqvist, 2013). From my observation, this understanding is same with Muslim children’s understanding, in which they believe in soul though subtly (they understand that when someone died, they meet God) and they understand that dead person is not able to come back to the living world.

On religious or spiritual practice, Richert’s (2006, as cited in Richert & Granqvist, 2006) study on children and religious rituals found that 6 years old children view that “ the ritual would no longer be effective if mistakes were made during the ritual” (p. 169). In my observation, this founding is parallel with the view of 6 years old Muslim children, provided that the children have proper education of the religious practice. For example, 6 years old children understand that it is important to follow the right way to perform solah (prayer), however 5 and 4 years old children are still playing around and not concentrating in their solah practice.

Spiritual development should not be neglected besides physical, cognitive and emotional development, as it is one of the important dimensions in developing a healthy, well-balanced person. Spirituality in Islam could not be separated from religion, therefore spiritual development in childhood particularly in preschool years demand constant and sensitive attention from family members and teachers. They act as educators and models in nurturing the spiritual development of the child through social learning, inner values such as love and trust, and also education.  


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Hermansen, M. (2008). Faith development and spiritual maturation in the works of Said Nursi. In I. M. Abu-Rabi (eds). Spiritual dimensions of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi’s Risale-i Nur. New York: State University of New York Press
Richert, R. A. & Granqvist, P. (2013). Religious and spiritual development. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (eds.) Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality. 2nd ed. New York: The Guilford Press
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