An Exploration of Sacred Parenting and Education

Recognising an old soul

In Education on January 1, 2012 at 9:36 pm

My daughter has a number of characteristics of my late grandmother which we cant explain. She would, for example, sleep with a bottle of water next to her and often wake up in the middle of the night to take a sip. This is something my late grandmother was in the habit of doing- both never met (physically). That’s not what I’m trying to point out though. What I intuitively feel is my daughter’s innate capacity to know. On some level, she knows everything that’s been taught to her. I feel with some things, such as religion or the symbolism of sacred acts, my duty isnt as much to teach or explain but to show. That showing, God willing, will feed her soul.

I experienced this when i took my daughter to a zikr session with some derveshes. At first she was shy, but later she responded to the love, adab and presence she felt. She won every one’s heart. She was her beautiful self ; the face she always had before she was born was eminent – that unconditioned part of herself came out in that space of unconditional acceptance. I wonder if religion can be taught this way? less instruction or explanation and more presence and witnessing; planting seeds to sprout in the years to come which, God willing, like for al Ghazali, awaken in the soul a yearning to know for oneself.

  1. I’ll be away for a few days from today (2 January) so I just wanted to make some quick comments on Saqib’s post. One research study has suggested that only 15% of learners are typically verbal learners (who learn best through explanation); 40% are visual learners, and 45% are kinaesthetic learners who learn best by doing (I think I saw this in Jean Houston’s book ‘Jump Time’). So Saqib makes an important point in emphasizing the key role of ‘showing’ (and I would add ‘enacting’).

    Yet, our education systems are more and more based on teachers talking and students listening for the purpose of absorbing ‘content’ and developing a narrow range of abstract intellectual skills. Roland Barth, the Harvard educationalist calls this non-experiential transmission-centred kind of education ‘Sit ‘n Git’. This applies not only to the over-emphasis on ta’lim (instruction) in some kinds of Islamic education but also to the system of utilitarian schooling in Western education which is designed to to turn children into cogs in an economic machine or compliant consumers, children who are dependent, conforming, materialistic, and lacking in curiosity, imagination, self-knowledge and powers of reflection. One study conducted in British secondary schools has revealed that less than 5% of teacher talk is directed to developing higher order cognitive skills: most of it is concerned with management, giving instructions and eliciting ‘right answers’ to questions designed to test recall of facts. The same applies to the American system.

    Saqib mentioned Al-Ghazali, and yes, he said that tasting (dhawq) is the way to spiritual certainty (yaqin). In a wider sense, the importance of direct perception applies to all levels of education and not just to the realization that we can only truly understand spiritual truths with the ‘knowing heart’. The Qur’an tells us that we have been endowed with ‘hearing, sight, and hearts’ and yet our God-given powers of observation, direct perception of higher realities, symbolic understanding, and the like are rarely engaged in the educational process. Children have less and less contact with the natural world, where they can see for themselves the beauty and majesty of the ‘displayed book’ of Nature, with its self-evident ‘signs’ (ayat).

    One caveat, however. We may want to rebalance parenting and education away from ‘instruction’ and more towards the activation of innate faculties of ‘knowing’ , but at the same time it is a peculiar fact of modern life that despite all the teacher talk and the emphasis on verbal instruction in our schools, listening skills are rather poor amongst many young people. This is partly because of new forms of media, and a short-attention span culture, but also comes out of a society in which inter-generational links are very poor and fewer and fewer families sit down together and converse. The lack of ability to sustain a coherent discussion has repercussions in other areas of self-expression (poorly constructed written discourse, for example).

    One last point: the English word ‘development’ comes from a root which means to ‘unwrap’ or ‘unveil’ (de-voloper), and this strikes a chord with the idea of education as ‘tarbiyah’ (nurturing the whole being of the child within the family, school and religious community) and with the root of ‘education’ itself (Latin educere – to ‘draw out’ or ‘lead out’). However, what is activated or elicited also needs a degree of ‘development’ in the sense of guidance and direction. It can never be simply a matter of laissez faire, and the fitrah will blossom of its own accord, because experience shows that the huge potential of the child is more likely to be gradually obscured by the schooling process, by adult conditioning, peer pressure, and, perhaps above all, by the enormous pressures exercised by popular, consumer and celebrity culture. So there has to be a balance somewhere between, on the one hand, not intervening too much and allowing the natural capacities to blossom, and, on the other hand, providing guidance and direction.

    By the way, it’s a great pleasure to be associated with this blog. May you and your children all flourish!


  2. Dear Jeremy,

    Many thanks for your wonderful insights. Much to reflect on. I would like to just add a footnote to my reference of Al Ghazali. For those who may not know, he went through an existential crises while he was at the peak of his scholarship; unmatched in debate and a leading Islamic scholar of his time. Hit with a depression in which he lost his ability to speak, he realised despite all his learning he still had a void at the center of his being which is book knowledge couldn’t address. This subsequently led him on a ten year or so journey in which he discovered tasawuf (the Islamic spiritual tradition). Something must have awoken inside him. I quoted al Ghazali with that in mind – the point in his life when he felt he needed to know for himself; he needed to taste. How does a teacher or parent nurture that awakening? A dervesh asked my daughter that night, what did you learn? I later replied, ask her in 30 years time. I wanted to give her a taste of a state of presence reflected in spiritual community which would nourish her soul. I hope someday her yearning will guide her to al-Haq (The Truth).

    The point you made about the balance between instruction and blossoming is a very important one that deserves much reflection.

    Thank you

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