Pedagogies for Spiritual Development? Canadian–Muslim Educators Share Insights 

by Claire Alkouatli

Most expressions of education in North America center normative conceptions of the human being who teaches and learns as a composite construction of embodied cognitions and emotions. But do we have spiritual dimensions, too? Expressions of education centering the spiritual are proliferating, including those originating in Islamic traditions. Over the past decade, Islamic education has been evolving in formal K–12 Islamic schools and informal weekend schools and expressed in centers at the Universities of Cambridge (CMC), South Australia (CITE), Warwick, University College London (CEMC) and dedicated institutions like Bayan Islamic Graduate School and Zaytuna College. Educational perspectives in these sites suggest that we humans are more than the sum of our physical, cognitive, and social-emotional dimensions. A sacred and unified ontological starting point illuminates the ways in which many Muslim people understand their human existence, dimensions of themselves, origins of knowledge, and pedagogies and purposes of education. A question arises: If we humans are inclusive of spiritual dimensions, what pedagogies engage and develop these spiritual dimensions? Popular media images of pedagogies in Islamic schools include children “rocking back and forth, memorizing the Qur’an and reciting it in unison under the watchful eyes of stern-looking teachers” (Boyle, 2006, p. 480). How true to reality are these images in today’s North American Islamic schools? 

To explore pedagogies in teaching Islam, I interviewed thirty-five Canadian Muslim educators. As one of my research participants noted, “It is helpful for people to understand what’s happening in a [Islamic] weekend school!” In describing what is happening, these educators contribute understandings of Islamic pedagogies in three themes, including “features of pedagogical reasoning” (Shulman, 1987, p. 13). 

In the first theme, educators discern unique dimensions of the human learner and employ dimensional pedagogies in engaging those dimensions toward distinct educational objectives. As one educator described, every person is born with a pure nature, or fitra, and the Qur’an “speaks about the ruh (soul), speaks about the nafs (lower self), speaks about the qalb (heart), speaks about the ’aql (intelligence).” He elaborated, “When you understand something, you’re in a better position to deal with it.” Understanding the human being as encompassing dimensions that originate in a divine realm requires particular pedagogies for development. 

Second, contemporary contextual pedagogies match what is culturally meaningful to learners here and now. These pedagogies work relative to the dominant culture in which they are situated, thus illustrating a dynamism across time and place, as exemplified in one participant’s description of Canadian cultural relevance as a pedagogical imperative. If young Muslims are pushed into believing something, he asserted, they will give it up: “That’s why I’m convinced that there is absolutely nothing that we are going to push. And that’s why that freedom is absolutely essential. It’s in the air; it’s the zeitgeist of our time.” Freedom in the prevailing sociocultural context is essential to this educator’s pedagogical approach in teaching Islam. 

Third, Muslim educators described transcendent pedagogies, tailored for spiritual self-development, whereby educators and learners interface with that which is beyond the reach of corporeal sense perception (ghayb), centered in the concept of the Divine/God/Allah. Towards experiencing the unseen, educators described the role of the teacher as a bridge, literally moving a young person from one place to another place—emotionally, cognitively, spiritually. 

In a unique iteration of pedagogical content knowledge (Shulman, 1987) beyond a secular dominant gaze, this three-theme pedagogical typology suggests that educators are engaging young Muslims in pedagogies towards self, social, and spiritual transformation, and attaining to fluency of consciousness across educational and epistemic horizons. While North American schools have recently been attempting to ameliorate the privileging of cognition over emotion through programs for social-emotional development, spiritual development remains a neglected domain. This research poses a question for every educator: How do we envision the human learner, her domains, and optimal pedagogies for development? 


Boyle, H. (2006). Memorization and learning in Islamic schools. Comparative Education Review, 50(3), 478–495. 
Shulman, L. S. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57(1), 1–22.

About the Author

Canadian-born Claire Alkouatli is an academic nomad with research projects currently active in Australia, Canada, England, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. She is an adjunct research fellow at the Centre for Islamic Thought and Education at the University of South Australia. Her research focuses on the roles of culture, relationships, and pedagogies in human development across the lifespan—including imaginative play, dialogue, inquiry, and challenge—and holistic well-being in children, youth, women, and families. She is the author of “Muslim Educators’ Pedagogies” in the Spring 2022 issue of Harvard Educational Review