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21st Century Spiritual Literacy

21st Century Spiritual Literacy

Issue 61 October 2009

“Bring up your children differently to how you were brought up, because they live in different times to you.”


This is a famous saying of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad. I grew up as part of a British-born Asian Muslim generation where trying to make sense of these competing identities was our primary concern. One of our main goals was to ‘fit in’ with mainstream society around us. Observing Asian customs and abiding by religious rules was something to be downplayed and hidden. Today’s young Muslims see their priorities differently.

They are much more confident, demanding even, about their place in society and their identities. For many youngsters, expressing your Muslim identity is a badge of honour, giving them a sense of belonging. The constant barrage of news about Muslims and the increasingly ferocious right-wing attacks on Muslims are likely to consolidate this identity. Even the world around us has been changing faster than ever before. I bought my first mobile phone in the mid-nineties, not long before acquiring dial-up internet access at home at the remarkable speed of 14.4k.

Today it is impossible to imagine living without either a mobile phone or the internet. The acquisition of life skills has changed too. Schools once emphasised subjects like domestic science, teaching children to cook and manage the budget at home. These skills are rarely taught at school, and in many cases have been lost to the home too. Yet television programming is full of shows trying to wean people away from fat-inducing take-aways and junk food by teaching them to cook.

Financial management is absent too from life skills training. Yet we now find that debt is higher than ever before, and that it is the poor who are bearing the brunt of the recession. Learning the value of money and how to manage it is an essential skill in the portfolio of education. I don’t want to indulge in nostalgia or take a pop at our education system. What I want to do is set the scene to that other area of life skills that has slowly been eroded  from our communities – spiritual literacy. Individuals are losing a sense of who they are in society and what they are worth as human beings.

To compensate, the self-help scene has exploded indicating that individuals are craving these skills. In religious training, rote learning and rules for rules’ sake were sufficient for generations. One question in modern life has changed all this: “why?” Having information is no longer enough, it is having the tools to make sense of what is around us that is critical. Only this can re-connect us to the spiritual meaning that we complain has been lost to modern literalist Islam.

Spiritual literacy needs several components. It has an information element – exploring the range of moral codes and belief systems like religions and their place in history and society. There is no need to be afraid of other religions. Being equipped to meet and relate to different belief systems is the key in the modern world. For those who are Muslim, there needs to be an intimacy with the Qur’anic text and Islamic history.

This is to provide basic knowledge as well as a yearning in the heart. Spiritual literacy needs to inculcate a sense of spiritual worth in each human being. This is the common denominator across society, because whether you believe in religion or not, we are all connected through the worth of the human spirit. Only this belief will allow us to treat those of other faiths and none with respect and create self-esteem in the individual.

This spiritual literacy however is underpinned by learning tools which will help address the ever present question of ‘why’. These are the tools of analysis and critical thinking which will allow an individual to understand and shape their spiritual inputs, and manage them and regulate them in the best manner possible. Families and local community classes are on their way to offering these skills. We need to recognise that spiritual literacy is the most important of all life skills. It is vital for the health of the human individual. Just as our life skills must include the ability to shape our physical sustenance in food and finances, so we must have the skills to develop our individual human spirit.

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