A Strength-Based Approach to Religion and Spirituality for Muslim Learners in Health and Physical Education

Dylan Chown


This chapter explores the intersections between religion and spirituality in Health and Physical Education (HPE) for educators of Muslim learners. HPE’s connection to religion and spirituality is important given HPE’s focus on body/body values (Benn, Dagkas, & Jawad, 2011), notions of healthy living, and inquiries of “dangerous subject matter” (such as sexuality, mental health, body image, and identity) (Jansson & McCuaig, 2019). Too often religion and spirituality are disconnected from the HPE learning area, reduced to an add-on, or seen solely as a barrier to engagement and participation. In this chapter, a strength-based approach to religion and spirituality is applied. It will consider for Islamic school educators, how an Islamic philosophy of education may inform the reading and enactment of HPE (curricular learning area) and sport (co-curricular program) in an Islamic school. For both Public and Islamic school educators, it will consider potential approaches that avail from ways Muslim learners may functionalize aspects of their religious/spiritual identities, and ways of knowing, being, and doing, in, through, and about HPE.

First, I will provide a conceptual framework as a foundation for this chapter, capable of drawing out understandings on intersections between religion and spirituality in HPE. Second, I will provide a synthesis of relevant themes within contemporary studies in HPE that have considered religion and spirituality or Islam and Muslim learners. Third, I will provide a case study outlining the author’s experience in leading a HPE/Sport Department in an Islamic school. From this case study, practical ideas for how HPE can be transformed and how it can be transformative will be shared. Fourth, I will provide reflections and suggestions for practice. Educators in Public schools can gain critical perspectives, practical strategies, and approaches to religion and spiritualty in HPE and sport for their Muslim learners. Educators in Islamic schools can gain deeper insight into the synergy between the learning area and the purpose of education in the Islamic tradition and the potentialities of a more faithful, responsive, and contextualized approach to HPE/sport for their Muslim learners. Finally, I will offer some concluding thoughts for renewed practice in HPE.

Conceptual Framework

Tawhid, Knowledge, and the Physical Domain in Educational Expressions

This chapter seeks to explore the possibilities and potentialities of understanding and advancing HPE and sport from an Islamic philosophy of education, through a strength-based approach to religion and spirituality. It is hoped that some semblance of basic Islamic conceptual anchors will inform the theoretical lens of this chapter, and extend for Islamic schools approaches to HPE and sport beyond merely an “Islamic” addendum; or the sprinkling of “Islamic” concepts or perspectives to existing or unchallenged paradigms mediating HPE; or reductively for Public schools, to the problematizing of religion and spirituality in HPE. In doing so, this section will start by providing important, albeit brief, background information on tawhid, Islam’s views on where knowledge comes from, why education is holistic, and where would HPE fit within these?

Further, explicit links between Islam and HPE will first be considered, including a foundational link between health and the higher objectives of sharia (that is, safeguarding faith, life, offspring, property, and mind); several of which are contingent or deeply associated with good health (Al Khayat, 1997). In promoting health and the healthy body, Muslim scholars speak of a discourse in fiqh (jurisprudence) of health (Al Khayat, 1997) that are replete with guidance on holistic health to preserve the balanced position the human being has been created upon (Al Khayat, 1997). Islam and HPE also share common concerns, around “control of the body, in time and space, in rituals and cleanliness, in dress and in the control of diet and pursuit of a healthy body” (Benn, 1996 in Dagkas & Benn, 2006, p. 24).

Embodying the unity between the physical and the religious/spiritual is the example of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), who was fundamentally concerned with their harmonious balance (Walseth & Fasting, 2003). The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), as the central figure in Islam, representing the perfect human (al-Insan al-Kamil), as understood in his example (sunnah), epitomized the balance (niizan) reflective of a fulfilling religious life (Zaman, 2016). Statements or lived examples of how the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) modeled, practiced, or promoted physical activity, health, and wellbeing are too voluminous to mention here. We know he engaged in wrestling and running races with his wife ‘Aisha, and of his companions, Umar b. al-Khattab instructed, “Teach your children swimming, archery and horse riding.” Above all, the Prophetic advice and example could be viewed as a reminder that health is a blessing, a priority, and a resource that should be actively nurtured and availed from with virtuous action.

An Islamic philosophy of education stresses the holistic dimension of human beings. For this reason, classical and contemporary Muslim scholars argued that education is an integrated system in which all things are interrelated, including the physical dimension, remembrance of God, and all that falls between (see, e.g. Nasr, 2012). Classical Muslim scholars the ilk of Ibn Sina (c. 980-1037) and Al Ghazali (c. 1058-1111) also stressed the physical dimension, emphasizing the importance of physical education to all stages of learning (Gunther, 2012). This is because of an underpinning concept and ontological first principle of education in the Islamic tradition, (Zaman, 2016), premised on tau>hid.

Tawhid, or absolute monotheism, is said to project a holistic conceptual system characterized by unity, harmony, and oneness, promoting holism and wholeness in integrating all aspects of life (Al Zeera, 2001; Shah, 2016). Consequently, approaches to education should unify the spiritual, physical, mental, and moral aspects, thereby encompassing the whole learner without divorcing the physical from the metaphysical, where mind and soul are nurtured (Lahmar, 2011). Following from this, HPE and sport constitute essential disciplines from an integrated or tawhidic vision of education. Based on this perspective, there is no separation, no dichotomy between the sacred and the secular, the revealed (naql) and the acquired (<»(niyah) and action ((ibadah), with the potential for growth through expressions of consciousness (Alkouatli, 2018; Alkouatli, 2021) possible in HPE and sport. An Islamic philosophy of education, therefore, recognizes education’s fundamental role in developing the body, mind, and soul (Al-Attas, 1979). Education encourages Muslims to pursue excellence (ilisan) in all domains, with the primary goal to develop self on the path of taqwa (God consciousness), to become stronger in faith with the underlying assumption that acts of learning ultimately lead to knowledge, which would then lead to God (Shah, 2016).

What We Already Know

Some literature explores intersections between religion and spirituality in HPE/ sport (Robinson, 2019), including its influence, absence, tensions, challenges, and most urgently, strength-based and hopeful orientations. Robinson (2019) undertook a scoping review of contemporary HPE studies and found that “today’s focus” is on Muslim learners, finding almost all articles on religion and HPE focused on Islam/Muslims.

Dagkas and Benn (2006) explored the views of Muslim women in Greece (school-age “Greek Turkish girls”) and Britain (university-age “British Asian women”) as diaspora communities on school experiences of HPE. They found synergy between Islam and HPE, namely in the pursuit of a healthy body and argued that this positive factor should underpin policies of inclusion enabling Muslim learners to participate and benefit from physical activity sustained beyond school as lifelong. Benn, Dagkas and Jawad (2011) explored tensions between religious freedom and educational practices in HPE. They found that considerations of context is important for addressing Muslim girls’ participation in HPE, the need to bridge gaps between educational research and educational practice, and the concept of embodied faith largely absent (within HPE historically and in the present) limiting understanding, connections, and possibilities in relation to religion and spirituality, and differences in embodied values in HPE (Benn et al., 2011). They emphasize respecting the “diversity of lived experiences of being Muslim, avoiding stereotypes and assumptions and meeting individual needs wherever possible through negotiation to enable participation in physical education” (p. 31). Not surprisingly, they contend that the “greatest support for physical education came from the children and young people themselves” (p. 31).

Farooq and Parker’s (2009) study of Muslim adolescent males in a British Islamic school explored the relationship between sport, religion, and identity. They found religion (Islam) provided a central mechanism for participants to construct and negotiate their perceptions of their valued self, pointing to the reassertion of identities through spirituality. It also highlighted that HPE and sport offered an avenue where learners could embrace and embody their sense of self and express broader religious ideals. Interestingly, participants’ motivation for their involvement in HPE and sport was fueled by their understandings that participation was honorable in terms of their religious beliefs and the varied meanings and interpretations they attached to sport (Farooq & Parker, 2009).

Jansson and McCuaig (2019) build upon some robust conceptual work, applying a Foucauldian lens to decipher scripts of “good living” within various religious and non-religious traditions and worldviews. Drawing on Foucault’s (1990) notion of ethics, divided into four major aspects, and characterized by four key analytical questions, the authors inquire into the perspectives of learners to compare and contrast the ethical practices of good living articulated within contemporary school-based HPE with those of faith. They explore aspect of “ethical substance,” meaning, what part of the self should be addressed;? “Mode of subjection,” meaning, why should selves engage in this work;? “Forms of Elaboration/Technologies of Self,” meaning, what tools are available for this ethical work;? And “Telos:” what is the aim of this ethical work (Foucault, 1990 in Jansson and McCuaig, 2019)? Specifically, they sought to identify Muslim scripts of good living, as compared to school HPE, and how Muslim learners navigate these scripts of good living. They identify the following as a potential “Islamic” script for healthy living: “Ethical Substance: Body [jism] and Intentions [ш'уй/i]; Mode of subjection: God’s Will [ums/icc], Deeds [hasanat/thawab] are weighed; Forms of elaboration/Technologies of the Self: Prayer [salah/dua/ibadah/genera expression of consciousness or ta/uw], Diet, Ramadan, Hygiene [fa/ига]; Telos: Worship Allah [ma'rifa] and Good Custodians [khalifa].’' Forthcoming qualitative empirical studies in HPE sites by the Jansson and McCuaig in Australia and Sweden represent hopeful, faithful, and strengthbased approaches to explore and reveal alliances, disparities, and tensions between secular and religious practices of healthy living (Jansson & McCuaig, 2019) with implications for delivery of HPE in Australian schools, valuable to Islamic and Public schools.

Despite their marginalization in research and practice across HPE literature, strong claims are made as to the place for religion and spirituality in the learning area. Rationales include the centrality of the body to HPE and its widely recognized connection with faith, specifically through the concept of embodied faith (Benn, 2009; Benn et al., 2011; McCuaig & Tinning, 2010; Robinson, 2019), explained as the “outward manifestations inseparably connected to internalised belief” (Benn et al., 2011, p. 24). Further rationale pertains to the need for educators to recognize the whole-learner and the full gamut of learner identities (Benn et al., 2011; Flintoff, Fitzgerald, & Scraton, 2008; Robinson, 2019); to the recognition that “holistic” and “monist” (Robinson, 2019) conceptions of mind-body-soul encompass religious and spiritual identities and these may be a part of many learners’ identities. Also, that “techniques of the body” can be influenced by learners religious and spiritual traditions, identities and ways of knowing (Benn, 1996; Benn et al., 2011; McCuaig & Tinning, 2010; Robinson, 2019; Shilling, 2008); and that religion and spirituality inform notions of healthy living for learners who are religious/spiritual (Jansson & McCuaig, 2019). Finally, for some learners who identify as religious (e.g. Muslim), religion/spirituality are significant ideological spheres where learning takes place (e.g. in area of sexuality) (Sanjakdar, 2018); and space for the realization of spiritual connections and considerations (Benn et al., 2011) allows religious and spiritual learners the ability to interpret their HPE experiences as whole ones, something that exclusion of religion or spirituality cannot achieve (Robinson, 2019).

However, multiple studies have identified deficit frameworks applied to Islam and Muslims in relation to HPE, namely around Muslim girls and intersectional themes of culture and gender as they impact experience and participation, cultural and religious accommodations, and tensions and problematizing of religion and cultural practices (Benn et al., 2011; Kneza, Macdonald, & Abbottb, 2012). Tensions in relation to Islam/Muslims and HPE typically revolve around dress codes for women, attitudes toward the body in relation to privacy and modesty, public display during physical activity, mixed/single-sex groupings and activities, activity during Ramadan, swimming and dance activities, personal development education, sexuality education, socialization and parental encouragement for HPE and sport-related activities, and religious observances (Benn et al., 2011; Dagkas & Benn, 2006; McInerney, Davidson, Suliman, & Tremayne, 2000; Sanjakdar, 2018). Further, we know that some Muslim learners, particularly visibly Muslim female learners who wear the hijab (head covering) experience increased prejudice and discrimination (Dagkas & Benn, 2006). We also know that where school HPE/sport spaces challenge the right of Muslim women to embody their faith, the result is inevitably non-participation, negotiation, or coercion (Benn et al., 2011).

There is growing recognition that religion and spirituality are inseparable from the HPE learning area (albeit, underdeveloped) (Robinson, 2019), and the concept of embodied faith may assist in bridging the gap in research and educational practices (Benn et al., 2011). Namely, as a means for educators and those outside the faith to understand the lived experiences of Muslim learners (Benn et al., 2011), and attention to it could increase educator understanding for more inclusive and “culturally and religiously responsive” (see Memon & Chown, forthcoming) pedagogical practices (Benn et al., 2011; Price, Green, Memon, & Chown, 2020). On the issue of “dangerous subject matter” (Jansson & McCuaig, 2019) in HPE, McInerney et al. (2000) argue that tensions between controversial and sensitive topics, and issues in HPE and challenges arising with Muslim learners or other diverse learner backgrounds, can be resolved via policies promoting recognition of, and learning from, difference rather than ignoring marginalized groups, or by treating everyone the same. Sanjakdar (2018) asserts that practice approaches to sexuality education (often addressed within HPE although not exclusively) that recognize learners’ religious views (or views about religion) as being influential in their learning about sexuality education challenge the efficacy of existing sexuality education approaches and create more inclusive learning experiences for all students. A significant barrier to addressing challenges include teachers’ knowledge, understanding, and practices relating to Muslim learners (Dagkas, 2007), leading to difficulties when teaching and pointing to the need to address shortfalls in initial teacher education to better prepare teachers in being responsive to diverse learner backgrounds in HPE/sport (Dagkas, 2007). Poignantly, for schools and HPE educators, ignoring pedagogical/instructional accommodations forgoes an opportune focus for culturally (Robinson, 2019) and religiously responsive (Memon & Chown, forthcoming) practice.

Learning Dimensions of the Case Study: Transforming HPE in an Australian Islamic School

The following case study will provide an account of the author’s experience in leading the transformation of HPE in an Islamic school, emphasizing transformative outcomes for Muslim learners and the school community.

Background: What I Learned from Other Schools and Communities

Prior to entering my Islamic school, I had been a HPE teacher for seven years in diverse Public school settings providing valuable opportunities to see how different schools approach HPE/sport. These experiences also impressed on me the expansive role that HPE plays in providing a form of education relevant to learners’ lives. Across all contexts, a key commonality was that sport and HPE were heavily valued within and beyond the school community.

Coinciding with my in-school roles, I also gained valuable experience as a Co-Director of a Youth Development and Mentoring Organisation. In my role I enjoyed critical mentorship from a senior academic, HPE teacher educator, and sports historian as well as a prominent board of Aboriginal Elders. Our organization utilized Traditional Indigenous Games (TIGs) as a vehicle for physical activity and health, sharing and celebration of culture, promotion of sport and reconciliation for First National Peoples. This was a transformative experience that thrust me into a space where culture, identity, and spirituality intersect with games, play, sport, and physical activity in spheres of social justice, education, and health - all key components of HPE. It was also my first exposure to the fact that different peoples operate within different knowledge systems, holding different worldviews that inform different philosophies on education.

Entry into My Islamic School: Finding My Footing

I was excited to become a HPE teacher in an Islamic school although I knew nothing about Islamic schools. I was appointed as the subject area coordinator, as the only specialist HPE teacher on staff, responsible for 7-10 HPE curriculum and the co-curricular program as the secondary sport coordinator. I would spend the best part of the next decade co-developing the HPE department, the curricular learning area, and the culture of sport and HPE in the school. I would eventually be appointed as a Head of Department, as a team of three, codevelopingjunior HPE curriculum, establishing and developing Senior Health Education, and co-designing and supporting senior Physical Education (senior, meaning Grades 11 and 12).

Positionality: A Pedagogy of Not Knowing

In the early period, as a recent adherent to the faith or new Muslim, I couldn’t approach the establishment and transformation of HPE from a deep sense of knowing or knowledge of Islam. I lacked foundational knowledge of Islam, both personally and in relation to my educational practice and role. Looking back, I interpret my entry experience as an engagement with a pedagogy of “not knowing” (Lingard, 2007), enforcing a form of humility. This meant that along with my Muslim learners, we worked collaboratively to co-envision and co-design what a transformative form of HPE relevant to the context of our Islamic school community would look like. Over time, this made for a heightened relationality between my learners and I, as well as a more pronounced sense of connection between our learning, our inquiries, and our faith.

Context: HPE in an Islamic School

My Islamic school was a K-12 school under 15 years of age. I arrived at an empty shipping container as my sports room, a demountable as my classroom, no textbook, little to no curriculum or work programming, little sporting equipment, and no material resources to speak of. I can recall being handed a mixed bag of sporting equipment, including some field markers, a few skipping ropes, and various deflated balls. There was, however, an enthusiasm for HPE among some students and parents, and many colleagues were supportive.

The willingness by school leadership to invest in and support the growth of HPE/sport was based on what I felt were certain shortsighted and narrow driving forces (i.e. assist with student retention, reduce disengagement in other “economic subjects,” etc.). Not from an appreciation of the criticality of HPE/sport, its connectedness to religion and spirituality, the benefits to learners, or an awareness of the impact that HPE and sport could have within our Islamic school community. School vision generally sets the tone for the approach to education in a school, yet it was hard to discern the vision of my new school. There was a “stated vision” on the website, although it didn’t provide nuance on a distinct faith-centered form of education or a distinct vision for our Islamic school. Irrespective of what I felt it lacked, it wasn’t shared or enacted in the school. What was expressed as the implicit “actual vision” was for students to graduate with a strong final score, with the oft-repeated ideal of a pathway to becoming a Doctor, Lawyer, or Engineer. I felt one impact of this narrow vision was that HPE along with humanities and arts were viewed as the “soft subjects” that consciously or unconsciously were sidelined. Apart from the personal challenge of developing a form of faithful practice, I was looking to the school’s vision in order to align a vision for HPE in a faith-based Islamic school.

From a critical reading of my new context in my Islamic school, it would have been fair to say that sport wasn’t an active part of the emerging identity of the school, that there wasn’t a culture of HPE or sport; that in the absence of a HPE department, there had not been a vision for HPE and sport in the context of an Islamic school nor coordinated whole-school structures, traditions, or approaches. In other words, it was a blank canvass to paint on. In the following section I will share the early challenges and the lessons learned from our attempt at transforming HPE, which may be instructive for educators of Muslim learners and possibly inspire other Islamic schools in the transformation of their HPE.

Process Is as Important as Outcome: Giving Voice to

All Stakeholders

From the outset, I sensed that the process of transforming HPE was likely to be as, if not more, important than an eventual outcome. I also sensed that any change would need to begin within myself (i.e. To create a better world, start with yourself). Next, not having access to Islamic terms of reference, ironically, I relied on Aboriginal concepts of “respect,” “proper way,” and “one mob,” which applied more to Aboriginal terms of reference than to Islamic ones, to negotiate the way forward. For example, “respect,” was reflected in the sensitivity I showed to our Islamic tradition; “proper way” was reflected in drawing upon the wisdom and expertise of scholars and experts; “one mob” was reflected in a consultation process including all stakeholders - the school, families, and the community. From these terms of reference, I took time to orientate myself and engage in a process of better understanding my new context and the needs, interests and strengths of my Muslim learners, the expectations, perspectives, and assets of and within parents and community. This approach forced me to focus on relationships, on engaging with colleagues, parents, and my students. This served to build trust, necessary to enact a vision or a transformative approach to HPE. It was characterized by consultation, shared voice, and transparency encouraging buy-in for co-design and eventually a shared vision and a shared project.

As I got to know students and my new school context more, I began to appreciate the full continuum of Muslim learner diversities in relation to how different students’ functionalised (see Panjwani, 2017) or not their religious identities. Students who identified strongly with their faith and religious identity, as a distinguishing identity marker, students who had only an emerging sense of their faith and religious identity, students who balanced their multiple identities including their religious, and students who preferred not to lead with religion as their distinguishing identity marker. Our transformation of HPE and sport project had to be transformative for the full continuum of learners. This impressed on the importance of our niyah (intention) and the importance of explicit intentionality around purpose, aims, and vision and the enactment of a HPE curriculum and sporting program that was distinctly faithful, local, relevant, innovative, and responsive.

Snaps Shots: How HPE and Sport Was Transformed and How It Was Transformative

Aligning Purpose, Vision, and Aims - Orientating Anchors for the Project

As I found my feet in my new context and embraced the task of strategically planning for HPE and sport, I began to search for orientating anchors for alignment, purpose, and coherence. I decided to begin making connections between purpose of education in the Islamic tradition, national education goals in policy documents, and aims of HPE and Health and PE learning area syllabi. I started to see HPE as deeply connected to purpose - Ma’rifa (Cognizance of God), through the natural synergy and symbiotic relationship between Islam and health, the natural space created for religion and spirituality to intersect in our inquiries (especially around themes of justice and social action), the power and agency of availing from learners’ cultural and religious identities, and ways of knowing, and the opportunities within HPE and sport to embody faith. Later in the journey, I began to appreciate how essential HPE and sport are in contemporary schooling settings to more fully enacting an Islamic philosophy of education. One orientating anchor that for me reinforced the criticality of HPE in an Islamic school was the hadith: “After faith, no one was given anything better than wellbeing (‘

Rethinking Concepts and Models in HPE through an

Islamic Worldview

In the middle part of my journey I enrolled in an Islamic Teacher Education Program and a Master study exposing me to an Islamic pedagogy, as a philosophy of education, grounding me in the worldview and ways of knowing within faith and an educational language to discuss my learning and teaching in an Islamic school. This offered a lens to reconsider, rethink, and reinterpret some of the key concepts and models within HPE. For example, the common wellness wheel illustrating a wellness model with seven dimensions. During inquiries where students considered their own dimensions of wellness, critical analysis of the model made us question its design and relevance. Students applying their critical faith lens felt spirituality within an Islamic episteme wouldn’t simply be another discrete piece of the wheel but rather something central that overlapped and informed all dimensions, given we are spiritual beings. Practically, this meant our fitness units or our holistic health projects purposefully considered these foundations and shaped the way we understood our health-enhancing initiatives. Over time this allowed us to adapt dominant models and apply them with greater relevance to students’ lives. Other examples included rethinking the body, mind, and soul nexus considering the mind as qalb (heart - spiritual center; seat of cognition) and aql (faculty of intellect), soul as nafs (three levels) and ruh (point of connection with the Divine) and body (jistn) allowing us to consider God consciousness and personal development in more holistic ways. This critical reading also extended to key concepts such as health, wellbeing (qfia), wellness, justice (adl), and many others leading us often to extend or adapt common definitions providing conceptual tools for our inquires.

Challenging Unchallenged Perceptions of HPE and Sport

One early challenge to advance HPE and sport was the common sentiment expressed that religion and culture were barriers to participation in HPE and sport. When I first arrived, students would explain to me, “You know what (insert background) parents are like, Sir.” In truth, I didn’t know. So they explained, “Sir, after grade 9, there will be no time for sport, we will be expected to be in a room for the next 3 years” - students would then parody in authentic voice, “You don’t do part-time work, I work so you can study, don’t worry about food, we’ll bring it to you, forget about fun, you can have all the fun in the world later, just study.” After hearing this repeatedly, I decided to challenge this. I would ask students, “What are you doing at 4 or 5 in the morning?” They said, “We are praying Fajr [dawn prayer], Sir.” I asked them if they have ever been to the city riverside at 5 or 6 in the morning? You will see judges, lawyers, doctors, and all of the people who hold roles you aspire to, and they are watching the sunrise (Allah’s creation) and doing Pilates, Yoga, cross-fit, boxercise or climbing hills and jogging by the seashore. They have excelled on the same measures that you value but they have balance. Something they learnt in their school experience, they studied, they served, and they participated. Do you think excellence, or what we understand as Ihsan, is compartmental? Was our Prophet (PBUH) balanced?

The more we engaged with parents, the more they resonated with this, for the basis of their thinking was a deep love and care for their children, and they were determined that their children would have every opportunity, for some, especially the opportunities they had not had. This meant we also had to negotiate and assist with this balance. Over time we would advance the mantra of being “faithful and functional” of pursuing balance such that we could develop as balanced and more complete people.

Niyah and Intentionality for Participation in HPE and Sport

Something we stressed and invested heavily in was intentionality or niyah, for both engagement in HPE and sport. We would connect this to a team contract and a school contract for representation in sport. This involved introspection and self-reflection (muhasabah); who am I? Who are we? Who do I want to become in this process? How do I represent myself, my team, my school, my family, my faith? What amanah (trust) am I responsible for upholding and what will this entail in the context of my involvement in sport. Practically, we began to think of the personal niyah (intention) we would make, knowing that every action with intention can be elevated to worship and the expansiveness of our niyah can expand the openings and benefits personally and collectively. In other words, it was more than a game, more than winning and losing. Practically, this made us think about how we presented ourselves, how we conducted ourselves on buses, how we supported each other as a team, how we interacted with opposition and officials, how we maintained conduct and character under pressure in authentic performance and competitive environments, what adab would characterize our team, how we conducted ourselves in defeat or when victorious, how we responded when negative or derogatory comments were made, and how to engage with young people, many of whom had never met or interacted with a Muslim before. We did this in team meetings, training sessions, and briefing session on buses and reflected on this in debrief sessions. In the beginning this was something I would say that I led and modeled explicitly, however students bought in to this and over time it became embedded as part of our practice led mostly by senior students who modeled this to junior members.

The higher objective in this initiative was to connect to purpose and to make visible the potential for holistic personal growth and development through HPE and sport. Many students in senior years or even after graduation spoke of how these experiences prepared them for university and entry into larger spheres in their lives. They spoke of the confidence it instilled in them. Our Islamic school was very open in receiving visitors from other schools or attending interfaith engagements or major events. Although, most of these opportunities involved a small number of student leaders whereas for the more diverse cohort of students in our sporting teams, this was their main avenue for smaller forays into the wider world, preparing for life after an Islamic school.

Transforming the Sports Uniforms

Another important practical step was rebooting our sports uniforms. There were several motivations to do this: (a) the current uniform was a barrier to participation; (b) the effort to embody modesty had resulted in an ugly, dysfunctional, impractical uniform that students didn’t want to wear and which was in effect immodest by design; (c) the uniform gave off the opposite messaging around faith, instead of faith being beautiful, functional, and contemporary, it gave off the message that it was restrictive, impractical, and old hat; and (d) our uniform didn’t reflect our emerging school identity or embody confidence and excellence. Both boys’ and girls’ uniforms were dated, baggy, and prone to fading, feeding a negative vibe contributing to a lack of school pride, sometimes common when a relatively new school is still becoming. While the girl’s uniform became both heavy and sticky with perspiration, the boy’s shorts did not meet minimum religious requirements. Add to this the fact that the girl’s hijab (head scarf) required pins to fasten which was a significant safety issue and the tendency of the girls to have one hand on the ball and the other on their head to secure their hijab seemed less than ideal for performance.

To address this issue, we engaged in a consultation process with the students, the school uniform officer, the parents committee, and even the librarian, presenting our proposal for change to leadership. Next, we decided upon material for high-performance sporting attire and modified the design to ensure it was loose in certain areas, and yet conducive and responsive to movement. For the boys, we extended the shorts to below the knee and for the girls we sourced a one-piece spandex and cotton hijab. All of this had an immediate and positive impact on participation.

Students in representative sports uniforms making dua before a game © Islamic College of Brisbane

FIGURE 9.1 Students in representative sports uniforms making dua before a game © Islamic College of Brisbane

Hijabs imported from the Netherlands © Islamic College of Brisbane

FIGURE 9.2 Hijabs imported from the Netherlands © Islamic College of Brisbane

Hijabs from the Netherlands

In later years, as we worked hard to represent the school at higher levels of competition, we needed to design an elite uniform. This was an exciting milestone, and the process of negotiating faith requirements, identity, and sporting performance needs was again instructive for the students. Again, students were engaged heavily in the design. Following consultation, we imported a specialist sports hijab from the Netherlands, negotiating with the company to lengthen the design. The girls loved the final product, which looked better, felt lighter and cooler, and complemented the rest of the uniform (Figures 9.1 and 9.2).

Also, the popularity of “skins,” a tight performance-based material made coverage for boys’ legs and girls’ arms easier and opened further options for design that would balance modesty, functionality, and performance. For the design, we elected to have the Southern Cross on the back to capture our national identity and Ummah Waheeda (one community) in Arabic script in curved fashion down the front side. This was to capture our faith or religious identity and remind ourselves of our commitment to the higher purpose of participating. I can recall at the State’s largest touch football tournament, a group of girls from a top team approached our girls. I observed the interaction with interest as they asked our girls about their uniform. Our girls confidently gave the most powerful explanation. They explained that, “Our uniform kind of represents who we are and what we are about - you know, Muslim and Australian - the Southern Cross [pointing to it] emphasises our commitment to contribution and being Australian. Arabic is important to us as it is the language of the Qur’an, our Holy book, so the Arabic ¡pointing to it] means, one community, reminding us that we are all human and all one.” The girls from the other team exclaimed,

A and 9.3B Students in action during touch football © Islamic College of Brisbane

FIGURE 9.3A and 9.3B Students in action during touch football © Islamic College of Brisbane

“Wow, we love that - that’s so cool.” Moments like this were extremely satisfying. The impact of the uniforms went beyond what we could have envisioned as the change in uniform served to change attitudes. For students, it instilled a confidence and made them feel they belonged in these spaces. For other teachers, it was a sign of how far we had come in HPE and sport and this was now a serious part of curriculum and our school culture. For parents, it instilled pride and trust as their children confidently participated and achieved in a manner that was faithful and functional (Figure 9.3A and 9.3B).

Setting and Developing Our School Sport's Traditions: Making Swimming Work for Us

Applying a strength-based approach to religion and spirituality in HPE also allowed us to ask questions differently. For example, I posed the question to students, “Do you want traditional athletics, swimming and cross-country carnivals?” After all, they are very Eurocentric British schooling traditions. And historically, the school had always run an athletics and cross-country carnival with varying success and generally mixed attendance and participation. The sentiment of the students was, “Yes we do, but let’s make them work for us.” The common sentiment at the school was that we couldn’t have a swimming carnival because of religious modesty. So, we considered how we can have a swimming carnival that is respectful and responsive to our faith guiding principles. Accordingly, we made alterations to the school day on consecutive weeks to allow for a lunchtime finish and an evening carnival for the boys and their dads and the girls and their mums (booking an indoor enclosed public pool after hours).

The swimming carnival complemented our swimming units in HPE, a major aim being that students could swim and potentially assist themselves or others in life-saving situation. The other aim was to encourage maximum participation and offer all students opportunities to experience success in sport or, in this instance, swimming. One way we did this was to begin the carnival with a novelty event in which points were added to the most creative use of a personal flotation device (PFD) as students completed a single lap. Another example was of the feature event, the “iron-man” and “iron-woman” event, whereby students completed a 25 m swim, a 500 m jog outside of the pool complex, and re-entered to complete a final 25 m swim. For the girls, this entailed swimming the first lap, transitioning to a box assigned to their lane where they threw on sporting clothes over their swimmers and a sports hijab and shoes, running the 500 m, and returning to the pool area where they removed the outside clothing and completed the final lap. Definitely, the approach contained a strong element of novelty, even silliness, but I hoped it would provide a powerful and instructive messaging for the girls that they could be faithful and functional, and in whatever role within Muslim women’s terms of reference they valued, they could adapt and be creative and confident in negotiating their needs. According to my female HPE colleagues and many female students, it proved to be extremely popular among students, mothers, and female spectators. For many these events were the first time they had enjoyed a “competitive” sports carnival.

Curricular Transformation

In mapping the curricular design and transformation for HPE from Grades 7 to 10, there were several rationales and priorities that shaped the structural design, the thematic integration with content areas across the curriculum. In Grades 7 and 8 we began the HPE journey for students with games - modified games, Traditional Indigenous Games, and world games, sometimes drawing on games that students would research and capture after conferencing with their parents. Often these games intersected with different cultural traditions. It also provided an opportunity for students to dialogue with their parents and increased understanding and awareness for parents as to why, what, and how we were approaching HPE.

During the summer months, across Grades 7 to 9 we would schedule a swimming unit and a lifesaving unit in Grade 10. Swimming, aside from being an emphasized skill in the Islamic tradition, is also a necessary capability in the context of Australia. Early on, it was not uncommon for half of my HPE class in year 7 to not be pool-safe and not be able to swim. Lifesaving also would prove popular which we integrated with a content focus around First Aid. For this, I would emphasize the Quranic reference where Allah tells us, “if anyone saved a life it would be as if he saved the life of the whole humanity” (Quran 5:32). Students seemed to really resonate with this and made visible for them the purpose and the value of studies like this.

In Grade 7 through to 10 we included personal fitness units which began at understanding the components of fitness and extended to principles for training. It allowed students to develop skills to maintain and assess their own fitness. This exposed students to gyms and fitness centers as well as school-based training with creative use of space and equipment. In Grades 9 our focus was on providing access to a broad range of structured games and sports, such as soft crosse (a modified form of lacrosse), handball, flag gridiron, basketball, hockey, and softball. Also, modified games from the Australian Sports Commission’s Sport Ability project (sports modified for students with a disability) where students would play cricket or futsal blindfolded with the assistance of an able-sighted partner utilizing a bell ball. In Grade 10 we introduced students to the performance areas that would be covered in Senior PE (volleyball and touch football) and developed more in-depth units. Half of the units aligned with content focus themes aligned to Senior Health Education and the other half aligned with units aligned to Senior PE to encourage and prepare students for the senior electives in Health and PE.

Introducing Sports Aerobics in Senior PE

When developing the Senior PE curriculum for accreditation and launch in our Islamic school, we deliberated over the selection of performance areas, specifically an aesthetic form of physical activity. We would select Sport Aerobics which had many strengths and some challenges to negotiate. The positive driver was the opportunity for students to work in teams to develop creative bodybased movement-based routines. The challenge was that this entailed a routine choreographed around music and the concern that it might encourage “sexualised movement of the body.” The challenges were how to foreground the mastery of movement sequences over “sexualised movement,” how to ensure Islamic principles of modesty could be upheld, how to separate both genders such that they were comfortable to practice and perform, and how to navigate the issue of music or a cadence as a backing to the movement.

Issues around equity and access are not peculiar to Islamic schools, in fact a major strand in senior PE in Australia is equity and access to sport and physical activity (QCAA, 2019). The introduction of sport aerobics provided us as a Department the opportunity to attend to equity and access in practice. In order to address these, being responsive to religion and culture meant that we would separate the genders and provide a comfortable and private space for both. I would assist with moderation of assessment for the boys, but the girls would be assessed solely by their female HPE teacher. To respond to the issue around music, we were transparent with parents and students, accounting for the full continuum of perspectives on permissibility of music. Practically, this meant student negotiated in their groups whether they would perform to solely a drum (duff) beat, or only to a form of cultural/religious music, or for some, to contemporary music that had to be approved for content. I can recall conferencing with parents about how we would be approaching the unit and when we explained the negotiated parameters, parents and students were on board.

Sexuality Education

At the time our school had not yet developed a school-wide comprehensive approach to sexuality education. Instead sexuality was covered across Science, Islamic Studies, and junior HPE. One of the actions we took with Grade 12 students in Senior Health education was to engage in a 12-week unit exploring sexuality education via an inquiry-based approach. It was a hard-fought battle to have this approved by school leadership, chronicled in an article in a HPE Journal (Chown, 2013). While not a substitute for a school-wide comprehensive approach, the effort to design and enact a transformative unit in sexuality for students was well received by students, parents, and community and filled a critical gap in our Islamic school.

To realize this goal, it entailed a major collaborative effort where we engaged the principal, the Head of Imams, Professor Mohamad Abdalla, who at the time was a Professor of Islamic Studies and Director at the National Centre of Excellence in Islamic Studies (Griffith University), local Shaykhs (male religious authorities) and Alimas (female religious authorities), an expert in the area of sexuality and Islam, Dr Fida Sanjakdar, local professionals working with young people (counsellors, psychologists), parents, and most importantly, the students. The process of making wide mashura (consultation) with trusted and resected community experts, of transparency with parents in outlining the intent, the themes of the unit, the principles we would follow in our approach (e.g. separation of genders, expert facilitators for both genders of the same gender, use of appropriate resources, etc.), respect for religious and spiritual ways of knowing through inclusion of canonical sources (Qur’an and Hadith), and the connectedness to curriculum (Senior Health Education Syllabus) through mentoring with curricular experts meant that there was not only support but a feeling of, “well why wouldn’t we do this in an Islamic school?”

A few key features shaped our approach. Firstly, we adopted a strength-based approach to religion and spirituality. The Australian Curriculum asserts that, “rather than focusing only on potential health risks or a deficit-based model of health, a strength-based approach supports students to develop the knowledge, understanding and skills they require to make healthy, safe and active choices that will enhance their own and others’ health and wellbeing” (ACAKA, 2012). Thus, we reframed our niyah (intention) and why and how we would approach the unit, comparing the difference in approaches (see Figure 9.4 below).

Strength-Based Rationale

Risks/Deficit Rationale

  • • This is part of my deen
  • • Sex and sexuality are connected to my holistic health - my spirituality
  • • 1 am rewarded for appropriate sexual expression
  • • Increase in pornography
  • • Our youth are astray (Western Influence)
  • • Shame
  • • Health statistics mean we must teach this

FIGURE 9.4 Comparing approaches to sexuality education © Islamic College of Brisbane

One of the drivers for embarking on this inquiry which we reflected on with students was the hadith by Aisha (1(haya) in Islam was not a barrier to students accessing a rigorous sexuality education unit responsive to their cultural and religious identities and ways of knowing. The design of the unit saw students engaged in an inquiry empowering them to advocate and mediate for their own health, in this instance, their needs for a culturally and religiously responsive sexuality program. During the unit, as they researched and made recommendations as to what this would look like and what it would include and entail, they participated in a four-week intensive exploring themes within sexuality following the parameters they had researched. Their assessment asked them to evaluate the intensive based on the parameters they had co-designed. The issue statement and the assessment task can be seen below (Figures 9.5, 9.6, 9.7 and 9.8).

Issue Statement:

Sexuality holds a prominent place in Islam & sexual education is not only desirable, but obligatory incumbent upon every Muslim. However, parents & community often have strong objections to sexual health education, usually on the basis of the presentation of the subject divorced from moral & values education. To omit sexual health from the curriculum all together is inequitable & a strict violation to the holistic view of Islamic Education. What challenges to the dominant permissive sexual ideology & cultural bias in sexual health education need to be made to reflect our divers & multicultural Australian society & identity? What social, political, cultural & religious barriers need to be overcome to address the health issue? How can members of the school community assist in creating a supportive environment to address the health issue?

FIGURE 9.5 Sexuality education issue statement

© Islamic College of Brisbane

Assessment Instrument 5

Assessment Technique: Research Assessment

Assessment Type/Genre: Analytical Exposition - Article (1000 - 1500 words)


  • Analyse & evaluate Islamic sources (Qur'an & Hadith), secular school approaches & local community programs that are in place to address sex education.
  • Examine the ethical issues associated with sex education.
  • Evaluate how the 4 week sexual health workshop within the unit meets the Islamic conceptual framework for sex education, community expectations & adolescent development needs.
  • Recommend social, political and economic changes that need to be considered to cater for an increasingly diverse population requiring sexual education.

FIGURE 9.6 Sexuality education assessment task

and 9.8 Halaqa sessions within the sexuality education unit © Islamic College of Brisbane

FIGURE 9.7 and 9.8 Halaqa sessions within the sexuality education unit © Islamic College of Brisbane

HPS Model - a Driver for Self and Social Transformation through HPE and Health Education

One of the drivers for our approach in HPE, specifically senior Health, was the Health Promoting School (HPS) framework - which for us had a distinct religious and spiritual orientation. A HPS model involved students advocating, mediating, and enabling for their own and others’ health, which we conceptualized broadly and holistically. It also had a distinct justice dimension which is a strong element within HPE and Health curricular. Our efforts toward advancing justice were inclusive of religious or spiritual ways of knowing, in other words activism within a sacred domain (see Walid, 2018). Our activism began with the willingness to change oneself- to work on our own hearts given social activism behoves empathy, compassion, mercy, and humility. We applied the HPS model as a driver and model for several inquiries, including a unit on sustainability where we conducted a sustainability audit to ascertain policies and practices that could reduce, reuse, recycle, rethink, refuse, and repair. A unit with an inquiry on homelessness in the local area, partnering with a local organization and their program titled, “Friends on the Street.” This entailed students completing a training module and

Sustainability audit in Senior Health Education © Islamic College of Brisbanevolunteering to provide, food, and a kind ear to engage with our friends on the street in conversation and shared company

FIGURE 9.9 Sustainability audit in Senior Health Education © Islamic College of Brisbanevolunteering to provide, food, and a kind ear to engage with our friends on the street in conversation and shared company. This had a profound impact on many students, and units and inquiries like these pushed students to ask themselves how merciful am I and what can I do? (See Figure 9.9).

A further HPS initiative was our “Acting Against Bullying” project in which we partnered with a local university. Fourth year Drama students under the leadership of Professor Bruce Burton would train our students in enhanced forum theater techniques, a form of social action through drama to address injustice, in this instance for our students to take an active role in addressing the antecedents to bullying (O’Toole et al., 2019). Our students would design relevant scenarios and act these out utilizing enhanced forum theater and then workshop these to young grades across the school. It proved to be one of the most popular units in Health Education and was an example of a student-led whole-school approach. One remarkable outcome of this project was the way our year 11 girls through the project asserted equity claims with their male peers, insisting on scenarios and explorations of bullying addressing maledominant culture in the school and in community (O’Toole et al., 2019) (see Figure 9.10).

“Enhanced forum theatre” in the “Acting Against Bullying,” Health Promoting Schools HPE unit

FIGURE 9.10 “Enhanced forum theatre” in the “Acting Against Bullying,” Health Promoting Schools HPE unit

© Islamic College of Brisbane

Reflections and Suggestions

The above case study demonstrated that HPE/sport can be transformed positively in Islamic schooling contexts, and other schools, in ways that are responsive to the Muslim learner. It captured a process both purposeful and equally organic in its со-design and attention to local context and learner needs - a process of becoming through a commitment responsiveness to learners, and strength-based approaches to religion and spirituality. One must expect challenges, but with shifts in orientations and mindsets and attention to processes and collaborations, HPE can offer a transformative experience for all learners.

Lessons for Islamic School Educators

  • • HPE/Sport offer learners’ unique opportunities for embodying faith, for realization of religious and spiritual connections (Benn et al., 2011) and for holistic growth, including through consciousness (taqwd) (Alkouatli, 2021).
  • • HPE offers opportunities for engagement in critical religious reflection on practical ways that faith informs and enhances health/healthy bodies/ healthy living, wellbeing, justice, and understandings of contemporary issues relevant to learners’ lives.
  • • Empowering learners to be active designers and collaborators of their own HPE/sporting experience assists educators in aligning HPE/sport for the context of their Islamic school, responsive to their needs, strengths, and interests.
  • • HPE/sport constitute essential disciplines for the integrated or taivhidic vision of education and are key sites to advance often common aspiration for Islamic schools: To prepare Muslim learners with a strong sense of identity (inclusive of their multiple identities); a strong grounding in faith; and a sense of belonginess such that they can be both engaged, socio-critical, proactive citizens and “vicegerents in the making” (Ebrahim, 2016).
  • • Taking a strength-based approach to religion and spirituality in HPE empowers educators to draw from the tradition in ways that are educationally beneficial and be creative architects of National or mandated curricular frameworks as well in adapting structures and pedagogy to meet the needs of learners.

Lessons for Public School Educators

  • • An orientation of humility allows educators to learn from and with their Muslim learners (Reid, 2017), including how individual leaners functionalize (Panjwani, 2017) or not certain aspects of their cultural, religious, spiritual, and other identities.
  • • Appreciating the concept of “embodied faith” (Benn et al., 2011) allows educators insight into the significance of religion and spirituality in the lives of their Muslim learners and shines light on the interconnectedness of faith, health, body, physical activity, and identity (Benn, 2009).
  • • A commitment to educating the whole student implores educators in HPE and sport to be welcoming of religion and spirituality, given rejection of these cannot realize the development of the whole learner or for religious/spiritual learners, an experience in HPE that is whole (Robinson, 2019). Religion and spirituality, provided educators respect, recognize, and avail from these, are assets for learning and teaching (Chown, 2019) and resources for health.
  • • A strength-based approach to religion and spirituality in HPE/sport assists educators in meeting their commitment to equity, inclusion, and justice by asking questions differently, drawing on learner assets (including cultural, religious, and spiritual), addressing issues that impede equity or access, and empower Muslim learners to be active designers and collaborators of their own HPE and sporting experience while supporting their sense of belonging, wellbeing, and academic success (Gay, 2002).
  • • Being culturally and religiously responsive not only requires shifts in teaching practice and curricular materials, but critically in educator orientations, dispositions, and school-community relations (Castagno & Brayboy, 2008).


This chapter has argued that religion and spirituality are inseparable to the HPE learning area. It has sought to apply a strength-based approach, to shift educational discourse and practice from reductionist orientations that would problematize, marginalize, or exclude religion and spirituality in HPE; instead promoting holistic approaches that attend to the whole learner - body, mind, and soul. Those allow space for spiritual and religious connections in, through, and about HPE/sport (Benn et al., 2011), for potential growth for Muslim learners through unique expressions of consciousness (Alkouatli, 2018). And those offer opportunities for critical religious reflection on practical ways that faith (in this instance, Islam) informs and enhances health/healthy bodies/healthy living (McCuaig, forthcoming), wellbeing, justice, participation in physical activity, and understandings of contemporary issues relevant to learners’ lives. This was clearly articulated in the personal case study explored in this chapter, providing practical suggestions for how to transform HPE for Muslim learners.


  • 1 The concept of education in, through, and about movement/physical activity (Arnold, 1979) represents an expansive and holistic framework for the HPE learning area, commonly as the basis for physical education curriculum (ACARA, n.d.). Education in, through, and about movement/physical activity assists educators to understand the intent of HPE curriculum; that physical activity is beneficial in itself (Arnold, 1979); that learning in HPE ought to be broad and deep (Gillespie, 2007; Pill, 2006); and that learning area aims hold broad implications for learners, including their overall wellbeing (a fa). Of relevance to this chapter, in, through, and about expands focus from skills and knowledge to participate in physical activity, to find associated benefits about and through, such that it translates to other areas, for example, social interactions, relationships (mu’amilat), teamwork, and moral understandings, and therefore across domains, including the spiritual.
  • 2 Sports and games that have shaped Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities for centuries referred to as Traditional Indigenous Games (Edwards, 2009), defined as those sports and games “which include all aspects of traditional and contemporary play cultures associated with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and identifiable communities, and are generally accepted as a reflection of their cultural heritage and social identity” (Edwards, 2009, p. 33).


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