Thursday, March 01, 2007

Qur'an: Reading & Recitation Without Knowledge or Understanding

Umm Reem mentioned something that I've been meaning to write about for a while now.

It's about teaching kids how to read and memorize Qur'an, yet without any knowledge or understanding of what they're reading/reciting.
I think most of us born into Muslim families will understand it the most - especially non-Arabs.

From an early age, my parents taught me how to read and memorize the Qur'an... because my father studied at an Islamic university, he learned how to read and recite with proper Tajweed, which he then taught me (without telling me the rules and stuff, though - but hey, at least I know a little bit!)- al-Hamdulillaah.
But once I could read and recite, that was it. I wasn't taught Arabic, I wasn't taught the meanings of that which I was reading, nothing. Yet they placed - and continue to place - great importance in spending a lot of time reading and reciting the Qur'an. Which is great, and I understand why.

However, I find it extremely frustrating that I have no understanding of what I'm reading. A couple years ago I started taking Arabic classes at our Islamic centre, but because the teachers were volunteers and it was only once a week, not much progress was made. I've learnt some basic grammar and a few words and phrases, but that's it... certainly not enough to even begin to comprehend the Qur'an.

When my father opened up the Madrasah here, I found that the other kids had the same issue...
actually, worse, because those who could read didn't know how to read with Tajweed, and then there are those who can't read at all (which is where I come in... I help them learn how to read and recite with Tajweed, what little I know).
Yet none of them - not even the Arab kids - understand what they're reading. For them, it's just... words. They know it's the Qur'an, they know it's importance and everything, but it still doesn't mean anything, y'know? And then when they make mistakes in their reading or reciting they don't realize the importance of getting it perfectly right, because they don't know that by a simple slip of the tongue they've just twisted the whole meaning of the aayah...

I really think that this is something that needs to be addressed; a problem which hinders understanding the meanings of the Qur'an, which in turn has a very negative effect on our Imaan - for how can we strengthen our faith if we don't even know what God is saying to us in our holy book?

Since this is a personal problem of mine, I know what the effects of this ignorance are... and I'm worried that the other kids at the Madrasah will end up feeling the way I did when I was younger: that reading the Qur'an is useless because it's just a bunch of words that I don't understand.

Al-Hamdulillaah, I know better now... but still, that feeling of frustration is still there when I read or recite the Qur'an and, aside from a couple words, I don't know what the message Allah is conveying to me is. Even reading English translations of the meaning of the Qur'an aren't good enough; it doesn't have the same effect on the heart.

I've brought the issue up with my parents, but they've pretty much brushed me off - they think it's more important to learn how to read perfectly, and to learn it quickly; than it is to take the time to understand, even if it takes longer to accomplish the goal of perfect reading. But quality is better than quantity (or speed of learning as opposed to practical application of learning)!

I'm finding this really frustrating... I'm concerned about myself and the other kids, but my parents just don't seem to get it - which I don't get, because they know how important this issue is, how understanding what you're reading is more way more important than reading a lot without understanding. I mean, they went through it themselves! They grew up in typical Desi households; they only began learning Arabic and then understanding and comprehending the Qur'an later in life - my father at the university, my mom through Arabic classes she attended while my dad was gone during the day at school.

So why won't they try to change things for the better with my brothers and I, and the students
at the Madrasah?!

Argh... yet another example of how parents/adults in general should know something, or do know something, but don't act on that knowledge themselves!!!!! But I guess that's another blog post altogether... *Grimaces*

Your little sister in Islam,


Faraz said...

I think reluctance to teach the meaning of the Quran stems from the lack of appropriate teachers.

It's one thing to know the literal translation of the Quran, it's a whole other matter to understand it in a way that can be applied easily. Children are often taught Quran as very young children; if they're struggling with reading children's books in their own language, reading the Quran with understanding would be close to impossible. And while lots of adults know how to read the Quran in Arabic, and thus could serve as teachers, there are far fewer people who know the meaning (because they had the same problems when they were kids), and thus they'd be unsuitable for teaching children.

I agree with you that there should be an emphasis on understanding the meaning of the Quran, but I think the easier way of doing this is by supplementing the teaching of the Arabic with learning from books of Seerah and stories of Prophets designed for children. There are some great books to fill that gap.

I personally feel that tajweed should be taught immediately, as a child is learning the basic letters. It is incredibly important to be able to recite the Quran properly in Arabic. People used to tell me not to emphasize tajweed so much when I was teaching kids, since they were young; my personal feeling, however, was that if they didn't learn it then, it would be much much harder to learn afterwards.

Once a child has reached at least High School, I think the child might be ready to start learning translation.

Shaikh Abul Hasan ali Nadwi actually wrote a "Stories of the Prophets" book in Arabic specifically for children, using simple language but often taking quotations straight from the Quran. This was the book we were taught from when learning Arabic with the Shariah Program. Perhaps a book like that could be used with children in parallel with their learning of Quran. Allahu'alim.

Anyway, I think you'll learn as you grow up that we just can't blame adults for everything.. there's often a method to their madness. :)

iMuslim said...

Umm Yusuf wrote a great article about this very subject. It's long, but a pleasant and inspiring read, mashallah.

You may also remember the discussion that took place on ARG's blog, about schooling Muslim children. There Umm Yusuf mentioned the classical method for teaching children. I think it is similar to what they do in some schools in Malaysia.

Basically, young children are taught parrot fashion all the things that do not require understanding, but do require the wonderful memorization capacity that little people have, such as tajweed, Qur'an hifz etc.

Then, when they're a bit older, they move onto more logical subjects. When they mature, and are capable of comprehending more complex matters, they are then taught the meaning of all the information they have stored away in their encyclopedic minds.

I think that this is an efficient method for teaching, as it takes into account the strengths & weaknesses of the mind at different stages of development.

The only problem is that it is quite a holistic means of study, and requires full participation. I'm not sure how it could be implemented "part-time", but i suppose some is better than none, when it comes to learning.

I think brother Faraz is correct about using stories to help give meaning to the Qur'an. I'm in my mid-twenties but i gained so much from listening to Sheikh Al-Awlaki's CDs on the Lives of the Prophets, which is essentially the "grown up" version of the book Faraz mentioned.

The Qur'an is relevant for our times, but we just need to be shown how, by using modern day examples.

Btw, due to the numerous run-ins you seem to have with your parents over matters of practice and ideology, i've decided to name you, "Rebel with a cause". You most likely have no idea of the significance of that title, but the other golden-oldies will get it (inshallah).

Nadya said...

I jsut have a question for you. Did you find difficulties to read Qur'an and memorize it indeed you don't know the Arabic. I mean it will be more difficult to memorize in other language?

Farzeen said...

Assalaamu'alaykum wa rahmatu Allah

One delicate step at a time dear sister...Okay, let's break it down again.

Problem: Potential disconnect from Quran with the children in madrasa.
Problem attribution: Inability to understand Arabic.
Proposed Solution: Learn Arabic.

Okay, the problem may exist, but we cannot necessarily attribute it to the lack of understanding of Quran. Read this story.

To teach Arabic so that you or the students at the madrasa can open the Quran and actually understand what you're all reading will take a lot of time, some serious dedication, and hard work from both the teacher and the students...especially the students. How do you think your parents managed to learn it? It wasn't spoon fed to them, they worked hard and Allah facilitated their study.

You cannot get frustrated at others because they are not tending to something that you feel is crucial despite them agreeing with you (or knowing) that it is an issue. You cannot say with certainty that others (such as your parents) aren't already doing their 100%. Perhaps they're at their limits and don't know where to begin to address a concern that they must have identified years ago and which you have now put some deeper thought into. They're doing what they can.

Point being, if you get upset you're only making matters worse for yourself. You brought it up to your parents and they, as you say, brushed it off. Give them the benefit of the doubt. You don't know exactly why they brushed it off.

If you want a practical way to find a solution to your problems, take the advice above. Get a copy of those books "Stories of the Prophets" and see how they can be implemented in the madrasa curriculum (or at least something that serves the same purpose - that is to give meaning to the message behind the Quran). This will insha'Allah teach the students to have love for the meaning contained in the Quran even if linguistically they cannot translate the Quran word-for-word. Once you get that ball rolling, insha'Allah, move onto step two.

Step two can be something as simple as using the books "Access to Quran Arabic" by Abdul Wahid Hamid. It's an excellent set of books including one work book, one text book, and one book with selections from the Quran. It gives list of Quranic vocabulary, simple grammar lessons, and helps you to piece things together to understand the Quran. Perhaps your father or someone in the community can start teaching that. If not, then you can get the book yourself and at least learn it yourself, insha'Allah. Or, there is this website that tries to teach the meaning of words in the Quran. You could try using that.

The children are learning tajweed, alhamduliAllah for that. Do what is in your means. It's always easier to dream the ideal, but we can try to at least implement the practical..insha'Allah.

One final note, to my unfortunately long comment, is that if you want to effect change in anything, you have to learn to keep personal frustrations at bay, insha'Allah. Patience is a virtue for a reason habeebti. I say all of the above as a reminder to myself first. All the best, insha'Allah :).

AnonyMouse said...

As-salaamu 'alaikum wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatu,

JazakAllahu khairan for the advice, everyone! :)

Yes, we are reading stories from the Qur'an to the kids... my father actually ordered a bunch of books from a Muslim publishing company that are the stories of the Prophets and other stories from the Qur'an, that's written in an easy-to-understand way - plus it's illustrated (no people, but stuff like the Ark in the sea, etc.), which the kids like.
Unfortunately we aren't doing it regularly - there are time constraints and my father's chosen to focus on other things at the moment (learning basic du'aas, learning how to perform salaah correctly, and reading/memorization of Qur'an).
We also started teaching them Arabic (very basic stuff) but again it ended up being abandoned because of focusing on other stuff.

I guess I am being unreasonable and impatient... and I suppose I should trust my parents to know what they're doing.
All right then... I'll try to swallow my frustrations and just watch and learn... :P

Faraz - but it makes it so much easier to just blame it all on the adults! (Just kidding!!!!) :P

iMuslim - yes, I skimmed through Umm Yusuf's post... insha'Allah I'll take the time to read it properly :)

Also, I think I should've mentioned that we have two groups of kids at the madrasah: the smaller ones aged 5-12, and then the older ones from 13 - 16. With the younger ones we're doing what I mentioned above (du'aa, performing salaah correctly, reading/memorizing Qur'an) and with the older ones we're going over the pillars of Imaan, learning/understanding a few short ahadeeth (like, 'whoever cheats is not one of us', 'whoever doesn't show mercy to others will not have mercy shown to him', etc.), and also Qur'an reading/memorization. I think it's the older kids especially (me included) who need to learn more about the meanings of the Qur'an, starting with the shorter surahs. I've learnt the basic meanings of a couple surahs - al-Fatihah, an-Naas, al-Falaq, al-'Asr, al-Zalzala - but that's it...

Nadya - Nope, I don't find much difficulty in reading and memorizing the Qur'an... even though I don't really know Arabic, I was taught from an early age (around 5 or 6) how to read Arabic (fus_ha Arabic, as in the Qur'an, and with all the harakaat), and memorizing was relatively easy because it was just repitition until it was stuck in my head.

Farzeen - I really appreciate your advice, jazaakillaahi khairan! :) Thank you for pointing out all those things... I guess I didn't really think the issue through properly. There are always so many reasons for which adults do/don't do something, I'm getting quite confuzzled trying to figure it out!! :P

Once more, shukran jazeelan for the helpful comments... insha'Allah if things change/improve I'll let you know how it goes!

Your little sister in Islam,

Anonymous said...

Why don't you just get a Quran translated into English? That way you can memorize it in Arabic, but can actually read and comprehend it as well. What's the point on memorizing something if you have no clue what your memorizing?

AnonyMouse said...


I do have one... but I find that it doesn't have the same effect on me, on my heart, that understanding the actual Arabic does.

I've managed to learn the meanings of Surah al-Faatihah, so whenever I recite it I know exactly what each word/sentence means, and I love it. I'd love it even more if I could be able to achieve the same with the rest of the Qur'an!

Faraz said...

"Rebel with a cause"? You're not that old..

One point made by iMuslim is important - children have an incredible capacity to memorize at a young age. That's what they need to learn at that time, how to recite and memorize the Quran in Arabic, because they're in the prime for that type of learning.

Of course, if they can learn the meaning as well, that's even better. But if it was a matter of one or the other, it's more important to learn the recitation well, since that is a wajib part of their worship. Knowing the meaning, while highly praiseworthy, is not wajib; they can still perform their obligations without that knowledge.

iMuslim said...

"You're not that old.."

Of course you would say that, considering your own age.

Abu Sinan said...

I dont like it. As a convert to Islam it reminds me of the old Catholic Church that had services and rites in languages that 99% of Catholics didnt speak.

It was never meant to be that way. Better to be able to recite 50% of The Qur'an and understand it than recite 100% and not have a clue.

People who do not understand Arabic are missing out on the wonderful meaning and the beauty in the passages.

AnonyMouse said...

Errr... anyone care to explain this whole rebel thing? I'm clueless about it... :S

Abu Sinan: I agree with you, although as Faraz and iMuslim, with the young kids it's probably easiest/best to get them to memorize first, and then teach them the meanings later... although we are reading them stories from the Qur'an, so insha'Allah the basic message gets through to them...

datta said...

New Tariq Ramadan Interview:

Yusuf said...


I came across your blog randomly.

All the relevant issues have been discussed, but I wanted to add something. One of the many problems with Madressas run by Indian/Ulamas Ulamas, perhaps through no fault of their own, is that children are taught Urdu rather than Arabic from the beginning. When we grow older, many of us wonder how we learnt/memorized the Qur'an yet we can't understand what we're reading. This can be frustrating, but unless we change the system and introduce Arabic in place or Urdu, the trend will continue.

AnonyMouse said...

Wa 'alaikumus-salaam wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatu,

Yusuf: Actually, at our Madrasah we don't speak or teach Urdu at all... it's all in English... not a hint of Urdu to be found, because neither my father nor myself speak it! :P

Manas Shaikh said...

After a long time I'm back on blogger. Blogger was simply not loading here.

That is a very important issue, Mouse. I have spoken to some clergy about this. They seem to think that it is enough to recite.

I mean what the hell?

If it were only to recite it would have been in Latin, not in Arabic (because people in Arab will understand Arabic).

I think an Arabic-English dictionary and a Arabic-English Qur'an with notes (eg. A. Y. Ali) are enough armor to embark on a mission. :) Atleast you will grab some land.

I was, myself, was in great pleasure when I could read a bit of Al-Jazeera Arabic webpage. Woo-hoo.

InshaAllah... One day...

Umm Reem said...

I agree with iMuslim's first comment (sorry...didn't have time to go through all the comments).

But truly, this young age is excellent for memorization. Take advantage of that. It is a little effort to do so, you will have to set daily and weekly and monthly incentives but it is totally worth it. When my daughter was memorizing (she is done now alhamdullilah) she couldn't understand either, but to build her interest I used to tell her the meaning ayah by ayah and explain it in her language. However, I realized that although she would listen to it, she wont remember it necessarily.

But telling her the meaning definitely had a positive impact. It was like stories for her, she developed a concept of hell, paradise, previous prophets etc.

She is learning Arabic now, alhamdullilah. But she still fully doesn't understand all the verses. I asked a shaikh and he told me to make her memorize as much as I can at this age, and when she is a bit older then we can go into the detailed explanations.

But, YES mouse, going into the meanings of the QUr'an and learning Arabic should always be next to memorization, but in a younger age memorization can be done a bit more aggressively.

Anonymous said...

"we don't speak or teach Urdu at all... it's all in English... not a hint of Urdu to be found, because neither my father nor myself speak it!"

Just out of curiosity what language do you or your family members speak (besides English, I mean)? I recall reading on one of your posts that your family are South African Indians originally. Do you all speak something different from the rest of the S.A. population or is it the same? Sorry to digress from your post:)

AnonyMouse said...

As-salaamu 'alaikum wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatu,

Manas: Good to see you around again! :)
"They seem to think that it is enough to recite." Yep... and I find that extremely disappointing and unhelpful to everyone involved.
"I think an Arabic-English dictionary and a Arabic-English Qur'an with notes (eg. A. Y. Ali) are enough armor to embark on a mission. Atleast you will grab some land." Haha... I have the Sahih International version of the Arabic-English mus_haf, which I think is great, masha'Allah... and from what little Arabic I learnt at Arabic classes in my old city, when I manage to understand a few words here and there (& sometimes am even able to identify the grammar rules!) I'm over the moon! :P

Umm Reem: What about kids who are in their teens, or pre-teens? Do you think that 10/11/12 are good ages to start with learning the meanings of the surahs?

Anonymous: Haha, no problem! :) Well, my grandparents speak Gujarati, and my parents speak a little as well, but my brothers and I don't. We can understand a few phrases, and say a few words, but that's about it. Other than that, English is our only language. (And yes, I know lots of people are surprised when they find that out!)

P.S. Please make du'aa for me! Yesterday I discovered that I'd just contracted chickenpox, which totally sucks... :S

Anonymous said...

That might help.

sweden1975 said...

"Reading & Recitation Without Knowledge or Understanding"

Yes. I always said the reading WITH knowledge AND Understanding is the best medicine against supertition, fanatism and backwardsness. So every day the Mouse learn more and more, and that is excellent.

Here is some more data from the real life world,

Molly said...

Hi, Mousey wosey. Where can one get a Sahih International version of the Arabic-English mus_haf? And does musHaf mean quran?

AnonyMouse said...

Hey, sweden... haven't seen you around in a while...

Molly - The Sahih International version is published by AbulQasim Publishing House/al-Muntada al-Islami.

The U.S. phone number is (608) 277-1855; email address is

A musHaf is basically any written copy of the Qur'an... 'cuz remember, the Qur'an refers to the words themselves, whether recited orally or read from a book.

Hope that helps! :)

Molly said...

Mouse, thank you very much. And I don't know if anyone else has told you this, but DO NOT pick your pox scabs! You will get scars on your pretty face. :)

Umm Reem said...

Mouse: 10/11/12 is still a young age and yes still a good age to memorize. Trust me, knowing the meaning can always be done later. If you can memorize and learn the meanings at the same time, then thats great.
But, if the Qur'an is already memorized, learning Arabic becomes easier because not only Allah azzawjal opens up your brain but even it helps with the language. That is why the scholars of the past always used to memorize Qur'an first before pursuing the rest of their religious studies. (wAllahu ta'ala 'alalm)

And just to elaborate a bit, mushaf is the only Arabic copy of Qur'an, because we can even call the one with Translation Qur'an but mushaf is the one that has only arabic in it. It comes from 'suhuf' :)

On chicken pox: My uncle lives in Canada too and his children started getting chicken pox last year and even he got it. It was too dangerous because he is much older. We never hear anyone getting C.Pox here in US. It is funny I didn't let my kids get the shot because I wanted them to get it and 'naturally' build the immunity, but their pediatrician told me 'good luck finding someone with it' (cuz i had to stick them with the person who has it so they could catch it too). Almost 3-4 years I couldn't find anyone with chicken pox so i got them the shot instead :)

Mouse I hope you feel better.(La ba'saa tahoor inshaAllah, shifakiAllahi wa 'afaki)