Monday, October 27, 2014

How to learn: forming a learning methodology on important subjects

In a world where technology is ever-evolving and becoming more accessible to the masses, we find that opinions, teachings, beliefs and perspectives on countless subjects are reaching more and more audiences. This can be both a blessing and a curse, in the sense that while information is available at almost no financial cost, the variety of contents can bring forth confusion and lead to greater problems. In this regards, I am reminded of the Prophetic prayer, which the Messenger of Allah used to say at least twice daily, a portion of which reads "O Allah, I seek from you useful knowledge." [Allahumma innee as-alooka 'Ilmaan Naafi'aan].  

Another issue which exists, both inside and outside of academia, is the method of learning. How we attain our knowledge, from what avenues, and of course what we do with it. Self-learning can be an enriching exercise, but in some respects it can also be damaging, largely depending on what the subject is. So, while learning how to cook by personal experiment, reading recipes online and the like usually results in the learner developing his own tastes and preferences, with language it can be very damaging. One rather comical example is a British blogger, a Non Muslim, who constantly posts on Islam. His YOUTUBE account has thousands of followers, each video having hundreds of comments, in which he will speak on obscure and complicated subjects such as "Is the Qur'an created?" and urge any Muslim listeners to revive the Mu'tazilite positions [Ft.#1], he will argue that the Qur'an "actually" says such and such. He does these videos from his bedroom, in which you will see on his bookshelf books such as Muhammad Asad's translation [The Message of the Qur'an] and A manual of Hadith, a collection of Prophetic narrations compiled and explained by the prolific writer Maulana Muhammad Ali, he will even curse at Muslims for not understanding their faith, yet he himself cannot even pronounce the word Hadeeth [ft.2]! Reading a couple of books does not make the reader an expert on the subject, ready to teach.

Forming a learning style [Example: Language]

I think this depends largely on the subject one is attempting to know, and on what you want to gain out of it. If we are speaking about language, I am of the view that language cannot be self-taught, even with the best books and the aid of computer programs. Language[s] are to be learned from others, both inside and outside the classroom. Language is a subject one learns by immersion in the places where it is spoken, by asking and learning from one's mistakes. Television and cultural expressions such as music and poetry, classical literature, are all very useful in this regards too, but the main thing is to learn from other human beings who themselves are qualified to convey the information. Both inside and outside the lecture hall, recording the words and the explanations are helpful, as well as having notebooks ready to write down information. Retaining that information by reading, writing, speaking, in that language will keep the knowledge relevant.

What about religious texts?

Obviously, for Muslims the most important religious text is the Qur'an. It is seen as God's own words, sent down slowly to the Prophet Muhammad, Sall Allahu 'alayhi wa sallam. The fact that it came slowly to him, over a period of twenty-three years, should be an evidence that we should likewise, take it slowly. The Qur'an's best explanation is the text itself, often the answer to a query is found in another spot in the text. It should also be read in a regular way, recited inside and outside of prayer. It's reading, for the serious reader, should be done as an act of worship but can also be done as a means for research, which would require taking notes, having access to an index, and, at minimum, knowing how to read Arabic. The last clause is important for these main reasons [1] To recite the Qur'an in prayer, in the way it was revealed. [2] Translations don't do justice to the depth, power and rhythm of the original Arabic text [3] Knowing at least how to read will open the doorway to using other tools that would be useful in attaining Quranic knowledge such as Arabic dictionaries, lexicons, and books of  classical Quranic commentary [Tafseer], which are written obviously in Arabic. I recommend having notebooks that are dedicated only to the Qur'an, to write down observations and quotes, and to also have, if necessary, written down therein any useful observations you find on the text from outside sources [Hadeeth literature, history, language, etc.].

This method could also be useful with non Islamic texts such as the Bible as well as the Hadeeth literature within the Islamic tradition. All of this takes patience, faith, an open mind, and discarding a fast food approach. It's a good idea to take classes regularly on texts of the Qur'an and hadeeth, even if the teacher is not from your sect, so long as you find him qualified at the least. Attending study circles [Halaqaat] with others, praying and fasting are useful too. I have found that reading Qur'an while fasting increases my perception of what the text is saying [ft.#3]. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Asking is even an act of worship.[Ft.#4]

Practical advice

If we are talking about language or faith, or just about any academic subject, some helpful tips include.

[1] Using any opportunity to learn on the subject. Listening to lectures, Qur'an recitation, etc..while driving for example. [2] Finding a quiet place to study without distraction. Libraries, parks, even the mosque outside of prayer time. [3] When studying, do not allow distractions, even if that means turning off the Cell phone or computer or television. [4] For the Qur'an, remember to seek Allah's protection from Satanic influences before reading[Ft.5] and to have Wudoo. [ft.6]

I hope these words have been useful, and welcome any discussion.


[1] The Mu'tazilites were a trend that emerged in Iraq during the 6th century. Largely seen as rationalists, they took much from the methods of Greek and Roman Philosophers in their approach to religion. It is they who first opened as an issue about the Qur'an being "created". They also rejected some Hadeeths which they felt could not be explained in a rational basis, such as the narrations on 'punishment in the grave' [ Adhaab Al Qabr] or the second coming of Jesus.   Gaining government support, under the Caliph Al Ma'mun [d. 833] they held official position and even started an inquisition against Sunni Muslim scholarship. However, they eventually died out, although it is true that even within Sunni traditional scholarship there was levels of acceptance of the works of some leading Mu'tazilite scholars, such as the famed Mufassir Abul qasim Zamakshiri. For more, see

[2] This is why this writer transliterates as "Hadeeth" rather than "Hadith". The latter, for some readers, influences an incorrect pronunciation, while the former cannot be mistaken by anyone.

[3] The Qur'an itself hints at the connection between its study and fasting. See Q  2: 183-186.

[4] The Qur'an says "So ask the people of knowledge if you don't know" [ Q 16:42 and 21:7].

[5] The Qur'an itself says to say this prayer before reading it [16:98], in order for us to not have a reading based on our prejudices, but rather on what Allah wants us to gain.

[6] It is true that there is neither a Quranic verse or narration in the hadeeth literature which says that one should have Wudoo' before reading the Qur'an, nonetheless it is something agreed upon [Jamhoor] by the four schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence, a ruling which makes sense to this writer because it is an act of respect for the text.