Recently I was part of a discussion platform of Muslim educators. One of the topics of our discussion was how we motivate our students in learning the holy Quran. My colleague highlighted Quran competitions as a great way to motivate students and elevate the Quran program in an Islamic school, maktab or madrassah.
Alhumdullilah, as a team of Muslim educators on this platform, each of us are very tuned in to the Islamic etiquette (adab) of disagreement. This makes for an open, non-judgemental and very rich conversation.
I therefore had no hesitation in explaining as the principal of our madrassah (Amanah Institute in Brisbane, Australia), in order to achieve the same aim, we avoid Quran competitions altogether. My colleague gasped (reading between the lines of her text – it is after all an on-line platform) and asked me to “justify” this position.
I reasoned that I would not want to justify this as much as explain our position. I said this as I do not believe there is one way to look at this but rather each school, maktab or madrassah should consider their position up against their own individual visions. Just as we have our position, another school could have perfectly valid reasons in favour of competitions.
In addition, this is not to say the recitation of the holy Quran at school events is not valued. An evening with parents where a certain ambiance is to be found and a focus on spirituality and Iman is to be had would be an ideal space for students to showcase their learning, including and not limited to the recitation of the holy Quran.
Competition does note align with our school vision
With regards to our decision to avoid Quran competitions, my explanation was that at our Institute, such competitions do not align with our vision. Our Institute prioritizes education for transformation. Accordingly within our educational philosophy we use rewards and punishments sparingly. The reward for learning in our estimation is after all the sweetness of the learning. In other words, reading the holy Quran and connecting with the holy Quran does not require an extrinsic reward. All students who come to learn their religion at Islamic education Institutions, be it in Islamic schools, maktabs or madrassahs, are winners. Transformation is met through the transferring and inculcation of Islamic etiquettes (adab) and through practicing on the knowledge gained. No student on the path toward this goal can be said to be failing or losing.
In pursuing transformation at Amanah Institute, we seek to foster in students a love for the holy Quran and instruct and model the Islamic etiquette or adab of the holy Quran. We also believe in assessing what we value and we value proficiency in reading, correct articulation of the Quranic sounds (makharij alhuruf), rules of Quranic pronunciation (tajwid), and more importantly theme-based study of what students read in order to help them practice the command of their Lord. It is by teaching students the understanding of the holy Quran through theme based study that assists them in applying their knowledge and reflecting upon it in terms of their lives and their connection with Allah Almighty. This is consistent with the Institutes’ overarching assessment criteria of knowledge (‘ilm), actions (‘amal), and inner state (ḥaal).
Our position at our Institute is heavily influenced by the following hadith:
عَنِ ابْنِ عُمَرَ ، قَال : كُنَّا صَدْرَ هَذِهِ الأُمَّةِ وَكَانَ الرَّجُلُ مِنْ خِيَارِ أَصْحَابِ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ مَا مَعَهُ إِلا السُّورَةُ مِنَ الْقُرْآنِ أَوْ شِبْهُ ذَلِكَ ، وَكَانَ الْقُرْآنُ ثَقِيلا عَلَيْهِمْ وَرُزِقُوا الْعَمَلَ بِهِ ، وَإِنَّ آخِرَ هَذِهِ الأُمَّةِ يُخَفَّفُ عَلَيْهِمُ الْقُرْآنُ حَتَّى يَقْرَأَهُ الصَّبِيُّ وَالأَعْجَمِيُّ فَلا يَعْمَلُونَ بِه
This is what the imminent companion ibn ‘Umar (Allah be pleased with him) told us:
“We were the foremost of this Ummah and a man from among the best of companions of the Prophet would not have (memorised) of the Quran except one sura or so. The Quran was heavy (difficult) for them (to memorise) but they were granted the practice of the Quran. But the (memorisation) of the Quran will become easier for the last of this Ummah so much so that a child and a non-Arab will be able to read it but not practice it.”
This is further substantiated by the great scholar of the holy Quran, Abdullah Ibn Mas’ood (Allah be pleased with him) who was the best at reciting the holy Quran among the companions and he understood it better than them all, who said in a Ṣaḥiḥ Ḥadith:
يقول عبد الله بن مسعود رضي الله عنه : “كنا إذا تعلمنا من النبي عشر آيات من القرآن لم نتعلم العشر التي أنزلت بعدها حتى نتعلم ما فيها، قيل لشريك: من العلم؟ قال: نعم ” وأخرجه الحاكم بنفس الإسناد وصححه
“Once we learned from the Prophet (peace be upon him) only ten verses from the Quran we would not learn anymore until we comprehended (and practiced) the ten that we have already learnt.”
This is the approach of Amanah Institute which we implemented a year and half ago and we are busy enacting, evaluating and enhancing. We have by no means mastered the practice but we believe in our vision, and we are already witnessing the fruits of our approach. We ask Allah Almighty to bless this and allow us to continue to improve.
Interestingly, not a single parent has asked for a Quran competition since we adopted and shared this vision and approach.
Having said this, in response to my colleague’s request, it forced me to reflect once again on our position which caused me to examine the argument for Quran competitions more closely.
Benefits and Concerns
Some of the concerns we observed with Quran competitions by our estimation are that they tend to:
- better serve parents than students
- showcase readers who are Arabic speaking or who have had periods of full-time study of the holy Quran rather than students progressing with consistent effort
- feed into a cultural pressure of completing set ayat or pages/ day over and above the priorities mentioned above
- lead to unhealthy competition, in particular among ‘big’ families in the community or among family members – siblings and cousins
- sometimes reward winners who do not embody the vision of the Institute and a false sense of prestige is assigned.
The arguments put forth in favour of Quran competitions generally fall under the following:
- Quran competitions are an effective motivator for inspiring students to learn the holy Quran
- Quran competitions are a means to enhance the collective quality of recitation across a school, maktab or madrassah
- That competition for good deeds is encouraged in our tradition and therefore Quran competitions must be positive
Constructive Assessment for Quran Competitions
Sometimes the tragedy in our Islamic schools, maktabs and madrassah is that we assume certain practices are working without empirically assessing their effectiveness. A way forward is to think of ways to assess and examine these practices we may take for granted.
Can we measure the effectiveness of Quran competitions?
Can we substantiate their function and purpose using appropriate research methodology?
Following this reasoning, have we examined the effectiveness of Quran competitions on the basis of them inspiring students or assisting in the collective quality of recitation across an Islamic educational institution? Could it be possible that we might find Quran competitions only serve to inspire those already proficient? If this is the case, could we still justify Quran competitions being an effective motivator? After all, the proficient students would be the exception to the rule and we do not make rules based on the exception rather than the greater public interest. In this case, the interest of our young people of whom we are assigned with a trust (amanah) to provide them with the highest quality Islamic education.
Also on the topic of motivation, due to practicalities and limitations within medium to large Islamic schools, maktabs and madrassahs, holy Quran assessors generally operate via a process of elimination. Thus those students who are struggling to read (who we must remember receive double reward), have errors in their reading or who are unable to read are eliminated very early on the pre-planning of a Quran competition. Does this render them as passive observers or do they remain as active participants in the process? Can we be sure whether this practice is motivating or demotivating for students of the holy Quran? Research is required to answer such questions with confidence and we may benefit from asking the students themselves.
Concerning the second premise, that Quran competitions are a means to enhance the collective quality of recitation. The question remains, do we have empirical evidence to support this? If we assume at the very least that Quran competitions showcase the ‘cream of the crop’ – the highest quality recitation in the Institution, can we naturally assume that this will have a follow on effect to the remainder of students? We know in leading contemporary research that the number one factor responsible for learning in students is the quality of the teacher and specifically the quality of instruction. This research is not news to Muslim educators as Islam has always placed great emphasis on the teacher, above and beyond the Institution. Teachers we understand are a transmitter of knowledge (muallim) and a nurturer of moral conduct (murabbi). Teachers enjoy spiritual connection with their students and through companionship and Islamic etiquettes (adab) forms of knowledge are transferred and not merely transmitted. Given the unequivocal role of the teacher and the quality of teaching, should we not be channelling our efforts far more on the pedagogical approach to teaching the holy Quran? Have we paid close consideration into researching how effective our pedagogical approach is to the teaching and learning of the holy Quran? A common pedagogical approach across the entire Islamic education Institution is more likely to enhance the collective quality of recitation across an Institution as it is inclusive of all students irrespective of their ability.
The final premise to examine is that, competition for good deeds is encouraged in our tradition and therefore Quran competition must be positive. There are many hadith to support the competition for good deeds.
When the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was asked whether the verse in the Quran, “And those who give whatever they (have to) give while their hearts are trembling,” (23:60) referred to people who committed sins, he replied: “No…they are those who fast, pray and give charity while fearing that (these deeds) may not be accepted (by God). They are those who compete with one another in good deeds” (Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 1427).
It is clear from hadith like the one above that competition is for a higher purpose – to seek the pleasure of Allah Almighty. The nature of competition in the case of Quran competition is worthy of deeper consideration. Is this the nature of competition that Allah Almighty loves? Is this the nature of competition that we find in the hadith? Is any competition when attached to deen desirable? If the answer to any of these questions causes us to pause then certainly deeper consideration is required. Without considered thought and evidence base from within our tradition or from empirical research we can very easily superimpose Western secular notions of competition on sacred traditional notions. If the practice of Quran competition leads to ostentation, haughtiness, pride or arrogance in competitors or their families then we must reconsider the purpose and intention. We after all value competition for transformation and not for ostentation.
I end this as I began. There is not one answer or one way to look at this issue but rather each school, maktab or madrassah should consider their position up against their own individual vision statements. Just as I have outlined the position of Amanah Institute, another school could have perfectly valid reason in favour of competitions. A way forward is to think of ways to assess and examine practices such as competitions within our Islamic education Institutions that we may take for granted. Can we measure their effectiveness? Can we substantiate their function and purpose juxtaposing our Islamic tradition with context (text plus context) in addition to using appropriate research methodology?
The author would like to thank and acknowledge Associate Professor Mohamad Abdalla (Director: National Centre for Excellence in Islamic Studies – Griffith University, Queensland, Australia) for assistance with this blog.
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