Memorization vs. Actualization

October 27, 2006 § 9 Comments

During Ramadan a story surfaced about two teens who were commissioned to lead congregational prayers at a local masjid in Virginia as reported in NPR,

“Two teenagers stepped in to lead Ramadan services this month when the Islamic Community Center of Northern Virginia could not find a cleric.” (NPR) audio2

Apparently, one of the teens has memorized the entire Qur’an! This is a gift from God, truly a blessing and of this there is no doubt in my mind. However, what I am questioning is whether or not memorization qualifies one to lead the community especially since the teens do not understand Arabic but simply recite from memory. In fact they cannot read or comprehend what they have memorized!

Consequently, I must ask, does memorization of the Qur’an really qualify one to be an imam (community leader)? Although in this case I’m sure there were community circumstances which prevented an adult from leading the prayers, however lets assume we have semi-normal circumstances in the case of a larger Islamic community does the quality of memorization supersede understanding.

For example, would a teenage boy who has memorized the Qur’an be more qualified to lead the congregational prayer than lets say… me a thirty-three year old married man with a wife and 3 children; a Bachelors of Science from New York University who makes fard prayers everyday (or at least makes those up which are missed) and maintains a clean record and functions as a pillar in the community? Granted my tajwid could use some work and I can probably count the surat I’ve memorized on two hands but I do understand and read Arabic. I’m sorry I think I would have a hard time with a 13 year old leading the salah… is that wrong of me?

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§ 9 Responses to Memorization vs. Actualization

  • ibnabeeomar says:

    ive heard that this kind of thing is common ‘back home’ where you have a person for each thing, ie one person to lead prayers, one person who is khateeb, one person who’s an actual community leader, etc.

    the problem we run into is in america especially we need one person to fulfill the role of scholar/leader. most ppl just assume if a person memorized quran he’s automatically qualified to do the rest.

    as far as just actual salah, e.g. taraweeh, etc, i would have no issue praying behind a 13 year old as long as his recitation was correct, and good tajweed, etc. however, i don’t think that person would be fit for leading a community or doing those other things.

  • Muslim Apple says:

    In our community we have several hifz schools and each year during Ramadan some of the graduates are chosen to lead or assist in the taraweeh in the local masajid. These boys are usually under 18 but they have completed the memorization of the Quran and mashaAllah many of them have very beautiful and moving recitations.

    Certainly, someone who has memorized the Quran with correct tajweed and has an ijaza is more capable are better qualified to lead one with out it.

    I would rather have a 6 year old who has memorized the Quran lead me than a thirty old that only knows Juz Amma especially in taraweeh. A sister was telling me the other day of a masjid that would only recite Juz Amma throughout the month of Ramadan because no one had learned more than that.

    And I remember I was once at a sister’s house and one of the young girls not more than 8 years old was in the hifz program and she knew I think 18 or 20 Juz which was more than anyone else so she led us in maghrib salaah.

  • samaha says:

    Very interesting question. I’m curious to know how this discussion will turn out.

    Somehow, I can’t see that Allah would have any problems with 13 year old boys who have worked so hard to memorize the Quran in leading prayers. These children do this out of love, and I’m hoping it is more out of love for Allah than out of love for their parents, but it is out of love. They could have been playing their xbox, but they were memorizing the Quran. So, from a mommy sort of perspective – you are very very wrong in having a hard time with a 13 year old boy leading salah….

    However, where I don’t think you are wrong, is that these children are being taught Quran without knowing the translation. Now, for the most part, here in the Chicagoland area even within the Islamic schools, the focus is on memorizatioin and not understanding (and my children have attended 2 Chicagoland area schools and now a 3rd which is a little farther out). My 14 year old and 10 year old can read the Quran in Arabic as well as they can read Harry Potter in English, and I glow when they read it, but I am very disappointed that not one school focused on comprehension.

    You know what I find even scarier than that? There are actually these schools out here, some of them not accredited or registered where you can send your child out to memorize all of the hadiths as well – and still never know the translation of the Quran.

    When I wrote my post on Pilgrims, Settlers and Trailblazers and I complained about still being in a settlers shoes – this is what I was talking about. I’ve been wanting to raise money for a while now for a more progressive Islamic school. One in which the children actually end up memorizing the suras and understanding their meaning. One in which the children are introduced to the different muslim views, in which the children are encouraged to research and understand the different views. One in which the children are not segrated from the American community, rather they are integrated into it through community service and sports. One in which the children would understand the different religions, have a background in Christianity and Judaism.

    Well, maybe I should go work on that vision statement now that I’m on a roll.

  • […] I was over at Wa Salaam reading the post on Memorization vs. Actualization where I was once again reminded of the inadequacies of Islamic private schools.  It was partially my frustration with Islamic schools that inspired my post titled Pilgrims, Settlers and Trailblazers. […]

  • Salam
    Even in the Arabic speaking countries people memorize without understanding. Kids say the verses so fast there is no way they are actually thinking about the meaning even if it is in their native language. I don’t get the whole love of memorizing over understanding at all, but I am not from an oral culture. So I guess it is one of those cultural differences like needing personal space that I just have to accept.

  • Dirty Butter says:

    Coming from a Christian perspective, I would rather my child learned one verse they understood than memorize 100 they did not understand. We emphasize memorizing scripture with our Children’s Church, but the are always passages appropriate for their age.

  • Abu Sahajj says:

    Samaha, I’m glad you see the importance of this question, I pray the discussion leads to a beneficial realization for all of us.

    I noticed that ibnabeeomar’s comment really hit the nail on the head when he wrote,

    “the problem we run into is in america especially we need one person to fulfill the role of scholar/leader. most ppl just assume if a person memorized quran he’s automatically qualified to do the rest.”

    The original question developed as a matter of perspective… mine in particular. You see he is right in saying that American Muslims look for the role of Imam to be al-khateeb, al-mu’adhdhin, al-imama, a scholar and politician. But is that really what we should be doing? In fact it seems that we are looking for the Imam to be the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.s.) in a sense because those are all of the functions that he performed with the exception of al-mu’adhdhin. As a side I moved to consider that maybe CAIR is not subliminally suggesting the return of the Khalif arbitrarily. Maybe that is exactly what American Muslims are looking for? Don’t get to excited though it was just a thought, I will speak more on this in a future article.

    Then I asked if I was wrong for suggesting that I would have trouble with the boy leading the prayer… and Samaha put me in check saying

    “as far as just actual salah, e.g. taraweeh, etc, i would have no issue praying behind a 13 year old as long as his recitation was correct, and good tajweed, etc. however, i don’t think that person would be fit for leading a community or doing those other things.”

    And she’s right! I should have no problem if I could remove the association that I have created to an prayer-leader. I’m sure I’m not the only one with these association… however I am openly discussing them. Then Samaha surprised me because we saw eye to eye on the most important point and I was glad that she mentioned it because it set up exactly where I wanted the direction of this discussion to go when she agreed,

    “However, where I don’t think you are wrong, is that these children are being taught Quran without knowing the translation.”

    So that gets me to thinking… seriously now… what is the difference between praying to a recording and praying behind a 13 year old who has no understanding of what they are saying? Why not just pop a cd in a fantastic Bose system at the masjid and play a recording of the most impressive recitation ever heard by human ears? And then my friend Muslim Apple drops the bomb on us all… I’m sure no one even really noticed it but it subtley took this discussion to new places… when she wrote,

    “I would rather have a 6 year old who has memorized the Quran lead me than a thirty old that only knows Juz Amma especially in taraweeh.”

    This is a great point because quite frankly… if I had to lead into tarawih during Ramadan I might have some disappointed Muslims on my hands. But what if that six year old is not a six year old at all but a woman!? What then when the most knowledgeable of the Qur’an is a woman… then what? I have no answer because according to how I was brought up there can only or should I say ONLY be a male who leads the salah even if his Arabic sounds like he’s speaking Turkish with a mouth full of peanut butter!

    That is because there is a tradition of oral teaching and an emphasis on memorization… Anna said,

    “I don’t get the whole love of memorizing over understanding at all, but I am not from an oral culture.”

    the reasoning is much more complex than I even understand but what I do know is that in part there is a mystical or sacred relationship between the memory, language and the Qur’an. Many believe that the recitation of the Qur’an whether you understand it or not has tremendous!!! benefit!!! because of the Arabic language itself. I grew up with this kind of thinking so it doesn’t sound strange to me although it might to an American Christian for example… Dirty Butter commented that,

    “Coming from a Christian perspective, I would rather my child learned one verse they understood than memorize 100 they did not understand.

    And thus another difference between cultures… but I would like to note that Christianity became Western culture but its origin is found in Eastern Jewish culture… however you can barely find any remnants of Eastern Jewish tradition in Christianity today.

  • Muslim Apple says:

    Asalamu alaykum,

    I should clarify that I was specifically speaking about the salaah and not the leadership of a community. Those young memorizers in our community only lead or assist in taraweeh, they are not khateebs nor do we ask them fiqhi type questions. They do not serve as imams except in salaah.

    And the example about the young girl was of women leading women only. There were no men present.

  • Dirty Butter says:

    So that gets me to thinking… seriously now… what is the difference between praying to a recording and praying behind a 13 year old who has no understanding of what they are saying?

    Even though the 13 year old does not understand what he is saying, he demonstrates a love for his God that the person on the recording does not. The very act of memorization was an act of devotion that deserves a certain level of respect.

    It’s the same reason we have a choir of amateur members, rather than listen to a cd during Sunday services. One is an act of worship to God, the other is not.

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