Valuing Reflection in Understanding Religious Texts

Ahymon Ayoub

THE tradition of transmitting the Word of God is a rigorous exercise throughout the Muslim world including Kashmir. Various mechanisms are followed in different cultures to pass down the Sacred word to new generations. The exercise at every succeeding level becomes more nuanced and branches out further to include the study of allied subjects like Islamic Jurisprudence, detailed exegesis and Tassawuf studies. However, being the first encounter with the Sacred Word, elementary learning of Quran is of quintessential importance for children and society at large as it sets the trajectory for their future relationship dynamic with religion. This calls for a very subtle, carefully planned teaching pedagogy and robust learning environment to foster critical thinking and deeper engagement which unfortunately is gravely missing in our context.

In our Valley, transmitting down the Sacred Word at basic level has undergone a sea of change over the past few decades. Traditionally, elementary Quranic teaching was a household exercise taken up by family elders which encapsulated perusing Kashmiri translations as well.  In past few decades, the entire framework of dispensing the Quranic knowledge has undergone some major positive changes which have underlining sociological reasons.

Over the years, Quranic teaching wrested itself from the hegemonic clutches of few dominant groups who exercised exclusive control over its dispensation. With the decentring of epistemological hegemony over the Word of God, Darsgahs now became primal centres for elementary teaching and learning of Quran. Today, preaching the Sacred Word is no longer a prerogative of dominant few groups and age barriers on learning are also dwindling down. Nonetheless, the common thread that runs through these phases of teaching is impermeability to critical thinking and intolerance to questioning which is either taken as a disregard for the sacred text or dismissed as weakness in faith.

Quranic teaching has become a robust and commonplace exercise with the establishment of study centres for Quranic learning which have diversified it further with the inclusion of allied religious texts like Hadith and nuances like rules of recitation. Some schools have also redefined their curricula and mandated teaching and memorising of Quran, and allied subjects right from the elementary level. Internet has further democratized preaching practices. Yet, despite all these well-meant and informed transformations in teaching and learning dynamic, critical learning largely faces a dismissal. This partly entails from the fact that questioning and critical understanding is often dismissed as digression from Satan.

In our common understanding, in darsgahs and other religious platforms, reflection and reasoning is almost pitted against faith. Critical engagement which engenders a holistic relationship remains undervalued and the Prophetic teaching, “The cure for ignorance is to question”, unpractised.

Although well-meant, we inadvertently allow our reverence to morph into an insurmountable hindrance for children whose relationship with God’s word becomes shallow and dictated.  Mumtaz Mufti, a prominent Pakistani writer’s personal observations in this case offer some prolific insights. He once noted in his renowned work Talaash (The Search) that he always wanted to informalise his relationship with the Glorious Quran by, for example, keeping the Book by his bedside on a regular table so that he could read it anytime. He wanted his relationship with the Sacred word to be intimate and more engaging rather than of hesitation and formalities.

Mufti’s observations are not out of place for us even today. Our bond with the Holy book is of mere reverence and not of close engagement, when it should be both. We recite and memorise it usually with an intent to find our way to Paradise which is but an incomplete exercise. The tradition of reflecting upon the Holy verses, posing questions and digging into answers is, however, missing. “Afala Taqi’lun”, Afala Tattafaqarun, as many times Quran invites us to reason and think rigorously, we prefer only to read rather than study it. Wrapping it up in the fabrics of satin and silk finds more meaning with us than adopting an approach of reflection.

Also, isolated understanding of Quran and other religious texts is not free from fallibilities. Complementary and responsible reading of history, psychology, culture, developments in science is important to attain a more contextual and nuanced grasp over religious knowledge. This will also serve as a panacea to counter unhindered information overload and fragmented treatment meted out to religious texts that is a character of the present, networked societies. Imparting the spirit of questioning and reasoning to children in particular and every learner in general, is indispensable to encouraging self-research and hence the quest of finding answers. Bottling up doubts, or casting a cynical eye conversely, in the name of reverence, often goes into birthing passivity or faith crises specially for children as they grow up.

Darsagahs, religious Islamic learning centres and schools in addition to disseminating religious education need to foster the atmosphere of critical inquiry for younger generations to become active contributors rather than passive adherents of a set of rules they don’t understand the true spirit of. Further, debunking deep-seated colonial tropes that have tainted Muslims’ understanding of their own history and religious texts essentially warrants this pedagogical reformation. Such reformation will resolve many issues that our society is facing internally and prepare it for various challenges coming from without.

  • Ahymon Ayoub has completed her Masters in Sociology from Kashmir University and is a freelance researcher interested in topics related to Islam and Women

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