Many Muslims believe that having the entire Qur’an, or a large part of it, memorised serves as a magnet to attract other types of learning. In other words, if two medical students of the same ability go to the same class, the student who has memorised the Qur’an would understand the lesson better.
Is this claim true?
As a psychology student, I decided to check out the evidence.
Therefore in this column, you will learn how Muhammad Bello memorised 150 pages verbatim, what science says about Qur’an memorization and what is the best studying technique ever invented. Let’s begin with a story.
Last Ramadan, I visited Esteem Boys’ College in Abuja. In the mosque, I met one of the SS1 students sitting alone in the mosque.
Although a little naughty, he is one of the students I enjoy chatting with on account of his perceptive questions.
But I was surprised to see him alone.
“What are you doing here Muhammad Bello?” I asked.
“I’m practicing my Qur’an memorization.”
“I’m leading the tarawih prayers today.”
The school has a programme of getting the students to lead other students and their teachers in the night prayers. This had obviously motivated Muhammad Bello to sit alone in the mosque to perfect his recitation; because, it is not easy to lead your fellow students (who know as much as you) or your teachers (who know more.)
But our purpose today is not on his motivation but on how he was doing what he was doing. So let’s go back to Muhammad in the mosque.
“How much of the Qur’an have you memorised?” I asked.
“I’m not exactly sure,” he said.
But a little proding later, he told me it was about a quarter of the Qur’an.
A standard Qur’an printing is 604 pages. So Muhammad Bello had memorised about 150 pages. And he himself confessed to me that he was behind the class because he missed some lessons.
“So how are you practicing?” I asked him.
I noticed that he had a Qur’an in front of him and would close it, recite from memory and then open the book to see if he had made any mistake.
“Let me help you,” I said, “I will hold the Qur’an and follow your recitation to tell you if you made any mistakes.”
He agreed and recited to me in a beautiful melodious voice.
(Qur’an is the only book you’re required to sing it’s words according to tajwid rules.)
Before we move on, please keep in mind the following three steps from Muhammad Bello’s method. He studied, he closed his book and tried to recall what he studied and finally checked to see if he made any mistakes.
In psychology, what Bello did is called Retrieval Practice.
This is basically how many memorise the Qur’an. And for long, some Muslims believe that when you memorised the Qur’an, it attracts other knowledge.
But what does science say about this claim? Or, at least, what do psychologists say about Muhammad Bello’s method?
John Dunlosky figured it out
In a previous column titled “Learning Genius,” I told a story of how John Dunlosky found the answer:
‘[He] and his colleagues wanted to determine the best learning strategy ever invented. That is, which study method gives you the best value for the time invested?
‘In his interview with Think101x of edX, Dunlosky said: “We chose the strategies for two reasons. Some of them that we wanted to evaluate, we thought they probably did work, but why not check out the evidence? A couple other strategies however, we knew students use a lot. We wanted to know are these really effective strategies or should they be doing something else instead? It turns out that highlighting and rereading don’t have a big bang for the time buck. [After three years of research] the one that we find that is really effective and others have spent a hundred years of research showing how effective it is, is just retrieval practice.’
Therefore, 100 years of scientific literature validates Muhammad Bello’s method. But we’ve not answered the question we started with: Does the Qur’an attract new knowledge?
We do know from scientific literature that retrieval practice facilitates future learning or to use a more technical term, it potentiates future learning.
“Wissman, Rawson, and Pyc have reported work that suggests that retrieval practice over one set of material may facilitate learning of later material, which may be related or unrelated,” Brame, C.J. and Biel, R. reported in a review of test-enhanced technique.
Indeed, Wissman, Rawson and Pyc found that the performance of those who engaged in retrieval practice was twice that of those who didn’t.
This was irrespective of whether the material practiced was of the same topic or different topic.
This means that if you did retrieval practice in English language, it has the effect of improving your performance in physics or economics or Qur’an.
What does this mean?
“Thus testing may have benefits that extend beyond the target material,” Brame, C.J. and Biel, R. concluded.
Therefore, even though we are not exactly sure if the content of the Qur’an attracts other types of knowledge, there is evidence that suggests that the method used by Qur’an memorizers potentiates future learning; on the evidence of this, it appears that the act of memorizing the Qur’an makes you do well in other subjects.