Process of Understanding

Understanding will not result merely from reading the text. To learn or understand a student has to go through its stages

By: Ahmad Ibrahim, Oct 2006

'TO UNDERSTAND' is defined by Oxford Dictionary as:

Perceive the meaning or explanation of; grasp the idea of. Be conversant or familiar with, have mastery of, (a subject, skill, etc.); be able to practice or deal with competently. Have a clear grasp of; realize fully. Ascertain the substance of (a document etc.) by perusal and consideration Learn or gain knowledge of, esp. from information received; (now chiefly) accept as true without positive knowledge or certainty; believe, assume Grasp as an established fact or principle; regard as settled or implied without specific mention.

To understand something is different from reading it. One can read a book numerous times, or even memorize it, without understanding any of its concepts or themes. To learn, one has to go through the ‘process of understanding’.

The purpose of this essay is to describe this process and see how this helps us to better understand the message of the Quran.


Sometimes we read a book but do not understand it; especially when it is in an unfamiliar language. Such rote—mechanical practice—learning is common in our culture.

The process of learning or understanding takes us through the stages of questioning, conceptualizing, experimentation and consolidation. [i]


Asking questions is human nature and we owe our progress to this faculty. Without asking questions one can only memorize the text but can never comprehend its meaning. And even if one learns something it will be short- lived and forgotten easily.

We always discover by asking questions. Gravity was discovered when Newton asked why the apple fell to the ground. To a casual observer it would be an everyday occurrence, which is not worth thinking about. But for Newton, this simple question opened a thought process which unraveled the mystery of how celestial objects attract each other.

The Quran is guidance for humankind. Therefore the Quran encourages us to observe the universe, think deeply and question one’s traditions, beliefs and practices; are we on the right path?

This is the tradition of prophets; they questioned the moral decay and rot of their societies. Prophet Abraham questioned the beliefs and practices of his people; why do they worship the sun, moon and other objects instead of their creator. Prophet Shoaib questioned the people of Madyan why do they spread mischief on earth?

Prophet Ibrahim even questioned Allah. The Quran says,

And when Abraham said (unto his Lord): My lord! Show me how you give life to the dead, He said: Do you not believe? Abraham said: Yes, but (I ask) in order that my heart may be at ease. [2:260]

Among other things, the Quran is a call to ask questions. The first believers in the Quran's message were the ones who could break the shell of complacency and question the legacy of their forefathers.[ii] The questions that the Quran invites its reader – or hearer – to ask are "simple" questions. These questions are meant to penetrate the thick veil of carelessness and familiarity that covers our eyes so that we see the world under a fresh light. It is through these questions one comes to the threshold of faith or moves up the ladders of certainty in faith. [iii]

But sometimes we get all the information but we fail to ask the right questions. Fazlur Rahman says:

Unfortunately, the physical avenues of information remain intact—infact, may improve vastly—but “the heart,” the instrument of perception and discernment, is dulled; the inputs and outputs of computers continue— indeed, become ever more efficient; only the capacity to ask the right questions, the humanly relevant questions, fails. [iv]


It means to form concepts; which is an abstract idea or a mental symbol.[v]

Once we explore the nature of the problem by questioning, we must go on and build concepts. This involves setting our experiences in a general framework. In doing so we take a fresh look at the problems and the ideas and do not simply revisit the old ones. It is a creative process and calls for inspiration.

We live in a dynamic world. We encounter new problems and issues all the time. To seek the guidance of the Quran and find the solution to our problems we must learn develop fresh concepts. For this purpose we need to start with a fresh mind, ask the deepest questions, reflect on new ideas and remain open to them.[vi]

If we are able to build concepts we will be able not only to explain the first problem but others like it. Without concepts the isolated experience becomes mere anecdote, and experience talked of but not learnt from. Only if the next experience is precisely the same as the preceding one, can the lessons of the first be applied to the second.[vii]


The next vital step in the process of understating is to put the concepts in practice. If we do not put what we have conceptualized into practice, they will remain as theory and will be one no practical use or benefit.

Therefore, the Quran constantly urges us for good deeds. Its message is not for reading and memorizing but for putting into work. Therefore, we see that the whole message of the Quran is presented in a social context.

In order to reform the individual and the society, the Quran puts a strong emphasis on both discourse and conduct. For its followers, the challenge is to turn their beliefs and knowledge into something productive, practical and useful for the humankind. God has promised that in this endeavor they will find Him as a friend, guardian and a willing partner.


This is the final stage. The concepts are internalized and begin to mesh in one’ s mind. The experiment phase is past, and the new hypothesis becomes the basis for future action. They have become part of one, so that habitual behavior is altered and affected. The lesson has been learned.[viii]


Reading and memorizing text is not the same as learning and understanding. Learning and understanding requires effort and the student has to go through a process of learning which involves questioning, conceptualization, experimentation and consolidation. Only then a lesson may be learned.

Notes and References


[i] Charles Handy, Understanding Organizations, 1999, Penguin Business Management

[ii] And those who failed to rethink their presuppositions were the ones who were hostile to the message: "But when they are told, "Follow what God has bestowed from on high, some answer 'Nay, we shall follow [only] that which we found our forefathers believing in and doing.' Why, even if their forefathers did not use their reason at all, and were devoid of guidance?" (2:170) See also 5: 104.

[iii] Umeyye Yazicioglu, Learning to Ask Questions: the Cases of Abraham and Noah (p) in the Quran, The Journal of Scriptural Reasoning, Number 5.1, April 2005

[iv] Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes of the Quran, 1999, IBT, Kuala lumper


[vi] Judith A. Sedgeman, Assistant Professor, West Virginia University, Department of Community Medicine, Conceptualization:The Route To Relevance And Depth

[vii] Charles Handy, Understanding Organizations, 1999, Penguin Business Management

[viii] ibid



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