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:
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
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
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
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.
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