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Israel’s U. Haifa study concludes: Arabic is hard to read [especially when it’s written wrong]

Zeba Khan

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A study by the University of Haifa has asserted that Arabic is ‘hard to read,’ with the conclusion supported by data from thirty seven university students who, when flashed words in Arabic, were unable to read them as quickly as they could words in English and in Hebrew. All students were native Arabic speakers who were also able to read English and Hebrew, and Professor Zohar Eviatar, who led the study, implicated the visual complexity of Arabic as being the culprit.

“The particular characteristics of Arabic make it hard for the right hemisphere to be involved. When you are starting something new, there is a lot of [right hemisphere] involvement… The particular characteristics of Arabic make it hard for the right hemisphere to be involved.” – Source from BBC News

This study pokes a small but ‘scientific’ pin into the voodoo doll of Islam’s world image. Because apparently it’s not enough that we smell bad, beat all four of our wives, threaten people with grammatically incorrect protest placards or terrorize the world, now our language is hard to read, too.

Also, hummus tastes funny.

As Muslims, we greet each other in Arabic, we read the Qur’an in Arabic, we memorize pages of it and copy out lines from it.  We have children completing the memorization of the entire Qur’an- 114 surahs in 30 sections – before they’re out of grade school, and on top of that we believe that God said:

وَلَقَدْ يَسَّرْنَا الْقُرْآنَ لِلذِّكْرِ فَهَلْ مِنْ مُدَّكِرٍ ﴿القمر: ٤٠﴾

“And We have indeed made the Qur’an easy to understand and remember: then is there any that will receive admonition?” (Quran 54:17)

So how should we feel about this study?  Warily amused, but perhaps for the wrong reasons.  It would seem that the study was fraught with many major errors, a few of which were very kindly pointed out in a recent article by Shaykh Riyad Nadwi, PhD, published by the Oxford Cross-Cultural Research Institute. The biggest of errors, it would seem, is the lack Arabic literacy of those conducting the study.

The preceding image is a sample stimuli sheet from the study itself, and anyone literate in Arabic, regardless of their fluency level, would have a hard time reading it.  Why?  Because it’s been written wrong.  Arabic script flows in the way that cursive does in English – with the letters of a word joining together according to set rules and forms that make it very clear which word each letter belongs in.  The joining is similar to the use of spaces that separates two words from another.  It also helps determine whether certain letters, like ‘Ya’, will act as consonants or vowels.

A ‘Ya’ in its initial form is a consonant. A ‘Ya’ in the middle of the word can make one of two vowel sounds – ‘ee’ or ‘ai’, and a ‘Ya’ at the end of a word most often makes the sound ‘ah’.  Even if you don’t read Arabic, a simple comparison between the following two words yield some very obvious differences.

The image on the right shows how the word is supposed to look, and the image on the left shows how it was displayed.  Given a few seconds, you could easily work out the word intended, but the students in the study were shown each incorrectly written word for only one-fifth of a second.

And if you still don’t get what the problem with the study is, then try writing out a few words in English, in all capital letters, removing the spaces and a majority of the vowels, and when university students can’t understand what you’ve written when flashed for less than a fifth of a second, tell them that English is hard.  And also, that beans on toast give people gas.

Linguists and university professors attacking our language can get in line behind the politicians, playwrights, journalists and news anchors attacking everything else about Islam.  And the whole lot of them should relax and work on something more useful like finding common ground.

Arabic is left-hemisphere specific?  How nice, so are German, Spanish, Urdu, and a minor language known as English.

People find Arabic difficult to learn? Well, they also struggle with math, chemistry, and tap dancing.

The publicity this study is receiving might be justified if it were a slow news day for the world.  After all, when was the last time the BBC talked about the distinctive right-brained approach used by people reading Kanji Japanese?  However, the prominence it’s receiving right now, when political issues are being heated to boiling point in the US about the Park 51 Mosque and Jesus-Loving Christians are advocating ‘Burn a Qur’an Day,’ this is simply in poor taste.

Finding long-term peace is contingent upon finding similarities instead of digging up differences, and common ground instead of bright new battlefields.  An academically unsound study conducted by a university located in a country locked in a bloody, 50+ year land-battle with Arabs that takes a linguistic jab at the language their holy book is written in – is not international news.  It’s bad science and bad journalism.

Zeba Khan is the Director of Development for MuslimMatters.org, as well as a writer, speaker, and disability awareness advocate. In addition to having a child with autism, she herself lives with Ehlers-Danlos Sydrome, Dysautonomia, Mast-Cell Activation Disorder, and a random assortment of acronyms that collectively translate to chronic illness and progressive disability.

51 Comments

51 Comments

  1. Avatar

    HassanAdnan

    September 16, 2010 at 2:07 AM

    Wow. interesting, Praise be to the Lord who sustains truth, no matter what !. JazakAllah for the article, even though I dont know much about neurology but I do feel my mind stimulated when I read the Quran, which definitely means great activity goes in the brain, and it refreshes the mind, brings peace. And the visual effects of the Arabic does stimulate the right hemisphere, like any other visual stimuli. The premise that I have come up with is that: The visual pattern difficulty in case when Arabic is written wrong is an analytical problem and that is why it simulated the left hemisphere (Left Hemisphere: Analytical Problems). In case it had been written wrong it would have definitely stimulated the right hemisphere. The BBC statement itself is a clear proof of the error they committed in their experiments “The particular characteristics of Arabic make it hard for the right hemisphere to be involved. When you are starting something new, there is a lot of [right hemisphere] involvement… The particular characteristics of Arabic make it hard for the right hemisphere to be involved.” . Had they written it right, they results would have manifested clear involvement of the right hemisphere.

  2. Avatar

    Justin

    September 16, 2010 at 2:35 AM

    Typos and difficult script do make learning Arabic harder. FOr those who want to learn Arabic from hadith, I recommend Daily Hadith Online in English and Arabic.

  3. Avatar

    Ray

    September 16, 2010 at 3:18 AM

    Thank you for this excellent article and for introducing me to Sh Riyad Nadwi’s amazing articles. He is a real polymath. I leant Arabic five years ago and it gets easier everyday especially when I read Quran. I think the Israelis will now think twice before they embark on any more underhand tactics to criticise the language. Masha Allah. Well done!

    • Avatar

      barbiee

      April 14, 2011 at 4:28 PM

      I Agree with you. :)

  4. Avatar

    M

    September 16, 2010 at 9:05 AM

    If Arabic is really that hard, then how do they explain the thousands of Pakistanis and other people who read Arabic fluently, though its not their first language?

  5. Avatar

    Andrew Purcell

    September 16, 2010 at 9:08 AM

    Translation: The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

    I like the way you made your point.

  6. Avatar

    jimmy

    September 16, 2010 at 9:32 AM

    That’s sound great. Arabic is a language of Holy Quran. How is it possible that reading Arabic is hard. As an Arabic Teacher, my experience observes that Arabic is too easy to learn if one devotes its time with consistency.
    It would be never acceptable that this language is hard to read or understand.

    • Avatar

      barbiee

      April 14, 2011 at 4:29 PM

      Absolutely… :)

  7. Avatar

    m

    September 16, 2010 at 11:36 AM

    I have been reading all the above comments and the initial topic written. i am myself a language therapist and have been working with children on reading and writing dificulties for over 10 years now, in 3 languages french, english and arabic. I am a native arabic speaker and live in an arabic speaking country. My experience tells me that Arabic is really harder to learn than the above mentioned languages due to it’s specificities that are in two areas: visual specificities and auditory ones as well. I must tell you that children find it very hard to master the relationship between the written scripts and their vocalization, not because “arabic is hard for the brain” but because of the way this language is being introduced to these little ones. Let us be honest for once and realize that this great and beautiful language that is the Arabic language has never (or almost never) been the object of scientific research that aims for a better understanding of its specificities. What makes it hard to learn is the lack of appropriate methodologies to teach Arabic, methodologies which should be backed up by neurolinguistic researches and studies.
    We all do use our brain to learn languages but each type of a language uses or needs to activate specific areas in the brain. These areas differ wether the language is alphabetical such as french or English, logographic, such as chinese…. This is indeed backed up by thousands of researches. But where is the neurological RESEARCH that indicates the actual areas that are activated while learning to read Arabic and while reading it?

    Arabic is a beautiful, great language that is the core source and the identity of all arabic native speakers, WETHER THEY ARE MUSLIMS OR NOT.
    i, myself am christian and love and respect Arabic because “”اللغة ØŒ ليست هي فقط وسيلة للتواصل انّما هي أساس هويّة الانسان”
    you are what your native language is. It makes you …

    • Yaser Birjas

      Yaser Birjas

      September 17, 2010 at 12:30 PM

      Regardless of the purpose of the original research, I have to agree with your comment on this crucial point:

      “What makes it hard to learn is the lack of appropriate methodologies to teach Arabic, methodologies which should be backed up by neurolinguistic researches and studies.”

      Being a native Arabic speaker, I never had any problem reading or loving the Arabic language and its literature. But being a father of children who were born and raised in the US, who had to struggle for learning the Arabic language as an ASL, in terms of competing with their, English language as their most spoken in the US, I have to testify to the fact that we do lack the proper curriculum that is based on long term and profound research and designed for the purpose of teaching Arabic as a second language.

      There are so many books in the market, and so many initiatives run by many different organizations and individuals but what is available is not mature enough and does not stand a chance in comparison to the books made for teaching other languages. Of course funding is a main problem, but finding a specialized institute and the human resources who are trained in the field is the biggest issue. With all the experts in the filed, I have not yet seen them all, if its possible at all, working together on one particular project.

      Having most teachers of Arabic mainly trained in teaching Arabic for the purpose of learning how to read the Qur’an, which is the most noble cause for Muslims, and having most teachers of Arabic who got their training to teach Arabic as a first language, make learning Arabic somehow difficult, but not impossible.

      Grown ups who take their time learning the Arabic, especially morphology, enjoy the logic behind the structure of the words. The semitic tri-literal root system of the Arabic language is one of the most enjoyable aspect of learning Arabic, its a brilliant system and mental and logical entertainment, if you got the right teacher to explain it to you. For younger learners, it will definitely be difficult.

      I taught ASL for both children and grown ups for many years, and I learned to read and speak three languages myself, and now working on my fourth, and it is definitely the methodology before anything else that makes a big difference in finding it hard or easy to learn any foreign language.

      PS: Shouldn’t the Israelis be more concerned today with Sabra and Shatila, and make a serious research on their true involvement with the massacre that took place this day, 28 years ago?

  8. Avatar

    Mohammed

    September 16, 2010 at 11:59 AM

    LOL…Jazakallah sister for this article…i had read this article when it was put and i was confused as to what the article was published for……as my learning experience says that it is indeed easy to learn Arabic…but now Alhamdulillah I’m convinced after looking at the image you posted that the research was a fake.

  9. Avatar

    Mezba

    September 16, 2010 at 12:53 PM

    You shouldn’t take it too personally if someone is saying Arabic is hard (and Arabic is not MY language despite me being Muslim – it is only the language of the Quran).

    Personally I find Arabic easy to read and write because it follows its rules and there are hardly exceptions. But imagine if this was the time before Hajjaj bin Yousuf. He was the one who introduced the dots that differentiate the Arabic letters b,t,c etc. If I didn’t have the dots Arabic would have been really hard a language to master.

    • Avatar

      someone

      September 16, 2010 at 5:11 PM

      hahah when i first heard of it in BBC i thought the article was dodgy and poorly written i completely blamed it on BBC and the journalist who cant summarize a research paper to save his life. In my opinion i though BBC made up some conclusions to fit the title. I gave those researchers at Haifa university my benefit of the doubt,boy was I wrong. One of prof of linguists once said that even in linguistics some research facilities get massive amount of funding to do research that are per say relevant or revolutionary to the field but to fit a certain groups agenda/interest . Since this came from Israel’s U. of Haifa are we that surprised.

      If were talking about difficult language English and French are probably the worst, the orthographic representation of the both of these spoken language are pretty illogical , to a point some debated “written language reform“.In English, there is nothing rational about GH. In French both these words are pronounced exactly the same but have different orthographic representation.

      Ex: GHost mÈre
      lauGH mAIre

      Most other language`s are pretty straight forward and i never encountered any illogical orthographic representation of Arabic `s spoken language.

    • Avatar

      someone

      September 16, 2010 at 5:25 PM

      What is written language anyway I see it something aesthetic to language. Some linguist dont even see it as a subject of concern or even relevant o the field. Some languages in the world don`t even have a written language does that make the language meaningless or incomplete, written language is static , its language codified. So what if Arabic is hard to read that does not mean its hard to learn.

    • Avatar

      someone

      September 16, 2010 at 5:26 PM

      What is written language anyway I see it something aesthetic to language. Some linguist dont even see it as a subject of concern or even relevant o the field. Some languages in the world don`t even have a written language does that make the language meaningless or incomplete, written language is static , its language codified. So what if Arabic is hard to read that does not mean its hard to learn.

  10. Avatar

    Sayf

    September 16, 2010 at 1:00 PM

    Very interesting and very well written.

    I think hard and easy might just be over-simplifications of how the brain works. Even if let’s say for the sake of argument it did take more effort to learn, my understanding of how neuroplasticity works (or hypothesis) is that it would increase brain development – especially for children – and eventually make the language and a lot of things connected to those neurons a lot easier too. A bit like working out a muscle – eventually jogging a few km gets really easy, and all related things as well like basketball/swimming/praying taraweh.

    Again, even my blurb is over-simplified. Our understanding of the brain is very limited to just a handful of techniques (fMRI / PET) and there’s a whole lot more that we don’t know than what we do know – and even what we do know is recent and immature stuff. Sometimes reporters incorrectly speak about scientific work in definite terms like in the article (I guess it makes things more fun?), when really there’s a ton more research and counter-research available and necessary.

    My only criticism of your article would be don’t worry too much about politics and “jabs” I think that might be taking things a little more defensively than what’s necessary. Even if their work was biased – there’s no need to become biased in the opposite direction (you aren’t, but it’s a predictable reaction people would have) and end up confounding proper understanding of the science behind the brains in our head.

    For anyone interested in more reading, check this out:
    http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/

    • Avatar

      Elham

      September 17, 2010 at 10:04 PM

      MashAllah,interesting site-thought it would be boring journals on neuroscience.Jak

  11. Avatar

    m

    September 16, 2010 at 1:28 PM

    I really want to thank you for the reccent post you displayed.
    We indeed are underestimating the power of the brain and we do indeed have very few knowledge about how the brain works in general but even less about how it works specifically when learning the Arabic language. As a researcher i do strongly believe that we need to better understand the activities the brain does when learning to read Arabic and when reading it. We need to do the appropriate researches in our arabic communities and not rely on others to do this for us. The evolution of the teaching methods for the arabic language won’t come unless it is tightly linked to scientific research.
    Although many learn arabic very easily still lots of children struggle when learning this language and tend to avoid it at school, especially when having the opportunity to learn another language, if they’re living in a bilingual country. I personnaly find it a shame that so many little ones have difficulties learning the arabic language, not because the language is hard, cause it is true that Arabic is a transparent language with very few exeptions, but only because methodologies for teaching this language are still very old and didn’t evolve much.
    If you really want to understand the struggle of students to learn a language, try to research the term “DYSLEXIA” and you’ll have an idea about the main cognitive functions that are essential to learn to read. However, it is very important to point out that all or almost all studies to understand the brain functions while reading have been made in foreign countries on foreign languages which might not apply to the Arabic language.
    The initial article that have been displayed about the arabic being hard for the brain is most probably politicized. Nevertheless, i find it a trigger to move forward towards more ethical researches about the Arabic language (brain functions, methodologies, explain dyslexia in arabic……).

  12. Avatar

    NonprofitMuslim.com

    September 16, 2010 at 4:02 PM

    Salaams,

    I was a little sad after this article because one of the main criticism of the paper is the orthographical issue (Arabic characters being separately written). The issue about Arabic characters is a well knows issue with Microsoft Word on Macs. I was embarrassed once where I had a sentence in Arabic written in MS word, and the printing company used a mac to print the document – the result was that the characters were not joined. To experiment, open up http://www.nonprofitmuslim.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/arabic_test.doc on a PC and on a Mac, you will see the difference. I like macs, but this software issue is most annoying.

    I am not in the medical field, but I am sure there could be some fun debates about how the mind learns. After reading the article, I could not imagine that someone could commit a huge blunder – if you are a PhD and you did write a paper based on that experiment, you would be a laughing stock of the community. So I emailed Rafiq Ibrahim – he did confirm the issue with macs, and he is getting it fixed with the publishers :).

    At the end, I think it makes us Muslims a little silly for jumping to conclusions on the orthography issue.

    • Avatar

      MW_M

      September 16, 2010 at 7:49 PM

      I have a mac, it displayed it fine…

  13. Avatar

    Ray

    September 16, 2010 at 4:33 PM

    @ NonProfitMuslim, I think if you serve the Israelis an excuse on a plate they will certainly grab because this substandard research has costed them a lot of credibility. The point you make is addressed by the Sh Nadwi in his article. He explains that this is unlikely to be a printing error because it was an image. Also when the MAC printer corrupts the Arabic texts is does not print the letters in the correct (left-to-right ) order as it is in the Israeli research. The MAC error reverses the order of the text to righ-to-left because it treats it as if it was English. So I don’t buy it that this was just a printing error.

  14. Avatar

    Ray

    September 16, 2010 at 6:19 PM

    Also the publication was reviewed and revised by the authors twice before publication. The Journal article says that the paper was:

    Received January 15, 2008
    Revision received August 26, 2008
    Accepted September 8, 2008

    (see page 254)

    Which means they had ample chance to correct any printing errors but because it was intended to be separated letter strings they left it as it was. Think about if, if you printed something off from your MAC and it corrupted the text would you still use it? They approved it because that was the idea.

    NonProfitMuslim, I think it is silly and naive to buy into this argument about MAC printing error.

    Note: In my previous post I meant

  15. Avatar

    Olivia

    September 16, 2010 at 7:45 PM

    the people conducting the study didn’t even write the words correctly?

    my dad used to have a saying about being that dumb, but i can’t say it here. I’ll initialize it: S.F.B. The “F.B.” stands for “for brains.” I’m sure you can figure out the “S,” as long as you weren’t one of the people conducting this study. =)

  16. Avatar

    amir mia

    September 16, 2010 at 8:27 PM

    I have a mac, and below is the print out of the .doc file that was posted earlier and it certainly looks messed up. Looked up this issue on google, and apparently it is a well known problem… look up “mac word arabic” etc…

    http://www.mediafire.com/file/vtl9x2qrbkbiwr7/arabic_test.pdf

    Below is an much older paper from the same author and the pdf shows no problems.

    http://www.mediafire.com/file/1xvv4yy8pa5xv2e/morphological_structure%202007.pdf

    Ray, not sure if you ever published a paper or have a PhD (I have both, but not in the medical field), but review is *not* done on the printed copy. For this very reason, I stick with Latex which is a typesetting language. It is *possible* that the problem lies with the publisher. I am not concerned about supporting or creating excuses for our distant cousins, but am very concerned that as Muslims, we display critical thinking skills without getting emotional :)

    • Avatar

      Ray

      September 17, 2010 at 1:21 AM

      Amir, you have inadvertently provided definitive proof that the rebuttal was spot on. Their earlier research that you circulated proves (a) the Jounal printing process is perfectly capable of printing Arabic correctly and (b) when it’s done correctly the results of the experiments were completely opposite to what they claimed in the BBC episode. In the abstract of this one they wrote: “In Hebrew and Arabic, both hemispheres are sensitive to morphological structure“!!!

      They know this was so in 2006 so they decided to manipulate the experiment so that the Arabs would find it more difficult so that they could claim that we did not use our right hemisphere. It’s very clear now.

      • Avatar

        Asaf

        September 17, 2010 at 9:22 AM

        Wait, “when it’s done correctly the results of the experiments were completely opposite to what they claimed in the BBC episode”? The paper from 2007, in which the words were printed correctly, says “We have shown that native Arabic readers respond equivalently to Hebrew and to Arabic when letters are presented in the right visual field (RVF) but make selectively more errors in Arabic than in Hebrew when letters are presented in the left visual field (LVF). In fact, they make as many errors as participants who cannot read Arabic.”

        The whole piece by Sheykh Nadwi is strange: for instance, it refers to “Kanji speakers.” You can’t speak kanji — it’s a writing system.

      • Avatar

        Asaf

        September 17, 2010 at 9:35 AM

        With respect to the sentence from the abstract you quote, you’re confusing the two separate results they arrived at: one has to do with orthography, and the other has to do with morphology. Both the 2007 paper and the 2010 paper that Shaykh Nadwi’s article is criticizing conclude that Hebrew and Arabic speakers, unlike English speakers, display bihemispheric sensitivity to complex morphology. As the abstract for the 2010 paper says: “Both hemispheres revealed sensitivity to morphological complexity, a pattern similar to that of native Hebrew readers and different from that of native English readers.”

        Both papers also concluded that Arabic orthography is more left-hemisphere intensive than Hebrew or English. And they never claimed that Arabic is especially hard to read for native Arabic learners, or people who’ve been exposed to Arabic and related scripts from a young age. Most of the criticism of the Ibrahim & Eviatar article seems to be either misunderstanding (both on the part of Sh. Nadwi and the BBC), distortion, or paranoia.

        • Avatar

          Ray

          September 17, 2010 at 10:13 AM

          What 2010 paper are you talking about – there is no such thing! If what you say about the morphology findings is true then why did Ebrahim and Avitar not issue a verdict of deficit on English speakers? Why did they only issue it on Arabic in the 2009 paper? Also I noticed you have avoided to comment on the printing issue. Are you suggesting that the this peer review journal published erroneous text?

          As for you Kanji point in Sh Nadwi article- it is clearly a typological error. You are suggesting the he did not know that Kanji is a writing system which is absurd because in the previous paragraph he wrote “such as the Japanese Kanji pictographic system”. If he did not know it was writing system they why would be describe it as a pictographic system? You are clearly clutching at straws here. I think you need to deal with central issues in this attack on Arabic, why did Avitar give an interview to the BBC to help them with their news report if they were misrepresenting their research? And why did the researches issue a verdict of deficit on Arabic and not on other languages?

  17. Avatar

    m

    September 16, 2010 at 11:49 PM

    i really don’t understand why you’re so eager to try to criticise or support the conducted research. Even though they think they found out that the arabic is hard for the brain, the only way to prove somebody wrong is to start thinking scientifically and conduct a conterresearch. Ya Allah how silly we could be sometimes, most of the times really. Wake up!

  18. Avatar

    A.

    September 17, 2010 at 5:04 AM

    MashaAllah. Very enlightening. Jazak Allah Khayr =)

  19. Avatar

    Ibn Masood

    September 17, 2010 at 7:27 AM

    LOL nice.

    As soon as I saw that ridiculous news report, I knew there was an agenda behind the researchers and the reporter who tried to make it a news headline.

    Epic FAIL in my books.

  20. Avatar

    Ray

    September 17, 2010 at 8:44 AM

    I don’t want to accuse anybody of insincerity but I wonder if anyone on this forum knows the people running the organisation called NonProfitMuslim.com? I could not find any names or addresses and the reason I have become interested in this is because they have tried to defend the Israeli research in this thread. There may be a perfectly innocent explanation why they thought it was a good idea to leap to the defence of the Israelis but given my experience with mysterious fund-raisers based in Canada who robbed many mosques and Muslim schools in Europe and North America through elaborate scams I think it is quite important that we scrutinise the credentials and track records of all such individuals and organisations. If they are fund-raising for mosques and schools then we should know their full identities with references and have complete transparency with their accounts. Anything less should be considered dodgy and be avoided.

  21. Avatar

    Middle Ground

    September 17, 2010 at 9:12 AM

    Salam

    Well to be honest (and leaving politics out of this), I – being a native English reader – have been trying to read Quran all my life, have gone through the mushaf many times, yet I still struggle to recite fluently from it after all these years. For me at least, I don’t think I can ever get fluency in Arabic like I have in English.

    • Avatar

      Ray

      September 17, 2010 at 9:24 AM

      If you are leaving “politics aside” as you claim, they why call yourself Middle Ground? Where is that ground? Is that the ground between the Israelis and Muslims?

      Anyway your difficulty with reading is a common problem with people who do not spend enough time with Quran. It’s all down to practice, if you practice it enough then you will be able to read it fluently like most Muslims around the world. It all comes down to practice. Spend an hour everyday reading the Quran for six months and you will see how your fluency will develop.

      • Avatar

        Middle Ground

        September 17, 2010 at 1:48 PM

        Ok I’m out of this thread. Looks like some people need a lesson in adab.

  22. Avatar

    Jeremiah

    September 17, 2010 at 9:55 AM

    As salamu alaikum,

    Jazakillahu khairan to the author and may Allah accept your du’a for your son and mother. I really appreciated this article because the comments really showed the expertise available in our ummah, mashAllah. Wherever you fall on this debate it is good to see that we have people that contribute intellectually.

    wassalam,
    Jeremiah

    • Avatar

      abez

      September 17, 2010 at 10:07 AM

      JazakAllahukheiran for the duas. :) They are much appreciated, brother.

  23. Avatar

    abdulhaq

    September 17, 2010 at 10:34 AM

    There is an over-reaction to this little report.

    It’s sad that now that someone is honest and says they find reading arabic difficult (as ‘Middle Ground’ did) so they get attacked as being pro-Israeli. Unbelievable really.

    Whether or not reading arabic is difficult (and now I teach arabic after learning it in the west), many things in Islam are difficult and alhamdulillaah, it’s a challenge and not a problem. Praying fajr every day on time can be difficult, alhamdulillaah. Fasting for 16 hours on a really hot day is difficult, alhamdulillaah. Improving our character is difficult, alhamdullillaah. Dealing with some awkward people without getting angry can be difficult, alhamdulillaah. Memorising the entire qur’an is difficult. So many great things in Islam are difficult and this is a blessing, nothing to get uptight about. If it was all so easy then everyone would be a great muslim. How different the world would be then!

    Some people will find reading arabic difficult, some will find it easy. That says nothing about our din. How do we behave with each other, that’s what speaks volumes.

    By the way, arabic is really neglected in the ummah so if you want to get worked up over something, take a look at the level of classical arabic in muslim countries.

    wassalaam
    abdulhaq

    • Avatar

      Ray

      September 17, 2010 at 11:21 AM

      I understand where you are coming and I agree that we must be sensitive to the difficulties of our brothers and sisters. However, I think it is also important that Muslims realise that when we are facing an attack from the Israelis on our language and the BBC is claiming that Arabic is hard for the brain, it highly unwise to jump into the middle of this fierce debate to speak about difficulties with Arabic, especially when the causes of our difficulties with Arabic are more to do with our negligence and lack of practice. The discussion is not about negligence and lack of practice etc. It’s about the language itself. In any case I sorry if I offended anyone with my responses. It was not my intention. May Allah make it easy, as He said in the Quran, for us all.

      • Avatar

        abdulhaq

        September 17, 2010 at 11:58 AM

        assalaamu `alaykum Ray

        I think that I feel disappointed that we have all this energy when an Israeli says that reading arabic is more difficult than e.g. reading english (so what? being my primary reaction), when all around us the ummah is totally incapable of understanding the arabic they are reading.

        Many great scholars say that learning arabic (learning it, not just how to read the writing) is fard `ayn, and yet probably 99% of the ummah is totally incapable of that and their 5 times prayers are not understood by themselves. Nobody gets concerned about that, yet when some inconsequential report comes out that maybe reading arabic is a bit difficult (again, so what, lots of great things are difficult) everyone is jumping up and down blaming ‘the others’ for everything again.

        wassalaam, nothing personal intended,

        • Avatar

          Ahmad Magdi

          September 17, 2010 at 1:44 PM

          Salam,

          I agree that we need more effort in the community to teach Arabic and if that is our concern then I think we should all thank Sh Nadawi and Sr Abez for their rebuttal of this biased Israeli research because if they did not do it then lots of Muslim parents would have read the BBC article abour Arabic being hard for the brain and then decide to avoid sending their children to learn Arabic and to read the Quran. I know at least five parents who became quite anxious after reading the BBC news report. As one them told me “now I know why it’s impossible”.

          I have been teaching Arabic (GCSE and A-Level) for nearly 15 years and the biggest obstacle I find to children learning Arabic properly is lack of time dedication and consistency. The ones who persists and give it the necessary time do become quite fluent. The problem for our second and third generation children is that most their time after school is spent on computer games and other pursuits. If we want them to learn the language we have to make sure they invest the time needed for it.

          As for resources I think there is always room for improvement but as things stand at the moment there are quite a lot of highly effective programmes available in communities and on the net. We should not generalise and dismiss the efforts of lots of sincere people out there working night and day to teach Arabic in our communities. They deserve our recognition and gratitude not dismissal and criticisms.

          wassalam

          • Avatar

            abdulhaq

            September 17, 2010 at 2:50 PM

            assalaamu `alaykum

            I agree with all that you said. I do feel some dismay when I hear of people saying things like ‘now I know why it’s impossible’. Despite the fact that almost every Pakistani child I know who is 10 yrs or over can read arabic fairly well, people read the headline of a BBC article and make sweeping and, frankly, silly statements about learning to read arabic now being something really difficult.

            Now, reaching fluency in fushaa certainly does fall into the ‘hard’ category but if taken with the same seriousness as we took maths and english it could be quite a reasonable expectation that non-arab children could understand arabic to a fair level (if not speak it).

            Regarding teachers of arabic, as one myself (who doesn’t charge anything) my main observation, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, is that there are more teachers offering their services than there are students wanting to put in the effort to learn (in the world of adult students, anyway).

            wassalaam

  24. Avatar

    Wael - IslamicAnswers.com

    September 17, 2010 at 6:37 PM

    Abez, thanks very much for this. I read that report in the BBC recently, and at the time I found it a little annoying, but couldn’t say why. Dr. Riyadh has exposed the “study” for the fraud that it is, and you brought the point home in a way that made me laugh.

    Jazak Allah khayr.

    Wael

  25. Avatar

    Elham

    September 17, 2010 at 9:52 PM

    Lol,its quite funny but sad at the same time-the desperation some people have.

    I’m fluent in Arabic,but I would never be able to read those ugly, disjointed, funny-looking ”words” in half a second! They look so abnormal,like they underwent mutation.

    Wallahi,its easy to learn Arabic,even understanding it-all it needs is time,time and more time with people who speak it naturally.You can ask them how to say words,what they mean,name things etc..most people would like to help out when it comes to language.

    Believe it or not,as a kid my Arabic education stems from two main sources:my Sudanese neighbours(I’d ask loads of questions+practice) and Arabic cartoons :D, so learning Arabic at school was just supplementary + boring.

  26. Avatar

    Elham

    September 17, 2010 at 10:01 PM

    Oh and I forgot to add, thats its not so bad learning it when you’re much older,my Mom did not know a word(ok maybe a couple) before moving to the MiddleEast and yet she can now speak fairly fluently (the writing practice comes from the Qur’an).All she did was practice on anyone who looked remotely Arab and forced them to converse with her,politely of course lol.

  27. Avatar

    Mostapha S.

    September 21, 2010 at 8:24 AM

    Assalaamu alaykum wa rahmatullah wa barakatuhu,

    Even if the findings of this dubious study were true, they wouldn’t be necessarily bad; we could say that knowing Arabic makes you more intelligent (and I believe that there is a statement from ‘Umar, r.a.r, to this effect), and that intelligence is still available to all since no one claims that Arabic is impossible to learn, just difficult.

    Wassalaam,

    Mustafa

  28. Avatar

    ummousama

    September 29, 2010 at 2:38 AM

    Assalamu alaikum,

    Arabic is hard to read? Let’s take the illiteracy rates at the end of Year 1, 2 and 3. Which language has the lowest illiteracy rate? In which language is dyslexia most prevalent? Can people who don’t know one word of English read English? No, because they won’t know how to read the word “read” or, if they are given some spelling, if they should write “red” or “read”. Complex English words are not introduced in reading till much later but kids who don’t know Arabic can read the whole Qur’an.

    Yes, the way they wrote the words are very important. Even if they chose cursive, they would need to choose a popular way of writing. On top of that, they would need to use words that make sense. It is very hard to read “English names” transliterated in Arabic because they don’t make sense and because the “reading rules” are not present anymore.

    Arabic IS easy to read, much easier than English, at the very least for a beginner. There is also a famous English text where most letters are misplaced and one can still read the text. Do that with Arabic and you will be unable to read anything because علم is not عمل even though they have the same vowels. Even those words without vowels could have different meanings!

    BTW, I learnt to read English in my teenage years and Arabic in my adulthood. I still make mistakes in English but no mistakes in Arabic!

  29. Avatar

    refutation

    October 8, 2010 at 5:32 PM

    did ya’ll read this most excellent refutation on the original article by shaykh nadwi from the UK?

    http://www.occri.org.uk/Articles/Arabic%20is%20easy%20for%20the%20brain2.htm

    brilliant

  30. Avatar

    ansse

    October 17, 2010 at 12:42 AM

    could you be fair and check if the stimuli you built a thesis arround it are realy what the authors use?
    It seems that it was a conversion fault of the producer (it happend to me with arabic fonts with a journal)

    Please publish
    Ansse

  31. Avatar

    Ibn Mikdad

    December 27, 2010 at 4:07 AM

    Assalaamu alaykum wa rahmatullah wa barakatuhu,

    A study by a group of Princeton scholar concludes that if a font of letters is more difficult to read, learning is improved:

    http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.com/2010/12/harder-to-read-fonts-boost-student.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+BpsResearchDigest+(BPS+Research+Digest)

    One wonders what that finding implies for letters and scripts that may or may not be difficult to read; I suppose something along the lines of ‘Umars remark I mentioned above.

    Wassalaam,

    Mustafa

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Challenges of Identity & Conviction: The Need to Construct an Islamic Worldview

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islamic online high school

He squirmed in his seat as his Middle East history professor–yet again–made a subtle jab about Islam, this time about the jizyah.  This professor claimed to be pro-Arab and pro-Islam and was part of a university department that touted itself for presenting history and narratives that are typically left out of the West’s Eurocentric social studies sequence. Still, she would subjectively only present an Orientalist interpretation of Islam. Ahmad* sighed. He felt bad just thinking about what all his classmates at this esteemed university thought about Islam and Muslims. He was also worried about fellow Muslims in his class who had not grown up in a practicing household-what if they believed her? He hated how she was using her position as the “sage” in the room to present her bias as absolute truth. As for himself, he knew deep down in his bones that what his professor was alleging just could not be true. His fitrah was protesting her coy smile as she knowingly agitated the few Muslims in her class of one-hundred-fifty.  Yet, Ahmad had never studied such topics growing up and felt all his years of secondary education left him ill-equipped as a freshman in college.  He tried to search for answers to her false accusations after class and approached her later during office hours, but she just laughed him off as a backward, orthodox Muslim who had obviously been brainwashed into believing the “fairy tale version” of Islam. 

***

Asiyah* graduated as class valedictorian of her Islamic school. She loved Biology and Physics and planned to major in Engineering at a top-notch program. While both family, friends, and peers were proud of her (some maybe even wishing they were in her shoes), they had no idea of the bitter inner struggle that was eating away at her, tearing her up from the inside out. Her crisis of faith shook her to the core and her parents were at their wits’ end. While she prayed all her prayers and even properly donned her hijab, deep down she felt……..sort of….……atheist.  Physics was her life–her complete being. She loved how the numbers just added up and everything could be empirically proven. But this led to her greatest anguish: how could certain miraculous events during the time of the Blessed Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) have occurred? How could she believe in events that were physically and scientifically impossible?  She felt like an empty body performing the rituals of Islam.

*names changed

***

An Unwelcome Surprise

Islam is a way of life. Its principles operate in every avenue of one’s life. However, English, History, Science and Mathematics are often taught as if they are beyond the scope of Islam. It is commonly assumed that moral teaching happens, or should happen, only in the Islamic Studies class. Yet, if we compare what is being taught in the Islamic Studies class with what is being taught consciously or unconsciously in other classes, an unwelcome surprise awaits us. Examining typical reading material in English classes, for example, reveals that too much of the material is actually going against Islamic norms and principles. Some of the most prominent problems with traditional English literature (which directly clash with Islamic moral and ethical principles) include: the mockery of God and religion, the promotion of rebellion against parents and traditional family values, the normalization of immoral conduct such as lying and rude behavior, and the condoning of inappropriate cross-gender interactions. Additionally, positive references about Islamic culture are either nonexistent or rare. Toxic themes of secularism, atheism, materialism, liberalism, and agnosticism are constantly bombarding our young Muslim students, thus shaping the way in which they view and interact with the world.

Corrective Lens: The Worldview of Islam

We need our children to develop an Islamic worldview, one that provides a framework for Muslims to understand their world from the perspective of the Qur’an.  It is impossible for the Islamic Studies classes alone to successfully teach Islamic behavior and nurture moral commitment unless the other classes also reflect the Islamic worldview- an outlook that emphasizes the idea that all our actions should be focused on pleasing Allah and doing good for ourselves and others. Therefore, the majority of what is taught in all academic disciplines should be based on Islamic values, aiming to improve the life of the student by promoting sublime ethical conduct. The unfortunate reality is quite the opposite: a typical child in a school in the West spends a minimum of 576 periods (16 periods of core classes/week * 4 weeks/month * 9 months) of classroom instruction annually on academic subjects that are devoid of Islam and contain minimal teaching of morality that aligns with Islamic principles. How much Islam a child learns depends on whether their parents choose Sunday school, Islamic schools, and/or other forms of supplementation to provide religious knowledge. However, rarely does that supplemental instruction undo the thousands of hours of the atheistic worldview that children soak in by the time they finish high school through the study of secular subjects. By not having an Islamic worldview and not having Muslims’ heritage and contributions to humanity infused into the teaching of academic subjects, we witness the problems experienced by the likes of Ahmad* and Asiyah*–problems that plague modern Muslim youth.

Identifying the Unlikely Suspect

This realization is perhaps the missing piece in the puzzle when it comes to our bewilderment: how are large swaths of youth from some of the kindest, sweetest, practicing Muslim families going astray and getting confused? When we shepherd our flock and find one or more of our “sheep” lost and off the beaten path, we think of the likely suspects, which include negative influences from peers, family, movies, social media, etc. We may even blame the lack of inspiring role models. We are less likely to suspect that the very literature that our children are consuming day in and day out through our well-intentioned efforts to make them “educated” and “sophisticated” could cause them to question Islam or fall into moral abyss.

Ibn ‘Umar reported that the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, “All of you are shepherds and each of you is responsible for his flock. A man is the shepherd of the people of his house and he is responsible. A woman is the shepherd of the house of her husband and she is responsible. Each of you is a shepherd and each is responsible for his flock.”

Islamic Infusion in Academic Study as a Solution

There have been efforts across the globe to infuse Islam into academic study of worldly subjects. Universities such as the International Islamic University of Malaysia(IIUM), which has a dedicated “Centre for Islamisation (CENTRIS),” is an example. At the secondary school level, most brick and mortar Islamic schools do offer Arabic, Qur’an, and Islamic studies; however, few Muslim teachers are trained in how to teach core academic subjects using principles of Islamic pedagogy.

How exactly can educators infuse an Islamic perspective into their teaching? And how can Muslim children have access to high quality education from the worldview of Islam, taught by talented and dynamic educators?

Infusing Islam & Muslim Heritage in Core Academic Subjects, According to the Experts:

  • Dr. Nadeem Memon, professor of Islamic pedagogy, states that for a pedagogy to be Islamic, it should not contradict the aims, objectives and ethics contained in revelation (Qur’an) and should closely reflect an Islamic ethos that is based on revelation, the sunnah of the Prophet(pbuh), and the intellectual and spiritual heritage of his followers. It should also effectively develop the student’s intelligence (`aql), faith (iman), morality and character (khuluq), knowledge and practice of personal religious obligations (fard ain) and knowledge, skills and physical abilities warranted by worldly responsibilities and duties (Ajem, Ramzy and Nadeem Memon, “Prophetic Pedagogy: Teaching ‘Islamically’ in our Classrooms”)
  • Dr. Susan Douglass, expert in Social Studies, promotes a panoramic study of the world by global eras–emphasizing the interdependence of nations–rather than an isolationist civilizations approach (which in Western societies focuses only on Western civilization). Such study includes Islamic history and Muslims’ contributions to humanity throughout the ages.
  • Dr. Freda Shamma, pioneer in promoting culturally inclusive and ethical literature, emphasizes that English classes should carefully select literature aligned with Islamic moral values and include works by both Western authors and those from other cultures, i.e. literature that 1-features Muslim main characters and 2- is authored by Muslims.
  • Dr. Nur Jannah Hassan at CENTRIS, stresses that Science classes should be designed to awaken the student’s mind, to inspire a complete awe of and servitude towards the Creator and Sustainer, to instill the purpose of creation, vicegerency and stewardship of the earth and its inhabitants, to enable students to decipher God’s Signs in nature and in the self, to infuse responsibility in sustaining balance and accountability, and should include Muslims’ legacy in the field.
  • Dr. Reema alNizami, specialist in Math Education, advocates that Math classes should instill creative thinking, systematic problem solving and an appreciation of balance; include a survey of Muslims’ contributions to the field; and utilize word problems that encourage charitable and ethical financial practices.

Technology Enables Access to Islamically Infused Schooling for grades 6-12

Technology has now enabled this Islamic infusion for middle schools and secondary schools to become a reality on a global scale, alhamdulillah. Legacy International Online High School, a college preparatory, online Islamic school serving grades 6-12, whose mission is “Cultivating Compassionate Global Leaders”, offers all academic subjects from the Islamic worldview. Pioneered by leading Muslim educators from around the globe with background in Islamic pedagogy and digital learning, Legacy is the first of its kind online platform that is accessible to:

  • homeschooling families seeking full-time, rigorous, Islamically infused classes
  • Public school families looking for a part-time Islamic studies or Arabic sequence
  • Islamic schools, evening programs, and Sunday schools that are short-staffed and would like to outsource certain courses from the Islamic worldview
  • Schools and entities needing training/workshops to empower Muslim educators on how to teach from the Islamic worldview

Alhamdulillah, Legacy IOHS is an accessible resource for families with children in grades 6-8 who are seeking curriculum and instruction that is Islamically infused.

Strengthening Faith & Identity in College and Beyond

For those seeking supplementary resources to address the most prevalent hot topic issues plaguing young Muslims of our times, Yaqeen Institute, whose initial publications were more targeted towards a university audience, is now working to make its research more accessible to the general public through both its Conviction Circles initiative and its short videos featuring infographics.

Another online platform, California Islamic University, offers a comprehensive course sequence which allows college students to graduate with a second degree in Islamic studies while simultaneously completing their undergraduate studies at any accredited community college or university in the United States. Qalam and AlMaghrib Institute also offer online coursework in Islamic studies.

What We Hope to Avoid

While volunteering at his son Sulayman’s* public school with ten student participants, Ibrahim* was saddened when he met a young boy named Chris*. When Chris met Ibrahim, he piped up and eagerly told Ibrahim, “my grandparents are Muslim!” Through the course of the conversation, Ibrahim realized that he knew Chris’ grandparents, a very sweet elderly couple (and currently very practicing) who had not made the Islamic worldview a priority early on in their children’s lives. A mere two generations later, Islam is completely eliminated from their family.  *names changed

Our Resolve

Legacy IOHS recommends the following to Muslim families/educators and Islamic schools:

  1. Instill in our children a strong grasp of the foundational sciences of Islam, while preparing them with the necessary contemporary knowledge and skills
  2. Teach our children in their formative years to view the world (including their “secular” academic study) through the lens of Islam
  3. Follow this up with relevant motivational programs that assist them in understanding challenging issues of today and coach them on how to respond to the issues in their teenage years.

We pray that with the above, we will have fulfilled our duty in shepherding our flock in a comprehensive way, with utmost care. It is Allah’s help we seek in these challenging times:

رَبَّنَا لَا تُزِغْ قُلُوبَنَا بَعْدَ إِذْ هَدَيْتَنَا وَهَبْ لَنَا مِنْ لَدُنْكَ رَحْمَةً ۚ إِنَّكَ أَنْتَ الْوَهَّابُ

‘Our Lord, do not let our hearts deviate after You have guided us. Grant us Your mercy: You are the Ever Giving. [Qur’an 3:8]

 رَبَّنَا هَبْ لَنَا مِنْ أَزْوَاجِنَا وَذُرِّيَّاتِنَا قُرَّةَ أَعْيُنٍ وَاجْعَلْنَا لِلْمُتَّقِينَ إِمَامًا

‘Our Lord, give us joy in our spouses and offspring. Make us good examples to those who are aware of You’. [Qur’an 25:74]

يَا مُقَلِّبَ القُلُوبِ ثَبِّتْ قَلْبِيْ عَلَى دِيْنِكْ

“O turner of the hearts, keep my heart firm on your religion.”

Freda Shamma has a M.A. from the University of California, Berkeley, and an Ed.D. from the University of Cincinnati in the area of Curriculum Development. A veteran educator, she has worked with educators from the United States, South Africa and all over the Muslim world to develop integrated curricula based on an Islamic worldview that meets the needs of modern Muslim youth. She serves as Curriculum Advisor for Legacy International Online High School.

An avid student of the Islamic sciences, Zaheer Arastu earned his M.Ed from The George Washington University and completed his training in Educational Leadership from the University of Oklahoma. his experience in Islamic education spans over 15 years serving as both teacher, administrator, and dean of innovation and technology. He currently serves as the Head of School for Legacy International Online High School.

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Grit and Resilience: The Self-Help vs. Islamic Perspective

Omar Usman

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grit

I don’t really care about grit.

Persevering and persisting through difficulties to achieve a higher goal is awesome. High-five. We should all develop that. No one disagrees that resilience is an essential characteristic to have.

Somehow, this simple concept has ballooned into what feels like a self-help cottage industry of sorts. It has a Ted talk with tens of millions of views, podcasts, keynote speeches, a New York Times best-selling book, and finding ways to teach this in schools and workplaces.

What I do care about is critically analyzing if it is all that it’s cracked up to be (spoiler alert: I don’t think so), why the self-help industry aggressively promotes it, and how we understand it from an Islamic perspective. For me, this is about much more than just grit – it’s about understanding character development from a (mostly Americanized) secular perspective vis-a-vis the Islamic one.

The appeal of grit in a self-help context is that it provides a magic bullet that intuitively feels correct. It provides optimism. If I can master this one thing, it will unlock what I need to be successful. When I keep running into a roadblock, I can scapegoat my reason for failure – a lack of grit.

Grit encompasses several inspirational cliches – be satisfied with being unsatisfied, or love the chase as much as the capture, or that grit is falling in love and staying in love. It is to believe anyone can succeed if they work long and hard enough. In short, it is the one-word encapsulation of the ideal of the American Dream.

Self-help literature has an underlying theme of controlling what is within your control and letting go of the rest. Islamically, in general, we agree with this sentiment. We focus our actions where we are personally accountable and put our trust in Allah for what we cannot control.

The problem with this theme, specifically with grit, is that it necessitates believing the circumstances around you cannot be changed. Therefore, you must simply accept things the way that they are. Teaching people that they can overcome any situation by merely working hard enough is not only unrealistic but utterly devoid of compassion.

“The notion that kids in poverty can overcome hunger, lack of medical care, homelessness, and trauma by buckling down and persisting was always stupid and heartless, exactly what you would expect to hear from Scrooge or the Koch brothers or Betsy DeVos.” -Diane Ravitch, Forget Grit, Focus on Inequality

Focusing on the individual characteristics of grit and perseverance shifts attention away from structural or systemic issues that impact someone’s ability to succeed. The personal characteristics can be changed while structural inequalities are seen as ‘fixed.’

Alfie Kohn, in an article critical of Grit by Angela Duckworth, notes that Duckworth and her mentor while studying grit operated under a belief that,

[U]nderachievement isn’t explained by structural factors — social, economic, or even educational. Rather, they insisted it should be attributed to the students themselves and their “failure to exercise self-discipline.” The entire conceptual edifice of grit is constructed on that individualistic premise, one that remains popular for ideological reasons even though it’s been repeatedly debunked by research.

Duckworth admitted as much in an interview with EdSurge.

There was a student who introduced himself having written a critical essay about the narrative of grit. His major point was that when we talk about grit as a kind of ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ personal strength, it leaves in the shadows structural poverty and racism and other things that make it impossible, frankly, for some kids to do what we would expect them to do. When he sent me that essay, of course, I wanted to know more. I joined his [dissertation] committee because I don’t know much about sociology, and I don’t know much about this criticism.

I learned a lot from him over the years. I think the lesson for me is that when someone criticizes you, when someone criticized me, the natural thing is to be defensive and to reflexively make more clear your case and why you’re right, but I’ve always learned more from just listening. When I have the courage to just say, “Well, maybe there’s a point here that I hadn’t thought of,” and in this case the Grit narrative and what Grit has become is something that he really brought to me and my awareness in a way that I was oblivious to before.

It is mind-boggling that the person who popularized this research and wrote the book on the topic simply didn’t know that there was such a thing as structural inequality. It is quite disappointing that her response essentially amounted to “That’s interesting. I’d like to learn more.”

Duckworth provides a caveat – “My theory doesn’t address these outside ­forces, nor does it include luck. It’s about the psychology of achievement, but because psychology isn’t all that matters, it’s incomplete.” This is a cop-out we see consistently in the self-help industry and elsewhere. They won’t deny that those problems exist, they simply say that’s not the current focus.

It is intellectually dishonest to promote something as a key to success while outright ignoring the structures needed to enable success. That is not the only thing the theory of grit ignores. While marketing it as a necessary characteristic, it overlooks traits like honesty and kindness.

The grit narrative lionizes this superhero type of individual who breaks through all obstacles no matter how much the deck is stacked against them. It provides a sense of false hope. Instead of knowing when to cut your losses and see a failure for what it is, espousing a grit mentality will make a person stubbornly pursue a failing endeavor. It reminds me of those singers who comically fail the first round of auditions on American Idol, are rightly ridiculed by the judges, and then emotionally tell the whole world they’re going to come out on top (and then never do).

Overconfidence, obstinance, and naive optimism are the result of grit without context or boundaries. It fosters denial and a lack of self-awareness – the consequences of which are felt when horrible leaders keep rising to the top due, in part, to their grit and perseverance.

The entire idea of the psychology of achievement completely ignores the notion of morality and ethics. Grit in a vacuum may be amoral, but that is not how the real world works. This speaks powerfully to the need to understand the application of these types of concepts through a lens of faith.

The individual focus, however, is precisely what makes something like grit a prime candidate to become a popular self-help item. Schools and corporations alike will want to push it because it focuses on the individual instead of the reality of circumstances. There is a real amount of cognitive dissonance when a corporation can tell employees to focus on developing grit while not addressing toxic employment practices that increase turnover and destroy employees physically and emotionally (see: Dying for a Paycheck by Jeffrey Pfeffer).

Circumstances matter more than ever. You’ve probably heard the story (of course, in a Ted Talk) about the famous marshmallow test at some point. This popularizes the self-help version of delayed gratification. A bunch of kids are given a marshmallow and told that if they can avoid eating it for 5 minutes, they’ll get a second one. The children are then shown hilariously trying to resist eating it. These kids were then studied as they grew older, and lo and behold, those who had the self-discipline to hold out for the 2nd marshmallow were far more successful in life than those who gave in.

A new study found that a child’s ability to hold out for the second marshmallow had nothing to do with the ability to delay gratification. As The Atlantic points out, it had much more to do with the child’s social and economic background. When a child comes from a well to do household, the promise of a second marshmallow will be fulfilled. Their parents always deliver. When someone grows up in poverty, they are more attuned to take the short term reward because the guarantee does not exist that the marshmallow would still be there later. The circumstances matter much more than the psychological studies can account for. It is far easier to display grit with an entrepreneurial venture, for example, when you have the safety net of wealthy and supportive parents.

Valerie Strauss writes in the Washington Post that grit discourse is driven by middle and upper-class parents wanting their spoiled kids to appreciate the virtues of struggling against hardship. Unfortunately, this focus on character education means that poor students suffer because less money will then be spent on teaching disadvantaged students the skills they need to be successful. Sisyphus, she notes, had plenty of grit, but it didn’t get him very far.

Strauss asks us to imagine if a toxic dump was discovered near Beverly Hills, and our response was to teach kids how to lessen the effects of toxins instead of fixing the dump.

The grit discourse does not teach that poor children deserve poverty; it teaches that poverty itself is not so bad. In fact, hardship provides the very traits required to escape hardship. This logic is as seductive as it is circular. Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is seen as a virtuous enterprise whether practiced by Horatio Alger’s urchins or Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs (bootstrapping is a common term in technology finance circles). And most importantly, it creates a purported path out of poverty that does not involve any sacrifice on the part of the privileged classes. -Valerie Strauss

This approach is a way to appear noble while perpetuating the status quo. It provides the illusion of upliftment while further entrenching the very systems that prevent it. We see this enacted most commonly with modern-day Silicon Valley style of philanthropy. Anand Giridharadas has an entire book dedicated to this ‘elite charade of changing the world’ entitled Winners Take All.

The media also does its fair share to push this narrative. Stories that should horrify us are passed along as inspirational stories of perseverance. It’s like celebrating a GoFundMe campaign that helps pay for surgery to save someone’s life instead of critically analyzing why healthcare is not seen as a human right in the first place.

Islamic Perspective

Islamically, we are taught to find ways to address the individual as well as the system. Characteristics like grit and delayed gratification are not bad. They’re misapplied when the bigger picture is not taken into account. In the Islamic system, for example, a person is encouraged not to beg. At the same time, there is an encouragement for those who can give to seek out those in need. A person in debt is strongly advised to pay off their debts as quickly as possible. At the same time, the lender is encouraged to be easygoing and to forgive the debt if possible.

This provides a more realistic framework for applying these concepts. A person facing difficulty should be encouraged to be resilient and find ways to bounce back. At the same time, support structures must be established to help that person.

Beyond the framework, there is a much larger issue. Grit is oriented around success. Success is unquestionably assumed to be a personal success oriented around academic achievement, career, wealth, and status. When that is the end goal, it makes it much easier to keep the focus on the individual.

The Islamic definition of success is much broader. There is the obvious idea of success in the Hereafter, but that is separate from this discussion. Even in a worldly sense, a successful person may be the one who sacrifices attending a good school, or perhaps even a dream job type of career opportunity, to spend more time with their family. The emphasis on individual success at all costs has contributed to the breakdown of essential family and community support systems.

A misapplied sense of grit furthers this when a person thinks they don’t need anyone else, and they just need to persevere. It is part of a larger body of messaging that promotes freedom and autonomy. We celebrate people who are strong and independent. Self-help tells us we can achieve anything with the right mindset.

But what happens when we fail? What happens when we find loneliness and not fulfillment, when we lack the bonds of familial solidarity, and when money does not make us whole? Then it all falls on us. It is precisely this feeling of constriction that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), give good news to those who are steadfast, those who say, when afflicted with a calamity, ‘We belong to God and to Him we shall return.’ These will be given blessings and mercy from their Lord, and it is they who are rightly guided.” (2:155-157)

Resilience is a reflex. When a person faces hardship, they will fall back on the habits and values they have. It brings to mind the statement of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) that patience is at the first strike. He taught us the mindset needed to have grit in the first place,

“Wondrous is the affair of the believer for there is good for him in every matter and this is not the case with anyone except the believer. If he is happy, then he thanks Allah and thus there is good for him, and if he is harmed, then he shows patience and thus there is good for him” (Muslim).

He also taught us the habits we need to ensure that we have the reflex of grit when the situation warrants it –

“Whoever would be pleased for Allah to answer him during times of hardship and difficulty, let him supplicate often during times of ease” (Tirmidhi).

The institution of the masjid as a community center provides a massive opportunity to build infrastructure to support people. Resilience, as Michael Ungar writes, is not a DIY endeavor. Communities must find ways to provide the resources a person needs to persevere. Ungar explains, “What kind of resources? The kind that get you through the inevitable crises that life throws our way. A bank of sick days. Some savings or an extended family who can take you in. Neighbours or a congregation willing to bring over a casserole, shovel your driveway or help care for your children while you are doing whatever you need to do to get through the moment. Communities with police, social workers, home-care workers, fire departments, ambulances, and food banks. Employment insurance, pension plans or financial advisers to help you through a layoff.”

Ungar summarizes the appropriate application of grit, “The science of resilience is clear: The social, political and natural environments in which we live are far more important to our health, fitness, finances and time management than our individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. When it comes to maintaining well-being and finding success, environments matter. In fact, they may matter just as much, and likely much more, than individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. A positive attitude may be required to take advantage of opportunities as you find them, but no amount of positive thinking on its own is going to help you survive a natural disaster, a bad workplace or childhood abuse. Change your world first by finding the relationships that nurture you, the opportunities to use your talents and the places where you experience community and governmental support and social justice. Once you have these, your world will help you succeed more than you could ever help yourself.”

The one major missing ingredient here is tawakkul (trust in Allah). One of the events in the life of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) that epitomized grit, resilience, and perseverance was the Battle of Badr. At this occasion, the Companions said, “God is enough for us: He is the best protector.

“Those whose faith only increased when people said, ‘Fear your enemy: they have amassed a great army against you,’ and who replied, ‘God is enough for us: He is the best protector,’“ (3:173)

This is the same phrase that Ibrahim 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), while displaying the utmost level of resilience, said when he was thrown into the fire, and it was made cool.

There is a core belief in Islam about balancing between fear and hope. Scholars advise when a person feels despair, they should remind themselves of the traditions that reinforce hope in Allah’s forgiveness. When a person feels themselves sliding further and further into disobedience to Allah, then they should remind themselves of the traditions that warn against Allah’s punishment. The focus changes depending on the situation.

Grit itself is a praiseworthy characteristic

There is no doubt that it is a trait that makes people successful. The challenge comes in applying it and how we teach it. It needs a proper level of balance. Too much focus on grit as a singular predictor of success may lead to victim-blaming and false hope syndrome. Overlooking it on the other hand, enables a feeling of entitlement and a victim mentality.

One purpose of teaching grit was to help students from privileged backgrounds understand and appreciate the struggle needed to overcome difficulty. Misapplied, it can lead to overlooking systemic issues that prevent a person from succeeding even when they have grit.

Self-help literature often fails to make these types of distinctions. It fails to provide guidance for balancing adapting the advice based on circumstance. The criticisms here are not of the idea of grit, but rather the myopic way in which self-help literature promotes concepts like grit without real-world contextualization. We need to find a way to have the right proportionality of understanding individual effort, societal support, and our reliance on Allah.

Our ability to persevere, to be resilient, and to have grit, is linked directly to our relationship with Allah, and our true level of trust in Him.

To stay up to date with more articles from Omar, sign up for his email list at http://ibnabeeomar.com/newsletter

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Who Can We Trust?

Danish Qasim

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trust

Spiritual abusers are con-artists, and if they were easy to spot then they would be far less successful. That is why you must exercise vigilance and your own judgment above that of public opinion. Never let the person’s position make you trust them more than you would without it.

Spiritual abusers work covertly, present themselves well, and use their service as a cover beneath which to operate. The way to avoid them is to recognize their tactics and avoid being caught by them.

Blurring Lines

Spiritual abuse often begins with hard-to-spot precursors, with manipulators exploiting grey areas and blurring boundaries to confuse targets. For example, when setting someone up for illicit relations or secret marriage, teachers may begin with inappropriate jokes that lower boundaries.

They may touch others in ways that confuse the person touched as to permissibility, for example, men touching women on their hijabs rather than direct skin. They may inappropriately touch someone in ways that leave him/her wondering whether or not it was intentional.

There may be frivolous texting while the premise of engagement is ‘work only’. Boundaries may be blurred by adding flirtatious content, sending articles praising polygamy, or mentioning dreams about getting married. The recipient may struggle to pinpoint what’s wrong with any of this, but the bottom line is that they don’t have to.

While these tactics may be hard to prove, you don’t need to prove that you don’t want to be communicated with in this way and that you will not tolerate it. You can withdraw from the situation on the basis of your own boundaries.

One of the key challenges in standing up to spiritual abuse is the lack of confidence in calling out bad behavior or the need for validation for wrongs. We may be afraid to a question a teacher who is more knowledgeable than us when he is doing clear haram. However, halal and haram are defined by Allah and no human has the right to amend them. If a religious leader claims exemption to the rules for themselves or their students, that’s a big, bright, red flag.

Beware of Bullying

When you witness or experience bullying, understand that a Muslim’s dignity is sacred and don’t accept justifications of ‘tarbiyah’ (spiritual edification/character reformation) or breaking someone’s nafs (ego). If you didn’t sign up for spiritual edification, don’t accept any volunteer spiritual guides.

If you did sign up, pay attention as to whether these harsh rebukes are having a positive or negative effect. If they are having a negative emotional, mental, or physical effect on you, then this is clearly not tarbiyah, which is meant to build you up.

When abuse in the name of tarbiyah happens, it is the shaykh himself or the shaykha herself who needs character reformation. When such behavior goes unchecked, students become outlets of unchecked anger and are left with trauma and PTSD. This type of bullying is very common in women’s groups.

Trust Built and Trust Destroyed

There are different levels of trust, and as it relates to religious leaders, one does not need to investigate individuals or build trust for a perfunctory relationship. You do not need a high degree of trust if you are just attending someone’s general lectures and not establishing any personal relationship.

If you want to study something with an Islamic teacher, do so as you would with a school-teacher, understanding that their position does not make that person either exceptionally safe nor exceptionally harmful. Treat religious figures as religious consultants who are there to answer questions based on their knowledge. Give every teacher a clean slate, don’t have baseless suspicions, but if behavior becomes manipulative, exploitative, cultish, or otherwise abusive, don’t justify it either.

Personal accountability is a cornerstone of the Islamic faith and we have to take responsibility for our own faith and actions. There is no need to be suspicious without reason, but nor is there a justification for blind trust in someone you don’t know, just because they lead prayers or have a degree of religious education.

It is natural to ask ourselves whether people can be trusted after experiencing or learning about spiritual abuse. The answer is yes – you can trust yourself. You can also trust others in ways that are appropriate for the relationship. If you know someone well and they have proven over a long period of time to be trustworthy, keep secrets, and do not use you or take advantage of you, then it makes sense to trust that person more than a stranger or someone who has outward uprightness that you do not know well. That level of trust is earned through long-time demonstration of its characteristics.

Seeing someone on stage for years or relying on testimony of people impressed by someone should not convince you to lower your guard. Even if you do believe someone is pious, you still never drop your better judgment, because even saints are fallible.

Don’t Fall for Reputation

Never take other respected leaders praising or working alongside an individual as proof of his or her trustworthiness. It is possible that the teachers you trust are unaware of any wrongdoing. It’s not a reasonable expectation, nor is it a responsibility for them to boycott or disassociate themselves from another religious figure even if they are aware of them being abusive.

Furthermore, skilled manipulators often gain favor from respected teachers both overseas and domestically to gain credibility.

If one shaykh praises another shaykh, but you witness abusive behavior, don’t doubt yourself based on this praise. The praise may have been true at one time or may have been true in the experience of the one giving the praise, but no one knows another person’s current spiritual state as spiritual states can change.

Even if the abusive individual was previously recognized to be a great wali (saint), understand that there are saints who have lost their sainthood as they do not have isma (divine protection from sin or leaving Islam) like the prophets (upon them be peace) do. What was true yesterday, may not be true today.

Often praises of integrity, courage, and inclusiveness are heaped on men who support influential female figures. However, men who are praised as ‘allies,’ and thanked for ‘using their privilege’ to support female scholarship and the participation of women in religious organizations and events are no more trustworthy than those who don’t.

Abusers are often very image-conscious and may be acting to improve their own image and brand strength. Influential male and female religious figures also help one another with mutual praising and social-proofing. That is how the misdoings of men who are supportive of women are ignored, as long as they support the right politicized causes such as inclusive spaces and diverse panels.

Don’t be tricked into trust through a person’s credentials. An ijazah (license) to be a shaykh of a tariqa is purportedly the highest credential. It’s a credential that allegedly has a chain that goes all the way back to the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), but that does not impart any of the Prophet’s character or trustworthiness in and of itself. A shaykh has to continuously live up to the ijaza and position. The position does not justify behavior outside of the sharia or any form of abuse. Scholars are inheritors of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) only to the degree to which they embody his character.

When a teacher who hasn’t spent adequate time with righteous shayukh abuses, they are said to lack suhba (companionship of the pious), and that is why they are abusive.

The truth is many of the worst abusers in traditional circles are highly certified, have spent adequate time with shayukh, are valid representatives of them, and are able to abuse because the previously mentioned credentials lead to blind trust.

Don’t let certifications about spiritual abuse, ethical leadership, or the like mean anything to you. Skilled narcissists will be the first to get such certifications and take courses because they know this will make people trust them more. You will see courses on ‘healthy leadership’ and ‘spiritual abuse prevention’ being taught and designed by them. There is a false premise behind such certifications that if religious leaders knew how abuse occurs and the damage it causes victims they wouldn’t do it. The fact is they know how abuse works, know how damaging it is, and don’t care. In a way, it’s good to have lessons on spiritual abuse from purveyors of abuse, just as learning theft prevention from a thief might be the most beneficial.

Don’t judge by rhetoric

Don’t look at the rhetoric of groups or individuals to see how seriously they take abuse. Spiritual abuse occurs in all groups. It is common for members of one group to call out abuse that they see in another group while ignoring abuse occurring within their own group.

Sufis who will talk about the importance of sharia, label others as ‘goofy-Sufis,’ and insist that real Sufis follow sharia, will very often abuse in private and use the same justifications as the other Sufi groups they publicly deride.

Many imams and religious leaders will talk publicly about the importance of justice, having zero-tolerance for abuse, and the importance of building safe spaces, while they themselves are participating in the abuse.

Furthermore, female religious leaders will often cover up secret marriages, and other abuses for such men and help them to ostracize and destroy the credibility of their victims as long as their political views align. Muslim mental health providers often incorporate religious figures when they do programs, and in some cases they involve known abusers if it helps their cause.

In some cases, the organization does not know of any abuse. Abusive individuals use partnerships with Muslim mental health organizations to enhance their image as a “safe person.” This is especially dangerous due to the vulnerability of those struggling with mental illness and spiritual issues, who may then be exploited by the abuser. It is a community responsibility to ensure the safety of these vulnerable individuals and to ensure that they do have access to resources that can actually help them.

Don’t judge by fame

One false assumption is that the local-unknown teacher is sincere while the famous preacher is insincere and just wants to amass followers. This contrast is baseless although rhetorically catchy.

The fact is, many unknown teachers desire fame and work towards it more than those who are famous. Other times the unknown and famous teacher may have the same love of leadership, but one is more skilled than the other. They both may also be incredibly sincere.

Ultimately, we cannot judge what is in someone’s heart but must look at their actions, and if their actions are abusive, they are a danger to the community. Both famous and non-famous teachers are equally capable of spiritual abuse.

Look for a procedure

Before being involved in an organization, look for a code of conduct. There is no accountability without one in non-criminal matters. Never depend on people, look at the procedures and ensure that the procedure calls for transparency, such as the one we at In Shaykh’s Clothing published and made free for the public to use.

Procedure also applies to an organizations’ financials. Do not donate money to organizations based on personalities, instead demand financial transparency and accountability for the money spent. There is great incentive for spiritual abusers to win the trust of crowds when it means they can raise money without any financial accountability.

But what about Husne-Zann? Thinking well of others?

Allah tells us يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اجْتَنِبُوا كَثِيرًا مِّنَ الظَّنِّ إِنَّ بَعْضَ الظَّنِّ إِثْمٌ

O You who believe, leave much suspicion, indeed some suspicions are sinful” (Quran 49:12).

From this verse, we see that some – not all negative opinions are sinful. The prohibition is partitive, meaning some bad opinions are permissible.

If someone punches you, it is not hunse-zann to assume that person just happened to stretch with a closed fist and did not see your face was in the way. This kind of delusion will lead to you getting punched more. To be wary of their fist isn’t a sinful level of suspicion.

Part of why spiritual abuse is difficult to detect is that its purveyors have a reputation for outright uprightness. They are thought well of in the community, and in many cases they are its pillars and have decades of positive service to their defense. Assuming that someone cannot be abusive simply because they have been a teacher or leader for a long time is not husne-zann. When facts are brought to light- like a fist to the face – it is delusional to assume they didn’t mean it that way.

If someone does something that warrants suspicion, then put your guard up and don’t make excuses for those actions. Start with a general guard and be procedural about things which require a procedure.  For example, if you are going to loan someone money, don’t just take their word that they will pay you back but insist on a written record. If they say they are offended, just say “it’s my standard procedure to avoid any confusion later on.” A reasonable person won’t have an issue with that. If someone mentions on the phone they will pay you $100 for your work, write an email to confirm what was said on the phone so there’s a record for it.

Lastly, and most importantly, never leave your child alone with a teacher where you or others cannot see them. Many cases of child sexual assault can be prevented if we never allow children to study alone with adults. There should never be an exception to this, and parents much uphold this as a matter of policy. Precaution is not an accusation, and this is a professional and standard no one should reject.

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