“Each One – Teach One”: It Is Time To Be Serious About Literacy In Arabic

BACK IN THE 1930’s, an American Christian missionary to the Philippines, Frank Charles Laubach (1884-1970), pioneered a method for teaching literacy to non-literate peoples. Twenty years later he founded the Laubach Literacy program,[1] which helped give reading skills to hundreds of thousands of illiterate Americans. His work subsequently expanded internationally, with an estimated 60 million people in 30 some developing countries claimed as having been enabled to read in their own language through his principles and specifically through materials worked out by him and elaborated by his disciples. Mr. Laubach promoted the idea that universal literacy was a path to world peace. We are not to be surprised, of course, to learn that he hitched up his literacy program with winning converts to his brand of ‘Evangelical [Pauline] Christianity.’ As Muslims, we applaud Missionary Laubach’s intention for doing great good among the more needy of humankind; and let us pray that his efforts lead, somehow and for all people reached by his efforts, to an accurate understanding of the life and message of Prophet Jesus. We claim Prophet Jesus as equally “our” prophet, sent by the one Creator and Guide of all mankind.

For the Ummah of Prophet Muhammad œ—the classical Christian missionary example from last century is not the first in this direction. We, too, have such a tradition; ours dates back much further in time than does the Laubach’s initiative—laying modesty aside—nigh onto 15 centuries!

Knowledge And the Arabic Sources

In Islam, knowledge is not only highly valued, it is mandated for us, one and all, no matter what it takes to accomplish this goal:

Seek knowledge even if it be in China, for seeking knowledge is a duty upon every Muslim. (Al-Bayhaqi, Shuʻab Al-Îmân)

Kathîr ibn Qays said:

I was sitting with Abû Al-Dardâ’ in the mosque of Damascus. A man came to him and said: Abû Al-Dardâ’, I have come to you from the town of the Messenger of Allah œ for a tradition that I have heard you relate from him. I have come for no other purpose. Abû Al-Dardâ’ answered: I heard the Messenger of Allah œ say: If anyone travels in search of knowledge, Allah will cause him to travel on one of the roads to Paradise. The angels lower their wings in their great pleasure with one who seeks knowledge. The inhabitants of the heavens and the earth, and even the fish in the deep waters, ask forgiveness for the learned. The superiority of the learned man over the devout is like that of the moon—on the night when it is full—over the rest of the stars. The learned are the heirs of the prophets, and the prophets bequeath neither dinar nor dirham, leaving only knowledge, and he who takes it takes an abundant portion. (Abû Dâwûd)

Males and female share this right and responsibility:

Seeking knowledge is a duty upon every Muslim. (Ibn Mâjah)

Seeking knowledge is a duty upon every male and female Muslim. (Sharḥ Musnad Abî Ḥanîfah, ʿAli Al-Qâri)

The angels help those acquiring useful knowledge, and Allah makes it easy when the Community is involved:

He who treads a path in search of knowledge, Allah would make that path easy, leading to Paradise for him. No people get together in a house of the houses of Allah (i.e. a mosque), reciting the Book of Allah, and learning it together among themselves, but tranquility (sakînah) descends upon them, (Divine) mercy covers them (from above), and the angels surround them, and Allah makes a mention of them among those who are with Him. (Muslim)

Thus, knowledge must be taught and learned. What is the knowledge and wisdom which the Prophet œ required us to seek? Clearly, in Islam, knowledge is closely related to the pen and a literate community. So, what about those among us in our communities for whom Arabic is a new language? How is the originally oral message related to the written record?

The Prophet œ was divinely instructed to allow the Quran to come to him, unhindered by his desire to memorize it and get it right:

[Know,] then, [that] God is sublimely exalted, the Ultimate Sovereign, the Ultimate Truth; and [knowing this,] do not approach the Qur’an in haste, before it has been revealed to you in full, but [always] say: “O my Sustainer, cause me to grow in knowledge! Surat Ṭâ Hâ, 20, 114.

Move not your tongue in haste [repeating the words of the revelation:] for, behold, it is for Us to gather it [in your heart,] and to cause it to be read [as it ought to be read]. Thus, when We recite it, follow you its wording [with all your mind]: and then, behold, it will be for Us to make its meaning clear. Surat Al-Qiyâmah, 75: 16-18.

In the early days of Islam the Muslim community began to engage in military forays and to defend themselves against those of their family members and clans who would ignorantly destroy them for having challenged their idols and the jâhiliyyah power structure of Arab society; in those times, prisoners of war—if they were ‘literate,’ i.e., able to read and write—would be offered their freedom in return for teaching Muslims the skill of literacy.

IbnʿAbbâs said:

Some of the Qurashite prisoners of Badr could not afford to pay the ransom. So the Messenger of Allah made their ransom to teach literacy to the children of the Anṣâr. (Aḥmad)

We are all familiar with the first verses of Guidance that came to our Prophet œ: the command for him to recite, or to “read out” (iqra’), the verses that were coming upon him from he-knew-not-where—at least not at first—in a most extraordinary manner:

Read – in the name of thy Sustainer, who has created – created man out of a germ-cell. Read – for your Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One who has taught [man] the use of the pen -taught man what he did not know! Sûrat Al-ʻAlaq, 94:1-5.

The Quran itself, like previous revelations, repeatedly refers to itself as the “Book,” being foremost an oral Text, transmitted to Prophet Muhammad œ in a spoken form, and from him taught directly to his Companions.

[Angel] Gabriel…by God’s leave, has brought down upon your heart this [divine writ] which confirms the truth of whatever there still remains [of earlier revelations], and is a guidance and a glad tiding for the believers… Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:97.

Why Know The Quran And Its Language?

The technology of writing, using some kind of hand-held instrument, would have been known in the time of Prophet Muhammad œ, as it had been known for centuries, as a skill accomplished by a certain class of trained professionals—even in a society where only a few were able to read. At the beginning of one sûrah, Allah “swears” by the Pen in declaring the ‘unlettered’ Prophet Muhammad œ to be something completely other than an insane person or a soothsayer, ending the same sûrah in declaring the Prophet’s message [the Quran] to be a renewal of the Divine message:

Consider the pen, and all that they write [therewith]! You are not, by your Sustainer’s grace, a madman! … [Be patient:] for this is naught else but a reminder [from God] to all mankind. Sûrat Al-Qiyâmah, 68: 1-2, 52.

This renewal of Allah’s message was now to appear in the clear and forceful Arabic language:

… These are messages of a revelation clear in itself and clearly showing the truth: behold, We have bestowed it from on high as a discourse in the Arabic tongue, so that you might encompass it with your reason. In the measure that We reveal this Qur’an to you, [O Prophet,] We explain it to you in the best possible way, seeing that before this you were indeed among those who are unaware [of what revelation is]. Sûrat Yûsuf, 12:1-3.

And as a guide towards the truth have We bestowed this [revelation] from on high: with this [very] truth has it come down [to you, O Prophet]: for We have sent you but as a herald of glad tidings and a Warner, [bearing] a discourse which We have gradually unfolded, so that you might read it out to mankind by stages, seeing that We have bestowed it from on high, step by step, as [one] revelation. Sûrat Al-Isrâ’, 17:105-106.

Only later was the collection of verses, oral and then in writing, to be prepared in the form of what today we would recognize as a paper-and-ink “book” with a complete orderly sequence of verses and chapters in a world-class human language of well-known form and function, the specialized knowledge of which is preserved to this day. The monumental dictionary by E. W. Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon, 1862, opens to view—perhaps without his consciously intending to do so—the suitability of the language (the Classical Arabic language) of the people of Muhammad œ to be the language for the definitive, complete, permanent, universal revelation to all mankind. Lane describes the classical Arabic language in his Preface, pp. vi-viii, “the language of Maʻaad,” thus:

The language of Ma’aad was characterized by its highest degree of perfection, copiousness and uniformity, in the time of Muhammed; but it soon after declined … An immediate consequence of the foreign conquests achieved by the Arabs under Muhammed’s first four successors was an extensive corruption of the language: for the nations that they subdued were naturally obliged to adopt in a great measure the speech of the conquerors, a speech which few persons have ever acquired in such a degree as to be secure from the commission of frequent errors in grammar without learning it from infancy.

… [I]t became a matter of the highest importance to the Arabs to preserve the knowledge of that speech which had thus become obsolescent, and to draw a distinct line between the classical (i.e., Qur’anic) and the post-classical languages. … Hence the vast collection of lexicons and lexicographic works composed by Arabs, and by Muslims naturalized among the Arabs; which compositions, but for the rapid corruption of the language, would never have been undertaken. In the aggregate of these works, with all the strictness that is observed in legal proceedings, as will presently be shown, the utmost care and research have been employed to embody everything that could be preserved or recovered of the classical language; the result being a collection of such authority, such exactness and such copiousness, as we do not find to have been approached in the case of any other language after its corruption or decay.

The Duty To Teach – And Its Rewards

Today we Western Muslims live in an English-literate world. Largely we are a community of highly educated professionals, using one or another of the major “Indo-European” world languages. But our Dîn is tied to, and its concepts are immortalized in, the classical Arabic language. We Western Muslims generally have a high level of reading skills but many of us lack the building blocks for Arabic literacy.

This activity of engaging oneself with the Sacred Text was so highly to be encouraged that divine recompense was to be calculated down to the level of the letter! The Messenger of Allah œ said:

Whoever recites EVEN ONE letter of the Book of Allah will have a reward of doing a good deed in return, but the good deed is multiplied by ten (in God’s measure). Indeed, I affirm that Alif, Lam, Mim are not regarded as one letter but Alif is an independent letter, Lâm is an independent letter, and Mîm is an independent letter. (Tirmithi)

We are not to take lightly the aḥâdîth that indicate the great merit and promised reward for reciting the Quran as much as one is able.

Recite the Quran, for on the Day of Resurrection it will come as an intercessor for those who recite it. Recite the two bright ones, Sûrat Al-Baqarah and Sûrat Âl ʿImrân, for on the Day of Resurrection they will come as two clouds or two shades, or two flocks of birds in ranks, pleading for those who recite them. Recite Sûrat Al-Baqarah, for to take recourse to it is a blessing and to give it up is a cause of regret, and the magicians cannot confront it. (Muslim)

No people get together in a house of the houses of Allah (i.e. a mosque), reciting the Book of Allah, and learning it together among themselves, but tranquility (sakînah) descends upon them, (Divine) mercy covers them (from above), and the angels surround them, and Allah makes a mention of them among those who are with Him. (Muslim)

The CompanionʿUqbah Ibn ʿÂmir narrated that the Messenger of Allah œ once came out and addressed a group of his Companions saying:

Which of you would like to go out every morning to Buthân or Al-ʿAqîq and bring two large she-camels without being guilty of sin or without severing the ties of kinship? They said: Messenger of Allah, we would like to do it. Upon this he said: Does not one of you go out in the morning to the mosque and learn or recite two verses from the Book of Allah, the Majestic and Glorious? That is better for him than two she-camels, and three verses are better (than three she-camels), and four verses are better for him than four (she-camels), and so on their number in camels. (Muslim)

The Messenger of Allah œ said:

One who was devoted to the Quran will be told to recite, ascend and recite carefully as he recited carefully when he was in the world, for he will reach his abode when he comes to the last verse he recites. (Abû Dâwûd)

How To Make Our Community Literate In The Language Of The Quran

MY QUESTION: Practically, speaking, is what is our duty in regard to opening the door to literacy in Arabic for those who did not grow up with Arabic at home or who did not learn it as a child in a weekend or day school?

MY ANSWER: “Each one – Teach one.” Let us be serious about literacy in Arabic. The Arabic Quran is our lifeline to Allah. A Muslim who [properly] knows the Arabic alphabet, recognizes the [correct] pronunciation of its letters, and can [correctly] read and pronounce words formed from combinations of those letters can become a soldier in the noble army of producing an Arabic-literate and a Quran-literate community. (Yes, I know, tajwîd is a serious endeavor requiring advanced skills and close mentored teaching, but let us begin where many of our brothers and sisters find themselves at the moment.) Skilled and enlightened teaching can inspire the complete beginner to go on to reasonable skill levels.

Let us challenge those who are well-founded in the basics of the building blocks of Arabic to volunteer and to get involved in opening the door for those who have previously had no such knowledge. It is inexcusable for any adult Muslim that he could have no idea about the building blocks of reading the Quran. We have more than enough Arabic-speaking people among us in the West to begin the process of “Each One – Teach One” on a volunteer basis, and eventually to arrive at a fully developed program with certified instructors.

If we need to look at literacy models like that of Laubach and other literacy programs for developing materials and for observing the teachers who teach those models, then let us not wait. Let us organize toward that end. There may be already adequate materials for a whole army of basic level teachers to begin the process anew in modern times. Volunteers! Make yourselves known!


[1] Medary, Marjorie. Each One Teach One: Frank Laubach, Friend to Millions. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1954. An account of Laubach’s linguistic methods.


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