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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Memorization versus understanding (expanded)

A ten year old boy, son of one of the terrorists who used the Church of the Nativity as a place to shoot from (as well as a toilet), has memorized the entire Quran in two months during summer camp.

While it is undeniably impressive, it is striking that Islam emphasizes the mindless memorization of the Quran while Christians and Jews emphasize study and understanding of their religious texts. To other religions, debate by ordinary people about the interpretation of a passage is praiseworthy; to Islam, it is seen as a threat.

Compare Quran memorization with Israel's annual International Bible Contest (not the best Wiki article...) The questions in the Bible contest are meant to test understanding, not mere memorization.

While Islam has taken a lot of its philosophy from Talmudic-era Judaism, here is one place where they crucially differ. The Talmud not only contains passionate discussions of how to interpret various Biblical verses; it also shows that these sorts of arguments are crucial for a belief system to grow and adapt.

This fundamental difference between Judaism and Islam can be seen in the Jewish concept of "chiddush." A chiddush is a novel interpretation or insight into source materials, consistent with basic principals, that had (seemingly) not been thought of before. The very word "chiddush" has the same root as "new." A student or rabbi is applauded for coming up with daring chiddushim.

The Muslim world does not seem to have anything analogous. The Muslims not only canonize the Quran but they shut the door for any new interpretations. Rather than emphasizing creativity and interpretation, Islam emphasizes rote and memorization.

Many of the problems the Western world faces from the Muslim world today can be traced to this mindset. Not only does Islam resist interpretation (which is necessary for modernization) but it set up a situation where those who even try to do so are ostracized or worse. Reform becomes impossible as the reformers are, almost by definition, deserving of death.

A photographic memory is a useful tool but it does not indicate wisdom. To praise memorization for its own sake is the same as trying to create a generation of unthinking robots. As the child himself said:
Asked how he feels about sitting inside and learning the Qu'ran while others are outside playing, he answered "I prefer learning the words of God instead of playing in the parks."
It isn't an either-or proposition, unless one has a peculiarly sick upbringing.

UPDATE: Reader L. King points out: "Islam does have a tradition called "itjihad" which appears to serve this role. One might be critical that this tradition has atrophied in general use but it is not entirely absent."

And fellow blogger Daled Amos adds a lot, with the upshot being that not only do Muslims memorize by rote but that most don't even understand what they are saying because essentially no one speaks classical Arabic nowadays. (I did just read about a parent who decided to speak to his son only in classical Arabic.) This is as opposed to modern Israel - while modern Hebrew is different from biblical Hebrew, modern Israelis can read the Dead Sea Scrolls today (those written in ktav Ashurit) and understand it.