By Dr. Muhammad Abid Ali – Master Mariner, PhD in Education, and founding member of two educational research institutes
Why should our children read? What are the effects of reading on children? How do we choose the books for our children? These are some of the important questions to answer, before giving any book to kids. I believe reading may be one of the most significant activities in the personality and character development not only of our children but any educated human being.
With Destination in Mind
We have around seventy to eighty years of earthly sojourn before our eternal afterlife, which is determined by our performance in this life. Our performance depends on how we are prepared to perform by both the external interventions and self development. Talking of external interventions, the priority falls on the parents’ nurturing of their children. Abu Hurairah (rta) has narrated that Allah’s Messenger (sa) said: “Every child is born on Al-Fitrah but his parents make him a Jew, a Christian or a Magian.” (Sahih Muslim, Sahih Bukhari, Al-Bayhaqi and Al-Tabarani – each with slight differences in wording)
Reading and the Process of Learning
If I am a Chinese, will anyone expect me to write like a Pakistani? Isn’t it an unreasonable expectation? Why does a Chinese write like a Chinese and a Pakistani like a Pakistani? This is because of the cultural overtone which is impossible to avoid. A western writing will depict western culture, underlying beliefs and core concepts of life. It is unavoidable, for we are very structured, thinking beings, who make statements around our thinking, or what we call paradigms. No human being can be separated from that. Reading is a strong learning intervention; as such, reading will definitely expose the reader to the culture, underlying beliefs and core concepts of the writer’s life. For a grown-up it may not be as influential as for a child, who is at a very active mode of learning.
Green and Brock have shown through experiments that children exposed to egalitarian reading material show more egalitarian responses and in spite of time passage, despite some reduction, the effect persists. They further elaborate that the narratives are persuasive and the morals rooted in them affect children’s worldview. Mar and Oatley observe that reading influences the process of learning. They claim that reading fiction has more effect, as the reader un-intentionally emulates the characters of the fiction. Hakemulder researched fifty-four reliable and valid experimental studies, in which fictional narratives indicated substantial effect on moral development, norms, values, and self-concepts. Mar and Oatley observe that change in personality is mediated by the emotions experienced while reading. Any intellectual exercise will affect a child’s learning, and reading is considered to be one of the powerful learning tools.
Reading affects the learning process and, consequently, the personality of a child. Perception, or our worldview, is utterly affected by learning processes. Any event or knowledge that casts an impression on the human mind affects this worldview; as such, it is susceptible to modification. For the first few years of life, the changes are major, and as the mental maps become defined, the modifications become more subtle and selective. Muslim scholar Acigenc claims that all human conduct is ultimately traceable to a worldview; worldview is the “framework within which our mind operates”. Ibn Khaldun often compares it to a dye that lasts until the cloth, to which it has been applied, is destroyed. Whereas Stephen Covey claims that we see the world not as it is, but as we are – or as we are conditioned to see it. He further emphasizes that the lens, through which we see the world, shapes our interpretation of the world. And one of the major factors, which shape this lens, is an individual’s learning processes.
Furthermore, most Muslim and western intellectuals, such as Miskawyah, Al-Farabi, Ghazali, Ibn Khaldun, Frued, Adler, Millard, Dollard, Montessori, and John Holt, agree that the initial years of an individual are crucial for active personality development; which is the period of active worldview development. The learning interventions, which disrupt Islamic identity and values, will accordingly affect this personality development. Covey calls it the farmhouse rule: you always reap what you sow.
With the logic constructed above, if we take reading as a learning process, which significantly influences a child’s worldview and shapes the personality, it is imperative to keep the above farmhouse rule in mind. As the saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out”. Any harmful or useless concepts from the Islamic perspective are garbage for us; for example, the concept of world without a creator or the denial of the afterlife. Concepts, which are the main features of the western sciences, reflect in their literature as well. The dependency on western literature is a self-inflicted tragedy in the Muslim societies. The learning interventions develop a mental map or perception, which is based on western thoughts, quite contrary to the Islamic worldview. As a result, we try to find our way through to the destination through the wrong map.
Effects of Learning on Beliefs and Actions
How does the learning and the worldview affect our beliefs and actions? Let’s look at a few examples.
My five-year-old daughter came with her mathematics book, covering a picture with her palm, and insisted that it was something, which couldn’t be shown to me. Upon my repeated requests, she exposed the picture of a lone lady in a bikini lying on a beach, depicting the solitary for the numeral one. She had not yet polluted her perception with the western concept of shame. For her, shame was still the map that we had created in theory. My son was taught from a British published history book in his O’Levels that Tipu Sultan was a rebel. Should we blame the British for this statement? From their perspective, he was; from our perspective – he was a hero.
A sister narrates: “I have noticed that my 9-year-old son is somewhat conditioned to happy endings, which once again can be the influence of children’s subculture and ‘happily ever after’ trends in cartoons. Just recently he read in his reading-aloud time a story in which the main character (11 years old boy) died at the end of the story, and felt very emotionally crushed by such an ending. He even said to me not to give to him such stories anymore, because he felt so very sad reading it. It gave us the chance to talk about the real life scenarios of sad events and how they differ from happy endings of most cartoons/fiction stories/fairytales.”
Another example is from a revert sister, who narrates how effectively the former Soviet Union could condition the students to the Soviet requirements:
“I was growing up in the communist system of the Soviet Union. The focus of government at the time was very much on the schoolchildren – to develop them into loyal citizens of the state. This was achieved by a heavy dose of ideology being pushed into young minds (which I was not aware of as a child, of course) through purposefully written school books infused with ideology and the requirement of Russian language and Russian literature courses in all schools, starting from the very first grade.”
Further, she elaborates about the results of this programming:
“Believe it or not, the system was extremely good and successfully produced the required results. I realized this, when after the break-up of the Soviet Union I went for studies to the US as part of a group of students from the former Soviet Union. We, the students, ourselves were amazed at how similar all of us were. Even though we came from different Soviet states, spoke different languages, had different local cultures, we still had the feeling like we’ve grown up in the same neighbourhood – we laughed about the same jokes, admired the same heroes and had the same sets of moral values.”
Other than the conditioning, the above examples indicate the effect of literature on a child’s mind. Every written matter has a message, and a child reader absorbs it more readily and completely than a grown-up, as the worldview of a young child is still raw and in a state of formation. The effects in childhood are long-lasting and more permanent, as compared to those of adults, who have already developed filters due to a more established worldview. For Maulana Maudoodi, exposing youth to an alien culture certainly results in the loosening of Islamic morals and loss of Islamic identity.
A revert sister, reflecting on the effects of reading English books by children, cautions: “…the foreign language and cultural baggage that comes along with it will leave lasting marks on the personality of the child and the way he/she views the world. This aspect is especially important for us, as parents of Muslims, to understand.”
Eighty years ago, another famous revert, Allama Muhammad Asad, sternly warned the Islamic world: “Islam and Western civilisation, being built on diametrically opposed conceptions of life, are not compatible in spirit. This being so, how could we expect that the education of Muslim youth on Western lines, an education based entirely on Western cultural experiences and values, could remain free from anti-Islamic influences?”
The tragedy the contemporary Muslim societies are inflicted with is the uncritical embracing of the Western educational interventions and learning processes. Long ago, Sayyid Qutb also cautioned us that when we indiscriminately use Western educational interventions, we undoubtedly borrow also a general scheme of philosophy and a mode of thought that underlies these interventions, “whether we like it or not”.
As I write this article, I observe my 14-months-old granddaughter and am so awed at the intelligence, which Allah (swt) has bestowed every child with. She has a different approach in behaving with each member of her close and extended family. Before me, she will avoid putting anything in her mouth, she will behave with more tenderness with my mother and has an entirely different behavior with my sister, whom she is extremely fond of. She cannot speak yet but understands our verbal conversation with her and follows our instructions. To think that at another two or three years, she will be less intelligent to absorb the message of any literature that we read to her seems to me extremely absurd.
We have to be very careful in exposing our children to any concepts alien to Islam. For certainly these will leave their impressions, no matter how much we try to control it. It is equal to developing an intimacy with the culture and approach of the presenters. The Quran warns us: “O you who believe! Take not as (your) Bitanah (advisors, consultants, protectors, helpers, friends, etc.) those outside your religion (pagans, Jews, Christians, and hypocrites) since they will not fail to do their best to corrupt you.” (Al-Imran, 3:118)
When we develop deep intimacy with alien thoughts and philosophy, we develop a cognitive structure based on their logic pedestal. As a result, we become alien to the Quran and Islam itself. “They have hearts wherewith they understand not, they have eyes wherewith they see not, and have ears wherewith they hear not (the truth). They are like cattle, nay even more astray; those! They are the heedless ones.” (Al-A’raf, 7:179)
Iqbal quite vehemently advises us that from an educational perspective to use the literature that helps in creating higher ideals and motivates the nation towards acquiring those ideals. On the other hand, Iqbal also warns that this desirous nature of man can be dampened by wrong interventions, literature being an important factor.
I will conclude this article with a reflective insight and prudent advice from a revert sister:
“English was introduced to me at grade four level; however, it has not prevented me or any of my friends from achieving proficiency in it, if that’s what we wanted. No European non-English speaking country uses English as the medium in their classrooms – elementary level children are taught in their native languages. The fear of not becoming good enough in English, unless you start it at the age of 2.5 years and have it as your language of instruction at school, is totally baseless. If you learn how to express yourself well in your native language, you can later do the same in any foreign language you pick up. The foreign language (English in this case) does not magically give the child the skills of self-expression – it’s the child’s overall grooming and intellectual capabilities, which will make him/her good at using the foreign language.
Allah (swt) knows best.