I submitted this to ProductiveMuslim.com with slight modifications.
“Learning Qur’an online? Does that really work?!”
“How can a computer replace a live teacher? I doubt my child will make much progress with online learning.”
“I’m not good with computers – I don’t think online Qur’an lessons are for me.”
“I don’t feel comfortable teaching someone who isn’t sitting in front of me – I doubt it will be effective”.
These are all true concerns that I have heard every time I tell someone, “I learn and teach Qur’an – online.” Of course, there is no replacement to the traditional mode of learning at your teacher’s feet and observing them inside and outside of the classroom. This method is definitely one of the most immersive learning experiences one could enjoy as a student.
However, not many of us are given the opportunity to indulge in this rich tradition. During my adolescent years, I went in and out of Islamic classes; learning next to nothing because I could never attend consistently. School and university always got in the way. By the time I left university, I was already sucked into the rat race of corporate environment. Then I got married and embarked on an unsettled lifestyle – travelling on short notice so often that I could not possibly commit to any long-term course at a traditional “offline” school.
Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “There are two blessings which many people lose: health and free time for doing good.” [Sahih Bukhari]
Alhamdulillah, by the virtue of a good friend from the other side of the world (who also happened to hold an ijazah in Qur’an recitation), I was introduced to the world of online Qur’an coaching. After some years of learning online, I received relevant approval to teach, and I began my own online classes. However, I consider myself as more of a student than a teacher as I continue to study various aspects of the Qur’an with teachers I have never met in person.
You will find abundant resources on etiquette and tips related to seeking knowledge. The purpose of this article is to focus on online learning and teaching and to share some productivity tips that I have gathered from personal experience.
If you have been hesitant about using technology for religious education or have had a bad experience in the past, I hope this article will give you hope and rekindle your motivation to use whatever resources are at your disposal to follow or provide a structured course of learning.
This part is oriented towards the student while the next part of this article will provide some tips for teachers.
Tips for Online Students
1. Take technical difficulties as a learning experience, not an obstacle.
This point applies to online teachers as well as to students.
Yes, computers are complicated. Skype decides to update just as your teacher calls. The browser shortcut your husband put for you on the desktop disappeared after your toddler played with the keyboard. The internet connection is catchy at its best. The Arabic letters are typing from left to right instead of right to left. You can’t remember where you saved your notes and forgot how to open Windows Explorer. No wait – you don’t even know what Windows Explorer is. The teacher sent you homework by e-mail but that e-mail is nowhere to be found. You found the e-mail with your neighbor’s help but now you don’t know how to attach your homework and send it back, and you don’t want to call the fussy neighbor again. Your student is too distracted and hanging upside down off her chair. You see her feet instead of her face and wish you could reach out through the screen and give her a playful smack.
Yes, all these things can easily happen, and they can be extremely frustrating. Especially that last scenario. However, that is no reason to completely reject the idea of online learning.
I have seen parents and students who didn’t even know how to use a computer become cool troubleshooters after a few weeks of persistent battle. Their desire to learn outdid their animosity towards technology, and because of that, they not only learned Qur’an but also learned a thing or two about computers!
Action tip: If you have been dismissing online learning, think deeper about why that is. What is your real fear? Then, make a firm resolution right now – “I WILL overcome every obstacle and inconvenience and make online learning work for me in sha Allah!”
2. Learn to lift your own ignorance
Do not join online classes for the hype or glamour of studying from so-and-so on the other side world or to add another qualification on your LinkedIn profile. The only way to persist and benefit is if your intention is sincerely for curing your ignorance. Without this sincerity, you will be wasting time and money signing up for lessons that bring you no long-lasting benefit.
Do not learn to teach – although teaching is a noble act. At the time of learning, let your intention be purely to resolve the shortcomings within your own self. Immerse yourself, apply what you’re learning to your lifestyle, think about alternatives, and prepare questions to ask your teacher. This will leave a lasting impact on your soul compared to waiting for that next quotable quote from your lesson to share on Twitter.
Share later – once you have internalized the lesson (and don’t forget the event hashtag!)
Action tip: Take a few moments to close your eyes and reflect on why you are learning or why you hope to learn Qur’an. If the answer troubles your conscience, then make dua:
“Oh Allah! Purify my heart from hypocrisy and my actions from dissimulation and my tongue from lie and my eyes from stealthy looks, indeed, You know stealthy looks of eyes and that which the breasts conceal.”
اَللَّهُمَّ طَهِّر قَلبِي مِنَ النِّفَاقِ وَ عَمَلِي مِنَ الرِّيَآءِ وَ لِسَانِي مِنَ الكَذِبِ وَ عَينِي مِنَ الخِيانَتِ فَاِنَّكَ تَعلَمُ خَآئِنَةَ لاَعيُنِ وَ مَا تُخفِى الصُّدُورُ
[Allahumma tahhir qalbiy minan-nifaqi wa amaliy minar-riyai wa lisaniy minal kadhibi wa ayniy minal khiyanati fainnaka ta’lamu khainatal a’yuni wa ma tukhfis-sudur.]
3. Find a good teacher and stick with them
The Qur’an was not dropped on us like a package. Allah subḥānahu wa ta’āla (glorified and exalted be He) revealed it through a teacher (i.e. Jibrail ‘alayhi’l-salām (peace be upon him)) to the Prophet ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him)who then taught it to his companions. The tradition of conveying the Qur’an via a living teacher continued even as Islam spread. When written copies of the Qur’an were distributed to different regions, they were accompanied by an individual who would teach it to the recipients.
One lesson that can be learned from this is the importance of having a living teacher in addition to books.
The hardest part of my learning experience has been finding a suitable teacher. Once I completed the elementary material and desired to go further with tajweed, I had to search high and low for someone was qualified in teaching my interests, taught online, lived in the same time zone as me, was fluent in English, was willing to provide one-on-one instruction, and -most importantly- was willing to accept me as a student.
Although there are many online teachers, it is not always possible to find a suitable match. I searched for years. I cried. I made dua. I tried studying on my own (not recommended). I made istighfar so that Allah subḥānahu wa ta’āla (glorified and exalted be He) would open the doors of knowledge for me. I went to the masjid Qur’an circle when I could.
Teachers came and went, and I learned something valuable from each one of them, but the one who had the most impact on my life and guided me like a parent is the one I committed to for the long run. I say ‘guided me like a parent’, but she is actually five years younger than I am, subhan Allah!
There is no question as to whether you need a teacher or not. Whatever it is that you are trying to learn about the Qur’an, a qualified and concerned teacher is essential. YouTube is only a supplementary resource and not an ustadh-replacement. Videos and books will tell you what you need to know, but only a teacher can tell if you really know it. Structured online courses usually provide a student forum, which can be used to interact with your teachers and senior students.
Action tip: If you don’t have a teacher yet, take immediate action to find one. Ensure you find a reliable teacher with license to teach.
4. Respect your teacher
This falls under general etiquette which is not covered in this article. However, online learning requires an additional degree of respect and consideration for your teacher.
Your teacher might be from a different part of the world. Respect their style of teaching and take their recommendations even if it is different from what you are used to. Make an effort to understand their background and not tread on any inappropriate topics. Cultural sensitivity is a useful sense to develop.
Respect their schedule. Yes, it is nice to have them on Skype, WhatsApp, and even Facebook. However, do not misuse that privilege by disturbing them. Do not expect them to reply to your texts at any time of the day. Adjust yourself to their convenience or come to a mutual agreement about what will work for both of you.
Have the courtesy to inform your teacher if you know you are going to be even a few minutes late or will have to skip your lesson completely. Also, when you have missed a lesson out of your own carelessness, be sure to apologize (and don’t even think of asking him/her to give you an extra session!) The less you annoy your teacher, the more you’ll get out of them!
Make an effort to get to know your teacher more personally -without prying of course- and without crossing limits if they are of the opposite gender. Depending on the nature of what you are studying, your age, and your teacher’s preferences, online classes may happen even without video. There is a chance for misunderstanding to arise when you can’t see the other person or “set them in context”. This is easily overcome by a bit of informal chit-chat before or after class to maintain a good relationship.
Action tip: The next time you ask your teacher how she/he is, pay sincere attention to the answer and ask more questions (without crossing appropriate limits, of course.)
Action tip 2: Seek forgiveness from your teacher often – even if it is for negligible shortcomings like being 30 seconds late! You never know what could earn their displeasure and subsequently cause you difficulty in learning.
5. Maintain good notes
In the Qur’an, Allah subḥānahu wa ta’āla (glorified and exalted be He) says, “Who taught by the pen”. [Qur’an: Chapter 96: Verse 4]
Maintaining notes is a sign of how seriously you take your lessons. There is a tendency to treat online lessons like a casual affair. We tune in to lessons and grasp what we can, but fail to put in the same effort that we would with a physical class.
With online classes, it is possible that the teacher will provide many virtual resources. Therefore, it is a good idea to have a virtual capture tool in addition to or instead of a physical notebook.
E-mail and other communication tools are good for receiving resources but not for storing them in an accessible manner. We suffer from information overload these days. Who has the capacity to remember every file or link that was sent over the years and to search for them at appropriate times?
A tool like Evernote, for example, will help you capture text as well as attachments and to organize them into notebooks and tags for each subject, topic, or teacher you study with. Once you get comfortable with it, you can make use of the advanced features to take your resource management to the next level. If, on the other hand, you choose to save everything on your local computer, then make sure you take regular backups!
Note: Make sure you get your teacher’s permission if you intend to record lessons. Sometimes, parents do not have the time to sit with their child during class or would like to have a recording to refer to when helping their child with homework. Therefore, systems like Qutor.com offer parental watch and video archive features, so there is not much cause for apprehension with regard to online learning.
Action tip: Assess your notes and think about how you can improve them. If you are not even taking notes, it’s time to get yourself a notebook and/or a cloud storage account!
6. Make each lesson special
Just because you have your teacher calling you in the comfort of your own home, this does not mean you can get too comfortable. Religious knowledge is the inheritance left to us by the Prophet ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). Prepare yourself to receive it in a noble manner.
Yes, there may be days when you have to wake up in the middle of the night to catch a live session happening in a different time zone, but that does not mean you can jump out of bed and sit in front the computer looking like a complete disaster!
If you are going to be reciting Qur’an or mentioning Allah subḥānahu wa ta’āla (glorified and exalted be He), there will likely be angels in your presence. Dress respectably, perform wudhu, and sit facing the qibla if possible. Have your notes opened and ready before the session begins rather than going hunting for them when the teacher asks you a question. Be available at least five minutes before the scheduled start time so you can resolve technical glitches and allow the session to progress without delay. Anticipate each lesson as an occasion where the inheritance of the Prophet ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) is being distributed and make it special!
Action tip: Think about one small change you can make so that your Qur’an lessons become more special. Perhaps have a special cap/scarf/jacket/atar/whatever that you only use for Qur’an class, resolve to put your phone on flight mode or DND mode for the duration of the class, find a place where you can sit facing the qibla, whatever suits you.
7. Join online communities
Let me tell you this – online studies can get very lonely! If you are studying one-on-one with your teacher then you have no classmates at all. Even if you are in a group class, you probably won’t have much opportunity to interact with your classmates to a level where you can talk to them even outside class times.
Some courses offer student forums where you can connect with other students to have course-related discussions or even make life-long friends. Besides that, you can also find plenty of online services where Qur’an students gather. There are forums, Slack communities, and mail groups – all at the grasp of your fingers.
Besides curbing the loneliness, these online gatherings are a great way to discuss questions that come up while you study, to share relevant resources, to expand your knowledge about the way the Qur’an is studied in different parts of the world, etc.
Remember, of course, to maintain adab and to be careful about whom you trust even in groups of the same sex. You don’t want a nasty surprise when screen name “HamzaFeeSabeelillah786” turns out to be a creepy stalker instead of a genuine Qur’an student!
I’m tempted to include Facebook and WhatsApp groups here, but I would not personally recommend them. While they are useful to some extent, I personally consider using Facebook to engage in Qur’an groups to be the equivalent of walking through the mall to reach the Qur’an school. There are too many distractions and unrelated topics that can drown your time and ruin your attention. Similarly, being constantly on WhatsApp because “it’s useful for Qur’an studies” is the equivalent of leaving a part of your roof open 24/7 for the sake of good ventilation. You never know what else is going to land on you!
Action tip: Right now ask Allah subḥānahu wa ta’āla (glorified and exalted be He) for good Qur’an friends. Then go ahead and use some of the ideas mentioned above to find them, and remember to tread carefully!
8. Do shukr for the convenience of online learning
I sometimes wonder where I would have ended up without the convenience of learning from home. Would I have filled my time with gossip-filled phone calls to pass time? Would I have resorted to inappropriate literature for entertainment? At other times it is mind-blowing to reflect on how much knowledge has reached me by mere virtue of being fluent in English.
This is not to say that English and online learning are the only ways people can learn. However, when I reflect on my specific circumstances and life course, these two are such immense blessings that I cannot thank Allah subḥānahu wa ta’āla (glorified and exalted be He) enough for them – let alone for the blessings of being able to see, hear, speak, type, and many more blessings that I could go on about.
Allah subḥānahu wa ta’āla (glorified and exalted be He) says, “And if you should count the favors of Allah, you could not enumerate them. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.” [Qur’an: Chapter 16: Verse 18]
The difficulty I had in finding a teacher reminds me to constantly be in a state of gratitude for the resources Allah subḥānahu wa ta’āla (glorified and exalted be He) has bestowed on me. I am blessed with unlimited Internet (at least when I am not travelling), so what better use can I put it to compared to learning the book of Allah subḥānahu wa ta’āla (glorified and exalted be He)? How would I account to Allah subḥānahu wa ta’āla (glorified and exalted be He) for the ni’mah of being born in this era of online convenience?
Apart from the technological conveniences, I realize I am fortunate in many ways compared to large segments of the Muslim ummah who perhaps might not have even their basic needs covered. While I pray for them, I realize it would be the height of ingratitude not to make use of what I have been given in order to help the ummah and then the rest of humanity.
Action tip: Every time you enjoy a class or learn something mind-blowing (which is almost always since we’re talking about the Qur’an here), say, “Alhamdulillah”. How does this help?
Allah subḥānahu wa ta’āla (glorified and exalted be He) says, “If you are grateful, I will surely increase you [in favor]; but if you deny, indeed, My punishment is severe.” [Qur’an: Chapter 14: Verse 7]
We often hear the first part of this verse reminding us to be grateful, but how often do we reflect on the latter part which mentions the consequences of denying?
When you are creating your own course of study instead of following a structured curriculum, it helps to have a way to track your thoughts, challenges, and progress.
A journal can be a beautiful way to chart your progress and also serve as a companion to capture your struggle and help you brainstorm creative solutions. Over time, when you have days of little or no motivation, your journal will remind you of everything you faced and how far you have come. Thus, it serves as a reminder to do shukr as well.
Not every entry has to be in text form. Use doodles, pictures, or even clippings from relevant articles. Feel free to use lots of color and make it an aesthetically appealing keepsake.
Your journal can be a physical diary or scrapbook, a blog online, or a document somewhere. Having a blog solely for your Qur’an journey is a great way to attract more like-minded people and enhance your circle of Qur’an friends from around the world!
Action tip: Pick a physical or virtual notebook and start journalling!
In sha Allah, in the next part of this series we will look at some tips for online Qur’an teachers. In the mean time, why not leave a comment below and share some of your own online learning experience?