There is this rich tradition in Pakistan that young women who know that studies are not their strong suit go for MA English. For this honour, young men choose MA Political Science. Unfortunately, schoolgirls and boys do not have this sort of luxury – their plates are already full, what with many subjects genuinely competing for their time and attention. The Senate has just passed a bill making teaching of Arabic compulsory in schools in Islamabad as well as the schools controlled by the Federal Government nationwide. Of course, it is great to learn a new language – in fact, the more the merrier. But it requires time and effort, and there are only 24 hours in a day.
As things stand, students must learn English because Urdu is not suitable for science and mathematics. Neither is Arabic, so if the bill passes the National Assembly it would mean that children from grade I on will be required to learn three languages. That could be a handful. And yet, it would be wonderful if the citizens could start understanding the Quran instead of merely revering it and reading it for blessings.
One does not doubt the good intentions of our worthy lawmakers, but one also knows where good intentions lead to if the methodology and implementation are not properly thought through. Arabic has of course been a compulsory subject in schools in the past. Now that the experiment is likely to be redone, it is imperative that old mistakes are not repeated. With due respect to the authors of the bill, Arabic proficiency is not going to open floodgates of employment opportunities in the Middle East for anybody. If students are to be taught Arabic, it can only be for the purpose of understanding the Quran. There must be no doubt here because clarity on this point has bearing on how it is best taught.
I studied compulsory Arabic in grades VI, VII and VIII. The Arabic I had managed to retain by the time I finished high school was limited to ‘addarsul haadia ashara’ (which means ‘Lesson 11’). A friend reports that ‘hadeeqatul burtuqal’ (meaning ‘a garden of oranges’) was the extent of Arabic he knew only a few months down the line. It is not that grammar was not taught, or the students were dunces. To the contrary, there were extensive conjugation drills, which many students worked very hard at. But the ordeal was endured in the spirit in which one resolves not to make a scene in the dentist’s chair no matter how much it hurts. Whereas English and Urdu basics were reinforced when we read novels and the like with increasing difficulty levels; when it came to Arabic it was considered enough to merely memorize certain formulas along with a lot of irrelevant vocabulary. Most of which we duly forgot as soon as the examinations were over. How could it have been any other way?
The process should start with grade VI. Pakistanis are in a uniquely fortunate position when it comes to the capacity to understand the Quran. Despite the spectacular decline in Urdu prowess on the part of the average student, it is still the case that by the time he reaches grade VI, he has mastered the script, which, of course, is Arabic script.
Much later in life, I returned to Arabic. I was not particularly interested in communicating with the Arabs or (worse) in a job in the Middle East. My motivation was solely to understand the Quran. I can say from experience that one does not require mastering the whole of grammar before graduating to the Quran. The skillset required for that can be imparted to the students in months, given devoted teachers equipped with a carefully prepared syllabus. The key is to make the Quran itself the reader; with verses, and later sections, chosen according to the levels and needs of the students. But Grade I is too early for that.
The process should start with grade VI. Pakistanis are in a uniquely fortunate position when it comes to the capacity to understand the Quran. Despite the spectacular decline in Urdu prowess on the part of the average student, it is still the case that by the time he reaches grade VI, he has mastered the script, which, of course, is Arabic script. The Arabic alphabet is a subset of the Urdu alphabet, and many of the words are also common. As for the rest, the vocabulary lists should also come from the Quran, so that the more he learns Arabic words, the more he knows the Quran.
Arabic grammar is derived mainly from the Quran, so the important grammatical points can be made using the Quran itself, as and when required. But the emphasis must always be on understanding, not memorization. This subject should make the traditional Islamic Studies redundant after grade V. (The non-Muslims can opt for Ethics instead.) It should go a long way toward making Quran the foundation of thinking as far as the students are concerned. Being the last Word of God, surely it should suffice for all student needs up to high school and beyond.
Instead of having to endure a seemingly interminable series of grammar lessons with no goal in sight, pupils must at all times know what they are working hard for. Students are notorious for giving up, especially when they see that their efforts are not translating into frequent and concrete gains. What better motivation to keep learning Arabic than being able to understand the Quran itself, not in some distant future but here and now, with their grasp becoming broader and deeper as they strive further? It is when the process and the purpose become one (or as close to one as possible) that we make the most progress.