After memorizing the Qur'an as a child, Bilal Memon later forgot the Qur'an until re-learning it as an adult. Having experienced both the elation and frustration of the process of memorizing the Qur'an, he has dedicated himself to developing technology that will help Muslims more easily memorize and retain the Qur'an. He granted this interview with Mohammed Saleem from Al-Madina Institute.
Mohammed Saleem: You studied at a madrasah (school) in New York and memorized the entire Qur'an by the age of 11. But by the time you were in college, you had forgotten the Qur'an, before committing yourself later in life to re-memorize it again. In a way, it sounds like a story of reuniting with a true love that you had let get away. How would you describe the emotions of this journey?
Bilal Memon: Believe it or not, it started with ice cream. When I was 10 years old, an older cousin studying at a madrasah in New York kept telling me about how they always got ice cream and had a lot of fun. This inspired me to memorize the Qur'an because I wanted to have fun—and ice cream!
You can imagine my disappointment when I didn't get ice cream. And I was even more disappointed when it wasn't much fun either. Boarding at the madrasah, we memorized the Qur'an practically every waking hour. Even during the weekends when I could go home, I would spend hours reviewing my memorization. I soon achieved the end goal and became a hafidh (one who has memorized the entire Qur'an) by the age of 11.
Looking back, I didn’t have the right intentions to retain what I had memorized. In college and as an adult living in New York, I was distracted by many things. Friends, career aspirations, family obligations. Life was so fast-paced. My self-discipline and motivation to revise the Qur'an became weak, and I forgot the Qur'an.
Eventually, the stress of life really got to me. Something felt missing in my life. I realized it was the Qur'an—the Qur'an that I had taken for granted in my childhood. Now, I was no longer craving ice cream. I was craving spiritual nourishment.
So I committed to relearning the Qur'an with a renewed intention. This time, I also yearned to understand what I was reading so I read many different English translations. This helped me understand and connect more with Allah. I was able to learn lessons when it comes to respecting your parents, the mercy and kindness of Allah (subhanahu wa ta'ala). And I learned how to apply many things in real life, like to be hopeful in Allah's destiny for us.
Within six months, I had memorized the Qur'an again—only this time with an entirely new level of understanding and connection to Allah (subhanahu wa ta'ala). It made me so happy to please Allah (subhanahu wa ta'ala) in this way, and it was worth more than any amount of material things the modern world tells us we need to be successful.
No one disputes that smartphones, apps and the internet have opened up a lot for us in terms of access to knowledge and convenience. Having said that, you studied traditionally and now are at the forefront of using technology for education. Especially in regards to Qur'anic study and memorization, is there anything these modern conveniences lack that "students" should be aware of? How do we balance tradition with technology?
I used to think that it’s really difficult to grasp Qur'anic knowledge with technology. However, once I started taking Qur'anic courses online with other students, I felt the intimacy of a classroom setting, especially if the lecture was live and there was real-time Q&A with the teacher. Technology made it very convenient and flexible for me to study Islam, especially given that I travel quite frequently. For me personally, I’ve become quite accustomed to taking both Islamic and business courses online. Some might disagree with me here and believe that they can appreciate a more intimate conversation and a personal touch by studying with teachers in person. I definitely respect that. When it comes to learning Tajweed or memorizing Qur'an, most people I know nowadays Skype with teachers and are quite comfortable with it given their busy schedules.
I think having a balance with tradition and technology is very doable. Some might not be comfortable studying tradition with technology and would prefer a more in-person experience which is totally fine. I just think that with the advent of technology and how it is positively impacting the education sector is quite fascinating. My particular interests lie in artificial intelligence and virtual reality. I think both of these fields can positively impact Qur'anic research and memorization. Imagine if all this data is collected and aggregated on all of your weaker memorization areas in the Quran? A more personalized experience with a recommendation engine can be built to reinforce your weaker memorization areas. I believe in this regard that technology can have an overwhelming impact that will insha’Allah be beneficial to us. In regards to virtual reality, imagine you have a teacher who is located a bit further from you (whether it’s a different state or country). Imagine putting on your virtual reality set and communicating directly with your teacher as if both are present and next to each other? How cool is that? My hope is that with virtual reality, the intimate setting and experience won’t be compromised!
In many communities there is a concerted effort to have children memorize the Qur'an at an early age. A lot of pride is taken in this, but it seems that parents often feel that memorization of the Qur'an suffices for Islamic education, as if their children are now spiritually protected and educated for life. We see some memorizers however, as they get older, not only forget the Qur'an, but some even become weaker in faith or even lose it completely. What are your thoughts on this? Do we need to approach early Islamic education differently?
It's a blessing to have teacher. You have somebody constantly reviewing your recitation, helping you perfect your tajweed, and being a motivational part of your life. Unfortunately though, in many Qur'an schools around the world, students memorize out of fear since they will get hit by their teachers for making mistakes. This is very unfortunate. I've encountered folks in my life that have left Islam because of their experience with Qur'an memorization schools, but I’ve also known others from Qur'an memorization schools who have also become scholars.
So while I think the classroom approach is great for accountability, perfecting recitation, etc, I also think that there needs be a more holistic approach so kids also feel the Qur'an as a source of spiritual nourishment instead of punishment. This needs to happen not just within schools walls, but at home and in the community too.
Society in general also needs to shift away from merely focusing on the end result. Too often, we focus on the end result. Who memorized what first? Who became a hafiz at the youngest age? When we are so focused on the end result, we tend to punish mistakes instead of seeing mistakes as part of the learning journey. We need to focus on nurturing the love for the journey and the relationship with Allah (subhanahu wa ta'ala) that memorizing the Qur'an brings. And this needs to be done, both inside and outside the schools.
Another thing society in general needs to shed is the mentality of “outsourcing” Islamic education by sending kids off to madrasahs and thinking this will secure their Islamic faith for the rest of their lives. Parents especially need to be involved in nurturing the love for the Qur'an and Islam at home, as well as applying its examples in action because parents are a child’s first role model. It would really be great to see parents give more involvement in the curriculum of early Islamic education. It really has to be an overall community effort.
One of the biggest problems people have in memorizing the Qur'an is retaining what they memorize. What are the techniques that helped you the most in retaining what you memorized and does the app facilitate this in any way? What other features of Qur'an Companion will help support the everyday, busy Muslim memorize the Qur'an?
Many people believe that memorizing the Qur'an is hard to on your own. I truly believe that Qur'an memorization can be done on your own as long as you are given that boost of motivation! If you don't know Tajweed (proper rules of reciting the Qur'an), though, I recommend you learn it first. So I built Qur'an Companion to help the everyday Muslim overcome the belief that it’s hard to memorize the Qur'an on their own.
Qur'an Companion has been developed with effective learning technologies and gamifications in a flexible learning environment that make it easier and more fun to memorize the Qur'an. Since research with our beta users revealed that motivation is a key struggle they face, we have also included social and motivational aspects into the app like group challenges and [a] hasanah calculator. Overall, we wanted to deliver an easy, flexible, fun and social way to memorize the Qur'an because that’s the support that the everyday, busy Muslim needs.
Many people think that memorizing the Qur'an is too hard, too much to learn, or too time consuming to fit into today’s busy modern lifestyle. Do you believe this is true?
I don’t think it is. Most Qur'an memorizers I know are not full-time scholars and students (knowledge seekers). Qur'anic memorization is accessible and achievable for the masses as Allah (subhanahu wa ta'ala) has made the Quran easy to remember — no matter how old or young you are. Qur'anic memorization can strengthen your relationship with Allah and His Book and is a great nourishment for your soul! A busy modern lifestyle needs a daily relationship with the Qur'an, and memorization is a great stepping stone to establish a spiritual relationship with Allah (subhanahu wa ta'ala).
What benefits do you hope users of Quran Companion will experience by using the app?
I hope that people will find it easy to integrate Qur'anic memorization into their daily lives with Quran Companion. I know that most people struggle with motivation the most, which is why we have specifically developed the app with many features that make it fun, easy and social to memorize the Quran. But above all, I hope Quran Companion helps users build a daily relationship with the Quran. Being motivated by a goal to memorize an ayah or a surah opens a doorway to that daily relationship. And ultimately, the daily relationship with the Qur'an brings us closer to Allah (subhanahu wa ta'ala) by pleasing Him. Once you please Allah (subhanahu wa ta'ala) and have a strong connection with Him, that's worth more than any amount of material things. That is what I truly hope users of Quran Companion will experience.
What would be your advice to those who want to memorize the Quran?
There will be ups and downs. There will be days your motivation feels low. There may even be days you feel like giving up. But don’t give up. Remember that tests are all part of the journey in this dunya. Shaytaan will try to distract you or make you believe that you can’t do it and try to lead you away from doing more good. The reward from Allah (subhanahu wa ta'ala) is great for all your efforts to overcome the challenges.
So remember to place your trust in Allah (subhanahu wa ta'ala) and persevere towards your Qur'an memorization goals. Also, remember that Allah (subhanahu wa ta'ala) has promised:
“And We have certainly made the Qur'an easy for remembrance, so is there any who will remember?” [Quran 54:17]
You can learn more about the Quran Companion application here, including information on how to obtain a free e-book,“QURAN In Memory, In Heart, In Peace: 7 Essential Steps that Make Quran Memorization Easy and Meaningful in Your Daily Life”.