Commentary on a Comparative Education Review Paper by Helen Boyle

Original article: Boyle, Helen. (2006). Memorization and Learning in Islamic Schools. Comparative Education Review, vol 5. No. 3.

Picture of a Qur’anic school/Daara in the Louga region of Senegal


Boyle (2006) brings to light a very relevant and alive debate: Do Qur’anic schools deserve the negative media attention they receive? Since 9/11 the world’s attention has been directed negatively to Muslim populations in general with everyone looking at religious education very cynically. Qur’anic schools in Pakistan, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, Yemen, Morocco and many other Muslim-dominant countries are under scrutiny. How are the Muslim youth educated and trained? Does the education they receive provide any answer to any Muslim-associated terrorist attacks? Boyle (2006) presents a multi-country study to understand what goes on inside Qur’anic schools. Her data comes from observations and interviews with students, parents, experts etc. from the three countries: Yemen, Morocco and Nigeria.

Boyle’s research shows that wider public understanding of the classroom dynamics in the context of Qur’anic schools has been limited. Many people find it counterintuitive that the children attending Qur’anic schools memorize the versus of the Qur’an and not necessarily learn other subjects such as math, science and other languages such as French. It is not logical that the community prefers that the children learn the Qur’an by rote as opposed to adopt the Western pedagogical concept of student-centered learning approaches. It also does not make sense that the parents would willing want to send their children to a shanty one-room schools with non-certified teacher and trust that the children will be well-prepared for their future. It does not make sense to many that even if there is a government-recognized public school that teaches French, the parents would still prefer a stern master with a stick who will help the children to memorize the versus of the Qur’an.

With these questions, Boyle (2006) takes us on a journey to get an insider’s perspective of the beliefs of the community. To many, the memorization of the Qur’an’s versus may seem like a mindless exercise. However, according to Boyle’s analysis, memorization of the Qur’an reveals the knowledge that comes from God and should be done first. Therefore, the children in Qur’anic schools first learn the Qur’an and then learn other subjects, whereas in Western education, they do the opposite:that is, start by learning a wider base of subjects and then narrow down. To learn the Qur’an, the teachers adopt memorization as their choice of pedagogic technique, which also improves attention to learning, understanding and reasoning. Since Qur’an “…comes directly from God” (p. 485), the community saw memorization as a way to gain knowledge, have a Muslim identity and learn to be a good Muslim. Boyle notes that memorization of the Qur’an is not an end in itself; rather, it is a guide to meaning and direction in life that helped children to come closer to God and become good citizens.

Boyle’s observations are pertinent in the Senegalese setting as well. As program Director for the Millennium Villages Project, our team worked in a pre-dominantly rural Louga region of Senegal. The region had more than 60 Qur’anic schools with more than 200 children attending these schools. Majority of these children did not attend a formal public school in the neighborhood, although they were very accessible. All of Boyle’s observations hold true for the Louga region of Senegal. Parents valued learning the Qur’an versus sending their children to learn French. Since the Government does not formally accredit the Qur’anic schools and its curriculum, the children in these Qur’anic schools are technically considered out-of-school. The Millennium Villages Project helped the traditional Qur’anic schools to be integrated into the Government system by investing in their infrastructure so that they become eligible to fall under the “improved” Qur’anic school category. However, this also required the Qur’anic school teachers (Maalams) to be open to teaching other subjects like math after the Qur’an recitations are complete.  Very few Qur’anic schools teachers opted for this option. The parents and the community were very supportive of the idea that the Qur’anic school curriculum to be recognized by the Government. Millennium Villages Project staff organized community mobilization efforts to talk to the Qur’anic school teachers to also send their children to formal public schools after or before they attended the Qur’anic school. The parents were not very convinced with the French-based education system and believed that “public schools provided instruction, while Daaras provided an education” (Soni, 2013, Millennium Villages Project report). As Boyle also suggested, the Qur’anic schools could serve as the preschools before the children reached the primary school going age. The Daaras in the community, catered to many children in the ages of 2 to 5 years olds. But 6 plus year old children also continued to stay in the Daaras.

The problem at hand at is that 57 million children of primary school age are still out of school (UNESCO, 2014). In sub-Saharan Africa, 21% of the primary age children are still out-of-school. Many millions (official count not known) attend non-recognized Qur’anic schools in Senegal. At the same time, community beliefs and a long history of suppression of religious education contradict the global education goals. Boyle’s study dissects the western pedagogical concepts and shows that the education discourse needs to be open to different educational perspectives. Meanwhile, Senegal has been saturated with international education projects that are trying to “modernize” the Daaras. Whether they will be accepted by the community, recognized by the Government and can be scaled-up is yet to be seen.



Boyle, Helen. (2006). Memorization and Learning in Islamic Schools. Comparative Education Review, vol 5. No. 3.

Soni, Diptesh (2013). Working with the Daaras: Policy Progress and Field Research Regarding Koranic Education in Potou, Senegal. Millennium Promise Report.

UNESCO. 2014. Position paper on Education post -2015. Accessed  March 9, 2018.

Submit Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *