Surah “reward” backlash

I’ll admit it: It was my idea.

A few months ago, Abdullah managed to learn surah al-Fathihah by osmosis, as it were: he heard it recited in prayer and at night so many times that he just learned most of it. A little work on our end, and he had it down pat. My father encouraged me to work more closely with him because he obviously had a knack for memorization, and off we went.

After we had a few surahs down, we set a goal of 10 by his third birthday. And somewhere along the way, even though he was doing perfectly fine without any extrinsic rewards attached to his learning, I dangled a carrot: “If you learn 10 surahs, we’ll do a ’10 Surah’ party for you!” It seemed innocuous enough–our culture is so saturated with this type of carrot-on-a-stick style of motivation that we never question it.


I, on the other hand, am probably the last person to dangle such a reward because I have always found this type of motivation distasteful, especially for Islamic pursuits. Instead of drawing our children’s attention to the rewards of Allah for their deeds, we try and hoodwink them with worldly rewards. I have seen many justifications for this, especially when the issue of Qur’an competitions come up, but I still cannot shake my dislike of the idea. When a Qur’an competition came up in the community where I was teaching at an Islamic school, a particularly astute and sincere young student told me she would not be participating. “I want to learn the Qur’an for Allah,” she said, “not to win a competition.”

“SubhanAllah,” I remember thinking at the time. What blessed parents she must have–I want my children to have this same sincere attitude towards Allah’s book.

I’ve taken great interest over the years, especially as it relates to my teaching, in the astute observations of Alfie Kohn on this issue. He is adamant that rewards are harmful because they take away a person’s intrinsic motivation to do a task, which is innately damaging to them as a student or even an employee. In an interview he noted:

Rewards are most damaging to interest when the task is already intrinsically  motivating. That may be simply because there is that much more interest to lose when extrinsics are introduced…

Mea culpa–because this is exactly what happened with Abdullah. It was a difference like night and day–the day after his party, he was utterly disinterested in learning surahs, whereas before, he did it naturally without question. He had, in the weeks prior, some deep fitri (innate) inclination towards memorizing Qur’an and it was noticeably less present after the party.

Kohn, in the same interview, when asked if this was his opinion or supported by research, countered that it was indeed well established in social science research:

There are at least 70 studies showing that extrinsic motivators— including A’s, sometimes praise, and other rewards—are not merely ineffective over the long haul but counterproductive with respect to the things that concern us most:  desire to learn, commitment to good values, and so on. Another group of studies shows that when people are offered a reward for doing a task that involves some degree of problem solving or creativity—or for doing it well—they will tend to do lower quality work than those offered no reward.

How potent is our own inner desire to do something, and to do it well! When we try and ignore that innate desire for goodness (Ihsaan as it were) and offer external motivations, then it’s natural that the work that is produced then will be sub-par. We no longer care for goodness, we care only for the carrot dangling in front of us.

People often argue that Allah (subhanahu wa ta’aala) offers us rewards for our actions, therefore we are merely paralleling this when we offer people rewards for their work. This is a faulty analogy. Allah’s rewards are not here in the dunya, there is no “instant gratification” associated with them besides the tranquility of heart that a believer receives when she obeys Allah. The believers must wait patiently for the true reward and recognition of their work in the aakhirah. If anything, the promises of Allah teach us that we must exercise patience and restraint when doing good, for the results do not come quickly and physically in front of us.

I went back and talked to my father again, because he too agrees with much of Kohn’s ideas on rewards and learning. He stressed that we underestimate children’s ability to develop intrinsic motivation for learning Qur’an. We can indeed develop their innate desire to learn by discussing Allah’s rewards and emphasizing that when they memorize Qur’an, Allah will love them.

I don’t regret the party, because I think it is beneficial to celebrate accomplishments, especially to “rejoice” in the blessing of memorizing Qur’an. In the Qur’an itself, after Allah describes His book as an admonition, a healing of the hearts, and a guidance, He says:

“Say: In the bounty of Allah and in His Mercy, in that let them rejoice; it is better than all they amass.” (Yunus: 58)

I love this ayah, for it calls us to celebrate the wonder of the Qur’an. I hope to impart a small bit of that enjoyment and excitement to Abdullah on his level by throwing him a small party. I wonder if perhaps celebrating his accomplishments after the fact, rather than dangling them as enticements to work, would better serve this purpose without undermining his innate desire to learn.

The other day, Siraj and I were doing some damage control as we discussed with Abdullah memorizing future surahs. Rather than focusing on future rewards, we encouraged him by developing activities related to the memorization of the surahs. He’s finishing al-Ma’un and going to go ahead to al-Feel, so we worked up his excitement by discussing the meanings of Surah al-Ma’un and what it was calling him to do, and then we planned for a project showing the events in Surah al-Feel. Later, he came up to me and said, “Mama, I want to learn Surah al-Feel!” And that, dear friends, was like “music” to my ears.


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