“We learn that reciting the Qur’ān itself is a means of increasing memory. Guess what? Notice how we start rocking whilst memorising. Research suggests this rocking increases brain activity and blood flow which leads to improved memory and focus. It also induces better sleep which also leads to improved memory! Amazing.”
The rocking phenomenon and why it is permissible!
The paragraph above is from a post I made on Instagram on 2nd August 2020.
I didn’t necessarily share this to give the act of swaying back and forth some validation, or to categorically tell you that you should be rocking. This matter is not a requirement for memorisation of the Qur’ān. At the time, I had read some research on rocking and its effects. When I read about the results of these studies, I applied them to our situation when we are memorising. That these can be possible reasons around how rocking can actually be beneficial to the process. My point was to highlight and initiate a discussion on this phenomenon of rocking back and forth that many (including myself) find themselves doing while memorising and reviewing the Qur’ān.
It’s a global phenomenon — people from all backgrounds and religions do it. It’s not an exclusive thing to a certain group of people. I have seen children and adults doing it in the West and in the East, Muslims, and non-Muslims. But there’s something missing…
Why are so many of us doing this?
Is it a natural thing?
What’s really going on here?
The Instagram post led to a lot of conversation that became dominated by many people mentioning they have been discouraged or told not to make movements because it’s the way of the Jews and how they worship. For example, comments on the post included:
“I have been taught by my Quran teachers we shouldn’t rock as people do mainly in India and Pakistan because it’s the way of the Jews and we should oppose them.”
“I find it challenging to delete the rocking motion when memorising. Strangely it helps me concentrate more. However like others have mentioned, I too have been told not to rock as it’s ‘not what we do’. It will be interesting to see if there is any truth in this.”
“Yes, I did it too unrealized that I did it.. and I was curious about it and I found out it’s for better absorption of what we trying to memorize and maintain it. I also put my mushaf at eye level.”
“Yes, I do without noticing only when I read the Quran”
“Always. As a child, sadly, my Qur’ān teacher used to tell me that it is only half-empty pots that rock from side to side, so increase and fill up your Imaan / taqwa. His intentions might have been sincere in saying that, but it carried a negative connotation to me. Alhamdulillāh, I continued my relationship with the Qur’ān and know better now.”
“It’s also claimed that it’s because the rhythm of the recitation matches the rhythm of the beating heart. Much in the same way as Troops marching over the bridge to a certain rhythm will cause it to sway.”
There are many possible reasons as to why it could be happening. However, according to my limited knowledge, this has never been researched when it comes to the institution of hifż. The roles that I hold (especially as a teacher/mentor) and my natural curiosity lead me to want to explore this. As a teacher, I would want to understand why we are doing this. I would want to know my students as best as possible so that I can make the best adjustments to facilitate, personalise and encourage better learning for them. So in this article, I will highlight the many possible reasons that an individual might be rocking when reading the Qur’ān. I will also look at what research has been done around rocking and look for clues from that research as to its possible benefits. That will lead you to discover why I said what I said in my Instagram post. I also encourage and call upon professionals in the medical and psychology fields in our community to look into this phenomenon. I also call upon students of the Qur’ān to get in touch with me to share their experiences and perhaps we can run our own collective effort in the way of some research.
And for the reasons above, I will also explore the matter of whether we as Muslims should or shouldn’t be making movements during our recitation, memorisation, or review, from an Islāmic perspective. For the most part, scholars that have spoken about this have not explored it in any detail and have only given brief answers. In this article, I hope the missing elements of this discussion can come to light.
So why do you rock back and forth?
There can be many reasons for this movement that include biological, behavioural, and environmental factors.
One of the possible reasons for it could be due to the formation of habit. A Mufti in the UK says, “To sway or rock from side to side or backwards and forwards is not a Shariah ruling. It is not from the teachings of the Quran or Hadith, but it is done out of the habit of the individual.”
Let’s look at the example of a well-known name in our time — Bill Gates. He is known to have a habit of rocking back and forth whenever he’s in deep mental concentration. The more agitated, stressed, or excited he gets, the faster he rocks. The pace is determined by his interest. Some claim he has had this habit since childhood. In an article in the New Yorker — it says that “Gates said to me about his rocking. “I should stop, but I haven’t yet. They claim I started at an extremely young age. I had a rocking horse and they used to put me to sleep on my rocking horse and I think that addicted me.”’
So one of the arguments here that ties with habit is the way you were raised, or your activities and environment during your childhood shaping the way you move. Others will add that it’s part of our nature. In this instance, the beginnings are the gentle rocking of a cradle soothing newborns, babies, or children. We can also see this at the other end of the life spectrum. As bone, joint, and muscle pain increase with age, many of the elderly find relief in the form of rocking chairs. It’s also mentioned that certain animals, including elephants, sometimes move their bodies from side to side to alleviate pain or distress.
Autism and Stimming
Back to Bill Gates, though. It may not be a force of habit but could be a result of “autism.” In a video, Bill Gross says he has Asperger’s syndrome and that he was told that Bill Gates also has it too. In the documentary “Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates”, Bill can be seen to show autistic traits. He can be seen flickering a pen/pencil and when reading biting on his glasses for example.
Asperger syndrome is a form of autism and one of the signs of it is called stimming. This is a self-stimulatory behaviour that is presented like patterns of flapping hands, rocking back and forth. So what we have been calling rocking is called stimming.
The Healthline says that “almost everyone engages in some form of self-stimulating behavior. You might bite your nails or twirl your hair around your fingers when you’re bored, nervous, or need to relieve tension. Stimming can become such a habit that you’re not even aware you’re doing it. For most people, it’s a harmless behavior. You recognize when and where it’s inappropriate. For example, if you’ve been drumming your fingers on your desk for 20 minutes, you take social cues that you’re irritating others and choose to stop. In people with autism, stimming might be more obvious. For example, it may present as full-body rocking back and forth, twirling, or flapping the hands. It can also go on for long periods. Often, the individual has less social awareness that the behavior might be disruptive to others.”
Psychiatrists say that rocking is a common repetitive movement among people with autism spectrum disorder. Three main theories explain the prevalence of rocking among the autistic population:
- Hyposensitivity: The person rocks back and forth or side to side to stimulate an otherwise under active nervous system.
- Hypersensitivity: The person engages in rocking to seek relief from sensory overload.
- Endorphins: The person rocks habitually to relieve extreme stress.
These theories aside, there could be other reasons that are more contextual to the individual that explains rocking as an autistic symptom. That’s when this movement is abnormal movement, such a person would repetitively do a similar movement throughout the day.
A way to deal with sensory overload
A growing body of evidence from the past decade reinforces the notion that these repetitive behaviours can help autistic people relieve sensory overload, cope with anxiety and express emotion. As such, scientists have begun to realise that taking the behaviours away might do autistic people more harm than good. Research on the roots of repetitive behaviours is also beginning to suggest that people may stim just for pleasure. Meaning some repetitive behaviours activate the brain’s reward circuitry.
This means that if a student of the Qur’ān is going through memorisation and has autism, it’s really important to be aware of it. You should observe whether they are rocking in other environments and conditions. It’s likely that they will be rocking when memorising but you shouldn’t try to stop this. Because it can lead to another form of stimming whilst memorising or even lead to harm. Also, autism is a condition that is increasing every year. The CDC has determined that 1 in 54 people or 2% of males have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In a recent study, autism is now known to be primarily a genetic condition. This recent study is of very large samples of DNA from families who have children with autism. In that researchers identified about 100 ‘autism genes’. The cause of autism is still up for debate and so are the treatments. But whatever the case, what all of this means for us is that it’s important for us to be aware of this. Especially those who are teachers of Qur’ān. They need educating, given an awareness with relevant training. We must also learn to recognise it within adults too.
Whenever I have students that show particular traits, I always try to engage with the parents to learn about any conditions they may have been diagnosed with. In some cases, I ask parents to get them checked because I have noticed patterns. This enables me to cater for them appropriately.
OCDs and Anxiety
You can find the same stimming behaviours with those that have OCD, schizophrenia, addictions, and other neurological disorders like frontal lobe lesions, Tourette’s syndrome, Parkinson’s disease. This stimming (rocking back and forth) is also a Stereotypic Movement Disorder (in this case it gets really extreme).
Anxiety is another reason that can cause rocking and this is perhaps a reason that is now affecting many students. I have students that face anxiety and we always speak about it. I make sure that they memorise and review in ways that will help them progress. It’s not an easy task for them. May Allāh grant them strength, health and wellbeing. I get messages all the time about how students get anxious and find it difficult to navigate or control.
The author of the Nonverbal Dictionary (PDF), David Givens states that rocking, whether back and forth or side to side, “stimulates the vestibular senses,” referring to parts of the inner ear and brain that regulate balance and eye movements. These senses are closely aligned with the part of the brain that manages pain and stress. He mentions, after rocking for 70 minutes in rocking chairs, nursing home patients diagnosed with dementia showed up to a one-third reduction in signs of anxiety and depression. According to University of Rochester geriatric nursing researcher, Nancy Watson, “You could see immediately by their faces that they were enjoying themselves.”
Anxiety is something that can also cause stimming especially when it is high functioning anxiety. Amongst the causes of anxiety are pressure, nerves, and time constraints. These causes are particularly relatable to students of hifz. They often have the pressure of memorising a certain amount in a certain time frame with nerves facing them at the prospect of reading to someone without mistakes. At other times, there’s anxiety just over reading to someone. At other times, there’s anxiety just by memorising because they feel overwhelmed or face a battle with time and effort. This is where something called test anxiety comes into play. You know, those moments where you go completely blank due to your nerves? Test anxiety is exactly that. It’s a combination of physiological over-arousal, tension, and somatic symptoms, along with worry, dread, fear of failure, and catastrophizing, that occur before or during test situations. It’s a type of performance anxiety. In situations where the pressure is on and a good performance counts, people can become so anxious. Rocking is one of the ways to cope with this. I have noticed that when there are time constraints, students will read faster and they will begin to rock faster too. We have already seen how rocking is a mechanism used to provide relief.
ADD/ADHD and concentration
Another issue that is prevalent today is attention disorders — ADD/ADHD. This is another cause for a rocking motion in those individuals that can’t sit still. At Lakeside, they explored the idea of giving students rocking chairs. The said “rocking motion soothes the brain and facilitates concentration along with the ability to think logically, which provides overall better cognitive processing. Rocking helps students who are experiencing a brain state of high arousal (hypervigilance) to be able to transition to a much more calm brain state to enhance his/her ability to learn and problem-solve.” This means that rocking is a means to deal with a lack of focus or concentration. This is definitely something that can work and is a great idea to consider for those who struggle with rocking when reading the Qur’ān. Idea: get a rocking chair.
So far we’ve learned that amongst the reasons for rocking we have:
- Sensory overload
- Neurological disorders
- Stereotypic Movement Disorder
- Mechanism for comfort and concentration
What this means for you is to look into your health and any potential conditions you may have. See whether you might have any of these. If you do, then you have a valid reason to be rocking. If you don’t and it’s a force of habit, and you are concerned, then this is something with practice over time that you may be able to remove.
Research into movement, rocking, sleep, and memory.
Speaking about rocking chairs, let’s look at the research around rocking, sleep and memory.
When we think of rocking, there’s a connection with sleep. We rock our children to sleep or to calm them. There are numerous studies that look at how rocking improves sleep and memory. The ScienceDaily mentions two studies. One was conducted in young adults and the other in mice. It provided evidence for the broad benefits of a rocking motion ‘during sleep’. In fact, studies in people show that rocking not only leads to better sleep but also boosts memory consolidation during sleep. They concluded that the findings may be relevant for the development of new approaches for treating patients with insomnia and mood disorders, as well as older people, who frequently suffer from poor sleep and memory impairments.
In 2011, a study showed a “dramatic boosting” of certain types of sleep-related brain waves associated with rocking. Swaying from side to side specifically increased the duration of deep non-dreaming sleep, where the eyes are still, which normally accounts for about half a good night’s sleep. The brainwaves also showed activity typical of deep sleep. Meaning if you’re rocked to sleep, you’ll sleep better, and better sleep leads to better memory. The study subjects were tasked with memorising 46 random word pairs. They had to learn pairs of words in the evening and remember them in the morning when they woke up. On both their rocking and non-rocking sleepovers they were then presented with the first word and asked to recall the second after a night’s sleep. A night of rocking improved their recall threefold.
You might be thinking this is related to rocking yourself to sleep and being rocked during sleep. It’s not really anything close to rocking when memorising the Qur’ān. That’s true. Rather there are points that we can draw from. What we can infer from this is that there is a link with rocking (i.e. movement) and our memory. Also, rocking yourself to sleep can benefit your memory. This also confirms what we’ve mentioned before — that rocking does in fact relax you. What seems like a lot of work or exhausting actually is soothing and calming. Many people that listen to or read the Qur’ān report a sense of calmness. It’s as if this rocking is an engagement or extension of this in bodily form. Those who face anxiety or autism for example use it stimming as a coping mechanism that relaxes them. When used as a means for sleep, we see that it improves sleep and an improved sleep leads to improved memory. There are studies around this (like this and this) where they say for example: “When you’re asleep, it seems as though you are shifting memory to more efficient storage regions within the brain. Consequently, when you awaken, memory tasks can be performed both more quickly and accurately and with less stress and anxiety.” There are many brothers and sisters who memorise the Qur’ān and then take a nap. They were rocking when reading and then went to sleep. They have also found improved consolidation and retention. I personally used to memorise before sleeping and then consolidate in the morning when I woke up. I found it to improve the speed of my memorisation.
What this means is that there is a link between movement and learning. An important idea that has emerged in cognitive science is that the body influences the mind. In fact, this evidence has become a groundswell, and most neuroscientists agree that movement and cognition are powerfully connected. “Simple biology supports the obvious link between movement and learning” (“Teaching with the brain in mind”, Jensen, 2005, p. 62). Jensen explains that oxygen is necessary for brain function, more blood flow equals more oxygen — the idea that some physical activity leads to an increased blood flow (2005). Other outcomes of increased exercise or movement are: more cortical mass, greater number of connections among neurons, and gene expression to improve learning and memory (Jensen, 2005). It has also been documented that stimulating the vestibular (inner ear as mentioned above) and cerebellar (motor activity) system through movement activities (spinning, crawling, rolling, jumping, bending, rocking etc.) can result in “significant gains in attention and reading” (Jensen, 2005, 62). The more the learners used learning activities with movement, the higher their academic achievements, especially with the following activities: (1) sustained movement-assisted learning activities; (2) physical contact with the learned environment; (3) use of visual and movement modeling; and (4) socio-kinesthetic interaction.” (Shoval, 2011, p. 462).
The use of gestures is really interesting. This is another type of movement that results in more enduring learning than learning without gestures (Cook, Yip, & Goldin-Meadow, S, 2010). So even the addition of a few small hand gestures can have an impact on how well students remember material. Then what about moving your whole body or swaying back and forth?
Study after study shows that physical activity activates the brain, improves cognitive function, and is correlated with improved academic performance (Donnelly & Lambourne, 2011). This means any kind of physical activity, not just movement associated with the material you’re learning, can benefit academically. Some of the methods used include something called physical response, and this is something I have seen being used in Malaysia’s Qur’ān schools today. They will have students make gestures in accordance to the meanings of the verses. This is a more meaningful and better approach than simply rocking because this builds connections allowing for better reach in learning.
Research also suggests that moving while memorising may improve verbal long-term memory. We as human beings are designed to move. If we stagnate, it causes health issues and that includes a detrimental effect on the memory. It’s amazing that in our deen, our pillar ritual form of worship is based upon movement (the salāh) five times a day. I was told recently by a doctor that one of the world’s foremost researchers into human movement and health said that the Muslim prayer includes the best form of exercise that a human being needs. I still need to find that one!
So from these various sources of studies, we can see the impact of rocking and movement upon our sleep and our memory. If we apply this to the movement we see when we are memorising the Qur’ān, the Words of Allāh, Words that move us, why can we not deduce the same or even further benefits of such movement? A revelation that is full of healing just from listening to it and from memorising it.
This is why I call upon professionals who can do a study on this to see what the impact of rocking actually has. I hope you can share this with relevant people as this is all open to debate and further research.
Observations on rocking whilst memorising or reviewing Qur’ān
It’s something I noticed since I was a child. I’ve even seen my mother doing it but she never knew she did it until I pointed it out. This is a typical observation I have had that people will be rocking without knowing they are. This suggests that it’s natural, habitual, or that there’s a cause for it (it could be any of the ones I have already mentioned or otherwise).
There could be a link between the state of the brain and the process of reading the Qur’ān in that state. Perhaps also a link with the rhythmic and engaging nature of the Qur’ān with certain personalities. It’s like a specific type of sound that triggers a different reaction to different people. So someone might start dancing over a sound whereas someone else will be at a standstill. This could be why we see there are those who will rock and those that won’t. You can see this at the start of this video (Africa) and in here too (Pakistan). Some people do not like rocking or any movement at all. Some feel they need it. This movement can be found everywhere, not just in Indo-Pak.
You will also observe those who do move, will move at a varied pace, or will either be moving side to side or back and forth. There are no consistent patterns. I have found in some schools that it is even encouraged by some teachers to move like this because they say it will help to memorise and focus. This is in fact one of the reasons for movement — concentration. It’s a reason that nearly everyone will give you. What’s really interesting from my observations that confirm this is that this rocking motion (side to side or back and forth) only happens when they are reciting the Qur’ān sitting down completely focused. They won’t do it when standing or in any other position.
I’ve also observed that when they read in a certain way, it will affect the way they move. The slower and more melodious they read, there’s hardly any rocking. This is likely because this type of recitation is usually done in modes of teaching, prayer, and reflective or artistic recitation. The faster and more focused recitation tends to produce the rocking. The faster they read and the more determination or motivation they have, the quicker they move. The more they need to read in a short time frame, the more they rock to manage the stress. Although this is not absolute, it is definitely something I have experienced with myself and my students. I have also found that at times there’s a need to rock. Without the rocking, you may fall asleep or even lose attention and focus. This ties together with reading aloud. Otherwise, you will fall asleep — this is found in the morning and at night. The movement itself keeps them going, gives them a boost, and gives a sense of continuous progress. So much so that when they get stuck in their reading, they will stop rocking to think and pause. Then resync and resume rocking whilst reading aloud. There are so many that do this.
Another Hāfiz observes:
“I have personally experienced this being a Hafiz myself, that the movements didn’t necessarily help in learning but definitely helped in recalling the lesson I learned in the past and if someone abruptly stopped my motion, I would come to an even abrupt stop in recalling my lesson. I also observed many of my friends in college who used to think and study before examination and would play with their pens, which supposedly helped them focus better.”
He also says it can be explained for two reasons:
- “Biological perspective — The brain requires a large amount of oxygen to function; it consumes one-fifth of the body’s oxygen. Learning Qur’ān or anything by rote (or a lengthy prayer) is an activity that involves extensive memory usage and consumes a lot of cognitive energy of the brain. The students sit for 7–8 hours at a stretch and learn the lessons by constant and loud repetition of the verses. The rhythmic body movements increase the heart rate slightly without exerting the body, and this increased blood flow could deliver more oxygen to the brain and hence help the students to concentrate better. Rapid rhythmic movements cause the brain’s two hemispheres to interact with each other more efficiently, that may help you pull up information. Also, physical activity has been proved to increase the brain activity in Hippocampus, which in this case might help with memory.
- Psychological perspective — The body movements of the students can be associated with the concept of ‘memory association’. Chewing action of a gum, rhythmic body movements while learning and many more repetitive actions have been proved to increase memory by increasing focus, concentration and associating / mapping the action with the subject being learned by forming neural connections. The actions act as an anchor and help recall the information at a later time by repeating it. One can read more about this in Kinesthetic learning. In other cases, the body movements have not only been helpful in memory recall, but helping students overcome stammer and low self-confidence issues. This can be better understood by a simple exercise — Switch the hand you are using to control the computer mouse. Use the hand you normally do ‘not’ use. You’ll find it harder to be precise and accurate with your motions. The same behavior can be seen in people who need strong concentration and focus to perform a task. For example — musicians, especially rock bands, their antics are not always deliberate but actions to help them focus on their performance. The monks in Buddhist monasteries are also accustomed to movements while they recite their prayers.”
So why would anyone ever tell you to stop rocking knowing all of the above?
So is it permissible to do this rocking back and forth when memorising or reviewing the Qur’ān?
There are three viewpoints on this: (1) you can do it, (2) you should avoid it, and (3) you cannot do this at all. Those from the first position will say that it’s not impermissible nor sinful to move, rock, or sway whilst reciting the Qur’ān. The second position is that it should be avoided to whatever extent you are able to. The third completely rules it out as being sinful. My informed position of agreement is with the first one — that it is permissible (although with conditions). If we are to take into account the reasons above for rocking, we already have discovered permissible situations for this. The question then applies to those that do not have any condition. I would like to point out that although I will share my position on this. I may be wrong and it is open to polite disagreement. You are encouraged to make work of your own research and sources. May Allāh forgive us, guide us, and grant us steadfastness upon the straight path. Ameen.
The reason that scholars will disapprove of or prohibit rocking is that it resembles the actions of the Jews. So one of the several traditions that are used as a fundamental basis for this:
عَنْ ابْنِ عُمَرَ قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ مَنْ تَشَبَّهَ بِقَوْمٍ فَهُوَ مِنْهُمْ
Ibn Umar reported: The Messenger of Allāh, peace, and blessings of Allāh be upon him, said, “Whoever imitates a people is (considered) from amongst them.” (Sunan Abī Dāwūd 4031).
So scholars have been careful and watchful over customs and practices overtime to try and determine whether those are matters that would constitute ‘tashabbuh’. This means likeness, resemblance or imitation such that it creates assimilation. One of the first points raised in understanding traditions like this is that they were statements made in late Madīnah, not Makkah or early Madīnah. It is why the statement relates to imitating a nation (بِقَوْمٍ) in that which characterises them. Every civilisation has characteristics that distinguish it and the Islamic civilisation is no exception. In Madīnah, there were Jews and Christians and the Muslims had to distinguish themselves in every way as the majority. This is where many other traditions are found that specify certain actions of the Jews and Christians. One of the most prominent of them is the tradition of the Jews fasting in Muharram on their day of ‘Eīd. The Prophet (ﷺ) didn’t say — do not fast because they fast but he saw it as a good practice. So he imitated them with a twist. Two fasts instead of one with the reason that ‘We have more claim over Mūsā than them’. In this way, there was a differentiation so that there was no likeness. The point is some form of differentiation in your time and space (especially when you are in a majority).
This is why in Makkah, the Prophet (ﷺ) used to do things that the People of the Book did that were permissible. Like Ibn ‘Abbās said: “The People of the Book used to let their hair hang down, and the idolaters used to part their hair. The Messenger of Allāh (ﷺ) liked to be more like the People of the Book. So the Messenger of Allāh (ﷺ) let his forelock hang down, then after that, he parted it.” He (ﷺ) only began to make true differentiation when Islām became its own nation. In that situation of power, they are the ones to set the trends. They are not trend followers. The Prophet (ﷺ) was an Arab and did what they did and looked like they did, to show us the permissible extent. He (ﷺ) also dressed and adopted the ways of other cultures when he met them. Meaning it is a sunnah to dress like the people of your culture and nation. Unfortunately, too many people dismiss things that others do under the name of this tradition. It becomes a means to hate others, to bring to the surface their hatred and sever ties. This is misguidance.
Likewise, the scholars that wrote about this tradition did so in an environment where Islām was dominant in their land (like ‘Allamah Ibn Taymiyyah in Damascus). This is why scholars like ‘Allamah Ibn Taymiyyah have also mentioned that imitation is contextual — and in fact, when a Muslim is living in non-Muslim lands he is not required to differentiate. It becomes permissible or necessary in this case as he (Ibn Taymiyah) states in his two-volume book (Iqtidā al-Sirāt al-Mustaqīm) on this topic. He says:
“The same holds true even for today. Were a Muslim to find himself in the Land of War (dār al-harb), or the Land of Unbelief (dār al-kufr) without there being actual war, he is no longer under the injunction to differ from them in their external modes of life, lest it should prove harmful. In fact, it might be recommended — incumbent, even — for a man to at times participate in their external modes of conduct if, in doing so, it will be in the interest of the faith: either to invite them to the religion, to learn about their internal matters so as to apprise the Muslims of them, to ward off any harm they may be considering against Muslims, or other such goals … So conforming with, or differing from, them varies according to time and place.”
Not everything falls under imitation, it’s not allowed when you imitate another nation in ritual worship that is unique to them with complete veneration and esteem (meaning intent). This is why you are considered one of them. If you imitate someone in this way, you are accepting their belief system. This is why when someone imitates and takes on the action of another religion, they are called a convert. So whoever wants to become like someone in their belief, becomes like/of them. When a particular practice is not unique to one nation but multiple people are doing it, it’s not imitation (tashabbuh).
Those who mention that rocking is not permitted will quote Ibn Kathīr in his Tafsīr al-Qur’ān al-’Azīm where he says under the verse:
وَإِذ نَتَقْنَا الْجَبَلَ فَوْقَهُمْ كَأَنَّهُ ظُلَّةٌ وَظَنُّواْ أَنَّهُ وَاقِعٌ بِهِمْ خُذُواْ مَا آتَيْنَاكُم بِقُوَّةٍ وَاذْكُرُواْ مَا فِيهِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ
We raised the mountain over them as though it were a canopy and they feared it was about to fall on them. (So We said to them: ‘Do not fear; instead) hold fast to that (Book pragmatically), which We have given you, and bear well in mind those (injunctions) which are (contained) in it so that you are protected (from the torment).’ (al-A‘rāf, 7: 171)
قَالَ أَبُو بَكْرٍ: فَلَمَّا نَشَرَ الْأَلْوَاحَ فِيهَا كِتَابُ اللَّهِ كَتَبَهُ بِيَدِهِ، لَمْ يَبْقَ عَلَى وَجْهِ الْأَرْضِ جَبَلٌ وَلَا شَجَرٌ وَلَا حَجَرٌ إِلَّا اهْتَزَّ، فَلَيْسَ الْيَوْمَ يَهُودِيٌّ عَلَى وَجْهِ الْأَرْضِ صَغِيرٌ، وَلَا كَبِيرٌ، تُقْرَأُ عَلَيْهِ التَّوْرَاةُ إِلَّا اهْتَزَّ وَنَفَضَ لَهَا رَأْسَهُ
“Abu Bakr said: When the tablets that contained the Book of Allāh were revealed […] there was not a single (place) on the face of earth remaining that there was no mountain, no tree nor stone except that it shook/trembled. So (therefore) today there is not a single Jew on the face of the earth, young or old, that (when) the Torah is read upon him that he shakes and shakes his head.”
And they further quote Abu Hayyān in his Tafsīr, al-Bahr al-Muhīt under the same verse who says:
وقَدْ سَرَتْ هَذِهِ النَّزْعَةُ إلى أوْلادِ المُسْلِمِينَ فِيما رَأيْتُ بِدِيارِ مِصْرَ تَراهم في المَكْتَبِ إذا قَرَأُوا القُرْآنَ يَهْتَزُّونَ ويُحَرِّكُونَ رُءُوسَهم، وأمّا في بِلادِنا بِالأنْدَلُسِ والغَرْبِ فَلَوْ تَحَرَّكَ صَغِيرٌ عِنْدَ قِراءَةِ القُرْآنِ أدَّبَهُ مُؤَدِّبُ المَكْتَبِ، وقالَ لَهُ: لا تَتَحَرَّكْ فَتُشْبِهِ اليَهُودَ في الدِّراسَةِ.
“This tendency has spread to Muslim children as I saw in the land of Egypt. You see them in the school when they recite the Qur’ān, they shake and move their heads. While in our country, Andalusia and the West, if a young person moves when reciting the Qur’ān, the teacher would discipline him. And he would say: Do not move as you will be like the Jews in the way they study.”
These are more anecdotal in nature without a source and also bound to that particular time and context. The question here is how are we imitating when imitation that is forbidden is one that involves the intent to resemble. When you are doing it for no other reason than x-nation are doing it and that it’s a part of their lifestyle.
Ibn Taymiyyah explained that ‘Imitation is whenever an act is done merely because others have done so.’ The pattern this word ‘Tashabbuh’ takes in Arabic signifies intent that involves effort. Meaning you go out of your way to copy someone. Actions are by intentions, right? It also must be something that is completely unique to another nation.
This means we need to look at the phenomenon of rocking more closely. Saalih bin Fawzaan al-Fawzaan was asked about this and says:
“When you research the issue of swaying the body, or wobbling, during the time of recitation you find that it is from the actions of the Jews when they recite their Torah. It is even from the actions of the Christians when they recite their Gospel. Therefore, (wobbling or swaying when reciting the Scripture) is from the actions of Ahlul Kitāb and we do not imitate/resemble them. Allāh, ‘azza wa jal, also said:
وَإِذَا قُرِئَ ٱلۡقُرۡءَانُ فَٱسۡتَمِعُواْ لَهُ ۥ وَأَنصِتُواْ
“And when the Qur’ān is recited, listen to it attentively, and observe silence…” [Surah al-A’raf: 204].
And being silent means to cease movement by stopping wobbling, shifting, or turning.”
Source: “al-Ijaabāt al-Muhimmah Fee al-Mashākil al-Mulimmah” on page 88.
There are two issues with this response.
(1) Limited research and (2) interpretation of the verse from Surah al-A’rāf. When we can look at the verse, the reason for its revelation was about raising voices while in prayer behind the Messenger of Allāh (ﷺ) or when he was reciting. Al-Zuhri said: “This was revealed about a youth from among the Helpers. Whenever the Prophet (ﷺ) recited something from the Qur’ān, this youth joined him in the recitation.” Ibn ‘Abbās said: “Once, the Messenger of Allāh (ﷺ) read aloud during a prescribed prayer and his Companions read behind him with raised voices which made him stumble in his reading, and so this verse was revealed.” Also, the Quraysh loved to make noise and avoid listening to the Qur’ān.
The words ‘Istami’u’ (listen) and ‘Ansitu’ (silence) used in the verse do not mean to cease movement, it means to listen attentively and in its context (the congregational prayer) it is obvious that one will not move. As Tafsīr At-Tabarī mentions (vol. 9, pg.162–164) that this is during the compulsory congregational prayers when the Imām (of a mosque) is leading the prayer, and also when he is delivering the Friday-prayer Khutbah. To listen to means to pay attention carefully and with silence (not talking back). When applied to reading the Qur’ān it means to pay attention to your reading. Don’t have YouTube playing at the same time and be chatting in your DMs. Whereas those that find themselves rocking are actually completely focused and attentive. Also, one might be reading the Qur’ān whilst walking, driving, or in other moments of life — they are making movements. It is likely that Orthodox Jews and Christians will also be listening to their scriptures in the same way. This does not make it a religious practice. It makes it a way or a means of interacting with scripture.
Why do Jews move when reading the Torah?
Jews call this swaying back and forth ‘shuckling’ in Yiddish. The Jews for the most part actually consider this to be a custom and say that it helps them focus and concentrate. They do not see this as a religious ritual or practice. They will offer various explanations and roots for shuckling. Another explanation explains that it’s rhythmic movement as a way to concentrate on praying and learning and ward off distracting thoughts. These are the same reasons that we find our own brothers and sisters rocking too. As I’ve highlighted above, this is all biological or psychological.
Jews will also explain the difference between ‘learning the Torah’ and ‘praying’. This means Jews differentiate between learning and reading the Torah and their actual prayers. So learning the Torah is not a prayer for them. For Muslims however, when reciting the Qur’ān it is a form of worship (‘Ibādah).
When it comes to ‘learning the Torah’, you will find people rocking back and forth but not everyone. That sounds just like us! The Jews say that it was a practice that developed in the past when they used to have ten or more men sometimes read from just one book. To do this, they each walked up to the book, bent over the text, and then took a step backward again, making room for the next reader. So they say that over time this became a habit in the form of shuckling. They will also highlight that this will differ from person to person. Some will move their legs or hands when learning Torah, while others will focus more through rocking back and forth. Again this sounds very similar to us.
On the other hand, when it comes to ‘Jewish prayer’ there is a debate amongst the Jews on whether they are allowed to shuckle or not. In Islām, there’s no such debate. We are not allowed to make movements in our salāh beyond the required or a specific amount per madhab. For the Jews, there are two schools of thought. This difference of opinion mainly concerns the Amidah — a core part of every Jewish worship service. Those who approve shuckling during prayer will offer religious evidence for it using Psalms 35:10: “All of my limbs shall proclaim: (Lord) Who is like You…”. The idea is that through using their entire bodies they are expressing their deep yearnings in prayer and fulfilling this statement of making remembrance through every limb.
Other Jews will take another approach. They argue that since they take the majority of their laws for prayer from the practices of Hannah, they can’t make movement. Hannah used to pray: (1) in front of a wall (to create concentration and avoid distractions), (2) loud enough to hear herself but not have others hear her, (3) moving only her lips, and (4) not shuckling. This sounds similar to the way we pray as well. So some rabbis have permitted their congregants to shuckle only during select prayers outside the amidah and others discourage it totally. In the 19th century, German Jews were eager to adapt their behaviour to that of the majority society, which is why most rejected shuckling. The prominent rabbis also object to making movement because it is disrespectful. This is also an argument that is put forward by Muslim scholars when it comes to the etiquettes of reciting the Qur’ān.
Today, shuckling is generally understood by Jews as a physical accompaniment to the rhythm of prayers and as a way to concentrate on them more deeply. Again, it’s not a religious practice or a requirement by Jewish law. In fact, they say anything that promotes more concentration during learning the Torah or the prayers is to be encouraged. So if you have more concentration standing still, do that. If you want to shuckle (rocking or swaying) at whatever level you want, do it. If you don’t want to, then don’t.
This means that just like those amongst our community, rocking is not a religious practice but it’s a matter of personal preference or a means of learning with more focus. Likewise, you will also find the same with Jews that some are not moving at all! They do not shuckle at all but then there are those that will be moving. Those that do move will be moving in different ways: example, another, another, another. This again demonstrates similarities and patterns we see across the board.
Do others rock when reading religious texts or whilst praying too?
Yes, there are also Christians that will rock back and forth when reading the Bible. I spoke with some devout Christians and ex-Christians to verify this and they affirmed it too. When asking them why, they didn’t know other than that it helps them focus. Not all of them do this and it’s not a religious practice but it’s again biological or psychological.
I also learned from a Hindu that he used to rock back and forth when he was a child. It helped him memorise verses! He said to try and read a book to study sitting down on the floor with full focus and you will find yourself eventually moving (maybe).
It is also well known that Buddhists also find themselves swaying back and forth whilst studying texts too but they are not allowed to do it during mantras. They will say that the basis of the prohibition is that the swaying does something to the winds in the body and makes the mantra recitation less efficacious. Yet this doesn’t rule out Lama’s doing it. Some call this “kriyas” — involuntary internal and outward body movements and have had it for 20+ years.
Swaying back and forth is universal
This is not therefore something restricted to Jews, rather Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists do the same. When you pair this with all the possible reasons that people will rock back and forth, it doesn’t rule out anyone else doing the same when studying or praying. Do a Google search and you will find so many people talking about how they rock back and forth when sitting down (likely to be autistic) or people who talk about rocking back and forth when reading and studying. Like someone on Reddit says: “I used to stim a lot when I had to study for a hard exam and was stressed that I might fail. I stim even more when I have to study something that I dislike.” Others commented “When I’m trying to focus in general,” and “I stim a lot when reading, though I’m not stressed about it. Do I do it to focus? I’m stimming now, two stims at once (rocking and rubbing the toenail on my big toe) and I haven’t the slightest idea why. But I am reading and writing while doing it.” In my conversations, I have even learned that people will move simply because of comfort and the physical element of it all. Sitting down in a certain way, on the floor or without a backrest, can cause certain people pain or fatigue. The mechanism they use to deal with it is rocking.
What’s also interesting is that you will find that the Orthodox Jewish prayer (and Christian prayers) are similar to our salah. They prostrate for example which can be seen here. So much so that even Jews are asking rabbis why do we pray like Muslims?
There are a lot of commonalities between the Ahl al-Kitāb and Muslims. This does not necessarily make matters fall into ‘tashabbuh’. Is there an intent when we are memorising to be like others? No. Is rocking back and forth exclusive to one nation? No. It’s universal. As long as you have a diagnosis for your rocking, or if you’re doing it for concentration, or doing it because you find that it helps and you do not adopt this movement in your salāh. You are absolutely fine to do this. However, if you feel that it is better not to do so out of respect for the Qur’ān and because others are doing it, then avoid it.
When you consider all the above and you deep dive, one can come to a conclusion that movement of swaying back and forth is purely a biological and psychological phenomenon and on the most part this is due to either a neurological condition or a biological mechanism that creates a calming sensation allowing one to create more focus whilst studying. Also rocking itself as a movement can have benefits to it.
Some have said this movement is bad for the eyes but I have spoken to opticians and they have completely dispelled this notion. Others have concluded it is custom and so it is fine to do.
Ultimately, it’s personal preference, personal context, and condition.
May Allāh grant us health and wellbeing. Grant us the best of relationships with the Qur’ān and make it the spring of our hearts.