The average human being can memorise only seven items on a list of 20. And many struggle to recall a phone number after one reading.
But across the Muslim world, children as young as seven are learning up to two pages of the Quran each day, by heart.
Instead of sleeping in or playing video games, thousands of boys and girls aged between three and 18 are spending their summer holidays committing the holy book to memory.
It is an exercise that shows the remarkable powers of the brain and the children’s dedication to their faith.
Using a mix of traditional reciting techniques, technology and a dash of creativity, the country’s 86 Quran memorisation centres are helping about 46,000 children and adults across the country learn to recite the holy text.
At a class in Abu Dhabi’s Al Bateen Quran Memorisation Centre, girls aged between six and eight are learning verses of Al Qari’ah chapter, or sura, using balloons.
Each girl holds a balloon inscribed with a verse from the sura and, as the class begins to recite the verses, the girl with the corresponding verse lifts up her balloon.
Later, two girls recite another sura together, taking turns to deliver each verse with near-perfect articulation. Their teacher knocked on the table only twice to correct a letter or a missing punctuation mark.
“I have been memorising the Quran since I was three,” says Rudayna Fathy, 8.
To merely read the Quran is a challenge for most. The holy book is divided into 30 sections and, during Ramadan, Muslims are advised to read one section a day. Rudayna can confidently recite three sections by heart.
“She has a strong memory,” says her teacher, Najwa Al Masalma. “Even when we taught them information about the Prophet’s lineage, the rules of ablution and prayer, she was able to learn them immediately.”
But not all of her students are as confident, which means Mrs Masalma has to find new and creative ways to keep them engaged.
“Sometimes I assign the top pupil to teach her classmates because some girls are shy in front of the teacher, but with their friends they become more confident,” she says.
The summer course began on July 8 and will end this Thursday.
But it is not all study. The camp also organises fun activities for the children.
“They did some clay painting, cake decorating and every morning they have a fun breakfast together,” Mrs Masalma says.
Older students, mostly mothers aged between 30 and 60, are equally adept at memorising large portions of text.
“Some mothers are really determined and they were able to memorise the entire Quran in two years, but those are only a few,” Mrs Masalma says. “The average is five years.”
Older students require a different teaching approach, and that is where technology and props come in. When teaching how a letter should be pronounced, the instructors use a model of the human mouth and throat to demonstrate where the sound should be created.
“We use so many techniques with the women – we use PowerPoint presentations; give them diagrams; pick a student to prepare the lesson and teach the class every now and then.
“In the past, they used to teach Quran by making the students recite after the teacher, but now that has changed. We had to keep up to date with modern education, just like schools.
“Because dry, straightforward teaching is boring, we try to make the class proactive.”
Naseeba Eid, an instructor at the centre who has been teaching Quran since 1982, says teaching methods have significantly evolved in the past three years.
“It became more controlled and serious,” Mrs Eid says. “Even the students are more serious about learning. Many used to come only to kill free time but now you see a true desire to learn. Introducing technology also made teaching much easier.”
Making Quran learning more sophisticated and advanced has also added value to the field. “Now when I tell people I am a Quran teacher, people are very impressed, they say: ‘Wow masha’allah’, so I feel highly appreciated,” Mrs Eid says.
But being a Quran instructor requires a wealth of patience and perseverance.
“Two days ago, I met a woman I used to teach, when she started she was in her fifties and she was very resistant to memorisation,” Mrs Eid says.
“She always told me, ‘Don’t ask me to memorise, I cannot memorise’. I used to encourage her to keep coming and we barely managed to finish one section in a year.”
When she met her recently, the woman told her she had managed to memorise six sections.
The centre in Al Bateen receives about 300 students in the summer and 860 during the academic year.
“Our youngest khatema [person who has memorised the entire Quran] is seven years old,” says Zubaida Al Hammadi, deputy manager of the centre. “She started five years earlier at the Sheikh Zayed Centre where they have classes starting from age three.”
Ms Al Hammadi says they have received many requests from parents to accept their younger children.
“So we will start accepting KG1 and KG2 age groups this September,” Ms Al Hammadi says. “I think we will need to open four classes with 23 pupils each.”
There is already a waiting list.