The Art of Taking Notes

The Art of Taking Notes

As the new Islāmic academic year[1] approaches, students of knowledge are moving into the higher years at every Islāmic institute of learning (dār al-ʿulūm). Many are prone to becoming overwhelmed by the volume of their studies and speed of their teachers’ lectures. At this point, they fall prey to making a ‘rookie mistake’ they later realise and regret. That is, the error of taking inefficient notes.

Every dār al-ʿulūm has a broad range of students taking notes. Some, in the process of attempting to write every word emanating from the teacher’s mouth verbatim, miss the core content of the lecture. Others, on the other hand, give up writing completely and hope to rely on a classmate’s notes. As with everything in life, success lies in creating a balance.

The following is a breakdown of my personal style that I had developed over the years at dār al-ʿulūm. Although it might sound somewhat impractical and rather fiddly, it certainly is of immense benefit.

  • Write the dates

As insignificant as it sounds, it helps a lot when trying to find notes from several months ago. It also increases the sentiment of your notes. I used to write the Hijrī date on top and the Gregorian date underneath.

  • Write in Arabic

The most common written languages in the average UK dār al-ʿulūm are Arabic, English and Urdu. Of these, Arabic is the most efficient when writing. Urdu uses the most words of the three; hence, it is not the wisest choice for note-making. Although English requires fewer words than Urdu, it uses more than Arabic does. Not only that; it takes longer to write English words than it does to write an Arabic or Urdu word. The word ‘opposite’, for example, takes a considerably longer time to write than its Arabic or Urdu equivalent (ضد).

  • Use good pens

My personal favourite was the Cello pens of India (after the pen becomes user-friendly). One of my classmates preferred the Pilot pens, but I found it very rough on the paper – similar to writing on a chalkboard as opposed to a whiteboard. Berol handwriting pens and fountain pens are not a good idea. They are too thick and waste a lot of space, while leaving marks visible at the back of the page. This can make the handwriting illegible when writing on both sides of the paper.

  • Take notes – you are not writing a commentary

As nice as it sounds to ‘write down every word the teacher says’, it is not realistic. Frankly, it is a better idea to take notes that will trigger the full lecture in your memory. For example, when the teacher says, “The scholars of tafsīr have various opinions with regard to this verse. The first opinion is…” – this can easily be written as “1) ….” You are less likely to miss out on notes by using this method.

The same can be done in discussions of fiqh: Instead of “According to Imām al-Shāfiʿī, it is permissible to eat the meat of …, it will suffice to write, “Al-Shāfiʿī: permissible,” as the rest would be fairly obvious when looking at the context of the rest of your notes and the subject of the Qurʾānic verse or ḥadīth under discussion.

  • Use a colour-coded key

This is the golden rule. Admitted, this is fiddly, but it is worth the effort in the long term. This is what makes your notes legible and enjoyable to look back at when revising or doing takrār (similar to a seminar at university) in the evening.

I used a total of seven colours on a daily basis:

  • Black:

This was used for writing the actual notes, in addition to blue.

  • Blue:

Like black, it was for the actual notes. The colour itself did not signify anything; they were used to split up paragraphs for a psychologically easier read. Due to this, I did not need to leave lines for the next paragraph.

  • Red:

This was for chapter titles, page/verse/ḥadīth numbers and marking lines to separate different discussions mentioned under the commentary of the same ḥadīth.

  • Pink:

This was to write down the relevant word/phrase from the text studied, which the teacher is commentating on.

  • Light blue:

This was strictly for translations.

  • Green:

This was to draw a line over all names of scholars quoted, and above all numbers that indicate an opinion or position. This makes it easier to refer to the difference of opinions regarding anything you have studied. When the teacher presents his own opinion, I used to indicate to this by drawing a green box around his name/title (I chose ‘Ustādh’).

  • Purple:

This was for writing all āyāt and aḥādīth that were quoted by the teacher as evidences or examples, but not in the chapter under study. If the ḥadīth has passed nearby (or is coming), I sufficed by writing the number of the ḥadīth instead of writing the full text, saving time.

  • Use a writing pad instead of an exercise book

This depends on the subject and to each individual’s taste. There are pros and cons of using both. For subjects that do not require the student to make many notes, an exercise book will only waste paper. A5 Pukka Pads are ideal.

I would recommend using a display book to put all the papers in. Writing on a pad with spiral binding is frustrating when your hand hits the centre. What I used to do is rip out numerous pages in advance, and pull out three at the start of each lesson (including the last page of that lesson’s notes from the previous day). This way, you can write on both sides of the paper with ease and comfort, without fearing the spiral binding!

One of the advantages of using paper is you get to avoid the hassle of switching exercise books between lessons – you merely change the final paper of both subjects. It is also easier to switch papers if you accidentally write your notes for one lesson in the papers you allocated for another. This mistake is irreversible when writing in exercise books. Also, when classmates ask to borrow your notes, you can give them the relevant pages instead of a whole exercise book.

You can also save time by ripping out extra paper in advance, so you can pull them out instantly when needed. Sometimes, the teacher asks for a piece of paper. You can have the honour of giving him yours.

  • Fold your pages in half (vertically)

This is for two reasons: save time and space. Sometimes, your notes for a ḥadīth is not more than a word or two. Moving onto the next line for the next ḥadīth does waste a surprising amount of paper. Also, writing for the full width of the page uses a lot of arm movement and takes longer than writing a few words and moving onto the next line to continue. This is why you may notice many students unintentionally write in the middle of the page and move downwards, wasting space on either side. Folding your papers in half gives you the best of both worlds.

  • Write  properly

Let not the fear of missing notes cause a hindrance to writing the ṣalāwat in full. There are many factors to missing notes, and experience tells me that writing the ṣalāwat in full is not one of them. Yes, there are ways to do this neatly while saving both time and space.

When I was in my third year, I took out time to practise writing the name Muḥammad in the same style as calligraphists have written for centuries. I also took out time to practise writing the ṣalāwat in a nice shape, as is commonly found as a symbol in the Arabic fonts used in many Middle-Eastern books. This saves space, adds beauty and, more importantly, gives your heart the opportunity to express its love for the Prophet .

May Allāh shower His final Messenger with infinite blessings, and enable us to study his teachings, retain the knowledge, apply it into our lives and impart it to others far and wide. Āmīn.


[1] Shawwāl marks the beginning of the academic year in the Muslim world, just as September marks the beginning of the academic year in the secular world.

13 thoughts on “The Art of Taking Notes

  1. Zaynab

    as-Salamu Alaykum. You mentioned about Cello pens. Since this company has many different pens, can the best one please?

    Here is the link to their ball pens: https://goo.gl/e5uEhw

    1. وعليكم السلام

      It looks like the Gripper, although others look really good too.

  2. bint e arshad

    salam
    I really need clear pictures of your notes..
    I’m struggling with the note taking technique. I’m too bad. at taking notes.. especially shashi and quduri

    1. وعليكم السلام

      Usul al-Shashi and Mukhtasar al-Quduri are usually taught quite differently. The most important things to keep in mind when taking notes for those lessons are to write the date and page number within your notes. Without these, locating your notes becomes difficult.

      All I would advise is to make everything clear. The date and page number must be clear. The phrase being commented must also be distinctly written, with the notes next to or underneath it.

      A common error within some students studying Mukhtasar al-Quduri is actually in their not preparing for the lesson. For this reason, they rush to write everything the teacher says, not knowing that most of it is exactly just repeated translation of the text. Looking at the expected amount of text to be studied before attending the lesson will keep you mentally aware of what is to be covered in class. This way, you will be able to focus when the teacher elaborates on the text – and only take notes where needed – instead of unknowingly writing down a full translation of the book.

  3. bint e arshad

    salam
    I really need to see clear photos of your notes. really struggling in make shashi notes..

  4. Nadeem

    Ohh Allah bless all the people Who preserved the words and who had enlighten the darkness with light of their knowledge and wisdom given to them by you alone who reasoned for the benefits of the community who helped us to understand our duty who clearly spread the word with no changes.
    Aye Rabul aalameen!!!open their chest fill it with the useful knowledge and give them the wisdom which can benefit your slaves..Aye Rahman remove all the hurdles from their lives.
    Ohh Allah help us to respect them who who sacrificed their time to enlighten our lives.
    Oh lord !! Bless their family and their heir increase their status both in dunya and akhira..

  5. Bilqis

    Assalamu alaykum,
    I wish I read this 3 years ago.
    However still applicable in the future InshaAllah. Jazzak Allah khair for this neat article.

  6. Abdullah almubin

    Salaa

    I enjoyed reading this and I can see this being very useful for madrasah students. I would add it may have been good to and some cool text to note taking and link back to Prophet ﷺ time…

    Did Sahaabas take notes on parchment or any other instrument?

    Any stories from lipid predecessors and how they took notes?

    1. وعليكم السلام

      Excellent question.

      The Sahaba’s ؒ time was in fact remarkably different from ours. Their norm was to preserve things via their Allah-gifted memories, as opposed to writing things down. This is beside the fact that the overwhelming majority of the Arabs were unlettered, and only a handful knew how to read and write.

      Despite this, there indeed were some who preferred to write things down. However, due to the lack of resources, they had to make do with whatever they had – which is why they wrote on animal skin, wood and leaves from palm trees, etc.

      Also, due to the brevity of the hadiths, they only had to write briefly, unlike today where we have fast lectures with a challenging volume of content that needs to be written.

      For these reasons, it would be difficult to link the contents of the above article (which has a specific objective) to the time of the Prophet ﷺ.

  7. Huzaifa Saleh

    Masha’Allah loved this! Jazak Allah hu Khayran!

  8. Wow! Wish I read this ten years ago…

    Btw i love Cello too! Ha!

  9. Inspirational, beautiful and useful read, JazakAllah 🙂

    May Allah swt reward you abundantly for your efforts.

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