The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Can we revive this sunna?

By Shabnam Mahmood

Nov/Dec 2023

In a world of smartphones and tablets, is there any place for handwritten letters? After all, why take the time to write a letter when one click can instantly update friends and family? Keyboards have replaced pen and paper, making the world smaller and closer for many. However, when technology has made so much of our lives easier, one wonders what the trade-off has been. 

How can handwriting a letter benefit today’s tech-savvy world? The lost art of letter-writing has a rich historical significance. For centuries, letters were used to connect with people far away. Letter-writing is good for one’s mental health because it’s a creative act that enables individuals to slow down and organize their thoughts. Through letters, people can narrate experiences, dispute points and describe their emotions in a way that may be difficult to do through an emoji or an abbreviation. 

Despite the rise of digital communication, writing and receiving a handwritten letter can still hold a special place in people’s hearts. It shows that someone has taken out time — one of the most valuable resources today — to remember someone. 

Letter Writing as a Sunna 

Prophet Muhammad (salla Allahu’ alayhi wa sallam) sent letters to several leaders of tribes and empires. Zimarina Sarwar writes about the importance of this act in her “Letters from a Prophet” (2023): “Writing a letter is a profoundly spiritual and sacred act. It allows one to process feelings and forces them to think and construct their words. Muslims are sometimes referred to as People of the Pen, skilled in writing and calligraphy, creating exquisite mushaf. Calligraphy is a renowned and celebrated talent, where each pen stroke is drawn along a breath.”  

So is letter writing considered a sunna? Dr. Hafiz Ikhlas Ansari (imam, Muslim Education Center, Morton Grove, Ill.) explains that in a literal sense, letter writing allows one to stay connected with people for good reasons. Spiritually, however, one can also maintain ties with loved ones via phone calls, emails and messages. If the intention is to uphold kinship ties or maintain relationships with friends of deceased parents, any form of communication can be effective by making the right effort. 

But just the feeling of going the extra mile to choose nice stationery, take some time to write neatly, actually put a stamp on the envelope and mailing it at the post office can make the recipient’s day. The recipient may cherish it forever, compared to an Eid Mubarak digital sticker one can send to all of his/her contacts by pressing “Enter.” 

Delayed Gratification

Studies by the National Institutes of Health have shown that excessive use of social media can lead to increased feelings of loneliness, anxiety and depression. The constant comparison to others’ curated lives on social media platforms can also lead to decreased self-esteem and confidence among youth. In a world of instant messaging and the expectation of immediate responses, it’s essential to remember the value of delayed gratification. 

There’s something to be said for receiving a handwritten letter filled with words and penmanship mirroring the writer’s emotions. Writing and receiving letters through snail mail can provide a sense of anticipation and excitement, thereby promoting delayed gratification and mindfulness.

Additionally, handwritten letters can be especially beneficial for youth, as they provide a break from technology’s constant stimulation and support mental clarity and focus. Letter writing helps children develop lifelong skills, such as patience, penmanship, sentence-building and maintaining relationships with older community members. 

Parents can find a penpal for their children. Not a random stranger, but perhaps the child of a cousin or friend in a similar age group. They can enjoy writing about their hobbies and activities — and then (gasp!) wait to receive a reply in the mail. 

Can Our Kids Really Write Letters?

Is it realistic, however, to expect our children to learn this skill? “Can adults write a letter these days?” asks Umar Hussain, a teacher at Old Orchard Junior High School in Skokie, Ill. “Then how can we expect kids to? I am a proponent of the benefits of letter writing, but today’s children are ‘digital natives’ and lack the endurance to write a letter.” It’s a challenging but deliberate act of self-reflection, social connection and time commitment. 

Zahra Raza tends to agree. A gifted teacher at Glenview School District, Raza said even her gifted students lack the endurance to write letters. Her class recently participated in the statewide “Letters About Literature” reading and writing competition. Students in grades 4-12 were invited to read a book of their choice, reflect on it and then write a personal letter explaining how it impacted them. Though her students enjoyed the competition aspect, difficulties ranged from formatting and sentence structure to a lack of interest in the book. Despite that, most of them were passionate about the actual letter-writing activity, while others, mainly on IEPs and 504 plans, relied on their iPads’ writing apps to help them. 

Raza admits that although there are practical challenges, writing letters has numerous benefits for children and adults. “I feel students value it if they understand how to do it.” Letter writing is a skill. “I like handwriting to develop those fine motor skills, but I do think that’s something that’s slowly being faded away.” She incorporates handwriting and typing in her class, starting with handwriting notes but eventually typing the final assignment. However, many schools have also stopped teaching cursive handwriting.

Both Raza and Hussain agree that good writing stems from reading. “Reading is not a lost cause,” says Hussain. “Books are either mirrors or windows.” He has seen a shift toward graphic novels, which is less mental lifting but still beneficial. “The amount of words you’re exposed to is like nothing else. Students read and retain the number of words to recall when writing. Reading builds stamina for writing.”

However, even his students need help with long-form writing. With text messages, they rely on responses to clarify their meaning. With letters, you don’t have that crutch.  

Emojis and Abbreviations

Parents of preteens or teens would likely agree that text messages are only complete with emojis or abbreviations. Who hasn’t seen a BTW (by the way), or LOL (laugh out loud) on a daily basis? Businesses aren’t immune either. EOD (end of day), ASAP (as soon as possible) and TIA (thanks in advance) are more commonplace now. And even iA (In Sha’ Allah)!

But it’s not all new. Hussain points out that even hieroglyphics were images, some representing sounds and other meanings used to communicate. “Yes, you lose an amount of expression, but it’s the natural course of language.” With truncated messaging, communication has indeed evolved. 

While we cannot expect all communication to be handwritten anymore, an occasional handwritten letter or card to a grandparent or teacher is definitely worth the effort. Taking a little personal time to collect one’s thoughts and penning them down pays homage to the rich traditions of our past — and can benefit the mind, body, and soul.

Shabnam Mahmood is a freelance writer and educational consultant in Chicago.

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