One time, Imam Ghazali (rahimahullah) was traveling when he was robbed by highway bandits. He asked them to leave his books and notes, saying that they would be of no use to the robbers and that they contained knowledge he had spent a lot of effort in obtaining. One of the robbers replied, “How can you claim that you obtained their knowledge when we took it away from you and left you devoid of knowledge?” Regardless, he returned the books and because of this experience, Imam Ghazali spent years committing everything he had learned to memory . Considering some Islamic scholars memorized all the books they had in their collection, it’s clear that memorization is an important part of knowledge.
Memorization and Knowledge
Memorization does not equate to acquiring knowledge by itself. However, Muslims have always valued memorization as part of and prerequisite to knowledge. This starts with the Quran. Irrespective of the fact that the majority of Muslims gets their Quranic mus’hafs (texts) from apps on their phones or printed texts, the Quran is a communal obligation to memorize:
The memorization of the Qur’ān is a communal obligation (farḍ kifāyah) on this nation. This means, [in reality], that a number of people, reaching mutawātir, have memorized it, so that there is no change or distortion in it. If a group of the community does this, then the entire community is absolved of this obligation; and if no one memorizes it or teaches it, then the entire community is sinful. 
However, memorization is not limited to the Quran and Prophetic ahadith, but rather extends to texts about aqeedah (creed), fiqh (law), grammar, poetry, and even the natural and mathematical sciences. Shaykh Muhammad al-Ya’qoubi mentions that when he was studying the sacred sciences, he memorized thousands of lines and this paled in comparison to his father who had memorized 30,000 lines of didactic poems on various topics . This was in addition to the Quran and countless ahadith that they had memorized.
There are several practical benefits to having such poems memorized. Firstly, it allows one to learn and remember the basics of a topic in a succinct way. The average person today has taken many classes where they cannot even remember the name of the class, let alone the subject matter. These poems do a good job of distilling down the basics of a subject and making them memorable.
Secondly, it gives one an easily accessible reference point for a topic at all times. Take for example aqidah or creed, an important topic that often is overlooked. By memorizing such poems, a Muslim is able to guard against heresies because they can check any claim or assertion against the aqidah they have learned. One example of an aqidah-related poem is The Creed of Deliverance or Aqidat an-Najat (you can find a detailed explanation of this poem by Dr. Mohamed Ghilan on YouTube). That said, these poems are usually learned by students of knowledge, so Islamic educational institutions should be encouraged to continue teaching these poems.
Regaining Our Memories
Both constant exposure to media, entertainment, and sensory stimulation and the accessibility of the entire world’s information at our fingertips have deteriorated people’s ability to recall information from memory. As popularly said: if you don’t use it, you lose it. From an Islamic point of view, the lack of valuing of memory is connected to the lack of valuing of Islamic knowledge. Muslims today expect scholars to know everything about Islam, while absolving their fellow laymen of any minimum expectation of knowledge, with fiqh Q&A websites and online Islamic lectures just a click away. This is in addition to the devaluing of memorizing Quran, which is seen as exclusively the domain of children and not an activity adults can also benefit from.
There has been a lot of recent research on our memories and how they perform. A consistent finding has been that the human memory is trainable like a muscle and almost anyone can reach a level of being able to recall large amounts of information. An example of this is the story of Joshua Foer, who trained his memory as an experiment in participatory journalism. After a year of training, he, to his own surprise, won the USA Memory Championship . While the techniques he used relied exclusively on visual imagination (the “memory palace”) and might not translate directly into Islamic knowledge, his experience indicates that given enough time and effort, even an adult is able to train their memory.
Muslims need to reemphasize the importance of memorization in Islamic knowledge, starting with the curriculums of Islamic schools and extending to adults. Of course, no one will be able to memorize the entire Quran and ahadith collections and didactic poems straight away, but if each person reading this takes a few steps in this direction, the impact can be massive In Sha Allah.
This Ramadan, make an effort to commit some Islamic knowledge to memory. Since Ramadan is the month of the Quran, the emphasis should be on the Quran. Those who know a few short surahs in the last juz can add a few more or memorize some ayaat from other places, such as the last three ayaat of Baqarah. The ones who have a few ajzaa’ memorized can try to add another quarter or half juz. Each person should set a goal for themselves according to their capacity and ask Allah for the ability to reach this goal. Those who don’t know Arabic can memorize in the original Arabic and familiarize themselves with the English meaning alongside it.
Memorization Tips and Techniques
Repetition is the basis of memorization. However, different people have different styles and it will help to find which way you learn best. Some learn best by reading the verse repeatedly, others need to add some listening as well, others find that it helps to write out the verse with their own hands, and yet others make some visual that connects the words together.
Regardless of learning style, there are a few prerequisites to memorization. Firstly, one must achieve full concentration and eliminate all distractions. Memorization is an act of “deep work” that requires focus and cannot be done while multitasking. Secondly, learn the various duas and adkhaar that help with memorization, such as repeating surah A’la ayah 6, “sanuqri’uka fala tansa” , which means, “We will make you recite and you will not forget.”
Thirdly and most importantly, know that the key to memorization of Islamic texts is righteousness. One time, Imam Shafi’i complained about his inability to memorize to his teacher, and in response his teacher told him that divine knowledge is not something that will be given to a sinner . You must lower your gaze, guard your tongue, and cover your ears from haram. Whatever it takes, do your part to revive this tradition and preserve the Quran and other forms of Islamic knowledge in your heart.
- Haddad, Gibril F. “Imam Al-Ghazali.” Living Islam, www.abc.se/~m9783/ghaz_e.html.
- Al-Suyuti, Abu al-Fadl. Gateway to the Quranic Sciences, p. 91. Translated by Omar Husain. Turath Publishing, 2017.
- Foer, Joshua. Moonwalking with Einstein: a Journey through Memory and the Mind. Allen Lane, 2011.
About the author: Yousuf is a developer with an education in computer science. His interests include science, technology, religion, and politics. You can follow him on Twitter here.