It was mentioned last weekend, in the AlMaghrib class Chain of Command taught by Abdulbary Yahya that we are no longer taught to memorize in the West, the emphasis has shifted to comprehension whereas in some other countries that still emphasize memorization, students can memorize and retain information much more easily than those of us that have been taught that it’s only important to understand the larger concepts.
It is not uncommon for people of my father’s generation (he was born in the late 30’s) to be able to recall some literary passages they were required to memorize in grade school especially poetry or a passage of Shakespeare. When I think back to my own education, I can only recall be required to memorize the Pledge of Allegiance, the Star-Spangled Banner, various songs performed in plays, and the names, capitals, and major geographic details of every single country on the map.
As I was considering Islam, I remember reading in the introduction of a translation of the Quran that I purchased that there were millions of people that had memorized the entire Quran and could recite it from memory without making a single mistake. It couldn’t fathom it then because I was still thinking about the wordy English translation, and I was unfamiliar with the Arabic language and the science of tajweed.
I remember being so happy and surprised with myself to have memorized the words and movements required for prayer and within a few weeks to have memorized 5 or 6 small surahs. The more I exerted myself and exercised my brain through memorization the easier it became to store and recall information, not just the verses I had memorized but general information as well.
It is little wonder then that when we read stories about the early generations of Islam or even societies that place great emphasis on the oral transmission of knowledge that there is an astonished amazement at their abilities to memorize from those who are not used to exercising their own faculties of memorization and retention.
It is not uncommon for people in oral societies to be able to recall their lineage back many generations, to recite stories or poems that contain more than a thousand lines, to be able to see a page for the first time and to memorize it as they read it or to hear something only once and to have it memorized exactly as they heard it.
As I’ve continued on in my memorization of the Quran, it no longer surprises me that there are millions of people that have memorized it exactly, or that figures in early Islamic history can say that they memorized entire books or anywhere from a hundred thousand to a million hadeeth with the complete chain of narrators.
I think that understanding and comprehension of the material being learned is important but I also think that memorization should not be discarded from a well-balanced education. Sometimes, I tell Muslim college students that say they are struggling or overwhelmed with their course work to increase in their memorization of the Quran because it will strengthen them in many areas and then they look at me with skepticism.