Memorisation preserved the Qur’an

Memorisation as the primary mode of Qur’anic preservation

A small segment of over 20, 000 memorisers of the Qur'an gathered together for a ceremony to officiate The National Association of Institutions of Qur'anic Memorisation by the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak at the Federal Territory Mosque in Kuala Lumpur on the 20th of February 2016

A small segment of over 20, 000 memorisers of the Qur’an gathered together for a ceremony to officiate The National Association of Institutions of Qur’anic Memorisation by the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak at the Federal Territory Mosque in Kuala Lumpur on the 20th of February 2016

Muslims throughout the ages have long insisted that the preservation of their holy book is unlike any other — through the memory of its believers and reciters. Whereas other historical books were retained through the passage of time in writing, the Qur’an stands as a unique literary text that is preserved primarily through the memory of Muslims known as the ‘huffadh'(memorisers of the Qur’an). Though the writing of the Qur’an began early on, even in the time of the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w., at its inception, the Qur’an was first memorised by the first ‘hafidh’ (singular of ‘huffadh’), the Prophet s.a.w. himself. Those who attended to the Prophet s.a.w., received the revelation from the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. and retained it in their own memories and they in turn taught what they had heard and remembered to those that attended to them and so that has been the manner by which the Qur’an has been traditionally preserved.

Dr. Ingrid Mattson in her ‘The History of the Qur’an’ tells the story of Reem, a 17-year-old American girl who learned to memorise the Qur’an from her teacher, Madam Hala in America. It took Reem several years before her teacher thought she was ready to be tested and ultimately certified by an eminent scholar of the Qur’an that had certified the teacher herself to teach the Qur’an. All the while, through Reem’s learning, her teacher meticulously recorded her progress in a notebook that she set aside specially for Reem’s classes. Through ‘sabr’ (probing), which is a rigorous method of oral examination, Reem’s memorisation was constantly attested to by Madam Hala and the date and outcome of every test was noted down in that notebook. Once Madam Hala was absolutely certain that Reem was ready to proceed to the next level, she was taken to an expert of the Qur’an that happened to be Madam Hala’s mother, Dr. Daad to be tested. Besides being an accomplished mathematician, Dr. Daad was also a ‘muqri’a jami’a’ (comprehensive reciter), and certified as such by the same eminent scholar that certified her daughter, Madam Hala. Being a ‘muqri’a jami’a’ means that a person has mastered all 10 mainstream recitations of the Qur’an. Once taken to Madam Hala’s mother, Reem proved her worth and her recitation was deemed beyond satisfactory. Once she had accomplished this penultimate test, Reem was given the green light to proceed to the ultimate task — to be tested and should she pass be certified by the grand master himself that had certified both Madam Hala and Dr. Daad. Thus she travelled all the way to Damascus, Syria and humbly came to this wizened man’s doorstep, the renowned scholar of the Qur’an, Sheikh Abul Hasan Muhiyuddin al-Kurdi. As anticipated, by the will of God, she accomplished her journey with flying colours and was bestowed the ‘ijazah’ (certification) that she had sought to achieve, known as ” Certificate in the Noble Qur’an in the recitation of Hafs by the Shatibi path.” That certificate is a kind of degree qualification certifying that she has mastered the recitation of the second century (of the Muslim Hijrah calender) Hafs ibn Sulayman, whose recitation is the most widespread today out of the 10 mainstream or orthodox recitations. And that means that her recitation goes back all the way to the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w., because Hafs ibn Sulayman was certified, as she did, by his own master, ‘Asim ibn Abi’l Najud, who in turn was certified by Abu Amr Sa’id ibn Ilyas al-Shaybani, Zirr ibn Hubaysh ibn Habashah al-Asadi and Abu Abdul Rahman Abdullah ibn Habib al-Sulami, who were taught by the companions of the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w.; Abu ‘Amr Sa’id ibn Ilyas al-Shaybani was taught by Abdullah ibn Mas’ud, Zirr ibn Hubaysh ibn Habashah al-Asadi was taught by Abdullah ibn Mas’ud, Ali ibn Abi Talib and Utman ibn al-Affan and Abu Abdul Rahman Abdullah ibn Habib al-Sulami was taught by Abdullah ibn Mas’ud, Ali ibn Abi Talib, Uthman ibn al-Affan, Zayd ibn Thabit and Ubayy ibn Ka’ab. Each of those four companions were of course taught and learned the Qur’an by heart from the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w., who, according to Islamic belief and tradition, was taught by the Angel Gabriel, who was dispatched to him with the Revelation from God Almighty. And so, Reem is a living example of the continuous transmission of the Qur’an through the unique art of memorisation that connects her to past memorisers that were all ultimately connected to the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w., the first bearer of the Qur’an in the world.

The above is not the only example of how the Qur’an has been transmitted through the ages via memorisation, but it is one of innumerable such examples. As Dr. Mattson reports:

“…there are tens of thousands of Muslims living today who, like Reem, seek a sound isnad — a solid chain of transmission for their recitation and memorization of the Qur’an.” [1]

A detractor may say, “Okay, you have proven that someone in the modern world memorised the Qur’an, but that does mean that people 1400 ago did.”

The age of skepticism is a fairly modern development in the history of the world. The most skeptic of observers such as atheists will argue that religions and god/s were created and believed by most of the world’s denizens in the old days because they were fearful of the unknown and did not know any better. In other words, they were credulous and superstitious, both of which in the sceptical mind were and remain primary ingredients for fundamentalist religious fervour. If that is true, then it only follows that if today, with the rise of science together with all the modern distractions of the world, television, entertainment, work, hanging out with friends at the mall, people like Reem can still find the focus and determination to master and memorise the entire Qur’an, then it would have been a much less insurmountable feat for “credulous” and “superstitious” people of old with obviously fervent belief in the faith, plus the lack of modern distractions and science, to retain the Qur’an perfectly in their hearts and minds.

Testifying to the above historical fact, Associate Professor of Sociocultural and International Development Education Studies at Florida State University, Dr. Helen Boyle writes:

“Indeed, preservation of the Qur’an exactly as it was given to the prophet Mohammed was the key impetus for the widespread practice of memorization up until the middle of the twentieth century.” [2]

But in fact, the Qur’an remains widely memorised to this very day. No book on earth can claim that it is so widely read and so widely memorised by people of all colour and background than the Qur’an and this is in fulfillment of the Qur’anic declaration that it is a book that is easy to remember:

“We have made the Qur’an easy to remember” (54:22)

Attesting to the above phenomenon, Chris Horrie and Peter Chippindale write:

“…it has now almost certainly become the most widely read and memorised book in the world.

…Learning large part of the Qur’an by heart is an important part of Muslim religious devotion and children start memorising it at an early age. In many Muslim countries learning the Qur’an by heart forms the basic curriculum of primary school education. Muslims who memorise its contents in their entirety are given the honourable title al-hafiz.” [3]

“But if the Qur’an was so easily remembered, why was it written down?”, the detractor may further ask. The compilation of the Qur’an into a standard form was done at the behest of the companion of the Prophet s.a.w. and third caliph of Islam, Uthman bin Affan r.a., but even though the Qur’an was actually written down in the Prophet’s own lifetime, the writing and thereafter collection of the Qur’an was done during the tenure of the first caliph, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq r.a. at the instigation of Umar r.a., who later became the second caliph. In the tme of Abu Bakr r.a., the Battle of Yamama took with it 70 notable reciters and memorisers of the Qur’an. Inspired by this unfortunate turn of events, Umar r.a. convinced Abu Bakr r.a. that it would be best if the Qur’an was not only preserved through the memories of people, but on paper too. Even so, whatever that was written had to be attested and its validity confirmed by those that had memorised the Qur’an as mentioned by Christopher Buck:

“Written texts required attestation from reciters, who had memorized the Qur’an by heart.” [4]

That means that the Qur’anic written text has never been the primary mode of Qur’anic preservation but that it only served as a companion to that which was memorised that remained in check through the memories of the ‘huffadh’.

In answer to the first question by the detractor, we may refer to the unbiased work of C. T. R. Hewer who was the former Adviser on Inter-Faith Relations to the Bishop of Birmingham and St Ethelburga Fellow in Christian-Muslim Relations in London. Dr. Chris Hewer writes:

“The Qur’an was brought to the lips of Muhammad through the process of revelation. He articulated it and recited it to his immediate group of followers who memorized it. In our own times, the function of memory has become terribly weak. In societies where things are not written down, right up to the present day, the power of memory is strong so that people are able to remember large portions of text and recite them word-perfect from memory.

In Arabia in Muhammad’s time, the role of poets and storytellers was of great importance. They would memorize hundreds of stories and poems and then travel from one city to another reciting their stories for the entertainment and education of their listeners. This process continues until the present time. Experiments have been made in tape-recording stories told in one part of the Arabian peninsula and then asking a storyteller hundreds of miles away to recite the same story. They can do this word-perfect, The same feat can be repeated across Africa, where the oral tradition is still alive and in many other parts of the world, It was quite common in Muhammad’s time for people to memorize poems as long as one of our books today.

It was men and women with memories such as these who memorized the Qur’an from the lips of Muhammad. They became the first guardians of the revealed word. Muhammad checked the deposit of Qur’an memorized by his followers and they crosschecked one another… In this way, a secure deposit of the Qur’an was contained in the hearts of the memorizers.” [5]

As for the second question, Hewer writes:

“Eventually a man called Zayd ibn Thabit (d. c. 634) joined the company of Muslims and around him formed a small group of scribes to Muhammad. They wrote down the verses of the Qur’an from the lips of the Prophet as they were revealed. They did not have access to large quantities of material on which to write, so they wrote the verses of the Qur’an on pieces of parchment, skins, leaves, bleached bones, stones, the bark of trees and pieces if bark-free wood. In this way, by the end of the revelation of the Qur’an, two deposits existed: one in the hearts of the memorizers and one in the writings of the scribes.

Muhammad was taught the order in which the verses, or aya, of the Qur’an were to be arranged into chapters or suras. He then gave this order to the scribes and memorizers. The names of suras and the numbering of the aya were added later. Eventually a parchment length was obtained and Zayd himself understook the task of copying the Qur’an on to it. In so doing, he cross-checked the written deposit with the memorizers to ensure that there was no room for mistakes.

…It must be emphasized repeatedly that the primary deposit of the Qur’an was and still is in the hearts of the memorizers, for whom any written form acted only as an aide memoire. This emphasis prevents any thoughts of discrepancies entering into the recited text. This process of memorization and compilation of the written form means that the science of manuscript criticism, which is central to New Testament scholarship, is almost non-existent in Islam, as almost no variant readings in ancient manuscripts exist.” [6]

Some commentators have opined that one of the reasons behind the lack of “Qur’anic criticism” in academia is fear of retribution by extremist fundamentalist groups, but nothing could be further from the truth. Firstly, critique of the Qur’an by western scholars has been around for centuries. From George Sale to Wansborough and from him to the likes of Michael Cook and Patricia Crone, the Qur’an has been the subject of western criticism for centuries and none of them have been threatened by ‘fatwas’ (religious edicts) of death of any kind. The reason for the total lack of textual criticism in Islam with regards to the Qur’an is spelled out by Hewer in the above:

“This process of memorization and compilation of the written form means that the science of manuscript criticism, which is central to New Testament scholarship, is almost non-existent in Islam…”

The preserved text of the Qur’an stands as a unique phenomenon in the history of religion. Whereas religious texts of all stripes from any part of the world are contingent on written manuscripts from the past, the Qur’an has come to us through memorisation and writing, both serving as a unique system of check and balance that obstruct the entry of foreign influences into the text.

An old English proverb says that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, which means that the best proof of a thing is to experience it oneself. The experience of millions of people that speak and know Arabic as a language having the ability to access the primary source of Islam, the Qur’an without having to go through specialised academic courses in university or some institution of higher learning is proof that the Qur’an has survived intact through the ages. Unlike other ancient religious books, one does not have to take courses that are specially designed to train oneself to read ancient languages in which those books were written to be able to read the Qur’an if one is not illiterate in Arabic by having gone through high school with Arabic as its medium of instruction or simply by choosing and completing some courses in standard Arabic at institutions that offer such programs. By knowing standard Arabic today, a person can easily read the Qur’an and generally understand what he is reading. Of course, he may not have the expertise to interpret and exegete the text, but he would be able to read it with a fair amount of understanding. Commenting on this spectacular phenomenon in the history of religion and ancient texts, Hewer writes:

“The Qur’an says of itself that God will preserve it intact without error for all time (Q. 15.9). This is regarded as the primary miracle of Islam. It also challenges those who doubt it, to bring forward ten verses of comparable eloquence of their own composition (Q. 2.23; 52.34). Scholars are agreed that this has not been done. The Qur’an is written in a style that is party poetic but truly unique and unlike any other form of literature in the Arabic language, Because young people were taught to read by using the Qur’an, it became the primary deposit of words in the Arabic language and so changed little through the centuries. In this way, the Arabic of the Qur’an became as central in the formation of the Arabic language as did the Book of Common Prayer or the King James version of the Bible in English. Even when different forms of colloquial Arabic were developed in various parts of the Arabic-speaking world, the classical language of the Qur’an was maintained so that educated Arabs would be able to understand the text today in a way that few can do with medieval English. This constant use of the Qur’an in its original Arabic has had a stabilizing effect on the language so that classical Qur’anic Arabic is still the scholarly Arabic language of today.” [7]

The fact that the Qur’an remains accessible today in a living language that has remained alive and kicking for more than a thousand years is one of the great proofs that it has been preserved through the ages.


[1] Mattson, I. (2008). The Story of the Qur’an: Its HIstory and Place in Muslim Life. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing. p. 82

[2] Boyle, H. N. (2004). Quranic Schools: Agents of Preservation and Change. New York: RoutledgeFalmer. p. 88

[3] Horrie, C. & Chippindale, P. (1997). What is Islam?. London, England: Virgin Publishing Ltd. p. 18

[4] Buck, C. (2006). Discovering. In Andrew Ripping (Ed.), The Blackwell Companion to the Qur’an. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. p. 24

[5] Hewer, C. T. R. (2008). Understanding Islam: The first ten steps. London: SCM Press. p. 51

[6] Ibid. pp. 51-52

[7] Ibid. pp. 52-53