Posted on November 5, 2015

SELF: Memory and Islam


I have a challenge for you: try to recite Surah Al-Fatihah backwards.

It is a surah we have most likely read tens or hundreds of thousands of times! But I couldn’t do it. What difference does this make? Let me share a little journey I have been on for a while.

I have been reading many books on Islamic Spirituality lately and they all seem to reinforce the single idea that all of Islamic spirituality is rooted in the Qur’an.

Even the Prophet (pbuh) himself was in a sense an extension of the Qur’an as Aisha (ra) said:

The character of the Prophet was the Qur’an. (Muslim)

So on a fundamental level the Qur’an is where all attempts to become closer to God should begin. And in that sense I can understand why many decry the importance of kids memorising the Qur’an at a young age. It is unfortunate that my own experience of Qur’an classes at a young age was filled with fear and canings!

But it got me thinking about what it means to know the Qur’an, and how best to absorb the Qur’an in order to become more in line with the character of the Prophet (pbuh) and become closer to God.

So I began looking up resources on identity and what shapes one’s identity. I came across an article on Ibn Rushd’s concept of identity which the author strongly linked back to memory.

According to the author, in the psychology of Ibn Rushd, the identity of an individual is completely determined by their memory, and its use in abstraction/analysis and composition/synthesis.

This reminds me a lot of the concept of identity I learned about years ago in the philosophy of John Locke who, centuries after Ibn Rushd, was noted for his firm belief that without memory we are nothing but mindless organisms that react to stimuli rather than responding thoughtfully.

So this then turned me towards memory and the importance of memory in our lives. I recall many stories from when I was younger of all these amazing scholars of the past who had memorised word for word thousands of hadith and even entire books, and that made me think about the incredible wealth of knowledge that such people would have available to them.

It seems a strange contradiction that in the age in which we live we have access to almost the entire body of human knowledge in a device that sits in our pockets and is always available, and yet when it comes to the personal knowledge I can call upon in my mind I know next to nothing. I can barely remember my own mobile number!

Especially when I know I have read something somewhere but cannot remember where…case in point, a few weeks ago I wanted to use the quote ‘Our minds are at war, but our hearts are at peace.’ I strongly remember it was made by a classical Islamic scholar regarding difference of opinion, but I couldn’t remember which book it was in, whether that was the correct context, what the surrounding argument was, anything!!

So what was wrong with my memory? I had read the book, but very little of the knowledge from the book stuck in my head, only little post it notes that told me to go back to the book. I cannot help but imagine how amazing it would be to have access to all that I have learnt in my life always there, to be accessed whenever I thought about complex (to me) things like the nature of God and creation, about the concept of identity and the philosophical arguments surrounding the nature of the consciousness, so many things!!

I had previously read the book ‘Moonwalking with Einstein’ by Joshua Foer about memory and the incredible feats of memorising that some people, including the always amazing Tansel Ali (whose interview with us can be found here, and whose latest book we both absolutely love, ‘How to Learn Almost Anything in 48 Hours’), manage to achieve.

In the book the author Joshua Foer comes into contact with a leading researcher on memory, who I then contacted for some more information about how people used to memorise scripture and entire books and so on.

He recommended I contact Prof. Mary Carruthers from NYU who specialises in medieval mnemonic techniques and the history of spirituality. Perfect! But before contacting her I thought it prudent to read some of her works and so I began reading her book ‘The Book of Memory’. I have read only part of the book so far but it has been an enlightening (and challenging!) read.

It has also made me really question what it means to know anything, let alone scripture.

An example is the challenge I gave at the start. Could you do it? I couldn’t. Try reciting the ayahs in reverse order. I had a really hard time with that too. Try even reciting the alphabet backwards! Why isn’t the information we want available to us when it is definitely there in our minds?!

In her book, Prof. Carruthers talks about Thomas Aquinas’ remarkable feats of memory. Not only had he memorised innumerous books and knew them well enough to quote them backwards, he was able to mix any two verses, saying one word from the first verse recited forwards, while the next word is from the second verse recited backwards, and mix the two as he spoke. That is just mind blowing to me! What mastery he had over his memory! And the book is full of examples of others like that.

I am still getting through the book and will update as I go, but it was a wake up call to me that I don’t open and allow my mind to function as well as I should be able to expect it to, given the incredible potential of the human mind as one of Allah’s (swt) amazing creations. And it really highlighted to me the connection between spirituality, mindfulness and memory, therefore affecting my perspective on the everyday practice of my faith.

Muneer 🙂

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  • Reply Preview Industries September 7, 2016 at 5:47 pm

    its a great post. Can i know more from you. Well i like this post

  • Reply Naeeda Afzal December 6, 2018 at 8:02 pm

    I read somewhere that our sins sometimes block our memory

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