I’ve had questions from various people asking about whether they should focus on memorisation of the Qur’ān or understanding it. The memorisation of the Qur’ān or Tajwīd. The memorisation of the Qur’ān or Arabic. Among the five rights of the Qur’ān, which is superior — memorising or understanding? Or do both go hand in hand?

From the outset I will say that nothing matches understanding and its superiority but it’s wrong to look at it as a separate element that needs complete focus. Likewise with any component — be it recitation or memorisation. It is a journey where you depart from recitation and the destination is reaching understanding. We should start from the basics. In this context, this means re-engaging and understanding what is recitation, Tajwīd, memorisation, and understanding of the Qur’ān and thus what is knowledge.

In our time, materialism is becoming dominant and as a consequence, the culture of seeking knowledge seems to be of no interest to most of us. We’ve become reliant on the use of technology and, of course, the internet. So when we have a question, we Google it. Then we see an incredible amount of search results and links. We will be lead to a set of information and we then take them as our source of “knowledge”. Unfortunately, a lot of this is polluted with ignorance. It’s empty of deep research and authenticity. People will write content based on current content already available online. We then see the same content all over the internet. This is shared and duplicated with a cut and paste approach to publishing. This makes it difficult to sift through the material and it makes everyone adopt the same approach.

But, because we have become dependent on tech, we’ve removed our own brains (divine tech) from the equation. This has led us into reading, sharing and believing everything including fake news. How many times have we been guilty of sharing something based only on headline reading? How many times have we been guilty of sharing links only later to realise that it’s just a parody? Since we don’t engage at a deep level and only on the surface (without going to the sources), and relying on tech, our brains aren’t being used to their capabilities. We aren’t building muscle. Instead, we’re enslaved to habit loop developed apps that inject dopamine into our brains on a loop. We then chase this on a daily basis. The shaytan of our day is cheap dopamine.

In the face of this reality, we are losing a crucial engagement with our own divine tech, our brains. Look at current day maths, as far as I know within cities at least, we tend to rely on calculators. When we have a maths issue, we’ll get our smartphone out. If you look at the generations now in their 60s and 70s, we can see how they can easily do complex maths using the formulas they learnt as children without having to use a calculator. In the same way, the culture of working with books is dwindling. We don’t want to engage with books but want quick results (a consequence of fast tech). We want to leave hard work and effort. We know the importance of knowledge as Muslims but have been negligent in this. It is something we have been commanded to seek actively. So it is an important task to remind ourselves of this and the need to revive knowledge, to become attached to it and pursue it daily.

What does this have to do with the question of memorisation vs. understanding?

It has so much to do with it.

You will find a group of people who would advise us to focus and start with memorisation exclusively. Another group of people advise to focus and start with understanding. The remainder advise us to do both memorisation and understanding together. Mostly those who advocate one or the other do so based upon their own experiences and preferences. Everyone wants to prove a point over the other and in doing so often demean and speak ill of the other. For instance, the majority simply memorise without understanding or application. For example, amongst those who rightfully point out that is should not be done will often call these people mindless parrots. We need to be mindful and understand how to communicate.

It’s a different thing to ask, what is superior and what is inferior (which is what I was asked) and what should be the right approach. There are only two possible ways to address this question. Answer it based off what you think (based on experience, preference, and self-study) or answer it in accordance with the guidance of Allāh, His Messenger ﷺ, and his inheritors.

What do you think would be the right way to go about it? The latter of course.

So let’s step back a moment.

In order to memorise, an individual must have knowledge of how to recite the Qur’ān. That involves learning Tajwīd which is the decoration and the code of how to recite the King’s Words. You cannot recite without Tajwīd, they are inseparable. So reciting the Qur’ān with Tajwīd becomes an individual obligation on every Muslim to the best of their ability. That means Tajwīd is more important (and serious) than memorisation from a legal point of view. The components of recitation also include the memorisation of the Qur’ān. The memorisation of the Qur’ān involves repetition and with repetition, you get acquaintance (familiarity, personal knowledge, and closeness). You cannot memorise without repetition, they are inseparable. But, it’s not necessarily the case that through repetition you will then get thoughts and understanding. That can happen if you know Arabic to a standard that enables that, or, engage with translations of the Qur’ān and commentaries (tafsīr) in your language (and remember that). Basic comprehension and the ability to understand what you are reading such that you can explain it to someone. It’s a whole different topic of memorising with understanding or not, and whether you study Arabic first or not. That’s not the topic here.

What all of this means is that recitation, memorisation and understanding have their own respective places and roles to play. We don’t pick and choose. They are all linked like a set of clogs in a machine. They are go hand in hand. One clog has to move first for the other clogs to move and so forth and ultimately then recitation, Tajwīd, memorisation, reflection, understanding, and other things are all work together like they make up one big machine. This machine of clogs is called sacred knowledge. Another way to think about it is what was mentioned previously, it’s a journey with a departure and a destination with transits in between the journey.

Unfortunately we’ve restricted ourselves in such a way where we are running malnourished machines. No one should ever say reading and memorising without basic comprehension has no benefit (which is completely wrong). Rather we must recognise that doing this is basic nutrition but you need more of it to grow.

This machine of sacred knowledge needs to be understood.

What is it?

Knowledge is what made us worthy of being the representative (khalīfah) of Allāh on Earth

وَإِذْ قَالَ رَبُّكَ لِلْمَلاَئِكَةِ إِنِّي جَاعِلٌ فِي الْأَرْضِ خَلِيفَةً قَالُواْ أَتَجْعَلُ فِيهَا مَن يُّفْسِدُ فِيهَا وَيَسْفِكُ الدِّمَاءَ وَنَحْنُ نُسَبِّحُ بِحَمْدِكَ وَنُقَدِّسُ لَكَ قَالَ إِنِّي أَعْلَمُ مَا لاَ تَعْلَمُونَ

And (recall) when your Lord said to the angels: ‘I am about to place (My) vicegerent (a successive (human) authority) on the earth.’ They submitted: “Will You place in it someone who will spread corruption there and shed blood while we glorify Your praises and proclaim Your Holiness (all the time)?” (Allāh) said: “I know what you do not know.”

وَعَلَّمَ آدَمَ الأَسْمَاءَ كُلَّهَا ثُمَّ عَرَضَهُمْ عَلَى الْمَلاَئِكَةِ فَقَالَ أَنْبِئُونِي بِأَسْمَاءِ هَـؤُلَاءِ إِن كُنتُمْ صَادِقِينَ

And Allāh taught Adam the names of all (things), and then presented them before the angels and said: ‘Tell Me the names of these things if you are true (in your assumption)’

قَالُواْ سُبْحَانَكَ لاَ عِلْمَ لَنَا إِلاَّ مَا عَلَّمْتَنَا إِنَّكَ أَنتَ الْعَلِيمُ الْحَكِيمُ

The angels (humbly) submitted: ‘Glory to You, You are Holy (free from every deficiency). We have no knowledge except that which You have taught us. Surely, You alone are All-Knowing, All-Wise.

قَالَ يَا آدَمُ أَنْبِئْهُمْ بِأَسْمَآئِهِمْ فَلَمَّا أَنبَأَهُمْ بِأَسْمَآئِهِمْ قَالَ أَلَمْ أَقُل لَّكُمْ إِنِّي أَعْلَمُ غَيْبَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالأَرْضِ وَأَعْلَمُ مَا تُبْدُونَ وَمَا كُنتُمْ تَكْتُمُونَ

Allāh said: ‘O Adam, (now) apprise them of the names of these things.’ So when Adam had told them the names of those things, (Allāh) said: ‘Did I not tell you I know (all) the hidden realities of the heavens and the earth and also know all that you disclose and all that you conceal?’

(al-Baqarah, 2:30–33)

What we come to know here is that Ādam (peace be upon him) was given knowledge, this was what made him a creation of virtue. We also see the same about all the prophets mentioned in the Qur’ān — they are bestowed with knowledge. Such was the stature of knowledge that Allāh specifically had to point it out to the angels. When the angels said they were the ones who praised Allāh all the time, they mentioned worship as a qualifier. Allāh didn’t mention worship in the case of Ādam to make him qualified, even though the Qur’ān says: “And I created the jinn and human beings solely to adopt My servitude (worship). (adh-Dhāriyāt, 51:56). To be a khalīfah alone wasn’t enough. It was the knowledge he was blessed with that made him superior and worthy of being a khalīfah. This knowledge is not empty of worship and servitude. Knowledge is significant because true knowledge produces goodness and goodness produces benefit for all.

True knowledge gives birth to wisdom

يُؤتِي الْحِكْمَةَ مَن يَشَاءُ وَمَن يُؤْتَ الْحِكْمَةَ فَقَدْ أُوتِيَ خَيْرًا كَثِيرًا وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلاَّ أُوْلُواْ الْأَلْبَابِ

“Allāh grants wisdom to whoever He wills. And whoever is granted wisdom is certainly blessed with a great privilege. But none will be mindful (of this) except people of reason.”

(al-Baqarah, 2:269)

This verse can also be translated as: “He blesses with wisdom to whom He wills. And he who is granted wisdom (and reason) receives tremendous good. And only those who are endowed with wisdom and insight receive direction and guidance”.

This verse uses knowledge (reason and understanding) paired with the word wisdom (hikmah) because true knowledge gives birth to wisdom. Knowledge without wisdom is incomplete. The verse says that Allāh grants Hikmah to whoever He wants. Whoever is granted Hikmah is certainly given tremendous good. And only those who take lessons from it have intelligence. Meaning knowledge without wisdom is not reflective. It should be something that penetrates the heart with light and guidance. So when there is true knowledge but no wisdom, knowledge is incomplete, it does not penetrate the heart.

True knowledge gives birth to true submission (taslīm)

This verse uses similar wording.

هُوَ الَّذِي أَنزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُّحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ زَيْغٌ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَابَهَ مِنْهُ ابْتِغَاءَ الْفِتْنَةِ وَابْتِغَاءَ تَأْوِيلِهِ وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلاَّ اللّهُ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ يَقُولُونَ آمَنَّا بِهِ كُلٌّ مِّنْ عِندِ رَبِّنَا وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلاَّ أُوْلُواْ الْأَلْبَابِ

(It is) He is the One Who has revealed to you the Book comprising some firm and solid Verses (i.e., literally clear and precise in meaning); they are the foundation of (the commandments of) the Book. And other Verses are figurative (i.e., containing abstract and allusive meaning). So, those who have deviation in their hearts follow only its figurative Verses (just) under the urge to create disruption and with the motive to supply them self-seeking interpretation instead of their true interpretation. But none knows its true interpretation apart from Allāh. And those who are perfectly firm in knowledge say: ‘We believe in it. The whole (Book) has been revealed by our Lord.’ And direction and guidance is the share of only those who possess wisdom and insight. (Āl-i-‘Imrān, 3:7)

Or: “He is the One Who has revealed to you (O Prophet) the Book, of which some verses are precise — they are the foundation of the Book — while others are elusive. Those with deviant hearts follow the elusive verses seeking (to spread) doubt through their (false) interpretations — but none grasps their (full) meaning except Allah. As for those well-grounded in knowledge, they say, “We believe in this (Quran) — it is all from our Lord.” But none will be mindful (of this) except people of reason.”

Let’s break this up…

Knowledge is a journey to remove doubt

هُوَ الَّذِي أَنزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ
(It is) He is the One Who has revealed to you the Book

Allāh refers to revelation as the Book. A book is a source of knowledge. The Qur’ān in its first reference to itself (Baqarah, verse 2) uses the same word: kitāb (a Book). We can learn from this the importance of loving and connecting to books. The Qur’ān is also called al-Kitāb as a title too. Kitāb comes from kataba, which is writing and collecting. That is the idea of knowledge, so the title itself refers to knowledge. “That is a Book without any doubt” (Baqarah, verse 2) — knowledge is being defined here. The quality of what knowledge entails is that it removes doubt. If doubt remains, it’s not knowledge. Knowledge removes ignorance and doubt. Doubt (shak) is when you’re on seesaw — 50/50. Ignorance (jahl) is nothing. It’s middle is called wahm (uncertainty). In the top 50% initially there’s dhann (speculative, approximate, assuming, beliefs that are questionable and doubtful) and 100% is certainty (yaqeen).

Shak is when you are in confusion and doubt. Wavering or uncertain between two inconsistent things, without making either of them outweigh the other. Wahm is a thought, an idea occuring in the mind of the two extremes (or differing opinions) between which one wavers, that which is outweighed in probability. This is more prone to error.

So knowledge is a journey that requires work. Travelling from knowing nothing to certainty. The majority of us make dhann (speculative) our source of knowledge. This causes us to take whatever is in our thoughts and label others as ignorant. We should always make self-analysis of where we stand with knowledge. Always growing. We must be honest. There are conditions, prerequisites and grades to knowledge.

If knowledge removes doubts, it has to be based on clarity

مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُّحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ
comprising some firm and solid Verses (i.e., literally clear and precise in meaning); they are the foundation of (the commandments of) the Book. And other Verses are figurative (i.e., containing abstract and allusive meaning).

Muhkamāt = Clear verses that are the foundation of the Qur’ān and its knowledge. Indicating that the foundation of knowledge is upon clarity. There’s no confusion when it comes to understanding it.

Mutashābihāt = These verses are open to interpretations and are ambiguous. The verses themselves are not doubtful but they are open to many meanings. These verses are then often points of debate. This indicates that the foundation of knowledge in its quality should be that it is based on that which is free from confusion, doubts and dispute.

This then relates to the second ayah mentioned from Surah al-Baqarah — “That is a Book without any doubt.” To remove doubt and so there can’t be: jahl, wahm, shak, dhann, and ‘ilm. You need ‘ilm al-yaqeen — knowledge that is certain.

فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ زَيْغٌ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَابَهَ مِنْهُ ابْتِغَاءَ الْفِتْنَةِ وَابْتِغَاءَ تَأْوِيلِهِ
So, those who have deviation in their hearts follow only its figurative Verses (just) under the urge to create disruption and with the motive to supply them self-seeking interpretation instead of their true interpretation.

The majority is based upon clarity but people ignore that and chase that which serves their egos, and preference. This is what is to be avoided.

وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلاَّ اللّهُ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ يَقُولُونَ آمَنَّا بِهِ كُلٌّ مِّنْ عِندِ رَبِّنَا وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلاَّ أُوْلُواْ الْأَلْبَابِ
But none knows its true interpretation apart from Allāh. And those who are perfectly firm in knowledge say: ‘We believe in it. The whole (Book) has been revealed by our Lord.’ And direction and guidance is the share of only those who possess wisdom and insight.

Here those who are of firm knowledge have been connected with Allāh with His Divine Self in terms of knowledge. Those who will reach true understanding are only two: Allāh and His servants who are solid in knowledge. Look at the stature of knowledge: it joins one with Allāh which is why knowledge is always associated with His prophets and beloved servants.

This is from the understanding of one way of reading the verse. Another way of reading it is that only Allāh knows the full and true interpretation. Then those who are deeply rooted in knowledge are given a share but most importantly they simply say that we believe in what has been revealed in full. All of it (the Word of Allāh) is from our Master. Why? They don’t go into investigation and seek their own ego in the equation. They reach submission (taslim). They don’t include the self as they recognise what they have is from Allāh in the first place and that they are limited in what they know.

Photo by Iñaki del Olmo on Unsplash

So “knowledge” at the basic level is made up of:

  • What removes doubt
  • What comes from the Qur’ān and the spring of Prophet ﷺ, and the streams those who followed this guidance [not their own experiences and understandings, e.g. philosophers]
  • Deeply rooted and firm (rāsikh) [There is always one who knows more than you (12:76)]
  • Submission is the result [no more arrogance, vanity, dispute, etc, we recognise that we are limited and submit]

Who gets this? — Those who possess wisdom and reason. Actual knowledge is to know that you know you don’t know. Wisdom, understanding, and reason again is mentioned together.

Knowledge is significant with Allāh, it’s not a joke

شَهِدَ اللّهُ أَنَّهُ لاَ إِلَـهَ إِلاَّ هُوَ وَالْمَلاَئِكَةُ وَأُوْلُواْ الْعِلْمِ قَآئِماً بِالْقِسْطِ لاَ إِلَـهَ إِلاَّ هُوَ الْعَزِيزُ الْحَكِيمُ
Allāh bears witness that no God (worthy of worship) except Him; and the angels and those who possess knowledge (also bear testimony to it (as well as the fact) that) He designs and executes every plan with justice. None is worthy of worship but He. He is Almighty, All-Wise.

(Āl-i-‘Imrān, 3:18)

In declaring Himself as witness to His Divine Oneness, Allāh has made the angels and those who possess knowledge witnesses too in this declaration. This is the station of those who possess knowledge once again being mentioned with Allāh.

Further Allāh says…

هَاأَنتُمْ هَؤُلاَءِ حَاجَجْتُمْ فِيمَا لَكُم بِهِ عِلمٌ فَلِمَ تُحَآجُّونَ فِيمَا لَيْسَ لَكُم بِهِ عِلْمٌ وَاللّهُ يَعْلَمُ وَأَنتُمْ لاَ تَعْلَمُونَ

Listen! You are the people who have also been disputing about matters of which you had (little) knowledge. But why do you dispute about things of which you have no knowledge (at all)? And Allāh knows but you do not know. (Āl-i-‘Imrān, 3:66)

There are three matters pertaining to knowledge here:

  • Partial knowledge leading to debate
  • No knowledge and ignorance leading to debate
  • Allāh knows, you do not.

Reminding us again that self-preferences lead to dispute in all situations. The true path is submission to Allāh and deep-rooted knowledge that leads to that. To get to deep-rooted knowledge, we are in need of revelation because Allāh knows, we don’t. Stop debating! Each science has its limits because we are limited but Allāh is unlimited.

Knowledge cannot be attained without five conditions

لَقَدْ مَنَّ اللّهُ عَلَى الْمُؤمِنِينَ إِذْ بَعَثَ فِيهِمْ رَسُولاً مِّنْ أَنفُسِهِمْ يَتْلُواْ عَلَيْهِمْ آيَاتِهِ وَيُزَكِّيهِمْ وَيُعَلِّمُهُمُ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحِكْمَةَ وَإِن كَانُواْ مِن قَبْلُ لَفِي ضَلَالٍ مُّبِينٍ
Indeed, Allāh conferred a great favour on the believers that He raised amongst them (the most eminent) Messenger (blessings and peace be upon him) from amongst themselves, who recites to them His Revelations, purifies them, and educates them on the Book and Wisdom though, before that, they were in manifest error. (Āl-i-‘Imrān, 3:164)

There are five elements of guidance on one side and misguidance on the other side.

  1. Recitation of Verses (Tilāwah) — The Qur’ān is a light and we are in darkness, without this light we can’t find our flaws to remove.
  2. Purification of the nafs (Tazkiyah) — With that light, the heart begins to see those flaws and it becomes worried and begins looking for cures and then engages in cleaning it.
  3. Knowledge of the Book (Ta’līm) — Now that the heart is on a clean slate, it can take this knowledge and makes it beneficial. Learning the Qur’ān now strengthens you in faith.
  4. And wisdom (Hikmah & Sunnah) — Now that you have attained knowledge, it gives benefit, and it produces wisdom as we have seen in the verses of the Qur’ān. Now you begin to live the Qur’ān and Sunnah with its full spirit.
  5. Having a guide (Rasool) — The verse mentions the Holy Prophet ﷺ is the favour who recites, purifies, and teaches the Book and wisdom. The Qur’ān was revealed alongside the Holy Prophet ﷺ as a Light (Noor). His light allows us to engage. True knowledge comes with purification that leads to wisdom. This cannot be gained without a guide connected to the Holy Prophet ﷺ. With this, knowledge is perfected, and without it you remain in error.

All of these five elements is a process that not only did the companions engage in but so did those who followed and still to this day. They would listen to the Qur’ān first and let the light enter into them. They would then recite and memorise. There’s a difference between Qirā’ah (recitation) and Tilāwah (recitation that is followed). The difference is basic understanding. Following this, they would engage with the verse to understand it fully and then apply it to themselves. Many of the companions didn’t know what certain things meant and they would ask about it or they would come to discover its meaning in various encounters. When ready, they would then move on to the next verses. Jundub ibn ‘Abd Allah, as recorded in Ibn Majah, said:

كُنَّا مَعَ النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ وَنَحْنُ فِتْيَانٌ حَزَاوِرَةٌ فَتَعَلَّمْنَا الْإِيمَانَ قَبْلَ أَنْ نَتَعَلَّمَ الْقُرْآنَ ثُمَّ تَعَلَّمْنَا الْقُرْآنَ فَازْدَدْنَا بِهِ إِيمَانًا
“We were with the Prophet ﷺ while we were strong young boys. We learned faith [iman] before we learned the Qur’ān, then we learned the Qur’ān and it strengthened our faith [iman].”

Where did they get faith from? The guide who was reciting the Qur’ān to them but only when they were ready, having received light and purification, they could begin to be taught the Qur’ān.

Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

Conclusion

Without going into further details and expanding upon knowledge, what it produces, its virtues, its traps, its greatness and the inner and outer sources of gaining knowledge as we learn through the Qur’ān. Then eventually corroborating it through ahādīth, we are not here to do that. Instead we can now appreciate and understand the paragraph above and conclude with the answer:

“What all of this means is that recitation, memorisation and understanding have their own respective places and roles to play. We don’t pick and choose. They are all linked like a set of clogs in a machine. One clog has to move first for the other clogs to move and so forth and ultimately then recitation, Tajwīd, memorisation, reflection, understanding, and other things are all work together like they make up one big machine. This machine of clogs is called sacred knowledge. Another way to think about it is what was mentioned previously, it’s a journey with a departure and a destination with transits in between the journey.”

Don’t look at what is superior and what should you be focusing on. You need to focus on all of them! Get the recitation right first and then move on. Many of us don’t even have a habit of recitation, let alone reciting to a required standard. May Allāh give us an opening to get our recitation to a quality required. This then enables you to at least begin the process of memorisation (hifdh/hifth). Begin memorisation and keep going. Memorise five at a time for example (which is a well known advice throughout time) and engage with the verses before and after you have memorised them. Know what they mean. This will strengthen what you have memorised and allow you to begin the process of engaging with the ayāt.

Begin to treat the process of recitation, memorisation and ultimately understanding as an engagement with knowledge. So when you make your intentions before reciting or memorising make mention the intent to acquire knowledge.

Hopefully this has adequately answered your questions.

What we have conveyed is what our teachers have conveyed to us. I ask Allāh that He blesses us with His favour of knowledge and understanding. Bless our guides, and honour us with His guidance.

Ameen.

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