Memorisation or Fahm (Understanding), Which Takes Preference?
Ustādh Ḥasan al-Ṣumālī, whilst delivering the weekly class with us on The Three Fundamental Principles, recalls a question asked to the late Scholar, Aḥmad al-Najmī (raḥimahullāh) concerning giving preference to ḥifdh (memorisation) or fahm (understanding).
Questions posed to Shaykh Aḥmad al-Najmī:
All praise is due to Allāh, the Lord of the whole of the creation. To proceed: These questions are from one of the Salafī brothers in Qatar. I ask Allāh that he grant us and him success in achieving all that is good and that he distances us and him from all that is evil and harmful.
The questioner says:
"If a student of knowledge was to read a text from the Islamic religious texts upon a Shaykh and he understood it without memorising it, is this sufficient for him? Also, is it (correct) for him to move on to another text or is it necessary to memorise the text he has studied and understand the issues that his shaykh has (mentioned), benefit us may you be rewarded?"
The most important thing is to understand the text and understand its meaning. If a person can memorise and understand then this is good but if not then precedence is given to understanding, precedence is given to understanding.
The Prophet (ṣallallāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam) said:
"May Allāh brighten the face of a person who hears my words, and memorises them and conveys them to someone who did not hear them. It is possible that the transmitter of knowledge does not himself understand it, and he may transmit knowledge to others who are more knowledgeable. The heart of a Muslim should never harbour malice against three things: sincerity in actions performed solely for Allāh's sake, advising the Muslim leaders, and clinging to the community of believers. For truly their call encompasses the rest of the people."2
ومن جهةٍ أخرى: فإنَّ الحفظ يتهدَّم، ويذهب غالبًا؛ أمَّا الفهم فإنَّه يبقى
From another angle: then verily what has been memorised will eventually be forgotten and normally lost but as for understanding then it remains.
From a third angle: then merely memorising words without understanding the meaning is of no benefit. We heard a while ago that there was a student of knowledge in Yemen who memorised ar-Rawdah that covers the Fiqh of the al-Shāfiʿī school of thought, and if he was asked about an issue he would be unable to explain and clarify it.
When the students differed about a matter of Fiqh and they wanted to recall a portion of ar-Rawdah to support their position then they would call this student. They would say: Read for us such and such a chapter from ar-Rawdah, and he would read it without omitting a letter. So they called him the donkey of ar-Rawdah.
The fourth angle: It is upon the student of knowledge to supplicate to Allāh that He bestows upon him the understanding of His Book and the Sunnah of His Prophet, and that he give him understanding of the religion. The Prophet said: " If Allāh wants good for someone, He gives him correct understanding of the religion."3
ج- هذا يتوقف على فهم الطالب، فإن كان الطالب قويّ الفهم، وفهم الدرس مضبوطًا فالأحسن له الانتقال إلى متنٍ آخر
أمَّا إذا كان فهم الطالب ضعيفًا، ولَم يفهم المتن، فينبغي أن يكرر المتن حتى يفهمه جيدًا، ولا شكَّ أن تكرير المتن مرةً ثانيةً يكون تثبيتًا للمعلومة، وبالله التوفيق .
Question: Is it better to repeat the study of a particular text from the Islamic religious texts or is it sufficient to study it once and then move on to another text, benefit us may you be rewarded?
Answer: This depends upon the understanding of the student. If the student has a strong understanding and he understands the lesson correctly then it is better to move on to another text.
However, if the student's understanding is weak and he does not understand the text, then it is befitting for him to study it again until he understands it properly. And without a doubt that repeating the text for a second time will consolidate the information.
And success lies with Allāh.
Shaykh Aḥmad an-Najmi, al-Fatāwá al-Jaliyyah 'An al-Manaahij ad-Da'wiyyah, p. 102-103.
Translated by Abū ʿAbdillāh Ḥasan as-Ṣumālī
أخرجه ابن عبد البر في كتاب فضل العلم1
2Reported by Ibn Abdil Barr in the book 'Fadl al-Ilm'. (Refer to Ṣaḥīḥ al-Jāmiʿ, Ḥadīth no. 6766).
3Reported by al-Bukharī and Muslim