Extracted from the book: Al-Qadeem Wal-Hadeeth by Muhammad Kurd ‘Ali
What greater blessing a person could be given than a memory that records everything that he wishes to retain and retrieves it later when needed to benefit thereof. This precious blessing is the distinctive and unique feature that makes man different from other creatures. A good memory is one of the influencing factors in the advancement of individuals and groups, and without it, it is hard to realize and scrutinize facts, because if we fail to make use of experiences of those who preceded us and perverse their legacy to build on it, we would be like one who wants to start building from the beginning every single day. It also means that the sciences, industries and arts would remain in an endless inception phase governed by chaotic dynamics, as every person would opt for a random choice of his liking.
Memory is a faculty of the brain by which information and impressions of past events are permanently stored. According to the philosopher Michel de Montaigne (d. 1592 A.D.), memory is: “The container of knowledge and the storage of wisdom.” The writer François de La Rochefoucauld (d. 1680 A.D.) said: “All people complain about (the weakness of) their memories, but none has ever complained about (the weakness of) his mind!” Another intellectual said: “Intelligence without memory is like a sieve that hardly retains what you put in it.” Another one said: “Memory is a means to attain perfection without which a person cannot emulate something and build on it.”
The poet Pierre Corneille said: “Whoever lies must have a good memory,” and this is similar to the Arabic saying: “If you lie often, you need a good memory (to keep track of your lies).”
Memory plays a significant role in the refinement of human thought without which all efforts become futile and in vain, because it is a container for retaining the produced ideas and the best means to develop new ones. Hence, it also stands as a storage of knowledge for the future growth of man. The laws of human memory remain a mystery, and researchers have not fully understood the reality of its very essence. What has been discovered so far is that memory is boosted by improving attention and mental exercise, and that luxury begets idleness, which in turn undermines memory if it does not kill it.
No other nation has dedicated care and attention to documenting and preserving its religion, language and traditions like the Muslim Ummah (nation) did. News of the good memorizers of the Quran from all parts of the Muslim world throughout the ages is no secret, and some effects of such care and attention are still perceptible in contemporary Muslim societies. As for the Hadeeth sciences, Muslims paid special attention to compiling the Ahadeeth (sayings and practices of Prophet Muhammad ), identified the ones that were authentically attributed to the Prophet and the fabricated ones, and also set apart the ones that were not fully authenticated. Their lauded efforts in this regard are perceivable by whoever reads and consults the Hadeeth (singual of Ahadeeth) literature.
In the early centuries of Islam, knowledge was not passed on to subsequent generations as an inheritance, nor was it linked to outward appearances, and there was no room for nepotism or intercessions in the scholarly community. Rather, excellence in the scholarly sphere was exclusively based on merit, hard work and talent of the earnest seekers of knowledge, and governed by established norms and rules. Therefore, a Hadeeth scholar was only awarded the title ‘Hafith’ (lit. memorizer) after he had memorized thousands of Ahadeeth along with their chains of narration.
The title of ‘Musnid’ (transmitter), on the other hand, was given to a Hadeeth reporter who narrates the Matn (Hadeeth text) along with the Isnad (chain of narration), whether he had knowledge of the reported Hadeeth or was merely narrating it. The title of ‘Muhaddith’ (Hadeeth expert), which was a higher title, was awarded to someone who had more profound knowledge of the Hadeeth science. The title ‘Aalim (scholar) was given to the one who had knowledge of both the Matn and the Isnad of the Hadeeth. The righteous predecessors, though, used both titles ‘Muhaddith’ and ‘Hafith’ to denote the same meaning.
A Muhaddith was used in reference to the experts of Hadeeth who had knowledge of the Asaaneed, the ‘Ilal (pl. of ‘Illah, subtle hidden defects identified by versed Hadeeth scholars and critics, deeming the Hadeeth inauthentic while on the surface it may seem authentic), the names of narrators, and the length of the chain of narration (i.e., the number of reporters in the chain of narration) linking a reporter to the Prophet and memorized as well a myriad of Hadeeth texts. He must also have studied the six authentic Hadeeth collections (i.e., Saheeh Al-Bukhari, Saheeh Muslim, Sunan Abu Dawood, Sunan At-Tirmithi, Sunan An-Nasaa‘ee and Sunan Ibn Majah), Musnad of Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, Sunan Al-Bayhaqi, and Mu‘jam of At-Tabarani, in addition to one thousand parts of Hadeeth compilations (e.g., Hadeeth collections on specific topics or narrated by a single reporter). This was the minimum share of knowledge the acquisition of which qualified a Hadeeth scholar to bear this title. If he added to that the study of the books on the Tabaqat (pl. of Tabaqah, i.e., level or tier of narrators), studied at the hands of senior Hadeeth scholars, discussed the ‘Ilal, the death accounts of the reporters and Hadeeth scholars, and Masaneed (pl. of Musnad, i.e., collections of Hadeeth arranged by the narrator’s name), he was qualified to attain the first rank of Hadeeth scholars eligible to bear the title of ‘Muhaddith’. The righteous predecessors devoted themselves to listening to the Hadeeth narrations, studying at the hands of Hadeeth teachers, travelling in pursuit of knowledge, explaining and memorizing their acquired knowledge, and acting upon it.
Taqiy Ad-Deen As-Subki asked Al-Hafith Jamal Ad-Deen Al-Mizzi about the number of Ahadeeth the memorization of which qualified a Hadeeth scholar to bear the title of ‘Hafith’. He said: “This is determined by the common practice (of the scholarly community).” He said to him: “Those who know the common practices (of the scholarly community) are very few in number!” He said: “Well, the number of narrators whom he knows, along with the knowledge of their biographies, states, and home countries, should be more than that of the narrators whom he does not know so that he would be categorized as ‘Hafith’ based on what is predominant.” He said to him: “This is quite rare in our time! Have you encountered someone who fits this profile?” He said: “I have not seen someone like that except Shaykh Sharaf Ad-Deen Ad-Dumyati.” Then he added, “Also, Ibn Daqeeq Al-‘Eed made lauded contributions in this regard.” Fath Ad-Deen Ibn Sayyid An-Naas said: “In our time, the title ‘Muhaddith’ is awarded to a Hadeeth expert who has embarked on studying the Hadeeth sciences at the levels of Riwayah (chains of narration) and Dirayah (deduction), has knowledge of the reporters, learned about many narrators and narrations circulated in his time, and excelled in this field until his mastery and good memory became known in the scholarly community. If he expands the scope of his knowledge to learn about his own Hadeeth teachers and their senior teachers in various Tabaqat, so much so that what he knows about the ‘Ilal of the narrators in his own Tabaqah should be more than what he is ignorant of, he would be given the title of ‘Hafith’. As for what is reported on the authority of some earlier scholars that they did not recognize a person as a true scholar of Hadeeth unless he has written twenty thousand Hadeeths from memory, this was according to the common practice (of the scholarly community) then.”
Al-Hafith Abu ‘Aamir Muhammad Ibn Sa‘doon was one of the senior memorizers of Hadeeth. Ibn ‘Asakir said about him: “Of all my teachers, he was endowed with the strongest memory,” and Ibn ‘Asaakir had about a thousand and two hundred teachers. The jurist A‘lam Ad-Deen Al-Qamni was able to recall what he had heard one time only.
Imam Ash-Shafi‘ee had one of the most exceptional memories of his time. He devoted twenty years of his life to learning Arabic literature and history and said about it: “I only learned them to help me in the study of Fiqh (science of Islamic jurisprudence).” It was narrated that he once read a book by Abu Haneefah and was able to narrate the whole book from memory the next day.
Ibn Durayd the Arab poet who composed the famous poem entitled ‘Al-Maqsoorah’, was a remarkable scholar of Arabic language. He also had an extraordinary memory, as he used to recite from memory entire Arabic poem collections that were read to him only once. It was said that Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, the Imam of Hadeeth scholars, memorized a million Hadeeth. The prominent Tabi‘a (the second generation of Muslims after the Companions of the Prophet ; those who have seen at least one companion of the Prophet ) Sa‘eed Ibn Jubayr said: “I read the Quran in one Rak‘ah (unit) that I performed in the Sacred Majid (in Makkah).” Isma‘eel Ibn ‘Abdul-Malik said: “Sa’eed Ibn Jubayr used to lead us in prayer in Ramadan, and he would recite in one night according to the recitation of ‘Abdullah Ibn Mas‘ood, in another night according to the recitation of Zayd Ibn Thabit, in a third night according to a different recitation, and so on.” This is not odd since Ahmad Ibn Hanbal said about him: “Al-Hajjaj killed Sa‘eed Ibn Jubayr at a time when there was none on the face of the earth who did not stand in need of his knowledge.”
This was a glimpse on the excellence of Muslim scholars in memorizing and narrating the Ahadeeth, despite the similarities between their texts, and the vastness of the knowledge on the chains of narration and reporters. Were any person in our time to endeavor to memorize some of what they had memorized, he would choose to learn the Chinese language instead and find it an easier task, given our weak memories and the interruption of the chains of transmission through which most of these sciences have reached us.
It is outstanding that memorization was a common skill required of whoever wished to venture into the various fields of knowledge, as perceptible in the biographies of the scholars of Arabic literature and seekers of knowledge, and this is evident to whoever reviews the biographies of their men. Had the earlier authors relied mostly on the knowledge documented in their scripts, it would not have been possible for any of them to author scores of volumes that a present-day scholar cannot transcribe, or even read.