To watch a young child recite entire passages of the Qur’an by memory is to see the promise of Allah (SWT) fulfilled: “And indeed we have made the Qur’an easy to learn and easy to remember. Is there anyone who will care to learn?” (Al-Qamar:17)
Many of us may question whether the Qur’an is, in fact, easy to memorise with its 6,236 verses, 114 chapters and various rules of recitation (tajweed). The Prophet (SAW) described the Qur’an as “the Rope of Allah (SWT)” dangling from the Heavens down to the Earth. (Musnad Ahmed) If you have ever attempted to climb a rope, you know the level of upper body and grip strength required to make it to the top; and yet, with adequate physical training and practice, anyone can learn to scale a rope like a soldier. Once you decide to do it and you commit to seeing it through, each step in the learning process makes the task of rope climbing easier and easier. The same principles apply to Qur’an memorisation; with pure intention (ikhlas) and dedication to putting in the time and effort on a consistent basis, you will find that the words of Allah (SWT) have a rhyme, rhythm and structure that are easy to commit to memory.
“I remember crying the moment I finished memorising my first Juz (section)”, says Yafa Aweinat, a recent graduate in Ethnic and Women’s Studies and part-time teacher at the Islamic Institute of Orange County in California. “I never thought I could do it. I realised that any barriers we think are keeping us from being able to memorise Qur’an are simply walls we have built around ourselves.” Yafa’s sister, Nadya, is following in her sister’s footsteps as a student and teacher of the Qur’an while completing her degree in Speech Pathology. She adds, “There were times when I thought I wouldn’t be able to continue, and that my journey would end without me completing my hifdh (memorisation), but Allah (SWT) made a way for me.”
Yafa and Nadya’s experiences demonstrate a crucial point: exceptional memorisers are made, not born, and they, too, struggle to overcome self-doubt. Scientific research has found that the brain structure and mental abilities of World Memory Champions are no different than the average person. What does this mean for you and I? It means that memorising long passages and surahs (chapters) of the Qur’an, or even achieving the title hafidha, is well within our reach. Use the tips and tricks outlined below to get started.
Purify your intentions
Imam Al-Ghazali, one of many well-known scholars during Islam’s Golden Age, said “We sought after knowledge for other than Allah’s (SWT) sake, but the knowledge refused to come to us until it was for Him.” It is important to ensure that you begin your memorisation journey with the intention of pleasing Allah (SWT) and not as a means to gain status and recognition within the community or because you feel obligated to by parents, siblings, friends or others.
Intentions change over time and so they constantly need to be revisited. “Those memorising the Qur’an struggle on a daily basis with their intentions and they worry if they are pure or not” says Nadya. So, how can you better understand your true intentions? “I used to imagine that I lived on an island by myself with my copy of the Qur’an” says Yafa, “and that I would never see another person in my life. Would I still memorise? Would I still stay up late to finish my surah for the next day?” Contemplating such scenarios can help you identify and, with Allah’s (SWT) help, remove intentions driven by this dunya (world).
In addition to purifying your intentions, you must begin with an awareness of how your lifestyle may have to change, and be willing to put the Qur’an first. “Your heart needs to be empty for the Qur’an to fill it up” Nadya explains. “Even halal things can take up space in your heart.”
Identify reasonable targets and timeframes for memorisation based on your circumstances, and write them down. Putting pen to paper helps you identify what you want, clarify the steps needed to get there and reinforce your commitment to the process. The first step is to decide how many times per week you will work on memorisation; daily practice is ideal, but if this is not possible aim for at least four times per week. Then determine how much time you will devote to memorisation in each session; thirty minutes should be the minimum to allow adequate time for reading, understanding, listening and repeating. Finally, set a target for how many ayahs (verses) you will work on per session. This may range from three ayahs all the way up to ten, fifteen or more depending on your time frame and abilities.
Start with shorter surahs to give yourself some “quick wins” before tackling the longer chapters of the Qur’an. And when you reach your target number of ayahs for a session, STOP, even if you feel like carrying on. This will leave you with positive feelings of motivation and interest, which will help you combat procrastination and apathy when it is time for your next session. Be sure to update your targets to challenge yourself as your capacity for memorisation will increase over time.
Listen up and repeat
Select one qari (reader) whose recitation you will listen to and use as a model throughout your memorisation journey. Yafa also advises finding a qualified teacher: “It is so much harder to fix something you’ve memorised incorrectly than to do it right the first time. If your recitation or pronunciation needs work, fix it before jumping into memorisation, even if you have to go back to alif, baa, taa.”
Although your formal memorisation sessions should take place in a quiet environment free from distractions, you can take advantage of opportunities to learn throughout your day. For example, listen to recitation of the Qur’an while doing chores, driving, exercising or relaxing. This can help you memorise new ayahs by making you more familiar with their rhythm and pronunciation, or it can help you review ayahs you have already memorised. Repeat the ayahs you already know during salah to further reinforce your memory of them. It is very important to continually review what you have memorised since we can forget 90% of what we have learned within a few days.
Make it visual
Hang up printed sheets of the ayahs you are working on in key places around the house to remind yourself to practice randomly throughout the day. I tape excerpts of the ayahs I am memorising to my laptop and to the wall next to my bed as visual reminders. Each time I reach for my laptop I feel obligated to spend two or three minutes reviewing the ayahs before checking my email or working. For others it may be more useful to tape ayahs to the fridge, TV or front door.
Identify a few other muslimahs who are working on memorising the Qur’an and arrange to have two or three meetings per month. Share memorisation strategies, discuss challenges and triumphs, check each other’s recitation, and review the meaning of Allah’s (SWT) words. The reinforcement and support that others provide can help you learn and maintain motivation. Relationships also stimulate our brains and contribute to our emotional health.
Bring it to life
Study the meaning of key words and phrases in the Qur’an, particularly those that are repeated often. When you are working on memorising a particular portion of the Qur’an, look up the context for that revelation. Know something about the people, stories or situations being described. Close your eyes and create vivid images to reflect what you read; involve as many senses as possible. This thought process requires extra time and effort, but will help imprint the words you memorise onto your brain.
“My teacher made me read the English tafseer (explanation) of whatever pages I was memorising before I memorised them,” says Yafa. “This cut my memorisation time in half because I actually understood what I was memorising on a deeper level and I could relate to it.” Considering how the ayahs relate to you personally will light up a particular area of your brain, the right prefrontal cortex, a region that would otherwise not be active during memorisation.
A variety of programs for your computer and applications for your mobile device are available to help you read, understand and memorise Qur’an. With iQuran, for example, you have access to the complete Qur’an with color-coded tajweed, verse by verse translation and more than six qaris to listen to. You can search the Qur’an, create bookmarks, access du’as (supplications) and even control the pace of recitation so that you hear each ayah repeated up to five times.
Don’t have access to a local Qur’an teacher or Qur’an class? You can join an online programme where, for a monthly fee, you will be paired with a qualified teacher who will meet with you virtually, usually through Skype, to listen and guide you through Qur’an recitation and memorisation.
Reflect on your progress
What differentiates top memorisers from the second tier is that they approach memorisation like a science. They track their mistakes to help identify their weaknesses. They develop potential explanations for their limitations and they brainstorm solutions. They then test each of those solutions to see what, if any, impact it has on their performance. Every so often, sit back and reflect on your progress. When do you succeed and when do you struggle? Try to understand the reasons for your outcomes. Then make small changes to your approach until you find the learning techniques that work best for you.
A lack of progress might also be related to broader and deeper problems in one’s practice of Islam. “You need to make sure you leave things that are not pleasing to Allah (SWT)”, says Nadya. “These things can literally prevent the Qur’an from entering your heart.”
“If I stop and ask for forgiveness and try to pinpoint the sin which might be blocking my memorisation, I am usually immediately able to successfully finish my pages” adds Yafa.
Taking care of your body can enhance your ability to memorise and retain the Qur’an. Physical exercise helps the brain get the oxygen and nutrients it needs, and makes you more alert. Deep sleep is necessary for memory consolidation and enhances your ability to concentrate, problem solve and think critically. Your diet has a major impact on your ability to learn and retain information too. Eating a lot of saturated fats (from sources such as red meat, whole milk and butter) can impair concentration and memory. Instead, consume “super-memory” foods like fish, eggs, soybeans, chicken, whole wheat, bananas, avocados and low-fat dairy products. Finally, reduce stress and tension using relaxation techniques. Chronic stress destroys brain cells and damages the hippocampus, the region of the brain involved in memory forming, organising and storing.
Ask for help
The most important strategy for memorisation is to continually make du’a to Allah (SWT). Both Yafa and Nadya attribute their success in memorisation to the du’as they made asking for their intentions to be purified, their efforts to be accepted, their time to have barakah (blessing) and their hearts to be protected from Shaytan.“You will struggle to balance your commitments and responsibilities with memorising and retaining the Qur’an” says Nadya. “You have to worry about things like work, school, family and community service. It is no easy task, but du’a is what makes it all work somehow.” Yafa adds, “You will be tested in different ways. Know that these tests are Allah’s (SWT) way of helping us to improve so that we will be better fit to carry His words in our hearts.”
“When you hear that voice telling you that you can’t, that you’re not good enough, that it’s too hard, remember that the Qur’an itself is inviting you to memorise it and giving you a guarantee that it will be easy” (Yafa Aweinat).
So tell me, do you care to learn?
This article contains content from Dr. Gini Graham Scott’s book “30 Days to a More Powerful Memory” (2007).
Jenna Evans graduated from the University of Toronto in 2014 with a PhD in Health Services Research. She is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation where she enjoys conducting research on how to improve the coordination and quality of health care.