|Methods of Memorization in Mauritania
by: Abu Umar Abdul ‘Aziz
Al-Hamdulillah, we praise Allah and seek His aid and forgiveness. May the Salah and the Salam be upon the Messenger of Allah, and upon his family and companions and all who follow his path with goodness until the Day of Judgment.
Once, the great scholar and grammarian, Shaykh Muhammad Salim al-‘Udud ash-Shinqiti of Mauritania was attending a meeting for the international jurisprudence council in Cairo Egypt. After the meeting, the Shaykh went out with an Egyptian scholar to have dinner and converse with. During the course of the modest dinner, lively discussion took place about the various differences between Mauritania, a large extremely poor country situated in the Sahara desert, and the fairly developed and modern Egypt. The two scholars discussed the methods of Islamic study in both countries and this led the Egyptian scholar to jokingly ask him, “Which scholars are more knowledgeable, the scholars of Egypt or the scholars of Mauritania?”
In response to the question, Shaykh Muhammad Salim said: ” Your scholars are more knowledgeable in the day time, and our scholars are more knowledgeable in the night.”
Due to the extremely harsh existence in the deserts of the Sahara and the near impossibility of preserving large amounts of written works from the fierce and constant sand storms, the scholars of Mauritania have relied upon a tradition of rote memorization of everything that is studied. Upon visiting the small villages that are devoted to study [Mahdharah], you will not see large libraries wherein a person may research and benefit. For this reason, you will find in many books in Arabic written about the methods and manners of studying mentioning that they divide the study styles in the Islamic world into two:
1. The style of Tanqih and Mutala’ah- the method of perusing large amounts of written works after mastering the fundamental sciences at the hands of the scholars. This is the most well known method in the Muslim world. In places such as Egypt, Sham [Levantine], Hijaz, and even as far as India and Indonesia, the students of knowledge employ this method.
2. The style of Hifdh and Itqan- the method of intense memorization and mastery. This less popular method is commonly employed in places such as Mauritania, Senegal, Mali and most of North Africa.
Pros and Cons
Both methods of learning have their positives and negatives from them:
Tanqih and Mutala’ah method
• It provides the detailed knowledge of issues due to the heavy reliance upon the written works of the scholars.
• It enables the student and scholar to research the difficult issues and see the evidences and opinions of past scholars.
• It links the person with the scholars of the past.
• Without proper training, a person cannot properly learn from the books.
• Often times, people pick up books and, without any principles and background learning, they fall into error.
• Due to the presence of books, many a time a person will have a false sense of security-even though he/she has not learned the basics that will enable them to put what they read into proper perspective.
• The presence of books weakens one’s desire to memorize what is learned. Thus, the scholar who is most knowledgeable in the day is the one who can refer to his books and without which, say in the darkness of night, they would not be able to go into the degree of detail that he would normally do after his research.
• The limited amount of memorization that is performed through this method means that whatever a student memorizes; be it the Qur’an, Hadith, or any other text, he will spend lots and lots of time reviewing and revising because the material was not vigorously memorized.
Method of Hifdh and Itqan
• It enables the student to focus on the fundamental issues that are presented in the small texts as opposed to drowning in piles of books.
• It gives the student the ability to teach others and educate in any situation because it is a part of his long-term memory and experience.
• It grants time for the student to concentrate and focus on his subject of study and to master it.
• It saves lots of time in revision because everything that is memorized is ingrained in the long-term memory.
• It is often very time consuming and tedious.
• It is not uncommon for a person to rely on this method without going back to written works for more detail, thus much knowledge passes him by.
• Most people are too weak to continue with this method for very long.
Ideally, the student of knowledge should combine the two methods to assure maximum benefit.
How to memorize?
In brief, we wish to outline the Mauritanian method of memorization so that we can all take advantage of its strong points.
The method of memorization in Mauritania is divided into three categories:
1. Memorization of the Qur’an
2. Memorization of texts
3. Group review as an aid to memorization
Because the Mauritanian method of memorization of the Qur’an and texts are largely the same, we will mention them both in one category.
Getting started, here are a few points:
• Memorization is usually easy. The real challenge is the repetition and review.
• The goal that we have is to place all memorized texts, be they from the Book of Allah or other texts, into our long-term memory. Basically, that means that we are attempting to memorize everything and recall it just as we recall Surah al-Fatihah.
• In Mauritania and North Africa in general, they memorize off of a small wooden tablet called a lawhah. This lawhah is both held like a book and viewed, or it is propped up against something-standing upright. Allah knows why, but if you try memorizing in a similar manner, it will become easier for you. Perhaps it is the tan-brown color of the board that is relaxing to the eyes as opposed to the sharp color of white paper. Allah knows best.
• Try getting some brown/tan colored drawing paper and writing whatever you are to memorize. Prop this up or tape to the wall where it is level with your head- for some reason, writing it with your hand helps in memorizing it.
• I know this may be controversial to some, but in order to memorize in this method, you will need to have with you a Misbah’ [Dhikr beads] in order to count your repetitions. Most of the scholars hold the opinion that the Misbah is not an innovation in the religion and is allowed to use-even though using the hand is preferred for Dhikr. In this memorization, you are using the Misbah as a tool to count and nothing more. So, if you hold the opinion that the Misbah is not good, in sha Allah there is no harm because it is nothing more than beads used to count. If you are afraid of being attacked by people for carrying Dhikr beads around, then why not just go out and purchase a mechanical counter [like the ones that bean counters use]?
After getting your supplies [wooden board or tan paper, ink pen, and Dhikr beads (or bean counter)] you are ready.
How to do it
1. Write the page [or two or three or four-if it is Qur’an] on the board or tan paper in legible writing. If you are memorizing a text such as Imam Nawawi’s Forty Hadith collection, or a small text on Fiqh or grammar, you should only memorize one Hadith at a time or-as with texts that are often in poetry form-only write four lines per day. [Note: For memorizing Qur’an in this method, you must read what is written to one who knows the Qur’an. It is not uncommon to mistakenly write something and start off reading it incorrectly]
2. Proceed to read the text out loud while looking at the board or paper just as you would with a book. Read and read until you can read it without looking at all.
3. After memorizing the text, proceed to repeat what you memorized 300 times-using the Misbah to count with. If you are memorizing the Qur’an, repeat it 500 times. As you are reading this, I can imagine that you are probably shaking your head thinking that maybe what I wrote was a typo. It is not a typo- in Mauritania they repeat each page of Qur’an 500 (five-hundred) times in their memorization. With the Qur’an, it is possible to lower that two 150. However, as was mentioned before, this will mean that you will have to review more to ensure that you don’t lose what you memorized. With other texts, 300 times is the maximum number of repetitions. I remember once memorizing Lamiyatul Af’al in the science of Sarf [morphology] and I thought that I was supposed to repeat each line of that poem 500 times! After spending days and days with that misunderstanding, I could hear myself reading the lines in my dreams, not to mention having that strange feeling you get when you say one word hundreds of times without stopping!
4. Occasionally, read the text while looking at the board or paper to insure that you have not left off anything.
5. Go easy on yourself. You don’t have to read the text 300 times in one sitting! Take it easy and break the task into manageable parts. Try repeating it with the Misbah 100 times and then take a break. Continue like this until you complete 300 repetitions. Based on my own experience, I would say that it will take you about an accumulated 3 hours to repeat on part of a text 300 times and a total accumulated time of 4 ½ hours to read one page of Qur’an 500 times [with the average quick reading time of one minute for one page of Qur’an].
6. After completing 300 repetitions [or whatever high number you choose] take a break. You are done…at least for today. J
7. Now on day two you will memorize new material and that means 300 more repetitions. With that however, you still have not finished from yesterday. After memorizing and repeating the new material, proceed to repeat yesterday’s material 150 times from memory.
8. On day three, you will memorize new material and that means 300 more repetitions. Don’t forget though, you still have to repeat yesterdays [day 2] text 150 times and the day before that [day 1] text 50-75 times.
9. On day four, you will memorize new material and that means 300 more repetitions. Don’t forget though, you still have to repeat yesterday’s [day 3] material 150 times and the material from the day before [day 2] 50-75 times and the material from day one 10 times.
Sounds like a lot? Of course it is! That is all the fun!
With this program, you will need less time to review what you have memorized because it will have entered into your long-term memory. Even though you know it well, it is advisable to read everything that you have memorized [from texts] 5-10 times from beginning to end just to make sure that you can connect ever part together as one unit.
The same is said with regard to memorization of the Qur’an. You should always review from front to back on a consistent basis.
Traditionally, a student would either memorize and repeat his lesson for that day and then proceed to sit with the Shaykh who would then go on to explain the lines that he memorized. The student would only learn the meaning of those 4 or 5 lines and depart once more to memorize. Memorize what you ask? He would then go out, write the brief explanation of the lines he memorized on the other side of the lawhah [or in our case, on another sheet of tan paper] and memorize that as well.
At this point, the student understands the lines that he memorized, be it in Fiqh or grammar. Now, he will read the explanation and put it into his own words,explaining the meanings of what he memorized and what it entails of finer points. On day two, the student will repeat those first lines from day one 150 times. After each tenth reading, this student would then read, in his own words, the meaning of the lines he read-as if he was teaching some one else. This will continue every day for all material, be it from day one, two, three, or four and beyond.
After one engages in this time consuming program for more than two weeks or so, he will have the following:
Day 1: 300 reps
Day 2: 300+150+explanation 15 times
Day 3: 300+150+75+explanations for material of day one and two- totaling 23 times
Day 4: 300+150+75+10+explanations for material of day one, two, and three- totaling 33 times.
Day 5: Continues as day four along with reading everything at once a few times to ensure proper connection etc.
With this method, you will memorize with strength in sha Allah. One thing to keep in mind also is that you are not bound to the numbers mentioned above. If you don’t have the time to sit for hours upon hours, at least repeat your material 50 times on day one and then 25 on day two and 10 on day three and so on and so fourth. A little is better than reading it a few times thinking that you memorized it, only to stumble the next day as if you did nothing at all.
Group review as an aid to memorization
Last but not least, I would like to mention a bit about the group reviews in Mauritania and how we can implement that in our communities.
The group reviews are nothing more than a memorization mini study group. In Mauritania, a student will link up with a handful of other students that are studying the same book and all will do their part in the group study. The way this is done is by starting with one person [perhaps the most senior]. He will read four to ten lines that everyone has already memorized and studied. After reading them from memory, he will then start from the first line, read it and explain it’s meaning in his own words. He will read each line in this manner, reading and explaining until he reaches the end of the selected amount. After he is finished, the student next to him will read and explain in the exact same manner. This will continue until everyone in the circle has read and explained to the others. From the technique, there are numerous benefits. From them:
• It is like hearing the lesson 5, 6, or 7 times, or as many students are there. This helps the meaning of the lesson stick.
• One gets to hear it explained by others who might express a concept better and thus the student benefits more and more.
• One might have a faulty way of explaining a concept; in that case, the senior student or anyone else in the circle will correct him as soon as he says in.
• One reads this in a group setting and thus works at getting over the nervousness of public speaking [to a smaller extent].
These gatherings can take place every day, or every few days according to the need. One thing to keep in mind with this method is that you are not giving a full fledged, 45-minute or one-hour lesson when you read and explain. The most it would take is 15 minutes per-person according to the subject matter.
One way this program can be implemented in our communities is by us gathering a group of serious dedicated individuals who want to learn. All of them agree to memorize in this method [even if adapted somewhat] and either learn the meanings of what is memorized through a Shaykh or teacher, or through the cassette tapes of scholars who have explained that book. If everyone goes at the same pace and all are either attending the classes of the Shaykh or teacher or are listening to the tapes, they may then gather together and hold small study sessions.
This is an attempt to learn the basics with strength and mastery. The goal behind this should not be out quoting another person and bombarding them with opinions in the subject that is being learned about. The focus as we mentioned should be on the main meaning of the text that is being read and repetition repetition repetition.
This is the method of memorization that I was blessed to learn. I am sure that there are variations of this technique in Mauritania that differ slightly. And Allah knows best.
I hope and pray to Allah the Most High that this was of benefit to you and that you read it, implement it even if in a small way, and that you make Dua’ for me.
Wa Sallallahu ala Nabiyyina Muhammad wa ala aalihi was Ashabihi Ajma’in