Memorisation or Fahm (Understanding) – Which Takes Preference?
Bismillaah, wal-hamdulilaah, was-salaatu was-salaamu ‘alaa rasoolillaah,
As Salaamu ‘Alaykum wa Rahmatullaahi wa Barakatuh
Memorisation or Fahm (Understanding) Which Takes Preference?
Our brother in Islaam, Hasan as-Sumaalee, whilst delivering the weekly class with us on The Three Fundamental Principles, recalls a question asked to the late Scholar, Ahmad an-Najmee (rahimahullaah) concerning giving preference to hifdh (memorisation) or fahm (understanding). An inspiring khutbah explaining the reasons why people fall astray.
Questions posed to Shaykh Ahmad an-Najmee:
All praise is due to Allaah, the Lord of the whole of the creation. To proceed: These questions are from one of the Salafi brothers in Qatar. I ask Allaah 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 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 give precedence is given to understanding, precendence is given to understanding.
The Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said:
May Allah brighten the face of His servants who hears my words, remembers [or preserves] them, guards them, and hands them on. Many a transmitter of knowledge does not himself understand it, and many may transmit knowledge to others who are more versed in it than they. The heart of a Muslim shall never harbor vindictive feelings against three things: sincerity in deeds made for Allah’s sake; faithfulness to Muslims; and conformity to the community of believers. For truly their supplication encompasses the rest of the people.
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 Shaafi’ee school of thought, and if he was asked about an issue he would not be able 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 Allaah 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 Allah wants good for someone, He gives him correct understanding of the religion.” 
Question: Is it better to repeat the study of a 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 properly 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 appropriate 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….Rather, he mentions that the people of Ahlus-Sunnah are always mentioning the statements of Allaah and his Messenger and the understanding of the Salaf, constantly returning to the ‘Ulaama for understandings.
. Reported by Ibn Abdil Barr in the book ‘Fadl al-Ilm’
. Reported by al-Bukhari and Muslim
wa salaamu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullaah