Just for the record – Memorising the Quran

During a discussion with a guy named Shabir he proposed the Quran was a unique book because it had been learned off by heart by so many people.  He argued this was because it’s divine author had deliberately made it easy to learn. Although he said he didn’t think this proved the divine origin of the book he argued that it begs the question.

Obviously this is non-sequitur. If the book is easy to learn it doesn’t prove anything other than it is easy to learn. Even the fact that the Quran has been memorised by many people doesn’t prove it is easy to learn.   It is claimed the Quran started as an oral tradition and that many people knew all of it before it was ever canonised (even though various hadiths contradict this claim), and it is probably because of this story that it is seen today as a feat which can promote one’s social standing.  This alone is enough to create a social phenomenon of learning the Quran by heart, and considering the claimed 1.5+ billion Muslims in the world the number of people achieving this feat is neither surprising or impressive to me.  At the time I thought I recalled mental imagery of young children in Madrasas reciting Quran verses over and over, being punished with the strike of a slipper or stick whenever they got it wrong; I felt it would be too impolite to mention this at the time. If only Allah had made the Quran easy to remember…

Despite not being willing to take his argument as far as claiming it proved divine authorship Shabir was very insistent that I found an example like it, in fact, he insisted that I got together with 9 or 10 of my friends and learn a book from cover to cover.  Taking into account his line of thinking is non-sequitur to the point he wasn’t even willing to commit to making it an argument, and how long it would take to memorise a book of similar length, and how I wouldn’t want to spend the time learning a book I declined his challenge.  So instead, for some bizarre reason, I ended up accepting I would prove evidence of a book of at least similar size which has been memorised by at least 10 people….but not a phone book.

Jewish people from history has a tradition called Mishna, which means to study by repetition.  It was claimed that Moses received two forms of information on Mount Sinai, one in a form he wrote down and another he memorised and passed on orally.  The Mishna was passed from generation to generation via oral transmission before finally being canonised for reasons of preservation, along with commentaries hundreds of years before Muhammad was even born.

This is not the only historic example.  Indian Hindus have an oral history dating back thousands of years.  The rote techniques for learning the Vedas are quite interesting, they consist of Vedic chants of different styles.  In computer science there is a simple technique called a checksum, which is used to identify possible errors in transmission (a simple example is to use the modulo of the sum of a chunk of data); similarly the Vedic Chants act as checksums.  Not only do the chants having their own system of ensuring accurate recitation, there are also different ways to chant the same information which also have their own checksums, and act as a checksum for the other methods of chanting the same information.  I won’t go into details, if you look it up wikipedia you will find information on these Vedic Chants.

This is such common knowledge I can’t even imagine why Shabir would ask me to prove it to him, it just seemed to be a way of stalling the conversation.

Seeing as I have no links with a social culture of memorising books to impress my peers it is obvious I don’t know any books off by heart, not even the children’s books I have read many times.  Shabir on the other hand does have links to such a social culture, which is why he raised the subject in the first place.  Considering how easy he alleges the Quran has been made specifically to learn off by heart, does this mean Shabir himself knows the Quran by heart from cover to cover? Does it also imply he also has 9 friends who have done the same and they could gather together and go through the entire recital, perfectly corroborating each other’s words?

I am not claiming it is easy to learn whole books. I expect it is difficult, which is why it takes so many years to achieve. I am claiming the phenomenon is a social one, it has been done before, it still happens today, just not up my street. Shabir is the one claiming the Quran is easy to learn by rote.

I’d ask him to give us a recital but I won’t, because I’m not interested in hearing it and neither his success nor failure would prove anything at all.

The discussion we had was “Is the Quran man made?”  Considering we have opposing views as to what the answer is then it was obvious I was going to argue for it being man made and he was expected to argue for it being of divine origin.  After all, the title of the discussion was not “The Quran is man made”, which would have meant I was the only one coming to the discussion with a positive claim.  Hearing his argument for divine origin might have been interesting, if only he had felt brave enough to actually try arguing it.

I’d end with a statement declaring my interest in seeing a recital demonstration of the whole Quran from him and his 9 friends but I won’t, for two reasons

  1. I could never look forward to such a brain numbing experience.
  2. I don’t think he can live up to his own claim, so I doubt it will ever happen anyway.

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