MUHAMMAD'S PERFECT MEMORY?
By Samuel Green
One of the reasons that Muslim leaders give for the perfection of the Qur'an is that Muhammad had a perfect memory. It is said that God gave Muhammed not just the words to speak but also the ability to remember these words perfectly. Consider this Islamic scholar:
Still further, and perhaps most significantly, so long as the Prophet lived, the Community had in him an infallible guide as to the correct recitation of the Koran. The Prophet was granted special protection against forgetfulness, as the Koran itself indicates: By degrees shall we teach thee to declare (the message), so thou shalt not forget, except as God wills (Sura 87:6-7). (Labib as-Said, The Recited Koran - A History of the First Recorded Version, p. 20, bold added.)
Is this claim true or is it an exaggeration? In this article we will consider what the Qur'an and Hadith say about Muhammad's memory and that of his Companions.
1. What does the Qur'an say about Muhammad's memory?
The verse referred to by Labib as-Said actually says the exact opposite of what Labib as-Said is claiming. Labib as-Said says the verse shows that Muhammad, "was granted special protection against forgetfulness". However he has missed one very important word in these verses, the word "except" (Arabic: illa). Consider the verses again:
By degrees shall we teach thee (Muhammad) to declare (the message), so thou shalt not forget, except as God wills ... (Sura 87:6-7, Yusuf Ali).
This verse is not saying that Muhammad will never forget any of the Qur'an. It is saying that he will only forget what God wills. Thus the verse seems to be an explanation and justification of Muhammad's forgetfulness. This interpretation is also the interpretation found in the Hadith.
2. What does the Hadith say about Muhammad's memory?
Narrated Aisha: The Prophet heard a man reciting the Qur'an in the mosque and said, "May Allah bestow His Mercy on him, as he has reminded me of such-and-such Verses of such a Surah." (Bukhari: volume 6, book 61, number 556, Khan)
Narrated Hisham: (The same Hadith, adding): which I missed (modifying the Verses). (Bukhari: volume 6, book 61, number 557, Khan)
'A'isha reported that the Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) heard a person reciting the Qur'an at night. Upon this he said: May Allah show mercy to him; he has reminded me of such and such a verse which I had missed in such and such a surah. (Muslim: book 4, number 1720, Siddique)
'A'isha reported that the Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) listened to the recitation of the Qur'an by a man in the mosque. Thereupon he said: May Allah have mercy upon him; be reminded me of the verse which I had been made to forget. (Muslim: book 4, number 1721, Siddique)
Narrated Mu'awiyah ibn Khudayj: One day the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) prayed and gave the salutation while a rak'ah of the prayer remained to be offered. A man went to him and said: You forgot to offer one rak'ah of prayer. ... (Abu Dawud: book 3, number 1018, Hasan)
Narrated Imran ibn Husayn: The Prophet (peace_be_upon_him) led them in prayer and forgot something, so he made prostrations and uttered the tashahhud, then gave the salutation. (Abu Dawud: book 3, number 1034, Hasan)
Narrated Abdullah ibn Mas'ud: ... (Muhammad said) I am only a human being and I forget just as you do; so when I forget, remind me, ... (Abu Dawud: book 3, number 1015, Hasan)
Narrated 'Abdullah: ... (Muhammad said) I am a human being like you and liable to forget like you. So if I forget remind me ... (Bukhari: volume 1, book 8, number 394, Khan)
From the above hadiths it is clear that there were occasions when Muhammad forgot parts of the Qur'an and needed to be reminded. We also see that on some occasions he forgot what he had prayed and needed to be reminded too.
3. What does the Hadith say about the memory of Muhammad's companions?
Narrated Abdullah: The Prophet said, "Why does anyone of the people say, 'I have forgotten such-and-such Verses (of the Qur'an)?' He, in fact, is caused (by Allah) to forget." (Bukhari: volume 6, book 61, number 559, Khan)
Ibn Mas'ud reported Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: Wretched is the man who says: I forgot such and such a sura, or I forget such and such a verse, but he has been made to forget. (Muslim: book 4, number 1726, Siddique)
Abu Harb b. Abu al-Aswad reported on the authority of his father that Abu Musa al-Ash'ari sent for the reciters of Basra. They came to him and they were three hundred in number. They recited the Qur'an and he said: You are the best among the inhabitants of Basra, for you are the reciters among them. So continue to recite it. (But bear in mind) that your reciting for a long time may not harden your hearts as were hardened the hearts of those before you. We used to recite a surah which resembled in length and severity to (Surah) Bara'at. I have, however, forgotten it with the exception of this which I remember out of it: "If there were two valleys full of riches, for the son of Adam, he would long for a third valley, and nothing would fill the stomach of the son of Adam but dust." And we used so recite a surah which resembled one of the surahs of Musabbihat, and I have forgotten it, but remember (this much) out of it: "Oh people who believe, why do you say that which you do not practise" (lxi. 2, 61:2) and "that is recorded in your necks as a witness (against you) and you would be asked about it on the Day of Resurrection" (xvii. 13, 17:13). (Muslim: book 5, number 2286, Siddique)
Here we see one of the Companions testifying to the existence of surahs that are no longer in the Qur'an because they were forgotten.
The evidence from the Qur'an and Hadith shows that Muhammad and his Companions had normal memories and did forget parts of the Qur'an. Muslim leaders should stop making exaggerated claims about Muhammad; he was an ordinary man. Muhammad said of himself: "I am only a human being and I forget just as you do" (Bukhari, Abu Dawud).
Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari (translator: Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan).
Sulaiman Abu Dawud, Sunan Abu-Dawud (translator: Prof. Ahmad Hasan).
Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj, Sahih Muslim (translator: Abdul Hamid Siddique).
Labib as-Said, The Recited Koran - A History of the First Recorded Version, Princeton, New Jersey: The Darwin Press, 1975.
Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Meaning Of The Holy Quran, Maryland, U.S: Amana Publications, 2004.
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