First of all, the companions of the Holy Prophet (SAWS) used to learn Ahadith by heart. The Holy Prophet (SAWS) has said:
“May Allah bestow vigor to a person who hears my saying and learns it by heart, then conveys it to others exactly as he hears it.”
The companions of the Holy Prophet (SAWS) were eager to follow this hadith and used to devote considerable time for committing Ahadith to their memories. A large number of them left their homes and began to live in the Mosque of the Holy Prophet (SAWS), so that they may hear the Ahadith directly from the mouth of the Holy Prophet (SAWS). They spent all their time exclusively in securing the Ahadith in their hearts. They are called Ashab al-Suffah.
The Arabs had such strong memories that they would easily memorize hundreds of verses of their poetry. Nearly all of them knew by heart detailed pedigrees of not only themselves, but also of their horses and camels. Even their children had enough knowledge of the pedigrees of different tribes. Hammad is a famous narrator of the Arab Poetry. It is reported that he knew by heart one hundred long poems for each letter from the alphabet, meaning thereby that he knew three thousand and thirty eight long poems.
The Arabs were so proud of their memorizing power that they placed more of their confidence on it than on writing. Some poets deemed it a blemish to preserve their poetry in writing. They believed that writings on papers can be tampered with, while the memory cannot be distorted by any one. If any poets have written some of their poems, they did not like to disclose this fact, because it would be indicative of a defect in their memory.
The companions of the Holy Prophet (SAWS) utilized this memory for preserving Ahadith which they deemed to be the only source of guidance after the Holy Quran. It is obvious that their enthusiasm towards the preservation of Ahadith far exceeded their zeal for preserving their poetry and literature. They therefore, used their memory in respect of Ahadith with more vigor and more precaution.
Sayyiduna Aba Hurairah (RA), the famous companion of the Holy Prophet (SAWS), who has reported 5374 Ahadith, says,
“I have divided my night into three parts. In one third of the night I perform Salah, in one third I sleep and in one third I memorize the Ahadith of the Holy Prophet (SAWS).”
Sayyiduna Abu Hurairah, after embracing Islam, devoted his life exclusively for learning the Ahadith. He has reported more Ahadith than any other companion of the Holy Prophet (SAWS). Once ,Marwan, the governor of Madinah, tried to test his memory. He invited him to his house where he asked him to narrate some Ahadith. Marwan simultaneously ordered his scribe Abu Zu’aizi’ah to sit behind a curtain and write the Ahadith reported by Abu Hurairah (RA). The scribe noted the Ahadith. After a year he invited Abu Hurairah again and requested him to repeat what he narrated last year, and likewise ordered Abu Zu’aizi’ah to sit behind a curtain and compare the present words of Abu Hurairah with the Ahadith he had already written previously. Sayyiduna Abu Hurairah (RA) began to repeat the Ahadith while Abu Zu’aizi’ah compared them. He found that Abu Hurairah did not leave a single word, nor did he change any word from his earlier narrations.
Numerous other examples of this type are available in the history of the science of hadith which clearly show that the Ahadith reporters have used their extra-ordinary memory given to them by Allah Almighty for preserving the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (SAWS), as promised by Him in the Holy Quran.
As we shall later see, scholars of the science of hadith developed the science of Asma’ur-rijal by which they have deduced reliable means to test the memory power of each narrator of Ahadith. They never accepted any hadith as reliable unless all of its narrators were proved to have high memory standards.
Thus, “memory-power” in the science of hadith is not a vague term of general nature. It is a technical term having specified criteria to test the veracity of narrators. A great number of scholars of the sciences of “Asma’urrijal” and “Jarh and Ta’dil” have devoted their lives to examine the reporters of hadith on that criterion. Their task was to judge the memory power of each narrator and to record objective opinions about them.
Memories of the Ahadith reporters cannot be compared with the memory of a layman today who witnesses an event or hears some news and conveys it to others in a careless manner seldom paying due attention to the correctness of his narration. The follows points in this respect are worth mentioning:
1. The reporters of Ahadith were fully cognizant of the great importance and the delicate nature of what they intended to report. They whole-heartedly believed that any misstatement or negligent reporting in this field would cause them to be condemned both in this world and in the Hereafter. This belief equipped them with a very strong sense of responsibility. It is evident that such a strong sense of responsibility makes a reporter more accurate in his reports. A newsman reporting an accident of a common nature in which common people are involved, can report its details with less accuracy. But if the accident involves the President or the Prime Minister of his country, he will certainly show more diligence, precaution and shall employ his best ability to report the incident as accurately as possible. The reporter is the same, but in the second case he is more accurate in his report than he was in the first case, because the nature of the incident has made him more responsible, hence more cautious.
It cannot be denied that the companions of the Holy Prophet (SAWS), their pupils and other reliable narrators of Ahadith believed with their heart and soul that the importance of a hadith attributed to the Holy Prophet (SAWS) exceeds the importance of any other report whatsoever. They believed that it is a source of Islamic law which will govern the Ummah for all times to come. They believed that any negligence in this respect will lead them to the severe punishment of hell. So, their sense of responsibility while reporting Ahadith was far higher than that of a newsman reporting an important incident about the head of his country.
2. The interest of the reporter in the reported events and his ability to understand them correctly is another important factor which affects the accuracy of his report. If the reporter is indifferent or negligent about what he reports, little reliability can be placed on his memory or on any subsequent report based on it. But if the reporter is not only honest, serious and intelligent but also interested and involved in the event, his report can easily be relied upon.
If some proceedings are going on in a court of law, the reports of these proceedings can be of different kinds. One report was given by a layman from the audience who was incidentally present at the court. He had neither any interest in the proceedings nor had due knowledge and understanding of the legal issues involved. He gathered a sketchy picture of the proceedings and reported it to a third person. Such a report can neither be relied upon nor taken as an authentic version of the proceedings. This report may be full of errors because the reporter lacks the ability to understand the matter correctly and the responsible attitude to report it accurately. Such a reporter may not only err in his reporting, but may after some time also forget the proceedings altogether.
Suppose, there are some newsmen also, who have witnessed the proceedings for the purpose of reporting them in their newspapers. They have more knowledge and understanding than a layman of the first kind. Their report shall be more correct than that of the former. But despite their interest and intelligence, they are not fully aware of the technical and legal questions involved in the proceedings. Their report shall thus, remain deficient in the legal aspect of the proceedings and cannot be relied upon to that extent because despite their good memory, they cannot grasp the legal issues completely.
There were also lawyers who were directly involved in the proceedings. They participated in the debate at the bar. They have argued the case. They were fully aware of the delicate legal issues involved. They understood each and every sentence expressed by other lawyers and the judge. It is obvious that the report of the proceedings given by these lawyers shall be the most authentic one. Having full knowledge and understanding of the case they can neither forget nor err while reporting the substantial and material parts of the Proceedings.
Suppose all the three categories had the same standard of memory power. Yet, the facts narrated by them have different levels of correctness It shows that the Interest of the reporter in the reported event and his Understanding of the facts involved plays an important role in making his memory more effective and accurate.
The deep interest of the companions of the Holy Prophet (SAWS) in his sayings and acts, rather even in his gesture is beyond any doubt. Their understanding of what he said, and their close knowledge and observation of the background and environment under which he spoke or acted cannot be questioned. Thus, all the basic factors which help mobilize one’s memory were Present in them.
3. The Standard of memory Power required for the authenticity of a report is not, as mentioned earlier, a vague concept for which no specific criteria exist. The scholars of the Science of hadith have laid down hard and fast rules to ascertain the memory Standard of each reporter Unless a reporter of a hadith had specific standards of memory, his reports are not accepted as reliable
4. There is a big difference between memorizing a fact which incidentally came to the knowledge of someone who never cared to remember it any more, and memorizing of a fact which is learnt by someone with eagerness, with an objective purpose to remember it and with a constant effort to keep it in memory.
While I studied Arabic my teacher told me many things which I do not remember today. But the vocabulary I learnt from my teacher is secured in my mind. The reason is obvious I never cared to keep the former remembered, while I was very much eager to learn the latter by heart and to store it in my memory. The companions of the Holy Prophet (SAWS) did not listen to him incidentally nor were they careless in remembering what they heard. Instead, they daily spared specific times for learning the Ahadith by heart. The example of Abu Hurairah (RA) has already been cited. He used to spare one third of every night in repeating the Ahadith he learnt from the Holy Prophet (SAWS).
Thus, memorization was not a weaker source of preservation of Ahadith, as sometimes is presumed by those who have no proper knowledge of the science of hadith. Looked at in its true perspective, the memories of the reliable reporters of Ahadith were no less reliable a source of preservation than compiling the Ahadith in book form.