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Burning Books or Preserving Them?

Exploring the Power of Memory
It is appealing to speculate how much of the classics of the arts could be reconstructed if all physical archives – written, painted or recorded documentation of them – were lost.
| Adam Brown | Issue 158 (Mar - Apr 2024)

This article has been viewed 3613 times

Burning Books or Preserving Them? Exploring the Power of Memory

In This Article

  • Despite criticisms that memorization often comes without understanding and lacks proper contextualization, there is a consensus that it has a role in the preservation of knowledge.
  • This central element of the plot of Bradbury’s book was inspired by the book-burning of Nazis in 1933. Books that did not conform with Nazi ideology were destroyed.
  • In the intricate mosaic of Islamic devotion, the art of memorization emerges as a profound practice that transcends linguistic and cultural barriers. Whether reciting surahs, embracing duas, or embodying the Quran in its entirety, the commitment to memory stands as a testament to the depth of faith.

Memorization is an important tool in human development. We memorize for school, learning languages, or for stage performances. Despite criticisms that memorization often comes without understanding and lacks proper contextualization, there is a consensus that it has a role in the preservation of knowledge. Below, we explore two divergent worlds of fiction – the dystopian universe of Fahrenheit 451 and the enchanting reality-bending journey in Yesterday. This is followed by a section on the practice of memorizing classics and holy scriptures given as examples to unearth the common thread that binds these narratives to the essence of memorization.

Fahrenheit 451, penned by Ray Bradbury, thrusts us into a society where books are outlawed, and knowledge is sacrificed at the altar of conformity. Guy Montag's rebellion against book-burning parallels a timeless struggle to preserve wisdom, echoing the sentiments of those who commit the Quran to memory amidst adversities. Meanwhile, Yesterday introduces Jack Malik, who grapples with reconstructing the Beatles' legacy from the recesses of his memory. This cinematic exploration mirrors the efforts of those dedicated to safeguarding the Quran's verses, reminding us of the enduring power of memorization in preserving cultural and religious treasures.

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 is a 1953 novel by the US science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury. It has twice been made into a film, in 1966 and 2018. It is a dystopian novel, meaning one describing a fictional future state which is the opposite of utopia. It is a future American society in which the masses are pleasure-seeking and anti-intellectual. Reading books is banned, as it may lead to critical thought. The central character, Guy Montag, is employed as a “fireman.” However, in this dystopian future, “fireman” means “book-burner.” The purpose of the fire service is not to put out fires; it is to start them in order to burn books. The punishment for reading books, or for having them in your house, is to be sent to a mental hospital. The books are burned “for the good of humanity.”

This central element of the plot of Bradbury’s book was inspired by the book-burning of Nazis in 1933. Books that did not conform with Nazi ideology were destroyed. It had a precedent in 18th century CE Germany. Germany was, at that time, a collection of individual states. Those people demonstrating for a unified Germany – especially students – burned books which they considered anti-national or anti-German.

The novel’s title Fahrenheit 451 refers to the supposed temperature at which book paper spontaneously combusts, although in fact the temperature is around 450°C, much higher.

Drugs are administered to the people, and they are fed information by huge television screens. In this way, the government ensures the people fall in line with its policies.

One day, while the fire service are searching the house of an old lady, before finding books and then burning them, Montag glances at some pages of a book and, on a whim, steals it. Over the next year, he steals dozens of books and hides them in his own house. He reads them and tries to memorize them in order to preserve their contents, before the physical books are burned.

He enlists the help of Faber, a former English teacher, and from him learns the way books attempt to describe and explain human existence.

The fire chief eventually learns that Montag has been hiding books, and leads a crew to Montag’s house, where they find the books, and burn the house down. As a result, Montag starts to question the government policy of book-burning. Having been exposed as a book-hoarder, he has the choice of returning to his job or fleeing.

Knowing the consequences of being caught, he escapes to the countryside, where Faber lives. There, he meets like-minded people who spend all day memorizing and reciting books, so that they are preserved and it does not matter if the printed copies are burned.

Yesterday

Yesterday is the title of a 2019 film, written by Richard Curtis, and based on a story by Jack Barth. The plot revolves around the character of British Indian Jack Malik, who is a struggling singer-songwriter. He is about to give up singing in clubs, but his manager and childhood friend Ellie tries to persuade him to persevere.

One night, after a freak cycle accident with a bus during a mysterious global blackout, he finds that he is the only person who knows who the Beatles were. It is as if the Beatles and all their music had never existed.

This is of course music to Jack’s ears. Jack racks his brain to try to remember all the songs on all the Beatles albums, and their lyrics. His first source for research is, of course, Google. However, in this alternative world, a search for “Beatles” only finds the insects – beetles. He googles for the title of their 1967 record Sergeant Pepper, but only finds capsicum peppers. He is seen trying desperately to piece together the dense lyrics of the Beatles classic Eleanor Rigby. He frantically tries to remember whether it is Eleanor or Father McKenzie who was darning socks.

Nevertheless, he reconstructs enough of the Beatles’ catalogue to become a smash hit overnight playing their songs to audiences who have never heard them before.

Eventually he meets two elderly Beatles fans who say that they know that the Beatles – not Jack – wrote all the songs. Nevertheless, they are happy that Jack is keeping the songs alive, albeit in a stripped-down voice-and-guitar version.

Ultimately, Jack decides that he needs to tell the truth, and confesses, during a performance at Wembley Stadium, that he did not write the songs.

The fact that Jack can reconstruct most of the Beatles’ songs shows their popularity. John Lennon of the Beatles claimed in a 1966 newspaper interview that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. His exact words are often misquoted:

“Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I'll be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first – rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.”

This prompted a backlash in the USA – but not in the UK – where Christians protested by burning copies of the Beatles’ records. It is debatable whether the statement – that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus – was true in 1966. According to one source1, the world population in 1966 was 3.4 billion, with 1.2 billion Christians. However, what Lennon and everyone else overlooked was that Jesus is and was a revered prophet of God in Islam, with 577 million Muslims in 1966.

Memorizing the classics

It is appealing to speculate how much of the classics of the arts could be reconstructed if all physical archives – written, painted or recorded documentation of them – were lost. This is essentially what a lot of science fiction is about – asking the question: “What if?”

Many plays could probably be reconstructed, if all copies were burned, from the memory of actors who had appeared on stage in those plays (although any one actor may not have memorized all the parts of any play).

Similarly, people often memorize favorite poems, and give recitals of these, and those poems could perhaps be reconstructed from people’s memories.

Musicians like Jack Malik regularly play songs and, as in Yesterday, could reproduce many of them. Similarly, orchestral conductors, players and opera singers could reconstruct classical music.

Art students are often taught by being made to reproduce works of art in galleries, as part of their instruction.

Less likely to be reconstructed are whole books, as they are not performed. People often like to memorize favorite extracts from books, in the same way that they memorize poetry. However, it is rare for anyone to memorize a whole book.

Memorizing the Quran

In the tapestry of religious practices, memorization stands as a vital thread, weaving the fabric of devotion for many who follow a certain faith tradition. For Muslims, beyond mere rituals, it extends to the profound task of committing the entire Quran to memory, a pinnacle achievement recognized by the title “hafidh.”

The Quran is the one book where we could be certain that there are enough people in the world today who know it by heart in order to be able to reconstruct a written version of it.

The Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) by the Angel Gabriel (Jibril) in pieces over a period of 23 years. He lived in 7th century CE Arabia in a time when many people were not literate, and it is widely accepted that Muhammad himself could not read or write.

The Quran was preserved in two ways. First, the Arabs preserved their histories, genealogies, and poetry by memory alone. Muhammad would memorize the verses as they were revealed. In this sense, we can say that Muhammad was the very first hafidh (person who has memorized the whole Quran). When Muhammad repeated the verses of the Quran, his followers naturally preserved the words by memorizing them, and thus his followers were the earliest hafidhs. Memorization required no expensive raw materials (in an age when there was no paper in the Muslim world). Memorization was also considered more secure – a manuscript could easily be destroyed (as in the science fiction of Fahrenheit 451), but if the Quran was to be memorized by many hafidhs, it would never be lost.

The Arabic word hafidh means both “memorizer” and also “guardian,” a reference to the fact that the original Quran is being guarded by being memorized by so many people. In the Quran, God (Allah) states that the Quran will not be corrupted: “Surely We revealed the Message, and We will surely preserve it” (15:9).

“Those who reject the Reminder when it has come to them – it is an invincible Book. Falsehood cannot approach it, from before it or behind it. It is a revelation from One Wise and Praiseworthy” (41:41-2).

Second, the Quran was preserved through writing. Whenever any revelation took place, it was written down at once on tablets, palm branches, or animal skin, primarily by Zaid bin Thabit, who was the main scribe out of the 42 scribes of the revelation. Muhammad set the order of the chapters under the guidance of Gabriel and ordered his companions to maintain that order. Abu Bakr, the first caliph of Islam, compiled the Quran, and Uthman, the third caliph, made numerous copies and sent one copy to each state capital. Two of these original copies still exist: one in the Topkapi Museum, Istanbul, Turkey, and the other in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Even after Uthman collected and organized a written version of the Quran, recitation (from memory) of the Quran was still honored and encouraged.

Hafidhs

Hafidhs are highly respected within the Islamic community, and are tested on their knowledge. For example, in one test they are asked to continue the recitation of a passage taken randomly from the Quran. As they do not know which passage will be chosen, they must know the whole text in order to be sure of passing. In another test, a would-be hafidh might be asked to recite verses containing a specific word or phrase. Most hafidhs have studied as children in Islamic schools (madrasahs), being instructed in tajwid (rules of recitation) and vocalization as well as committing the Quran to memory. Indeed, the ending of Fahrenheit 451, where people are trained and checked in their memorization of books bears a striking resemblance to Quran classes in madrasahs.

During the holy month of Ramadan, tarawih prayers are read in mosques every evening. Tarawih prayers include Quran recitation. Any hafidh who stumbles is sure to be corrected by another hafidh.

It is impossible to give a precise figure for the number of hafidhs in today’s world. One figure often quoted is 10 million. Over the past centuries, it must run into many millions.

Conclusion

In the intricate mosaic of Islamic devotion, the art of memorization emerges as a profound practice that transcends linguistic and cultural barriers. Whether reciting surahs, embracing duas, or embodying the Quran in its entirety, the commitment to memory stands as a testament to the depth of faith. In the footsteps of Prophet Muhammad, hailed as "the walking Quran," countless individuals embark on the journey of becoming hafidhs, not merely as guardians of words but as beacons illuminating the path of righteous living.

1. Christianity in View (2022). Statistics and forecasts for world religions: 1800-2025. Christianity in View. http://christianityinview.com/religion-statistics.html


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