Every now and again I hear people debate the merits of memorizing things. Over the last few years I think I have refined my own opinion on the matter. Those proponents of memorization point out that it serves as a foundation of readily accessible information, while the opponents of it encourage developing knowledge at higher levels and so find memorization unnecessary.
When I think of memorization, there are basically two experiences I recall from high school, from two of the best teachers I had in high school. My math teacher, who taught me in 9th and 10th grades (Geometry and Algebra II), actively encouraged memorization, especially in Geometry. Before high school, geometry always seemed like fun--"We get to draw circles and triangles!"--and I never realized what the point of a whole class on the subject was about, until I realized that the point of the class was more to learn how to logically prove things. And proofs required a handy arsenal of theorems and postulates and corollaries, which would do you absolutely no good unless you had them memorized. So we had them drummed into our head by the teacher yelling the name of the theorem or what have you, then she would slap someone's desk with a yard stick. (Louder and scarier than a ruler.) And the class, terrified by the yelling and slapping, would shout back the statement of the theorem requested. It really was terrifying, but we sure memorized those things pretty quick. And we needed to--because without actually knowing them, we couldn't go about proving much of anything.
On the other hand, my English teacher, who taught me in 10th and 11th grades (World and American literature), would say that memorization is the lowest level of knowledge, or education. In that class we were not trying to memorize verbatim what she taught, but to take it in and ruminate on it, and then arrive at some conclusion piecing together lots of different kinds of information. I guess that was supposed to be a more sophisticated learning process, getting the mind to explore new directions and ideas.
But both philosophies have merit--both methods of teaching were useful. And I think they actually support each other. First of all, memorization is important--it has been downplayed in recent years, even decades perhaps, because basic information is so readily available: in textbooks or the internet. So we can all be geniuses if we have Google handy, right? And that's why independent thought is also important--to siphon through all that information, to process it and from it derive a conclusion.
In a different discipline--like learning Islam--I think both philosophies still have merit. And isn't it true that if we look at the Scholars of Islam, we see that they both had prepared an adequate arsenal of knowledge, but that they were also able to determine the meaning in the information at hand, and to arrive at new conclusions from the evidence at hand?
So it's nice that we can have thousands of ahadith available in a searchable database, but it's not the same as having it immediately accessible in the brain. That database cannot replace an actual scholar, even if he hasn't memorized all those ahadith! What a scholar can do is take an hadith that might be different in subject matter from what a questioner is looking for, and derive from it principles necessary to answer the question. A search engine can't do that.
And I read something recently written, I think, by Hamza Yusuf, who was describing the difference between people called "daytime scholars," and "nighttime scholars." In the daytime, books and references would be available, so a person who had not memorized all those texts could still access them and thus impart knowledge and wisdom from them. But in the nighttime, without his sources available to him, he wasn't much of a scholar at all. The nighttime scholar, on the other hand, is the scholar worth being: the one who has memorized the books so that when asked a question, regardless of the situation (i.e., day or night,) he can still answer the question.
It seemed to me a compelling reason to try at least to memorize some Islamic knowledge, rather than leaving it in books. If it's in books, and someone asks you, you can refer them to a book. But if you memorize, then you can replace the book, right? And if you have memorized and learned deduction, then you can actually start answering.