How to memorise 99 names of Allah in just seven days
Did you know you can learn all 99 names of Allah — and improve your memory — in the time you take to scroll through Facebook every day? This Ramadan, you can learn all of God’s names in just seven days by using a technique known as memory palaces.
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Wouldn’t it be amazing to wow everyone at the mosque as you recite all names of Allah? Or to not have to rely on your phone or shopping lists you lose the minute you get to the grocery store? How much time would you save if you didn’t have to keep checking your phone?
This Ramadan, you can earn God’s blessings, improve your memory, and become a more productive Muslim by memorising the 99 names of Allah. But this isn’t a conventional approach of just blindly rote-learning a list. By using a method that taps into an ancient technique known as “memory palaces.” (You may have seen it in action if you’re a fan of the BBC tv show Sherlock.) You can quickly memorise and recall the names of God, useful facts, historical accounts and hadith — making this a skill that will be useful throughout your life.
In the holy month of Ramadan, people devote time to reading the Qur’an, attending taraweeh prayers and sermons by religious scholars, all in an effort to become closer to their faith and to God. Recalling the names of Allah is a simple way to do this; by invoking His attributes, you are reminded of how God is a guiding light and force in your daily life, how He is beneficent and merciful, and all-knowing and the Creator of life and everything around you. Learning the names of God is a way to keep Allah’s presence with you throughout the day, to have His names guide you as you struggle with deadlines and the general business of modern life.
But why should I memorize them?
“Why would you bother learning it by heart?” my friend Murad likes to ask me. “You can just look it up on your phone.”
Google is a useful tool, and we do indeed have a world of information at our fingertips, but there are benefits to memorisation that you can’t gain through online searches. Learning the 99 names of Allah will:
- Deepen your prayers
- Help you earn sawab by recalling the names of God
- Help you with your hifdh
Sawab is great. But how will learning this technique help me otherwise?
A great memory will help you become more productive in every aspect of your life. For example, you can use this to:
- improve your studies
- memorise grocery lists
- remember useful facts and figures about your work and network of contacts
- recall old memories
But I have a really bad memory
You may think you have a “bad memory.” While it is easier for some people to retain and recall facts, you can train yourself to improve and expand your memory. Research estimates show that that the brain can encode / store roughly 2.5 petabytes (or a million gigabytes). That’s the equivalent of three million hours of video files. Isn’t that amazing? It is just a matter of learning how to get your memories and all the facts you want to learn into your head.
I don’t have the time. This sounds difficult.
You may have tried to learn the 99 Names of Allah in the past and not been successful. Memorisation is hard, and any attempt is better than no attempt. But there is an easier way, one that will enable you to keep the details in your memory for longer and make you a more productive Muslim.
It is easy to spend the hours before Iftar taking a long nap, scrolling through your phone, and wondering why the sun won’t set faster. But doing a memory exercise everyday takes a matter of minutes, and it’ll improve other parts of your work and study life beyond just the fixed task of learning the 99 Names.
How does memory recall work?
It all started with a Greek man called Simonides. (Yes, yes, I know. Brief history lesson here. I’ll try not to bore you, but it’s important).
Simonides was at a banquet — lots of food, good conversations, you know the type — when he was suddenly called away. He stepped outside the hall, and a few minutes later the hall collapsed, killing everyone who had attended. But not Simonides. He was luckily spared.
When it came to making a list of those who had died, he realised that if he thought back to the banquet, casting his mind to remember where everyone was sitting, he could remember everyone who had attended. He hadn’t been trying to memorise a list of everyone who attended the banquet, but he found he could do it pretty effortlessly.
Simonides got to thinking: what was it about this situation that made it so easy to memorise so many items — in this case, people and where they were sitting. He concluded that it was a memory of places and the space in them.
It’s been almost 2500 years since Simonides died, but his insight has been tremendously influential. We now know that spatial memory is a gift that all of us have, one that is incredibly capable of storing things away.
Simonides seems smart. How can I do this?
When you think about it for a minute, you’ll know it to be true. Imagine some place you’ve been. Perhaps an old school you attended, or a building you visited in a foreign country… If you try to imagine that building, you’ll find you can remember a lot about how it was arranged, how the various parts of it come together. Or close your eyes and recall this very room in which your sitting. Chances are you’ll be able to recall dozens of details about where things are. This is your spatial memory at work.
Scientists think that this amazing capacity for memory of places and locations was a way for early cave-dwelling man to remember sources of food and water, or maybe where dangerous animals roamed. Everyone has this unparalleled memory bank, capable of easily storing dozens upon dozens of pieces of information. We just need to know how to use it.
How to Use the Technique
The basic technique is this: take a place you know well, one you can recall when you close your eyes and think about it. Then (in your mind) place objects in this location. When you think back to this place you’ll be able to see those objects in the various locations. The trick is to make sure that the objects you place in each location are ‘memorable’. Make the images strange, wacky, weird, and fill them with movement, emotion, colour and all the sensory variety you can muster up. This will make them ‘sticky’ and your memory will find easier to work with them.
Do it with me now. We’re going to take three objects and place them in the room where you’re sitting. We’re going to do this using our mind. First of all, we have a pineapple. This is a fairly memorable kind of fruit to start off with: it has a scaly skin and a weird sprouting green tiara-like leaves on the top. Now imagine it in pink. It is flashing. And it’s huge. It’s as big as a person. Now place it somewhere in your room. Perhaps on the bed, or on a desk. Or against a wall. In your mind, visualise it in all its sensory detail.
Next imagine a whale. Mentally place it somewhere else in your room. Visualise the saltwater dripping off it. Imagine the taste of the saltwater. Put your hand to its body, and feel the texture of its skin.
Next imagine a barrel of oil and place it somewhere else in the room you’re currently sitting. It is on its side, and the thick black oil is oozing out. It has the texture of treacle, but if you (mentally!) taste it, it’s disgusting.
You almost certainly would have been able to remember a list of three items without any problem in the past, but this was just to establish the ground rules for what we do:
- We assemble the list of things we want to memorise
- We come up with a place (or multiple places) that can hold that many items
- We visualise placing those items in our locations (or ‘memory palaces’), taking care to make the images as alive and ‘memorable’ as possible
- That’s it! you’ve learnt all the items! Now the next time you have to remember these three items, you don’t have to recall each one. All you have to do is think of the room — and all these images will pop up because they’re so outlandish and memorable!
That was easy. Now how do I learn the names of God?
Memory works first of all through the principle of association. You take one thing that you want to learn — a word in Arabic, let’s say — and link it somehow with something you already know. For learning a word with a strange pronunciation, the basic task here is to associate the meaning along with the sound of the word.
So you take a word and mentally associate the sound of that word with the meaning. Take the Arabic word al-lateef meaning ‘the gentle one’. Close your eyes if you need to. When I see and hear that word, I think of two things:
- ‘la’ — sort of like the sound someone makes when they are play-singing or perhaps a baby making noises.
- ‘teef’ — this reminds me of teeth.
You have to take these associations and make them as sensory as possible. Hear the baby making the fake sing-song nonsense noises. Maybe imagine a specific baby, the child of your friends, for example. Then use an image of some teeth. Make the teeth garish in some way. Perhaps they are razor sharp, but they are gently cradling the baby making its nonsense sounds. The baby is lying in a huge plastic replica of teeth, perhaps, the sort the dentist sometimes uses to show what’s going on in your mouth. Now, whenever you hear the word lateef, you’ll think of gentle.
Congratulations! You’ve learned one name of God. Now apply this mental picture to a specific place, do this for the next and the next and you’re on your way to memorizing all of God’s names.
Alex Strick van Linschoten is a writer and researcher based in Berlin. He teaches a complete 7-day course to learn the 99 Names of God at incrementalelephant.org.