Hafiz (Arabic: حافظ, ḥāfiẓ, Arabic: حُفَّاظ, pl. huffāẓ,Arabic: حَفِظَة f. ḥāfiẓa), literally meaning "guardian," is a term used by modern Muslims for someone who has completely memorized the Qur'an.
Muhammad lived in the 7th century CE, in Arabia in a time when few people were literate. The Arabs preserved their histories, genealogies, and poetry by memory alone. When Muhammad proclaimed the verses later collected as the Qur'an, his followers naturally preserved the words by memorizing them.
Early accounts say that the literate Muslims also wrote down such verses as they heard them. However, the Arabic writing of the time was a scripta defectiva, an incomplete script, that did not include vowel markings or other diacritics needed to distinguish between words. Hence if there was any question as to the pronunciation of a verse, the memorized verses were a better source than the written ones. The huffaz were also highly appreciated as reciters, whose intoned words were accessible even to the illiterate. Memorization required no expensive raw materials (in an age when there was no paper in the Muslim world, only vellum). Memorization was also considered more secure—a manuscript could easily be destroyed, but if the Qur'an was to be memorized by many huffaz, it would never be lost.
Even after Caliph Uthman ibn Affan collected and organized the Qur'an circa 650-656 CE, recitation (from memory) of the Qur'an was still honored and encouraged. There are numerous traditions of recitation. Most huffaz know only one version, but true experts can recite in several traditions.
Huffaz are highly respected within the Islamic community. They are privileged to use the title "Hafiz" before their names. They are tested on their knowledge. For example, in one test they are asked to continue the recitation of a passage taken randomly from the Qur'an. 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 hafiz might be asked to recite verses containing a specific word or phrase.
Most huffaz have studied as children in special Islamic schools or madrasahs, being instructed in tajwid (rules of recitation) and vocalisation as well as committing the Qur'an to memory. To give some idea as to the nature of this undertaking: The Qur'an is divided into 114 Surahs (chapters), containing 6,236 verses (comprising some 80,000 words or 330,000 individual characters).
In the classical Arabic lexicon, the word hafiz was not traditionally used to refer to one who had memorized the Qur'an. Instead, the word used was hamil (i.e., one who carries.) Hafiz was used for the scholars of hadith, specifically one who had committed 100,000 hadiths to memory (for example, Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani).
Having memorised the Qur'an, the hafiz or hafiza must then ensure they do not forget it. To ensure perfect recall of all the learned verses requires constant practice.
The memorisation of the Qur'an was important to Muslims in the past and is also in the present. Yearly, many students master the Qur'an and complete the book with interpretation and also memorisation.