: The Qur'n Recited

12-10-2006, 11:38
The Qur'n Recited
Mahmoud Ayoub, Temple University

UNTIL RECENTLY, the Qurn has been treated in the curricula of Western universities and colleges as a historical and literary document. Little attention was paid to the Qurn as a sacred scripture and the vital role it continues to play in the spiritual, social and cultural lives of millions of men and women around the world. Even scantier attention was paid to the place of the Qurn in the development of the art of music.

As interest is growing in the impact of the Qurn on the devotional and cultural life of the Muslim community, greater attention is given to the various sciences of the Qurn, including the highly developed art of Qurn recitation. This brief essay introduces students of Islamic and religious studies to four well-known modern representatives of this art whose recitations are readily available on audio cassettes, disks or compact disks. A few introductory remarks on the development of this art may provide a useful background for the discussion. Traditionally, Muslims have approached the Qurn from two distinct, but interrelated, points of view, as the Qurn interpreted and the Qurn recited. To the former Muslims have dedicated their best minds, and to the latter their best voices and musical talents. While the science of exegesis (tafsr) aims at uncovering the meanings of the sacred text, the art of recitation (tilwah) has been the chief vehicle of its dissemination.

The purpose and basic rules of Qurnic recitation are given in the Qurn itself. The Qurn must be recited or chanted aloud and in a state of physical and spiritual purity. It must be recited slowly, deliberately and rhythmically (Q. 73:4). The purpose is to please God by reciting His Word and to obtain by this devotional act His blessing. Through recitation, the Qurn also fulfills a unique social and liturgical role in Muslim society. In short, through its public recital, the Qurn has been an inexhaustible source of blessing and social cohesion for Muslims through the ages.

The art of Qurnic recitation goes back, according to tradition, to the Prophet and his companions. He is said to have paused between verses, pronounced his words emphatically and prolonged his vowels. Among the Companions, the best known reciter was the Yamanite Ab Ms a al- Ash ar, who is said to have had a beautiful voice.

The Qur'n should, according to Prophetic tradition, be melodiously chanted, but not sung. It should be chanted with humility and a sad voice. That is to say, the recitation should not be viewed as entertainment, but as a means of creating an atmosphere of tranquility and awe in the listeners. The Qurn enjoins, When the Qurn is recited listen to it attentively, that perhaps you may be shown mercy (Q. 7:204).

Qur'n recitation as a devotional art began during the Prophet's time. References to Qurn reciters (qurr') as a special group go back to the time of Ab Bakr and Umar. This practice soon led to the establishment of Qurn schools, later known as kuttb where children began their formal education. Such schools still exist in many Muslim countries, particularly in rural areas.

The Arab cultural renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th century included new and significant developments in music as well. Because Egypt was the main center of this cultural awakening, Egypt set the standard for both the recitation and structure of the Qurn. The modern royal Egyptian edition of the sacred text has become the standard, and the Egyptian style the universally accepted style of recitation.

Most well-known Egyptian singers began their career as Qurn reciters. While these achieved their popularity as secular singers, many achieved equal fame as professional reciters of the Qurn. Men like Mustaf Isma l, Ab al-`Aynayn Shu`aysha` and Muhammad Fard al-Sandyn, to name but a few, developed what may be regarded as new schools of recitation. The techniques of these and other famous reciters are still taught in special institutes of Qurn recitation.

Other local styles of recitation were developed in every Muslim region. Turkish and Iranian reciters clearly reflect the timbre and tone of their rich musical heritage. The Maghribi style is specially interesting because it typifies so well the musical tradition of North Africa and Arab Spain.

Modern Qurn recitation broadly consists of two forms, tajwd and tartl. Tajwd means to make good or excellent, and hence is supposed to show the reciters musical talent and virtuosity. Tajwd is in fact a public musical recital which could have the same emotional effect on the audience as any good secular musical performance. Among the four reciters who will be presently considered, Shaykh `Abd al-Bsit `Abd al-Samad is one of the best representatives of this art.

Tartl, the other form of Qurn recitation, is a simple chant using a set pattern of limited musical range and phraseology. While the purpose of tajwd is to evoke admiration for the artistry and vocal ability of the reciter, tartl is meant to instruct the listeners and, through its hypnotic monotony, to create an atmosphere of solemn calm. Shaykh Mahmd Khall al-Husar is one of the best representatives of this form.

Shaykh Muhammad Rif`at remains one of the most famous reciters of this century. He had a powerful voice and a somewhat crude but enchanting style which appealed at one and the same time to the sophisticated audiences of Arab metropolitan centers as well as to the rustic people of the countryside. Rif`at would, however, be difficult for Western listeners to appreciate because of the rough quality of his voice and the muffled sound of old recordings, from which most available reproductions of his recitation are made. Rif at is more for the connoisseur of Qurn recitation than the uninitiated student. He is better known for his tajwd rather than his tartl.

The fourth shaykh is `Abd al-Rahmn al-Hudhayf, a Saudi reciter who was trained in the Egyptian style. While all but al-Hudhayf, who is still alive, died within the last three decades, their recordings are still reproduced, as they have not yet been equalled anywhere in the Muslim world.

If the purpose of introducing Qurn recitation to students of Islamic studies is to show the variety and popularity of this art, then the best known and most readily available recordings are those of `Abd al-Bsit. Because of the wide range of his voice and great virtuosity in the tajwd of the Qurn, many of his recordings were live performances. It may, however, be less distracting for students to use studio recordings.

If, on the other hand, the purpose is to help students appreciate a simple style of Qurn recitation which they can even try to imitate, then Shaykh al-Husars simple tartl is most effective. A special characteristic which greatly enhances the usefulness of his recitation is the clarity of his diction. Furthermore, al-Husars recordings of both tajwd and tartl are readily available.

There are certain peculiarities of Qurnic recitation which, if overstressed, may be distracting to Western listeners. The most important of these is the khunnah (nasal sound) which is considered an essential technique of all forms of recitation, though not universally observed. Al- Husars clear and sonorous voice largely obscures this nasal sound. `Abd al- Bsits voice also obscures it in the higher range only. But many find this high shrill falsetto voice itself hard to appreciate.

The two other interrelated peculiarities are the stress of the guttural sounds of the `ayn and the hamzah. This technique reflects particular ancient Arab dialects, and is often used to show the wide diversity of Qur'n recitation. This stress is most pronounced in the recitation of Shaykhs Rif at and Hudhayf.

`Abd al-Rahmn al-Hudhayf is the official reciter of the sacred mosque of Makkah. He has a good voice, but his recitation lacks the clarity and artistry of al-Husar's style. He is, nonetheless, a good representative of the tartl style.

The choice of examples of recitation for teaching purposes is important. Perhaps either a selection of the short srahs, or a srah dealing with a familiar subject may best serve this purpose. Beside the short srahs of the thirtieth juz , which are usually available on one recording, srah 12 (Ysuf), 19 (Mariam), 36 (Y Sn) and 55 (al-Rahmn) have been specially popular among pious Muslims.

Among these, srah 19 is perhaps the most interesting. Its narration of the birth of Jesus follows closely the narrative of the Gospel of Luke and other early Christian apocryphal sources. Like Luke's narrative, the Qurnic nativity story is dramatic and celebrative. Furthermore, the part dealing with the nativity story is not too long; it forms an independent and well- integrated narrative.

There are many interesting styles of Qurn recitation and numerous well-known reciters. There are also other famous Egyptian reciters to choose from. To be a hfiz, literally keeper, of the Qurn is regarded by Muslims as an honor for which many strive, but few master. It is hoped that the few reciters here presented will serve as useful introduction to this fascinating devotional art.


[1] al-Shaykh `Abd al-Bsit `Abd al-Samad. al-Qur'n al- Karm [complete]. Available in murattal [20 cassettes] and mujawwad [50 cassettes]. Sono Cairo.
[2] al-Shaykh Mahmd Khall al-Husar. Srat Ysuf [complete, murattal]. Orient Music [compact disc]. Also available from Original Music [418 Lasher Rd., Tivoli, NY 12583, 1-914-756- 2767].
[3] al-Shaykh Muhammad Rif`at. Excerpts from Srat Ysuf, Srat Ynis, Srat al-Tba and Srat al- Kahf [cassettes, mujawwad]. Sono Cairo.
[4] al-Shaykh `Abd al-Rahmn al-Hudhayf. al-Qurn al- Karm [complete, murattal, cassettes].
[5] al-Shaykh `Abd al-Bsit`Abd al-Samad. Excerpts from Srat Maryam, Srat al-Rahmn, Srat Y Sn and Srat Ysuf [mujawwad] on individual compact discs. Club du Disques Arabes.
Reprinted from the Middle East Studies Bulletin.