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The Art of Quran Recitation

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From the earliest days, the sound of Quranic recitation has attracted and affected those who heard it
Quran: A Divine Revelation

The Quran has many names, as mentioned throughout its chapters and verses. Two are considered the most important. It is described as the Kitab meaning “ the book”, and as the Quran meaning “recital”.

The fact that these are the two names for the divine revelation received by Muhammad, believed by Muslims to be God’s last messenger, indicates that it has two forms: as a written scripture and as a recited text.

The fact that we know it first and foremost as the Quran is a clue to the recited aspect being its most essential reality.

According to American ethnomusicologist Dr Kristina Nelson:

“For the Muslim faithful, the familiar sound of Quranic recitation is the predominant and most immediate means of contact with the Word of God. Heard day and night, on the street, in taxis, in shops, in mosques, and in homes, the sound of recitation is far more than the pervasive background music of daily life in the Arab world. It is the core of religious devotion, the sanctioning spirit of much cultural and social life, and a valued art form in its own right.” (Nelson, The Art of Reciting the Quran, AUC Press 2001)

In this article, we shall explain the role of recitation in experiencing the Quran, and discuss the principles that underlie the beauty of recitation.

 

Recitation: A History

When Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) was first visited by the Archangel Gabriel in his cave of contemplation overlooking his hometown of Makkah, he was addressed with the command to “Recite” (Iqra).

This word turned out to be the first revealed of the Quran, which descended upon God’s Messenger in stages over a period of twenty-three years. The first revelation instructed:

[Recite in the name of your Lord who created; created man from a clinging substance. Recite, and your Lord is the most Generous; Who taught by the pen; taught man that which he knew not.] (Al-`Alaq 96:1-5)

The Prophet recited the divine verses as he was commanded, and his companions committed it both to memory and to writing. These two aspects, recitation and writing, were both crucial to the perfect preservation of the Quran from the days of its revelation until today.

The Quran is intended to be read aloud in numerous occasions of daily life. There are numerous verses as well as sayings of the Prophet exhorting believers to be frequent in their recitation and ponder on the meanings of what they read. For example, the following verses prescribe spiritual development through recitation and prayer in the depths of night:

[Arise to pray the night, except for a little: half of it, or subtract from it a little, or add to it; and recite the Quran with measured recitation.] (Al-Muzzammil 73:2-4)

And the Prophet is recorded as saying:

“A person who recites the Quran and is skilful therein will be with the obedient, noble recording angels; while the one who recites the Quran stammering, finding it difficult, has two rewards.” (Bukhari & Muslim)

For non-Muslims visiting the mosque, hearing the recitation can be a surprisingly moving experience

One reward is for the recitation, and the other for the perseverance despite the difficulty this person finds in reciting properly.

Most notably, at every mosque, the imam leading the congregational prayer will be heard reciting the Quran aloud as part of the prayers at dawn, sunset and evening. For non-Muslims visiting the mosque, hearing the recitation can be a surprisingly moving experience.

 

The Effect of Recitation

From the earliest days, the sound of Quranic recitation has attracted and affected those who heard it. Many of the converts surrounding Muhammad were first inspired by hearing him recite verses which descended from above the heavens. As for those who chose to reject his message, they still had to admit the power of what they heard. On one occasion, they involuntarily fell prostrate after hearing the Prophet recite Surat An-Najm, the fifty-third chapter of the Quran.

Even non-human audiences were moved and inspired:

[Say (O Muhammad): "It has been revealed to me that a group of the Jinn listened and said, ‘Indeed, we have heard an amazing Recital. It guides to the right course, and we have believed in it. And we will never associate with our Lord anyone.’] (Al-Jinn 72:1-2)

Some contemporary researchers have claimed that listening to the recited Quran not only has a spiritual and emotional impact on listeners, but can have a role in physical healing. This applies whether or not the listeners understand the meaning of the recitation, and even if they are not Muslims.

No wonder, then, that the renowned translator Marmaduke Pickthall described the Quran as “that inimitable symphony, the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy.”

 

A Science and an Art

As mentioned above, the recitation and memorization of the Quran were, along with its writing, key to its continued preservation.

That is why Muslims strive to pronounce the Quran as accurately as possible, according to a set of rules known as tajweed. This science covers the correct articulation of each Arabic letter, as well as various phonetic features that are unique to the Quran.

Experts transmit the correct recitation from their teachers in a chain that extends all the way back to the Prophet himself (peace and blessings be upon him), and through him in turn to the Archangel who received it from God Most High.

Any recitation delivered properly will be beautiful by virtue of the inimitable eloquence and power of the Quranic discourse, and the depth of its meanings. Even a simple recitation free from complex melodies will be pleasant and spiritual, especially if the reciter has an attractive voice.

We may make a comparison with different types of written text. A standard copy of the Quran has text in a uniform size, arranged into lines in order to make it easy to recite and study. Yet there is also a developed art form of calligraphy, in which the visual beauty of the Arabic words is highlighted by proficient artists and used to adorn walls.

Likewise, there are some recitations intended to deliver the Quranic text with the utmost clarity, and others that are more beautified, and which convey more fully the emotions of the reciter.

There is no set melody for reciting the Quran, but ideally it should be straightforward, not contrived or over-embellished such that the rules of tajweed are compromised.

The artistic aspect of recitation has been taken to its pinnacle by the reciters of Egypt, who have a particular performance style that incorporates the melodic scales (maqamat) used in Arabian music. The most famous reciter of this tradition worldwide was the late Sheikh Abdul-Basit Abdul-Samad.

Large crowds gather to hear a renowned reciter perform passages from the Quran in a way that soothes at times, and excites at others. International competitions are held on satellite channels to seek out the next generation of vocal geniuses. Muslim scholars and reciters alike emphasize that, while Quranic recitation is a profoundly moving vocal art, it is an art form in its own right and not a type of music.

While listeners of all beliefs and backgrounds listen in awe to the heavenly recitation of the Quran, it should be kept in mind that the source of all its power and beauty is its origin with the Creator of the universe.

 

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Sohaib Saeed is a Scottish Muslim writer and translator. He is presently majoring in Quranic Studies at the Faculty of Theology, Al-Azhar University. He is the founder of Quranica, an arts organization promoting Quranic recitation. More of his reflections are posted at Religious Diablog.

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