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Quran Reciters » The Holy Quran

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Reciters and Listeners

Thursday, June 1st, 2006

Nelson, Kristina. "Reciter and Listener: Some Factors Shaping the Mujawwad Style of Qur’anic Reciting." In Ethnomusicology 26, 1, 1982, pages 41-47.


Athough most Muslims perceive recitation of the Qur’an as a unique art, separate from music (in spite of a shared melodic system, maqam/maqamat, shared techniques, aesthetic expectations and economics), the nature of the response elicited by recitation tends to compromise that uniqueness. Two facts give this issue its importance: the suspicion with which some Muslims have traditionally regarded music in any context, and belief in the uniqueness and divine origin of the text, which precludes a musical treatment of the sort to which any other text might be subjected.



Attempts have been made to regulate both the behavior of reciter and listener and the sound of Qur’anic recitation itself in an effort to keep the recitation separate from music, whether sacred or secular. The main thrust of this regulation is on maintaining the primacy of the text. Its divine nature must be compromised neither by the subverting of the performance so that listeners are moved by virtuosic musicality rather than by the significance of the text, nor by the recognized change that music can effect on a text.

In the Arabic song the meter of the text, the melodic system, and the underlying rhythmic pattern (iqa’) all interact. To adapt the Qur’anic text to the built-in rhythmic patterns of a fixed tune would be to deny not only the supremacy of the text, but to deny its very nature and identity, which is characterized by fixed durations. Thus, the imposition of the iqa’ or of a given melody on the Qur’anic text is forbidden, but the use of spontaneous melody, inspired by the text and the moment, is not. The acceptance of melodic recitation of the Qur’an by mainstream religious authorities and scholars is based on the recognition of the power of music to heighten the listener’s emotional participation in the recitation, as well as to contribute to his understanding of the text, thus involving the listener more completely in the experience.

Against this background, I propose to discuss some aspects of the interaction between the reciter and his public, and the role of actual perception and response in shaping the elaborately melodic style of Egyptian Qur’anic recitation known as Qur’an Mujawwad. Specifically, these aspects are: (1) perception of reciter as artist; (2) audience response; (3) reciter’s response to audience; (4) effect on audience expectations of the media’s treatment of reciters.

The Egyptian style of Qur’anic recitation is well known all over the Islamic world; indeed, for many it epitomizes Qur’anic recitation. The style is so well established that most professional reciters in Egypt consider some form of musical training essential to an effective recitation.

The perception of Qur’anic recitation as a unique art is widespread, but is often explained in terms of the art of music. For example, reciters proudly perceive themselves as reciters first, but musical artists second, regardless of the varying degree of musicality in their styles. The art of Qur’anic recitation is often favorably compared to that of singing, not only by the reciters themselves, but by many musicians. Part of the basis of this perceived superiority is the divine nature of the text, but reciters and musicians explain it in more specific terms as well. For example, the reciter’s skill is seen as greater than the singer’s because he must perform within the stricter limitations imposed by the text. The reciter is bound to a comprehensive set of rules governing the oral rendition of the Qur’an. I have heard Egyptian musicians marvel that a reciter could produce such effective music given the restrictions he must observe with regard to each syllable in terms of timbre, duration and pronunciation, as well as structuring of the text. For example, whereas the singer is relatively free to draw a breath regardless of the sequence of the text, the reciter must observe complex rules as to where he may interrupt the sequence of the Qur’anic text, and whether he may continue in sequence or must return to a previous point in the text. In other words, the challenge to the artistic talent of the reciter is considered greater because of the greater limitations placed on his choices as a performer.

Moreover, in spite of the limitations, the reciter is considered more creative and innovative. As one reciter expressed, "Everything the reciter utters [melodically] comes from his head, unlike the singer who has the help of composer, chorus and instruments." Ideally, the recitation is new every time with no imitation or memorization. As Shaykh Ibrahim ish-Sha’sha’i expressed it, if a reciter recites the same verse the same way every time, "some would call that melody-making (talhin), and that is forbidden. You must not even use the same maqam for every mention of Hell." The art of melodic improvisation, once the mark of a perormer’s talent, is no longer so prominent a feature of Egyptian art music, but it remains an essential element of the Qur’an Mujawwad style of recitation.

Artistic sensibility and musical talent are only part of what is required of the reciter, for unlike the singer, he carries a great responsibility for the effect of his rendition. The intent of recitation is to involve the listener totally in the meaning and significance of the Revelation, an intent which goes beyond entertaining, or stirring the emotions. The following anecdote told me by one of Egypts’ most popular and well-regarded reciters, the late Shaykh Mustafa Isma’il, illustrates the difficulties in defining the professional identity of the Qur’anic reciter when only the sound of the recitation is considered. Shaykh Mustafa and ‘Abd il-Wahhab a prominent Egyptian musician-composer, happened to be staying in the same hotel in Beirut. They got together and were talking, and, at one point, ‘Abd il-Wahhab handed the ‘ud to Shaykh Mustafa. Reciting the first line of a poem, he said, "Sing." "I don’t sing," said Shaykh Mustafa. "Go on, sing," said Abd il-Wahhab. "I don’t know how to sing. I only recite Qur’an," said Shaykh Mustafa. Abd il-Wahhab took back the ‘ud. Later he asked, "How can you do the things you do [in reciting], and not be aware of what it is?" "I believe in God," replied Shaykh Mustafa. This story was told to me to point out the homage paid to the reciter’s skill as artist, something of which Shaykh Mustafa was justly proud.

A common feature of Egyptian Qur’anic recitation and the improvisatory Arabic art music tradition is that melodic phrases are followed by a pause. In these pauses the listeners respond vocally to what they have just heard. How much vocal response (tajawub) is considered part of the performance may be judged by its inclusion in many commercial recordings and by the fact that such recordings are preferred by the public to the studio recordings. H. H. Touma, discussing this vocal response, menions that "at a concert of secular music an Arab audience will release the tension during these short phrases by uttering words of praise or loud shouts, while at a religious ceremony it is the name of Allah or of the Prophet Muhammad that is called out" (Touma 1976: 35). In Egypt, however, I found this distinction often lacking: in addition to the sighs, shouts and such standard phrases as "Allah," "Allah yiftah ‘alek" (May God reward you!), "Salli ‘an Nabi" (Bless the Prophet!), and "Ahsant" (Well done!), I heard, "Ya bulbul in-Nil" (Oh nightingale of the Nile!), "Khudna ma’ak” (Take us with you!), "Mish kida" (Too much!), and the admiring, but untranslatable, "Ya fitiwwa, ya fatwana." Listeners would also shout out their requests, and these were particularly revealing of their expectations: "Again, so we can memorize it!" "How about the higher register?" (ig-gawab), "Give us (maqam) Shuri!" "(maqam) Saba! By the Prophet, we’re waiting for Saba!" Where there were musical references to other reciters, knowledgeable listeners would shout out the name of the reciter quoted in delighted recognition, with such comments as, "He’s taken us back thirty years!"

Although a subdued and respectful response on the part of the listeners is the norm, and reciters are criticized for provoking an uncontrolled response, the vocal and boisterous response to a reciter’s personal artistry is common enough to account for one of the main objections to melodic recitation of the Qur’an: it elicits a response inappropriate to the nature of the text. A commonly voiced criticism is that listeners are stimulated by the melody over and above their stimulation by the meaning of the text. A prominent reciter, the late Shaykh Mahmud Khalil il-Husari, told me that reciting with melodies is permissible, "except for the singing [i.e., when it becomes like singing] and abuse of it which results in listeners following the melody and not the meaning."

Still, many reciters consider at least a minimum of vocal response essential to their reciting, citing three primary reasons. First, vocal response is encouraging and inspires the reciter’s skill.

The studio context makes you feel constrained, but people encourage, and there is tagawab (=tajawab), and things come out better than you imagined they could.

The more people there are, the more enthusiasm I have, and all this encourages me, and gives me the right spirit.

In studio recordings the mutual harmony with listeners is missing. In order to make a recording of a quality acceptable to the Radio, I imagine that I am in front of a crowd.

This last comment comes from a reciter whose reputation is limited because his studio recordings, which have the wider audience, are admittedly less inspired than his live performances. There is a consensus among listeners in general that studio recordings tend to be inferior to live performances: listeners would agree with the reciter who said that live performances are "where the great art happens." Second, the reciter can learn or sharpen musical skills by paying heed to listeners’ comments, that is, by correlating the comments with specific phrases. Shaykh Mustafa Isma’il described his own training in these terms:

Among the listeners were a number of musicians and artists. They remark, "Oh he’s doing (maqam) Bayati." "How did you do this Saba?" That’s how I learned. I listened to their comments. I used to recite every night, and they were always there.

Third, reciters also depend on their audience to guide them to the most effective and meaningful recitation. That there is a thin line between making the recitation meaningful to listeners and wooing them with one’s skill is demonstrated by the following comments:

The response of the listeners is also important because the reciter can bring them back if their attention wanders.

The alert reciter is aware of the listeners…is able to know their response to everything, and if they don’t like something, he can change. Even the blind reciter can tell from the crowd. The audience doesn’t have to be hystencal; the reciter can sense the mood and encouragement of a calmer audience.

I like to interact with the crowd, and to do that you have to do what they want.

I can recite for an hour or two and you won’t get bored. I change the melody as I see response. If I see you like (maqam) Saba, I’ll give you a lot of it.

The late Shaykh Muhammad Rif’at (d. 1950) epitomizes the ideal of the Qur’an reciter for Muslims all over the Islamic world in terms of piety, appropriate intent, use of musicality in recitation, and effectiveness of recitation. Mr Husen Rif’at, his son, told me that Shaykh Rif’at felt that everyone has a maqam to which they are particularly responsive, so he tried to vary the maqamat in reciting in order to touch a wider group of listeners (personal communication).

That there is some correlation between a reciter’s attitude to vocal response and the style of his recitation is indicated by the fact that, of the most popular reciters in Egypt today, the late Shaykh Mustafa Isma’il, often criticized for the rowdiness of his listeners, is considered the most musical. Others, such as Shaykh ‘Abd il-Basit ‘Abd is-Samad and Shaykh Muhammad it-Tablawi, often criticized for pandering to the tastes of their listeners or for showing off, exhibit a high degree of virtuosity in their reciting (primarily in terms of breath control and use of the high register). On the other hand, the late Shaykh Mahmud Khali1 il-Husari whose reputation rests on his erudition and on the correctness of his recitation, and who, moreover, denies any influence of the crowd on his reciting, is generally judged by respectful, but subdued listeners as "lacking in art." The reciter who is responsive to his listeners, who acknowledges their role in his training, and who depends on their encouragement for inspiration tends to recite in a more musically virtuosic style. Moreover, the mutuality of listener and reciter response tends to reinforce the musicality of the recitation, and the reciter, in fulfilling the musical expectations of his listeners, also defines them.

The musical expectations of the listeners are further reinforced by the policies of the National Radio and Television Union. In hiring and supervising professional reciters and their work, the supervisory committee (Lajnat al-Qurra) follows a recognized standard of recitation that sanctions musicality. It is common for a reciter who is building a reputation and is encouraged to audition for the Radio to make an effort to master the principles of the maqamat before applying for audition, for he knows that musical skill is required of the Radio reciter. A Radio reciter automatically commands prestige and higher fees: the term, iza’i (one who broadcasts) after his name signals a certain standard of competence. Therefore, since a certain level of musical skill is required of the broad reciter, the Radio policy functions to shape the tastes of the listeners by giving the more competently musical recitation high status.

Expectations are further shaped by the media’s giving some reciters a superstar treatment with interviews, magazine spreads, and guest appearances on talk shows, thus contributing to the whole syndrome of the personality cult with its fierce loyalties, fan clubs, and so on. Such publicity has further helped to blur the line between reciter and singer in terms of the reciter’s professional identity and the listeners’ expectations.

In conclusion, it is intent, expectation, perception and response on the part of those involved in Qur’anic recitation that are crucial in maintaining the ideal separation between the art of music and the art of reciting the Qur’an and in shaping the actual sound of recitation. The intent of the reciter, the expectations of the listener, their mutual responses, and the role of the media all interact to establish and, in the case of the media, to sanction the more musical recitation as ideal. Although the musicality of a recitation need not compromise its separateness from the art of music — indeed, it is generally recognized and accepted that musicality in Qur’anic recitation is important in drawing the listener more deeply into an act of religious devotion — still, there may be some resistance to the forces which encourage musicality in recitation, for it is also recognized that this very musicality may undermine the proper intent of recitation by transforming the act of devotion into mere musical entertainment. It is the personal attitude of the reciter towards these shaping forces which may determine the extent of musicality in his personal style.

God’s earthly tones

Sunday, April 23rd, 2006