Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Tradition of Reciting/Singing the Qur’an

One aspect of the Qur’an that I find really fascinating is its essentially oral/aural quality.  Although it exists in written form, it has from the very beginning been a text that has been recited and sung.  This tradition goes back to the prophet Muhammad himself.  In an early revelation from God, he is commanded not to write, but to recite.  Even the very word “Qur’an” can be translated “the recitation.”  It is this oral/musical quality that distinguishes the Qur’an from other religious texts like the Bible.  While the Bible contains musical/poetic parts (like the Psalms), most peoples’ experience of the Bible is as a text to be studied rather than a poem to recite.  Also, unlike the Bible, which most Christians know only in translated form (i.e. English), the Qur’an is always recited/sung in the original Arabic, giving its audience a direct, historical, and aesthetic connection to the prophet and, according to Musilm faith, to the actual language of God.

To understand more about the significance of reciting the Qur’an, I’ve just read an article by scholars William A. Graham (professor of Middle Eastern studies at Harvard) and Navid Kermani (fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin) called “Recitation and Aesthetic Reception” from The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an.  Here are some things I learned.

The name of the formal discipline of reciting the Qur’an is Tajwid, which means “rendering excellent.”  Within this broad tradition are two major schools: the Murattal (which is more conservative, measured, and less melodic), and the Mujawwad (which is more ornamented and musical).  Various kinds of recitation form the heart of Muslim worship and prayer (both public and private).  Here's a Muslim man explaining the two styles of Murattal and Mujawwad:

Memorization and recitation of the Qur’an is also an important part of Muslim education.  Learning to recite passages of the Qur’an is a common, shared experience of many young Muslims around the world.  Learning the art and science of recitation provides a kind of linguistic bridge that spans across cultures and languages throughout the world.  Reciting the Arabic text connects Muslims throughout the world, of which there are approximately 1.5 billion.

Memorization and recitation of the Qur’an is an important part of Muslim education.

The sounds of recitation in Muslim societies and communities permeates most aspects of everyday life.  From public recitation to the more modern forms of radio, television, and the internet, these poetic Arabic sounds are a fundamental part of the Muslim sonic landscape.  During festivals and holidays like Ramadan, recitation forms an integral part of religious and communal life.  Graham and Kermani write: “The powerful presence of the rhythmic cadence of Qur’anic recitation is everywhere evident in traditional and much of modern Muslim society…the book lives on among its people, stuff of their daily lives, taking for them the place of a sacrament.  For them these are not mere letters or mere words.  They are the twigs of the burning bush, aflame with God.”

Reciting the Qur'an is an important part of the celebration of the Muslim holiday Ramadan, which also includes feasting.

How, then, do Muslims respond to these all-pervasive recitations?  The Qur’an itself describes the impact on listeners as powerful and transcendent, giving goosebumps and then an inner calm.  It is also meant to evoke a kind of cathartic response that prepares the listener for “remembering God.”  Muslims view the Qur’an itself as a miracle from God, a text so incomparably beautiful that it confirms the message of the prophet.  

This sense of the beauty, or aesthetics, of the recited text has fused piety and poetics in unique ways.  Graham and Kermani write: “God gave to each prophet the gift most highly valued by his people.  Moses was legitimized as prophet by turning a staff into a snake, thereby surpassing the magic presented at the Pharaoh’s court in Egypt where magic was held in high esteem.  Jesus’ miracle was raising people from the dead at a time when healing was highly valued.  And Muhammad was prophet to a people who valued their poets most of all; thus his miracle had to be a literary one.”

Muslim apologists and theologians formulated extensive arguments for their faith based on poetics.  The recitation and study of the Qur’an launched a renaissance of early and significant studies in linguistics and poetics.  The Iranian ‘Abd al-Qahir al Jurjani (died 1078)’s seminal work Evidence of the Qur’an’s Miraculous Character was a pioneering work in the field of textual linguistics, presenting an almost structuralist theory that was way ahead of its time.

The language and style of the Qur’an has had an enormous influence on Muslim literature and poetry.  Contemporary Arabic poets like Adonis are deeply inspired by the poetry and rhythms of the Qur’an.  In Egypt, Qur’anic recitation has reached near pop culture status: “The best reciters participate in live-broadcast international competitions and are revered throughout the country.”  Graham and Kermani close their article with this statement: “The recited Qur’an is and has ever been the epitome of aesthetic as well as spiritual perfection for the faithful.”

Adonis is an important contemporary Arabic poet.

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