The Art of Reciting the Qur’an, Kristina Nelson, Cairo and New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 2001. pp246
Some three weeks ago, at the Sidi Abul-Ela Mosque in Bulaq, while devotees of the saint solicited his intercession at the shrine, a large group of people gathered in clusters all across the main courtyard, listening to the sound emanating from half a dozen or more ancient-looking speakers positioned at convenient spots throughout. Although the sound was far from excellent, many had brought along recording equipment. There was something almost surreal about the scene. Young and old, conversing intermittently in whispers, these people had obviously gathered there for a purpose, but to the hapless observer, on walking into the mosque, that purpose was far from clear. In comparison to other, simultaneous events in Bulaq, moreover, the atmosphere of the Abul-Ela Mosque was remarkably quiet; and whatever activity taking place there seemed to be correspondingly low-key. Only after sitting cross-legged in one corner did it finally dawn upon the observer in question that he, too, had arrived there for a purpose: the event was a commemoration of the anniversary of the famous Qur’anic reciter Shiekh Mustafa Ismail (1905-1978); the speakers supplied rare, otherwise unavailable recordings of his recitations; and the listeners were aficionados. It was a sad irony that the reciter who once commanded a phenomenal popularity in this neighbourhood should be remembered so quietly by so comparatively few people. Yet the scene also afforded a glimpse of the power and majesty of a tradition that has come to be all but extinct: the art of reciting the Qur’an, the subject of the present book. Matching text to melody even as she delineates the received rules of recitation – the book benefits from a precise system of transliteration as well as musical notation – the author brings to this comprehensive account of Qur’anic recitation a range of epistemological perspectives, combining her knowledge of music and language with an exploration of the minds of the likes of Shiekh Mustafa and his admirers, and the circumstances in which they lived and worked. For a study of such diversity, moreover, the book is meticulously structured, making for a straightforward, if frequently taxing, read. An anthropologist, an expert on Arabic music and a Qur’anic scholar will each find both stimulation and benefit here.
“Night falls as small groups of people make their way towards a large tent straddling a Cairo street,” Kristina Nelson, a scholar of ethnomusicology and a seasoned, active participant in the cultural scene of the Arab world, writes in her introduction to The Art of Reciting the Qur’an, the fruit of many years of research and first-hand encounters with reciters, listeners and scholars, first published in 1985 by the University of Texas. “As they draw near, a clear ribbon of sound begins to separate itself from the dense fabric of street noise all around. The sound is that of the recited Qur’an; a public performance has just begun.” Since the present edition of the book was published, it is this passage, along with the rest of the introduction, that has been quoted most extensively by the Arabic press – an indication, perhaps, of the appeal of the introduction as a condensed summary of the entire project, as opposed to the more specific scholarly orientation of the book’s various chapters. One aim of the study, for example, is “to examine the implications of a particular perception within its tradition: given that recitation is the product of both divine and human ordering, how does this juxtaposition work in the mind of the performer and in the expectations of the listeners to shape the recitation of the Qur’an in Egypt today?” Classified by “those outside the tradition” as a form of religious music, recitation nonetheless remains, for those inside, both “distinct from music” and “a unique phenomenon.” It is always to the heart of the tradition that Nelson thus turns in her attempt to demarcate the territory occupied by that “clear ribbon of sound,” which initially enthralled her. “My own interest in Qur’anic recitation was caught and held by the power of the sound itself,” she testifies. And to pursue that interest, Nelson has crossed geographic, cultural and linguistic borders. She studies the theory of recitation, the (rightful) place it is meant to occupy in Qur’anic cartography, in order to reach back to her experience of its practice. “A man hides his face in his hands,” the introduction goes on, “another weeps violently. Some listeners tense themselves as if in pain, while, in the pauses between phrases, others shout appreciative responses to the reciter. Time passes unnoticed…”
Ethnomusicology is a multidisciplinary arena that makes possible the exploration of “the link between the affective power of sound and its referent meanings in daily life and religious practice.” As a female Westerner, Nelson was thus confronted by the twofold difficulty of coming to the sacred realm of Qur’anic scholarship from a profane (musical) background, and being the lone foreign women in a world made up exclusively of native men. Looking back on her experience – Nelson spent the period from September 1977 to August 1978 in Cairo undertaking research of a journalistic as well as a scholarly nature and learning the two modes of recitation, the private, devotional tartil and the artistic, audience-oriented tajwid – she wonders whether this “completely crazy” task would have been possible had she started her project in the 1990s, a time of decline for both the traditions of recitation and the tolerant attitudes that make social integration possible. It was the humane eagerness of these men, after all, that sustained her “desire and intent” to complete the task: “everyone I met in the course of my research,” Nelson recalls in the Acknowledgments, “was extremely helpful and generous with time, information, and hospitality.” This spirit of intercultural integration informs not only the project but the book, in which Nelson was careful not to fall into the trap of Orientalism by substantially referencing every point she desired to make. “The way to do it,” she has confided, “is to let the relevant people say it for you rather than saying it yourself; this way it doesn’t sound like something you’re imposing.” In itself this (Western) orientation is a commendable achievement: at no point does the desire and ability to explore a subject of interest imply a superior or authoritative attitude. Nelson is as faithful to the given precepts of Islam and Muslim culture as she is to the dictates of her own (academic) endeavour. And in this sense The Art of Reciting the Qur’an sets a precedent for Western studies of “the Orient” in that it is driven by genuine respect for that realm. Despite such intimate contact, moreover, Nelson has not converted to Islam – further testimony to the impartial understanding that informs her approach to the tradition of recitation.
Clockwise from top: Shiekh Mustafa Ismail, the “diva” of recitation; Sheikh Mohamed Mahmoud Tablawi; Sheikh Lotfi Amer; Sheikh Abdel-Baset Abdel-Samad; sheikh Mohamed Rifaat; the wajid of one listener; the author among reciters, at the time of conducting her research
Based on a University of California at Berkeley dissertation, for which the research was undertaken, the book progresses in two closely interrelated directions, seeking, first, “the ideal recitation” in the context of the place of this phenomenon in religious discourse and, secondly, the contemporaneous practice of Qur’anic recitation as Nelson encountered it in real life. The choice of Egypt, she explains, finds justification in “the particular prestige and influence of the Egyptian tradition in Qur’anic recitation, which make it an obvious starting place.” And the relevance of her study – an invaluable contribution to the body of available knowledge on social, cultural and artistic life in Egypt – is that, unlike the “classic works of Western Qur’anic scholarship,” which concentrate on the Qur’an as a written document, it addresses those aspects of recitation on which traditional Islamic scholarship has remained silent: “as the scope of Qur’anic disciplines has been firmly and authoritatively established and that body of knowledge has traditionally been considered fixed and given,” in recent times “there has been a reluctance to look at the Qur’an in new ways.” The book’s importance derives, Nelson implies, not only from giving equal consideration “to the theory and practice of recitation and the analysis of their interactions,” but from “my own direct participation in the tradition as student and performer.” A thorough consideration of what Nelson calls “the Sama’ Polemic,” the “alliance of Qura’nic text and vocal artistry” that provides the basis of the historical debate concerning whether and to what extent the melodic recitation of tajwid may be associated with music, follows her impeccable account of the Qur’an itself, the history of the revelation and how the Prophet’s message was communicated, as well as the nature of tajwid, Nelson’s principal interest. Then comes an account of the ideal recitation gleaned from classic Islamic scholarship, followed by the material of Nelson’s own experience: the nuances of the practice of recitation and the dynamics of reciter-audience interaction. Finally “the separation of music and recitation” receives its share of exploration: “That the acquiring of musical skills is left up to the individual reciter,” Nelson explains, “is one way to effect a concrete separation of recitation from music,” keeping recitation within the framework of religion even when it approaches the intensity of a (musical) performance.
Two interrelated issues make The Art of Reciting the Qur’an of particular interest to those inside the tradition: recitation as a means of transmission of the holy text, and the religious validity of the musicality of recitation. By recounting the history of recitation as the earliest and most widespread means of transmitting the sacred text, Nelson challenges the notion – so rampant in modern Egyptian society – that the sacred is the property of a literate minority. Sound emerges as something over and above both music or reading out loud: “The ideal recitation is a paradox. Participants in the tradition… all agree first, that the Qur’an is paramount in its divine uniqueness and perfection, and second, that melody is essential to the most effective Qur’anic recitation. The inherent contradiction between these two premises is accepted, even unquestioned, as long as the right balance of elements is maintained.” It is through recitation, after all, that illiterate Arabic-speaking Muslims – a sizable portion – come in contact with the text that forms the central proposition of their lives. The concept of taswir al- ma’na (picturing the meaning), the religious justification for melody, thus comes to play a central role in the public transmission of the Qur’an: “The late Sheikh Mustafa Ismail was considered suspect as a reciter by many Muslims because of his extreme musicality. But one devout scholar told me that, although he used to think that Shiekh Mustafa was ‘too musical,’ he had come to accept him because he knew [the rules of] tajwid… Shiekh Mustafa himself told me that when asked about the reluctance to associate Qur’anic recitation with music, he responded, ‘As long as the rules of tajwid are adhered to, the pauses are correct, the reciter can recite with music however he wishes.’ This statement was broadcast over national television on the programme ‘Your Favourite Star,’ ‘with the imam of Al-Azhar, the president of the republic and countless others listening,’ and Shiekh Mustafa said he challenged anyone to disagree, but never heard a word of rebuttal.” Indeed, in the best mujawwad recitations, divine truth is experienced through a unique convergence of elements – musical as well as textual – that transcends, rather than underlines the issue of whether recitation is a form of music. Shiekh Mustafa’s apparently cursory declamation reflects his appreciation of this notion: in his endeavour to transmit the divine text, the reciter should resort to whatever human means he is capable of, the better to achieve an effective communication of its meaning.
Music, in other words, cannot sensibly be thought to undermine the authority of the text; and however extensive its use, so long as the received rules of recitation are abided by, it cannot reduce the scope within which the experience of the Qur’an is said to be an encounter with the divine; rather, through taswir al-ma’na, it enhances it. Yet in the time she has spent in Egypt since the late 1970s, Nelson has noted a decline in the popularity of tajwid and the cult of “star” reciters, like Shiekh Mustafa, who practised it. And in the Postscript to the present edition of her book, she attempts to address this unfortunate decline: “perceptible changes would seem to indicate that a number of factors have succeeded in moving Qur’anic recitation away from the contested areas of melody and personality cult and that the sensibility that values conscious use of artistry to enhance the effect of recitation can no longer be taken for granted.” The Saudi influence that informs the popular recitation of such Egyptian practitioners as Shiekh Mohamed Gibril notwithstanding, the implications of the aforementioned changes include “a more socially and culturally conservative constituency” as well as the rise of “a younger generation… charged with the spirit of an activist Islam” that has no use for artistry. For many of Nelson’s contacts, indeed, the period from 1978, the year of Shiekh Mustafa’s death, to the present “represents the waning of the golden age of Egyptian reciters.” This change moreover reflects “an artistic vacuum, as much as any shift in religious attitudes;” and indeed, since the last decade yielded nothing comparable to Shiekh Mustafa, it may be that the decline of recitation is not ultimately due to the prevalence of the view that takes issue with the musicality of the tradition in the Sama’ Polemic, but simply to the unavailability of a generation of reciters who could bring the tradition back to life. After all, tajwid, an already fully lionised tradition, continues to thrive on the radio and on television screens as well as in public spaces. The decline in the popularity of tajwid is naturally conditioned by changes in the social and cultural fabric of life as well. Perhaps, like the bards of the Hilaleya epic and the masters of shadow puppet theatre, the maestros of tajwid too are fast becoming something of the past. And in this sense it is cheering to know that, however marginal and lacklustre their status, there will always be a group of people gathered, however quietly, in venues like the Abul-Ela Mosque, to bear tribute to their majesty and power.
Reviewed by Youssef Rakha