This article was published on November 28, 2015, in Sand Magazine's first edition
There are as many melodies to the Qur’an as there are reciters. Yes, the Qur’an’s 600 pages and 114 chapters have specific rules that maintained a unified pronunciation of syllables and rhythm throughout time, under the Science of Tajweed. However, its melody on the other hand, has always been solely dependable on the improvisation of the reciter. Kristina Nelson, who is originally a music student, was captured by the sound of Qur’anic recitations and the melodies she heard during her work in Cairo. In the documentary, Koran by Heart, Nelson describes the impact of these melodies as almost trancelike and euphonic.
Certainly, sound has been a crucial element of the Islamic religion. The word Qur’an in Arabic means recitation, and the first Qur’anic teaching is a call to: “recite,” but is that it? This call for recitation is directly linked to the human conception, as the verse depicts: “Recite…Recite in the name of your lord who created…From an embryo created the human” (Qur’an 1:96). The relationship between this oral nature and the symbolic representation of an embryo kindles two ideas: the first is linked to the beginning of the message of Islam that is sent to the Prophet with this very word, and thus, marking its birth. However, the second is perhaps a declaration of the newborn cry. After hours of labor, the newborn’s instinctive cry remains the mark of a new life, mandating and inviting others to listen. This act of listening is thus foundational to realization, pondering, and consequential to action.
I am not a musician, nor am I a professional reciter, but I have an ear and heart for sound. When I was nine years old, my stepfather, an imam who had lost his sense of sight at the age of two, used to recite to me Qur'anic verses in different tones and melodies. He did that so I would tell him the emotion each tone stirred. I assisted him in this process, as he prepared for Ramadan’s taraweeh prayers. It comprised of the repetition of certain verses using a variety of melodies from his side, and the selection of the evoked emotion from mine. As a child, this allowed me to understand, or at least to reflect, on sound as an agent to the arousal of emotions, and thus of action. As a blind man, his sensitivity to sound captured me. I grew and listened to more reciters, and I became interested in understanding the relationship between the content of a verse and the melody an imam chooses for it. Hence asking, why would an imam choose to stimulate fear in a verse about the day of resurrection rather than stimulating awe, or to evoke warning and threat instead of sympathy, mercy, or forgiveness, in a verse about the ethics of war? And how, if any, would our relationship with the text and understanding of the Qur’an change, if we had only evoked different emotions?
Putting aside (but still not too far) the contextual and sociopolitical language that many had relied on to understand the Qur’anic text, I wanted to appreciate its sounds and rhythms as if I were a non-Arabic speaker. I wanted it to affect me as if I were a child who does not have the tools for understanding complexities of language. I wanted to appreciate the fact that I could listen to a single verse in tens of different melodies, and it would thus affect me in tens of different ways. I wanted to grow in the silent pauses between verses, because in that silence is a resounding experience. I wanted to reach the voice in words, the sound structures, and the meanings and emotions that stem from the relationship between them. This in precise, is articulated in The Qur’anic Presentation of the Joseph Story. In that, Johns explains a fluid and unrestricted relationship with the text that goes beyond the exterior text to the interiority of the mind, as he explains: “An appreciation of the character of dialogue and direct speech in the Qur’an, then, needs to go beyond an understanding of the words as they appear on the printed page. The challenge is to hear them in the mind’s ear, to listen to the various ways in which they could have been uttered. Above all else, it is necessary to listen.”1
Believing in the power of sound that is composed of melody, but also of voice, I decided to take part for the first time in my school’s Noon Service; one of the enriching experiences I had during my time at Harvard. Every Wednesday, a denomination or a non-demonitation group would lead the circle, and this was the Muslim Council’s turn. I read several verses, of which one was Al-Asr, certainly a favorite. To my surprise, one of my Muslim colleagues stated that it was his first time listening to a woman’s voice reciting the Qur’an, which made him relate to the verses, despite his familiarity with them, as if he were listening to them for the first time.
There is a fear of a contemporary presentation of the Qur’an, which often stems from a fear to deviate from traditionally received opinions. This perceived fear has impacted the development of Muslim scholarship. Henceforth, it is precisely this risk that I believe is inevitable today; I think it must be undertaken, though with both sincerity and perception.
Anne Rasmussen, an ethnographer who worked with women reciters in Indonesia, says: "I learned about the world through its noises.” To keep this conversation open, I suggest we disregard closure, and pursue this further, instead: How did you learn about your own world? What were the prevailing sounds, voices, and melodies? And how did they contribute to your understanding of the world?
Johns, A. H. “The Qur’anic Presentation of the Joseph Story: Naturalistic or Formulaic Language,” Approaches to the Qur’an (G. R. Hawting & A.-K. A. Shareef, Eds.). London and New York: Routledge, 1993. p. 41-42.