« Program: Egypt 1: Cairo Soundscape


Michael Frishkopf & Kristina Nelson on Koranic Recitation

Kristina Nelson is the author of “The Art of Reciting the Qur’an,” a foundational text on a phenomenon so pervasive in Egypt that one can hardly walk the streets of Cairo without hearing it.  Kristina lives in Cairo and has been a key advisor on many aspects of Afropop’s Hip Deep in Egypt project.  Banning Eyre sat with her at her home near the Dahshur pyramids, and they discussed, among other things, Koranic recitation.  Here’s that portion of their conversation.

B.E.:  Why don’t you introduce yourself to start?

K.N.: I’m Kristina Nelson and I’m here because I originally came to study Arabic.  I have an undergraduate degree in music.  And in my doctorate, I brought together music and Arabic studies with the recitation of the Koran as a sound art form.  I’ve lived in Egypt continuously since 1994, but I’ve been in the Middle East since 1983, starting with Gaza.

B.E.:  What was it about recitation that attracted you?

K.N.: I found, and I still find the sound extremely powerful, and I was curious how it was put together and how it worked, and I couldn’t find anyone who could explain it.  And I think one reason for that is that it’s a unique art form (detailed rules for pronunciation, rhythm and sectioning and complete melodic freedom create a powerful tension) and  more than a religious text.  It’s considered a holy text, the word of God, the very sound of God, a divine revelation. Muslims are reluctant to link it with man -made, or man -created arts.  No local scholars, or Muslim scholars have studied the Koran in terms of anthropology or sociology or music until very recently.  There was one scholar, Labib al-Sa’id, who wrote a book about the sound and was promoting the recording of Koranic recitation in a  very clear, didactic style, without elaborate melody for the purposes of making it perfectly understandable and easy to learn.

B.E.:  And when was that?

K.N.: This was in the late 60s.

B.E.:  Really? It’s that recent?

K.N.: Yes.

B.E.:  So this whole culture of recorded recitation of the Koran is only since the late 60s.

K.N.: No, no.  Recorded melodic recitation goes back to the beginnings of radio and recordings. There are some very early recordings that date from the end if the 19th century.   Putting recitation  on the radio raised debates as to whether this was appropriate or not.  For example, one of the objections was that you could be in the bathroom and you could be hearing the Koran.  And that is not appropriate.  I met one reciter, and interviewed him—Mohamed Salama.  He was a great guy.  He was quite old –he was very proud of having participated in the 1919 revolution, marching in the streets..  He used to play oud  but stopped playing at some point as he felt it was not appropriate.  And he was the only one who refused to recite on the radio.  Not only because of the inappropriateness of the settings, but because there were all these little girl announcers tripping around him when he went to recite and he felt that, too, was totally inappropriate.  So he refused to record for the the radio.

B.E.:  This is a very old art.  The idea of speaking the Koran was there from the start, right?

K.N.: It’s there from the beginning because, according to Islamic belief, the revelation was transmitted to the Prophet orally.  There wasn’t a written text.  And after the Prophet’s death, they collected the written down bits, which he had dictated to his followers, and put together the written text.  This was sent out to Muslim communities all over the area, with reciters.  And the oral recitation has always been the authoritative backing for the written text.

B.E.:  Earlier today, I interviewed a young Egyptian rapper, Karim Rush of Arabian Knightz, a hip hop act.  And he made the observation that the Prophet lived at a time when the art of poetry was ascendant, and that is the reason for this attention to oral tradition, poetry, that has to do with where the culture was at during that time.  Does that sound right to you?

K.N.: Absolutely.  I mean, literacy was restricted to a few people.  There were huge oral poetry competitions in Mecca.  There was criticism of the Koran when it first began to be disseminated, that this was “only poetry.”, not divine revelation. And that’s because it was within the tradition.  It was beautiful, eloquent.  If you look at the text in detail, though, there are only a very few sections, short sections, that use the poetic meters.  The poetic meters were very much developed in the pre-Islamic poetry tradition.  And these poems are learned by kids in school today.

B.E.:  So it really is fair to say that this tradition of recitation goes all the way back.  It’s a straight line back to the time of Mohammed.  It’s fundamental.

K.N.: It’s fundamental.  And one of the justifications for the divine miraculousness of the beauty of the Koran is that the Prophet Mohamed was illiterate.  And so what he learned, he learned orally, and he recited it orally.  He passed it on orally.  And the oral tradition of the Koran has been in place ever since.

B.E.:  And we know, if I’m not mistaken, from the hadith—the sayings of the Prophet—that he valued a beautiful voice.  That’s also true?

K.N.: That’s also true.  Though the idea has its detractors.  Well, the people I met who were against the melodic recitation of the Koran were not against a beautiful voice, but were against it as an art form.  And that’s because it has developed into an art with its fan base and superstar cult.  And another tradition is that you shouldn’t make money off the Koran, and some of the reciters were charging superstar fees for their recitations.  But nowhere in the Koran is there clear prohibition of melodic recitation or of music.  It’s all interpretation.  And those against music, or melodic recitation, find and interpret verses their way.  And those for it interpret verses—and hadith—their way.

B.E.:  So there’s no winning that argument.

K.N.: No.  But there are still Masters and PHd disertations on “Is music forbidden or permissible in Islam?”  And the Sufis hold the high position on that in that they have more or less come to the point where they say that music is neutral.  It’s a neutral art.  It can be used for good; it can be used for ill.

As for the singing, there were different kinds of singing in pre-Islamic times.  There were the work songs.  And then there were songs of the courtesans, who were extremely well-educated.  They knew lots of poetry.  They were cultured women, but they were operating in contexts that came to be seen as anti-Islamic—taverns where there was drinking, there was sex….  And that had something to do with the bias against it.  And also, looking to the Arabs of the desert as the source of true Arabness and true Islam, in the face of Byzantine and Persian civilizations, which were the great civilizations of the time, many people saw these as corrupting influences on this pure desert culture.

Even today, you can find people who believe that that’s true.  Up to at least, well, maybe less than 100 years ago, people would send their sons into the desert to soak up this pure ethos.

B.E.:  Interesting.  Now, separate from the words of the Koran, there is the musical art involved in recitation, the maqam system. How old is that system? Does it predate Islam?

K.N.: No. No, no, no. There’s a wonderful book called “The Book of Songs,” by Abu l-Faraj al-Isfahani, that was written in the 10th century AD.  And that’s a compendium of songs and written texts, basically, and singers, and also a description of musical practice. And he’s documenting things that went on for several centuries before that. I think there was a great Persian influence. I don’t know exactly when you can say maqam started. It’s old, but it doesn’t predate Islam.

B.E.:  Did it exist before he wrote that book?

K.N.: Yes.

B.E.: So between the seventh and the 10th century. It kind of grows up with Islam. So what do we know about when the two things join?  Whether or not we think of it as music, when does the art of maqam become part of the art of recitation?

K.N.: Well, we don’t know exactly. We know that people appreciated beautiful recitation. But we don’t know what that means, other than appreciation for the voice. At the end of the 19th century, we have recordings from a reciter, Yusuf al-Manyalawi, who was also a singer who used to go and recite at the court of the Sultan in Istanbul.  It must have been before that, but we don’t have any documentation. And since then, musicians have always looked up to reciters as masters of the art of maqam and improvisation, because the recitation must be improvised.

B.E.:  So let’s describe the phenomena. This is not music composition, singing in the conventional sense. Let me ask you the question more open-ended way. How does the reciter conceptualize what he or she is doing?

K.N.: Well, I think that reciters do it differently. The fact that rhythm is not part of the Arabic music system is one thing that keeps it separate. A lot of people might think that, “Oh, this is just a rationalisation by the Muslims, by the Sheikhs, to keep it as a separate art form.” But I think it’s more than that. I would classify the different sounds as “secular music,” secular texts in the Arab music system, “religious music,” which is religious texts that use the Arabic musical system, and then the Koran, in a class by itself because it doesn’t use the rhythmic system, that’s (divinely)given in the rules for reciting. And the text, it’s pronunciation, its language is unique.   Reciters I knew did not practice their melodic recitation using the Koran. They would practice using another text, or they would use a less melodic, more chanting style to just go over their text. Again, this idea of keeping the divine and human separate.

B.E.:  But they are using the maqam system in the sense that they are modulating, introducing different tones from one maqam to another in order to create emphasis. But this is not composition. What is it?

K.N.: Well, it’s in the tradition of Arabic music composition, which is sort of on-the-spot composition, what we would call improvisation or composing in perfomrance. Of course, you have a lot of building blocks to deal with.  A reciter might quote himself for example. Sometimes reciters will quote other reciters and well-known bits. And especially as recordings have become more widespread, people have memorized certain performances. And so they will recognize one reciter, and they might even ask for, “Let’s hear some of this.” That’s a bit rare, because most people realize that that’s not what is desired. What is desired is a moving rendition of the text, something that takes you to a different place. I mean, what you are hearing when you’re hearing the Koran is ideally the moment of revelation. And that’s because of the pronunciation, which is also uniquely Koranic. It is not the pronunciation of literary Arabic and not of the colloquial languages either. It is the voice of God for a lot of people. Reciters at the same time would say melody and voice are what helps the text reach the hearts of the listeners.  And this is what I found interesting in my research. Because, ultimately, that could be seen as a contradiction. The Koran is divine. It is perfect, yet it can be enhanced.

B.E.:  By melody and voice in perfect pronunciation. Tajwid.

K.N.: not enhanced by Tajwid.  Yes, Tajwid is the code of rules for pronouncing the text. This is a fundamental requirement for reciting as these rules preserve the orginal revelation.  It is artistry that enhances the text, how a reciter uses melody and sectioning of  the text to bring out meaning, to engage listeners emotionally.


B.E.:  Even beyond the realm of recitation.  When we interviewed the great Sufi singer Yasin el Tuhami, Mariam referred to what he was doing as “singing,” and he corrected her. Now, of course this is different because he is a munshid, a singer, not a reciter. But he also showed the sensitivity about that characterization. Tell us about the sensitivity. It’s a kind of mental process so they can feel free to express themselves in this art form, but not let it become confused with “music.”

K.N.: Yeah, I think that’s because music is seen as dangerous, even a rival for people’s hearts and minds. It leads you away from God, not toward God, which is completely opposite from the Sufi point of view. Which is why I’m surprised that Yasin el Tuhami would be sensitive about that. Because his art is one which brings people closer, not further away.

B.E.:  Well, I’ll have to go back to the interview and be sure about that. But how do they think about it if it’s not singing?

K.N.: Is reciting the Koran. It’s its own setting. It’s sui generis.

B.E.:  But there is musical knowledge involved. It’s not just anyone who knows how to do that, how to modulate among different maqamat or modes.

K.N.: Right, but you can use elements of music, and it not be music.   And what’s interesting also is I found in my research that people reacted to it as they would to music, criticized it in musical terms. This is in my book. I sat with the radio committee who auditioned reciters and also reviewed recordings, live recordings to put them into the archives. And one reciter finished and everybody was blown away. They thought it was fantastic. But, one of the musicians says he really needs to work on his musical cadences, where you end a phrase. And one of the religious scholars said, “Absolutely true, but let’s not use the word ‘music.’ Let’s use the word ‘vocal’ cadences.” They were writing this down. So even there, recognizing, yes, it is a musical thing. It moves us like that. But it isn’t music. We’ve got to keep that barrier.

B.E.:  So, it’s kind of a subtle place where this art resides. It’s fascinating. You talked about superstars. When did that start?

K.N.: Probably pretty early. Sheikh Mohamed Riffat was one of the first to record. And when I was doing my research in the late 70s, he was seen still has the ideal reciter. First of all for his musicality, and secondly because he was an example of the pious, religious man. He was a good man. People said of him, or people say of him, or he said of himself, that he would try to use as many different maqams in the text as he could, because people respond differently to maqams because of the emotions attached to them. And in this way, he could reach more people. So he was aware of the effect of his musicality on his audience, and how it connected him with them, or how he was able to connect the text with them.  I think Abdul Basit was the first to use cassette recordings, and that of course changed the face of recitation and music in Egypt generally.

B.E.:  How so?

K.N.: Well, before that, reciters were, Egyptian reciters were recognized as the apex of recitation, and reciters would come from all over the world to learn, not only to learn recitation, but when I was there, there was a Pakistani who came to learn the style of a particular reciter, Sheikh Mustafa Ismail.  And during Ramadan, still, Egypt sends reciters out all over the world to Muslim communities.  But with cassettes, people were not dependent on when it appeared on the radio, or when there was a performance or a memorial service or whatever context. And you could hear it anywhere. And it became much more ubiquitous. You hear it in taxis. You hear it in shops. Now you hear it in elevators, in up-market men’s shops. There is nowhere where you couldn’t hear it. And I’m sure you’ve noticed that. And, bu the way, has changed the way people listen or hear the recitation.

B.E.:  Yes. I mean I’ve been in Morocco. I’ve been in Mali.  I’ve been in Senegal.  I don’t remember hearing it in those places. Is this uniquely Egyptian thing? How many other cities would it be that ubiquitous?

K.N.: Well, I’ve been in… I’m trying to think. I haven’t been in every country in the Middle East, but I’ve been in Lebanon, Syria, across North Africa, Sudan, Jordan. Turkey. And certainly, I never heard anything like that in any of those countries. In Turkey, there are reciters with the Sufi orders, and they become well known within that context. But in Egypt, you have it as a profession. A man with a good voice can actually decide to make this his life’s work, or his profession. It’s not just a service like reciting for a funeral, or reciting in the mosque, or whatever. He can put himself forward as a reciter and anyone who wants a reciter can call him.

B.E.:  This brings me to why this is so interesting to us, people looking at music. Because it keeps coming up in so many context within musicians that we are learning about, that they’re beginning, whether it’s Umm Kulthum or the singer in Wust Al Balad, very diverse musical careers, and you go back to the starting point, and the starting point is Koran recitation.  So this really becomes a training ground for singers in many different genres, even on the contemporary scene.

K.N.: Well, for one thing, I think that when the rules of pronunciation were codified, part of those rules were very detailed explanations of where the sounds are formed in the mouth, with the tongue, the back of the mouth, the middle of the mouth, with the lips. This is like a science.  It’s called the makharif el huroof.  You learn where the sounds are placed, so it’s extremely clear, articulate knowledge that improves your diction and your pronunciation. And one thing people say about Umm Kulthum is that you could always understand her. She doesn’t swallow her vowels or whatever, and that this is because she studied tajwid.  And it’s interesting that the Conservatory of music in Cairo actually employs a teacher who is teaches tajwid as part of the singing curriculum. It makes you aware of how you form your words and your sounds. It’s interesting, because it’s not just the music.

If I can go off on another tack, traditionally, Arabic music is with words. Especially the more elite music. The work songs, the court music, and then the entertainment music — these all have words. And it was only recently that for example a Lebanese composer and singer, Marcel Khalife, put out an album with… no words. And I was actually a concert at the Cairo Opera House, where he sang some of his songs. I mean, he’s dearly, dearly beloved all over the Arabic world. But he wanted to perform one of his new compositions, a song without words, and people were extremely rude in the audience. They actually stood up and said, “No, we don’t want that. We want to hear songs, and we want to hear your voice.”

B.E.:  When was that?

K.N.: This was in the 90s, the late 90s.

B.E.:  You mentioned Sheikh Mustafa Ismail.  Tell us who he was.

K.N.: He was born in the Delta. And he started going around to recitations. He had a good voice and he was encouraged to recite. He came to Cairo, and he became a very impressive reciter. He sang for the government, starting with prerevolutionary government. And then Nasser, Sadat.  What’s interesting about him is that he learned the music in the totally traditional way, which is by listening. And I remember him telling me, for example, he said, “I would recite, and someone would say, ‘Ah, that’s a wonderful Saba.'”  Maqam Saba.  And he would say, “Ah, so that’s Saba.  I’ll have to remember that.”  He didn’t even know what he was doing. He was just giving back all he’d absorbed from hearing. And that was the traditional way. Now, more and more, people go to the Conservatory and learn the maqam system and then put it together with the text.

(Sheikh Mustafa Ismail)

B.E.:  The tajwid.  You know, the reciter and teacher we interviewed, Ahmed Mustafa Kamel, idolized Sheikh Mustafa Ismail.  They had a sort of mentoring relationship. And when you say that he learned by ear, that makes sense, because Kamel’s whole approach is about listening and repeating.

K.N.: And you sort of absorb all these models.

B.E.: He said that if the person doesn’t get it right, and we saw some examples of that, he never repeats. He always just goes on to something else. And I asked if that was because repeating it was sort of codified as music. As composition. And he said no, that wasn’t really it. That was just his method. But you saw some of his YouTube videos. You found that an unusual way of teaching. Why?

K.N.: Because he would have them repeat exactly what he had recited, melodically., Which means they were putting together the text and, I mean, to all points and purposes, set melodies. Whereas a reciter is like Sheikh Mustafa Ismail would never do that. If they were trying to work something out, they wouldn’t work it out with the Koranic text. They would work it out with another text.

B.E.: How does one teach if not that way?

K.N.: Well, the way you learn music. But you learn it as music. You don’t learn it as Koran recitation. You put the text to the side. You learn the whole maqam system, and then you apply it. But you don’t work out melodies using that text. So for example, when you learn the oud or singing or whatever the Conservatory, you are given a set of actually written exercises in maqam, and you gradually become familiar with the parameters of that maqam.

B.E.:  So the fact of him singing the lines of the Koran and then having his students attempt to re-create exactly what he has sung is not only unusual but it’s potentially dangerous territory, because in the moment that that student is trying to reproduce what they just heard, they are essentially conceptualizing words and the music as one thing that is set.

K.N.: Together. And then there’s much more chance of them reproducing that in performance as a set, text and music.

B.E.:  I tried to ask about that. I’m not sure I succeeded, because he is one of these people who pretty much says what he wants to say, regardless of the question. But he said, “Tell me.  What is this if not singing?”

K.N.: That is unusual. He is unusual in lots of ways.

B.E.:  He was a delightful character. And he seemed to know you. You must’ve met them somewhere along the way. His students were in awe of you. “You know Kristina Nelson?”

K.N.: Well, let me just add a footnote to that.  In Indonesia, that is exactly what they do.  They learn bits of text with set melodies, and there is no hang-up about that at all.  At the same time, there is improvisation.  But you could look at it as pre-Islamic poetry or any oral tradition where you have formula that you hang your performance on, whether it’s text or melody.  You vary a few set formulae.  You could conceptualize it that way, I suppose.

B.E.:  Kamel told a great story about Umm Kulthum going and listening to Sheikh Mustafa Ismail.  She would go to where he was reciting, but with the curtains drawn so that she could listen without being seen.  Did you ever hear that?

K.N.: No. But, I mean, he is greatly revered.  The anniversary of his death is in December, and it’s a well-attended event.  I think that El Sawy [Culture Wheel, a diverse, young performance space] has taken over hosting the event, and besides playing his recordings, they also have films.  His family is very active in keeping his memory alive this way.  But the story he told me was being with Farid el Atrash in Lebanon, in Beirut, and el Atrash says, “How can you say this is not singing?  How can you deny this?”  And he replied, “It’s God.”

At the same time, not all of his recordings were accepted by the radio because his audiences would get so carried away. You know, at the end of one phrase, you could hear this thunderous explosion of sound, and you’d think you were at a soccer match not a recitation, and the people at the radio would have to edit it by turning down the volume of the audience response in order to keep the recording in the archive.  And sometimes, he would get carried away to the point where the melody became more important than the text.  The emphasis was on the melodic arc. The text got lost.  There is one famous example where he repeats one line maybe 27 times in different permutations of melodic maqam, before he goes on to the rest of the text.  And that’s overdoing it in terms of ideal recitation because you get lost.  You forget what is being said.

(Umm Kulthum)

B.E.:  That kind of repeating is what Umm Kulthum would do in order to elicit tarab, ecstasy, among listeners, right?

K.N.: Right. Well, he definitely had tarab, but he usually had really good balance.  I mean, he usually had tarab and good recitation.  I mean, nobody could fault him for his tajwid.  Some reciters have been faulted for their tajwid, but not Sheikh Mustafa.  But he did sometimes get carried away.  This idea about it being God…  He also has a story about reciting in Alexandria and someone from the audience calling up and saying, “Do it again.”  And he said, “No way could I do it again.  I don’t know where I was.”  It was like he was in a trance or something.

B.E.:  Kamel had some women students the night we were there.

K.N.: Egyptian?

B.E.:  No.  Arab Canadian.  But what is the situation with women and recitation?

K.N.: Well, there used to be much more latitude for women to recite publically.  Women still recite.  It is actually the duty of every Muslim to learn correct recitation with tajwid.  But now women recite in closed areas for women, say at funerals or memorial services, or together as a learning experience.  But the women I knew did not consider it an art.  They weren’t consciously using artistry to move their listeners.  They were communicating the text.  And that is a big, big difference.

B.E.:  What about recordings.  Would you ever find a cassette or CD of a woman reciting the Koran?

K.N.: There are some, very old ones.

B.E.:  But not new?

K.N.: No.  Not in Egypt.

There will be more from Kristina Nelson in future broadcasts and postings.

Here are some additional comments on Koranic recitation from Michael Frishkopf.  Michael is a professor of music and associate director of the Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology at the University of Alberta.  He edited a fascinating 2010 anthology of essays called “Music and Media in the Arab World.”

M.F.: A lot of singers/reciters from the early 30’s would receive initial training performing in religious contexts, such as the school for Koranic recitation, the kuttab.  And then, they might move out of those contexts.   In the kuttab, young children would memorize the Koran and also learn to recite Koran.  So, the kuttab provided a means of identifying vocal talent. Imagine that a child has a good voice, a musical talent.  That talent would be recognized by the kuttab shayhkh (teacher), by the other students, maybe by the child himself or herself.  And that would be a signal that maybe you have a career as a singer in front of you.

Also, learning to recite Koran gives a certain training to the voice.  In the kuttab, students would learn to pronounce Arabic correctly.  They would learn breath control, because the breath is very important in Koranic recitation.  If they got more advanced, they might learn to improvise a little bit.   They would develop a strong memory.  So in so many ways, the kuttab was critical for singers.  But during the course of the 20th century what we would call secular education came in and the kuttab went out.  You still have it to a certain extent, but it’s not the mainstream of education.  These days, singers go straight into the music industry, sometimes  passing through the conservatory first.  But most don’t pass through that kuttab stage.

In the past, singers might first become recognized Koran reciters, and acquire the title “Sheikh”.  Sheikh can refer to the latter phases of life, or to the leader of an Arab tribe, but it also is a term of respect in a religious context.  Somebody who studied in a religious college would be given the title Sheikh.  Expert Koran reciters are called “Sheikh”.  And to a certain extent that title extended also to expert reciters in other religious contexts, for example reciters of religious poetry.  The title “Sheikh” might even stick when they changed contexts.  For example, Zakaria Ahmed, who was a famous performer and a well known composer for Umm Kulthum, was often known as Sheikh Zakaria Ahmed because he had originally studied the Koran and performed religious songs.  And Sheikh Sayed Darwish, who became a very, very influential composer, also started in those religious contexts, and was known as Sheikh Sayed Darwish—even though he wasn’t performing religious music anymore.

So recitation of the Koran, along with performing the call to prayer (adhan) was one important religious context providing basic training to future singers.

The other big one was the Sufi orders, which were so prevalent in the 19th century.  Many people grew up attending Sufi ceremonies, which are known as hadra.  There they would hear the singing of religious poetry.  Those with sweet voices  might also be invited to participate in the singing.  In addition, there were various styles of Sufi-tinged singing that weren’t necessarily performed only within a strictly religious context, but might be performed,   for example, at a wedding. In those days there would be a lead singer, what they call a munshid or a Sheikh, accompanied by a chorus, bitana (literally, “a lining”).  This is how Umm Kulthum got her start.  After attending a kuttab, she performed in the chorus of a religious singing group when she was quite young, accompanying her father as he traveld from village to village.

B.E.:  Give us a brief description of Koranic recitation and its Egyptian varieties.

M.F.: Way, way back in time, we know from sayings (ahadith) of the Prophet Muhammad that it was desirable to listen to the Koran recited in a beautiful voice.  The Prophet recited, and also asked others to recite to him.  Some people wrote down verses.  But the Prophet himself was illiterate.  He didn’t.  This was an oral tradition from the beginning.  Variations began to develop.  But it was really oral recitation that kept it all together. The  Koran was revealed in seven ways, ahruf.  Some say that these made revelation intelligible to different Arab tribes, who spoke different dialects.  Arabic was not one language.  But the Caliph Osman [7th century] fearing excessive variety in the written text, or mushaf, fixed a single redaction.   Nevertheless, to the present day, there are multiple canonical qira’at, or readings—usually numbered at 7, or 10, or 14—of the Osmanic text.  They differ in particularities, vowel sounds, for example.  But the general meaning is always the same.

B.E.: Koranic reciters have to know the maqam system. So they are really trained musicians, aren’t they?

M.F.: Many are using detailed knowledge of melodic modes, maqamat, in a very expressive delivery with a wide dynamic range. Recitation can be very soft, very loud, very low, very high. Many sonic parameters, what we might consider to be musical parameters, but which are not treated as music (musiqa), are open to them. They still have to follow all the ahkam al-tajwid [rules of recitation].  But as long as they’re following the rules, they have a lot of latitude. And of course, they can also use different qira’at or “readings,” of which there are considered to be 7, or 10, or 14. This is a very interesting topic because many Egyptians don’t know that there are multiple qira’at, and so if the reciter starts using a qira’a that is not well known, people may call out to correct him, thinking that he made a mistake. I’ve talked to some reciters who say it’s somewhat risky not to use the most popular qira’a, which is Hafs `an `Asim in Egypt. But in principle reciters can vary the qira’a.

In the mujawwad style of recitation, the reciter moves through the text bit by bit, repeating phrases freely. They don’t jump forward in the text, but often jump back.  They often insert long pauses. Traditionally, the listening context for that would be, for example, a funeral, or before Friday prayer, or before evening prayer, often between the maghrib (sunset) and the isha’ (evening) prayers, when there’s a gap,  between an hour and an hour and a half, suitable for reciting. People gather around the reciter  in an attitude of attentive listening , following the text, while being influenced by the melody, including taswir al-ma`na,  picturing of Koranic meaning through the melodic line. Some listeners become highly emotionally, to the point where some might make an analogy to musical tarab, ecstasy. They won’t call it tarab though; but rather prefer a religious term, such as  spiritual refreshment (nashwa ruhiyya), or wajd (finding), a concept developed by  theSufis, the mystics of Islam.

When the reciter reaches the end of the melodic line, pausing to take a breath, he closes with a melodic cadence, known in Arabic music as the  qafla, which delivers an extremely powerful emotional charge to the listener. At that point, listeners may burst out, exclaiming, “Allah, Allah”  or “Ya salam.”  They may tell the Sheikh to repeat the previous phrase, just as they would do in a tarab context.  And for that reason, this practice has drawn scrutiny and criticism from some of the more conservative religious people, especially in the last twenty years or so, who find these musical-social practices of the mujawwad style to be inappropriate in a religious setting.

The mujawwad reciter is typically highly trained, and professional, often receiving a considerable sum to recite at a funeral, say. Early in the 20th century they were already being recorded; people would trade recordings, and fan clubs developed to a certain extent. Some , like Sheikh Mustafa Ismail, became so famous that even secular people, not all that religious, would want to go and hear his magnificent voice and powerful delivery.

Now, there is also what came to be known as the murattal style, which is more of a recitational mode, where the reciter goes straight through the text. There is not a lot of repeating or pauses during which people could respond. Murattal tends to be used more in a formal or individual devotional context. For example, when the Imam is reciting in front of the congregation during prayer, he can’t use mujawwad; he uses murattal.  If someone is reciting privately, they would also use murattal.  But the murattal does allow some melodic freedom. It’s just that it’s a little quicker. It doesn’t move up and down so much, doesn’t require so much expertise. It’s the recitation style for the masses.

Now, what happened in the 60s was they decided to record that murattal for the first time. The whole Koran, from start to finish, was recorded by a number of reciters. And so murattal started to become a mediated style also, whereas previously it really wasn’t. So now you have these two styles  circulating in the market. If you went to the cassette vendor asking for Surat Yusuf, the Koranic chapter telling the story of Yusuf, the vendor might respond, “Do you want mujawwad or murattal?”  Of course, the murattal version might fit on less than one cassette, while the mujawwad could require multiple cassettes, depending. Mujawwad is much, much longer.

So those two styles both flourished in the media space. Some people might prefer murattal because they want to learn to recite, and they’re not going to be able to imitate those great mujawwad reciters.  Interestingly, with all this recording, people began to imitate the melodies. With recording, for the first time, it’s possible to repeat a performance exactly and thereby memorize the reciter’s improvised melody, and you find people imitating, very, very closely, the famous reciters. So in a sense recordings have imposed a set of fixed precomposed melodies,  though nobody would use the word “composed,” since setting the Qur’an to a fixed melody is considered blasphemous, a kind of shirk (association with God’s word).

Now the other thing that’s happened is that women, early on, were eliminated from the public soundscape of Koranic recitation. Umm Kulthum did record some Koranic recitation. But in the 1930s, shortly after Egyptian national radio was founded, the government decided that women reciters could not be broadcast, because the woman’s voice is what they call awra.  Literally, this word refers to  the pudenda, and the  implication is that the woman’s voice is indecent.  Now this is quite ironic, because at the same time, the Egyptian radio is constantly playing popular songs sung by women. So, again, here, you see that it isn’t so much that practices are being banned entirely under religious pressure, but rather that a religious sphere is being demarcated, and separated off from a nonreligious sphere, within the broader media space.

In any case, up until the 1980s or so Egyptian  reciters and their recorded recitations, whether mujawwad or murattal, were globally dominant.  Muslims around the world imitated them, as far away as Indonesia.  Many of these reciters might not even know the Arabic language or anything about Arabic music.  For them the maqam system was foreign, but they imitated the Egyptian reciters, held up as representing the highest ideal. Now there were other styles elsewhere;  you can hear very different voices and melodies in Iran, or in Turkey, or in West Africa. But the Egyptian styles dominated.

B.E.: I imagine that there are a lot of local styles. And I understand that the Saudi style has been particularly influential in Egypt, especially recently.

M.F.: Everywhere in the world where there were Muslims there was recitation, and I speculate that there had always been localization of those free sonic parameters that are not fixed by either the Qur’anic text (mushaf), the qira`at, or the ahkam al-tajwid.  Together, these three factors restrict recitation, requiring specific parameters to be fixed.   But in West Africa, they’re using pentatonic (five tone) scales, without violating any of those restrictions. And in Turkey, they are using a vocal timbre reminiscent of Mevlevi recitations.  In Iran, you can hear the Iranian vocal ornaments, and so on. So my guess is that up until the media age, there was a tremendous amount of sonic localization in Koranic recitation. We can’t know the full extent of this localization in the distant past,  but when the media start to record it, we begin to hear it, before the Egyptian styles—whether mujawwad or murattal—achieve dominance as  the highest ideal, and are imitated everywhere.

Now the Saudis, no doubt, have always had their own local ways of reciting as well, though without old recordings from Saudi Arabia, we can’t say exactly what they sounded like in the past. But in the 70s, with a sudden influx of oil revenue into Saudi Arabia, suddenly the Saudi version of Islam started being disseminated everywhere, as a sort of competitor to the Egyptian version of things, and with this came Saudi-style recitation.

The impact on Egypt was amplified by the economic opening (infitah) under President Sadat. Many Egyptians went to Saudi for work. They would come back with Saudi recitations.  More generally, Egyptian tastes started to turn towards things Saudi, not just in recitation but in dress. People even started to like some of the Saudi singers too.  Mohammed Abdu became very popular, a Saudi singer.  The taste in Egypt started to shift a little bit. One of the things they started to import was a Saudi view of Islam, a more conservative form of religion. 

This phenomenon dovetailed with other significant trends in 1970s Egypt. Unlike President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sadat leaned towards a Western capitalist model. In order to counter Egypt’s communists, he granted more freedom to revivalist Islamic groups, many of which cultivated links with Saudi Arabia.  He took the cork out of that bottle in an attempt to allow Islamic currents to proliferate, silencing the leftists, portraying himself as a more devout “believer president” than his predecessor. In the end that totally backfired, as he was assassinated by the very forces he unleashed.  But connections to Saudi Arabia continued to grow.

During the early and mid-1990s, the revivalist current in Egypt was political, often militantly so, and sometimes violent.  But toward the end of the 90s that violence died down, not only due to government repression, but also due to its popular expansion.  As this Saudi-influenced Islamic revivalism spread, the political and revolutionary dimension become less salient. Rather, the really striking feature was a large group of mainstream Egyptians who had worked in the Gulf, or with relatives who had worked there, who began taking on Saudi attitudes and cultural values. The subtext was something like “Saudi Arabia is wealth, while we’re poor; if only we had practiced Islam correctly, we wouldn’t have lost the war in ‘67 and we would be on a sound footing today.” This Saudi Islam is conservative, not only socially but also politically. It’s not about rocking the boat too much. In fact, it reaches high up in the government and in the business sector. They have their shops, their businesses, their companies, and are not interested in  revolutionary activity, as were many of the militant groups in the 1990s.  They are conservative.  For all these reasons, they lean toward the Saudi style of recitation which has been coming in on cassette, as a means of expressing their religious posture, while also disseminating it.

The Saudi reciters strike many Egyptians as more proper than the Egyptian reciters who verged on tarab. The Saudis use fewer melodic modes, and in a more limited way.  For a lot of people, understandably, this style appears more properly religious, as it’s further from being a musical art. During the 1990s, this Saudi style rapidly began to catch on in Egypt.  It not only represents a new Islamic ethos, but has actually propelled the art of recitation in new directions, as some Egyptians come to practice it. It has come to represent, in an emotionally powerful yet non-discursive way, all of the values which are carried by this new capitalist, conservative, religious current. Which is very much the way Saudi Arabia works – it’s consumerist, it’s capitalist; it’s also very religious and conservative. The Saudi recitational style embodies all of that.

So, people take to it. Even the national recording company, SonoCairo (Sawt al-Qahira), started to produce and distribute popular Saudi reciters like Shaykh `Ali `Abd al-Rahman al-Hudhayfi,  Shaykh `Abd al-Rahman Sudays,  and  Shaykh Ahmed al-`Ajmi, who are not known primarily as professional reciters, but rather as preachers, imams who lead congregations at  some of Saudi Arabia’s major mosques. This gives them a lot of religious credibility. They’re not seen as professional performers as many of the Egyptian reciters were. Many Egyptians prefer their style, and have begun to move toward their recitational model when reciting themselves.

As a result, there are now three broad style signs in Egypt:  the old Egyptian mujawwad, the Egyptian murattal, and the Saudi style, which sounds a bit like murattal, but in a Saudi accent and with several other distinctive properties. This Saudi style has become very popular, and all three have come to take on a political significance which they might not have had in the past, when they were simply local styles that evolved in adaptation to a local context. Now that they’re juxtaposed, they take on a broader meaning, and when you select a cassette to play in  your store or home, you’re making a significant political choice, even if you’re not aware of its significance.

B.E: Could I tell the difference?

M.F.: Yes, it’s very clear.  It’s absolutely clear in vocal timbre, timing. Even the modes are different.  The Saudis seem to prefer mode Rast. The Egyptians prefer mode Bayyati.

Much more from Michael Frishkopf coming…