It is not singing!

Despite the fact that singing is an important part of various Islamic ceremonies, some Muslims feel it is impolite to refer to the singing as being, in fact, singing. This is equally true when it comes to the recitation of the holy Qur'an. However, if you have ever heard the Qur'an recited, there is a good chance you heard it sung, and probably very beautifully. In Arabic, the person singing is referred to as a reader. I mean no disrespect to Muslims when I use the word sing or singer, it is just my focus is on the musical aspect of the recitation and the English words chanter, reciter, or even reader feel odd when a single person is singing. In Arabic, the recitation of the Qur'an is referred to as tajweed. I believe a fair translation is, "beautifying the text."

How it is sung

After Mohammed transcribed the message of the angel Gabriel, producing the Qur'an, he also explained rules for how it should be read aloud. These rules have been passed down orally. In addition to the rules Mohammed prescribed, there are also diacritics that exist within the Arabic language itself which influence how the Qur'an might be sung. The rules govern pronunciation, when to pause, intonation and which consonants are blended together. There are not, however, anything resembling notes or a specified meter within the Qur'an.

The singing of the Qur'an is a blend of the restrictions listed above and the Arabs' secular music. One of the hallmarks of this music is the maqam, sometimes referred to as the maqam phenomenon. The closest analogue to Western music would be musical improvisation. But where Western music generally improvises melodic lines within fixed meters, Arabian improvisation is based on tonal centers that are run through serially and explored with brief melodic passages. A fixed meter does not govern these passages. The simplest way to think of it, for me anyway, is like individual parts a fugue that are played through changing keys and meters. The important part to remember is the improvisation, the tonal centers, and that when a passage of the Qur'an is sung, it is based on secular maqams.

The same passage of the Qur'an can be sung differently according to the maqam used and the preferences of the singer. However, precise pronunciation and coherent syntactic presentation always take precedence over any sort of artistic expression. The singer is always cognizant that they are reciting the words of Allah and must both beautify them to the best of their ability and remain completely humble. That is not to say a good singer will not use certain artistic techniques to increase the power of a recitation. Indeed, with the aim being to fill the hearts of listeners with the beauty and the message of Allah, the building of tension through gradually increasing the speed or by ending on a sustained high note are all a part of the recitation. Crying during a recitation is not unheard of. I am not religious and do not understand Arabic, but I often find myself deeply moved and close to tears when listening to certain recitations.

Other than the linguistic restrictions on singing passages of the Qur'an, it is also different from Arabian music in that it is always sung individually and it is never accompanied by any instrumentation.

Why you should care?

Myself, I view the singing of the Qur'an as the most beautiful Middle Eastern music there is. It is rare to come across music that contains so much skill, passion, expressiveness and beauty. Many Westerners have some sort of psychic block when it comes to Islam, and religion in general for that matter, but any music lover who takes the time to explore the singing of the Qur'an will surely find something monumentally, if not divinely, beautiful.

Recommendations:

A long recitation. I would avoid the video and just listen.
A recitation from a contest. This one has nice subtitles if you are curious about the words. It also shows you the pauses between parts.

Sources: My primary source was The Music of the Arabs by Habib Hassan Touma.

These websites also came in handy…
http://www.abouttajweed.com/learning-tajweed/principles-of-tajweed.html
http://www.ummah.com/forum/showthread.php?p=2793786
http://www.lerc.educ.ubc.ca/LERC/courses/489/worldlang/abdulmanan/description.html

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