ISLAM THE ART OF RECITING THE QUR’AN By KRISTINA NELSON [American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, 246pp., 2001 reprint]

I WAS A NEW Muslim all those years ago, trying to make sense of it all, when I first caught sight of Cristina Nelson’s The Art of Reciting the Qur’an. I remember perusing a copy in the now unfortunately defunct Pak Books on lower Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, and then perusing my wallet to discover I couldn’t afford the modestly priced trade paperback. Something about the book caught my attention enough that whenever I found displays of Islamic books in English I kept hoping this one would show up. No such luck. It probably had a lot to do with the fact that – for Westerners coming to Islam – there seems to be so much that is foreign and mysterious and filled with rules and protocols we didn’t even know existed. I had heard Qur’anic recitation, naturally, and knew that something called tajwid regulated the ways in which it was recited, but that was about it.

Over a dozen years and innumerable tajwid lessons later, in mosques and majlises from New York to Jerusalem, Cairo to Damascus, I was more than pleasantly surprised when a parcel arrived at the magazine office containing Ms. Nelson’s book, among others.

The book is an intensive and incredibly detailed look at Qpr’anic recitation, particularly as it is known in Egypt. Until very recently, Egypt remained the unofficial capital for Qur’anic recitation, and despite the enormous gains in popularity of the Saudi style, the names on most peoples lips when it comes to tajwid recordings are Abdul Basit, Husari and Minshawi. It is a tradition worthy of such distinction. More than any other national style, it is the Egyptian style of recitation which set the standards, defined and redefined them, and established the criteria of what made good recitation good. Even today one finds a complexity and variety of phrasing and delivery on the shores of the Nile that is not matched anywhere. For someone deciding to document, understand and differentiate the styles, terminologies, and histories of this rich tradition, the task at hand must have been daunting.

Not only does the book provide a primer for those interested in the basic mechanics and rulings and the reasons for them, it also traces the development of how styles were developed, by whom and what the general reactions were, as recording gave way to radio and television and the ever present Qur’an became am even more ubiquitous part of the Islamic soundscape. A gifted doctor of Arabic Studies, Nelson has also helped redefine ethnomusicology and scriptural studies. Rather than paste together scholarly opinions from around the world, the author went so far as to actually study tajwid herself. Sitting in on innumerable recording sessions, talking with some of Egypt’s best known reciters and living for years in Cairo have all lent the book a depth and texture seldom connected with the word “dissertation”; which is precisely what this book began its life as.

Connecting more technical matters are discussions of public, scholarly and even governmental response to the entire gamut of Egyptian Qpx’an recital, from the “classicists” to the upstart mavericks, the innovations and controversies and the ideals, experiences and comments of the reciters themselves.

I cannot imagine the impact of such a book on the Arab world, where people are born into a world of which Qur’an recitation is an integral part. The effect of such a book on an English speaking world though has been enormous. For far too long, Qur’anic study had been modeled on the Biblical Studies paradigm which is foremost an imposition and in the end a grave disservice. The word Qur’an literally means “recitation.” To subject the Qur’an to an analysis reminiscent of a primarily printed medium such as the Bible is to miss the point entirely. One might argue that since Ms. Nelson is not a Muslim herself (at least to my knowledge) that she has missed the point as well. Speaking from the vantage point of someone coming to Islam from the “outside” I feel the need to assert that the author has done more to make the Qur’an accessible to a growing number of converts than all the proselytizing and the dry repetition of rules and “repeat after me” classes have ever done. If you find yourself bewildered by tajwid or the “aesthetics” of recitation, or feel unable to adequately grasp exactly what transpires at a live “performance” of the Qur’an, you owe it to yourself to pick up this book. Its author is steeped deeply enough in her field of study to know that the Qur’an is not music, and it is not poetry or populist entertainment and in the final analysis displays perhaps a deeper respect and understanding of the world of tajwid than those of us told we have to respect it because it’s the Word of God, but never shown how.

If this book were more widely available and read by more people, it might even give pause to hatemongers and bigots who think they are making “a statement” by desecrating Qur’ans in the wake of 9/ 1 1 , Guantanamo and the ongoing Iraq crisis. It might teach people that, yes, they definitely are making a statement. They are stating how deeply alienated they are from simple, common decency and how bereft they are of understanding.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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