Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Deena Zaki: The Musical Side of the Qur’an

What is music? The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.” (1) The Qur’an is able to encompass qualities like the expression of emotion, one example being the moving qualities of the adhan, or call to prayer. Not only can it captivate thousands of Muslims five times a day, but it is also a form of recitation, and is “one of the most venerated activities within Islamic culture and civilization.”(2) It is done so frequently, and therefore, has become a tradition that is powerful in its ability to bring together a city or village and commence in prayer. However, this does not imply that the Qur’an itself is music, but rather “the literary and rhythmic qualities of the texts are extensions of the inherent quality of the text itself rather than superimposed musical ornamentations.” (3)
Oral recitation is emphasized greatly in Qur’anic text. The first words given to Muhammad (PBUH) are “Iqra”, which can mean “recite” or “speak out”, but the root can also mean “read”. As Frederick Mathewson Denny puts it, “Muhammad’s probable inability to read did not deter him from becoming the bearer of the new revelation, which did not require literacy, but was mastered by strenuous memorization and practice in oral performance.”(4) This is a very profound statement because it shows that Muhammad, first of all, did not write the Qur’an; rather, Muslims believe it is the direct word of God. It also shows the power of oral recitation. Written scripture, at first, was not necessarily needed to convey the word of God. Muslims believe the Qur’an became compiled with Abu Bakr (although they also believe that the arrangement of the Qur’an was told by Muhammad and that the Qur’an in its whole was preserved on parchment paper, bones and other items).
There are qualities to oral recitation such as tajwid, the art of recitation and isnad, the solid chain of transmission. This is supposed to represent the spiritual background that brings the “transcendent God” (5) very close. This intimacy is directly stated in the Qur’an and that God is closer to a human “than his jugular vein.” (6) (5:16) All of this is done through an oral transmission, and the words of God are kept alive in this sense. The tajwid is a discipline of its own that contains elements such as tartil, which is a style in which the Qur’an is recited non-melodically, slowly, and rhythmically. This may not coincide with the aspect of music’s role in the Qur’an, but rhythm and speed still play a part in music, so technically, according to the Oxford Dictionary definition of music, it still could qualify as a musical aspect, since it contains a form. Qualities such as pitch and tempo also play a part as well.
In order to understand those aspects, reciters may be formally trained in music. How do reciters pronounce it musically? Some imitate their teachers or popular reciters they hear on the radio, while others say that they get these naghamat or melodies, directly from God. Melody does not play the largest role in the recitation. The more frequent patterns in the Qur’an consist of rhymes, refrains, and rhythms. There are a few types of recitation, the first being tahqiq, which is a slow and enunciated form where exact clarity of the text is crucial. This recitation is the basis for the best melodic chanting. The second type of recitation or, al-hadr is a rapid form of recitation that doesn’t use a melody in its form. The key to this type of chant is rapid memorization and error free recitation. According to Denny, “Tartil, is a plain rhythmic recitation open to most who can attempt it.” Later on, he calls it “a plain, un-adorned, non-“musical” recitation.”(7) I would have to argue and say that there is a more holistic definition to music. The Oxford Dictionary doesn’t mention it, but rhythm is a very musical element, and therefore, technically tartil has musical elements. I understand that in this case, Denny refers to music as melody and mode, nevertheless, it is still a powerful recitation because of the rhythms involved. Professional reciters and scholars make it clear that. We then come to mujawwad, a recitation that is considered to be very desirable and a“quasi-musical chanting, or cantillation of the Qur’ān which sometimes reaches extremes of florid, emotionally exciting musicality, displaying the virtuosity of performers as much as the inherent beauties of the Qur’ān.” (8) This quasi-musical chanting creates a type of melisma in the Qur’anic recitation, which is the ability for a vocalist to recite or sings a single syllable while moving between several notes. This is a very common technique used in a lot of Arabic music and creates a sort of melancholic mood to the text or song, in fact this is a common technique used in music throughout the Middle East that creates a sadness in the music. In the Qur’an, this sadness, is more of a longing, I think, and a striving to get closer to God through oral transmission. It is important to note that while the recitation of the Qur’an has many different interpretations for different contexts and settings, the recitation, when recited melodically, is not meant to deter from the word of God or enhance it, but rather to be recited beautifully to honor its message. Therefore, the music aspect of recitation is not central to the oral transmission, but an important component of its understanding.

I affirm that I have adhered to the honor code on this assignment- Deena Zaki


[1]Oxford Dictionary

[2]Sells, Michael. Approaching the Qurʼan. Ashland, Or.: White Cloud Press, 1999. 90.

[3] Ibid

[4]Denny, Frederick Mathewson. Qur’ān Recitation: A Tradition of Oral Performance and Transmission.

[5] Surah 5:16

[6]Denny, Frederick Mathewson. Qur’ān Recitation: A Tradition of Oral Performance and Transmission.


[8] Ibid


Denny, Frederick Mathewson. Qur’ān Recitation: A Tradition of Oral Performance and Transmission. Denny%20on%20a%20Tradition%20of%20Oral%20Performance.pdf

Mattson, Ingrid. The Story of the Qur’an: Its History and Place in Muslim Life. Oxford:Blackwell Publishing Ltd,   2013.

Sells, Michael. Approaching the Qurʼan. Ashland, Or.: White Cloud Press, 1999. 90.

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