Understanding Meaning in the Sound of the Recited Qur’an

By Lauren Osborne

The following is a brief synopsis of my recent work on the recitation of the Qur’an. The topic of my dissertation is central to the Qur’an’s self-presentation as an oral text and to its role in the lives of believers, yet one that has for the most part been overlooked by scholarship. The vast majority of Muslims cultivate an experience of the Qur’an that is based less on the text as a written object than on the sound and practice of its recitation. Indeed, native and non-native speakers of Arabic devote considerable time and energy to learning to recite and to appreciate the Qur’an’s recitation. Learning to recite the Qur’an is the foundation of Islamic education worldwide, making the sound and experience of the sacred text the first point of contact for most believers. Popular reciters have also attained worldwide fame, as their recordings have circulated via nearly every form of audio media. Today, a simple search online will return innumerable sites devoted to discussion of recitation and to circulation of audio files. Yet despite the significant role played by the sound and practice of Qur’an recitation, scholarship does not have a vocabulary or way of understanding the oral form of the text in relation to its literary or discursive meanings.

 While a purely aesthetic experience of the sound of the Qur’an has devotional and experiential value in itself—as shown by the popularity of the practice of recitation and the spread of recordings among Muslims who do not understand Arabic—the Arabic words still bear their meanings even when they exist as sound. It is possible that the sound of recitation may reflect the meanings of the words in different ways; at other times, the sound of the words and their discursive meanings may simply be coexisting. The meaning and the aesthetics are always interrelated, but they may interact in a variety of ways.



In order to address the diversity in these modes of meaning that characterize the recitation of the Qur’an, I propose that the practice may be described according to the following four-part scheme. First, the Qur’an presents its own textual meaning and literary features: vocabulary, subject matter, modes of perspective and address, and literary form on the level of units of verses or Suras. Second, the sound of the text is often characterized by systematic rhyme and rhythm. Sometimes this is in conversation with or resembles the Arabic literary tradition of prose characterized by rhyme and rhythm (saj`). Furthermore, the sounds of the words themselves generate certain affective charges through repetition and assonance. Third, the sound of the text is shaped by pitch and melody, often characterized by the modal system of Arab music, the maqām. The melodic aspect of reciting is a skill studied specifically by individuals working to become professional reciters, and participants in competitions are judged in this aspect of their performance. Finally, the feelings of the listener may be characterized by affective experience: emotional states that may or may not be directly tied to the discursive understanding of the text, or these other aspects of its sound.

Using this descriptive framework, in my dissertation I seek to bring these modes of meaning into conversation with one another. With reference to specific recordings, performances, or data collected through fieldwork, I note when I hear any particular aspect of the sound either corresponding with the meaning of the text (or other aspects of the sound, or perceived meaning on the part of the listener) or when these things seem to be simply coexisting. Just as multiple modes of meaning exist on a range from text to sound to perception, I argue that a range of relationships between these modes is also possible. At times the discursive meaning of the text may align with the poetic or melodic meaning, and at times any of these modes may simply coexist but have no direct relationship.

Most recently, I have been working with recordings from Sheikh Mishari Rashid Alafasy, an imam of the Grand Mosque in Kuwait City and an extremely popular reciter of the Qur’an today. His personal website provides not only basic information about his life and career, but also a wealth of media material: photographs, videos, and sound material ranging from anāshīd (religious songs) to hadith to Qur’an.  At the moment I’m working with two recordings of Surat al-Furqan, and using these examples to raise questions on how the meanings in words and sound may or may not relate to one another. I do this through analysis of the literary shape and features of the Sura itself—how it conveys its meanings to us in language; discussion of its use of rhyme; and finally, Alafasy’s use of the maqām and other sound-related aspects, such as vocal register or vocal quality. The first of these recordings is available on Sheikh Alafasy’s personal website, listed as being recorded in California in 1430 A.H. (2008 Gregorian); the second was available on his previous site, but can still be found through archive.org. While the overall moods of the recordings are extremely different, they also show us a range of possibilities for shaping the sound of a single text, and even further, the different ways in which the sound and the words may or may not relate to one another.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.