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Music and the Qur’anic Recitation

An Excerpt from Khalid Baig’s Slippery Stone

[Hereunder is a section from Khalid Baig’s exceptionally comprehensive work on the topic of music, Slippery Stone. In this particular section, the author has concisely highlighted the disturbing blurring of lines between correct recitation of the Qur’ān and talhīn, the act of making the Qur’ānic recitation conform to musical rules. This is a predicament that is evident at its pinnacle in the Egyptian Qur’ānic recitation scene. Owing to the lucid manner in which Khalid Baig has addressed this issue, this section is being reproduced here with his permission. May Allah Most High reward him immensely and grace this humble effort with acceptance and benefit. Āmīn.]


Music and the Qur’ānic Recitation

The recitation of the inimitable words of the Qur’ān has always been an unmatched moving experience for countless people who have turned their attention to it. It makes people’s hearts tremble with the awe and fear of Allah. It causes them to cry. It forces them to fall in prostration. A good voice and command over the rules of tajwīd enhance these effects. At the same time there has always been a possibility that some people will get carried away and cross the barrier between Qur’ānic recitation and talhīn, or singing. Thus scholars have always been cautioning us against it. They have been pointing out that while the Qur’ān does command its readers to recite it with tartīl, that should not be translated into talhīn. Tartīl means reading it slowly, pronouncing every word clearly, following the rules of tajwīd, and reflecting on it. It leads to the fear of Allah. Talhīn on the other hand, aims at enjoyment and entertainment. The two are not only different but are mutually exclusive.

As Qārī ‘Abd al-Bāsit ‘Abd al-Samad (d. 1408/1988) points out one can follow either the rules of tajwīd or those of talhīn:

When a person attempts to follow the rules of music for any musical note in the recitation of a Qur’ānic verse, it is a given that he will violate the rules of tajwīd. And if he decides to follow the rules of tajwīd, it is a given that he will violate the rules of music. [1]

Shaykh Muhammad Khātir ((1. 1416/1995), the late Mufti of Egypt, explains why talhīn is so problematic. It works at cross purposes to the Qur’an:

Talhīn distorts the words of the Qur’ān, negates their purpose, and turns people away from reflecting on its verses, to focusing on the intonation that accompanies it.”[2]

The musical tones become a replacement for the Words they are supposed to embellish. Talhīn is thus a virtual addition to the text as Shaykh Mahmūd Khalīl al-Husarī points out:

Tajwīd spurts from the Qur’ān and talhīn is an addition to it. If we were to permit it, then adding words to the Qur’an will also be permissible.”[3]

The whole discussion has been summarized beautifully and eloquently by Shaykh ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Sha‘rāni in a Sufi pledge:

To those of our friends who would listen to us we should stop them from reciting the Qur’ān in modes that are against the rules delineated by the pious predecessors. This also applies to giving the adhān and saying the takbīr[4] behind the imām.[5]

He explains that it violates the rules of tajwīd and is harām. He then points out why talhīn destroys an act of worship.

When the imām focuses on modes and singing, then he loses consciousness of being in the presence of Allah; the thing that is most important in salah is lost . . . When the Prophet (sallallāhu alayhi wasallam) said, “Beautify the Qur’ān with your voice, it meant pronouncing every letter properly and beautifully, as is the practice of the masters of recitation. It did not mean singing in the manner of love songs.[6]

The Qur’ānic recitation is a serious act of worship and devotion; it is not for entertainment. Like all other acts of worship it must follow the way prescribed by the Sharī‘ah. A qārī must recite the Qur’ān the way its recitation has been received by disciples from their teachers all through the centuries, which was free of talhīn.[7] This is necessary not only for preserving the purity of worship, but it also has had other great blessings associated with it. Just as the Qur’ān is the great unifying Book for the Ummah, its recitation has also been a tremendously unifying act. No matter where a qārī comes from and whether or not he can speak a word of Arabic in normal conversation, his recitation will faithfully copy the approved recitation as preserved in both books of tajwīd and an unshakable oral tradition.

However today the pressures built by the prevalence of music are changing that. In Egypt, for example, there has been a visible and disturbing move toward unifying Qur’ānic recitation with music. Nelson mentions a musician Zakariyyā Ahmad who planned to compose music for the Qur’ān with the aim of evoking the meanings. He built his case by giving an example. Once he heard a reciter, “who evoked such a temptingly beautiful image of Hell-fire” that he burst out: “If Hell is so lovely and pleasant, take me to it.”[8] This response speaks volumes about the mindset of the musician. For at that time the qārī was reciting the following verses describing the torments of Hell that ought to make one tremble with fear:

And what can let you know What Saqar is? It neither spares (anything inside it from burning) nor leaves (any disbeliever outside). It will disfigure the skins. Appointed over it are nineteen wardens.[9]

A person who finds this attractive is of course not listening to the words, only to the sounds, through his thoroughly distorted hearing. This is what Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qādir ‘Atā’ lamented about the new Qur’ānic recitation scene in Egypt. He said:

What are we witnessing in Egypt today in the gatherings of people around a qārī who engages in talhīn? What we hear from the shouts and noises asking for a repetition affirms that these masses are not asking for a repeat of and are not delighted with anything but music and singing. As for the Qur’ān, they are totally isolated from it. They scream with delight equally when they hear the verses of admonishment or the verses of reward. They make no difference between the verses talking about Hell and those talking about Heaven. In this act there is such disrespect for the Qur’ān that calls for prohibition of such listening and attendance of such gatherings.[10]

This is the result of merging music with the Qur’ānic recitation.

(Excerpt from Khalid Baig’s Slippery Stone, pp. 267-71)


[1] Qārī ‘Abd al-Bāsit ‘Abd al-Samad, quoted in al-‘Āmilī, Al-Ghinā’ fī ‘l-Islām, 188

[2] Shaykh Muhammad Khātir, Mufti of Egypt, quoted in al-‘Āmilī, Al-Ghinā’ fī ‘l-Islām, 182-83

[3] Shaykh Mahmūd Khalīl al-Husarī, quoted in al-‘Āmilī, Al-Ghinā’ fī ‘l-Islām, 183

[4] This refers to the arrangement in large congregations before the advent of loud speakers. The designated repeaters throughout the congregation would repeat the takbīr of the imām to signal transition to the next salah position. The same system is used today if the speakers fail during the salah and as a precaution in the salah at the Haram.

[5] ‘Uthmāni, trans, Ham Say ‘Ahd Liyā Gayā, pledge 142, pp. 322-23.

[6] Ibid

[7] Abū ’l-‘Abbās al-Qurtubī, Kashf al-Qinā’, 113. He writes that there is nothing in the continuously reported modes of Qur’ānic recitation that resembles talhīn.

[8] Zakariyya Ahmad, quoted in Nelson, The Art of Reciting the Qur’ān, 65.

[9] Al-Qur’ān, al~Muddath-thir, 74:28-30.

[10] Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qādir ‘Ata’ in the introduction to al-Haytamī, Kaff al-Ru‘ā‘, 19.



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One comment

  1. BarakAllah fika. This was needed to be said for very a long time. May Allah reward you and bless your pen with more wise words.

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