Pathways of Faith

'Qur'ānic Recitation' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

About This Resource

This article explains Qur'anic recitation as background to Ingrid Mattson's The Story of the Qur'an, Jonathan Brown's biography of Muhammad, and the film Koran by Heart. The article by Frederick M. Denny is reprinted from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World in Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


The name for the Islamic revealed scripture, al‐Qur'ān, means “the recitation,” in both informative and performative senses. With respect to the first, the Qur'ān is a “message” (risālah) that has been communicated to humankind through Muḥammad, the “Messenger” (rasūl). But the recitation is also oral performance of the text in worship, meditation, and sublime aesthetic enjoyment. Muslims learn, preserve, transmit, and celebrate the Qur'ān through combining its informative and performative modes in a potent piety that also finds expression in calligraphy of the Arabic text. Thus the Qur'ān guides and empowers Muslims through intellectual, oral‐aural, and visual modalities.

The Qur'ān has been handed down as both written and recited text; the combined effect has bound Muslims together into a vast community with a common creed, liturgy, and moral/legal system. Until the present, in many places the Qur'ān has served as the basic textbook for literacy, religion, and morals. Young children have learned the Arabic text through both rote memorization of chanted passages and copying out the letters on tablets of clay or slate or on paper.

Muslims speak many different languages, but even though Arabic speakers are a minority of Muslims worldwide, the Arabic Qur'ān is treasured and recited in study and worship by many millions for whom Arabic is an acquired and often not fully understood tongue. Yet the beauty of the recited Arabic Qur'ān (and it may be recited only in Arabic), coupled with a reliable translation, helps Muslims feel a close kinship with their fellows worldwide while applying the message to their own lives and conditions.

Readings and Recitation.

The Qur'ān has since earliest times existed in a variety of readings of the Arabic text. These variants are not different messages but rather reflect slight dialectal differences that were followed in different regions. All were based on the ancient recension completed under the caliph ῾Uthmān, which has been the received text until now and is believed to be free from error and admixture in its essentials. (The names, numbering, and arrangement of the surahs are considered additions to the divinely transmitted text.) There are seven principal readings of the Qur'ān, although additional ones are also known. The science of variant readings, known as ῾ilm al‐qirā'āt, is difficult and exacting; Egypt and Saudi Arabia are its principal centers.

Although the Qur'ān's major divisions are by chapter‐like surahs, 114 in all, arranged roughly according to their diminishing length, liturgical divisions also exist. The most common arrangement is into thirty equal parts, which matches the number of days in the holy month of Ramaḋān, when Muslims like to complete a recitation of the whole Qur'ān. Another arrangement is into seven parts, for completing the whole within a week. When a complete recitation (khatmah) of the Qur'ān is achieved, the reciter normally then recites the first surah (“the Opening”) and the first five verses of the second surah (“the Cow”), which assures believers that they are among the rightly guided who will be successful.

If the Arabic text of the Qur'ān can be rendered authentically in oral form, so also must any oral performance be amenable to accurate transcription. It is important to note, however, that authentic live recitation is more complete, because the bare written text does not contain the rhythm, sounds, modes, and fine points of pronunciation that the performed text exhibits. Although the Qur'ān is believed by Muslims to derive from a “preserved tablet” in heaven, it was revealed strictly orally to Muḥammad, who (it is believed) could neither read nor write. Thus the priority of the recited Qur'ān is evident.

The technical skills of recitation as performance have been handed down from teacher to student in chains of transmission that start with Muḥammad, who received the message from God through the archangel Gabriel. A reciter (qāri'; sometimes muqri' for a readings specialist) who has mastered the seven readings earns a certificate displaying his lineage. Written manuals, or indeed the written Arabic Qur'ān itself, cannot be understood from the performance perspective without a living teacher who has been properly trained in the ancient tradition of correct recitation.

The art of reciting the Qur'ān is known in Arabic as ῾ilm al‐tajwīd, “the science of embellishment” by means of correct intonation, pronunciation, and rhythm. The term tajwīd most often means the entire science of Qur'ānic recitation as performance, although it sometimes is taken to mean, more narrowly, the highly embellished, dramatically moving, quasimusical chanting performed by the most advanced reciters. The latter is more often called the mujawwad style. The rules of tajwīd can be traced back to the prophet Muḥammad in their rudiments, although it was some time before tajwīd manuals began to appear.

The word tajwīd does not occur in the Qur'ān; however, another Arabic term, tartīl, does occur in surah 73.4, where it means recitation in “slow, measured rhythmic tones” (according to the translator ῾Abdullāh Yūsuf ῾Alī). Learners start with the simpler tartīl style, which itself admits of wide variation and levels of artistry. Tartīl, known also as murattal, is the style used by the vast majority of Muslims. It must be performed according to the rules of tajwīd but without the high vocal artistry often displayed in the mujawwad style. In no sense is the tartīl/murattal style considered inferior to the more musical type of chanting. Yet another term for Qur'ānic recitation is tilāwah, which combines the notions of reading, reciting aloud, and following the commands of the Qur'ān.

The tajwīd manuals speak of different acceptable tempos of recitation: slow and deliberate, moderate, and rapid. Whichever tempo is used—moderate is most common—the rules of tajwīd must be observed. This can be difficult if not impossible with the rapid tempo, which is nevertheless useful to professional reciters whose memories need frequent practice in a sort of “fast forward” mode.

Prophetic Sayings and Basic Rules.

A famous ḥadīth has it that “He is not one of us who does not chant the Qur'ān” (Bukhārī). The urge to excellence in recitation is found in another ḥadīth: “Adorn the Qur'ān with your voices” (Ahmad et al.; tr. Karim). The reciter should not seek admiration for vocal skills. The Prophet, when asked “who had the most beautiful voice for the Qur'ān and whose recitation was most beautiful, … replied, ‘The one of whom you think when you hear him recite that he fears God' ” (Darimi; tr. Robson). Loud chanting was characterized by Muḥammad as being “like him who gives charity openly, whereas he who recites the Qur'ān quietly is like him who gives charity discreetly” (Tirmidhi). On the other hand, God listens most attentively when a prophet recites in a beautiful, sonorous voice (Bukhārī and Muslim). As for musical sources and styles for Qur'ānic chanting, a celebrated ḥadīth reads: “Recite the Qur'ān with the melodies and tones of the Arabs, but steer clear of the tunes of the love poets and the airs of the People of the two Books [Jews and Christians]” (Baihaqi).

This command is carefully obeyed with the result that the sound of Qur'ānic recitation is like no other in the world. Part of the powerful appeal of the twentieth‐century Egyptian popular singer Umm Kulthūm was the vestigial tajwīd from her childhood training in Qur'ānic recitation. Only a person as admired and respected as she could have escaped censure for this sort of crossover in singing style. In any event, while borrowing from tajwīd to serve art song may be tolerated, the converse is reprehensible.

There are a number of points of etiquette for recitation, of which a selection follows. The Qur'ān may be recited from the written text or touched only by persons in a ritually pure state, although it is permitted to recite from memory without first performing ablutions. Recitation is meritorious at all times, but certain times are particularly recommended: during the daily prayers (ṣalāt), at night, before dawn, after sunrise, on the day of the standing ceremony at Mt. ῾Arafah near Mecca, on Fridays, Mondays, and Thursdays, during the fasting month of Ramaḋān (especially the last ten days, during one of which the Qur'ān first descended), and during the first ten days of the pilgrimage month.

The reciter should sit in a dignified and humble posture, facing the qiblah (direction of Mecca). Recitation from the written text is preferable to reciting from memory. One should not hurry the recitation. One should not complete a recitation of the entire Qur'ān in less than three days. Recitation always should begin by first uttering the formula “I take refuge with God from the accursed Satan,” followed by “In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.” Recitation should be ended with the phrase “God Almighty has spoken truthfully.” At certain points in the text, prostration (as in the ṣalāt) is required. It is preferable to proceed in the order of the text, without mixing passages together haphazardly. The reciter should not eat, although it is thought permissible by some to sip a drink during pauses, as when reciters in a group session (maqra'ah) take turns. If the reciter is greeted by someone during his performance, the greeting should not be returned, because recitation is like being at prayer (dhikr) and is higher in merit than greeting with the salām. When frightening portions about judgment and suffering are recited, a tearful voice should be used. When concentration wanes, then the recitation should be terminated. After recitation is a propitious time for sincere supplication.

The etiquette of the listener includes such prescriptions as worshipful silence, refraining from greeting or returning greetings, not eating, attentive reflection on the message being recited, and avoiding conversation or levity. In actuality, listeners, whether as individuals or groups, vary in their deportment. In Egypt there are often excited emotions, with listeners rocking rhythmically back and forth on their haunches, providing sighs, pious ejaculations, and other signs of pleasure or awe. In Indonesia, by contrast, listeners remain silent and restrained.

The Qur'ān and Islamic Education.

The traditional Qur'ānic school, known in Arabic as kuttāb, still exists in villages and rural areas of the Muslim world, but it has been widely supplanted by modern schools with secular or mixed religious and secular curricula. However, Qur'ānic education is widespread in alternative programs, such as after‐school sessions in mosques and other places. In Indonesia many boys and girls still attend traditional pondok pesantrens, residential Qur'ānic schools, mostly in rural areas. For Muslim children and youth attending secular government schools, evening, weekend, and vacation Qur'ānic schools are available. One of these ventures is called “Express Pesantren” and is held on college and university campuses during vacations. Muslims in North America have organized weekend and vacation Qur'ānic schools, too, and the movement is growing. 

In Cairo, adults have varied opportunities to improve their knowledge of the Qur'ān and to attain a modicum of recitation skill. A typical program met weekly for two hours in a mosque room of a corporation. Participants included engineers, university students, a laborer, a housewife, businesspersons, a physician, and others of both sexes. The teacher was a venerable muqri' who at the time was supervisor of professional reciters in Egypt's mosques.

Reciters (except for some stars) do not make much money at a single job, so they frequently supplement their incomes by serving the instructional needs of individuals and groups, both in private residential and public settings. Reciters are also in demand for celebratory functions such as weddings, funerals, business grand openings, government functions, conferences, and other events. Opinions vary on the matter of remuneration in connection with teaching and reciting the Qur'ān, but most appear to agree that it is not the Qur'ān that is being exchanged for money, but human services. Some famous reciters earn a great deal of money through private performances and commercial recordings. One prominent Egyptian reciter was known to assure questioners that it was not the holy Qur'ān he was selling for such a high fee, but his voice.

There are many voluntary charitable associations throughout the Muslim world dedicated to the propagation of Qur'ānic knowledge. For example, a physician in the North Sumatran city of Medan has endowed a Qur'ānic school for children and oversees its operations while making creative pedagogical contributions of his own. Although he is not a professional reciter, his knowledge and skills in the practice are recognized as being of the highest standard owing to his years of dedicated study.

Despite the attention paid above to professional recitation, it would be a mistake to conclude that the practice at its best is limited to that. Muslims of all walks of life take seriously the Prophet's exhortation that: “The best among you is the one who has learned the Qur'ān and taught it” (Bukhārī). Nowadays it is possible to learn as well as enjoy the recited Qur'ān by means of home study recordings and radio programs (there is a full‐time Qur'ān station in Cairo, featuring a roster of regular reciters). 

Finally, there are Qur'ān reciting competitions in many countries. Among the most famous is the national Musabaqa Tilawatil Qur'ān (“Contest in the Recitation of the Qur'ān”) held every two years in Indonesia. This ambitious effort is linked with Islamic education and youth citizenship training as a “national discipline.” Reciters in various categories—girls, boys, men, women, handicapped, memorizers—compete at local, regional and provincial levels before the national finalists meet at a designated city for some ten days of scored competition in recitation, interspersed with popular Qur'ān quiz shows for youth, Islamic fashion shows, and educational exhibits centering on Islamic missions (da῾wah). The daily events are reported on the national media and the gala opening and closing ceremonies may feature processions, music and dance performances, and social events attended by the president, cabinet, and dignitaries from Indonesia and abroad. At the center is Qur'ānic recitation, which is listened to respectfully, but with occasional outbursts of applause or other expressions of pleasure (and pride, in the case of regional supporters of a favorite contestant). The winners receive trophies and other rewards and are enthusiastically welcomed on their return home with motorcades and audiences with the provincial governor and other high officials. There are also major local and regional competitions, such as one sponsored by the main television station in Surabaya, Indonesia, which features interludes of lively but wholesome Islamic rock music performed by attractive young female and male students from the local Islamic teachers' college. This odd combination, probably unique to this California of the ummah, is an attempt to reach out to youth and help them toward the “straight path” in a confusing world of secular temptations.


  • Abdul‐Fattah, Ashraf, with Aladdin Hassanin and Salah Saleh. Tajwīd‐ul‐Qur'ān: A New Approach to Mastering the Art of Reciting the Holy Qur'ān. London, 1989. Clear and comprehensive introduction; transliterated phonetic aids are used only in the early chapters, so a basic knowledge of the Arabic script is essential. Includes two sound cassettes.
  • Denny, Frederick Mathewson. Exegesis and Recitation: Their Development as Classical Forms of Qur'anic Piety. In Transitions and Transformations in the History of Religions: Essays in Honor of Joseph M. Kitagawa, edited by Frank E. Reynolds and Theodore M. Ludwig, pp. 91–123. Leiden, 1980.
  • Denny, Frederick Mathewson. The adab [etiquette] of Qur'an Recitation: Text and Context. In International Congress for the Study of the Qur'an, series 1, edited by A. H. Johns and S. Husain M. Jafri, pp. 143–160. Canberra, 1981. Treats recitation sessions in Cairo.
  • Denny, Frederick Mathewson. The Great Indonesian Qur'an Chanting Tournament. The World and I 1.6 (June 1986): 216–223. Illustrated.
  • Denny, Frederick Mathewson. Qur'an Recitation: A Tradition of Oral Performance and Transmission. Oral Tradition 4.1–2 (January—May 1989): 83–95.
  • Khaṭīb al‐Tibrīzī, Muḥammad al‐. Mishkāt al‐Maṣābīḥ. 4 vols. Translated by James Robson. Lahore, 1964–1966. Varied ḥadīths on the Qur'ān and its recitation, a compilation of the medieval Muslim scholars al‐Baghawī and al‐Khaṭīb al‐Tibrīzī (see vol. 2, pp. 446–470). The same text is available in a different arrangement, published under the title Al‐Hadis: An English Translation and Commentary of Mishkat‐ul‐Masabih, 4 vols., translated by Fazlul Karim (Lahore, 1939; see vol. 2, pp. 663–702). This version contains a detailed introduction about the Qur'ān and facing Arabic text of the ḥadīths.
  • Nelson, Kristina. The Art of Reciting the Qur'ān. Austin, 1985. Epoch‐making study focusing on contemporary Egypt and ethnomusicological aspects, and based on extensive field research.
  • Quasem, Muhammad A. The Recitation and Interpretation of the Qur'an: Al‐Ghazālī's Theory. Bangi, Selangor, Malaysia, 1979. English translation, with notes and commentary, of the medieval theologian Abū Ḥāmid al‐Ghazālī's (d. 1111) treatise on the recitation and interpretation of the Qur'ān, as contained in his famous “Revival of the Sciences of Religion” (Iḥyā' ῾ulūm al‐dīn), Book 8.
  • Sa῾īd, Labīb al‐. The Recited Koran: A History of the First Recorded Version. Translated and adapted by Bernard G. Weiss et al. Princeton, 1975. Contains much information on readings as well as recitation, and offers an unusual glimpse into the world of Qur'ānic preservation and propagation in Cairo.
  • Surty, Muhammad Ibrahim H. I. A Course in the Science of Reciting the Qur'ān. Leicester, 1408/1988. Clearly organized and comprehensive textbook, with useful background on recitation as a religious practice. Includes Arabic script with Roman transliteration and two sound cassettes with practice texts.


Mathewson Denny, Frederick. "Qur'ānic Recitation." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

How to Cite This Page

"Muslim Journeys | Item #202: 'Qur'ānic Recitation' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", July 20, 2024


, ,