Qur'anic recitation (tilawa)

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Qur'anic recitation (tilawa, qira'a, tajwid, tartil) is regulated by three sources:

  • the mushaf: the Qur'anic text (without diacritical marks, developed under the 3rd caliph, Uthman)
  • the qira'at: which add diacritical markings to that text
  • ahkam al-tilawa: rules for recitation, including phonetics, how to begin and end, where one can (or must not) stop, relative syllable lengths

Applying these sources still allows plenty of room for variation, and thus multiple styles can and do form. In particular none of the three sources specifies anything about melodies to be used for chanting. In practice oral traditions have enshrined Egyptian styles using the maqamat, and these have spread (particularly through mass media) throughout the world as the normative style, applied for instance in Qur'an competitions). However a newer Saudi style has also risen to global importance over the past few decades.

There are two primary styles of recitation:

  • Mujawwad (tajwid): more florid, melodic, extended, fully exploiting the system of maqamat, including free improvisation, modulation, and cadential endings (qafalat); used in particular contexts (e.g. funerals, or before Friday prayer) and cultures (e.g. Egypt)
  • Murattal (tartil): more rapid, less melodic variation; used in different contexts (e.g. during prayer) and cultures (e.g. Saudi Arabia). Also uses maqamat, but in a more limited fashion; sometimes limited to a particular tetrachord.

There are also stylistic variations between regions; though the Egyptian style has been dominant for several centuries, the Saudi style (and murattal generally) is increasingly heard, due to strength of Saudi media worldwide. Everywhere reciters deploy the Arab maqamat for recitation, even in non-Arab Muslim countries where Arab music is not heard (e.g. in Indonesia, Iran, or Pakistan).

The musical style of tilawa may index musical ability, geo-cultural region, and theological doctrine.

Qur'anic recitation is performed in numerous contexts, including:

  • during salah, canonical prayer, performed daily (every Muslim must recite individually, and the prayer leader recites publicly at certain times of the day)
  • before or after prayer, especially on Fridays, or between maghrib (sunset) and ishaa (night) prayers, by a specialist
  • at funerals
  • at competitions
  • on radio and television (often to open and close programming, but also on dedicated religious stations and channels)


Listen to a variety of Egyptian and Saudi recitations of the same passage from Surat Yusuf

The Qur'anic text:

12:4 Ith qala yoosufu liabeehi ya abati innee raaytu ahada AAashara kawkaban waalshshamsa waalqamara raaytuhum lee sajideena

Behold! Joseph said to his father: "O my father! I did see eleven stars and the sun and the moon: I saw them prostrate themselves to me!"

Shaykhs Muhammad Siddiq al-Minshawy and Shaykh Mustafa Ismail are Egyptians. Shaykh Muhammad Gabril is also an Egyptian, but who adopts the Saudi style to a great extent. Shaykhs Abu Bakr al-Shatiri, Ahmad al-Agami, Ali Abd al-Rahman al-Hudhayfi, Muhammad Ahmad Badr, Sa`d al-Ghamidi, and Su'ud al-Sharim are all Saudis.

Now listen to longer segments, focussing on differences between Egyptian, Saudi, Turkish, Iranian, African and Javanese styles:

Shaykh Muhammad Rif`at
  • Qur’anic recitation (mujawwad). Performed by Shaykh Muhammad Rif‘at (May 9, 1882 - May 9, 1950), the earliest great reciter to be recorded in Egypt, during the early part of this century. This is again the mujawwad style; note the pauses, repeats, slow delivery, melisma, melodic inventiveness. This style allows the performer to maximize emotional power, a technique not dissimilar to the tarab process deployed by the secular singer. The text comes from the beginning of Surat Yusuf (chapter narrating the story of the Prophet Joseph); follow along.
Shaykh `Abd al-Basit `Abd al-Samad
  • Probably the most famous "musical" reciter was Shaykh Mustafa Isma`il of Egypt; watch this video and note the cycle of listener response, similar to that of tarab in secular music.
  • Qur’anic recitation (murattal). Performed by Shaykh Ahmad bin Ali ‘Ajami, from Saudi Arabia. Note the contrast with the previous two examples: here, recitation is rapid, narrower in melodic scope, little melisma, always moving forward without pauses. This style, called murattal, was traditionally used for study and private devotions. Recently it has become more popular for listening, probably due to Egyptian worker migration to Saudi Arabia, as well as increasing religious conservatism; the conservatives critics often condemn the older mujawwad style as “singing” the Qur’an. From a commercial recording. Video: Surat Qiyama, with imagery of Mecca. Video showing the Shaykh himself