Have Qur'an, Will Travel

A young Meccan reciter makes his way in America

BY: Michael Wolfe

 

At a large and vivid party in a Muslim home in the Chicago suburbs a couple of months ago, several dozen couples sat talking after dinner at a long table.

Glancing around the room at 30 or more Muslims, I saw professors, doctors, business executives, teachers, housewives, therapists, factory owners, and computer engineers. Some had been born in Egypt, others in Lebanon, Palestine, Pakistan and India. Most emigrated in the 1950s. They were 40-year Americans, part of a global, centuries-old diaspora. The men wore business suits, the women dresses; their children sported baseball caps and Nikes, and everyone spoke English.

The longer I gazed, the more clearly it struck me that the guest list at my table was simply another expression of American Islam crossing into the new millennium.

Then the table talk fell off and I glanced up. Down a long hall, into the large room came a young, sandaled Arab wearing a prayer cap and white flowing robes. Our host introduced him as a Meccan, a young man from the heartland of Islam, whose livelihood lay in reciting the Qur'an. At his side stood a robed, bearded elder from a local mosque--its imam, in fact, a religious scholar, a man of respect, and a longtime Chicago resident by way of Cairo. The two men settled into the only vacant spots at the table--two chairs across from mine.

We exchanged a few pleasantries--my Arabic is all but nonexistent, and the men in robes had between them about 30 words of English. We smiled a lot as the Arabic speakers among us tried to make our new arrivals comfortable.

A few minutes later, as the last of Islam's five daily prayers was called, melodious Arabic floated down the hall. Gradually, in the next five minutes the whole party came to its feet and moved upstairs, reconvening in an upper room set aside as a prayer hall.

Fifteen minutes later, the prayer ended, our host stood again and told us more about the young visitor from Mecca: he was a qurra, a chanter of the Qur'an, Islam's sacred book.

The Qur'an is a work of such power and beauty that its rhythms, grammar, and vocabulary revolutionized the Arabic language the moment it appeared. Along with calligraphy, the reciting of this book has been the highest form of art in the Muslim world for more than a dozen centuries. And there before us, in the form of this young Meccan, stood a fine example of the grand tradition of Qur'anic recitation. Schools throughout the Islamic world continue to teach this complex skill, a feat of voice and memory, in dozens of different styles. To find the best practitioners, annual competitions are held around the globe, with a sort of World Cup Finals held in Brunei. There, the winner achieves world fame.

These days the truly great reciters cut boxed CD sets of the entire Qur'an. None are more prized than those recorded by the experts of Mecca and Medinah, the holiest cities in Islam and centers of religious study for 1,400 years.

Continued on page 2: »

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