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.
Someone at the party asked the young man to recite a passage. He rose, cupped his right hand to his ear, drew a short breath, and coasted into a faultless recitation of the ninety-first chapter of the Qur'an, called "The Sun." Everyone in the room was struck by his talent.
Consider the sun and its radiance, and the moon reflecting the sun.
Consider the day as it reveals the world, and the night that veils it in darkness.
Consider the sky and its wonderful make-up, the Earth and its expanse.
Consider the human self: how it is formed in keeping with what it is meant to be,
And how it is imbued with moral failings as well as awareness of God.
The one who helps this self to grow in a clean way attains to happiness.
The one who buries it in darkness is really lost.
A reciter is not a just a stylish voice but is considered a repository of the Qu'ran, a sort of "human volume" of the Book, if you will: because a qurra is not just a qurra, he is also hafiz quran: "knowledgeable of the Sacred Recitation." That is, he has memorized the entire book, as well as the complex vocalizations of each syllable and word in the various traditional styles. It is simply astonishing to hear what Muslims regard as the word of God brought to such a perfect pitch of artistic concentration.
After the recitation, I discovered that the young man was looking for a job. In this, he was simply treading in the footsteps of generations of reciters before him. In medieval times, this same boy might be making the rounds of wealthy palaces from Cairo to Jerusalem to Baghdad and beyond, looking for a lucrative post as court chanter. Here in America, where pickings were somewhat slimmer, he was seeking work at a local mosque.
I have thought about him often since then. To an American like myself, his appearance in Chicago seemed somehow miraculous, representing as it does the continuation of a tradition that has been alive since the days of Muhammad.
But then, Islam's way of thriving in every region of the planet is itself a wonder. Historians have made much of medieval Islam as the first global trading culture. Just the other night, I came upon a website that, at the press of a few keys, delivered a full-screen live broadcast of the evening prayer at the Great Mosque in Mecca, complete with a crisp audio track of the Qu'ran as it was being recited in the oldest mosque on earth. These kinds of interconnections bespeak more than globalized trade and custom; they testify to the transportable nature of the human spirit.
I like to think the young reciter found a job, but I also hope in the process that he saw a good deal of this country: passing through St. Louis, Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and coming to rest at last in some safe berth, but not before seeing for himself the extent to which his faith has taken root in a country that at first glance may seem unlikely soil--with its democratic process, with its absence of a king or dictator, and with a constitution that protects religion from the state--yet which, on closer inspection, may in fact prove a place where Islam has a real chance to flourish.
I hope he made it. I'm almost sure he did.