Yasser Al-Sharkawi misses the time when he would head to the Al-Hussein Mosque in Islamic Cairo to perform 15 minutes of Quranic recitation to be put on air ahead of the call for dawn prayer.
Since he was accredited by the Egyptian Radio to perform recitations of the holy book, Al-Sharkawi had particularly enjoyed doing the fajr (dawn) recitation at this mosque. But with the adoption of precautionary measures to contain the spread of the Covid-19 in Egypt all communal prayers were suspended, and Al-Sharkawi was denied one of his favourite spots for recitation.
However, today he is going to perform his recitation to celebrate the advent of the new Hijri year.
Like other reciters in their late 20s and early 30s, Al-Sharkawi is often called upon to recite at official and private gatherings to celebrate religious occasions. And the beginning of the lunar calendar that is marked by the Islamic month of Moharram is certainly a key occasion widely celebrated in Egypt. Reciters perform their taguid (recitation based on harmonically measured intonation) in a special kind of recitation of the Quran in Egypt and some other North African and Levantine countries.
Taguid is almost a musical art, and its big names in Egypt include reciters like Mustafa Ismail, Mohamed Refaat, and Abdel-Basset Abdel-Samad.
This is a much more-layered art than tartil (slow and measured recitation with no harmonic intonation). Most of the legendary names of Quranic recitation in Egypt who have performed from the early to the mid-20th century have been known for their taguid and have attracted listeners who would travel across the country to attend sessions of a favourite reciter.
“Taguid is certainly our trademark as Egyptian reciters. It is performed elsewhere in Muslim countries, but we do have a strength in it for sure,” Al-Sharkawi said. “We also do tartil, which is the dominant way of reciting the Quran in the Gulf countries, but for the most part Egyptians are in love with taguid,” he added.
The art of straightforward recitation was the first step that Al-Sharkawi acquired as a child growing up in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s where his father was working. However, as he was making progress in learning the verses of the holy book by heart, his father was quick to guide him to taguid. For his father, born and brought up in the Delta in Egypt, this was what the recitation of the Quran was about in his home country.
“It is an established saying that the Quran was revealed in Mecca and recited in Egypt,” said Sayed Mahmoud, an editor and critic.
The habit of “Quran nights” is part of this claim, Mahmoud explained. “In Egypt, it was a typical thing to have a Quran night for centuries. In the Delta and Upper Egypt, the wealthy families, and maybe some not so wealthy families, would hold Quranic recitations on Thursday nights or on religious occasions or as part of a charitable commitment,” he said.
With the parallel practice of learning the Quran in the kottab (elementary school), there were always new voices coming up.
“In fact, in the early 20th century, it was customary for some of those who started as Quranic reciters to move on to music. They included [musicians] Salama Hegazi and Sayed Darwish, which is why they were called Sheikh Sayed and Sheikh Salama,” Mahmoud said. “Prominent 20th-century singers Mohamed Abdel-Wahab and Um Kolthoum both started off reciting the Quran,” he added.
The link between taguid and music is clear, according to Ahmed Mustafa Kamel, one of the leading recitation trainers in Egypt.
Kamel’s father was a close friend of Mustafa Ismail, and it was from this that Kamel developed his “unending passion for the Quran and taguid.”
He said that it is only in the minds of those who think of the Quran as a set of verses that taguid is a “deviation” from the pious approach towards the holy text. For those who love the Quran in a spiritual way, listening to its verses recited in the style of taguid is divine.
Egyptians for centuries have been in love with taguid, and they will always be because for them the Quran is about spirituality, Kamel argued.
“Egyptians for centuries have perceived the hours they spend every day or every week listening to the verses of the Quran as time off from this world to delve into the sphere of spiritualty,” argued Ibrahim Dawoud, editor of a book on Quran recitation and former editor of Diwan Al-Ahram, a monthly magazine on the history of Egypt.
According to Dawoud, it is not difficult to find “some resemblance between the mood of a group of people listening to beautiful taguid and a group of people attending a Sufi session of zikr [a religious ceremony] since in both cases it is a moment of intense spirituality.”
While taguid is not an Egyptian exclusivity, Dawoud argued that the most famous names in it are predominantly Egyptian.
This was why prominent Egyptian reciters have always been warmly welcomed in countries with a Muslim-majority population. “They are celebrated in Turkey and Iran, in North Africa and in the Levant, in Malaysia and in Nigeria, and their imprint is unmistakable,” he said. “All except in the Gulf countries, where only tartil is permissible,” he added.
In 1977 when late president Anwar Al-Sadat went to Jerusalem on his famous peace mission he took with him the great Mustafa Ismail who recited the Quran at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
“This was a great moment and a great political and cultural statement. It was about an indelible Egyptian imprint, in a sense,” argued Sameh Al-Kashef, editor of the independent cultural publication Dalida.
The choice of Ismail, Sadat’s favourite reciter at the time, was very much in keeping with an established tradition among Egyptian heads of state to observe the significance of Quranic recitation as a form of Islamic commitment.
It was also one of the last moments of glory of the Egyptian school of taguid, as the cultural and political impact of the Gulf countries on Egypt was set to increase at the expense of established Egyptian lifestyles, including the passion for a recitation with a musical touch.
Since its launch in March 1964, the Quran Karim Radio Station has championed the Egyptian schools of recitation, airing recordings by great names and introducing new voices that are passed by a committee that applies very strict measures for admission.
“Over the years, we have been faithful to our very rich and very pious schools of recitation — both for taguid and tartil. But for the most part it has been taguid that our listeners have favoured,” said Mohamed Eweida, former chair of the station.
According to Eweida, the measures were equally observed for all recitations on air, no matter the broadcasting station in Egypt. However, in parallel, there was another path being introduced in the Gulf style of tartil.
“This is very different from the Egyptian style of tartil, being very dry and unsentimental,” Al-Kashef said.
But it was “aggressively imposed by being made available at inexpensive prices and sometimes for free in mosques controlled by Salafis that mushroomed during the 1980s and early 1990s,” Eweida lamented.
By the mid-1990s, Dawoud said, the Egyptian taste was “coopted by recitations coming from across the Red Sea. The claim to fame was that those were the voices of reciters coming from Mecca and Medina, their place of living giving them credit to take up space irrespective of the compatibility to Egyptian taste.”
In his book Rhythms from Heaven, dedicated to the history of Quran recitation in Egypt, writer and critic Mahmoud Al-Saadani notes that he was “shocked” when he came back to Egypt after having spent 20 years overseas to find “a decline in the taste for recitation that had allowed people to replace the work of legendary Egyptian reciters by the much less-impressive product of other countries.”
To protest against the declining space that Egyptian voices were being given in the public sphere of recitation, Dawoud, then working for the independent daily Al-Dostour, dedicated a supplement on “the increasing hegemony of recitations coming from across the Red Sea” in 1996.
“I understood it was normal in a sense, because it was part of the new norms that Egyptians who had lived and worked for years in the Gulf countries, especially in Saudi Arabia, had adopted, but this was a particularly sensitive issue because it related to an Egyptian cultural tradition that I thought we should not let go off,” he said.
The supplement included articles by prominent commentators who warned of the risk of a “Wahabi take-over” of Egyptian Quranic recitation.
Twenty years later, Al-Kashef decided to dedicate the 2016 issue of Dalida to the same matter and called for the “rescue” of Egyptian schools of recitation that were being seriously challenged.
In the lead article, “Islam, a beautiful creed away from the dry sands of the desert”, poet and author Bahaa Jahine argued that it would be devastating to strip Islam of the spiritual beauty embodied in the beautiful Egyptian recitation in favour of a much drier and less spiritual school.
“The Egyptian school of recitation is part of our cultural glory, and indeed of our status as a leading Arab and Muslim country. I don’t think it is something that should be compromised or allowed to disappear under the false assumption that it is not pious enough,” Al-Kashef said.
Up until the early 1970s it was allowed to debate on issues relating to the association of music and the Quran. Leading reciters would show off their command of music instruments and reflect on their taste for classical music.
Um Kolthoum did not feel awkward about calling Mustafa Ismail her “favourite singer”, and Mohamed Abdel-Wahab comfortably did a duo Quran recitation with Sheikh Mohamed Omran.
In the earlier decades of the 20th century, a good number of women recited the Quran, mostly for women but not exclusively so. “Today, this is not something that would even be contemplated, either to suggest that women could recite the Quran in public or to bring in the debate about the musical aspect of taguid,” Mahmoud said.
This week, Egypt lost one of the very last of these women. Samia Bikr Al-Binassi, Who started teaching recitation in 1950 passes away on Sunday at the age of 90. Born blind, Al-Binassi had learned all the Quran by heart at the age of 11.
“It is true that we still have incredibly beautiful recitations by a younger generation of reciters, but we cannot push it much further,” Mahmoud added.
Eweida is more confident that the work of the Quran Karim Radio Station can resist attempts to deny Egypt its prominence in recitation. “Currently, 80 per cent of airtime is dedicated to broadcasting recitation, while only 20 per cent is allocated to other religious programmes,” he said. “This is making an impact.”
As far as he can see, Muslim Egyptians for the most part want to listen to the recitations of Mohamed Refaat before the call for prayers on a sunset in Ramadan before breaking their fast. “These are established patterns that cannot be touched,” he argued.
Eweida does not necessarily see a political significance in the attempt of the Salafis and Gulf capitals to take over the recitation domain. “I am not sure it works this way, because when the most famous of Saudi reciters, Ali Al-Hozaifi, decided to record the entire Quran he had to first come to Egypt to get his tartil up to scratch with Sheikh Rizk Khalil,” he said.
That was in the 1990s, some 30 years after Mahmoud Khalil Al-Hossary did a full recording of the Quran, in taguid, for Egyptian Radio.
“The more we allow for the recitations of our renowned sheikhs to be aired on radio and TV, the more we secure the continuity of our schools of recitation. But I think it will be difficult to remove the taste that some people have developed for other schools,” Eweida argued.
The wish to grant more airtime to Egyptian recitation, either in taguid or tartil, was a motive for this year’s launch of the satellite TV channel Quran Karim Misr by the United Media Group (UMG).
According to Hossam Salah, chief operations officer of UMG, the creation of a channel with an Egyptian Quranic content to broadcast from NileSat was “essentially a cultural commitment”.
“We thought we could not turn a blind eye to the fact that there was no channel on NileSat dedicated to the Quran when Egypt is the country that has given a big name to recitation,” Salah said.
In February this year, almost 55 years to the date since the launch of the Quran Karim Radio Station, the Quran Karim Misr satellite station went on air. It started its trial transmission with eight hours a day, and in Ramadan — about eight weeks later — it went into full transmission.
From the onset, Salah said, the channel was well received. This was an obvious indication of the passion that the majority of Egyptians have for Egyptian-style recitation.
“Actually, on the eve of Ramadan when we suspended the transmission for just 30 minutes to switch setups from temporary to permanent, we received a lot of queries expressing concern about whether the channel was going off air,” he said.
UMG is now building up an archive for the channel. “We have counted a lot on the resources of the Quran Karim Radio Station for the old recordings, and we are doing new ones,” he said.
In Ramadan, to compensate for the suspension of the extended evening prayers of the holy month (tarawih) as part of the coronavirus combat guidelines, Quran Karim Misr decided to air new Quranic recordings every evening around the time of the prayers.
“It was mostly all in taguid and certainly all by Egyptian reciters,” he said.
The channel, Al-Kashef argued, could have a very significant role to play in protecting Egyptian recitation if it receives enough support from the state by securing rare recordings and introducing new ones.
Al-Sharkawi said that more recordings have to be introduced and not just of parts of the Quran but of the full holy book. “Clearly this major investment of time and effort needs formal support,” he said.
Egypt cannot keep on depending on the limited outlets for teaching the Quran either through the kottabs that are declining in terms of quantity and quality or independent schools run by amateurs.
“I think it is unfair that countries like Malaysia and Indonesia have academies to teach children the recitation of the Quran in the Egyptian way while we don’t,” he said.
Regaining an Egyptian audience for Egyptian schools of recitation is necessary to secure Egypt’s leadership of this art across the world’s Muslim populations, argued Dawoud.
“This is not just about an affinity for beautiful recitation, but also about the leadership that Egypt deserves in this domain,” Al-Kashef insisted.
Ultimately, Mahmoud said, “we cannot overlook the fact that this is part of our Egyptian identity, as Egyptians and not just as Muslims.”
The Quran, he said, is part of the Arabic culture and its reciters were perceived as Egyptian icons, which was why a Coptic figure like 20th-century politician Makram Ebeid had a taste for recitation and even joined the funeral procession of Sheikh Mahmoud Al-Barbari, a close associate of Saad Zaghloul, the leader of the 1919 Revolution.
“It is cultural; it is political; but above all it is a matter of identity,” he stated.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly