The origins of Qira'ah

When we listen to a qari's recitation of the Quran, there is undoubtedly a spirituality that is awakened in us. We feel the beauty of Allah's Word touching a cord deep within ourselves. It is a cord that connects us to our Creator. This occurs even if we do not understand the language of Arabic.

It is true that the source of such spiritual feelings is due to us listening to the Eternal Word of Allah. All Muslims are conscious of this. But there is also another reason why such strong spiritual vibrations occur at such occasions. It is because a qualified qari is not simply one who recites beautifully. Rather, such a qari is one who has studied under a teacher who has in turn studied under another teacher and so on in a chain that goes right back to the Messenger of Allah, the Salutations and Peace of Allah be upon him. It is the barakah (the blessings) of this chain- or silsilah as it is called in Arabic- that also contributes to the spirituality that is felt at occasions of qira'ah (Quranic recitals). To appreciate the true value of qira'ah we need to know the origins of this chain.

What is Qira'ah

At its most basic and most important level qira’ah means to recite the letters of the Quran carefully and correctly- in other words with what is called tajwid. This also implies having knowledge of how and when to stop and restart one' s recitation when one is not able to complete the recitation of an entire verse in one breath. This is so since the meaning of the verse is always taken into consideration and stopping or restarting incorrectly may change or distort the desired meaning of the verse.

Tajwid, which means "beautification", is of two types: beautifying the letters of the Quran by attempting to pronounce them as close to the Arab accent as possible; and beautifying them by being aware of the conditions in which they have to be recited with an empty and flat or full and rounded sound. One must also be aware of when they have to be applied with a slightly lengthened nasal sound (ghunnah) or read with an added elongation (madd) and so on.

To read the Quran with tajwid is Fard ‘Ayn- compulsory on every Muslim. This is the consensus of the 'ulama. The study of the theory of tajwid is Fard Kifayah which means that there need to be some people in each Muslim community acquainted with this branch of knowledge.

The seven Ahruf of the Prophet (The Salutations and Peace of Allah be upon him)

The seven Ahruf were seven ways of reciting the Quran which the Prophet, the Salutations and Peace of Allah be upon him, was permitted to teach his Companions to recite with, easing the process of learning and memorizing the Holy Book. While the Quran was revealed in the dialect of the Quraish, the tribe of the Holy Prophet, there were of course many other tribes in Arabia who spoke in different dialects of Arabic. The Holy Prophet, Allah's Peace and Blessings be upon him, wanted to facilitate the absorption of the Quran across Arabia. To this end, the following hadith is narrated in Sahih Muslim: "…Verily Jibril a.s. came to me saying: "Indeed, your Lord, the Almighty and Honoured, commands you to teach your people the Quran in one way." I said: "Oh Allah, make easy on my people (bring them relief)". He (Jibril a.s.) returned saying: "Indeed, your Lord, the Almighty and Honoured, commands you to teach your people the Quran in two ways." I said: "Oh Allah, make easy on my people (bring them relief)." He (Jibril a.s.) returned saying: "Indeed, your Lord, the Almighty and Honoured, commands you to teach your people the Quran in seven ways…" [A hadith contained in the Sahih Muslim].

As far as the method in which Jibril a.s. conveyed these ways to the Prophet, Allah's Peace and Blessings be upon him, if they took the form of general guidelines or if they were individually varying recitations each time one was received, we do not know. We do however know that annually during the month of Ramadan a revision of all received revelations occurred between the Prophet, Allah's Peace and Blessings be upon him, and Jibril a.s.  and that in the final year of Prophethood this revision was done twice. The final revision also included a revision of all the seven Ahruf.

Two years after the conquest of Makkah, the Holy Prophet, Allah's Peace and Blessings be upon him, passed away. In those two years the Holy Prophet was fundamentally engaged in conveying these means of recitation practically as opposed to having it theoretically documented. Time was of the essence and the Prophet, Allah's Peace and Blessings be upon him, chose to train and teach certain Companions in certain of these ways so as to preserve them and have it taught appropriately to others.

Among the Companions that the Holy Prophet chose to train in the recital of the Quran are the following:

Sayyidina ‘Uthman ibn Affan ra.
Sayyidina ‘Ali ibn Talib ra.
Ubbay bin Ka'ab r.a.
Zaid bin Thabit r.a.
Abdullah ibn Masud r.a.
Abu Musa al-Ashari ra.
Abul Darda Uwaimir bin Zaid r.a.

The Imams of Qirah

These Companions were spread throughout the known Islamic world at that time. Many students- the Tabi'in- would gather around them, absorbing their knowledge and turn later on teach it to their students (the Tab' Tabi'in) and so on. Knowledge was thus spread over the various parts of the Muslim world. In particular, there were five prominent centres of learning at this stage of Islamic history: Madinah and Mecca in Arabia, Basrah and Kufah in Iraq, and Syria. The students of these centres quickly expanded. Each of these five centres contained people who dedicated their lives to documenting, preserving and conveying what was taught by these noble emissaries of the divine message.

A high degree of precision was noted amongst certain individuals to the extent that they were unanimously chosen to fill the places of their predecessors as senior teachers of the Noble Quran. The documentation of each of these individual's teachings, which was ultimately what he had received from his chain of teachers- and the source of which was the Holy Prophet, the Salutations and Peace of Allah be upon him- is known as his Qira'ah [recital]. These individuals- who emerged from the ranks of the Tabi'in and the tab'Tabi'in became known as the Qurra [the reciters]. They were recognised as the leaders (A'imma) of the science of Quran recitation. The most famous of them were as follows:
Imam Nafi’ al-Madani (d. 169h.) of Madinah.
Imam ibn Kathir (d.120) of Makkah.
Imam Abu Amr al-Basri (d.154) of Basra.
Imam ibn Amir (d. 118) of Syria
Imam al-‘Asim bin Bahdalah (d.127) of Kufah.
Imam Hamzah bin Habib al-Zayyat (d.156) of Kufah.
Imam ‘Ali al-Kasa'i (d. 189h.) of Kufah.

The modes of qira'ah transmitted by these Imams are recognized as the seven most authoritative ones, although there are a number of other Imams in the field as well.

Later, scholars such as Abu Amr ad-Dani of Spain (d.444h) made a thorough record of all these modes of recital, thereby helping to preserve them for posterity.

The taqwa of the Imams of qira’ah

It is important to note that these scholars not only recited and taught, but lived the message of the Quran in their daily lives and were blessed by being engaged in this activity solely for the sake of Allah. We will just give few examples for the sake of illustration although there are many others.

For instance, with regard to Imam Nafi it is related that the scent of musk came from his mouth whenever he spoke. When asked whether he used scent before sitting to teach, he replied: 'I do not touch scent nor do I go near it. But I have seen the Prophet, the Salutations and Peace of Allah be upon him, in a dream reciting into my mouth and since then I have this scent in it." He was described as the "purest of people in character". On his deatbed his advice to his children was as follows: "Fear Allah and solve your differences. And obey Allah and His Messenger if you are true believers."

With regard to Imam ‘Asim, no less a person than Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal r.a. described him as "a very trustworthy, good and pious man." On his deathbed he was found repeatedly reciting the verse "Then they will be returned to Allah, their true Master."

Imam Hamzah bin al-Habib al-Zayyat was also recognized for his simplicity, humility and piety. The great Imam Abu Hanifah said to him: "There are two things which you have surpassed us in and about which we will never argue with you: the Quran and the laws of inheritance." It is narrated that whenever he was free between Dhuhr and Asr or between Maghrib and Isha, he would pass his time in prayer. One of the 'ulama said of him : "I do not think that Allah keeps bala (great trials and calamities) away from Kufah except through the presence of Hamzah.

The differences between the qira’at

The differences between these qira'at relate to minor, but equally acceptable, differences in the pronunciation of certain words in the Quran. Such differences, of course, do not change the fundamental meaning of any Quranic verse. The different pronunciation, though, may provide another shade of meaning to a word. It must always be borne in mind that the source of these allowable differences is the Holy Prophet himself, the Salutations and Peace of Allah be upon him.  

The most widespread form of qira'ah today
Due to inevitable historical circumstances, some qira'ahs became more well-known than others. Only two of the seven Qira'at mentioned are in widespread currency. The Qira'ah of Imam Nafi’ as narrated by his student Warsh is widely read in North and West Africa. Elsewhere in the Muslim world the qira'ah of Imam ‘Asim bin Bahdalah, as transmitted by his student Hafs, is dominant. The Quran as we read it in South Africa is in this qira'ah.

Sanad, Ijaza and Silsila

The basis of all Islamic sciences, be it Tafsir, Hadith, Fiqh, Qira'ah and so on is sanad and ijazah. Sanad means that one is certified as competent in a particular Islamic science that has been studied under a teacher in that field. Ijazah means that, in addition, that the teacher gives one license and permission to teach others in that field. People who are declared competent in the field, and have been given license to teach others, are part of a continuous chain [silsila] stretching right back to the Holy Prophet, Allah's Peace and Blessings be upon him. When one listens to a qualified qari’, it is worthwhile noting that he or she has in this way a spiritual link to the Holy Prophet. It is also our duty as Muslims to be conscious of the enormous sacrifices that the Companions, tabi'in, the Imams of qira'ah and others have made to document, preserve and continue the modes of recital authorised by the Holy Prophet, the Salutations and Peace of Allah be upon him. We would have not known how to read the Qur'an otherwise.

Sheikh Ismail Londt

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