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EGYPT: The beauty and challenge of reciting the Koran

May 27, 2010 |  7:33 am

Koran reader

The Koran is for sale at nearly every tram stop in the port city of Alexandria, stacked neatly beside soft drinks and mobile-phone cards. Picking one out, however, can be difficult for a non-Muslim foreigner. Buyers can choose pocket-sized Korans, versions meant as decoration, or study volumes tripled in length with interpretations.

My new color-coded Koran was my best friend while I learned the rules of tajweed, the science of recitation. At first, I was hesitant to concentrate on recitation, preferring to focus more on subject matter, but my professor and tutor insisted that the Koran was meant to be spoken. 

The Koran is arguably the world’s most famous oral poem and certainly the most memorized. What better way to know your own religion than to be able to recite it the same way people sing along to a tune on the radio?

It’s no surprise, then, that a drive in an Alexandrian taxi usually involves listening to tajweed on FM 90.1. Drivers make their rounds throughout the city while reciting along with Sheik Hosary or Sheik Abd Samad. If Egyptian soccer teams aren’t playing, televisions in restaurants air recitations of the Koran with accompanying text. The Koran’s ubiquitous presence is wonderful for those who love to hear it, but sometimes after reciting the story of the Virgin Mary in Arabic for an hour or so, I preferred to listen to something different.

Like most things related to learning the Koran, the Arabic used in it is both a blessing and a curse. Recorded in the dialect shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the Koran is written in Modern Standard Arabic, which is generally not spoken other than by news anchors, imams and politicians. Although “Modern” Standard is a beautiful language, it is antiquated — 1,300 years and 800 miles separate it from Egyptian Arabic.

My professor and I would take several minutes for each verse to make sure I knew the definition of the words and was acquainted with them aesthetically. Occasionally, Professor Mustapha would stop and exclaim, “Oh the Koran!” and delve into how beautiful or poignant the relevant verse was, bringing in a variety of topics -- the disunity of the Islamic world, judgment day or even former British Prime Minister John Major -- and also commenting on the impeccable meter.

Beyond the literary value of the Koran, studying it earns you a fair amount of street credibility, so it becomes necessary to develop ways of avoiding sitting down to chat about the Koran over tea.  It is not only a time issue, but also everyone seems to be an authority on the text. It is a major part of any education — public or private. The Koran is the basis of learning how to read for children in the Egyptian countryside.

In short, everyone has an opinion.

Sorting through which interpretations are informed and which are not makes it tricky to have a conversation. Still, a great discussion on the Koran may be worth risking engaging those with obstinate opinions.

I'm a religious skeptic so my interest in the Koran is purely academic. Thus, it is refreshing to hear an opinion without the pressure of conversion. I typically avoid challenging people’s points of view, preferring not to incite religious passions, but to see where believers get their inspiration.

But I have concluded, that in Egypt, faith reigns supreme. When I asked Professor Mustapha if the Koran was created, he paused, obviously thinking of the troublesome nature of the question, until answering, “This is a philosophical question, it isn’t important — we have the Koran.”

-- Jahd Khalil in Alexandria, Egypt

Photo: An elderly man reads the Koran. Credit: EPA 

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