Last year was perhaps the first time that many of us spent the blessed month of Ramadan without attending the Masjid at all. We read all of our daily prayers and the additional night prayer of taraweeh at home, when usually we’d frequent the Masjid more during Ramadan to do so.

The lack of listening to Quran recitation live drove us (by us, I mean me, my parents and my two sisters) to search through and listen to more recordings and videos of the Quran’s recitation on the online medium. Listening to the miscellaneous qaris reciting melodiously, we happened to come across a recital which immediately struck us as notably different:

In the beginnings of certain Surahs, there are letters known as huruf al-muqatta’at (disconnected or disjoined letters) which no-one definitively knows the meaning of. There are numerous theories such that they affirm the language of Arabic as the medium of the Holy Quran, or that they symbolise other words or represent God’s attributes, among many more interpretations. Surah Hud (the chapter on the Prophet Hud) begins with such letters. The only way I had ever heard these pronounced was as alif lām rā, with the rā as full mouth. This particular recitation pronounced it as alif lām rē, which immediately struck us as unusual, as it was unheard-of to us.

After looking into it a bit more deeply, I learned that the vowel sound e in this recitation of re is known as imālah (slanting or tilting) and refers the inclination of the alif, i.e. the e vowel similar to English words such as ray or may. It is a phonetic feature found in numerous Arabic dialects and is included in the various Qira’at of the Holy Quran.

Little did we know about the wealth of Hadith that the Quran was revealed in seven ahruf, denoting styles, ways, or forms. The exact nature of the variation between the ahruf of the Quran has been debated and there are as expected countless scholarly opinions. However, the prominent view is that these ahruf directly pertain to the phonation of the Quran, its elocution and oral recitation, and are identified with Arabic dialects. There is the anecdote that Allah first revealed and delivered the Quran to our Prophet Muhammed (may peace and blessings be upon him) according to one mode of recitation, but the Prophet then asked for it to be revealed in different forms. By virtue of the Prophet’s dua, it was then revealed thus, and in doing so removed the burden and difficulty for certain pronunciations, and this is preserved in the various Qira’at.

It is fundamental to recognise that there is no change in the essence of the Quran among these variants, only subtle nuances in consonants and vowels of certain words which do not alter the divine message which remains preserved in unison. Examples of these include assimilation of the letter following with the letter preceding as a single letter (shahr ramadan as shah-r-amadan) and also pauses such as in the four Quls. The Quran in its variant modes of recitation never leads to contrariety in meaning. For instance, in Surah Fatiha, the initial word in the third verse can be pronounced malik or as mālik. Malik (the King) and mālik (the Possessor) both lead to the same meaning; both are sacred attributes and blessed names of Allah, as Allah is the King as well as the Possessor of the Day of Judgement: there is no contrast in meaning induced by the different mode of recital.

In congregations where the masses do not know, when an Imam recites in a different mode, the world might stand up against it and surmise it being incorrect, assuming the Imam is corrupting the Quran with dialect, but each of the Qira’at are accurate forms and have a direct, unbroken chain (riwāyah) back to the Prophet as it was revealed by God Almighty.

Looking into it further, the more it seems that the variation points toward the oneness being beautified, the beauty in the sameness and the unison of the variant voices and diversity of dialects, rather than altering the uniformity. It is awe-inspiring to contemplate and ponder about this in terms of a linguistic miracle and as a miracle of oral transmission. It is extraordinary for the holy book, the divine word, to be preserved orally on such a large scale and yet for all of the multitudinous meanings be expressed and preserved harmoniously according to each riwāyah. The differences in phonation instead allow us to celebrate our diversity; no form was belittled but each form respected equally and embedded in this can be seen a lesson to celebrate our dialects and the variant voices in our community, for us not to beshame or mock other.

This linguistic phenomenon reminds me of a well-known couplet from Hazrat Mian Mohammed Bakhsh’s epic poem Saif al-Muluk:

wahdat da daryā vaḍeyra, jāñ mōjāñ vich āvey,

ḍābāñ vakhriyāñ banh ḍahnāñ, ikkō lehr banāvey

(The river of oneness is great; when it overflows, all kinds of ponds, reservoirs and pools become one – as explained by Prof Saeed Ahmad)

This year, with Covid safety measures and social distancing rules in place, many Masjids are now Covid-secure environments and can permit a limited congregation. It is amazing listening to the different Imams employing the different styles through their recitation. The uniformity amongst the diversity is symbolic and humbles one to ponder about the miraculous nature of revelation and language.


*I want to say that these are my humble observations and thoughts and that I seek to be pardoned should any part of this piece be misleading or incorrect as that is not my intention at all.