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  • Oral Features of the Qur'ān Detected in Public Recitation
  • Mary Knight (bio)


The first audience for the Qur'ān did not receive leaves with writing on them (98:2),1 nor something on parchment they could touch (6:7), nor a book from the sky (4:153). They heard it. The Qur'ān arrived orally, piecemeal, and, significantly, each piece of which was heard before it was written down. Within a quarter of a century the pieces were collected, their order standardized, and uniform copies of the whole soon became available. At that point, believers could access it by ear or by eye (and by heart for those portions they had memorized).

This complementarity of hearing and reading, a bimodal approach to verbal comprehension, has endured within Muslim communities to this day, but for many scholars in the West, the primary interaction with the work has been in its printed form, as a text read, usually silently. But since the words are the same whether read or heard, what difference does it make?

This essay examines some of the textual features of the Qur'ān that emerge more prominently when listening to it, features that may enhance insight gained during slow or silent reading sessions. A comparison with ancient Greek oral works, such as those of Homer, highlights features of orality in both, demonstrating that both are meant to be heard. An examination of Classical memory methodologies reveals how rhetorical figures and other linguistic devices facilitate transmission and continuing presentation of works such as these in an "audiome" (sound-rich environment or one in which communication by sound predominates, whether in preliterate or literate societies), as well as their preservation in written text. Figures and devices involving structure, meaning, diction, syntax, and sound are sampled from the Qur'ān so readers might recognize their aural power and thus their significance within the text.

All translations are by the author, unless indicated. The rudimentary translations of Quranic material provided herein by the author (best translation of the Qur'ān into English to date is that by Abdel Haleem 2004) are intended to convey as much as possible the original word order so that the sequence of ideas flows as original listeners would have heard them in Arabic; however, this order may not account for the emphasis words normally have in a statement because of the language's typical relative placement of Topic and Focus (see Edwards 2002:9–13). Citations from the Qur'ān are from the riwāyah of Ḥafṣ, given in the form [sura number: āyah number], and appear in parentheses without other attribution.2

Qur'ān and Kitāb—and Some Homer

The work orally received and orally transmitted by Prophet Muhammad is called by Muslims and non-Muslims alike the Qur'ān, the "much-recited," whose Arabic root means "to recite or read aloud." The name Qur'ān is far and away more common than the work's second most popular name, al-Kitāb al-Karīm, "the generous book," with the root of the word for book, kataba, meaning literally "he has written, he wrote," but because it is the simplest form of the verb it is used as the dictionary entry and thus as shorthand for "to write." The Qur'ān was received in segments, not as a single whole, because the pieces came in response to events (Madigan 2001:63). While the idea of the Qur'ān as a "single whole" (25:32: jumlatan wāḥidatan) is most appropriate to writing, and the piecemeal origin of the book suits its oral reception and the oral style of the text, the Qur'ān is no less a book because of its oral character.3

In fact, there is no great divide between orality and literacy, nor an easy diagnostic tool to classify this or that work as strictly oral or strictly literate. To ignore either literate or oral interpretative approaches, however, will fail to provide sustainable perspectives and a growing enrichment of our understanding of the Qur'ān. Indeed, the complementarity of Qur'ān and Kitāb highlights for us how much this sacred work includes both "oral" and "literate" (written) stylistic...

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