Skip to main content



TILĀWAH . Recitation of the sacred words of scripture in Islamic contexts of prayer, liturgy, and public performance is designated by the Arabic terms tilāwah and qirāʾah. The very name of Muslim scripture, Qurʾān, is a cognate of qirāʾah from the finite verb qaraʿa, which means "he read," in the sense of "recited." Tilāwah is the more general term for Qurʾān recitation, and its root carries the double sense of "to recite" and "to follow." Thus, the Muslim concept of scripture entails the notion of divine speech meant to be recited, as indeed is the case with several other scriptures, such as the Hindu Vedas and the Jewish Torah. The sacred archetype of Muslim scripture is the Preserved Tablet (law mafū, surah 85:22) or Mother of the Book (umm al-kitāb, 13:39, 43:4), the heavenly inscription of God's word from which it is believed that scriptures had been sent down to other prophets (e.g., the torah to Moses and the gospel to Jesus) and ultimately from which the angel Gabriel recited the Arabic Qurʾān to Muammad. This notion of divine speech, preserved and transmitted in heaven and on earth in both written and oral forms, can be traced among Semites to ancient Near Eastern cosmologies. In both its inscribed and its recited Arabic forms, the Qurʾān lies at the heart of Islamic symbolism, ritual, and social experienceindeed, even among many non-Arabic-speaking Muslims.

The tendency of Western scholars to concentrate on problems of textual history and interpretation to the neglect of the contextual modes of oral transmission and performance has resulted in a general failure to appreciate the significance of tilāwah in Islamic society. Although the textual form of the Qurʾān is paramount in such areas of classical Muslim scholarship as law (fiqh ), theology (kalām ), grammar (naw ), and scriptural commentary (tafsīr ), it is in its oral form that most Muslims down to the present have learned the Qurʾān.

TilĀwah and the Question of Canon

In Islam, the problem of establishing an authoritative text was not a question, as it was in Judaism and Christianity, of authorized councils deciding which writings were inspired or otherwise authentic. Materials for the body of scripture (kitāb, "book, writing") were from the beginning regarded as simply and exclusively the accurate preservation of Muammad's recitation of God's speech, which tradition affirms had circulated orally, and in a less well-assembled form in writing, among contemporaries of the Prophet. Of greater significance was the question of collectingimplying also the arrangingof the Prophet's recitation of sūrah s and āyah s ("chapters" and "verses"). Tradition assigns the beginning of this task to the Prophet himself and stipulates further that the Qurʾanic text was rehearsed in the presence of the angel Gabriel periodically until the revelation ended at the time of Muammad's death (632 ce). It is also held that through his secretary, Zayd ibn Thābit (and others), Muammad had at least some of the Qurʾān written down during his own lifetime. Various copies (maāif, sg., maaf) of these and the transcription of others were collected by the first two caliphs (Muammad's successors as head of the community). Islamic tradition regards the definitive collection ordered by the third caliph ʿUthmān (d. 656), however, as the official copy to which all authoritative copies since that time are traced.

As is often the case when the texts of sacred speech assume written form prior to the development of widespread functional literacy, the scriptio defectiva of the earliest transcriptions of the Qurʾān did not present the full and unambiguous script that was later developed for the enunciation, phrasing, and punctuation of each vocable, and it did not provide for other matters of enormous significance for meaning and consistency in oral recitation, such as guidance for phrasing and pauses. Scriptio plena, the full and precise system of writing, had neither fully evolved nor was it really necessary in the early stages when the "text" was transmitted primarily in oral form. As a result, slightly different variant readings (recitations) of the written Qurʾanic text have existed and been accepted since the formative period of Islam.

Tenth-century Qurʾān scholars, the most famous of whom was Ibn Mujāhid (859935), analyzed and evaluated the existing variant readings of their day and established the orthodox systems of reciting from the written text attributed to the caliph ʿUthmān (r. 644656). Tradition accounts for the variations among the reciters, as Ibn Mujāhid's work shows, on the basis of a report (adīth ) that Muammad had been given the Qurʾān to recite according to seven aruf ("letters"), a term that is sometimes taken to mean the dialects spoken by Arab tribes contemporary with the Prophet. In this view, God revealed the Qurʾān to Muammad in the seven dialects of Arabic understood by the various tribes in Arabia, and these phonetic variations account for the different qirāʾāt of the text of ʿUthmān. The connotation of aruf as "dialects" is controversial among Islamicists, however. Ibn Mujāhid's work, Kitāb al-sabʿah (The Seven Recitations), identified the most renowned orthodox eighth-century reciters of the Qurʾān, and although later authorities boosted to ten and fourteen the number of acceptable recitation systems, Ibn Mujāhid's seven remain the most widely recognized among Muslims today. Disciples of the seven charter reciters promulgated slight variations from their masters; these seven secondary transmitters are known as rāwī s, and their traditions of recitation have also survived and found acceptance in the Muslim community.

Thus, for example, in the postscript to the official edition of the Qurʾān printed in Egypt, the editors state that the basic orthography is that of ʿUthmān's copy and that it reflects the phonetic qualities of the oral transmission by the rāwī af (d. 805), whose master was the reciter (qāriʾ, muqriʾ ) ʿĀim (d. 744)one of Ibn Mujāhid's seven. Many professional reciters know several of the phonetic systems of the classic reciters and their disciples, and they will often repeat a given Qurʾanic phrase in other qirāʾāt in order to bring out several possible emphases and meanings allowed by the basic script.

TilĀwah and the Rules of TajwĪd

The significance of acceptable variations in the enunciation of the text is considerable insofar as meaning is established not only by written symbols but also by sounds. Although written texts of the Qurʾān, such as the modern Egyptian edition traced to the qirāʾah of ʿĀim, are elaborately marked to reflect the phonetic qualities of a given qirāʾah and are further coded to guide the reciter in proper phrasing and oral emphasis, the actual art of reciting can be learned properly only from a teacher. This oral, performative, pedagogical context has characterized Qurʾanic studies in Islam since the seventh century. Nonetheless, a considerable literature about the rules that govern recitation has accumulated over the cen-turies.

Learning to recite the Qurʾān traditionally began in the Qurʾān school (kuttāb, maktab ), where rote memorization of Qurʾanic passages by children seated around a teacher (shaykh ) marked the first, and for some the only, stage of formal education. Even with increasing government control of public education in modern times and the changes this has brought about, many contemporary Muslims are attempting to retain some form of the traditional Qurʾān school as an important first stage of Islamic pedagogy. At more advanced levels, students specializing in tilāwah learn the rules of tajwīd, that is, the rules for rendering correctly the recitation of the Qurʾān (and their application) in more critical learning and performance situations. Again, this is primarily an oral context dominated by a shaykh who has received special training and earned recognition as a reciter. In one of the most popular recitation manuals in use in Cairo today, tajwīd is defined as "articulating each letter from its point of articulation, giving it its full value. The intent of tajwīd is the reciting of the Qurʾān as God most high sent it down. Knowledge of it is a collective duty, and the practice of it is a duty prescribed for all who wish to recite something from the holy Qurʾān."

Rules for proper recitation are usually printed at the back of the Qurʾān. These include specifications on how to produce the correct phonetic sounds, assimilation of certain juxtaposed phonemes, proper duration of vowel sounds, and sectioning (the rules for pauses and starts in reciting). The first three kinds of rules account for the unique sound of Qurʾanic recitationa sound that easily distinguishes tilāwah from the pronunciation of Arabic for any other purpose. Sectioning allows the reciter to build a cadence or stress a particular phrase through the use of required and optional points of pausing and starting within each verse of the text and through calculated repetition of phrases. The rules of tajwīd also cover the proper Arabic formulas used before and after each recitation, such as "I take refuge in God from the evil Satan," followed by the Basmalah, "In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate." At the completion of each recitation one recites: "The majestic God has spoken truly."

Two general styles of recitation may be distinguished. Murattal is the more straightforward type, appropriate for individuals reciting in the context of prayer and private devotions; mujawwad refers to the more melodious and ornate styles employed by trained and professional reciters for religious celebrations and public performances. Both murattal and mujawwad are governed by the rules of tajwīd, although mujawwad is an art form that takes years to master, and its practitioners receive high recognition in Islamic society.

The term tilāwah (which has thus far been used synonymously with qirāʾah ) has the special connotation, as al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) put it, of being an act of recitation in which the tongue, heart, and mind are equally involved. Thus, tilāwah involves three essential ingredients: sound, thought, and emotion. Insofar as the rules of tajwīd and the contexts in which they are taught are intended to realize all three factors, Qurʾān recitation cannot be regarded as an empty verbal exercise, a cultural form without content. Muslim literature about tilāwah indicates that "the necessary, obligatory recitation is the thoughtful one that engrosses the whole self," or "those who would listen to the Qurʾān with their ears, not attending with their hearts, God faults them for that." The rules of tajwīd, then, have to do with sound production in relation to the proper cognitive and emotional responses.

The tilāwah literature addresses the rules of tajwīd for listening to Qurʾān recitation as well. This dual focus reflects the facts that the Qurʾān is an integral aspect of Muslim piety and worship and that most occasions of Qurʾān recitation entail a speaker/listener social relationship. The reciter's skill and correct frame of mind for his task are to be matched by listeners who likewise are prepared to hear the word of God.

Besides the manuals on tajwīd, other sources contributing to the cognitive and intellectual understanding of the Qurʾān include phrase-by-phrase commentaries (tafsīr ), biographies of the prophet Muammad (sīrāt ), and descriptions of the specific occasions of revelation during Muammad's mission (asbāb al-nuzūl). Then too, there are the personal meanings each phrase might symbolize for individual reciters and hearers: when an individual or community feels tempted or threatened by an intrusive outside force or circumstance, for example, a passage about Satan may be recited. In general, the rules of tajwīd and Qurʾān recitation are closely connected with these other sourcesboth literary and social/contextualof meaning. Any adequate appreciation of the meaning of the Qurʾān would have to involve knowledge of the written text, the commentary literature, the performance of recitation, and the social-ritual contextsin short, the whole spectrum of Qurʾanic presence in Islamic culture.

The Contexts of TilĀwah

Among the most important settings for Qurʾān recitation are the ritual celebrations appointed by the Muslim calendar. The ninth month, Ramaānthe month when Muammad's mission was first announced to him with the transmission of the first revelation (surah 96) by the angel Gabriel, and also the month of the obligatory fastis the occasion for public recitation of one-thirtieth of the text each day in mosques and special gatherings. The written text of the Qurʾān indicates these liturgical divisions with symbols in the margins marking each thirtieth part (juzʾ ), the halves of each of these, and the quarters of each half. Another set of markings divides the text into seven weekly sections. The apportioning of the text in this fashion is separate from the literary chapter divisions (surahs) and specifically applies to the liturgical and mnemonic functions of reciting.

The actual speed with which a Muslim may choose to recite the entire text (over a month, a week, three days, or even in one night), like the question of which passage to recite on a given occasion, is a matter of personal preference. Various recommendations of the Prophet and his companions on these matters are found in the adīth and are quoted in the literature on Qurʾān recitation.

On important calendrical festivals (ʿuyūd; sg., ʿīd), such as the Prophet's birthday (Mawlid al-Nabī), the Feast of Fast-Breaking (ʿĪd al-Fir, at the end of the month of Ramaān), and during the pilgrimage assemblies in Mecca during the twelfth month, Qurʾān recitation also plays an important role. Whereas such public occasions call for the skills of a trained reciter, every Muslim individually recites a portion of the Qurʾān during the five daily prayers. The most frequently recited passage is the brief first surah, the Fātiah (Opener).

The Muslim lunar calendar captures in its festivals and holidays the rhythms of sacred history that center around God's revelation to the Prophet and the sacred time of the formation of the Prophet's community (ummah ) in Mecca and Medina. Another set of social rhythms, the human life cycle, is also celebrated by moments of recitation. The Muslim rites of passage, including birth and naming of the child, circumcision, acquiring the ability to recite the entire Qurʾān from memory, marriage, and death, are normally celebrated among family, friends, and neighbors, and it is common practice to hire a Qurʾān reciter for the edification and enjoyment of those gathered. Numerous political and social occasions also call for a religious blessing attended by Qurʾān recitation. Because Qurʾān recitation in the more ornate mujawwad style is also a critical art form, a well-known reciter can attract a large and responsive crowd just to hear him perform his art. Indeed, the ethnomusicological field research of Kristina Nelson has shown that public knowledge and appreciation of different personal styles of mujawwad performance are very keen among reciters and their audiences in Egypt today; such intense appreciation of Qurʾān recitation is characteristic of all Muslim societies including regions outside the Arabic-speaking Middle East.

The development of electronic media in the twentieth century has created new contexts for Qurʾān recitation. Tape recordings of the murattal and tajwīd styles of recitation by famous recent and contemporary reciters are widely available for private and public listening. Cassettes also allow individuals to record their favorite reciter from the radio or at private reciting sessions and to exchange tapes with other connoisseurs. Television stations in Muslim countries typically begin and end each program day with a passage of Qurʾān recitation; as the shaykh recites, the Arabic text rolls down the screen in place of or in addition to the image of the reciter. In some non-Arabic-speaking countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, a simultaneous translation of the text in the local language may also appear on the screen. Radio, however, is by far the most widely used broadcast medium for Qurʾān recitation today. Most stations broadcast Qurʾān recitation at selected intervals, along with religious poetry, readings of the Prophet's adīth, and homiletic materials. Some stations devote programming entirely to Qurʾān recitation and other religious materials, and listeners are able to select times for listening or recording their favorite passages and reciters from broadcast schedules in the print media. Along with reciters famed for their skills and in high demand for public and private recitations in person, those chosen for broadcast performance are carefully screened, and many become well-known personalities in Muslim societies. Given the new media contexts of modern Islam, it is not uncommon, therefore, for someone walking down a street to hear the Qurʾān being recited from several sources at oncefrom radios and cassette recorders in private homes, small shops, and automobiles, along with those carried by passersby. Throughout the Muslim world students, both male and female, compete in local and national Qurʾān reciting contests, which are decided internationally each year at such renowned centers as al-Azhar University in Cairo.

The contexts of Qurʾān recitation described above have a striking symbolic association with "occasions of revelation" during the sacred time of the Prophet's mission in Mecca and Medina. Recitation then and now belongs to those significant moments in the life of the community that call for enunciation of the divine word. Tilāwah is, then, a meaningful speech act governed by rules that situate the speaker and the addressee within the sacred paradigm of God's address to humankind. The recited Qurʾān is, however, no more considered by Muslims to be the actual words of the contemporary reciter than it is attributed to the prophet Muammad. The Qurʾān is enthusiastically held to be God's beneficent revelation to the Arabs in the seventh century and, through the Arabs and their language, to the rest of humankind. Tilāwah as an Islamic cultural framework embraces not only the sounds but also the cognitive processes of meaning and the emotional responses appropriate to this symbol of divine manifestation. A full appreciation of tilāwah, therefore, engages the student of religions with texts, rules, and practices that touch virtually every aspect of Muslim society.

See Also

Dhikr; Qurʾān; Rites of Passage, article on Muslim Rites; Samāʿ; Tafsīr.


The standard work on the Qurʾān is by Theodor Nöldeke, Friedrich Schwally, and others, Geschichte des Qorāns, 2d rev. ed., 3 vols. (1909-1938; reprint, New York, 1970), of which the third volume by Gotthelf Bergsträsser and Otto Pretzl, Die Geschichte des Korantexts, 2d ed. (Leiden, 1938), contains information about Qurʾān recitation. Another standard source of information is Ignácz Goldziher's Die Richtungen der islamischen Koranauslegung (1920; reprint, Leiden, 1970), especially pages 154. A summary of European scholarship on Qurʾān recitation is presented in Rudi Paret's "Kirāʾa," in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed. (Leiden, 1960-). Useful information about tajwīd may be found in Edward Sell's The Faith of Islam, 3d ed. (London, 1907); see appendix A, "ʿIlmu't-tajwid."

The most important modern research on Qurʾān recitation has been done by Kristina Nelson; see The Art of Reciting the Qurʾan (Austin, 1985). Also useful is the International Congress for the Study of the Qurʾan, series 1, 2d ed., edited by A. H. Johns (Canberra, 1982); see especially Frederick M. Denny's "The Adab of Qurʾan Recitation: Text and Context," pp. 143160, and John Bowman's "Holy Scriptures, Lectionaries and Qurʾan," pp. 2937. On Qurʾān recitation in the wider context of Islamic culture, see Frederick M. Denny's "Exegesis and Recitation: Their Development as Classical Forms of Qurʾānic Piety," in Transitions and Transformations in the History of Religions: Essays in Honor of Joseph M. Kitagawa, edited by Frank E. Reynolds and Theodore M. Ludwig (Leiden, 1980), pp. 91123, and my own "Understanding the Qurʾan in Text and Context," History of Religions 21 (May 1982): 361384.

Most Muslim works on the Qurʾān are written in Arabic and thus little known in the West except among specialists. An exception is Labib al-Said's The Recited Koran: A History of the First Recorded Version, translated and edited by Bernard Weiss, M. A. Rauf, and Morroe Berger (Princeton, 1975).

Richard C. Martin (1987)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Tilāwah." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 19 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Tilāwah." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (August 19, 2018).

"Tilāwah." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved August 19, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.