Bilal Orfali – American University of Beirut
In the late 1990s, a rumor spread in one of the small sunnı neighborhoods in Beirut that the Sheikh of the mosque had become senile. The residents of that small neighborhood had to interrupt the Sheikh right before dawn’s prayers and force him to stop his recitation of the Qur’an and leave the mosque. One of those residents told me that they could not tolerate the Sheikh’s mockery of God’s holy book; he was reading the Qur’an in a bizarre manner as if he were imitating the dialect of the shı’ıs in south Lebanon. The resident decried: “can you imagine he was saying “ihdina z-zir
ta lmustaqım”; zirata with a zay! Even my three-year-old daughter can read al-fatihah correctly”.
At that time I was still not familiar with the discipline of Qira”at; however, a couple of years later I realized that what the Sheikh had done was reciting the Qur’an according to the canonical Reading of Hamzah b. Habıb al-Zayyat, which is just as valid and “Qur’anic” as the Reading of Hafs (the version that most Arabs in the Middle East are familiar with). The Reading of Hafs, or more accurately Hafs an Asim, was not common in the Arab and Muslim world until the Ottomans adopted it as the official Reading of the Empire. Furthermore, the first complete audio recording
of the Qur’an was done by Mahmud Khalıl al-Husarı in 1961, and it followed the Reading of Hafs an Asim, which became the dominant Reading in the Arab and Muslim world, whereas all the other canonical Readings started to die out except among specialists and highly educated scholars.
The aforementioned canonical Reader Hamzah al-Zayyat used to sell oil for a living, hence his nickname “al-Zayyat”. However, one tradition claims that when Hamzah started reading the Qur’an before receiving a formal education in recitation, he read at the very beginning of the Qur’an “dhalikal-kitabu la zayta fıhi” (This is the Scripture whereof there is no oil) instead of rayba (doubt). Realizing his grave mistake, Hamzah decided to learn the Qur’an properly with the experts until he perfected his reading. Regardless of the authenticity of this account, the message is clear: one cannot read the Qur’an without proper and formal training even if he is one of the seven canonical Readers of the Qur’an. The Qur’an should be recited according to the teachings of the Prophet and his Companions; it must be read according to sunnah and never according to ijtihad. (according to one’s own independent reasoning)