Poetry and Prayer: Islamic Manuscripts from the Walters Art Museum

Poetry and Prayer

Islamic Manuscripts from the Walters Art Museum

Poetry Ritual Prayer Recitation Calligraphy Personal Piety Digital Books

The Art of Reciting Poetry and Prayer

Throughout the Islamic world, the Qur’an’s oral role is as important as its written form. In fact, the word “Qur’an” derives from the root qar’a (to recite). In liturgical contexts and for religious instruction, the Qur’an is recited in a controlled manner to articulate the text clearly. When performed outside those parameters, Qur’anic recitation often relies on great variations in timbre and melody that require significant musical skill. The Qur’an reciter’s ability to underscore the rhythms, sound patterns, and textual dynamics of the sacred text often inspires a highly emotional response. Qur’anic recitation is esteemed as a great art form and is enjoyed in a variety of social settings.


Qur’an detail image

Verses 25–28 from chapter 19 of Surat Maryam recited by Imam Mohamad Bashar Arafat are penned in Maghribi script on these two folios. This beautiful 18th-century Qur’an was produced in the Maghreb (North Africa). The chapter entitled Maryam, or Mary, relates the miracles granted to Elizabeth, the once barren wife of Zakariyya (Zacharias), and then to Mary, honored in the Qur’an as a worthy woman, untouched by sin. Zacharias entreated God to grant him a child to become heir to the house of Jacob. Answering his prayers, God signaled that his wife would bear a son named Yahya (John), who would be recognized as a prophet. Then the Virgin Mary, who herself was miraculously pregnant, bore a son named Isa (Jesus). In the Muslim tradition, Jesus is one of the most revered prophets after Muhammad.

Qur’an detail image

Recitation of the Qur’an

Listen to Imam Mohamad Bashar Arafat recite verses 25–28 from chapter 19 of Surat Maryam in Arabic. Imam Mohamad Bashar Arafat is founder of Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation.


Page from the Shahnama Epic, “Tus battling the Turanians”

Copied by Hasan ibn Muhammad ibn Ali Husayn
Iran (Shiraz), 1341
Paper with ink, paint, and gold
W.677, fol. C, acquired by Henry Walters

Recitation of the Shahnama Epic

Listen to Professor Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak recite verses in Persian and in English from the Shahnama (the Book of Kings), when the Iranian hero Tus is battling the Turanians. Professor Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak is Professor and Director of the Center for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland.

Perisan

English

In the non-Arab Islamic world, Persian became the language par excellence of poetry and prose. Perhaps the most famous example of the Persian literary tradition is Abu’l-Qasim Firdausi’s (ca. 935–1020) Shahnama, or Book of Kings, completed in 1010 and commonly considered the national epic of Iran. Firdausi’s Shahnama is often compared to Homer’s Iliad in its epic scope and sensitivity to the human condition. Comprising more than 50,000 rhyming couplets, the Shahnama is the longest poem written by a single author. It chronicles the mythical and historical past of Iran, from the creation of the universe to the Arab-Muslim invasion of the 7th century.

The Shahnama’s lively descriptions of heroic rulers, fierce battles, and fantastic beasts have been retold and performed for centuries. Professional storytelling, naqqali, of the Shahnama has traditionally taken place in coffeehouses, streets, gymnasiums (zurkhana), bazaars, and private homes. Those who dedicate themselves to the performance of the Shahnama are called naqqal, which translates as “transmitter.” Today, these transmitters of the Shahnama epic may be heard on radio, television, and in theatres. Here, the naqqal relates verses of the story of the Iranian hero Tus battling the Turanians, Iran’s historic enemy in Persian and English.