Living on a prayer: Champion Quran reader in full voice

Published April 18, 2021
In this picture taken on March 26, Hassan Ali Kasi, practices yoga as part of his training regime in Islamabad. — AFP
In this picture taken on March 26, Hassan Ali Kasi, practices yoga as part of his training regime in Islamabad. — AFP

ISLAMABAD: To master the art of Quran recitation, 21-year-old Hassan Ali Kasi had to follow a strict regime of yoga, hours of rehearsing vocal scales — and a total ban on biryani.

His dedication is paying off, and he was recently named champion of an international online qari competition hosted by Afghanistan, where he was up against men from 25 other countries.

Revered in Pakistan, qaris are professional reciters of the holy Quran, called upon to lead prayers at mosques and also to teach students.

They are in particularly high demand during Ramazan.

Kasi practises yoga to help with breath control, and vocal exercises to strengthen his voice

“It was a job of the prophets,” Kasi told AFP in Islamabad. “One of the very first elements of preaching was recitation. It is as old as Islam.”

Qaris require perfect Arabic pronunciation, a difficult feat in Pakistan where Urdu is the national language.

A finesse of rhythm and intonation produces the slow, melodic sound similar to the distinctive azaan, or call to prayer.

Recitations during competitions can last for 15 minutes, so Kasi practises yoga to help with breath control, and vocal exercises to strengthen his voice.

“A qari should be able to recite for a minimum of 50 seconds without taking a breath,” said Kasi, an Islamic Studies student at a university in the capital.

“The throat is very sensitive, a qari should avoid cold water and fatty food as it produces too much mucus, which causes abrasion when you touch high notes,” he cautioned.

Kasi was tutored in the Quran by his father, and his recitation skills quickly earned him recognition at the national level where he won numerous awards before making it onto the international stage.

A gift from God

Many qaris emerge after being taught at religious schools known as madressahs, where young boys are taught to memorise the Quran.

Education activists say the colossal effort that can often take years to master fails to prepare students for the workforce. But for millions of boys in Pakistan, it is the only schooling available, providing free shelter, clothes and food.

Boys who complete their studies can go on to become teachers or lead prayers at mosques around the world — even if they earn little money from it.

“One has to be meticulously hardworking,” said Abdul Qudus, from the Wafaqul Madaris al-Arabia, the country’s largest group of madressahs.

“The voice is a gift from God, but one has to polish it.” He said hundreds of prayer leaders in the Middle East are madressah graduates, while others are now teaching the Quran online to Pakistanis living overseas in Europe or America.

Kasi, who spends hours practising verses ahead of competitions, said quality teachers were the key to his winning voice.

“When you follow a good qari, you can spread your voice across the world,” he said.

Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2021

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