COLUMBIA — Mohamed El-Sayed Deif has come to America for Ramadan for the past 15 years, bringing his expertise and resonating voice to mosques around the country.
A renowned Quran reciter from Egypt, Deif isn’t sure what made him choose to visit a small city in the middle of Missouri this year.
But he’s glad to be here.
“It’s God’s will,” said Deif through an interpreter, Samer Arafat, a visiting scholar from Jordan.
Deif is reciting the entire Quran — a little piece of the holy text every day — to a crowd of listeners at the Islamic Center of Central Missouri. He started on the first day of Ramadan, Sept. 13, and will continue the daily recitations until the Muslim holy month ends at sundown Oct. 12.
“I have more feeling here (in Columbia),” said Deif, a large man with a big smile. “In Egypt, people are used to listening to me and to other reciters nationwide. Here, people are anxious to listen to something otherwise not available.”
Deif began focusing on recitation when he was 10 years old, after his father noticed a rhythmic cadence to his son’s voice. Deif began working on memorizing the Quran in his hometown of Tanah. He later moved to Cairo to attend a five-year college that taught him how to properly recite the 114 chapters, or surahs, which are comprised of 6,236 verses, or ayats.
“My father noticed I had a melodious voice and encouraged me to go this way,” Deif said. “I have an observant family, so they appreciate reciting the Quran much more than going into music.”
A person who is able to recite the entire Quran is called a qari (reciter) or hafiz (protector). In the Muslim world, reciting the Quran is considered a fine art, and a qari is accorded respect and admiration. Although all Muslims are taught pieces of the Quran, only a few work to memorize the entire work and perfect their recitation skills, said Furqaan Sadiq, a member of the Muslim Student Organization at MU.
Muslims believe that the Quran is the direct word of God as revealed to Muhammad in Arabic by the angel Gabriel during the month of Ramadan. Deif said the Quran was “best recited by Muhammad, peace be upon him, and those who listened to him were the next best. It’s a sort of chain of command.”
In order to keep the recitation as pure and true as possible, Deif said, all qaris learn to recite from a teacher who has learned it from another teacher, all the way back to the first followers of Muhammad.
Today, Deif is considered among the best reciters in the world. When he was younger, he competed in official Quran recitation contests in Egypt, earning accolades and the respect of other reciters. In 1965, he placed third among all reciters in Egypt for the quality of his recitation; in 1967, he was chosen first for his memorization skills, and later, Egypt certified him as an official reciter.
“When it comes out of the heart, it goes to the heart of the listeners,” he said, pointing at his chest, then at the chests of the others in a small room at the Islamic Center. “My spirit ascends when I recite, and I feel it affects the people who are listening to me.”
Although he no longer recites in competitions, Deif’s voice reaches 70 million Egyptians each week who tune in to listen to his TV and radio show. The recitations have been broadcast by the Union of the Egyptian Radio and TV for 30 years.
Deif has visited more than 20 countries to do recitations. He was invited to visit Columbia during Ramadan by the Islamic Center’s board of directors, who were searching for a famous Quran reciter, said Arafat, who is doing independent research at MU.
Deif hopes his recitation will affect the people who listen the same way it affects him. That’s part of the reason he loves being a qari, he said.
“When I recite the Quran, I feel God’s presence, and the meanings become apparent and obvious to the soul,” Deif said. “I feel like it’s a feeling full of life, like a very sunny day. I feel very optimistic, and I have a lot of love for other people, whether Muslim or not Muslim, it doesn’t matter.”