Sheikh Abul-Einein She'isha: In tune with Heaven
He reads with a sublimity born of love
Profile by Aziza Sami
"The Book was revealed in Mecca, printed in Istanbul and recited in Egypt" (Popular Egyptian saying)
Sheikh Abul-Einein She'isha sat upright on the dining room chair. A smile played across his lips, as he listened to the young boy sitting on the sofa in front of him recite the Qur'an. The sheikh gently censured the 12-year-old whenever he went slightly off-key. "You mustn't let your mind wander back home to your friends that you play with. It's not enough to have a beautiful voice. You must have a good ear and know how to listen."
Throughout their dialogue, the sheikh was always encouraging. He knows how to hide his inner disappointment. "A good voice, but no concentration," he commented later.
The session between the 83-year-old She'isha, Egypt's leading Qur'anic reciter, and the young boy from the Governorate of Sharqiya, was part of an assignment which the sheikh has accepted to present two new young readers of the Qur'an to the president every year. The initiation takes place during the official celebrations of Mulid Al-Nabi (the Prophet Mohamed's birthday) and Laylat Al-Qadr (the night when the first verse of the Holy Qur'an was revealed).
Despite his grand old age, the sheikh still wakes up every day with the first rays of dawn in order to read five parts ( ajzaa ) of the Qur'an. "You must never part company with the Holy Book, or else it will leave you," he explains.
This silent daily ritual acts as a spiritual catalyst, and enables him to maintain the level of artistic and professional excellence which has made him one of Egypt and the Islamic world's greatest Qur'anic reciters.
She'isha was born in Biyala in the Governorate of Kafr Al-Sheikh. Unlike most Qur'anic reciters, he went to secular schools at both primary and secondary levels. None of his family members had a religious education, or even recited the Qur'an, though at that time recitation was a common trade in the countryside. "It just grew on me. I'd listen to the reciter at funerals, and stay until I fell asleep under his chair."
So the sheikh slowly learnt the Qur'an by listening to others. In particular, he listened to the great master Sheikh Mohamed Rifaat, who he got to know personally when he came to Cairo as a young man. "It is mainly through proper listening that one knows how the Qur'an should be read. It is not simply a matter of following rules which are laid down in books."
Today, as head of the Syndicate for Reciters of the Holy Qur'an, She'isha oversees the affairs of the 5,000 or so Qur'anic reciters who are syndicate members. Having succeeded in establishing a headquarters for the syndicate, "on a par with any of the major syndicates, like the doctors or engineers," his next aim is to raise the pensions currently received by retired reciters from a mere LE15 every month to LE100. "The People's Assembly has asked for LE1 million to be allotted to the syndicate, but the government obviously has other priorities. I hope I will live a bit longer, in order to bring about an increase in pensions."
Sheikh She'isha received us in his modest apartment in Al-Sibaq Street in Heliopolis on a Thursday at noon. It is Ramadan. He courteously offered us something to drink, "in case anyone is not fasting".
Soon we heard the call for noon prayer coming from just round the corner where the Al-Khulafaa Al-Rashidin Mosque (the mosque of the Rightly Guided Caliphs) stands. The mosque is only a few metres from the house where She'isha lives, which he built himself in the 1960s. Every day he walks to Al- Khulafaa Al-Rashidin, where he is head of the board. The building has seen several extensions under She'isha's auspices, and is now one of Heliopolis' leading houses of prayer. An International Institute for Qur'anic Reciting, also founded by She'isha, stands in its grounds, attracting students from different parts of the Islamic world.
The sheikh does not recite there, however. He saves himself for Al-Sayida Zeinab Mosque, where he reads the "Sura of the Cave" each Friday. "The voice is still not bad," he smiles. And as he speaks, you can hear just the hint of a tremor in this voice which so affects its listeners when it lends its powers to rendering the Qur'an.
While we sat with him, the phone rang almost incessantly. There was no wireless hand-set within reach to make things easy for the sheikh. Each time, he would get up and walk over to the old- fashioned telephone which stood on a table in a vestibule outside the sitting room. Yet despite his age, he remains both physically and mentally agile, in no small part thanks to his adherence to "the sacred ritual" of walking for one hour every day round the Merryland Park not far from his house.
One caller was a reporter from the ruling National Democratic Party's magazine Al-Liwaa Al-Islami. He asked if it was "wrong" for one of today's popular young singers to recite the Qur'an.
The question appeared strange to the sheikh. For him, it was clearly a non- issue. "What if a singer recites the Qur'an?" he responded. "Wasn't Sheikh Mohamed Rifaat the mentor of singers and composers like Umm Kulthum and Abdel-Wahab in the 1920s? Did not the great Sheikh Ali Mahmoud, who was Rifaat's contemporary, sing with his own voice to Abdel-Wahab, showing him how to move from one maqam (scale) to another, or how to make a difficult transition from one part of the composition to the other?"
The furniture in the sheikh's living room has mellowed with age. There are photographs everywhere -- on the wall, on the sideboard next to the dining table, and on the small bookshelf in the corner of the room. One exquisitely printed black-and-white image shows an elegant and well-built young man with jet-black hair and moustache, dressed in suit and tie: it is the sheikh himself, captured on film in the 1950s. In another picture on the wall, he appears as a handsome youth proudly sporting the medal given to him by the king of Iraq in the late 1940s, Wisam Al-Rafidayn (the Medal of the Two Rivers).
Yet another image from the early 1960s taken at the seaside at Ras Al-Bar depicts She'isha, his eldest son Mohamed Hossam, and his wife -- a pretty young woman with windswept hair. How did he meet her? "I married her because I loved her," he says, as if in this blunt statement lay the answer. Then he quickly adds: "She was from Cairo, not from a rural background like me."
The little boy in the photograph is now a grown man. "Mohamed teaches medicine in the United States," explains the sheikh. "He specialises in family medicine, which is an important concept, but one which has still not caught on here in Egypt."
He picks up a framed photograph of Mohamed and his American wife, taken during their wedding, and stands looking at it. He "can't wait" for them to come with their two sons to visit him at Christmas, he tells us.
The sheikh's younger son Mahmoud -- an agricultural engineer who used to work for the Agricultural Credit Bank -- never married. He chose to live with his father after his mother died seven years ago. "I was against this, because he should get married. But he would not change his mind."
His daughter Mona lives in a flat on the floor above him. He will often have his Iftar with her during Ramadan. Mona studied to be a simultaneous translator, but then chose to stay at home and raise her children. Only she, of all his children, has inherited her father's beautiful voice. None of his offspring recite the Qur'an out loud, he says, "not even as a hobby. They've chosen to go on with their professional careers. And if they ever do recite," he adds with a wry smile, "they never do it in front of me."
To receive us, the sheikh is impeccably dressed in a quftan, the traditional garb of men of religion, made from good quality cloth. Still handsome, he cuts a dignified figure. His apartment, however, is extremely simple. Yet he refuses to take any credit for his austerity. "I'm too old really to go anywhere, to travel around the Arab countries or the Gulf and make a lot of money the way today's reciters do." And of course he is too much a gentleman to mention that none of his "rivals" who are so much in demand can measure up to him in their art.
Today, the sheikh is the last survivor of the generation that grew up alongside the legendary Mohamed Rifaat. His name stands with those of legends such as Mohamed Al-Saifi, Abdel-Fattah Al- Shi'shaai, Khalil Al-Hosari, Mostafa Ismail, and Siddiq Al-Minshawi. The recitation of these great masters demonstrated the supreme beauty of the tradition of Qur'anic rendering, abundant with nuance and expressive melody, which had developed in Egypt. "You know the saying," the sheikh asks, "that the Qur'an was 'revealed in Mecca, printed in Istanbul, and recited in Egypt'." Though he is quick to add his admiration for the reciting tradition of Iran.
It was She'isha who was solicited by the mufti of the late King Farouk to recite at the first-ever celebration of Ramadan in the royal palace. This event marked the beginning of his fame. In 1939, at the age of 17, he became the youngest-ever reciter to read the Qur'an on the Egyptian broadcasting service, four years after Sheikh Rifaat had started the tradition. More recently, She'isha undertook, in a purely voluntary capacity, to complete with his own voice the inaudible portions of a number of old recordings by Sheikh Rifaat. It was an arduous task, he remembers, "where recording one letter could take up to five hours."
She'isha was also selected to inaugurate the British Broadcasting Corporation's Arabic service, and later, he would grace Egyptian television with live broadcasts of his Qur'anic reciting.
When he visited Iraq in the late 1940s to recite at the funeral of Queen Alia, the sheikh insisted on responding to a request from the prisoners at one of the country's jails that he recite the Qur'an live in front of them. Despite his hosts' protestations, and their fear for "his life", he went ahead. The experience, he says, was "life-changing" -- just as it must have been for many of the prisoners.
For the sheikh, religion is "life itself. It is doing things with love and feeling for others. Sometimes when I see a child weeping," he confides, "I feel that I want to cry too."
This is a faith that may seem far- removed from the feverish obsession with boundaries, with ritualistic right and wrong, which characterises the religious rhetoric of today. But for the sheikh, Islam, along with every other religion, means tolerance, empathy in dealing with others, and a sense of humour with which he refuses to part.
Yet not everything is smooth sailing. Traditionally, Egyptian television has broadcast the sheikh's sublime azan call for sunset prayer each day, and during Ramadan the call would be preceded by a Qur'anic recital. Yet this year, abruptly and without warning, these appearances were cancelled, only a few days before the Holy Month began, for no apparent reason.
The sheikh confides in us that the decision was not only hurtful, but he still does not fully understand why it was made.
Still, there is the Qur'an. When he recites the holy text, which he has recited countless times in the course of his long life, he still dwells upon the interpretation of the verses and seeks a deeper understanding of their meaning. "When you recite the word 'sky', it must be on the right note, so as to bring the listener the sense of loftiness," he explains. "And when you recite the word 'earth', the tone must go down a bit and convey the expansiveness of the earth as it spreads out before you beneath the sky, as it says in the Holy Qur'an."
Once again, we heard the sound of azan al-'asr, the call to afternoon prayer at the Khulafaa Al-Rashidin Mosque, floating in through the window, as if from afar. "It is a question of feeling," says the sheikh, simply. "You must be moved by what you read, for others to be moved by you."