This article comes on Day 12 of our special Altmuslim/Patheos Muslim Ramadan #30Days30Writers blog project, in which we are showcasing the voices of 30 Muslim leaders, activists, scholars, writers, youth and more (one on each day of Ramadan) as part of our commitment to own our own narratives and show how we are one Ummah, many voices. To demonstrate how our Ramadan experiences are shared yet unique to each of us.
By Rabia Chaudry
Ramadan is the month of the Quran. It’s not just the month it was revealed to the Prophet (saw), but it’s also the month I frantically rummage around my car for Quran cds to trade out for the standard Qawaali/Bollywood/Disney tracks that entertain us (I know, it’s sad) for the other 11 months. I am nothing if not a true Ramadan warrior (again, sadly).
We all have our favorite Qaaris, those who literally haunt you with their recitation, squeeze tears to the surface, and bring God’s words to life — Mishary, Basit, Sudais. We can recognize them as soon as we hear them. They are the standard bearers for delivering with emotion and melody the tremendous institution that is the Quran. In the tradition of beautiful recitation we have international Qirat competitions, dedicated Qirat learning programs, and open most Muslim events with the Divine words intoned by one of our young men.
This is why a session last year at the annual ISNA conference was so jarring. One particular forum was opened with an extraordinarily beautiful recitation. But not by a young man. It was opened by a young woman — Tahera Ahmad, the associate Muslim chaplain at Northwestern University. Years before, when both Tahera and I lived in Connecticut, I had heard her recite Quran in my living room, but not with full throated, richly embodied Qirat. Not like this:
The room was so very still, and I remember this heat rising to my face as I listened, and finally it spilled out. I sat there crying quietly as Tahera continued. For me it was the most emotional and profound moment of that entire conference. I didn’t realize until weeks later why.
It was the first time I had heard Quran recited, as beautifully as I have ever heard it recited, by a woman. And so too, in a public gathering. It was the first time I heard the words of my Lord in the voice of our sisters, mothers, and daughters. Having the Arabic proficiency of a fourth grader myself (apologies to fourth graders), I certainly have never recited Quran with Qirat myself. And it never even occurred to me, in all these years, that I had never heard a Qaariah, a female reciter.
Recitation, like so many of our other spaces, is a space for men. Though we know Allah (swt) is above gender, the beautiful recitation of His words has been largely reserved for men in public spaces. And though just as stunningly moving from the lips of male Qaaris, half of the population has not only missed out on hearing the Quran recited with Qirat in their own voice, but has relinquished the right to do so. We’ve relinquished the very reason our voices were created — to recite The Recitation. Allah (swt) says “and recite the Qur’an in slow, measured rhythmic tones. (Quran 73:4)”. It is the right of the Quran not to be spoken, but to be recited.
It saddened and troubled me deeply that Tahera was harassed badly after her recitation. The link had to be removed from YouTube, and she received many admonitions that her voice (and the voice of women in general) is awrah. How the noble Aisha (RA) taught the sahaaba karaam, which is well documented, without her voice is a question to be directed to the critics. Perhaps they’ll distinguish by saying it’s not just voice, but a seductive voice. And I can only respond that the recitation of Quran should seduce us all towards Allah (swt), but if it seduces you in a base or vulgar way, you may need therapy.
Last year none of our respected scholars addressed the treatment Tahera received, but recently Imam Suhaib Webb did. I’m grateful to him, as should be all of us, for giving her and other women who may want to learn Qirat support and an authentic religious foundation to do so.
So this Ramadan, this month of the Quran, The Recitation, I am seeking out the voices that will speak to me and my daughters. Voices like this, this, and this. And I look forward to the day that I can, at an ISNA conference, purchase a cd set of the Quran recited in its entirety by Tahera.
Rabia Chaudry is an attorney, president of the Safe Nation Collaborative, an Associate Fellow of the Truman National Security Project, and a blogs at “Split the Moon” for the Muslim Channel at Patheos.