Qari’a: Not Just a Sura

Recitation of the Qur’an can be a spiritual experience for even those who don’t understand Arabic. The sounds and rhythms of the words remind listeners of the Qur’an’s poetry. For those who do understand Arabic, the experience is only more profound. In the Muslim world, the professional Qur’an reciter (qari’) releases tapes and CDs and become a famous figure. But it doesn’t take long to realize almost all Qur’an reciters are men.

I turned to The Art of Reciting the Qur’an by Kristina Nelson to find what I could about the female reciter, the qari’a. The index references only two pages. These turn out to be nothing more than a footnote.

Nelson writes, “The professional female reciter participates in another tradition, in which musicality is largely unconscious (and which men dismiss as ‘having no art’).” Instead of public figures, women perform only for other women and “the presence of the audience can be attributed more to the particular occasion than to her particular talent as a reciter.”

The Qur’an is at the heart of Islam. Why would recitation of it be so limited to men? According to Muslims who consider female recitation haram, a woman’s voice is inappropriate for men outside her family to hear. The assumption is that it invokes sexual desire in what should be spiritual and chaste.

So, if you’re looking for Qur’an recitations by females, you’ll have a hard time. In international recitation competitions, women have participated, in growing numbers, since 1965. Female recitation is not marketed or distributed the same way. Even on YouTube it’s hard to find recitations by females — that are neither for females only or clearly not public figures. There is an abundance of clips of little girls, even as young as two and three, hardly out of babyhood, reciting Qur’an, but no indication of what happens to them when they lose the cute baby faces. At the same time, you’ll have no problem finding women performing in other realms, such as film and music, as household names.

Southeast Asia is the prime exception to the rule. In this region of the world — primarily Malaysia and Indonesia but also Thailand, Brunei, the Philippines, Cambodia, and Singapore — female reciters do rise to the professional level. It’s not clear what makes these countries special, but they’re among the exceptions that pop up here and there. Egypt has had female reciters —Umm Kalthoum was broadcast reciting the Qur’an in the 1930s and 40s and 12-year-old Somaya Abdul ‘Aziz has been featured recently — but the art is dominated by men, as it is elsewhere. Another exception is Michael Sell’s book, Approaching the Qur’an, which includes a companion CD of Qur’an recitations for the reader can experience the sound of the Qur’an. The CD contains two female reciters: Hajjah Maria Ulfah of Indonesia (internationally recognized qari’a and “a bona fide celebrity,” pictured right) and Seemi Bushra Ghazi of Canada (professor at the University of British Columbia). Not only is the book not for a female-only audience, it does not even note the gender of the reciters included.

Again, these are the exceptions. Female recitation is generally ignored by the media — radio, CDs, tapes, and television show men as reciters — due to negative societal attitudes towards women reciting. Not only are these views patriarchal (women should have no authority over men), sexist (men’s voices cannot ever be “sexual”), heterocentric (men are aroused by women’s voices), hypersexual (a woman’s voice, even reciting sacred text, is sexy), they’re also objectifying: a woman is nothing more than the sexual messages her voice exudes. Females seem only to be appreciated for their recitation when they are of ages so young they can be trotted out as miraculous.

Leaving women out of an experience so profoundly spiritual — or delegating them to second class — implies that women’s spiritual capacity is burdened by their inescapable sensuality. According to this attitude, men can serve as religious public figures, but women aren’t pure enough for that. In effect it denies Muslim women the same connection to the Qur’an, the core of Islam, that men have. That doesn’t sound very Islamic to me.

And why is this issue not even discussed? I have yet to see a book or article on female Qur’an reciters. Besides on discussions on forums, email lists, and in occasional parts of academic books, this topic isn’t even considered. When will the media recognize that the Qur’an reciter is not always a man?

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