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?

  • Shawna

    I’ve noticed that post-9/11 documentaries on Islam usually have a woman reciting Qur’an and/or givng the call to prayer, and no mention is ever made of it being a woman that does it. But I do find it sad that it’s such a big deal. Some of the most moving recitation I’ve heard has been by women at bridal showers.

  • Samira

    Assalaamualaikum-I actually just ordered a tape off of Soundvision featuring Hajjah Rahman bint Hajj Abdul Rahman and Hajjah Ruqayah bint Sulung-Amin. I’ll let you know what I think!

  • Mezzo

    To answer your question about Southeast Asia:Southeast Asia is famous for having a smaller gender divide, historically, and in the present day. In the past, it was rare for women to wear the hijab – (more commonly referred to as the tudung here). Southeast Asia also has the Minangkerbau, an Islamic matriachal society. Historians have noted that the Southeast Asian countries, partially due to lack of manpower, simply could not envisage a world where the women did not work alongside the men, which led to a comfortable acceptance of women in the public sphere. In fact, in certain parts of Indonesia, girls were more valued than boys. Over the recent years, there are parts that have become more conservative, thanks to Arabic influence. However, it’s hard to override 500 years of relative gender equality. (RELATIVE gender equality, not perfect equality(.

  • Melinda

    Thanks for information, Mezzo!

  • Samira

    Update: The tape is discontinued. I’m pissed. If anyone can hook me up with some information it would be appreciated.

  • ANMB

    Dear Melinda,

    Are you familiar with the work of Dr. Anne K. Rasmussen? An excerpt from her site below:


    Rasmussen’s research and publications encompass three related interests: Music and culture in the Middle East, with a special interest in the Arab diaspora, American musical multiculturalism, and gender, politics and religion in Indonesia. Based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork in Indonesia, her book “Women’s Voices, the Recited Qur’an and Islamic Musical Arts in Indonesia” is under contract with the University of California Press. Her continuing teaching and research on Music and Culture in the Middle East and Arab world culminated most recently in the 5th edition of the popular text Worlds of Music, Edited by Jeff Titon, which includes her new chapter “The Arab World” (Schirmer 2008). Her interest in Arab American music and community and American musical multiculturalism is represented most significantly in the book Multicultural Musics of America that she co-edited with Kip Lornell (Schirmer 1997). She has also been involved in the production of a four compact disc recordings.

    Honors, Prizes, and Awards

    Rasmussen was a Fulbright senior scholar in Indonesia and a scholar in residence at Cornell University. She is the recipient of the Jaap Kunst Prize for the best article published in the field of Ethnomusicology in 2001 and received a Phi Beta Kappa Award for excellence in teaching. She has served on the board of the Society for Ethnomusicology and is quite active on the conference circuit. She has been invited as a distinguished speaker at a number of universities and conferences and is very involved in programming a diverse array of performers and scholars at the college. She has hosted three conferences at William and Mary. She is also the winner of the “William and Mary Raft Debate” and invites anyone to her office to see the handsome Raft Debate plaque that hangs on her wall!

    P.S. If you email me directly, I will forward the ward-winning article to you, insha’Allah.