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Volume 51, Number 3May/June 2000

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Recited from the Heart

Written by Noura Durkee
Photographed by Eric Haase

"Iqra"’—"Recite!"—is the first revealed word of the Qur'an. Through more than 1400 years of history this command has moved countless souls not only to study and memorize the holy book but also to read aloud its verses, first passed by the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad. In the bustle of madrasas (Qur'anic schools), in the intimacy of homes and in the grand public spaces of mosques around the world, the Qur'an is proclaimed, recited, chanted and sung. Such recitation is so much a part of Muslims' lives—an act of worship, a ritual necessity—that it is seldom regarded as an art form. Yet from time to time, great reciters arise. Although they are worshipers like all others, their recitation moves their listeners to a depth that indeed is characteristic of art. Such reciters are a handful in a generation; one in a million, perhaps one in ten million, or more.

Hajjah Maria 'Ulfah is one of these. Since the mid-1980's, she has been one of the most influential and popular Qur'an reciters in all Southeast Asia. She is a scholar of the history of Qur'anic recitation in the Indonesian archipelago and a lecturer and teacher at the Institute for Qur'an Study in Jakarta, as well as a member of the board of several institutions concerned with Islamic and Qur'anic education. She gave her first recitals in the United States this past November, and in Washington, D.C. she was honored at the annual conference of the Middle East Studies Association.

She recited in the ballroom of the conference's hotel—a dauntingly impersonal setting. Some of her listeners chose to sit on the floor, which relieved the cool banality of the architecture. Hajjah Maria entered quietly and sat on the floor as well. She placed a Qur'an in front of her, and straightforwardly described the five styles of recitation that she would demonstrate.

When she began, the sound came out of silence on a note so low it was hard to believe it was a woman's voice. It grew to fill the room so completely that suddenly the ballroom seemed small. Its authority was complete. By perfect breath control and the subtle modulation of tongue and lips that formed letters and syllables, she controlled the volume and the timbre of the words. When she stopped and began matter-of-factly to discuss again the styles of reading she had demonstrated, the effect was jarring.

This simple quality of deftly moving between the exalted world of the Qur'an and the everyday world of teaching, organizing and running a college seems to characterize Hajjah Maria. The intensive training which she has undergone since she was very young has nurtured a character at once joyful and intensely focused. She began reciting at home, she says, where her father recognized her talent when she was in the first grade. He encouraged her to memorize the Qur'an, which she began to do, like many other children, before she actually studied Arabic. By the time she was 18, she had attained a high degree of technical excellence in reciting the Qur'an. Age and experience soon carried her art well beyond technique.

"As a child, I didn't like to study Qur'an because my parents forced me to. Every evening when it was time for me to study, I would run away to my friend's house and hope nobody noticed. After a week my parents ceased to mention it. Only after that did the desire arise in me to study it," she says.

Although Islam came to Indonesia in the 15th century, Qur'an recitation followed a single, simple style there until six Egyptians—among them Abdul Basit Abdus Samad, one of the greatest modern reciters—came to teach after Indonesia became independent after World War II. The Egyptian reciters introduced Indonesians to the seven qira'at (recitations), which have been passed down since the time of the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions. Like the styles of calligraphy, which always adhere to a canon, a perfect form, each of these modes of recitation follows the exact text of the Qur'an and the tajwid, or rules of recitation—but each has its unique mood, flourishes, tempo, pitch, vocal "color" and durations of certain notes and pauses. The reciter, Hajjah Maria explains, must understand the meaning of what is being said and match the style to it. For example, one might use a regal mode for passages that reveal God's laws, and a more sensitive or quiet mode for passages that relate to personal spirituality. One mode might suit public competitions, weddings or other celebrations—such as mujawwad, the most melodic and popular style—while another would better suit recitation at home.

Hajjah Maria has been a popularizer of what in Indonesia is now called "Egyptian style" both in her own recitations and as director of the women's department of the Institute for Qur'an Study, where she oversees some 800 women who aspire to become teachers of Qur'an. From their first day, her students must memorize, and the Qur'an is traditionally divided into 30 parts for this purpose.

"The students already read Arabic, as that is one of the conditions for entering the institute. Then they have to use a certain mushaf [written copy of the Qur'an] in order to remember. Usually every juz' [30th part] has 20 pages. The way it is laid out is easy to memorize. Every day the student must memorize four pages. If you don't do it that way, you can't finish, and you want to be able to memorize it in four years. Four pages every day: four years. But it depends on the talent of a particular student: Some can do it faster."

They walk up and down, back and forth, and repeat, repeat, repeat. Then they sit, two students with a teacher, for correction. The student recites, and the teacher guides her according to tajwid. In another class, students learn melodic recitation, and in others, meaning. They earn the title of hafiz, or memorizer of the Qur'an. After graduation, they go back to their villages to teach, become judges, or take on other functions.

"Of course, many of the students know quite a lot when they arrive," Hajjah Maria adds with a smile, referring to the study of Qur'an which is nowadays enormously popular in Indonesia. On busy streets, shops sell cassette and compact-disc recordings of the Qur'an by famous reciters—including Hajjah Maria—and these are played frequently, in all kinds of places, at all sorts of times. Among young people, Qur'an reciters enjoy the kind of celebrity status that is elsewhere the domain of pop-music and sports stars, and they are encouraged in this by families, the government and businesses, all of which sponsor Qur'an recitation competitions throughout the archipelago, from the village to the national and even international levels. Boys and girls from schools, clubs, and islands compete in displays of talent that take on a festival aura: colorful parades, marching bands, vast floral decorations and judging by prominent local and national officials. The competitions, Hajjah Maria says, are a cultural phenomenon that unites the diverse people of Indonesia. And the girls and boys, she says, participate in roughly equal numbers. "Qur'an is Qur'an," she says, "and whether you are male or female makes no difference" in Indonesia or in other Islamic countries.

Part of the reason for the flourishing of Qur'an recitation, says Hajjah Maria, may be the pesantren school system. (See Aramco World, November /December 1990.) The word comes from santri, itself a derivative of the Sanskrit shastri, "a man learned in the scriptures." Now private Islamic schools that teach from kindergarten through the university level, the pesantren schools are an adaptation of the Buddhist monastery system that existed in Indonesia before the coming of Islam. Since the 19th century in particular, they have provided a strong foundation for Indonesia's religious and national life.

The pesantren, Hajjah Maria explains, is spartan and rigorously communal. Fifty students may sleep in one large room, taking their bedrolls out of a cabinet at night and returning them in the morning. The food is the simplest, and all the work is shared. Traditional Qur'anic knowledge is taught all day. In times past, upon completion of training, the student was expected to return to his or her home village and set up a new school; today, how- ever, with the wide popularity of pesantren schools, graduates in fact serve in all walks of life, including government As Hajjah Maria describes the regimen, noting that she too attended a pesantren school, I begin to understand something of her focus and humility.

There are several the melodic lines of Qur'an recitation, and each teacher develops his or her own way of passing them on. Because it is inappropriate to experiment with the Qur'an or to take liberties with its punctuation, students begin with poems from classical Arab literature that demonstrate certain rhythm and runs of sound. By playing and practicing with these, the students gain the skills to tackle the Qur'an itself.

Does public competition in reciting the Qur'an interfere with religious understanding? Hajjah Maria says it does not: "The tradition of musabaqat tilawat al-Qur'an [Qur’an recitation contests] arises genuinely from the teachings of Islam, which urge Muslims to read and learn the Qur’an in order to be able understand and practice their religion properly. Every Muslim is expected to be able to read the Qur'an, at least in a simple manner for the purpose of performing prayers.

"There are, however, children and young people who are blessed with good voices," she adds in her own clear, soft tones. "They understandably pursue further the study of the techniques of recitation of the Qur'an."

Abdul Basit Abdus Samad, one of the great reciters who brought Egyptian traditions of recitation to Indonesia, said that "the Qur'an, when recited from the heart, reaches the heart". Hajjah Maria's voice does just that.

Noura Durkee is a writer and illustrator who specializes in children’s story drawn from the Qur’an . She lives with her family in rural Virginia.

Eric haase
is a free-lance photographer living in Washington,D.C. area.

This article appeared on pages 32-35 of the May/June 2000 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 2000 images.