The Qur’an is a central document for Muslims in both theological and ritual ways. Seen as the very word of God, the way that the Torah is for observant Jews, the recitation of the Qur’an is a prime ritual for Muslims, akin to receiving the sacraments are for may Christians: the internalization of the Word of God, the Logos. What the body of Christ is for many Christians is the recitation of the Qur’an.
That makes the debates and controversies over women reciting the Qur’an in public all the more significant. As with many other issues, there is not one monolithic depiction of this issue, but one that ranges from place to place, and culture to culture. It would be highly unusual in an Arab or Persian context to have a woman recite the Qur’an in public in front of a mixed male/female audience. On the contrary, in Southeast Asia, there are large public competitions for Qur’an recitations that sometimes are so popular that they have to be held in soccer stadiums.
The American landscape offers a fascinating exercise in the contestation of these various norms: Given the mixed make-up of the American Muslim community, whose definition will hold? Will it the more conservative elements that have hitherto deemed women’s voices to be appropriate for women only contexts? Or will it be the more pluralistic contexts that have had no issue with women’s public voice?
One important moment was that of the chaplain at Northwestern University, Tahera Ahmad, publicly reciting the Qur’an at the 2013 national Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) conference. ISNA is the largest umbrella organization in the country, and this public recitation of the Qur’an by a female at ISNA, a first, has gathered a great deal of attention. Here is the video of Ms. Ahmad reciting the Qur’an in the 2013 ISNA.
Video courtesy DrSauniaAhmad via YouTube
Needless to say, this whole debate takes place in a much broader context of women’s spiritual, intellectual, economic, and political role and leadership in the Muslim community.
Tahera Ahmad is a particularly appropriate choice. As is often the case in these groundbreaking pioneers, they have such high credentials so as to satisfy even the most staunch conservatives.
Ms. Ahmed is a learned Muslim scholar who has studied in both traditional Islamic settings, obtaining certifications in Qur’an recitation from Al-Diwan and studied at the famed Al-Azhar in Egypt, as well as degrees in Women’s Leadership Institute from Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.
Ms. Ahmad herself pointed out to how this Qur’an recitation is not unusual in other countries, and counts Sharifah Khasif Fadzilah Syed Badiuzzaman as among her own heroes. Sharifah won a Qur’an recitation contest in 2009 in Indonesia front of male judges. Here is Sharifah’s recitation there.
In Malaysia Ms. Sharifah even produces music videos based on chanting the “Beautiful Names of God.”
Video courtesy Sharifahkhasif Production Sdn Bhd via YouTube
And here is a charming video in which a young Turkish female reciter beautifully matches–and surpasses–the recitation challenges issued to her by a much older male judge.
Here is an interview with Ms. Tahera Ahmad about the significance of this recitation.
For another heartfelt example of recitation of an Islamic hymn “Allahu Allahu”, see the first few minutes of this clip featuring the South Asian-Canadian (Via Chicago and North Carolina) vocalist Seemi Ghazi.
You can also listen to Seemi Ghazi’s exquisite Qur’an recitation through the CD included with Michael Sells’ Approaching the Qur’an volume.
The truth of the matter is that half of the recitation talent, like half of any other talent, in the Muslim community is found among its female citizens. To deprive a community of the opportunity to benefit from the leadership, recitation, interpretation of half of its members will allow it to be only half as good as it can be.
To listen to the Tahera Ahmads, the Seemi Ghazis, and the other female pioneers of the community is to be reminded of how rich it would be if indeed we could live up to the Qur’an’s own mandate, that there is no distinction among us except for the degree that we live in mindfulness of the Divine (taqwa).
If we state that God is neither male nor female, and we emphatically do, then we should be capable of listening to the words of that God coming from the mouth of women and men, children and adults. If God can speak through a burning bush, God can speak through a woman.