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. Read more…