Egypt’s Forgotten Women Quran Reciters

The rise and fall of these voices reveals the shifting religious and secular realms of the Arab world's most populous country

Egypt’s Forgotten Women Quran Reciters
Mounira Abdo, both a reciter of the Quran and a singer, lost her eyesight at 16. (Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines)

On Sunday, May 17, 1936, Karima el-Adleya’s schedule for the day looked busy. At 10 a.m., she was going to be reciting passages of the Quran on Egyptian Radio, the country’s national radio station — specifically, the first two quarters of Surat al-Hajj. Then, at 10:30 p.m. that evening, she was going to sing a cover of Umm Kulthum’s song “Law Kont Asameh.”

Shortly after that, when someone criticized her in the papers for her double role as a reciter by day and singer by night, she would set aside her singing career and settle on becoming a full-time Quran reciter. After all, she had become a household name for many Egyptians who would switch on their radio sets just to hear her popular recitations.

Adleya and other women reciters, most famously Mounira Abdo and Khoga Ismail, held regular spots on Egyptian radio programming and, although airtime for daily Quranic recitations on the radio was usually reserved for and dominated by male sheikhs, it was not uncommon for professional female reciters in early 20th-century Egypt to fill those spaces. In fact, from the 1920s and into the late ’30s, a handful of women reciters were able to hold down positions in radio and freely broadcast their voices. In doing so, they would taste short-lived fame, become figures of colossal repute in their professions and — if only for a brief period — reshape Quran reciting in Egypt and its stone-etched customs and norms.

Yet they would disappear from the scene as quickly as they had entered it, as their voices and how they chose to use them became the subject of religious and institutional scrutiny. An eventual ban on women reciters’ voices would turn the page on this chapter in Egyptian history, during which this remarkable, perhaps even feminist profession was possible. In the wake of this episode, the reasoning behind the ban would cast a long shadow over women’s social and religious freedoms.

Not much is known about the women Quran reciters of the early 20th century, although what little is documented about them is inspiring. The stories of their careers emerge from a variety of sources, including documentaries by media outlets like Al Jazeera and the Egyptian radio station Nogoum FM, books by Egyptian writers like “The History of Egyptian Radio” by Hilmi Ahmed Shalabi and “Melodies From Heaven” by Mahmoud el-Saadany, academic research papers and also primary archival sources from the era, such as broadcast schedules, letters to the editor and magazine articles and photographs.

Adleya was born Karima Mohamed el-Adl in 1914. At 5, her father passed away. Her brother thought it was a good idea to send her to a kuttab — an Islamic community school — where she memorized the entire Quran by the age of 11. However, throughout her childhood she suffered from headaches and inexplicable episodes of pain, until doctors told her she would eventually lose her eyesight, which she did at 16. That didn’t stop her from joining the Arab Music Institute, where for three years she learned to play the oud and sing maqamat — the pitches and modes used to create melodies in Arabic music. After graduating, she recorded two commercial songs and began reciting the Quran on local community radio. The latter was her ticket to fame.

From 1923, several community radio stations sprang up across Cairo and Alexandria. They were, as their name suggests, local and unregulated, and categorized as amateur radio. As they proliferated and became more popular in the late 1920s — with estimates of the number of stations ranging widely from a dozen to more than a hundred — their reach expanded. As they happened to be privately owned, they also had the power to freely broadcast whatever they wanted, and Quranic recitations were a major item on their programming.

Some female reciters, like Adleya and Abdo, shot to stardom through such community radio. Egypt was the capital of mass media in the Middle East and, through newspapers, gramophone recordings and other means, they became known to listeners across the Arab world.

Adleya’s peer, Abdo was 18, blind and frail when she first made a public appearance on community radio in 1920. Listeners took to her immediately. It wasn’t long before “her voice reverberated across the Arab world,” rivaling the biggest sheikhs of the era, according to Saadany’s “Melodies of Heaven.” Community stations would compete to have her on. One story relates how a wealthy Tunisian man, captivated by her recitation, invited her to his palace in 1925. When she turned him down, he then decided to travel to Egypt and attend every recitation she gave throughout the holy month of Ramadan. The government eventually forced the community stations to shut down in May 1934 and consolidated public broadcasting through a single radio station run by the British Marconi Co. but affiliated with the state. The women were hired by Egyptian Radio as certified reciters, Abdo being the first of 30 female reciters.

On April 22, 1935, Abdo went on air for the first time. She would be the only female reciter on national radio for a whole year, before being joined by Adleya and Ismail. Abdo’s popularity quickly soared. In January 1936, when she was 34, her photograph was featured alongside other big-name male reciters in the print issue of Radio Magazine. In the photograph, she looks like she had a lot of swagger for her time: She has perfectly round black glasses on, a kerdan-type necklace covering part of her bare chest and a dark shade of lipstick that looks black in monochrome. Her draping veil falls neatly across her shoulders and arms and around her plump figure. She isn’t smiling to the camera, but is rather looking slightly to the side as if she knew exactly what her angle was. Her whole demeanor gives off a cool, expressionless vibe.

But it was her trademark voice, which carried the notes of the Quran through its steady rhythm, that would earn her recognition, even in London and Paris, where recordings of her recitations would also be broadcast. The BBC, for instance, captured a “madeeh” (a religious song praising the Prophet Muhammad) that she sang to celebrate the prophet’s Night Journey. Though undated, the record is nothing short of captivating. As in other recordings that have survived of her reciting the Quran, there is a quavering lilt that rings through her booming, almost mournful, voice as she paces herself and moves through every word, even every letter, with controlled steadiness, a phonetic feat that seems effortless.

As for Adleya, there is no extant public recording of her except for a brief 30-second clip from a film called “Allah Maana,” in which she appeared in 1955. The scene shows the actor Faten Hamama walking into a home funeral held by the widows of the Egyptian officers who fought in the 1948 war. She stands dazed in front of a row of chairs, and a woman draped in a black veil at the opposite end of the room calls out to her to sit down, and starts reciting a verse of the Quran about martyrdom. Her resonant voice belts through the room, and the camera makes a sweep of the faces of the widows left somber and lachrymose by Adleya’s recitation.

Saadany describes her as having a “sweet” voice, so sweet that it seems to have captured the heart of her future husband, the famous Sheikh Ali Mahmoud, who was a well-known reader, musical virtuoso and teacher. It is said that Sheikh Mahmoud preferred Adleya’s voice to his students’, who included such giants as Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Umm Kulthum and reciters like Mohamed Refaat, and would follow her around to functions just to hear her perform. Adleya would also visit Al-Hussein mosque before the crack of dawn to hear Sheikh Mahmoud give the call to fajr prayers. That is how their love blossomed into a marriage and, for a portion of their professional lives, they shared the airwaves of public radio together.

Adleya and Abdo’s life trajectories seem to have aligned many times. They both built their names as professional reciters after appearing on community radio. They both had extreme skill. When she first moved into radio, Abdo, for example, would be paid half the wages of her male counterparts (a relatively high fee for the time, and a testament to her skill and competence as a reciter). Both Adleya and Abdo would become regular performers at funerals, religious events and “moulids” (local festivals celebrating religious figures). Adleya was connected to a who’s who of Egyptian society and is known to have recited at the funerals of the director Ahmed Salem and the physician Ali Musharafa. She continued to do so late into the 1950s, as she became well-acquainted with the wives of the Free Officers, who led a revolt against the British-backed monarchy. In the ’30s, both women had reached the peak of their fame and their names were printed frequently in the broadcast schedules in papers and magazines.

But all of this would not last. In 1939, some sheikhs issued a fatwa that ruled that “sot el mara awrah” (“a woman’s voice is unchaste/a form of nakedness”). It is not clear which sheikhs made the fatwa, nor what its text was beyond the reverberating phrase that is still used by conservatives today, but it is evident that Egyptian Radio responded swiftly by banning most women reciters. Listeners were enraged and demanded they be brought back. One listener even wrote a letter to the editor in the 1948 issue of Al-Radio Wal-Bakoka magazine, wondering how Egypt, as a beacon of women’s rights, could ban women from reciting on the radio, and suggesting that if Umm Kulthum were invited to recite the Quran on air every week, religious leaders would withdraw their fatwa.

Although the media gatekeepers strictly abided by this religious view (even the BBC and other foreign radio stations stopped playing recordings of women in fear of backlash from religious authorities in Egypt), there seem to have been some attempts on the inside to bring back the women. For example, a March 1949 article from Al-Radio Wal-Bakoka refers to a “new” opinion among the committee responsible for examining reciters, holding that the women should be put back on air, and mentions Mounira Abdo as the reciter of choice because “her voice has value to listeners.” By then, Abdo’s career would have likely ended years prior.

Between 1936 and 1940, broadcasts of female reciters were phased out, dropping significantly after 1939. From 1937, there were only three spots a week for female reciters, which were occupied in turn by Abdo, Adleya and another radio favorite named Khoga Ismail. Then Ismail suddenly disappeared from the airwaves. In 1938, the recitations went down to one segment a week.

Egyptian Radio brought on another reciter named Mounira el-Masry in 1939 but dropped her in mid-1940. The last time Adleya’s name appeared in the regular broadcast schedule printed in Al-Ahram newspaper in the “What Are You Listening to Today?” column was Sept. 25, 1939. She then took a long break from the air and returned for monthly appearances between May and September of 1946.

Abdo was dropped from national broadcasts on Nov. 4, 1940. But she worked out another contract and made a comeback in 1945 — this time for a 90-minute program consisting of poetry and a type of religious song called “tawasheeh.” The program did not continue for long and she went back to giving Quranic recitations from April to October of 1946, accepting a wage of 3 Egyptian pounds, a third of what she made in her heyday.

Later, in a 1949 interview with the Egyptian weekly magazine Akher Saa, Abdo revealed that the radio station enforced two bans, one in 1941 and another in 1945. She implied that the fatwa sprang up in response to the public demand to bring female readers back, and that, following a disagreement she had with radio executives, “They came up with reasons to silence listeners who were demanding I come back.” She recounted that she and other reciters were suddenly informed that their recitations could pose a legal-religious (or sharia) problem, and that the radio was consulting Egypt’s grand mufti at the time — Hassanein Makhlouf — who, four years later, had still not given them an answer.

It seems there was some motive to get women off air, although experts and historians are unable to trace the exact fatwa responsible and say it is nonexistent in official ledgers or records; how and why it originated remains unknown. Speaking to various historians and researchers, I was given different explanations for why this religious opinion might have taken hold, including that there was an unknown “malicious intent” behind its release or that it was associated with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was created in 1928, and the latter’s politics on gender, or that it was the result of “an aligning of interests between the Brotherhood and the British during World War II.” Another reason is that, as these women became stars, they burned too brightly, and too closely to their male counterparts. The musicologist Kristina Nelson, who has studied Quranic recitation traditions extensively, writes that, “In keeping with traditional Muslim ideals, the professional female reciter is in no sense a public figure. She is neither broadcast over the media nor featured as a personality, nor is she recorded by the public or by commercial companies.”

The celebrity-like status reached by our female reciters clearly contradicted this tradition, if not upended it (despite the fact that professional reciters and religious singers are recorded as a constant presence, usually performing in private homes or coffee houses, or in funerals as “wailers,” from the 19th century onward). Economically, the reciters were also catching up to men when it came to wages. Nelson herself, while researching her seminal book “The Art of Reciting the Quran,” asked why women reciters were stopped from broadcasting, and the answer she was given was that, “A woman’s voice makes one think of things other than God.”

The possibility of inciting temptation, or “fitnah,” has been the main source of conflicting positions on women’s use of their voice under Islamic law. Yet on a closer exegetical look, the single most commonly cited Quranic verse related to a women’s voice (though there are several more which do not directly refer to women) entreats the prophet’s wives not use their voice in a tantalizing manner, specifically not to speak too softly, and contains nothing in relation to public Quran recitation. (For the record, in 2021, Al-Azhar came out with a fatwa denying the widespread view and explicitly stating that women reciting the Quran publicly was permissible.)

Whatever the reason, while the female reciters were taken off air, female singers stayed on and were repeatedly featured in many musical segments. “Egyptian radio, concerned about immodesty (awra),” writes Michael Frishkopf in “Music and Media in the Arab World,” “banned female Qur’an reciters, all the while cheerfully promoting the careers of sultry female stars such as Asmahan.”

Irony aside, it is clear that from 1941 to 1945 there was a fierce debate raging within the halls of Egyptian radio about putting women on air, precisely with regard to female broadcasters and presenters. Al-Ahram featured an op-ed on June 29, 1997, marking the 63rd anniversary of Egyptian Radio’s inauguration, penned by Ali al-Raaey, who worked in state radio from 1943 to 1951 and served as one of its renowned radio personalities. In it, he wrote about an incident in the mid-1940s when a young Safia el-Mohandes applied to become a presenter. His hiring of her met with “stubborn resistance by a public opinion team,” citing the fatwa or rather its words. As the head of the host department, Raaey fought to keep Mohandes on board, and she eventually rose in rank to head the entire radio broadcast, becoming the first Egyptian woman to do so. “What I find strange is that El-Mohandes was not the first [female] host,” he wrote. “In the early days of the radio, there was Afaf El-Rasheedy. A woman’s voice was featured in the holiest and most prominent field, and that is Quranic recitation.”

Radio, in its path to commercialization, was itself perhaps feeding into changing tastes and cultural shifts. Although the 1920s and ’30s were characterized by the opening up of many opportunities and spaces for women across a variety of fields, it was also a time when secular and religious camps were markedly at odds. Slowly, a wall was being erected between these worlds. While Quran recitation existed hand-in-hand with religious (and even secular) songs, they started to break apart. Even when the legendary singer Umm Kulthum started her career in Cairo in the 1920s, she was initially ridiculed for performing religious songs among an eclectic range of genres, and was told by critics that what she was offering was nothing new (one critic even called her a “tradition-bound imitator”). Reciters were no longer in demand, nor did they any longer want to train their voices in the Quran. Many of them simply switched to being singers.

Radio was at a similar crossroads, and a woman’s voice was perhaps representative of the two paths it could potentially take: the secular or the religious. “The popular music system disengaged from religious vocal practice, generating profits by means of sex appeal (especially the rise of the female singing star), a direction that the divinely principled religious genres simply could not take,” Frishkopf writes. Gendered associations related to a woman’s voice fed into this social divide that was already brewing in Egyptian political culture. A woman’s voice would now be understood in terms of sexuality, or rather her sexual morality, serving either a secular, liberated narrative or a religious, moral narrative. It became clear that radio policies championed the former.

Worst of all, the suggestion that a woman’s voice is unchaste initiated a wave of prohibition that has lasted to this day. Not a single female reciter has been on air since the 1940s, and this particular perception about women’s voices has become a deeply entrenched belief, one that has affected how we, as women, behave, and how and in what situations we use our voices. In the simplest terms, it is a social and perceived religious taboo to raise your voice or to be loud. Further, it is categorically impious for your voice to attract men.

This, in particular, has severely affected women in the field of recitation, who have continued their work in other forms and similar genres (such as madeeh) or in other countries, or in private, but never publicly or through official media channels. For example, the official Quran broadcast channel has never put women reciters on air. Attempts to do so have been turned down (the female head of the station at one point even made an arguably misogynistic public statement, asking, “Why have female reciters on when we have male ones?”). Although today there is a rising global movement by female reciters to reclaim the profession and give female reciters their time in the limelight, in Egypt there is still the matter of public opinion and propriety. In 2015, one famous reciter named Somia al-Deeb resigned, or rather “repented,” after a successful career in the public eye. She wrote, “I came to the conclusion that reading the Quran in front of men is not religiously permissible because of the temptations it could cause.”

Indeed, over the decades since the 1940s, the notion that women’s voices implied “vocal nudity” became a hard fact, a forceful norm with implications that haunt us to this day. Radio’s women reciters faded into obscurity: One account painted Abdo as spending the remainder of her days holed up in her house, “remembering bygone days and living every day until she died listening to the giants on the radio reciting the Quran.” She passed away on March 16, 1972. Umm Kulthum grappled with the idea of making a record of herself reciting the entire Quran. She came close to doing so once in the late 1950s, but then changed her mind, fearing public backlash. In 2009, a sheikh by the name of Abo El Enein Shaeeshe tried to reintroduce women reciters on the Quran broadcast radio channel and was met with resistance. He quickly turned back on his initiative.

A newspaper clipping from Nov. 1, 1972, records an interview with a famed reciter by the name of Mohamed Okasha. He had been on the air for 20 years, starting in 1935. He was asked for his opinion on female reciters and responded, “There used to be exceptional female reciters who read the Quran on radio, like … sheikha Karima El Adleya and Mounira Abdo … as long as their recitations fell within the boundaries drawn by Allah.”

“And now?” asked the journalist.

“Now? God Forbid!”

Research assistance for this piece was provided by Yehya Mohamed and Maged Al Aziz.

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