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  • Nermeen Mouftah (a1)


For centuries Muslims have asked whether the Qurʾan should be recited and memorized first and foremost, or whether one must prioritize understanding the meaning of its complex language. What is the best way to encounter God's Word? To explore this question, a women's Qurʾan lesson in a slum of Old Cairo illustrates modern Muslim anxieties over the place of discursive meaning in encounters with the Qurʾan. This article elaborates the concept of affirmation as an analytic to grasp how the women relate to the truth of revelation. Affirmation is a performative and discursive hermeneutic practice that deploys Qurʾanic citation, situates Qurʾanic concepts in daily life, and sutures the efficacy of Qurʾan education with correct language and with right action. Their lessons are indicative of reformist trends in Qurʾan education that open onto questions of meaning and understanding in relation to human interactions with divine speech.



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Author's note: I am grateful to the women of Batn al-Baqara who welcomed me and allowed me to think about questions of Qurʾan and meaning with them. For their critical comments at various stages, I thank Emmanuelle Stefanidis, Basit Iqbal, Robert Launay, Junaid Quadri, and my supportive cohort of postdoctoral fellows at Northwestern University. The critical comments of the anonymous IJMES reviewers and the fine editorial work of Akram Khater and Jeffrey Culang brought clarity to my thinking.

1 All translations from Arabic into English are mine, except for translations of the meaning of the Qurʾan. For the latter, I have drawn on Haleem, M. A. S. Abdel, The Quran: A New Translation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

2 For an introduction to the concept and debates surrounding the Word of God, see Radscheit, Matthias, “Word of God,” Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾan, ed. McAuliffe, Jane Dammen (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 5:541–48. The Qurʾanic text self-referentially employs the terms “God's word” (kalām Allāh) (2:75); “our Lord's word” (qawl rabbinā) (Q 37:31); “his word” (kalimatuhu) (4:171); and “words from his Lord” (min rabbihi kalimatin) (2:37) (541).

3 Egypt's Islamic revival (al-ṣahwa al-islāmiyya) began in the 1970s with an increase of religious discussion and practice in the public sphere. It was marked by new religious publications, radio and television programs, and forms of dress (especially among women), as well as an emphasis on religious education. Numerous factors contributed to this turn to piety, from the failure of Arab nationalism to the return of migrant workers from the Gulf. Egypt's Islamic revival was shaped by regional transformations and in turn came to impact regional as well as global revivalist trends in places such as Indonesia and the United States. On Egypt's Islamic revival, see, e.g., Ahmed, Leila, A Quiet Revolution: The Veil's Resurgence, from the Middle East to America (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2012); Esposito, John L., Islam and Politics (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1998); and Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck, The Islamic Revival since 1988: A Critical Survey and Bibliography (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997).

4 Classical education in the Muslim world was first and foremost a pedagogy based on discipline, memorization, and the interiorization of texts. It was, and in many places continues to be, a training of the body. The aim was to embody the Qurʾanic text. Modern schooling displaced the paramount role of memorization in education, in both secular and Islamic subjects. On Islamic education in Cairo during the Mamluk period, see Berkey, Jonathan, The Transmission of Knowledge in Medieval Cairo: A Social History of Islamic Education (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992). For a historical and ethnographic study of classical Qurʾan education in the Senegambia, detailing the aims and methods of this form of education as a means to embody the Qurʾan, see III's, Rudolph Ware The Walking Qur'an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2014). On the breakdown of the classical system under colonial rule, see van Doorn-Harder, Nelly, “Teaching and Preaching the Qurʾan,” Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾan, ed. McAuliffe, Jane Dammen (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 5:205–31. In Egypt, during the last third of the 19th century British efforts to transform their colonial subjects through modern methods of education remade the epistemological bases of systems of knowledge and their corollary practices of learning; see Mitchell, Timothy, Colonising Egypt (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1988); Sedra, Paul, From Mission to Modernity: Evangelicals, Reformers and Education in Nineteenth Century Egypt (New York: I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2011); and Sharkey, Heather, American Evangelicals in Egypt: Missionary Encounters in an Age of Empire (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008).

5 Ware, Rudolph and Launay, Robert, “How (Not) to Read the Qurʾan? Logics of Islamic Education in Senegal and Côte d'Ivoire,” in Islamic Education in Africa: Writing Boards and Blackboards, ed. Launay, Robert (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2016), 358. Following Launay and Ware, I adopt the term “classical” rather than “traditional” forms of Qurʾan education, because the latter term “implicitly adopts the ‘modernist’ epistemic perspective”; Ware and Launay, “How (Not) to Read the Qur'an?,” 345. This terminology allows us to see disputes about Qurʾan education as epistemological rather than as ideological. Although hermeneutics are certainly political, my purpose is to draw our attention to the major epistemological shifts in new textual practices that aim to make the Qurʾan more widely accessible. Islamic reformist thinking is diverse; it is the subject of important works in the modern intellectual history of the Muslim world. See, e.g., Adams, Charles, Islam and Modernism in Egypt: A Study of the Modern Reform Movement Inaugurated by Muhammad ʿAbduh (New York: Russell & Russell, 1968); Haj, Samira, Reconfiguring Islamic Tradition: Reform, Rationality, and Modernity (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2009); Robinson, Francis, “Islamic Reform and Modernities in South Asia,” Modern Asian Studies 42 (2008): 259–81; and Loimeier, Roman, Islamic Reform in Twentieth-Century Africa (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016).

6 Moosa, Ebrahim, What Is a Madrasa? (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2015); Launay, Robert, ed., Islamic Education in Africa: Writing Boards and Blackboards (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2016); Eickelman, Dale F., Knowledge and Power in Morocco: The Education of a Twentieth-Century Notable (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985); Hefner, Robert W. and Zaman, Muhammad Qasim, eds., Schooling Islam: The Culture and Politics of Modern Education (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007); Starrett, Gregory, Putting Islam to Work: Education, Politics, and Religious Transformation in Egypt (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1998).

7 On Muslim discussions of the Qurʾan's meaning in prayer, see Haeri, Niloofar, “The Private Performance of Salat Prayers: Repetition, Time, and Meaning,” Anthropological Quarterly 86 (2013): 534; and Haeri, , “The Sincere Subject: Mediation and Interiority among a Group of Muslim Women in Iran,” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7 (2017): 139–61. See also Baker, James, “The Presence of the Name: Reading Scripture in an Indonesian Village,” in The Ethnography of Reading, ed. Jonathan., by Boyarin (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1993), 98138.

8 Hirschkind, Charles, The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006); Nelson, Kristina, The Art of Reciting the Qur'an (Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1985); Lauren E. Osborne, “From Text to Sound to Perception: Modes and Relationships of Meaning in the Recited Qurʾan” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2014); Frishkopf, Michael, “Mediated Qurʾanic Recitation and the Contestation of Islam in Contemporary Egypt,” in Music and the Play of Power in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, ed. Nooshin, Laudan (London: Routledge, 2016), 75114. The literature on Qurʾan practices among non-Arabic speakers is particularly attentive to affective understandings of the Arabic Qurʾan. Anna Gade's study of Indonesian Qurʾan recitation competitions describes the embodied practices of recitation where the sense of piety that comes with correct and skillful execution cultivates an affective understanding that focuses on the self rather than the text; Gade, , Perfection Makes Practice: Learning, Emotion, and the Recited Qurʾan in Indonesia (Honolulu, Hawai'i: University of Hawai'i Press, 2004), 42. See also Rasmussen, Anne K., Women, the Recited Qur'an, and Islamic Music in Indonesia (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2010); and Ware III, The Walking Qurʾan.

9 Ware and Launay, “How (Not) to Read the Qur'an?”; Reinhart, Kevin, “Fundamentalism and the Transparency of the Arabic Qur'an,” in Rethinking Islamic Studies: From Orientalism to Cosmopolitanism, ed. Ernst, Carl and Martin, Richard C. (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2010), 97113.

10 Ware and Launay employ the visual metaphor of opacity in describing classical Qurʾan education: “The single most important epistemic difference distinguishing adherents of the classical approach from reformists is that the former are convinced of the opacity of signs and the latter of their transparency. For reformists, the Qurʾan can be reduced to the meaning of its words. Whoever masters its language thus has access to the content of the book and can decipher its message”; Ware and Launay, “How (Not) to Read the Qur'an?,” 354. The visual metaphor expands our attention to the senses so that audition is not the exclusive sensory mode. The language of transparency and opacity also invites us to consider the Qurʾan's own language of veiling and unveiling, as well as its self-reference to verses that are clear in meaning (muḥkamāt) and others that are ambiguous (mutashābihāt).

11 Through the Wizarat al-Awqaf (Ministry of Endowments), the government body that oversees the regulation of religious affairs, the state regulates formal initiatives to train teachers, issue instructional licenses, and conduct religious lessons.

12 Mahmood, Saba's ethnographic account of Egypt's mosque movement (Politics of Piety: The Islamist Revival and the Feminist Subject [Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005]) locates mosque lessons as a locus of the country's late 20th-century Islamic Revival. Mahmood delineates the women's ritual and ethical practices aimed at cultivating piety. On the rising role of Muslim women leadership in education, see Doorn-Harder, Pieternella van, Women Shaping Islam: Indonesian Women Reading the Qur'an (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2006); Kalmbach, Hilary and Bano, Masooda, eds., Women, Leadership, and Mosques (Leiden: Brill, 2011); and Alidou, Ousseina, Muslim Women in Postcolonial Kenya: Leadership, Representation, and Social Change (Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013).

13 Blackburn, Anne, “The Text and the World,” in The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies, ed. Orsi, Robert A. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 151–67.

14 Robbins, Joel, “Ritual Communication and Linguistic Ideology: A Reading and Partial Reformulation of Rappaport's Theory of Ritual,” Current Anthropology 42 (2001): 592. On the politics of the divide between classical Arabic (fuṣḥa) (including Qurʾanic and Modern Standard Arabic forms) and Egyptian Arabic, see Haeri, Niloofar, Sacred Language, Ordinary People: Dilemmas of Culture and Politics in Egypt (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

15 These are: al-Nas (The People), six verses; al-Falaq (Daybreak), five verses; al-Ikhlaṣ (Purity [of Faith]), four verses; al-Masad (Palm Fiber), five verses; al-Naṣr (Help), three verses; al-Kafirun (The Disbelievers), six verses; al-Kawthar (Abundance), three verses; al-Maʿun (Common Kindnesses), seven verses; al-Quraysh (Quraysh), four verses; al-Fil (The Elephant), five verses; al-Humaza (The Backbiter), eight verses.

16 Brown, Jonathan, “Scripture in the Modern Muslim World: The Quran and Hadith,” in Islam in the Modern World, ed. Kenney, Jeffrey T. and Moosa, Ebrahim (Oxfordshire, UK: Routledge, 2014), 1334. Brown's typology also includes Islamic modernists such as Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (d. 2010), for whom the Qurʾan is divine but subject to the conventions of human language; traditionalist Salafis such as Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792), do not feel the need to respond to modernity and rely heavily on hadith; and late Sunni traditionalists, such as ʿAli Jumaʿ, refer to a “traditional Islam” and combine Sunni schools of law and Sufism.

17 For ethnographic accounts of Egyptian schooling, see Herrera, Linda and Torres, Carlos Alberto, eds., Cultures of Arab Schooling: Critical Ethnographies from Egypt (Albany: SUNY Press, 2006).

18 The second general recitation mode is mujawwad, which employs the dramatic use of melody and register to heighten the emotional experience of the listener. It is the form of recitation typically performed in public. Only the most advanced students study this style.

19 Saʿid, Labib, The Recited Koran: A History of the First Recorded Version, trans. Weiss, Bernard, Rauf, M. A., and Berger, Morroe (Princeton, N.J.: Darwin Press, 1978), 71.

20 The textual compilation of the corpus of the Qurʾan is known as the ʿUthmanic text, named after ʿUthman ibn ʿAffan (d. 656), the third caliph to rule the early Muslim community following the death of Muhammad. The standard sources on the ʿUthmanic compilation are Nöldeke, Theodor, Schwally, Friedrich, Bergsträsser, Gotthelf, Pretzl, Otto, and Behn, Wolfgang H., The History of the Qurʾān (Leiden: Brill, 2013), esp. “The Genesis of the Authorized Redaction of the Koran under the Caliph Uthman,” 252–76; and Bell, Richard and Watt, W. Montgomery, Bell's Introduction to the Qurʾān (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1970). For the most up-to-date analysis of the canonization, see Comerro, Viviane, Les Traditions sur la Constitution du Muṣḥaf de ʿUthmān (Würzburg: Ergon-Verl. in Komm, 2012). On the material Qurʾan (muṣḥaf) on which the 1960 recording is based, see Reynolds, Gabriel, ed., The Qurʾān in Its Historical Context (London: Routledge, 2008), esp. the discussion in his introduction on the 1924 Royal Egyptian edition of the Qurʾan.

21 Ibid., 81.

22 Ibid., 111–12.

23 Al-Azhar plays a major role in religious, intellectual, and political life in Egypt and abroad. It is simultaneously a mediator of state-sanctioned Islam and a place of intellectual diversity that has transformed rapidly since the 19th century. For a general overview of the history and social transformation of this institution, see Dodge, Bayard, Al-Azhar: A Millennium of Muslim Learning (Washington, D.C.: Middle East Institute, 1961); and ʿInan, Muhammad ʿAbd Allah, Tarikh al-Jamiʿ al-Azhar (Cairo: Muʾassasat al-Khanji, 1958). On educational reform in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, see ʿAli, Saʿid Ismaʿil, Al-Azhar ʿala Masrah al-Siyasa al-Misriyya: Dirasa fi Tatawwur al-ʿAlaqa bayna al-Tarbiya wa-l-Siyasa (Cairo: Dar al-Thaqafa li-l-Tibaʿa wa-l-Nashr, 1974). For socio-historical and sociological studies of 20th-century al-Azhar, see Eccel, Chris, Egypt, Islam and Social Change: Al-Azhar in Conflict and Accommodation (Berlin: K. Schwarz Verlag, 1984); and Zeghal, Malika, Gardiens de l'Islam: les oulémas d'Al-Azhar dans l'Égypte contemporaine (Paris: Presses de la Fondation nationale des sciences politiques, 1996). In addition to the mosque and university, over two million students attend school through the al-Azhar institutes (maʿāhid azhariyya). On the global influence of these primary schools and their modernizing effects on African Islamic education, see Babou, Cheikh Anta, “The Al-Azhar School Network: A Murid Experiment in Islamic Modernism,” in Islamic Education in Africa: Writing Boards and Blackboards, ed. Launay, Robert (Indianapolis, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2016), 173–94.

24 On the influence of mass print culture on the production of accessible Islamic publications, see Robinson, Francis, “Technology and Religious Change: Islam and the Impact of Print,” Modern Asian Studies 27 (1993): 229–51; Eickelman, Dale F. and Anderson, Jon W., “Publishing in Muslim Countries: Less Censorship, New Audiences and Rise of the ‘Islamic’ Book,” Logos 8 (1997): 192–98; and Starrett, Gregory, “The Margins of Print: Children's Religious Literature in Egypt,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 2 (1996): 117–39.

25 Denny, Frederick M., “Qurʾan Recitation Training in Indonesia: A Survey of Contexts and Handbooks” in Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qurʾan, ed. Rippin, Andrew (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

26 Hirschkind, Ethical Soundscape, 152. This observation goes beyond the Qurʾan and indeed is a part of Muslim approaches to knowledge and knowledge transmission as seen in classical education. See also Franz Rosenthal's discussion of how an individual's capacity structured education for children and students: Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam (Leiden, Brill, 1970).

27 The manual succinctly read: “Kawthar is a river in paradise created by God. It is a miracle for the prophet and his umma”; Muhammad Sulayman al-Ashqar, Tafsir al-ʿAshr al-Akhir min al-Qurʾan al-Karim: Min Zubdat al-Tafsir (Cairo: Al-Gazera International Press, n.d.), 61.

28 This point is significant because if the Qurʾan were eternal it would be on the same plane as God. My depiction of the debate in broad strokes is intended as a heuristic to contrast differing language ideologies, each grounded in a philosophical/theological tradition. For a rich discussion of Muʿtazilite theories of language, see Vasalou, Sophia, “‘Their Intention Was Shown by Their Bodily Movements’: The Baṣran Muʿtazilites on the Institution of Language,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 47 (2009): 201–21.

29 Keane, Webb, “Language and Religion,” in A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology, ed. Duranti, Alessandro, (London: Blackwell, 2007), 439.

30 Ware, The Walking Quran, 4.

31 Al-Fatiha is ritually significant, and is recited to open and bless important transactions and events. Michael Sells depicts the meaning of the chapter as “a microcosm of basic Qurʾanic beliefs in the compassionate creator, the day of reckoning, and the need for guidance”; Sells, , Approaching the Qurʾan: The Early Revelations (Ashland, Oreg.: White Cloud Press, 2001), 173.

32 In Egyptian Arabic, the error would be heard in the vowel preceding the consonant—in the quality of the a, rather than the emphasis on the t.

33 The first “pillar” (rukn) of Islam is bearing witness to the oneness of God and the prophethood of Muhammad (the shahāda); the second “pillar” is the five regular prayers (ṣalāt).

34 Ware and Launay, “How (Not) to Read,” 346.

35 Qurʾan 73:20.

36 Engelke, Matthew Eric and Tomlinson, Matt, eds., The Limits of Meaning: Case Studies in the Anthropology of Christianity (New York: Berghahn Books, 2006).

37 Ibid., 2.



  • Nermeen Mouftah (a1)


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