Her Koran recitals say a lot

Times Staff Writer

Maria Ulfah’s father started it all.

Even back in the 1960s, he wanted his daughter to have equal status with men. So the devout Muslim encouraged her to study public speaking, take voice lessons and compete in an arena dominated by men: reciting the Koran in public.

In the Muslim world, Koran recitation enjoys an avid following associated in the West with pop music, opera or major sporting events. Performances, which can draw thousands of people, are broadcast from mosque sound systems and on national radio and TV stations.

Haji Mudhoffar, Maria’s father, started small: He staged his own Koran reciting competitions in their hometown in East Java so his daughter could taste competition and stretch the virtuosity of her voice as she melodically phrased the holy words.

His gamble paid off. Today, Ulfah is one of the most influential Koran reciters in Southeast Asia. She’s a teacher, scholar, lecturer and cultural icon whose rare success in a man’s world has inspired women throughout Indonesia and elsewhere in the Islamic world.

“My father was a very modern man,” said the 51-year-old Ulfah. “From the very beginning, he taught me that I was an equal to anyone, man or woman. His words have stayed with me.”


In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, most schools have Koran recitation clubs. And women here, unlike in other Islamic nations where they often are excluded from the public sphere, are afforded higher status by a comparatively moderate culture. Girls are encouraged from an early age to compete alongside boys.

It is an atmosphere in which Ulfah thrived. In 1980, she won the women’s title in an international Koran recitation contest in Malaysia, earning her national acclaim back home in Indonesia and launching Ulfah into the artistic and intellectual spotlight.

Suddenly, her voice was broadcast regularly on radio and television. She won recording contracts and was invited to perform her melodic recitations throughout the Islamic world and in the West. In Indonesia, her performances filled football stadiums.

In her a cappella recitations, Ulfah’s wide-ranging voice brings a distinct mood to each Koranic text, as she uses flourishes, tempo and pitch through the use of various melodies. The result is a unique religious musical performance -- more singing than chanting, as spiritual as it is artistic.

“What is really important about Maria Ulfah’s work is the way that it has become internationalized,” said Anne Rasmussen, a music scholar at the College of William and Mary and author of the forthcoming book “Women, the Recited Quran, and Islamic Musical Arts in Contemporary Indonesia.”

“In her visits to Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East, she shows in a completely natural way what women are to Islam, to professional work, to artistry. There are thousands of girls in Indonesia and Southeast Asia who want to be just like her.”

Islamic scholars say Ulfah’s talents are subtly shifting attitudes about women.

“Many religions foster male leaders -- Catholicism, for example, still has no women priests,” said Nadirsyah Hosen, an Islamic legal scholar. “But that may change. In Islam, we have Maria Ulfah, who is furthering the idea that women are equal.”

Parents across Indonesia even name their children after her.

“That first year, when I won the international contest, there were suddenly a lot of Maria Ulfahs,” said Ulfah, who teaches Koran recitation at the Institute of Koran Study here. “In my classes each year, I have at least one Maria Ulfah.

“I ask each one of them ‘Why did your parents give you that name?’ And they always say, ‘Because my father and mother wanted me to be just like you.’ ”

Ulfah had her own namesake. Born in 1955, the ninth of 12 children -- 10 boys and two girls -- she was named after a female government minister her father admired.

“He idolized her. He was amazed a woman could be so clever,” Ulfah recalled. “He told me he wanted me to live up to her name, to become a minister as well.”

She began her studies in Arabic Koran recitation while in the first grade. At first reluctant, she ran to a friend’s house rather than practice. But her father recognized her talent and encouraged her to continue memorizing the Koran.

She lost the first contest her father organized.

“He told me to work harder,” she said. So she did: Ulfah won her first competition when she was 12. Six years later, she was an accomplished performer, studying the art form in earnest.

After her international first-place finish, Ulfah was invited to perform in Mecca, Saudi Arabia -- in a culture where women lack the social status they enjoy in Indonesia.

“I met an imam there who understood that men and women are equal,” she said. “He encouraged me to perform in front of an audience of men. I was so nervous, because I know that many Arab men do not want to hear a woman’s voice. But he pushed me to go ahead.”

Controversy has come from unlikely places. In 2002, Ulfah’s performance at a university in Toronto was boycotted by Muslim students. She went on with the recitation anyway.

She continues to perform internationally, appearing this month in Kyoto, Japan. And she’s still idolized by her fans.

Hosen, the Islamic scholar, recalled that Ulfah was recently traveling with his sister, who was stopped by Indonesian customs agents. The official demanded their identification.

“She looked at Maria and said, ‘You have the same name as the famous Koran reciter,’ ” Hosen said. “My sister said ‘This is the real Maria Ulfah.’ The agent cried, ‘Oh my God, is it really you?’ They didn’t have any problems after that.”

In lectures and classes, Ulfah encourages women to work hard to become better Muslims and never take no for an answer. Equality, she assures them, will come.

But Ulfah still faces hurdles. Although she has judged Koran recitations in Indonesia and elsewhere, organizers still do not allow women to judge international contests. So she is working behind the scenes to once again expand narrow male views of women.

“It is,” she said, “my obsession.”

Her father died in 1974, before her greatest triumph as a Koran reciter.

But Ulfah has carried on his spirit, and she remains outspoken about male attitudes toward women. She insists that it’s not Islam that differentiates between the sexes, but individual cultures.

“In many Middle Eastern countries, a woman’s voice cannot even be heard in public,” she said.

“Men consider a woman’s voice to be soft and beautiful. They think it will arouse them sexually. That is why so many women are forced to cover their faces and lower their voices in public.

“But that is not the way I was raised in Indonesia.”