Hearing the Qur’an in Jakarta

Hear how the recited Qur’an is experienced in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, from the simple chants of daily life and ritual to elaborate renditions in formal worship and national competition festivals. Listen as the esteemed Indonesian reciter Hajjah Maria Ulfah performs the five styles of recitation, with introductions and commentary by music scholar Anne Rasmussen, author of Women, the Recited Qur’an, and Islamic Music in Indonesia. Maria Ulfah is a longtime recitation teacher in Java and a veteran of international competitions as both contestant and judge. This event was recorded in 2016 as part of the Freer and Sackler series Performing Indonesia: Islamic Intersections.


Hearing the Qur’an in Jakarta

Hajjah Maria Ulfah, reciter
Anne Rasmussen, ethnomusicologist

Opening music (Anne Rasmussen, ‘ud) 00:00–00:22
Introduction 00:22–01:06

Hadr Style

Qur’an 2:255 (Verse of the Throne; Ayat al-Kursi, Surat al-Baqarah)
Maqam (melodic mode): Segah

Introduction 01:06–01:41
Recitation 01:41–02:14
Comments 02:14–02:35

Tadwir Style

Qur’an 36:81–83
Maqam (melodic mode): Rast

Introduction 02:35–03:55
Recitation 03:55–04:44

Elements of Recitation

Tajwid (pronunciation & rhythm), beautification, maqamat,
Pronunciation, rhythm, beautification, melodic modes, influences

Murattal Style

Qur’an 3:133–136
Maqam (melodic mode): Nahawand

Introduction 09:33–11:31
Recitation 11:31–14:32

Tahqiq Style

Qur’an 1:1–7
Maqam: none

Introduction 14:32–15:56
Recitation 15:56–17:39

Mujawwad Style

Qur’an 55:1–18
Maqamat (melodic modes):
Bayyati, Saba, Hijaz, Nahawand, Bayyati (in order used)

Introduction 17:39–20:08
Recitation 20:08–25:49
Recitation festivals 25:49–28:04
Closing music (Anne Rasmussen, ‘ud) 28:04–28:30

This lecture-demonstration was presented as part of Performing Indonesia: Islamic Intersections, September 10 to November 19, 2016, organized by the Freer and Sackler Galleries in partnership with George Washington University and the Embassy of Indonesia through Rumah Budaya Indonesia.


The Recited Qur’an in Indonesian Daily Life and Culture

Anne Rasmussen
College of William & Mary

The Qur’an is known throughout the world as a written document that can be read and studied as a text, but its active manifestation in daily life―being recited and heard—struck me profoundly when I lived in Indonesia for more than two years in the 1990s and early 2000s. A primary goal of my ethnography, Women, the Recited Qur’an, and Islamic Music in Indonesia (University of California Press 2010), was to illustrate the ways in which the recited Qur’an permeates the Indonesian soundscape and the ways in which Indonesians who are involved in the culture of recitation activate this performative experience.

My focus on women, from esteemed professionals to little girls, from serious university students to mature housewives, from rich to poor, highlights the prominence and public presence of women and girls in the business and culture of religion. This is an aspect of Indonesian Islam that is little known to many parts of the Muslim world, where women’s participation is perhaps more circumscribed. This activist presence of women is a testament to the cultural specificity of religious ideology and practice. Religious ideas and practices―rather than being a set of universal principles that apply to anyone, anywhere, at any time―are assimilated and localized differently in a variety of national contexts and respond to political and economic forces both global and local in ways that are dynamic and creative.

In my ethnography, I describe five contexts in which the practice, performance, experience, and appreciation of Qur’anic recitation characterize the rhythms of Indonesian daily life. First is a ritual event called khatam al–Qur’an, when the entire Qur’an is recited by thirty reciters (either men or women) who each read one juz’ (part) simultaneously, accomplishing a collective performance of the entire text in less than an hour. The second context is found in Islamic boarding schools, or pondok pesantren, an institution for education, socialization, and communal living, where Qur’anic projects characterize the rhythms of daily life. Third is the college-level Institut Ilmu al–Qur’an (IIQ, Institute for Qur’anic Studies) in Jakarta, where women pursue a systematic learning of Qur’anic melodies derived from the Arab system of melodic modes (maqam, pl. maqamat).

The most talented among the students at IIQ are recruited to compete in regional, national, and even international competitions in Qur’anic recitation. To prepare for competition, these women (along with their peer male contestants) attend Training Centers (TC), week-long intensive workshops of private coaching with the best reciters from across the Indonesian archipelago. At the TC, I experienced the idiosyncratic teaching methods of champion reciters as they transmit virtuosic vocal stylings and techniques required to deliver a technically flawless and spiritually effective recitation in the course of performance at a competition. This is a fourth context for recitation.

Finally, the fifth context is the haflah al-Qur’an, literally, the Qur’an party (the term haflah is Arabic for party, usually involving some kind of performance). At a haflah, the Qur’an is performed for other reciters and for friends who are connoisseurs of recitation. Unlike the innumerable rituals during which the Qur’anic recitation is expected (such as weddings and the evening prayers held every night during Ramadan), the Qur’an is recited at a haflah for its own sake, with a purpose that is more aesthetic than ritual. It is at the haflah that the artistry of the reciter is unbridled and the effects of Qur’anic performance most artistically salient.

Reciters in Indonesia model their recitations after a handful of Egyptian reciters whose work has been widely recorded, disseminated, and broadcast throughout the Muslim world. Many of these reciters (such as the renowned Sheikh ‘Abd al-Basit ‘Abd al Samad) visited Indonesia to recite and teach, particularly after Indonesian independence in 1945, as the country gradually began to forge partnerships with other Muslim–majority nations. Although recitation has been practiced in Indonesia since Islam arrived with Arab traders and spread across the islands from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, it was not until this influential post-independence period that the musical styles of Egyptian reciters were proactively copied and assimilated.

This is particularly true for the use of Egyptian-Arab melodic modes, or maqamat; the technical aspects in matters of tajwid; and innumerable aesthetic features, ranging from phrase length to tessitura and vocal timbre. Contact with Egyptian reciters and with recordings of reciters and singers from the Arab world not only influenced Qur’anic recitation in Indonesia, but it also contributed to the development of a vast spectrum of seni musik Islam, or Islamic musical arts. From the mosque to the recording studio, the contexts for and contents of Islamic music in Indonesia constitute a vibrant stream of Indonesian culture as well as a dynamic and exciting aspect of global Islam. Taking its cue from the recitation of the Qur’an, many of these styles of music draw upon the thematic content of the Qur’an and the practical and artistic techniques of its recitation.

Dra. Hajjah Maria Ulfah works in a professional capacity in all these contexts. She teaches students and groups of women across the street from her house in the religious boarding school (pondok pesantren) that she founded and directs. She is a faculty member and administrator at IIQ, the college for Qur’anic studies, where she teaches college students in classrooms equipped with the latest interactive audio technology (similar to facilities found in foreign language departments at American universities). As a coach, Maria Ulfah is in high demand, attending Training Centers throughout Indonesia and receiving students who are flown into Jakarta to train with her in her home. As a judge and member of local arrangements and program committees for recitation competitions (musabaqoh tilawatil Qur’an), Maria Ulfah is one of the most respected team members in regional, national, and international circles. And, finally, as a solo performer, her reputation is extraordinary, and her performances of the recited Qur’an are legendary.

I have had the privilege of knowing and working with Maria Ulfah since 1996 when I was invited to participate in her classes at IIQ. She and her colleagues opened their worlds to me, and I am honored to have traveled to numerous destinations with Maria Ulfah, including the United States, when she was invited in 1999 as the distinguished scholar of the Middle East Studies Association and to Harvard, Princeton, and Brown universities and to Boston College for lecture demonstrations and performances.

Anne K. Rasmussen
Professor of Music and Ethnomusicology
Bickers Professor of Middle Eastern Studies
The College of William and Mary

—Adapted with permission from A. K. Rasmussen, Women, the Recited Qur’an, and Islamic Music in Indonesia (University of California Press 2010)

Verses and Translations

All English translations are taken from The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary, by Abdullah Yusuf Ali (Kashmiri Bazar, Lahore: Shaik Muhammad Ashraf, third edition, 1938). All quotes by Kristina Nelson are taken from Kristina Nelson, The Art of Reciting the Qur’an, American University in Cairo Press, 2001.

Hadr Style

Arab studies scholar Kristina Nelson notes, “Hadr is a very quick recitation in which the reciter takes the shortest durations, as well as all options to lighten, drop, elide, or assimilate phonemes. It is the style used to recite to oneself, usually under the breath and in a monotone.” Ibu Maria Ulfah adds that it can be used in practicing recitation and in the litany (wird) following the end of each prayer.

Qur’an 2:255 (Verse of the Throne, Ayat al-Kursi, Surat al-Baqarah), maqam (melodic mode) Segah. See these verses in a sixteenth-century Persian Qur’an in the first artwork under the “Related Images” tab.

Arabic simple

اللَّهُ لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ الْحَيُّ الْقَيُّومُ ۚ لَا تَأْخُذُهُ سِنَةٌ وَلَا نَوْمٌ ۚ لَهُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ ۗ مَنْ ذَا الَّذِي يَشْفَعُ عِنْدَهُ إِلَّا بِإِذْنِهِ ۚ يَعْلَمُ مَا بَيْنَ أَيْدِيهِمْ وَمَا خَلْفَهُمْ ۖ وَلَا يُحِيطُونَ بِشَيْءٍ مِنْ عِلْمِهِ إِلَّا بِمَا شَاءَ ۚ وَسِعَ كُرْسِيُّهُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ ۖ وَلَا يَئُودُهُ حِفْظُهُمَا ۚ وَهُوَ الْعَلِيُّ الْعَظِيمُ


There is no God but He, the Living, the Self-subsisting, Eternal. No slumber can seize Him nor sleep. His are all things in the heavens and on earth. Who is there that can intercede in His presence except as He permitteth? He knoweth what (appeareth to His creatures as) before or after or behind them. Nor shall they compass aught of His knowledge except as he willeth. His throne doth extend over the heavens and the earth, and He feeleth no fatigue in guarding and preserving them for He is the Most High, the Supreme (in glory).

Tadwir Syle

Arab studies scholar Kristina Nelson notes, “Tadwir is recitation in a medium tempo. There is a correlation with the durational options, the reciter choosing the middle range of durations.”

Qur’an 36:81–83, maqam (melodic mode) Rast. See these verses in an eighteenth-century Ottoman Qur’an in the second artwork under the “Related Images” tab.

Arabic simple

أَوَلَيْسَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ بِقَادِرٍ عَلَىٰ أَنْ يَخْلُقَ مِثْلَهُمْ ۚ بَلَىٰ وَهُوَ الْخَلَّاقُ الْعَلِيمُ
إِنَّمَا أَمْرُهُ إِذَا أَرَادَ شَيْئًا أَنْ يَقُولَ لَهُ كُنْ فَيَكُون
فَسُبْحَانَ الَّذِي بِيَدِهِ مَلَكُوتُ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ وَإِلَيْهِ تُرْجَعُونَ


“Is not He Who created the heavens and the earth able to create the like thereof?” – Yea, indeed! for He is the Creator Supreme, of skill and knowledge (infinite!)! Verily, when He intends a thing, His command is, “be”, and it is! So, glory to Him in Whose hands is the dominion of all things: and to Him will ye be all brought back.

Murattal Style

Arab studies scholar Kristina Nelson notes, “The murattal style is characteristically relaxed, quiet, speech–bound, and, above all, is generally used to communicate the content of the Qur’an. Whether recited in pedagogical or devotional contexts, the aim of the murattal style is the clear and accurate presentation of the text.”

Qur’an 3:133–136, maqam (melodic mode) Nahawand. See these verses in a twelfth-century Qur’an from North Africa in the third artwork under the “Related Images” tab.

Arabic simple

وَسَارِعُوا إِلَىٰ مَغْفِرَةٍ مِنْ رَبِّكُمْ وَجَنَّةٍ عَرْضُهَا السَّمَاوَاتُ وَالْأَرْضُ أُعِدَّتْ لِلْمُتَّقِينَ
الَّذِينَ يُنْفِقُونَ فِي السَّرَّاءِ وَالضَّرَّاءِ وَالْكَاظِمِينَ الْغَيْظَ وَالْعَافِينَ عَنِ النَّاسِ ۗ وَاللَّهُ يُحِبُّ الْمُحْسِنِينَ
وَالَّذِينَ إِذَا فَعَلُوا فَاحِشَةً أَوْ ظَلَمُوا أَنْفُسَهُمْ ذَكَرُوا اللَّهَ فَاسْتَغْفَرُوا لِذُنُوبِهِمْ وَمَنْ يَغْفِرُ الذُّنُوبَ إِلَّا اللَّهُ وَلَمْ يُصِرُّوا عَلَىٰ مَا فَعَلُوا وَهُمْ يَعْلَمُونَ
أُولَٰئِكَ جَزَاؤُهُمْ مَغْفِرَةٌ مِنْ رَبِّهِمْ وَجَنَّاتٌ تَجْرِي مِنْ تَحْتِهَا الْأَنْهَارُ خَالِدِينَ فِيهَا ۚ وَنِعْمَ أَجْرُ الْعَامِلِينَ


Be quick in the race for forgiveness from your Lord, and for a Garden whose width is that (of the whole) of the heavens and of the earth, prepared for the righteous,

Those who spend (freely), whether in prosperity, or in adversity; who restrain anger, and pardon (all) men; for Allah loves those who do good;

And those who, having done something to be ashamed of, or wronged their own souls, earnestly bring Allah to mind, and ask for forgiveness for their sins, and who can forgive sins except Allah, and are never obstinate in persisting knowingly in (the wrong) they have done.

For such the reward is forgiveness from their Lord, and Gardens with rivers flowing underneath, an eternal dwelling: How excellent a recompense for those who work (and strive)!

Tahqiq Style

Qur’an 1:1–7. See these verses in an eighteenth-century Qur’an from Mughal India in the fourth artwork under the “Related Images” tab.

Arabic simple

بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ
الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ
الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ
مَالِكِ يَوْمِ الدِّينِ
إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ وَإِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِينُ
اهْدِنَا الصِّرَاطَ الْمُسْتَقِيمَ
صِرَاطَ الَّذِينَ أَنْعَمْتَ عَلَيْهِمْ غَيْرِ الْمَغْضُوبِ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا الضَّالِّينَ


In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds;
Most Gracious, Most Merciful;
Master of the Day of Judgment.
Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.
Show us the straight way,
The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.

Mujawwad Style

Arab studies scholar Kristina Nelson notes, “The mujawwad reciter adds to the clear and accurate presentation of the text a command of the Arab melodic system [maqamat; singular maqam] and a conscious manipulation of the parameters of recitation with the intent to affect listeners. The characteristics of the mujawwad style are intended to produce an emotional and religious effect on listeners, its contexts are public and performative. Its aim is to convey not only the text itself, but an artistic elucidation of its significance through the manipulation of the sound. The heightened, dramatic, and artistically focused performance of mujawwad recitation reflects this intent.”

Qur’an 55:1–18, maqamat (melodic modes) Bayyati, Saba, Hijaz, Nahawand, Bayyati (in that order). See these verses in a sixteenth-century Persian Qur’an in the fifth artwork under the “Related Images” tab.

Arabic simple

عَلَّمَ الْقُرْآنَ
خَلَقَ الْإِنْسَانَ
عَلَّمَهُ الْبَيَانَ
الشَّمْسُ وَالْقَمَرُ بِحُسْبَانٍ
وَالنَّجْمُ وَالشَّجَرُ يَسْجُدَانِ
وَالسَّمَاءَ رَفَعَهَا وَوَضَعَ الْمِيزَانَ
أَلَّا تَطْغَوْا۟ فِى ٱلْمِيزَانِ
وَأَقِيمُوا الْوَزْنَ بِالْقِسْطِ وَلَا تُخْسِرُوا الْمِيزَانَ
وَالْأَرْضَ وَضَعَهَا لِلْأَنَامِ
فِيهَا فَاكِهَةٌ وَالنَّخْلُ ذَاتُ الْأَكْمَامِ
وَالْحَبُّ ذُو الْعَصْفِ وَالرَّيْحَانُ
فَبِأَيِّ آلَاءِ رَبِّكُمَا تُكَذِّبَانِ
خَلَقَ الْإِنْسَانَ مِنْ صَلْصَالٍ كَالْفَخَّارِ
وَخَلَقَ الْجَانَّ مِنْ مَارِجٍ مِنْ نَارٍ
فَبِأَيِّ آلَاءِ رَبِّكُمَا تُكَذِّبَانِ
رَبُّ الْمَشْرِقَيْنِ وَرَبُّ الْمَغْرِبَيْنِ
فَبِأَيِّ آلَاءِ رَبِّكُمَا تُكَذِّبَانِ


(Allah) Most Gracious!
It is He Who has taught the Qur’an.
He has created man:
He has taught him speech (and intelligence).
The sun and the moon follow courses (exactly) computed;
And the herbs and the trees – both (alike) bow in adoration.
And the Firmament has He raised high, and He has set up the Balance (of Justice),
In order that ye may not transgress (due) balance.
So establish weight with justice and fall not short in the balance.
It is He Who has spread out the earth for (His) creatures:
Therein is fruit and date–palms, producing spathes (enclosing dates);
Also corn, with (its) leaves and stalk for fodder, and sweet-smelling plants.
Then which of the favors of your Lord will ye deny?
He created man from sounding clay like unto pottery,
And He created jinns from fire free of smoke:
Then which of the favors of your Lord will ye deny?
(He is) Lord of the two Easts and Lord of the two Wests:
Then which of the favors of your Lord will ye deny?


Hajjah Maria Ulfah

Born in 1955 in Lamongan in the East Java province of Indonesia, Hajjah Maria Ulfah began intensive training in Qur’an recitation when she was in the first grade. She won her first recitation competition at the district level at the age of twelve, and six years later she won her first province-level championship. Maria Ulfah garnered major national acclaim in 1978 and 1980 when she took first place at the National Competition in Qur’anic Recitation in Jakarta. Her first-place win at the international competition in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, led to an invitation to recite on Jeddah Radio in Saudi Arabia. In 1981 she was invited as guest reciter for the international competitions in Kuwait and Malaysia. She graduated from the State Institute of Islamic Studies in Surabaya in 1977. Four years later she received a master’s degree from the Institute for Qur’anic Studies in Jakarta.

Maria Ulfah has performed as a guest reciter around the world—throughout Europe and Indonesia and in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Brunei, Iran, Jordan, Libya, and Qatar—and she regularly serves as an official and judge at international competitions. In 1999 she was recorded by the Phonogrammarchive at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. During President Suharto’s era, she was invited to recite at the state palace and the national Istiqlal Mosque for the president and diplomatic visitors. Since 1982 Maria Ulfah has been a key member of the faculty and administration at the Institut Ilmu al-Qur’an (the Institute for Qur’anic Studies), a women’s college with a comprehensive course of studies in Qur’anic recitation, interpretation, jurisprudence, and education.

She is the long-time head of the religious boarding school (pondok pesantren) Al-Mudhofar in Lamongan, East Java, and founder of the Pondok Pesantren Baitul Qurro in Ciputat, South Tangerang, near her home in the greater Jakarta area. This school attracts promising reciters from throughout Indonesia as well as from Malaysia, South Africa, Nigeria, and Japan. Many of Maria Ulfah’s students have performed internationally at recitation competitions. Her voice has been a model for professional and amateur reciters, both men and women, for several decades. Maria Ulfah first performed Qur’anic recitation on radio and television in 1977, and she released her first cassette recording in 1981. The recipient of the Gold Plate Record Award from Musica Studio in 1984, Maria Ulfah recorded the entire Qur’an in murattal style in 2005. In 2014 she and her students recorded a new method for learning recitation in the mujawwad style, which employs seven of the melodic modes (maqamat) of Arab music. A year later she began a project to record the entire Qur’an, with every juz’ (part) recited in all seven modes.

Anne Rasmussen

A prolific writer and instructor, Anne K. Rasmussen is the author of Women, the Recited Qur’an, and Islamic Music in Indonesia (University of California Press, 2010), which received the Alan Merriam Prize Honorable Mention for 2011. She co-edited, with David Harnish, Divine Inspirations: Music and Islam in Indonesia (Oxford University Press, 2011). She also co-edited, with Kip Lornell, The Music of Multicultural America: Performance, Community, and Identity in the United States. Originally published in 1997, the second revised edition, with four new chapters and a new introduction, was published in 2016. She won the Jaap Kunst Prize in 2001 for the best journal article in the field of ethnomusicology. Rasmussen is professor of music and ethnomusicology at the College of William and Mary, and in 2014 she was named the William M. and Annie B. Bickers Professor of Middle Eastern Studies. She is a past president of the Society for Ethnomusicology.


This podcast was organized by Michael Wilpers, manager of performing arts, in collaboration with the Reed Society for the Sacred Arts (Maryland). Audio recording and engineering by Jonathan Dueck and Suraya Mohamed. Photography by Hutomo Wicaksono. Copyediting by Nancy Eickel and Ian Fry. Web design by Gio Camozzi.

This lecture-demonstration on Qur’anic recitation in Indonesia was presented on November 5, 2016, as part of Performing Indonesia: Islamic Intersections, organized by the Freer and Sackler Galleries and presented from September 10 to November 19, 2016, in partnership with George Washington University and the Embassy of Indonesia through Rumah Budaya Indonesia. The festival received Federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Additional funding was provided by the American–Indonesian Cultural and Educational Foundation and Badan Ekonomi Kreatif Indonesia.

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