Before Asif Umar even reached the age of 10, his parents stressed the proper recitation of the Quran. They even hired a private tutor to visit their St. Charles home to instruct Umar and his sister on the precise pronunciation of the holy book’s Arabic text.
But it was during Ramadan, when Umar and his family would attend special night prayers, that he saw something that fired an ambition: to memorize the entire Quran.
“During Ramadan, I’d listen to the huffaz and find encouragement in what they were doing and saying,” he said. “I thought, ‘one day it would be pretty cool to be up there reciting the night prayers.’”
“Huffaz” is plural for “hafiz,” (pronounced HA-fizz) the Arabic term for someone who has memorized the Quran. In the Muslim world, it’s an honor of high respect akin to professor or scholar.
Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that ends today, is known by most non-Muslims as a time of fasting. But Ramadan is also a celebration of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, which was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad during this lunar period in the seventh century. The word “quran” itself means “recitation.”
And that places huffaz in particularly high demand this time of year.
But in countries like the United States, where Islam is young, huffaz have until recently been hard to come by. Many communities outsource the job during Ramadan.
“Some parts of the world have a number of huffaz and other parts not so many,” said Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of religion and Islamic studies at Duke University. “In the U.S., there’s not a big supply of huffaz, so you have to get them from abroad.”
Throughout the Muslim world, children begin to memorize the Quran early and even small, rural communities have a hafiz they can rely on during Ramadan. Similarly many large cities around the world have more huffaz than can be employed by their mosques during the holy month. Egypt, in particular, produces a number of highly respected huffaz, according to Moosa.
For Umar, 29, the desire to recite the Quran led him to the Institute of Islamic Education in Elgin, Ill, one of several American boarding schools that specialize in teaching memorization. Umar enrolled in the school after completing the eighth grade, and he studied there three years.
Umar was the first St. Louis-born hafiz, and later went on to study fiqh, the principles of Islamic jurisprudence derived from the Quran and the sunnah, the words and actions of the Prophet Muhammad.
After completing a two-year master’s degree in Islamic jurisprudence, he earned the title “mufti,” and in 2011 became the spiritual leader of the largest mosque in the St. Louis area, Daar Ul Islam in Ballwin.
“Because the Quran is the basis for Islam itself, the fact that the hafiz has memorized it gives him a special aura of religiosity,” said Akbar Ahmed, chair of the Islamic studies department at American University. “And much more is expected of him.”
On each night of Ramadan, one section – or juz – of the Quran is recited by a community’s hafiz.
A hafiz recites each juz during an extra nightly prayer, called a tarawih, until the entire Quran has been recited by the end of Ramadan – which last 29 or 30 nights, depending on the lunar cycle.
Each juz takes about an hour to an hour-and-a-half to recite, and a Muslim community gathers each night of the month to hear its hafiz recite it.
The Quran is about 80,000 words long. In comparison, the New Testament is about 180,000 words long, and the Hebrew Bible nearly 600,000. Individually, Muslims also use the month to study as much of the Quran as they can in their own time.
The Quran, like many holy scriptures, was originally passed along by word of mouth. The tradition of memorization that developed as a result has been handed down over generations for 1,400 years.
Muslims believe the Quran, as the revealed word of God, to have a divine character, and so the recitation of the Quran is itself a divine sound.
“The recitation of the Quran is like an art form in Islam,” Ahmed said. “Like a beautiful church choir, similarly in Islam a hafiz who can recite with a beautiful voice can be very popular.”
In the same way Catholics might experience a Latin Mass, millions of Muslims who don’t understand Arabic still can have a religious experience each night of Ramadan during the tarawih prayer.
“What keeps them and holds them is the musicality and reverence of the hafiz,” said Moosa, the Duke professor.
Umar said there’s enough huffaz among the younger generation of American Muslims that when Ramadan falls during the summer, there are plenty of candidates to go around. But, he said, when the holy month falls during the school year, many university-aged huffaz can’t take the time to travel to a rural mosque — where huffaz are most needed — for a month.
Daar Ul Islam started a Quran memorization program a few years ago, and just before Ramadan began this year, it held its first graduation for 23 new huffaz. Those students recited the Quran at a number of area mosques over the last few weeks during tarawih prayers, and they were recognized by the Muslim community Tuesday night.
“It’s a great honor to be a carrier of the divine word in your heart,” Moosa said. “And that’s where you memorize it – in your heart; you don’t keep it in your brain.”