After Umm As-Sa‘d completed memorizing the Holy Quran at the age of fifteen, she went to the Sheikhah (female scholar) Nafeesah Bint Abul-‘Elaa, described as the most renowned Quran teacher of her time, to request her to teach her the ten styles of recitation. Sheikhah Nafeesah, however, set a bizarre precondition: Umm As-Sa’d was never to marry. Indeed, the scholar strongly refused to teach girls at all, because they would eventually become wives and get so preoccupied that they would neglect the Holy Quran.
An even more unusual turn of events transpired, such that Umm As-Sa'd accepted the condition of her Sheikhah, who was famed for her strictness and firmness with women, who were, in her opinion, unqualified for this noble mission. She was encouraged by the fact that Nafeesah herself had never wed any man, in spite of the copious proposals she received from dignitaries, and died a virgin at the age of eighty, having devoted herself entirely to the Quran.
Distinction is Achieved by Men… and Women, too
Umm As-Sa‘d, her face reflecting contentment, would say: "It is out of the bounty of my Lord that anyone who has been sanctioned to recite the Quran in any of the ten [styles of] recitation in Alexandria, has obtained it either directly from me or from someone whom I have accredited."
She would often mention that she alone has the honor, to the best of her knowledge, of being the only woman to whom reciters and memorizers of the Quran traveled to, seeking to be certified in the different reading modes.
What most made her happy was that the hundreds of licenses she had granted were characterized by a continuous chain of reciters. It started with her name, going back to her deceased Sheikhah Nafeesah and linking hundreds of memorizers and scholars of recitation styles, including the ten prominent among them (‘Aasim, Naafi‘, Abu ‘Amr, Hamzah, Ibn Katheer, Al-Kisaa'i, Ibn ‘Aamir, Abu Ja‘far, Ya‘qoob, and Khalaf), leading directly in the end to the chosen Messenger himself, Muhammad, sallallaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam.
Her Vision was Reduced, But her Insight Shone
The only woman specialized in the ten ways of reading the Quran and the only female authority to have been accrediting other reciters for half a century, blind seventy-seven-year-old Umm As-Sa‘d Muhammad ‘Ali Najm is the most famous woman in the world of recitation of the Holy Quran.
Small groups used to go to her and come out [learned], of both genders and varying age groups and social classes, as was evident from their appearances, as well as those who dreamt of memorizing the Holy Quran entirely. The lessons for women and girls would run from 8 AM until 2 PM, followed by classes for men that lasted till eight in the night. Nothing interrupted these sessions, save for the offering of the obligatory prayers and light snacks, in order for Sheikhah Umm As-Sa’d to be able to continue.
Blindness, Rural Superstitions and the Journey of Challenge
Umm As-Sa‘d was born in a poor family from Al-Bandariyyah, a village in the Al-Munoofiyyah governorate, north of Cairo. Her eyes became infected in her first year of life, and since her folks did not have the resources, and perhaps awareness, to take her for treatment to physicians, they resorted to applying kohl and oils, and other home remedies, which, in the end, contributed to her loss of sight, as was the case with thousands of other children who experienced the same conditions back then.
As was customary of villagers, now that she was blind, her family pledged to devote her to the Holy Quran; thus, she was able to complete memorizing it by the age of fifteen at the Hasan Subh School in Alexandria.
Umm As-Sa‘d proceeded in her noble mission and was then licensed by her Sheikhah, Nafeesah, in the ten recitation styles at the ripe age of twenty-three. She herself reminisced that at that time, the number of those who had that knowledge was very small. As there was neither radio nor television, her people then sought her, like her teacher before her, to recite the Quran for them on different occasions and in religious events.
In those days, it used to be acceptable for a woman to recite the Quran with Tajweed (proper articulation) in the presence of men, who, in her words, “would praise her good performance and accurate pronunciation”. However, she alluded to this tradition dying out, particularly with the increasing number of male reciters, and the pervasion of radio, television and cassette players in homes, which relegated the role of women in public recitations only to all-female religious celebrations, which, themselves, were quite rare.
It was her opinion that the real reason why people refrained from seeking female reciters was the prevalent belief in recent decades that a woman's voice is ‘Awrah (something private to be concealed), according to a particular edict. Personally for her, though, she did not consider this such an issue, “since the men who memorized the Quran [were now] numerous and mass media had taken care of [a dearth of reciters].”
Her Daily Schedule: Quran Throughout the Day
There was diversity evident in those who frequented her [school] to memorize the Quran and obtain a license in the styles of recitation; they belonged to all age and social groups, educational levels and professional backgrounds. They included the young and the old, males and females, doctors, engineers, teachers, academics, high school and university students, etc.
She assigned a daily period that did not exceed an hour for each student, during which he or she would read out his or her memorized portion of the Quran; she would correct the recitation, verse by verse, until he or she had read to her the whole Quran, consistent with the rules of one mode of recitation. Thereupon, she would confer him or her a written license stamped with her seal, certifying that student as a servant of the Quran, and who had recited it in its entirely, accurately and correctly, according to that particular style for which the license was applicable.
As regards herself, she said: "Sixty years of memorizing, reciting and reviewing the Holy Quran has etched it in my memory. I remember each verse, and which chapter and section it is located in, its resembling [verses] and how it is recited in all different styles. I feel I have memorized the Quran exactly as I know my own name. I do not imagine I could forget a single letter [of it] or commit a mistake in it. I know nothing else other than the Quran and its modes of recitation. I have not studied any science, listened to any [non-related] lesson, learned by rote anything other than the Quran and its related branches of the science of recitation and Tajweed. In short, this is my [world, that of this] knowledge."