One of the practices I’ve regularly participated in during my ethnography of French, working-class, Salafist women is Quranic memorization and recitation. Quranic reading circles are common among women of many mosque communities. Recitation is linked to prayer because reciting chapters and verses from the Quran is part of the required daily prayers (salat) as well as to invocations, such as prayers for protection or healing. For women, reading and memorizing chapters of the Quran, as opposed to salat, is unrestricted: they may do it with or without the hijab, and they may do so regardless of menstruation. To some extent, these factors made our sessions more relaxed and intimate, despite the immense effort and work that reading and memorization demanded.
Beginning courses and study circles in my field site at the urban periphery of Lyon tend to focus on basic literacy. More advanced projects focus on the art of tajwīd, or recitation that follows specific forms of articulation, pauses, and comportment, and is thought to emulate the Prophet’s own practices. Our mosque teacher had said that tajwīd is not obligatory, but it is obligatory to read the Quran correctly (i.e. with no mistakes in pronouncing the Arabic letters). Incorrect reading and recitation could significantly alter the meaning of the verses and in turn, the content of one’s prayers.
Reading is a “higher activity,” according to our mosque teacher. It involves the brain, the mouth, and eyes. As Anna Gade tells us based on her research of recitation in Indonesia, perfecting one’s reading and recitation is one mechanism of internalizing the Quran and religious structures more broadly. Recitation transforms the self, and in the process it augments one’s faith and makes one’s prayers more effective. When performed correctly, perhaps “beautifully,” and with heart, it leads to a heightened state individually and collectively. In French Salafi circles, unlike in the Indonesian context, there is no element of informal or formal competition in the art of recitation or any talk of beauty or musicality, which would likely be shunned.
Nonetheless, we quietly admire the serene and perfectly melodic recitation of Amina, who hosts our study circle in her apartment. Amina is encouraging but intense. Sometimes she praises our recitation, and many other times she gently scolds us. Above all, the sessions have become a collective exercise and important, if fleeting, moments of solidarity.
I write in my field notes: “Sometimes I feel so distant from [my companions]. But I feel connected precisely through the recitation. It’s a slow process, start and stop. Amina stops us. ‘All in one breath,’ she commands. ‘Find the sound further back in your mouth.’ We start again, heads down, struggling to recall the verses. As each sister recites, I wait, hanging on to each letter to see if she’ll make it. She closes her eyes and enters her zone. We each want the other to succeed. We all smile when she’s done. ‘Masha Allah,’ (“as God has willed”) says Amina.”
The collective nature of recitation contrasts with the otherwise solitary culture and absence of social trust that I argue have overtaken parts of the French stigmatized urban periphery. As I walk to the mosque, I find it remarkable to see so many soeurs (“sisters”), which is how women in the community refer to other Muslim women, dressed the same, going to the same place, but not speaking to each other. I’ve found this to be due largely to the growth of urban policing, collapse of civil society institutions, and increasing acts of anti-Muslim violence and harassment. Salafist women wearing their djelbabs are routinely confronted with such harassment. I’ve witnessed this numerous times and over years—one of my companions felt unsafe and all but terrified when she came to visit me in downtown Lyon. In this context, many religious activities and forms of prayer have come to serve as meaningful substitutes for secular public education and civic life. Again, this is especially true for young Salafi women, whose veiling practices are banned or under attack. Although Salafist movements in neighborhoods like the one I worked in are individualistic (in the sense that individual piety and salvation are the principal goals instead of any collective mission), Quranic memorization and recitation are moments of much-needed solidarity
Moreover, these activities don’t have to involve mosque space and typically do not. Although Salafi women in this particular mosque have their own section, my companions sometimes raised the topic of the acceptability of their going to mosques. Our teacher made clear that going to the mosque is permissible for women, but there’s a certain hesitation. “For example, consider a sister who wants to go to the mosque five times a day like the men. But she doesn’t even pray in the first place! Forget about what is far [more difficult to attain] and just reflect on what is in the moment. It’s more important to pray with heart and to be present and resolute in your intention during recitation.”
As they read and memorize, my companions also deepen their understanding of the Quran. This is crucial to their religious practice, but it also has an effect on gender relations, as they gain awareness of their rights under sharia and of their specific religious obligations. If their husbands contradict or block their religious practice, they feel confident in asserting themselves. As our teacher dryly stated, “Your husband is not a mini-God (un mini-Dieu). If he speaks from ignorance, just correct him.”