By Shabnam Mahmood
The pandemic dramatically shifted how we approached and navigated our work, education, social, and religious lives. During the lockdown, a group of black Muslim women took to social media to further explore their journey into the Quran.
Majidah Owuo-Hagood, Zahira Abdul Rahim, and Hafidha Dr. Amatullah Saafir started an informal group on WhatsApp and Zoom to find a way to continue connecting over the Quran. Most of these women shared a Senegalese background. Some were teachers; some were students who began their journey in the U.S., carried it over to Senegal, where they studied further, and brought back a newfound knowledge and ambition to explore the Quran. However, meetings were sporadic as daily life dictated. Majidah eventually moved overseas for a year and couldn’t commit fully, and the Becoming Women of Quran group stagnated. However, friends continued to ask Majidah for references to any Quran study group.
“At the time, we only had this group,” said Majida. The spark was lit. When she returned to the U.S, the demand was significant enough for friends to consider something more official. So in September 2020, the group relaunched as the Hafsa Quran Society in Memphis, Tenn. offering Tahfiz (memorization) and Tilawa (recitation) packages to black Muslim women taught by black Muslim women.
Challenges Faced by Black Muslim Women
The answer was humbling when asked why not go the traditional route of seeking knowledge. “Classes weren’t really offered at the masjid,” said Majidah. Classes that were offered were led by men for men. Other challenges faced by women like Majidah and her friends were being mothers and how to pursue classes consistently with children. Other women felt they did not possess the ability to learn because they did not have the foundation most had from their childhood. Some were born Muslim while others were converts.
These are challenges faced by most women seeking Islamic knowledge. So what sets apart the women of the Hafsa Quran Society? Seeing a Black Muslim woman, Majidah was asked to recite Surah Al-Fatiha as a litmus test to gauge her knowledge by Arabic and Urdu-speaking men. In contrast, women of other ethnicities weren’t subjected to the same. “Thhelping to navigate the challenges and blocks students may have while learning. This service has proven successful because students often do not realize what prevents them from learning and understanding Islam, let alone the Quran.
Along with mental and emotional support, the Hafsa Quran Society teachers help students linguistically. “African-American students speak with a unique cadence,” says Majidah. To wrap an English accent around Arabic words can prove difficult for American-born English speakers. However, it is not impossible. Of the seven canonical methods of reciting the Quran, Qiraat, the Hafs method is taught by the Hafsa Quran Society. In addition, there is a teacher who specializes in the Warsh method, given the Senegalese background of most students. The Hafs method levels the playing field when it comes to pronunciation. Still, there is a commonality of understanding between students and teachers of the challenges black Muslim face when learning the linguistic aspect of the Quran.
The Hafsa Quran Society classes are designed to enhance the students’ lives rather than impede a difficult schedule. For instance, study halls are scheduled for after Fajr and Isha. In addition, Tafseer classes are held on Saturdays and Sundays, and recitations are on Sundays. The five-year Tahfiz and Tilawa pathways are demanding, but students are always encouraged to succeed.
As any student of the Quran can attest, the waning and waxing of imaan (faith) can prove difficult. “We have to keep programs going,” says Abdul Rahim. “Learning the Tafseer, learning the meaning of the Quran, and understanding it before memorizing the Quran. We need tadabbur (reflection) to remember why we embarked on this journey in the first place.”
The organization hopes its first cohort of students graduate and return as teachers carrying on the tradition of “being that change.” e atmosphere wasn’t as encouraging.” Accessibility to female teachers wasn’t readily available. Co-founder and student Zahira Abdul Rahim said there weren’t opportunities to teach classes even if there were female teachers. As a result, black Muslim women seeking to learn the Quran were at an impasse.
Their website clearly states that The Hafsa Quran Society is led by all Black Muslim women Quran teachers for Black Muslim women. We have created an online and in-person space to support Black Muslim Women on their Quranic recitation journey to sustain and develop more Black Muslim women to recite and teach the Quran.” The Hafsa Quran Society provides a safe space for black Muslim women who feel marginalized when seeking knowledge of the Quran.
The criteria for taking the one-on-one classes from the Hafsa Quran Society is for students to be of African descent and indigenous women. But shouldn’t Quran knowledge be open to all?
“We have limited resources in terms of teachers and open spots for students,” said Zahira Abdul Rahim. “We do get a lot of inquiries from women, and when we explain that we want to keep these spaces open for black women, they understand. We refer them to other organizations such as Rabata.” Their group classes, such as the Quran tutoring and monthly Hifz halaqa, are open to all women.
Since relaunching in September, the group held its first retreat in Champaign, Ill., in March. This event introduced the organization to the community. The three-day retreat was filled with Quran reading, guest speakers, memorization of the Quran, and the commencement ceremony of ladies embarking upon learning the Quran. The response has been tremendous. The goal of the Hafsa Quran Society is to eventually open a brick-and-mortar location where women would be able to meet in person and learn. “Our aim is to have at least two retreats a year,” Majidah said.
One of the benefits to the students of the Hafsa Quran Society is having a mental health professional as one of the teachers. She meets with students individually and in groups
Shabnam Mahmood is a freelance writer and educational consultant in Chicago.