Occupied Gaza Strip – “I consult the Quran before I speak,” explained 48-year-old Kareema Abu Shahma, surrounded by young students in the Jafer mosque in Khan Younis.
“If I need to go somewhere, I study first and then I leave my house. If I’m feeling ill, I study.”
Abu Shahma starts and ends her day by reciting the Quran. Having memorised all 6,236 verses of the Muslim holy book in braille over the course of five years, she takes her highly respected title of hafiza– one who has memorised the Quran – seriously.
Every day she revisits about a quarter of the 600-page book to ensure perfect recall.
In the city of Khan Younis, she leads a class of 25 young girls, hoping to help them achieve the same goal by the first week of September when representatives of the Islamic Waqf (Islamic Trust) will test their knowledge.
During the exam, the students are given six random verses to recite from. If they are able to successfully recite them word-for-word, they earn the title of hafiza (or hafiz for boys), a high distinction in Islam.
In the mosque, girls sit in small circles. One recites verses while her partner follows the lines in the Quran, making sure there are no mistakes.
For a foreigner, it sounds like they are singing, but there is meticulous precision in the recitation of these melodic verses. With Abu Shahma’s help, they are perfecting their tajweed (pronunciation).
Abu Shahma’s ears are particularly fine-tuned. Born blind, she has turned her disability into a strength, refusing to be discouraged from achieving her goal of memorising the Quran and becoming a teacher.
“I wasn’t strong in my life; no one accepted me, but when I memorized the Quran, people started to respect me as a blind person. Everybody knows now who I am and what I can do,” Abu Shahma said.
“The Quran is my strength. It will always be your guide and it will always give you the power to be whatever you want to be. If you want to have a strong character, you should memorise the Quran.”
Eight-year-old Maram stands close to Abu Shahma and quickly recites a memorised chapter.
It is the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, during which observant Muslims of age are expected to fast from sunrise to sunset. And although Maram is not yet old enough to fast for the full day, she has already memorised one-fifth of the Quran.
Hundreds of Palestinian youth in Gaza are participating in day camps this Ramadan to help them better memorise the Quran, as the besieged Strip deals with one of its worse electricity crises on record.
The Strip’s two million residents are in the middle of an electricity shortage that has left them with just a few hours of electricity a day, turning many aspects of everyday life upside down and raising concerns of a looming humanitarian crisis.
Since 2006, Gaza’s Islamic Waqf has recorded nearly 40,000 newly registered hafazet al-Quran.
“The Quran gives us comfort. We’re living in bad conditions, under pressure. The Quran teaches us patience,” said Zakariya Alzemly, a professor of the Science of Quran and Comparative Religion at the Islamic University in Gaza.
Many people in Gaza, besieged by Israel for the past decade, have turned to the Quran to cope with the feelings of isolation and hopelessness that come along with being cut off from the world, Alzemly explained.
Muslims believe that the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad during the holy month of Ramadan. Those who memorise the holy book in its entirety are believed to earn many blessings.
The practice dates back to the sixth century CE when memorisation was a common skill in society. When the Prophet Muhammad recited the verses of the Quran, his followers preserved his words by memorising them.
It was not until after Prophet Muhammad’s death that his companions wrote the Quran in its entirety.
Nearly 1,400 years later, the Quran’s verses in classical Arabic remain unchanged. It is the only book memorised entirely by millions of people around the world.
In Gaza, the Quran can be found everywhere, especially during Ramadan when cab drivers tend to turn up the volume whenever it is recited on the radio.
It is played in grocery stores and small shops, and its verses can be found scrawled on walls in graffiti, printed on street signs, and hung in offices with framed photos of Al Aqsa’s Dome of the Rock taped to the wall.
For Abu Shahma, memorising the Quran not only helped her feel closer to God, it also helped her feel more confident.
Growing up, people often pitied her for her visual impairment. Her friends from high school thought her goal of becoming a Quran teacher was a far-fetched dream.
But she has proved them wrong, and in the process, improved her memory.
She began memorising the Quran while studying for her Bachelor’s degree in Islamic Sharia Law at Hebron University. It was easier to memorise then, she explained, as there were many people available to listen to her recitations and help perfect her pronunciation.
But when she moved back to Gaza after graduation, her home was far from the local mosque and it was difficult to find someone with experience to listen to her recitations. For a few years, she resorted to reciting for hours on the phone to her friends living in the West Bank.
She persevered and went the extra mile to attain another Bachelor’s degree in Qira’at, where she learned the ten different readings (pronunciations) of the Quran – a feat only an accomplished few have achieved.
“When I memorised the Quran and I first started teaching in mosques, visitors were giving me their money; they thought I was begging,” Abu Shahma said.
“They couldn’t understand that I can do the job just as well as someone with eyesight. For those of us who are blind, people look to us as if we can’t do anything.”
Today, Abu Shahma is a highly respected leader in her community. She has been teaching students for over 20 years and recites at almost every funeral in Khan Younis.
Under her tutelage, 80 students have attained the status of hafiz.
Gaza’s hafazet al-Quran have developed a reputation for being some of the most beautiful Quran reciters in the world.
When the Egyptian Rafah border was open regularly during Mohamed Morsi’s presidency, nearly a dozen hafazet al-Quran from Gaza were invited to lead Taraweeh (the extra evening prayer during Ramadan) in Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries.
Eighteen-year-old Muhammad Abu Asi hopes to do the same one day. He attended a Quran memorisation course for the blind last year and already has half the book memorised.
Although he is mostly self-taught, he surprised his teachers at the camp with his perfect pronunciation, thanks to endless hours of listening to Quran recitations on Egyptian radio shows, he said.
Like Abu Shahma, Abu Asi considers his visual impairment an advantage in strengthening his memory.
“My blindness is from Allah, so I’m okay with it,” he said. “I’m comfortable with it and it gives me more confidence.”