The hidden Olympians: the role of huffaz in the English Muslim communityby Bill Gent

Contemporary Islam


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The hidden Olympians: the role of huffaz in the English

Muslim community

Bill Gent # Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Abstract This article presents the findings of a recent research project which sought to answer the question, ‘in what ways does being a Muslim hafiz/a affect the everyday work, life and perceptions of a representative sample of being huffaz?’ The project was itself a sequel to a previous piece of fieldwork which examined the dynamics of a boys’ hifz class in a north-east London mosque. Following, by way of background, a commentary on each of the four terms used in the article title—‘hifz’, ‘English Muslim community’, ‘hidden’ and ‘Olympians’—the value and methodology of the research project is explained. Four aspects of the research findings are then outlined: implications for the quality and style of daily living, keeping the Qur’ān fixed in memory, the central importance of Ramadan in the lives of huffaz and points of difference and contestation. The study ends with some concluding remarks concerning how the research already carried out in this field might be developed further, both more specifically (relating to the life and work of English huffaz) and more generally (relating to the place of textual memorisation and recitation both across religious traditions and within western and other cultural practice).

Keywords Hifz .Huffaz . Qur’ān .Memorisation


The initial research project, upon which the research drawn upon in this article was a sequel, was part of a larger piece of work investigating the educational provision of a contemporary British Deobandi mosque (Gent 2005, 2006a, b, 2011a, b, 2013, 2015).

Cont Islam

DOI 10.1007/s11562-014-0321-z

B. Gent (*)

Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit (WRERU), University of Warwick, Coventry, UK e-mail:

B. Gent e-mail:

It focused on the life and work of a boys’ hifz class, hifz being the technical term for the process of committing the entire Arabic Qur’ān to memory. Though illuminating, this research into a boys’ hifz class left some intriguing questions unanswered, however, most notably: what happens beyond a person achieving hifz and being accorded the honorific title of hafiz (male) or hafiza (female)? In short, what is the role of huffaz (plural) in the English Muslim community? The research project outlined below set out to gather material with which to answer that question.

This article begins with an analysis of the key terms found within the title in order to provide a background and context for what follows. The value of the research, taking account of other published research in the field, is then proposed. The research methodology employed is also outlined. The major substance of the article then follows: a detailed account, with commentary, of research findings. The article concludes with some brief suggestions about how this research might be developed further, both specifically (Islam-focused) and in a wider (culture-focused) sense.

Analysis of key terms used in the title

Hifz within Muslim belief and tradition

The concept of hifz—an Arabic word rooted in such notions as ‘protecting’, ‘securing’ or ‘saving’ something1—is integral to one of the basic beliefs of Muslim tradition: that, in time, Allah chose to reveal his message to the various communities that had populated history and that the final message, sufficient for all time and for all people, was revealed to Prophet Muhammad. Tradition has it that over the course of the last 23 years of his life, beginning in 610 CE, the Angel Jibreel periodically and incrementally revealed words of the Qur’ān to the Prophet who memorised them before reciting them to others. Those who heard the Qur’ānic words, in turn, memorised them and recited them to others.

A number of important points emerge from this brief account. First, that the Prophet himself can be styled the first Muslim hafiz (Halilovic 2005, 30–34) and that, by the end of his life, there already existed people who had memorised the Qur’ān: in other words, a body of huffaz. But, more importantly still, was that the Qur’ānic revelation consisted of words that were recited. The profound consequence of this, according to

Frederick Denny, is that:

Only when the Qur’ān is recited does it bestow the blessings peculiar to its origin, form, and function. The sound of Qur’ānic recitation is as much a part of its 1 As such, in Muslim history, the title hafiz has been used not only of someone who had memorised the Qur’ān but also of the person who has memorised a certain number of hadith: ‘In the 2nd–3rd Islamic Century the title

Haafiz [sic] was given to that person who had memorised 100,000 Ahadith—plural of Hadith … with the chain of narrators to each Hadith. This was a specialist title, and the person who had memorised the Qur’ān in the growing Islamic world would be titled Haafiz e Qur’ān (Haafiz of the Qur’ān) and not just Haafiz’ (Personal correspondence from interviewee, November 2011; see also Makdisi 1981, 99f). The title has also been a subject to cultural variation: for instance, Eickelman notes that ‘For… educated Moroccans, the term is sparingly applied only to the most outstanding scholars of any generation. In popular usage, the term refers to anyone who has memorised the Qur’ān’ (Eickelman 1985, 66n5; see also 1978, 496n9).

Cont Islam meaning as the written text, but the former is more fundamental than the latter, because it embraces both. That is why Islam can never cease to preserve and transmit the Qur’ān as living recitation. Just as God creates by speech acts, so also did the Qur’ān originally create as it continues to sustain the Muslim community as guidance and blessing conveyed by the human voice. (Denny 1989, 23)

In order to counteract the tendency of an earlier generation of scholars to conceive of the Qur’ān primarily as text, many modern scholars (e.g. Graham 1985, 1987; Sells 1999; Nelson 2001; Gade 2004, 2010; Rasmussen 2001, 2010) have been at pains to stress that throughout Muslim history, the primary encounter of Muslims with the