Ramadan icons: Meet Sheikh Mohamed Refaat – The official voice of the holy month

Soha Mahmoud , Thursday 14 Mar 2024

As Egypt highly celebrates the holy month of Ramadan, among the iconic Ramadan elements we grew up with is the enchanting voice of Sheikh Mohamed Refaat (1882-1950) on the radio or television, announcing the Maghreb Prayers and the breaking of our fasting.



The following series is created in collaboration with Al-Ahram Information Centres.


Sheikh Refaat was famous for his beautiful and powerful voice and his unique recitation style that enhanced the subliminal meanings of the words. His audiences were taken by all the emotional experience and fell in tears when listening to the verses of enticement and those of intimidation.


The angelic harp

Born on 9 May 1882, in Darb Al-Aghawat, Al-Megharbelin District, Historic Cairo, he was known for his powerful and excellent tonality that awarded him the titles: Al-Qithara (The Harp), The Divine Harp, The Angelic Voice, The Golden Voice, The Voice from Heaven, and One of David’s flutes.

Sheikh Refaat lost his sight when he was only two years old to conjunctivitis. His father, who was the Sheriff of Al-Khalifa police station at the time, taught him to recite one-fourth of the Holy Quran.

At the age of five, his father registered him in the Bashtak office for Quran recitation, which was located in front of Fadil Pasha Mosque in Darb El-Gamamiz in Sayeda Zeinab district.

Before he turned 10, he managed to recite the Quran. However, his father died when he was nine, and suddenly he became responsible for his family. He sought Quran recitation as a refugee from such a heavy burden for a little boy. He just kept reciting every Thursday, for no monetary return, in Fadil Mosque, until he was assigned the post of the mosque’s official Friday reciter when he was 15 years old.


First broadcast on national radio

On 31 May 1934, the Egyptian radio opened its first broadcast with the voice of Sheikh Refaat after getting the consent of Sheikh Al-Azhar at the time Mohamed Al-Ahmadi Al-Zawahiri. He recited Surat Al-Fath and was assigned by the Egyptian radio to broadcast his recitation twice a week, every Monday and Friday. Most of his recitation was held in Fadil Pasha Mosque, where people, including King Farouk, would flock to enjoy his recitation.

Sheikh Refaat goes international

After World War II had erupted, London and Paris radio stations competed to tape his recitation as the opening of their Arabic broadcast, but he was reluctant to accept until he got permission from Al-Maraghi, the grand imam of Al-Azhar at the time.

Soon his voice was playing on the BBC Arabic Radio Service while reciting Surat Mariam.

Founder of Quran Tajweed School

Due to his unique recitation style that touched the souls of his listeners, Sheikh Refaat founded the school of Quran Tajweed (Enhancing Reading and Recitation) in Egypt. His school focused on emphasizing the manifestation of meanings for the recited Quran words and the pronunciation of each letter. 

“He is a man with a voice like the roots of the earth. He is the voice of people, from whom he drew his strength. His voice was charged with hope and hurt, flickering between fear and worry, as fierce as the battles those people lived and as big as the life such people aspire to. That’s why his voice was meant to live,” renowned Egyptian writer Mahmoud El-Saadany said about Sheikh Refaat.

Al-Saadany said in his book “The Melodies of Heaven” that people of all kinds were drawn to his voice. It was unprecedented for Christians to listen to an Islamic reciter. They listened to him passionately to the extent that, during World War II, a Canadian officer asked the broadcast head to meet him, and when he did, he was in tears. “I did not know he was blind, now I know the secret of the big pain in his genius voice,” he commented.

He was regarded as a folk hero, like Antara and Abu Zeid Al-Helaly, and people started making up their tales around him.

On a personal note

As a Sufi following Al-Naqshbandi's path, Sheikh Refaat was known for his humbleness, charity, and good heart. His house was like a cultural, artistic, and literary hub, where high profiles of music and art were regulars. He was also a dear friend of renowned music composer Mohamed Abdel-Wahab.

He got married to Hajja Zeinab, and they had four children. Mohamed, his eldest son was his manager.

In 1943, a throat disease caused him to stop recitation forever.

He preferred to be treated at his own expense, spending all his savings, to receiving any financial aid from anybody. He used to say: “The reciter of the Quran is not to be humiliated.”

His dream was to be buried next to Saida Nafisa. So, the state granted him a piece of land next to Saida Nafisa Mosque, where he built his cemetery and was buried there.

He died in 1950, and thousands of his lovers from all over the world came to bid him farewell.

“God bless his youth, for he has rejuvenated Islam,” the Mufti of Syria commented back then.

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