Music Umm Kulthūm
Virginia Danielson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0297


Umm Kulthum was probably the most famous singer in the Arab world during the 20th century, and among the most highly regarded for her command of poetic texts and the historic Arab musical system brought together in affective performances, working closely with accomplished poets and composers of her day. She became a public figure in general, certainly in the later decades of her life, when she became closely associated with then president Jamal ‘Abd al-Nasir of Egypt and spoke frequently about her love for her country and its people. Born to a poor village family in the Egyptian delta, her background resembled that of millions of her compatriots. She was raised in an agrarian setting. Her father was the imam of the local mosque. Like many children of her generation, she attended Qurʾan school (kuttāb), which was among the few educational opportunities for lower-class children under the then British occupation. She learned to sing by mimicking her father and her brother, who sang religious songs for weddings and special occasions to make additional money. Her strong voice drew great attention. She moved to Cairo in about 1923 to advance her career. Thanks to her performances and commercial recordings, her career took off, and by the late 1920s she had become wildly successful. Films and live broadcasts followed in the 1930s. In the 1940s, like many Egyptians, she began to express the shared dismay at the continued British presence during World War II, the corruption of the Egyptian government, and the war in Palestine. After the Egyptian Revolution in 1952, she, again like many of her cohort, expressed support for the revolutionary government in song and speech and, later, for ‘Abd al-Nasir himself. Her musical style changed over the years as she continually cultivated new listeners. Owing to the wide dissemination of her recordings, the powerful Egyptian radio-broadcasting capacity, and her touring, she became well known and popular throughout the Arab world. After the Egyptian defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, she launched a successful series of benefit concerts designed to replenish the Egyptian war department’s treasury. When she died in 1975, it was said that her funeral was bigger than ‘Abd al-Nasir’s had been. Probably owing to her stature as a public figure, most publications about Umm Kulthum have been biographical in nature, as writers attempted to document her life, her social impact, and the reasons for her various successes. She rarely sought an audience outside the world of Arabic speakers, and she was little known in the West until the late 20th century, with the burgeoning interest in “world music.”


As a young woman in the 1920s and 1930s in Cairo, Umm Kulthum learned to limit her contacts with and comments to the press and the public generally. However, the autobiography or memoir had become a popular genre in Cairo for many performers in the late 1920s and 1930s, and, in 1937, Umm Kulthum, perhaps desirous of keeping up with her contemporaries, granted access to the journalist Muhammad Hammad from the Cairene magazine Ākhir Sā`a, which then published a series of articles that amounted to an autobiography (Hammad 1937–1938). She recounts the story of her childhood and early career in Cairo and, in so doing, advances a narrative that she repeated throughout her life, emphasizing that she came from a poor, rural background, that she was of peasant (fallāḥīn) stock, that her heritage was Muslim, and that she loved Egypt. What attracted attention at the time was Umm Kulthum’s close association with rural life and poverty, whereas other aspiring singers and actresses tended to emphasize any associations they could muster with more-elite social classes. While wealthy herself by 1937, Umm Kulthum identified then and later with what she viewed as the “real” or “authentic” (‘aṣīl) Egypt. This series of articles served as the basis for ‘Awad 1969. The writer, Mahmud ‘Awad, augmented the autobiographical sections with commentary about the history and society of Egypt during her lifetime, in separate chapters that alternated with those of her memoir. The chapters of ‘Awad’s work that correspond to Umm Kulthum’s autobiographical narrative were later translated into English and published as chapter 10 in Elizabeth Fernea and Basima Bezirgan’s anthology Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak (Fernea and Bezirgan 1977). The narrative advanced by these sources has figured in nearly every biography of the singer to date.

  • ‘Awad, Mahmud. Umm Kulthūm allātī lā ya`rifuhā aḥadd. Cairo, Egypt: Mu`assasat Akhbar al-Yawm, 1969.

    ‘Awad described his work as being “a memoir from her and about her.” This book has been reprinted in Arabic numerous times. ‘Awad, a respected journalist and writer, wrote authoritatively about a number of major musical figures at the time.

  • Fernea, Elizabeth Warnock, and Basima Qattan Bezirgan. “Excerpts from The Umm Kulthum Nobody Knows as Told by Umm Kulthum, Famed Egyptian Singer, to Mahmud ‘Awad.” In Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak. Edited and translated by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea and Basima Qattan Bezirgan, 135–165. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977.

    Fernea and Bezirgan accepted ‘Awad as Umm Kulthum’s interviewer, a reasonable assumption at the time since ‘Awad himself did not reproduce Hammad’s text verbatim, and, as a reputable writer who had worked with many artists, he also probably had spoken with Umm Kulthum at some point. Further, few people would have had access to the series of articles published in Ākhir Sā`a decades earlier without going to the magazine’s archive or the National Library in Egypt.

  • Hammad, Muhammad. “Umm Kulthūm.” Ākhir Sā`a 178–185 (November 1937–January 1938).

    This series of articles published in eight consecutive issues of the weekly news magazine Ākhir Sā`a form the first extended public statement about her life made by Umm Kulthum and set the tone and content for the narrative upon which she relied throughout her life.

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