Reciting the 6,000 verses of the Quran from memory and in a melodic manner is an impressive ability, as Saeed Saeed finds at the annual Quran award event in Dubai.
Dubai's Quran recital competition sets a high bar for readers
While the media spotlight is firmly fixed on London, another very different international competition is generating excitement in Dubai.
The venue is complete with an elevated centre stage and a group of stern international judges. Participants, however, are not judged on their athletic prowess. Most of the action occurs internally as they strive to deliver the performance not only of their lives but one they believe could help set them up for what comes after.
As for the event's judges, they look for the acrobatics of the tongue, the concentration of the mind, the calmness of the soul; all qualities required to win the 16th International Holy Quran Award.
Reciters from more than 80 countries arrive in Dubai each year for the event, which ran from July 21 to August 9 and was held at the city's Chamber of Commerce. Perhaps more important than the Dh250,000 first prize, victory is also a great source of family and national pride.
"It is the best of competitions," said Saudi Arabia's Salem Ghormolla Al Zahrani, head of the four-man international judging panel on stage left.
"Today, we have a constellation of contestants who all came here in this blessed month to recite, with sincerity and skill, the words of God. We wish them well."
Thus begins day five of the competition.
Starting at 10.30pm - the late start is due to the special Taraweeh nightly prayers held each Ramadan evening - tonight's three-hour heat will see contestants from Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Europe reciting verses from memory.
First up is Edam Yahkoub, an 18-year-old from Chad. The crowd know this courtesy of the flashy ESPN-like computer graphics displayed on the screen above the stage, giving the impression that he is a football player rather than an orator.
Dressed in a traditional sky-blue jalabiya, Yahkoub ambles on stage and sits on the empty chair overlooking the audience.
Through three rounds, the Indian judge Musa Bilal Mania recites a random verse from the Quran and asks Yahkoub to continue reciting where he left off.
Each time Yahkoub finds the corresponding line almost immediately and recites nearly a page of Quranic verses.
With clapping not encouraged, audience members show their appreciation with quiet murmurs and, in some cases, audible gasps. Some hold their mobile phones up to record the performance, ensuring the Chadian's presence will be felt long after he leaves the country.
"This is not easy," says Sharid Hamad. A regular attendee at the competition, the 30-year-old Sharjah resident views the event as an annual spiritual boost.
"To see these young people gives me encouragement for me to study the Quran more ... it's about learning and remembering."
Ever since the first verse was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed more than 1,400 years ago, the Holy Quran has been the bedrock of the Islamic faith and, for believers, it is the undisputed word of God.
Through its mixture of spiritual guidance, miracles, parables, historical anecdotes and complex laws ranging from marriage and inheritance to warfare, learning and memorising the Quran is viewed as one of the highest benchmarks of the faith.
But learning is not merely a memory exercise. With the word Quran literally meaning The Recitation, the classical Arabic text is meant to be delivered with clear elocution and the most melodic voice one can muster.
The difficulty of this task was acknowledged by the Prophet Mohammed himself, who through his narrations, known as Hadiths, repeatedly stated that blessings are bestowed upon those who learn the Quran and recite it beautifully.
In one of the most well-known Hadiths, the Prophet declared "the best of you is the one who learns and teaches the Quran to others".
But with more than 6,000 verses, spread across some 600 pages in 114 chapters, how can one learn the Quran in addition to coping with the demands of life in the modern world?
The participants come from diverse cultural backgrounds but the law of perseverance is universal.
Yahkoub is from a family of seven brothers and sisters, all of whom have memorised the holy text courtesy of their father, a Quran teacher.
"I was 13 years old when I first started and I finished it when I was 15," he explains.
"I learnt two pages a day, as well as revising what I have already learnt daily as well."
While there is a widely held view that the Quran is best learnt at an early age, due to optimal retention capacity, the Palestinian contestant Ahmad Taha at least gives those slightly older hope that it's not too late to begin.
The 20-year-old began at the relatively late age of 18 after graduating from high school and had the Quran memorised within the year.
Taha explains that he adopted the same stringent study regime that he imposed on himself in high school to achieve his goal.
"I would learn 12 pages a day and also revise daily what I learnt in the last three days," he says.
"It is about being consistent and keeping working hard ... and Allah's blessing, of course."
Mohammed Rahat attributes a bootcamp-like worth ethic to his memorisation of the Quran within nine months, an achievement made all the more remarkable by the fact that he is only 13 years old.
Hailing from the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi, Rahat credits a light diet of "lots of vegetables and not this fatty food".
Rahat's father, also named Mohammed, an accountant, is more than happy to play the proud dad. He readily admits he came along for the ride.
"I can honestly say my son did this all by myself," he gushes.
"He would wake before dawn in the middle of winter, make his own food and study by himself. This is really a blessing from God, for my son and for the whole family."
But according to Mohammed Mauthoor, the knowledge also comes with responsibility.
The 18-year-old Mauritian contestant says he is more concerned about what happens after the competition.
While Taha and Rahat intend to focus their future studies on becoming a doctor and a pilot respectively, Mauthoor aspires to be an Islamic scholar in his homeland.
"It is not that hard to learn the Quran, because it is all about memory, studying and practising," he says.
"The hard part is keeping these precious words inside you. Not in your head, but inside your heart. And that can only happen if you live your life on the right path. If you do not, the Quran will just go out and you do not benefit."
This is a message echoed by judge Al Zahrani upon listening to the spellbinding performance by the Tajikistani wunderkind Lutfullo Kholikov.
In a dazzling display, the 13-year-old is the only competitor thus far who, in addition to reciting the correct verse, previewed his answer by stating on which page the verse was on, its corresponding chapter and in which city the chapter was revealed, as well as the first and last word on the page where the correct verse was located.
Perhaps in response to the enthusiastic reaction of the crowd, Al Zahrani advises the competitor and the crowd to look beyond the glamour of the competition.
"For this young boy to learn the Quran the way he has is truly a gift bestowed upon by Allah," he says.
"It is also an example of how we can all learn if we begin and then continue keeping the Quran close to us at all times. It is not just a gift, but something to maintain."
Saeed Saeed is a features writer for The National.