Holy Quran Awards: the quest to be word perfect
In the hushed auditorium at the Dubai Chamber of Commerce, a young boy sat on the beautifully decorated stage, earnestly reciting verses from the Holy Quran. His voice was haunting and he was sitting in front of a panel of stern-looking judges.
Zijabi Mohamadi was one of the 85 contestants from all over the world taking part in the 17th Dubai International Holy Quran Award, a competition where they vied to show off their prowess in memorising the Holy Book.
Despite the TV cameras beaming the event to thousands of households all over the world, and the flash of cameras, this competition is a far cry from the glitz of Arab Idol and The X Factor.
It is, however, the gold standard in international Holy Quran contests worldwide and one of the most popular Ramadan events. Audiences love it; the auditorium is always packed with crowds coming to appreciate the quality of the recitations. All the participants are below 21 years and are judged according to how well they recite the Quran from memory.
At stake is prize money worth Dh250,000 for the winner, Dh150,000 for second place and Dh100,000 for third. The prize money decreases as the order of merit travels down the list, but there are no losers. Even last place takes home Dh30,000 as a gift for having learnt the Quran. The winner was named last night as Adil Mahmoud bin Ghulam Al Khair from Saudi Arabia, with Al Haj Mohammed Jado from Chad second and Abdul Bari Rajab Basisou third.
They were among the contestants taking part in this year's event who were officially nominated by their respective countries or by Islamic centres with which they are associated.
Winners are chosen by a judges panel consisting of outstanding Islamic scholars from the Islamic world who are specialists in Quranic recitation. The contestants are mainly tested on memorisation and Tajweed, which is the knowledge and application of the rules of recitation, so the reading of the Quran is as the Prophet Mohammed himself had done.
The judges test the contestants by asking them to read from any part of the Quran and any mistake in recall or pronunciation, results in the ringing of a bell and the deduction of half a mark.
The competition is tough and Zijabi, 11, flinches when a judge rings a bell, signalling that he had made a mistake in his recitation. Interviewed later backstage, he admitted he had faced a bit of stage fright. As is the case with his fellow contestants, Zijabi's saga to earn the honorific title of "hafidh" or memoriser of the Quran is one of grit, determination and hard work.
His father, infused with pride at being a Muslim in Rwanda where Islam is held in high regard following the 1994 genocide when Muslims gave shelter to those affected, wanted his children to be scholars of their religion.
The Rwandan government has honoured Muslims, who make up less than 10 per cent of the population, for not only refusing to take part in the genocide but instead had saved lives, regardless of faith and also played a key role in the humanitarian efforts that followed.
Despite the good reputation enjoyed by Muslims, the community still lacks many facilities, including good Quran teachers, said Nsengiyumva Jumatat, who was accompanying Zijabe. So the boy, who was nine at that time, travelled to neighbouring Burundi to learn the Quran in an Islamic boarding school.
In the seminar, he had to follow a rigorous schedule of waking up every day at the crack of dawn to study the Quran and had only a few hours of playtime. After a year, he completed memorising the whole Quran, becoming the first hafidh in his family, much to his father's delight.
Back home, in the capital Kigali, Zijabe now studies in the fourth grade. He wants to further his knowledge in Islamic sciences but can't do so because of his father's meagre income. He remains optimistic, however, and says: "I would like to spread the peaceful message of the Quran to my people and I hope that I will get a scholarship to further my studies."
A continent away, in bustling East London, Sadiq Ali started his journey with the Quran when he was 13. Sadiq, who represented the UK in the competition, was also encouraged by his father. "My father migrated to the UK when he was a young boy and had to cut short his Quranic studies," he said. "So his dream was for one of us to become a hafidh."
At the age of 13, Sadiq made up his mind to become a hafidh and was enrolled in Dar Uloom, a private Islamic academy in Leicester, where he studied the Quran in addition to the British curriculum. He describes his first months as quite tough.
"It was intensive to study both subjects and I had to learn to discipline myself. Alhamdulillah (Praise be to God), I persevered and managed to complete memorising the Holy Book in less than three years," he said with a smile.
He fondly recalls how his father, a taxi driver, threw a big banquet and asked him to recite the Quran in front of all the guests. "My dad was bursting with joy and was so proud of being called the father of a hafidh."
Now 16, Sadiq, who scored high marks in his GSCE exams, plans to become a doctor. He attributes his success in school to the discipline and focus he acquired when memorising the Quran.
Mohammed Jallow, 19, started learning the Quran under the tutelage of his father, a Quran teacher, in Bamako, Mali. In a continuation of an ancient African tradition, children would go and live at their teacher's house where they would remain for years till they completed their education. In Jallow's house, there were 20 children and young adults who had come to live with them and learn under his father.
"We would all wake up at 4.30am, study the Quran, then after breakfast at around 8am, all of us would be given chores to do. The older students would help in tilling the land, growing vegetables and pulses, while the younger ones would feed the livestock, milk the cows and collect eggs from the chickens," he says. In the afternoon they would have lunch, rest and continue studying other Islamic sciences besides the Quran, till it became dark.
The Bosnian contestant, Davud Efendic, wowed the audience with his mellow recitation of the verses of the Quran. Speaking in Arabic, the 17-year-old said he studied at an ancient Islamic academy that had been closed down during communist rule.
The academy, which is run by a Waqf (Islamic endowment) and is one of Bosnia's oldest Islamic institutes, dating back about 300 years, runs a four-year high-school programme for boys and girls. It teaches Islamic sciences and Arabic in addition to the secondary school curriculum. There are only five other similar institutions in Bosnia.
At the age of 14, Davud, inspired by his father, who memorised the Quran at the age of 31 in a country that was still under communist rule, decided he also would become a hafidh. "I told my father that I would do it by myself and at my own pace," he recalls.
Davud, a straight-A student, claims that it wasn't very difficult for him to study while memorising. "I just focused in class and didn't need to spend too much time afterwards doing my homework. Most students make the mistake of wasting their time and that is why they can never get anything done."
After two years of intense learning, he earned the title of hafidh and says "the Quran is the light of my life, I hope that I will always find solutions within it for any difficulties I face in my life".
For these young people, it is clear that the journey to memorise the Quran was as much an honour as was taking part in the competition.
Updated: July 30, 2013 04:00 AM