Dubai: contest to recite Koran from memory

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Oct 10 17:29:46 UTC 2006

Forwarded from the NYTimes, Oct. 10, 2006

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Oct. 8  With its big-budget sets, promise of
large cash prizes and surly judges who grimace at the slightest slip-up,
the contest might seem like yet another made-for-TV talent show.

But the competition being beamed by satellite across the Muslim world this
Ramadan is no American Idol. The winners, judged the best at reciting the
Koran from memory, wont become the objects of breathless gossip in glossy
magazines. Instead, they will become stars of a different sort, earning
the respect of devout Muslims and invitations to recite the text during
religious gatherings.

The competition, the Dubai International Holy Koran Award, is open to
males aged 21 and younger, and this year more than 80 young Muslim boys
and men faced off in more than two weeks of nightly performances that end
Tuesday. The contestants came from around the world to represent their
countries, including Iran, Iraq, Brazil, Australia and the United States.

Dubais ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, sponsors the
competition, one of the most prestigious Koran recitation contests in the
world, to encourage young Muslims to understand the essence of their
faith. He provides the equivalent of nearly $700,000 in prize money,
including a top prize of almost $70,000.

The contest, in its 10th year, is one befitting a place like Dubai, with
its penchant for glitz and glamour. Dubai marketers have plastered the
city with ads that push it as must-see TV, and it is popular enough that
the awards ceremony attracts dignitaries and prominent personalities.

The scene inside the competition hall is reminiscent of classic American
spelling bees. The young contestants, primed from years of study, squirm
in their seats while the audience sits in hushed anxiety.

This is the Olympics of Koran reading, said Ahmad al Suwiedi, head of the
competitions organizing committee. So whoever goes up there on that stage
has to make us and his country proud.

Late Thursday night, 10-year-old Khubaib Muhammad walked on stage in his
tennis shoes and traditional Kenyan dress, sat in an oversize chair that
engulfed his slight frame and prepared for his chance at fame and fortune.

Khubaib has spent hours each day for the past three years memorizing the
Koran. He competed in local reading competitions in his native Nairobi to
qualify for this contest. It was hard work, but ultimately it was worth it
because I got here, he said just before taking the stage. Im not nervous.
Im ready and prepared.

Being prepared means being ready to recite the Koran in Arabic  starting
anywhere the judges want and for as long as they want. The judges choose
the section at random, recite the beginning, then expect the contestant to
pick up where they left off. The contestants must know the text well
enough to quickly recognize the section the judge is reading.

After Khubaib took the stage, one of the five judges began reciting text.
At the judges signal, Khubaib took over, his high-pitched voice filling
the crowded recital hall.

For the next 15 minutes, the boy carried on the recitation by heart, his
eyes closed in deep concentration, his legs swinging several inches off
the ground. At one point, one of the judges rang the bell, indicating
Khubaib had made a mistake. For a moment, the boy was silent, but he
quickly corrected himself and continued.

To Muslims, the Koran is the word of God as revealed to the Prophet
Muhammad. In the contest, it is supposed to be read in a melodic chant
that follows rules known as tajweed, which dictate what letters should be
emphasized, slurred or silent. The best reciters are legendary, their
tapes sold across the Muslim world.

This years Dubai champion will ostensibly join their ranks someday.

During a reporters visit last week, the young men exhibited a camaraderie
built around faith, leaving the problems of the region outside the
performance hall. This is a positive thing happening in a difficult world,
said Ahmad Nasser Rabbah, 15, a third-generation Brazilian.

The contestants are judged first on their accuracy to the text, then on
the quality of their reading according to the rules of tajweed, and
finally on the quality of their voices. Some of the readers, including
Khubaib, do not speak Arabic, but have memorized the text by rote.

Ahmed Khorshid, 15, who represents the United States, was impressed by his
competitors skill level. Ahmed, who lives in Oak Lawn, Ill., said that he
initially balked when he was invited to Dubai; he did not want to miss out
on his football games. But he decided to give up his position as running
back at his schools homecoming game to come.

All my friends and sheiks will be watching me on TV back home, and I
intend to make them proud, he said.

By Friday, it had become increasingly obvious who the likely winners would
be, with the contestants from Nigeria and Saudi Arabia leading the pack. I
was really nervous as I walked up to the stage, but as soon as I sat down
all the fear was gone, said Mohammed Lawa Muhammed, 20, the Nigerian

For all the dreams of scholarly fame, few of the contestants said they
will seek a life as a cleric. Mr. Muhammed aspires to be a doctor. Ahmed
Khorshid, the American, wants to be a basketball player.

Khubaib Muhammad, the Kenyan, hopes to be a pilot for the Red Cross. I
would like to win, he said. It would be a blessing from God.


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