Quran Olympics

High hopes and anxiety in a Koranic ‘Olympics’
By Hassan M. Fattah The New York Times

DUBAI 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 winners will not become the objects of gossip in glossy magazines. Instead, they will become stars of a different sort, earning the respect of devout Muslims and invitations to recite the Koran during religious gatherings.

The competition, the Dubai International Holy Koran Award, is open to males 21 and younger, and this year for Ramadan more than 80 young Muslim men faced off to see who was best at reciting the Koran from memory. The contestants came from around the world to represent their countries, including Iran, Iraq and the United States.

Dubai’s ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, sponsors the competition, one of the most prestigious Koran recitation contests in the world, to encourage young Muslim men 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, befits 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.

Inside the competition hall, the young contestants, primed by 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 competition’s 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 oversized chair that engulfed his slight frame and prepared for his chance at fame and fortune.

Khubaib had spent hours each day for the past three years memorizing the Koran. He competed in local reading competitions to qualify for Dubai. “It was hard work, but ultimately it was worth it because I got here,” he said just before taking the stage. “I’m not nervous. I’m 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 recognize quickly the section the judge is reading.

After Khubaib took the stage, one of the five judges began reciting text. At the judge’s 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 above the floor.

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.

In the contest, the Koran is supposed to be read in a melodic chant that follows tajweed, rules that dictate what letters should be emphasized, elided or silent. The best reciters are legendary, their tapes sold around the Muslim world.

During a reporter’s visit last week, the young men exhibited a camaraderie built around faith, leaving the world’s problems 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 fidelity to the text, then on the quality of their reading according to 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 sound.

Ahmed Khorshid, 15, who represented the United States, was impressed by his competitors’ skill level. Ahmed, who lives in Oak Lawn, Illinois, said 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 school’s 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, from Nigeria.

For all the dreams of scholarly fame, few of the contestants said they would seek the life of a cleric. The Nigerian aspires to be a doctor. The American wants to be a basketball player. The Kenyan hopes to be a pilot for the Red Cross.

“I would like to win,” Khubaib said. “It would be a blessing from God.”

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