Young Prodigies Compete To Learn 'Koran By Heart' For years, young people from around the world have spent the months leading up to Ramadan preparing for a nerve-wracking competition, where they attempt to recite the Koran from memory. Filmmaker Greg Barker captured the experiences of three children and their fellow competitors in the HBO documentary, Koran By Heart.
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Young Prodigies Compete To Learn 'Koran By Heart'

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Young Prodigies Compete To Learn 'Koran By Heart'

Young Prodigies Compete To Learn 'Koran By Heart'

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TONY COX, host: The sounds of conflict are what many Americans hear every day from news coverage of the ongoing revolution in Egypt. But there is another sound that fills the air for Muslims during the holy period of Ramadan, which began Monday. It is the reciting of the Koran.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (singing in foreign language)

COX: With more than one-and-a-half billion Muslims worldwide, a number that includes millions of Americans, there is always a need for reciters. Being a good Muslim means learning and practicing the Koran. But learning to recite the Koran has become a tradition even for those Muslims who do not speak Arabic, and their education begins very early in life.

In his documentary "Koran by Heart," filmmaker Greg Barker chronicles the story of several youngsters who, as young as age seven, have learned to memorize the holy document. Last year, 110 teen and pre-teen Muslim boys and girls went to Cairo to compete in the annual international Holy Koran competition, an intense, two-week ritual, during which they recite, by memory and without error, preselected passages. They are judged on their accuracy and the quality of their chant and intonation. It is a major event televised live on Egyptian TV, with the country's president conferring honors on the proud winners.

We'd like to hear from our Muslim listeners in the audience. Did you learn to recite the Koran? When did you and how did you and where did you? Tell us your story. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. The email address is Or to join the conversation, go to our website and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Filmmaker Greg Barker joins us now from NPR West in Culver City, California. Greg, welcome.

GREG BARKER: Thank you, Tony. Good to be here.

COX: Let's begin with this, because this competition will be unfamiliar to most Americans, but it's a very big deal for many Muslims, these children coming from all over the globe to participate.

BARKER: Yeah, it is. It's a very big deal. I think the closest analogy is a spelling bee competition, but think of it almost like as an Olympics of spelling bees. So there are 70 countries represented, 100 kids from these - from across the Islamic world, who gathered together in Cairo last year during Ramadan. And they really represent the best and brightest of their generation of Muslims from across the Islamic world.

These are very, very bright kids, many of whom excel in every other subject that they study, as well, and their parents have chosen to emphasize the religious aspect of their education, as well. So these kids - some of whom are as young as seven - the ones we profile on the film are three amazing, 10-year-old kids who have memorized the Koran and recite it beautifully.

COX: You know, it was a very well-done documentary, beautifully shot, and the kids were very compelling. And there were some emotional moments in it for those who did well and for those who did not. Give us an idea of the difficulty of memorizing a document like the Koran. And they weren't tested on their knowledge of the entire Koran, just passages from it. But in order to know the passage and what was to go in it, you had to know the entire Koran, correct?

BARKER: Yeah, they're basically spot-checked. So a passage is chosen at random. They're given the first line of a passage and the end line, and they have to fill in the middle. And that can be up to three or four - in some cases, even six -minutes long, and they have to do it exactly right, from memory. And they also have to get the - the timing and the pronunciation exactly right.

But then what's amazing is the - what we think of as a melody - non-Muslims would call them the melody, or the intonation - is completely up to the individual reciter. So you have these 10-year-old kids who are, you know, almost like jazz musicians, kind of riffing and sort of very much going into the moment and sort of reciting the Koran in an incredibly moving, spiritual way. So it's an amazing act of memory, and also of artistry.

COX: Our guest is Greg Barker, director of the new HBO documentary "Koran by Heart." The film is running this month on HBO and HBO2. By the way, Greg is a former war correspondent, and he directed the documentary "Ghosts of Rwanda" and other documentaries for "Frontline" and HBO. He is joining us from NPR West in Culver City.

One of the things, Greg, that caught my attention, and the attention of the producer who worked with me on this, it was amazing to realize that many of these young people, these 10-year-olds that you highlighted in the film, they don't actually speak Arabic, even though they can recite the entire Koran. Explain how that can be.

BARKER: Well, for Muslims, the Koran is always recited in Arabic, whether the reciter is a native Arabic speaker or not. So it's just - these are very, very bright, young kids who have just committed the sounds of the Koran to memory, even though they don't speak the language, really know what they're saying or can't read it. And I think the open question is what's going to happen to these kids? And really, what I wanted to do with the film is use this competition and these amazing, engaging, charming young children as a window into the next generation of Muslims.

As we find out in the film, some of the children learn nothing but the Koran, so the rest of their education is really compromised. You know, one boy, we find out, really, can barely read and write in his own language and yet he knows the Koran wonderfully. Another...

COX: And he was one of the winners.

BARKER: He's one of the top winners. He's one of the stars of the competition, this extraordinary boy from Tajikistan who has an incredible voice and, I mean, really brought me and my whole crew to tears the first time we heard him, and many of the judges, as well. And - but it turned out - as part of the back-story, we find out that the rest of his education has been really lacking. And, in fact, the government of Tajikistan is trying to crack down on those types of schools that only teach the Koran and nothing else. And I think that's the really the big question, is what's going to happen to these kids? And what will they turn out to be as adults?

COX: Well, you mentioned in the documentary that that particular school that that youngster went to was shut down. At some point, though, do the youngsters learn the meaning of the Koran? Because from what you're telling us, it sounds as if - and we're going to go to a caller in just a second - that what you're telling us is that they are mimicking the sound that is associated with the Arabic in the Koran without having a connection to its meaning.

BARKER: Well, they generally learn the meaning in a more - in more detail when they're older. I mean, the kids we profiled are 10, so - and the Koran is very rich and complex religious text. So, you know, as they get older, a reciter - 17, 18, 19 - would then study the meaning, as well.

COX: All right. Let's take a phone call. This is from Abbas(ph) in Columbus, Ohio. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ABBAS: Hello. How are you doing today?

COX: We are fine. How are you?


ABBAS: Thank you for taking my call. Yes, you guys are talking a good topic. And I hope everybody will learn about who we are. Muslim is not violent. A lot of people will think that Muslims are a violent society. We are not. And just like any other religion, just like - last week, one guy killed 76 people in the name of whatever religion. I know all the religions are extremists. They have extremists (unintelligible) Islam (unintelligible) and we memorize...

COX: Abbas, let me interrupt you to ask you this question. We want to stay focused as much as we can about the Koran and where...

ABBAS: OK. Yes. Let me stay with that.

COX: Where did you learn it?

ABBAS: I used to memorize the Koran when I was as young as 10. And I have one of my brothers right now who really memorized - I don't know whether he can memorize everything, but when he read, a tear will come in the eyes. I think, sometimes, in different mosques, people won't give him opportunity. But sometimes they say, OK, come and do the (unintelligible). The way he (unintelligible) is amazing. And the way - I came from Somalia. The way we memorize is we have something called Dugsi. I don't speak Arabic...

COX: Dugsi? What is that? What is that, Dugsi? What is that?

ABBAS: I don't speak Arabic, but, still, I know the Koran. Dugsi is like a school, home school. We have a home school where you have a teacher and some - one teacher and a few assistants. And they will group with the children and (unintelligible). The children have to memorize, like, I read one chapter, then the other guys also read the other chapter. The other guys read another chapter. We might do most - maybe we might do from like 8 o'clock to 10 o'clock, about, every night.

COX: All right, Abbas. Thank you very much for the phone call. That sounds a little different than what the situation was with the reciters that are in your documentary, Greg, doesn't it?

BARKER: Sure. But, you know, in the course of making this film, I talked to a lot of Muslim-Americans who - you know, professionals who studied the Koran on the way to work. And, you know, maybe they take a break at work, and they have a Koran reciting program on their computer. It's just a part of their daily life. And that wasn't something that I fully appreciated until I made this film. It's just a very, very sort of - for a devout Muslim, reciting the Koran, knowing the Koran is just a part of his or her everyday experience.

COX: And what's interesting, one of the - is her name Rafidh(ph)?

BARKER: Rifdah, from the Maldives. Yeah.

COX: Rifdah. Rifdah. She's a 10-year-old who was an outstanding performer and one of the winners. And it was interesting how you - you showed and juxtaposed the role that, you know, women and females have with regard to the Koran, and with regard to the larger society that they're growing up in.

BARKER: Yeah. Rifdah is this amazing young girl, 10 years old, from the island nation of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. She's one of those kids who is - does - excels in everything. She's top of her class in every single subject. She speaks English, studying all these different languages, wants to be an explorer. There's a scene in the film where she tells her mom that she wants to be an explorer. And her mom encourages her and says: I want you to get a good education. What we find out in the film is that her father, who is very loving and accompanies her to Cairo, has a different vision of her future and actually has become increasingly conservative in his viewpoint and really wants her to stay at home and be a housewife and not continue her education.

So we kind of get this very intimate portrait within a Muslim family - which I think is very rare - of the real struggles going on over this daughter's education. And Rifdah herself is just this incredibly charming, engaging, funny young girl who charms everyone in Cairo.

COX: And she has the misfortune, actually, of having to compete at, I think, it was 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning.

BARKER: Yeah, you know, it takes place during Ramadan. So there's an afternoon session, and they take a break for the evening meal. And they start up again at about 9:30 at night and go till three in the morning. So this is 10-year-old girl. It's about 2 o'clock, and she's asleep on her father's shoulder, and then suddenly, her name is called as, you know, then she has to go up to the stage in front of this very intimidating group of esteemed judges who look very, very stern and suddenly, sort of, kick in the high gear and...

COX: And she did a great job.

BARKER: Yeah, and she does well. And you'll see it in the film. And she's - it's amazing, what she does.

COX: And it's absolutely amazing. Our guest is Greg Barker, director of the new HBO documentary, "Koran by Heart." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Let's take another call. Let's go out to Milwaukee. Hello. You're on the air with the TALK OF THE NATION. Hello? Afnan(ph)?

AFNAN: Hello?

COX: Afnan?


COX: Yes. Welcome. You're on the TALK OF THE NATION.

AFNAN: Hi. Yeah. I'm a first-generation Muslim-American. And my family - my parents thought me to read and memorize the Koran as young as, I think, I was maybe four, and memorizing some of the smaller chapters. And at that age, as what you're saying earlier, is that the meaning didn't matter as much. I didn't commit that to memory. But as I got older - now I'm 23 - the meaning matters more. I - it's so hard for me to memorize the Arabic, since English is my primarily language. It's so hard for me to memorize, even given the melody, if I don't know the meaning. So I just thought that was something very interesting about the language differences and committing the - committing it to memory as a child, versus as an adult.

COX: Appreciate the phone call. Thank you very much. It brings to mind, Greg Barker, the question of the reciters during this time of Ramadan, and in the United States, as I understand it - and I'd like for you to speak to this - that there are not enough reciters available. Is that true?

BARKER: Well, I'm not entirely sure of all that. I think, you know, the - certainly, the tradition of reciting the Koran is practiced here amongst the Muslim-American community. I'm not sure it's as prevalent as it would be in some other countries, you know. So - but it takes a huge amount of effort to commit the entire book to memory, or somebody who does the call to prayer, for instance, in the mosque would - in the Islamic world, generally be somebody who has memorized the entire Koran.

COX: Now, let's see if we can squeeze one last call in before we have to say goodbye. We're going to go to Nora in Dearborn, Michigan. Nora, welcome.

NORA: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I have - actually grew up in Syria. And there, I have learned to memorize the Koran. So I finished when I was about 13 years old. The way we do it there is, like, there's a group of young women who would volunteer to teach other young kids the Koran. So, like, I started when I was about four or five years old and, like, it took me that whole time. I was 13 when I was finished, and then, like, I volunteered to the mosque to teach other kids.

COX: All right. Thank you for that. Do you see this - Greg Barker, my last question for you: How do you see this in terms of the United States and the Muslim-Americans who are here? Is this an expanding phenomenon, in terms of reciting and learning the Koran early?

BARKER: Well, I think it's a phenomenon across the Islamic world. And I think, yes, I mean, I think people - Muslim-American families value that art. And I think, you know, but what I did learn from these amazing kids is that this is a religion where there's very much a conversation going on over whether the religion should take a more fundamentalist approach toward the future, or embrace modernity onto a greater degree. And that's really the issue that's at the crux of the film. And we get at it through the stories of these amazing kids who are on the journey of their lifetime to this huge, Olympics-like competition in this - in Cairo last year. Yeah.

COX: Cairo. Amazing.


COX: Greg Barker is the director of the HBO documentary, "Koran by Heart." You can find a link to the trailer on our website. Go to, and click on TALK. And you can see the film in its entirety throughout the month on HBO and HBO2. And quite a film it is, I should say. Greg Barker, thank you very much for your time today.

BARKER: My pleasure. Thank you.

COX: Tomorrow, Ira Flatow will be here for TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY, with the look at new research into the moon's history. And Neal Conan will be back in the host chair on Monday. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox, in Washington.

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