At a competition to recite sections of the Quran from memory, one of the very first contestants, a boy of about 12 years, struggled a bit.
A few minutes later, after a young boy of about 7 was able to recite with enthusiasm, the audience of mostly men shouted, “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great,” and one boy said in English: “Good job.”
About 100 Muslim students, ages 7 to 25, from all over the Philadelphia region took part in the Quranic Memorization Competition at Al Aqsa Islamic Society in North Philadelphia on Sunday. The annual event is sponsored by the Islamic Heritage Foundation.
Sunday’s event drew the largest number of students willing to test their knowledge of the Quran, Islam’s Holy Book, since the competition began 26 years ago, said Nabeehah Parker, administrative official of the Islamic Heritage Foundation.
“We are doing this to preserve the Quran because if we ever lose the written book, we will be able to pass it on to the next generation and all generations because we have it in our hearts and in our minds,” Parker said.
At the registration desk, one woman said she’d received a call from a family in Paterson, N.J., who wanted to make sure her child was registered before making a nearly two-hour drive to Philadelphia.
Officials said the students included those with families who originally came from Bosnia, Bangladesh, Egypt, other parts of the Middle East, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Spain, and Nigeria, in addition to those from the United States.
The recitations began at about 9 a.m. And while the boys and young men completed their competition by 2:30 p.m., the girls and young women were still reciting at 3 p.m.
In the men’s side of the mosque, one of the judges started with the first line of one of the verses, or ayats, of a chapter, or sura, of the Quran. Then the student was expected to recite that section.
On the women’s side of the mosque, Mahasin Green, 14, competed in a room with three female judges and an audience of all girls and women, many sitting on the carpeted floor.
When she finished, Mahasin fell into her mother’s arms as her mother, Shay Green, gave her daughter a smile and a hug.
“I was scared. I was nervous,” Mahasin said later. Green said her daughter began memorizing the Quran when she was 6 years old.
Parker and her husband, Khalil bin Brown, executive director of the Islamic Heritage Foundation, began the foundation 27 years ago in 1992. The competition started a year later.
Parker said the female and male judges earned advanced degrees at Islamic universities in Saudi Arabia.
“The judges are listening not just to whether they know the Quran," Brown said, "but to every word and every letter is pronounced correctly. They are listening to see if they pronounce a 't' or a 'th.’ "
Abdur-Rahman Lewis, a 14-year-old boy from Upper Darby, earned praise from the crowd after he recited. Later, he was named one of the winners for reciting three sections of the Quran. “I’m happy," he said.
Zackariya Wyatt, 14, lined up with other winners to collect his prize. He won first place for those who competed in reciting five sections. First-place prizes ranged from $100 to $500, depending on how many sections of the Quran students recited.
Zackariya’s father, Tahir Wyatt, executive director of Islamic Education at the United Muslim Masjid in South Philadelphia, said the Quran is 604 pages long and is divided into 30 parts, or sections, called a juz.
The students competed in categories of reciting either one-half juz, one juz, three juz, or five juz.
In the back of the men’s side of the mosque, a Bangladeshi woman and her two daughters waited hours for their son and brother, Sheik Hassan, 24, of New Jersey, to compete in the “over-20” age category.
Hassan won first place in the competition for reciting three sections of the Quran. His mother, who didn’t want to give her name, beamed with pride and said he had won last year, also.
“The [Arabic] root of the word Quran, is qara’a, which means to read or to recite,” Tahir Wyatt said.
“It was revealed to be recited,” he said. Then he pointed to Rashid Ahmadi, one of the judges in the boys’ category and said: “He has a list that includes the teacher that he [Ahmadi] learned the Quran from and that teacher’s teacher and his teacher and his teacher all the way back to the Prophet Muhammad," Wyatt said.
“This is the tradition.”