Koran provides the ultimate memory test for Muslim boys

They come from far and wide hoping to find instant fame in what is one of the Islamic world's most hotly fought-over competitions - young men and boys hungry to display their talent to the world.

But this is no glitzy ceremony searching for the next pop idol. This is Dubai's International Holy Koran Award, a highly prestigious recitation competition in which contestants as young as nine recite Islam's holy book from memory.

The annual award, sponsored by Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, held its final round last night. Eighty contestants from across the globe now have a nervous two-day wait before the winner is announced.

"The competition has ended but now the judges will deliberate and the winners will be announced this Thursday," said Ahmed Al Zahid, a spokesman for the award.

Since the start of Ramadan, when the competition begins, scores of young contestants have climbed a large stage in front of an audience of thousands and began their recitation of the Koran at a random place chosen by the judges.

In scenes reminiscent of an American spelling bee, any lapses in memory or mispronunciation in Arabic were corrected by the sounding of a bell as the judges, prominent Islamic scholars from across the region, assessed the contestant's ability to recite the Koran according to Islamic practice.

Reciting the Koran from memory, a practice known as tajweed, plays a central role in helping Muslims gain a deeper understanding of their faith. Entrants are expected to be able to recite the holy book - estimated to contain more than 77,000 words - in full.

Mohammed Luwan, a 20-year-old contestant from Nigeria, said: "I began to memorise the Holy Koran when I was 15 and completed memorisation of the holy book at 17."

The award's youngest entrant, nine-year-old Australian Abdullah al Zahabi, amazed the audience last week as he took to the stage to begin his recitation.

Standing next to his father afterwards, he told Gulf News: "My brother and I memorised the Koran at an early age and with help and support from my parents." He said that he wants to be a Muslim scholar when he grows up.

Now in its tenth year, the event has become one of the most prestigious tajweed competitions in the world, with a top prize of more than £35,000. The winners can expect a raft of invitations from across the world to recite holy texts during religious gatherings.

The competition also contains a separate programme for prisoners in Dubai, who can reduce their jail terms by proving that they can learn the Koran.

The programme is not open for those facing the death sentence or guilty of murder, but for those on lesser sentences, memorising the whole of the holy book can knock 20 years off their time in prison.

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