Sunday, August 28, 2011

Koran by Heart

Yesterday, I watched one of the saddest documentaries I have ever seen: Koran by Heart. (It’s free online here:

The documentary follows three young children who traveled to Cairo, Egypt in 2010 to compete in an international Qur’an recitation competition – a young boy from Senegal, another young boy from Tajikistan, and a young girl from the Maldives. All three of them have memorized the entire Qur’an, from start to finish, in the original, classical 7th-century Arabic. Every syllable, every vowel, every inflection.

None of them speak or understand Arabic. None of them know the meaning of what they are reciting.

To devout Muslims, that’s irrelevant. The spoken word of the Qur’an, understood or not, is significant. It carries power within itself. Muslims believe that Mohammad recited the Qur’an to his followers exactly the way the angel Gabriel recited it to him (cf. Galatians 1:8), and that it has been preserved for them in that exact form to this day. According to one of Mohammad’s preserved sayings, when the Qur’an is recited, God’s peace descends.

Nabiollah, the boy from Tajikistan, was enrolled in an Islamic school by his father, whose own education was cut short by Tajikistan’s civil war, and who desperately wants his son to be educated. Early in the film, we learn that Nabiollah’s school has been shut down by Tajikistan’s government, as part of its campaign against Islamic extremism. His father takes him to a boarding school in another city, hoping to get his son accepted there. When the headmaster interviews Nabiollah, he realizes that Nabiollah’s entire education has consisted of memorizing the unintelligible sounds of the Qur’an. He can barely read or write his own language, Tajik.

Rifdha, the girl from the Maldives, is a beautiful, hyperactive 10-year-old girl, who sometimes speaks to the camera in her native language, and sometimes reads carefully crafted essays in English from scraps of notebook paper. Her mother boasts to the camera about her daughter’s perfect scores in math and science, and tells Rifdha to talk to her father about the possibility of getting a secular education.

Rifdha’s father is a Muslim fundamentalist who is not impressed with the level of piety exhibited by the Muslims he meets in Cairo. He believes it is a sin for a man to cut his beard, and tells the camera that any part of man’s leg above his ankle left uncovered by clothing will burn in hellfire. The documentary uses him a counterpoint to Egypt’s deputy minister of religious affairs, who is in charge of the competition. The minister rages against the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism, which can only be corrected by a return to the truth of the Qur’an. Cut to Rifdha’s father, who has made his prodigy of a daughter memorize the entire Qur’an in a language neither of them understand. He insists that his brilliant daughter will not be allowed to become anything but a housewife.

In one scene, Rifdha and her mother have a private reception with the former “president” (blood-soaked dictator) of the Maldives at his home. The ex-strongman complains to the camera about the rise of fundamentalism in the Maldives – an odd complaint from a man who made it illegal for any of his citizens to belong to a religion other than Sunni Islam, a law that stands to this day. (“لَآ إِكۡرَاهَ فِى ٱلدِّينِ.” “Let there be no compulsion in religion” – Sura 2:256, as translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali). The ex-president asks Rifdha why her father didn’t come with her to visit him. “He’s at the mosque,” she replies.

Frankly, Arab-centrism is on full display in this film. The Arab judges are constantly making remarks about how amazing it is that these kids “who don’t even speak Arabic” are doing so well in the competition. Despite their amazement, it doesn’t seem any provisions are made for those competitors unfortunate enough to come from non-Arabic-speaking countries. The rules are explained to Nabiollah in Arabic, even though, as the judge says while laughing, “you have no idea what I’m saying.” After passing the first round, Rifdha is left completely oblivious to the fact that there is a second round of the competition two days later, apparently because she and her father didn't understand the announcements. In one heart-rending scene, a non-Arabic-speaking African boy is told to begin reciting from a certain verse in the Qur’an. The prompt he is given appears in multiple chapters in the Qur’an, and he begins reciting the wrong passage. The judges repeatedly cut him off and yell at him in Arabic that he has the wrong passage. Of course, he doesn’t understand a word. Tears streaming down his face, he bravely finishes the passage (all the while I’m screaming at the screen, Ween mutarjim? Where is your freaking translator?) He is failed out of the competition.

The filmmakers do a pretty good job of masking their feelings about their subject matter, but I don’t know how any fairminded person can watch this film and come away feeling good about it. Here are three kids who are absolutely prodigious. What should we do with them? Let’s have them memorize an entire book in a language they don’t understand and that no one even speaks anymore. Will they someday get a decent education and realize the potential of their stunning talents? Eh, maybe. Hey, let’s have the kid with the nice voice who doesn’t even know how to read recite for the unelected mass murderer who rules our country!

And remember everybody – extremism is bad.

In his speech at the awards ceremony in the film, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, unaware that he will be on trial for his life in under a year, declares, “Tonight is the holiest night of Ramadan, the Night of Revelation, when the Qur’an was first revealed. The night of wisdom, to lead people from darkness into light.”

Not quite yet, apparently.

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