(RNS) A new documentary follows three Muslim children as they travel to Egypt to compete in a tournament that requires young contestants to recite whole passages of the Quran, Islam’s 600-page holy book, from memory.
Each year during Ramadan—a Muslim holy month when believers fast, pray and read from the Quran—100 students from more than 70 countries flock to Cairo for the International Holy Quran Competition.
Greg Barker, a former war correspondent and creator of films such as “Ghosts of Rwanda,” captured the contest in his new documentary “Koran by Heart,” which is set to premiere on HBO on August 1, the first night of Ramadan.
Barker’s film tells the story of three 10-year-olds—two boys and one girl—as they travel to the competition.
All three dedicated most of their early years to memorizing every word of the Quran—even though they do not speak or understand Arabic, the language in which the holy book is written.
“(The contest) is a window into the world that most non-Muslims or Westerners don’t see. It … puts a human face on the religion,” Barker said.
Quran recitations are a regular practice throughout the Muslim world, although they are especially auspicious during Ramadan. Muslims believe it to be the month when the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.
Much of the film focuses on the relationships between the young contestants and their families, offering a glimpse into the daily life of the broader Muslim world.
“These kids are young, not really aware of the politics surrounding Islam, Barker said, “but we see through their families the larger issues that they’re grappling with.”
Rifdha, for example, is from the Maldives and is one of only 10 girls in the competition. Although both parents want her to be educated, Rifdha’s father insists that she grow up to be a housewife; her mother encourages her to work toward a career.
Nabiollah, from Tajikistan, receives widespread acclaim at home and abroad for his masterful recitation skills, but is virtually illiterate in his native language.
Djamil, from Senegal, is asked to represent all of Africa at the competition, but must travel to Egypt alone without any family or friends to guide him.