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This is what organizers envisioned for the 6th annual North American Imam Al-Shatibi Qur’an Competition: nearly 500 young Muslims converging on Bloomington in July for a weeklong challenge to recite passages —or the entire text—of the Qur’an from an ornate stage. Crowds of more than a thousand spectators, including family members who traveled from around the world. At the end, an elaborate awards ceremony.
In an age of pandemic, that’s not exactly how it played out. But it happened just the same. Organizers say they believe the live-streamed Minnesota event, which wrapped up last Monday, is the only one to have taken place in the world this year.
“It was a really different event,” said Abdullahi Ahmed, who started the competition and serves as its operations director. “At the same time, it was spectacular.”
So were some of the prizes for the young competitors, who were all between the ages of 8 and 19. Forty-one winners received free pilgrimage trips to Mecca and cash awards. One winner received a new Toyota Highlander.
Abdullahi, who works on the event all year, said he helped launch the competition because he noticed that some Muslim children did not feel as motivated to learn the Qur’an as they did to play soccer or baseball. But Abdullahi said such events are esteemed in many Muslim countries, so why not start one here? The event is now run by a staff of 20 volunteers who work year-round.
“There is reward for every good that you do,” Abdullahi said of students of the Qur’an, even if they don’t compete. “The kids should be proud of learning the Qur’an.”
The competition, named for a 14th century Islamic legal scholar from Spain, is divided into six categories that contestants may enter. In each, a contestant is tested on material from a certain number of passages. The Qur’an comprises 30 sections and the judges test the competitors with questions from either the first section, the first five, or the first 10. The first half of the Qur’an and the whole text are also separate categories.
Judges come up with three questions from the allotted section in advance and include those questions in separate envelopes. During each round, a contestant comes on stage and picks one of the envelopes. Once the question is read aloud by the judge, the contestant recites the corresponding passage from memory. Each contestant gets a total of 15 minutes to recite all three passages. The brackets further separate male and female participants. Competitors, who recite from a large chair resembling a throne on a decorated stage, try to impress the judges with their pronunciation and flow. Prizes go to multiple runners-up in each category and “best voice.”
In previous years, the competition was open to the public and typically attracted more than 1,000 spectators. This year, to comply with state regulations to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, organizers limited the audience to 246 people at the Kennedy High School auditorium, in Bloomington, which otherwise seats up to 1,400 people.
To ensure social distancing, competitors attended only on the day they recited. The day before, volunteers called families to conduct a COVID-19 screening. “Whenever they gave us any information regarding someone in the family not feeling well, we would tell them not to come,” Abdullahi said.
So, while 497 registered for the competition (compared to 459 last year), 100 of them—27 from outside of Minnesota–had to drop out. A majority of the contestants come from the Twin Cities area, but anyone from the United States, Mexico or Canada is eligible. The only people allowed in the auditorium were competitors, their teachers, parents, volunteers and judges. All underwent COVID-19 screening at the door.
The kids, who have been stuck in their homes since March, were especially excited for the competition this year, Abdullahi said. Students prepare for the competition for at least one year.
The award ceremony is the biggest event of the week-long competition, but it also required the most modifications, Abdullahi said. To maintain social distancing, the only people allowed on stage were the host of the event and the judge presenting the award. Winners took the stage, but kept their masks on. To put a face to the name, a slideshow of the winner’s photo without a mask appeared on a screen.
“To limit the number of people who come to the ceremony, that was the most difficult part for us,” Abdullahi said.
Even with such modifications, it was a major effort to hold the competition. Abdullahi said he didn’t know whether it would be possible until mid-July. When restrictions on large gatherings in Minnesota loosened, organizers started planning how they could do it safely. The Bloomington School District required a COVID-19 preparedness plan before it would book the event into the auditorium.
“To our knowledge, in the entire Muslim world, this is the only major Qur’an competition that happened this year—Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Sudan, Libya, Egypt, none of them were held this year,” Abdullahi said. Some of those competitions have been held for more than 50 years—without any cancelations.
Prizes? How about $10,000, a trip to Mecca, or a 2020 Toyota Highlander
Despite the pandemic, the prizes for this year’s Qur’an competition were perhaps more extravagant than in previous years.
Organizers would not reveal details about the winners because of privacy considerations.
Each winner and their parents receive a free trip to Umrah, a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia that can be completed at any time of the year. The winners travel as a group, typically during the winter. However, it will be delayed if Saudi Arabia has travel restrictions in place to limit the spread of COVID-19. Organizers are still continuing to plan the Umrah trip but will adjust their plans if travel restrictions are still in force in December.
The trip is valued at about $2,500, but winners also receive cash awards ranging from $750 to $10,000 for the two winners of the full-Qur’an category.
Various donors sponsor these prizes, according to Abdullahi. He added that one donor sponsored customized gold necklaces for all the female participants this year. That same donor decided to sponsor an additional prize for one of the winners of the full-Qur’an category.
At the end of the award ceremony, Rowda Kassim Mohamed and Abdullahi Bashir Abdi, both from Minnesota, conducted an additional tiebreaker round to win a 2020 Toyota Highlander for the winners of the full-Qur’an category. Abdullahi Bashir won.
Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.