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Minnesota Teen Brings Home Top Prize In International Quran Competition

In June, 17-year-old Ahmed Burhan Mohamed recited passages of the Quran nearly perfectly in front of a panel of judges.

Mohamed has earned the title of hafiz — someone who has not only learned to read the Quran, but memorized it. It's a huge accomplishment for the 17-year-old from Minnesota, one that helped him take home the prestigious Dubai International Holy Quran Award. Held every year at in the United Arab Emirates, the international competition comes with $68,000 in prize money for the first place finisher.

"It was a dream come true," he told Lulu Garcia-Navarro on NPR's Weekend Edition. "Five years before that, I didn't even think of myself going to that competition. I was very surprised."

Mohamed is the first American to win the prestigious award. He's also of Somali descent, and after winning the competition, he traveled to Somalia at the invitation of the country's president, who wanted to congratulate the teenager.

Participants in the International Contest of the Holy Quran gather in Dubai during Ramadan each year. The two-week competition involves multiple rounds, during which competitors answer questions and recite random passages of the Quran for judges. This year, over 100 young men, all under 21, vied for the top prize.

When he began learning the text at just seven years old, Mohamed, like many other young children, didn't want to memorize it.

"But as you learn more and more and become more mature and become used to it, it becomes a big part of your life," he explained.

So what does it take to memorize a scripture around 1,400 years old?

Mohamed said he prepared intensely for five months before the competition.

"Every single time I had free time, I'd be reading the Quran – maybe on the bus, maybe at school when I have free periods," he explained. "It's very intense. You have to sacrifice a lot of time and put a lot of time into it. You can't be acting like other kids."

That means less time for video games and basketball.

Mohamed said his whole purpose is to carry out the message of the book.

"My motivation was to memorize my God's Holy Book, our God's Holy Book and so I could implement it," he explained.

Mohamed's favorite chapter of the Quran to recite is the Surah ar-Rahman. He loves the rhythm and repetition, but he also loves the meaning. He says it's about giving back.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.