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Muslimkidsmatter- Koran by Heart-documentary about Muslim Child Prodigies


One of Islam’s most revered traditions, Koran recitation reaches its pinnacle at the world’s preeminent recitation competition in Cairo, where Muslim children come from across the globe to perform in front of a panel of prominent judges. Contestants as young as seven are ranked against kids more than twice their age for both their comprehensive memorization of the 600-page text as well as their improvised melodies. A diverse spectrum of Muslims competes for top prize: Ten-year-old Senegalese entrant Djamil navigates the competition alone while his community anxiously awaits his results; Rifdha, from a small island in the Maldives, enters as one of the competition’s few female participants; and Nabiollah, from rural Tajikistan, mesmerizes judges with his angelic voice in spite of not speaking Arabic.

Following these talented youngsters from their intense preparation regimes through the rigorous rounds of the tournament, director Greg Barker creates both an inspirational competition film and an engaging survey of the unique experiences of Muslim children throughout the world, using the cultural crossroads of the international competition to examine the issues facing of the next generation of Muslims.

–Ian Hollander

World Documentary Competition

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[KORAN] | 2011 | 77 min | Feature Documentary

Directed by: Greg Barker
(Koran By Heart)
In Arabic, Dhivehi, English, Tajik, Wolof, Buck with English subtitles.

Interview with Greg Barker

Review on Salon:
And here’s the second thing about “Koran by Heart”: It’s a colorful and dramatic saga of human competition, with a fascinating setting and utterly irresistible pint-sized heroes, but it doesn’t soft-pedal the things about 21st-century Islam that are likely to make at least some Western viewers uncomfortable. One of our stars is a 10-year-old kid from Tajikistan named Nabiollah, an angelic, big-eyed moppet who can recite the entire Quran from memory in an astonishingly pure boyish soprano, with remarkable command of melody and intonation. He’s like the Justin Bieber of Quran recitation, and judges at the Cairo event seize on him as an amazing gift from Allah. But memorizing the Quran (in Arabic, which he does not otherwise speak or read) at a rural madrassa has nearly been Nabiollah’s entire education; he is functionally illiterate in Tajik, his own language.

You can’t say that about Rifdha, also 10, a cuddly, sparkling child from the Maldives (an archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean) who seems younger than her age but is something close to a prodigy. She excels at Quran recitation, but it’s clear she would excel at anything she pursued. She studies advanced science and math, speaks several languages and yearns to be an undersea explorer and researcher. Her mother is fully supportive, but her father, a calm and thoughtful man …, insists that Rifdha must receive a strict Islamic education — perhaps in Yemen, rather than the relatively liberal Maldives — and become a housewife.

Perhaps most affecting of the film’s three 10-year-olds, however, is Djamil, an earnest imam’s son from an impoverished village in Senegal who travels to Cairo all by himself as a representative of an entire nation on the outer fringes of the Islamic world. Barker filmed the 2009 competition (when Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, seen in the film, was still in power), which featured 110 contestants ranging in age from 7 to about 20, including a few from Western nations: a teenage girl from Italy, a 10-year-old Australian boy.

Can wait to see it. Tell us about your Quran Hifdh/qiraat journeys.

P.S. Muslimkidsmatter will be announcing a special competition soon InshaAllah.

Keep supporting MuslimMatters for the sake of Allah

Alhamdulillah, we're at over 850 supporters. Help us get to 900 supporters this month. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.



  1. Azad Ibrahim

    May 28, 2011 at 1:22 PM

    I would like to know if I can buy this documentary and if so, would be grateful for a link.


    Azad (Sri Lanka)

  2. Bilal

    May 28, 2011 at 9:10 PM

    Do you know where i can buy this documentary from? is there a website?

    • Azad Ibrahim

      May 29, 2011 at 1:19 PM

      insha Allah, I think you will be able to buy this from HBO’s website ( and then click on ‘store’) after they screen it on 1 August.


  3. MW_M

    May 28, 2011 at 9:49 PM

    Any info on showings?

  4. Azad Ibrahim

    May 29, 2011 at 12:42 AM

    I understand that this documentary will be aired on HBO TV on 1 August 2011 at 9.00 pm.


  5. Maryam

    May 29, 2011 at 12:25 PM

    Assalaamu alaikum
    I also would like to know if there is a web link where I could purchase or watch this documentary.

  6. Coorled38

    May 29, 2011 at 7:32 PM

    I’m curious if anyone has bothered to ask these child prodigies whether they understand what they have memorized? Obviously one does not since he does not speak Arabic…so exactly what is the point of memorizing something that has no meaning other than it sounds melodious and keeps you busy when you might be engaged in less than meritious pursuits?

    My son was chosen as leader of mosque prayers during Ramadan when he was 13/14 simply because he had a beautiful voice and had memorized the Quran…and yet nobody questioned him about the meaning of that memorized text before asking him to lead prayers. For all they knew he was reciting words that held no meaning for him other than his culture demanded he spend copious amounts of time in the mosque…memorizing it. I, as his mother, knew exactly what he knew of it because I had long discussions with him, as well as my other children, about what they had learned while in Islamic classes. Apparently very little time was spent explaining verses because memorizing was seen as the more productive way to spend the time. And this was in an “Islamic” country. Just dont get it.

    • AnonyMouse

      May 29, 2011 at 8:00 PM

      I see where you’re coming from, and not so long ago, I would’ve agreed – in fact, I still do (although not entirely).
      The truth is that the Qur’an SHOULD be understood as well as memorized. The reality obviously does not always adhere to that, but then, many things that should be, aren’t.
      Nonetheless, the Qur’an holds a power over every single heart that has an ounce of sincerity in it, even if the reciter and the listener cannot understand a word of it.

      It is up to us, as individuals, as memorizers of the Qur’an, as the parents of children who memorize the Qur’an, that we care as much about understanding the blessed verses and acting upon them, living by them every day of our lives, as we care about memorizing those sacred words.

      May Allah make us amongst those who both memorize and live the Qur’an, ameen.

    • Furhan zubairi

      May 30, 2011 at 10:09 AM

      As Salam u alaikum,

      I generally don’t comment but after reading this I felt I could add something beneficial to the conversation.
      Although it is definately better and more beneficial to read/memorize the Quran while studying it’s meanings, it’s important to realize that recitation of the Quran is an extremely meritorious act of worship in and of itslef.
      This can be seen by the numerous narrations we find in the books of ahadith regarding virtues of the Quran . For example, it is narrated that the Prophet (saw) said, “Whoever recites a letter from the Book of Allah, he will be credited with a good deed, and a good deed gets a ten-fold reward. I do not say that Alif-Lam-Mim is one letter, but Alif is a letter, Lam is a letter and Mim is a letter.”
      As one of my teachers once said it’s interesting to note that the word the Prophet (saw) chose to give as an example is a word that no one knows the meaning of except Allah (swt).
      Reciting the Quran and reflecting/pondering over its meanings are two seperate acts of worship. We shouldn’t look at reciting the Quran without meaning as something that is useless.


    • Umm Zakariyya

      May 30, 2011 at 3:16 PM

      Perhaps its because memorising the entire Quran can be done within a specific time framework, whereas understanding the Quran is a life long journey – there is no time than any of us can claim to fully understand the Qur’an. And perhaps that one of the tools we try to give ourselves and our children, on their life’s journey to understanding the Qur’an, is through the memorization, so that in future when they hear tafsir and lessons based on the Qu’ran, they can anchor these to the ayaat they already know. I think of understanding as the goal, and hifdh as one key to that understanding.

  7. Umm Reem

    May 30, 2011 at 1:37 AM

    I completely agree with you. I think whether it is memorization or simple recitation, at a young age, should be done with meanings and explanation wherever parents can offer a brief explanation.

    When my kids were memorizing Qur’an, we always read the meanings of the new lesson and read from the tafseer. It helped built an interest for them to memorize, not to mention all the other benefits came along with it alhamdullilah. Understanding of what they are memorizing is very important.

    Nevertheless, it is one of the miracles of QUr’an that It can be memorized even by those who don’t understand Arabic, and their effort is priceless!

  8. Tariq Nisar Ahmed

    May 30, 2011 at 2:08 AM

    Sounds like it will be an interesting documentary. Like the popular documentaries about spelling bee competitions, etc. in the US. Sad the producers could only compare the sound of Qur’an to music, since the Speech of Allah far transcends any piece of music.

    Nevertheless masajid throughout the West should invite nonMuslims to come watch the documentary and then showcase their own local child “phenoms.” Not every city has the number of hifdh schools that Houston has, alhamdolillah, but it would be fantastic dawah in my opinion to have people hear the beauty of the Qur’an in their local communities. Well worth the cost of the DVD.

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  10. Mezba (Read with Meaning)

    May 30, 2011 at 10:03 AM

    It’s still amazing to me that young kids can learn the whole Quran by heart.

  11. Abu Fatimah

    May 30, 2011 at 8:47 PM

    Am I the only one who is feeling somewhat negative about this documentary?

    It would be interesting if it didnt sound like propaganda. The bright girl who’s life is ruined by religion. The kid who only knows qur’an and is illiterate. How exactly is this portraying Islaam in a good light?

    Such a sinister picture is painted, yet couldnt be further from the truth. The reality of the youth who are devoted to teh qur’an is not the sinister picture that was painted here.

    Isnt it possible that the non muslims made this film as propaganda against Islaam?

    • Olivia

      May 31, 2011 at 5:03 PM

      I sort of have the same vibe as brother Dawud. It seems like the undertone is that children who pursue hifdh have some sort of wasted potential because of a hyper-focus of their parents on religion. It’s as if to say, “Wow, look at these prodigy kids. Too bad their parents won’t let them pursue anything else besides Islam.” I can’t knock it unless I’ve seen it, but the average case of children huffadh from the U.S. is that they pursue and excel at their secular education as well. I hope it’s a fair portrayal of huffadh everywhere and not cherrypicking cases where the children are great at hifdh but their “religious” parents stunt their intelligence or opportunities, as if to connect hifdh with zealotry or some such. I mean, if its on HBO, it has to have some sort of entertainment factor then to just showcase kids memorizing Quran. The drama has to come from somewhere, and we all know the usual Not Without My Daughter Drama that Hollywood loves.

      • basmah

        June 14, 2011 at 2:40 PM

        thats what i was thinking….hope its a fair potrayal

  12. ANMB

    June 20, 2011 at 10:50 AM

    “The method of reciting the Quran practiced today – where a student recites Quran completely multiple times over without understanding a single word – is the exact opposite of how it should actually be studied! When a Muslim student learns Arabic, he is taught the pronunciation of Arabic letter and words without the meaning such that he is not able to understand his reading. Interestingly, this way of learning a language is reserved for no other language in the world but for Quranic Arabic!”

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