MEMORIZING THE WAY TO HEAVEN, VERSE BY VERSE
The carpeted room is full of children in skullcaps crouched on prayer mats, reciting verses from a holy text. Some mumble the words under their breath; others sing them out. They rock back and forth as they chant, their disparate voices blending into an ethereal melody.
The children, ages 7 to 14, are full-time students, in class 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, even in the summer. But they are not studying math, science or English. Instead, they are memorizing all 6,200 verses in the Koran, a task that usually takes two to three years.
It would hardly be an unusual scene in Pakistan, Afghanistan or elsewhere in the Muslim world, where religious schools devoted to memorization of the Koran and Islamic studies are common. But this class meets in the prayer room of a small mosque in Flushing, Queens, that caters mostly to South Asian immigrants and their children.
Schools like this one at the Muslim Center of New York are rare in the United States, but are emerging, especially among South Asians, as the Muslim American population becomes more established.
“This is very much influenced by traditions back home,” said Imam Shamsi Ali, director of the Jamaica Muslim Center in Queens, which started its own memorization school several years ago. He envisions the children in the school becoming not just religious leaders but doctors, lawyers and engineers, helping to bridge the gap between the Muslim world and American society. “We want them to be leaders in all different kinds of roles.”
But this level of devotion to Islam has a way of causing suspicion these days. While parents whose children are in the schools said they were proud of them, they also worry about how they will be perceived.
Dr. Fauzia Syed-Khan, an endocrinologist in Astoria, Queens, and a Pakistani immigrant whose sons, Tariq and Bilal, both studied at the Muslim Center’s memorization school, said she did not talk about the program with co-workers.
“I think they would have a hard time understanding,” she said.
The students who finish memorizing the Koran earn the title hafiz, an exalted accomplishment in the Muslim world that is relatively rare in the United States. A hafiz plays an important role during Ramadan, when the entire Koran must be recited over 30 days to mosque members. But becoming a hafiz is also believed to bring rewards in the hereafter, guaranteeing the person entrance to heaven, along with 10 other people of his choosing, provided he does not forget the verses and continues to practice Islam.
“It’s almost like a bank account for the afterlife,” said Zawar Ahmed, 11, who recently became a hafiz through the Muslim Center and brought in sweets for his classmates to celebrate.
Iftkhar Ahmed, Zawar’s father, a Pakistani immigrant who runs a 99-cent store, said the day his son became a hafiz was the happiest of his life.
“In this life, kids are doing a lot of things,” he said. “This is something for God.”
There are only a handful of Koran memorization schools in the New York City area. Darul Uloom, also in Jamaica, Queens, is another one. The Muslim Center’s program, which began as a full-time school in 1999, has roughly 20 year-round students and 20 more attending just for the summer, all boys. There are four teachers, all from India. They teach students proper pronunciation and review their lessons with them, marking their progress on report cards. The center has already produced 35 graduates, who have finished their memorization.
Because the task is so difficult, most of the children at the Muslim Center study only the Koran while they are enrolled in the class. Some parents try to tutor their children in other subjects on the side. But for the most part, it is after the children finish that they work to catch up in other subjects in preparation for going back to regular school.
By not offering instruction in other subjects, the school may be inadvertently running afoul of state law, according to city and state education officials. Private religious schools like the Muslim Center’s program are required to provide “substantially equivalent” instruction to that offered in public schools, they said. But tracking every school-age child who leaves the public school system can be difficult.
Several parents said they were not worried about their children falling behind because they are smart enough to make up the academic work. Some students from the class have, in fact, gone on to the city’s best high schools, parents and school officials said.
Nevertheless, next year, the school plans to introduce two hours of instruction in math, science, English and social studies, said Mohammad Tariq Sherwani, director of the Muslim Center. The additional classes mean it will take longer for students to finish memorizing. “But it is worth it,” he said.
Students at the Jamaica Muslim Center in Queens, for instance, spend the last two hours of their day studying more traditional subjects.
There is no special technique for memorizing the Koran, except for pure repetition. Several times a day, the students recite for their teachers. First, they recite the lesson from the previous day, which usually amounts to a page or two from the Koran. Then they must recite the previous six or seven lessons combined. Finally, they recite the equivalent of one-thirtieth of the Koran — the Koran is divided into 30 parts. This is how each student, at his own pace, works his way through the entire Koran, learning a new section every day, but reviewing older ones he has already memorized.
Making the work even more difficult, the students, for the most part, do not understand what they are reciting. Muslims believe the Koran was spoken to the prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel in Arabic. Because it is seen as the literal word of God, the use of translations is frowned upon. Students know how to pronounce the words but mostly do not know what they mean.
Tariq Khan, 12, is one of the prodigies of the school, completing his memorization in June after less than two years. He is back for the summer to brush up. Many students like him, who have finished memorizing, go through the Koran several more times to make sure it is imprinted in their memory.
Tariq asked his parents if he could study to become a hafiz after learning about the concept in his private Islamic school. To spend time with him and his classmates is to glimpse what Muslim religious devotion looks like when it grows up alongside PlayStation 2, hip-hop music and other fascinations of American youth.
Tariq’s favorite video game is Grand Theft Auto: “You can hook up cars. That’s the best part.” His favorite genre of music? Hip-hop, especially, Fat Joe and T. I. He recently pestered his mother into buying five shirts for him from G-Unit, the clothing line of the rap star 50 Cent.
Sameer Uddin, 13, says he sometimes misses the public school he attended before he began memorizing a year and a half ago. He could wear whatever clothes he wanted. He also liked math. His parents said he could quit if he wanted to, “but I already started,” he said.
And, he added, “I want to take my parents to heaven.”
One of the younger boys in the school is Thaha Sherwani, a precocious, preternaturally responsible 10-year-old whose bedroom is festooned with Yankee paraphernalia. Thaha has been memorizing for two years and will probably need another year to finish.
Unlike many of the parents with children in the class, Hina Sherwani, Thaha’s mother, was born and raised in the United States. She is an assistant corporation counsel for the city of Mount Vernon. A trip to Mecca in 2001 made her wish she knew Arabic and the Koran better. The terrorist attacks that year and subsequent scrutiny on Muslim Americans also sparked an awakening about her own Muslim identity, Mrs. Sherwani said.
Mrs. Sherwani confessed that she sometimes questioned whether she was doing the right thing with her son, fretting that Thaha, who would have been entering the sixth grade this year if he had stayed in regular school, does not know his multiplication tables, for example.
But the beauty of this country, Mrs. Sherwani said, is that her son is free to have it both ways, to be steeped in Islam and be whatever he wants.
When asked what he wants to do when he grows up, Thaha said he was unsure. But then he had an idea: “I’ll be the first hafiz Muslim baseball player.”
NYTimes is probably the most well-respected newspaper in America. I was pretty angry at some of the stuff in that article. What do you guys think, especially the huffaz or the ones memorizing.