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Verse in their veins
Pastor Terry Jones of a church in Florida, USA, wants to burn copies of the Quran to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. One doesn't know if Jones has ever met a hafiz. But if he does meet one, he may just change his mind. A hafiz not only memorises the entire Quran, but recites it with a mesmerising flourish.
And who knows this better than devout Muslims who religiously perform tarawih, a special namaz, in the night during Ramzan. Many may associate Ramzan with its delicacies, both at the elaborate iftar and sehri (the predawn light meal), but it is tarawih and the hafiz (one who leads it) that lend the holy month much of its spiritual aura.
Which is why the English medium Safa High School in Central Mumbai's crowded Dongri area has a unique claim: it is among the rare regular schools in India that run a fulltime hafiz course. Junaid Motorwala, one of the half-a-dozen teenagers who have become hafizs at Safa, cannot hide his pride. "It is a privilege that at a young age I am leading tarawih prayer at a mosque in my mohalla, " says Motorwala, a 14-year-old 10th grader.
Like Motorwala, almost every hafiz is a product of his or her parents' cherished wish. Belief has it that on the day of judgement, Allah will hold hafizs very dear to him. And due to this exalted position, hafizs will intercede on behalf of their parents and help them enter paradise. "I will be a shield to my parents and take them to heaven, " says Salman Kapadia, 14, who started the hafiz course when he was just 11, completing it in the next two years.
Since memorising 114 surahs (chapters) of the Quran needs complete devotion, apart from a sharp memory, parents put their wards early in the course when their minds are impressionable and quick to grasp.
"We are flooded with requests by parents," says Safa's bearded principal S N A Kazmi. "But we admit only those children who have a sharp memory in the hafiz course. It will be a waste of time, and also incur divine wrath, if a child drops out of the course."
The prospect of getting rewarded in the hereafter propels many Muslim parents to make their children undergo a punishing training for the hafiz course - it involves several hours of study a day, memorising the verses and repeatedly revising them. And the threat of a strict reprimand makes hafizs ensure they don't forget what they have learnt.
Shahid Moin was five when he started learning the Quran and he claims that by eight he had become a hafiz. "Once you are a hafiz, you must keep revising the holy text regularly or you may forget it," says Moin, originally from a small village in Nepal. He is now a teacher at Markazul Maarif, an Islamic research institute in Mumbai. Moin boasts of a dozen hafizs in his family, including his wife, father, nephews and nieces. "When I was in my village, I would compete with my father at Quran recital. Now I compete with my wife," smiles Moin, a much sought-after cleric who has recited the Quran at temples, gurudwaras and churches at multi-religious meets.
But do Muslims really fear that Quranic verses will be lost if they stop producing hafizs? "Allah declares in the Quran that He revealed the Book and He will preserve it too. But since the tradition of memorising goes back to the Prophet's time, Muslims deem it part of their religious duty to not only produce hafizs, but revere them," says 25-year-old Tauqeer Ahmed Qasmi, who became a hafiz at nine.
It is to acknowledge the invaluable services of the hafiz and encourage others to join this course that two NGOs in Mumbai, Aqdas Welfare Society and Mumbai Aman Committee, are jointly organising a unique competition among hafizs later this month. Featuring 250 hafizs, the contest will see 10 winners share a cash prize of Rs 30, 000.
"Allah has no doubt promised to preserve His book, but Muslims cannot shirk their duty to produce and acclaim those who keep the divine words in their hearts," says the contest's convener, Maulana Mehmood Daryabadi. Almost every madrassa invariably runs a hafiz course. The first step towards becoming a hafiz is nazra (reading of the Quran), followed by hifz (memorising) and daura (revision). Once a hafiz enters adulthood, he must lead tarawih namaz as it gives him confidence and also provides acceptability in the community.
"I know many hafizs who can recite from memory in private, but have never led a tarawih namaz because they lack confidence. Which is why we expose young hafizs at tarawih in the presence of senior hafizs," explains Maulana Burhanuddin Qasmi, director of Markazul Maarif. During a tarawih namaz - it is held at mosques, private homes and Muslim-owned malls and factories across the world - there is at least one additional hafiz to back the one who leads the namaz. "While reciting, it is possible that the hafiz leading the tarawih skips a verse or forgets some words. The hafiz who stands by gives a luqma (feeds with missing words) and the one leading the namaz immediately corrects himself and carries on," says Mohammed Asad, who has led tarawih namaz and also played back-up. "It is the duty of the hafiz to ensure that Quranic verses are recited correctly, as most Muslims don't know all the verses which are recited in the original Arabic."
If such is the devotion to preserve the divine book, which, as scholars of Islam have repeatedly claimed, doesn't incite the faithful to terrorism, Pastor Jones' anger seems misdirected.
The Quran was revealed to Prophet Mohammed (570-632 ), many of whose companions memorised the verses. The book's compilation began during the time of the first caliph, Hazrat Abu Bakr, and went on till the reign of the the third caliph, Hazrat Usman's. The Quran comprises 30 paras (volumes), 114 surahs (chapters), around 6, 666 ayats (verses) and 7, 701 words, all memorised carefully by the hafizs, who are much in demand during Ramzan as it is they who lead tarawih, an important prayer during the holy nights.
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