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.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
AHMED BURHAN MOHAMED: (Speaking Arabic).
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
That's Ahmed Burhan Mohamed's award-winning recitation of the Quran, the holy book of Islam. He wowed judges with a nearly perfect oration of the scripture and took home the Dubai International Holy Quran Award in the United Arab Emirates. He's the first American to win the prestigious competition. He's also of Somali descent.
MOHAMED: Oh, I was very proud. It was like a dream come true. I didn't even - five years before that, I didn't even think of myself going to that competition. I was very surprised.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many Muslim children learn how to read the Quran at some point in their life, but Ahmed is a hafiz, someone who has not only learned to read the Quran but memorized it - a huge feat for any 17-year-old.
MOHAMED: At first you don't actually want to learn it because you're a little kid who wants to play around most of the times. As you learn more and more, and as you become more mature, you become used to it, and you - it becomes a big part of your life.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what does it take to memorize an over-1400-year-old scripture?
MOHAMED: Every single time I got, like, free time, I would be reading the Quran - maybe on the bus, maybe at school, sometimes when I have, like, free periods. So it was very intense. You have to sacrifice a lot of time and put a lot of time into it. You can't be acting like most kids. You have to put more time into the book than you put into, like, other fun stuff.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Less time for video games and basketball. Ahmed says his whole purpose is to carry out the message of the book.
MOHAMED: So basically, I did all this - my motivation was memorizing my god's holy book and our god's holy book so I can implement it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And his favorite chapter, or surah, of the Quran to recite? Surah Rahman. He loves the rhythm and repetition, but he also loves the meaning, which is about giving back. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.