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Hoda Osman: Koran By Heart on Easter Sunday

25 April 2011 Huffington Post 15 Comments Email This Post Email This Post

It was a beautiful Easter Sunday afternoon in New York and time for me to head to my first Tribeca Film Festival screening: Koran By Heart. As a Muslim and an Arab I was by default attracted to the subject matter. A film about an annual competition in reciting the Muslim holy book that takes place in my original hometown of Cairo.

I was surprised when I walked into the crowded theater and had to sit much closer to the screen than I would’ve liked to. I didn’t expect the film attract so many, especially on Easter Sunday.

The laughs, “awww’s” and “ahhh’s” I shared with the audience during the 77-minute documentary made it clear I wasn’t alone in thinking it was well worth it, especially after the surprise at the end.

The film follows three 10-year old children from Tajikistan, Senegal and the Maldives who travel to Egypt to participate in the competition. Remarkably all three, along with numerous others, have memorized the 600-page book in Arabic without speaking the language.

The film starts with the serene voice of Nabiollah, the boy from Tajikistan, beautifully reciting the Qur’an. We are then introduced to Rifdha, a girl from the Maldives who quickly captures your heart with her shy demeanor. And Djamil from Senegal, whose tears at the competition upon making a mistake brought tears to my own eyes. (You can see their pictures and read an interview with the director Greg Barker here)

While watching, it’s easy to jump to judgments. When 10-year-old Rifdha first appears on the screen, I couldn’t help but think about the black hijab (head covering) and dress she was wearing at this age. And that’s coming from me: a Muslim, Arab woman.

But the film conveys the emotions of those children and their families as they go through this experience so deeply and brilliantly that soon enough you forget about clothes and any other opinions you might have and connect to them at a very human level.

As the film gets to the final round of the competition, you become anxious. Will one of the children featured in the film win? I won’t give away the answer.

Rifdha The Explorer

Now, we have to talk about Rifdha, the genius young girl from the Maldives. Through a conversation with her mother we learn that she wants to become an “explorer.” When asked what this means, she explains that she wants to study what goes on in the oceans at night.

It is therefore heartbreaking when we then hear her conservative father saying he wants to move to a different country to ensure his daughter gets a religious education and that he doesn’t wish for her to work, but to become a housewife. The disappointment in the audience could almost be felt.

The mother is Rifdha’s biggest supporter. She talks proudly about her accomplishments and mentions how she loves math and science and is at the top of her class. Rifdha’s mother would to let her decide for herself what she would like to do with her future.

The Surprise
After the end of the film, director Greg Barker who was sitting a few seats away from me walked to a row of seats behind us and there they were: Rifdha, her mother and father were there watching with us all this time. It was their first time to watch it. They got a standing ovation from the audience and came up to the stage for the question and answer session.

I expected the father to come under attack for what he said about Rifdha’s future. I decided there was no point in asking him about it. It will put him on the spot and he won’t change his decision because a group of strangers were against it. The first question was about whether he thought work related to the oceans was not in some way in the service of God, a concealed way of saying why not let Rifdha do what she is passionate about. The family however was too shy to answer any of the questions.

Then the last question was a straight shot: Will you let Rifdha be an explorer or do you still want her to be a housewife? The answer was clear: “I don’t want Rifdha to be an explorer, I want her to be a housewife.”

A Lesson

The director quickly took the microphone and spoke some words of wisdom. When we go around the world making films we don’t tell people how to live their lives, he said. Nobody tells us how to live our lives, he added. He graciously thanked the family for coming all the way to New York to attend the opening.

Inspiring film. Good point. Lesson learned.

Original post: Koran By Heart on Easter Sunday


  1. When is it available for general release in the USA? I would love to see this movie and would like to tell others about it in my area.

  2. funny comment by the director. isn’t the koran/religion which tells people how to live there lives. that father is a good muslim, because he knows allah commands men to be the “maintainers” of women. he knows once she reaches puberty she should be married of to a man to take over the duty of “maintaining” her. her main duty is to produce more muslims, keep her in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant. but one would hope that the maldives would want to produce as many oceanographers, as possible. some global warming theories has it being under water in the next 50 years. but don’t worry little girl, your physically strong husband will be there to protect you. i guess when you memorize a book in a language you don’t understand, you won’t know what it says. someone should give her a copy in her native tongue. i female scientist, what a silly little girl.

  3. very interesting. The father definitely wants to protect his daughter.Education is a right of a muslim woman and she does have the choice of work. The Quran is a guide, a thorough outline on how to live your life which also provides options, alternatives to live a life that pleases you while keeping it halal (permissible). You could always expect an unopened onlookers to drawn a negative idea on something so beautiful.

  4. @ Mike
    Islam does not tell people how to live their lives any more than any other religion. Your comments about the quran only go to show that you yourself have never studied it in it’s true form.

    As a Muslim woman, I love being “maintained” because I know that I am always cared for. AND, as a Muslim woman I love the education that I am sacrificing so much for.

    If you bring your prejudices into the study of a religion, you will never break away from those prejudices, no matter what you “learn”. To me, this is the meaning of the statement the director made. I also disagree with the father, but I don’t want any one to take my way of life away from me, so I have no right to take someone ells’ life away from them.

    ~May this find you in the best of health, Peace be upon you.

  5. @ naseerah, thank you for your kind words, yes i’m in pretty good health, other than my high blood pressure. i agree islam doesn’t tell people how to live their lives any more than any other religion. sorry for my ambiguity but that is what i meant with my “koran/religion”. yes the christians, buddists, hindus, jews, ba’hai, jainist, scientologist, zorostians, animist, etc, etc, all want to tell us how to live. you’re right i can’t read arabic and therefore can’t study the koran “in its true form”. so are you saying that anyone who can’t read (and understand)arabic is disallowed form any discussion of islam? but i was given a copy of “The Messaage of THE QUR AN”.

    as for you, love being maintained. i hope your husband, father or brother (whatever male maintains you) continues to allow you to further your education, and allows you to become whatever you wish to be. but don’t you find it disconcerting that this father is going to hold his daughter back. you acctually say you disagree with him? how can you have it both ways?

    as for my prejudices, you’re right i think all people should be treated equally. i don’t think parents should be allowed to hold their children back in the name of their god. i see in nepal they take young girls who they think are the reincarnation of a hindu god and lock them away in a temple, give them no education and then put them back in society when they reach puberty. i think the christian scientist who allow their children to die because they withold medical treatment because they belive they can cure their kids with prayer should be prosecuted with child abuse.

    as for the directors comment and you wishing not to have someone take away your way of life. do you than believe that the south was justified in their defense of their “way of life” (slavery). i see the grand mufti of saudi arabia says 10 year old girls should be allowed to get married. should we not criticise such thoughts and the “way of life” they produce. (i’ll go out on a limb and say the grand mufti has studied the koran in “it’s true form”) of course, we as a soceity can tell people how to live. we disallow theft, rape (even of your wife), murder, cannibalism, human sacrifice, etc etc…i’m pretty sure i’ve been told that islam changed the way of life in arabia, that female infantcide was rampat and that idol worships was the norm. so did not muhammad “take away the way of life” of the quariysh? (that’spropably mispelled) do you think the somalis practice of female circumcision should be stopped. that’s a “way of life”? but didn’t the grand mufti of egypt come out against it. how dare he challenge someone elses “way of life”.

    as salaam alaikum

  6. nads, so you find it beautiful that this father doesn’t want his daughter to become a scientist? you say that islam allows for options, but when does a girl get to execise her options? do you really think a 10 year old can stand up to their father and say no, i want to be an explorer and not a housewife? see the problem with dessignating men as the maintainers of women, it allows men dominion over women. it’s like when i was a teenager and my parents would say “as long as you live under my roof you live by our rules”.

  7. Mike

    The more one learns, the more one sees one’s ignorance. Read! In the name of thy Lord Who createth…

  8. @Mike
    I have my opinion, yes, and I am strong in it. However I do not feel, that it is my place to interfere in someone ells’ culture. There are exceptions, and I will agree that it is a fine line. But very rarely, can you make someone “see reason”/your way by forcing it upon them. The best way to open peoples minds I’ve found, is to first listen, then share, then listen some more. Sometimes, when you do this, you will find their way is not as backwards as it once seemed. You can also never expect someone to have an open mind, if you are not willing to open yours.

    I would like to add that many of the violences you were talking about in your article were cultural, not religious. People mearly try to use religion to justify their own (in my opinion) dishonorable ways.

    Finally, You can read the translated meaning of the Quran, I do, but you have to read it with an open heart. Without doing so, you are mearly reading words on paper, and you will never understand it’s meaning.

    I hope this has not offended you. It might be that we have to agree to disagree. However, you might find that the more you open your heart, the more you see and learn. In the states I feel like everyone tries to tell each other how to live, with out listening to each other, and I often fall into the same trap. One of the keys to peace, is understanding. One of the keys to understanding I feel, is to listen.

    I hope this finds you in the best of health. Peace be upon you.

  9. @ Naseerah,

    first let me saying that i’m not the least bit offended. i view all things as one of two things, the truth, and how could i be offended by the truth, or untrue, and again why be offended by a falsehood? not sure what you thought in there might offend me. maybe you said my mind and heart chakras are out of balance. jk, i guess you called me close minded and closed hearted? i’m pretty sure i’m very open minded, i love listening to people with divergent veiws. i have friends who are evangelical christians, atheiest, beleive in reincarnation, an one buddy of pakistani descent born in kenya. but i usaully talk to him over crown royal, so he is not a devout muslim.

    as for “forcing” anyone to do anything, i agree with you. i wasn’t advocating beating the father or anything. i would have just hoped the director would have said something like we want to follow the girls development and sponser her with a college scholarship, or for the female muslim author of the article to have tried to show the family some examples of professional muslim women in new york. go hang with daisy kahn for a day. i hope they didn’t fly them from the maldives to new york for one night? then again not being headscarf wearing women they might not get much traction. anyways doesn’t the un charter on human rights call for men and women to be treated equally? for girls to be given the same access to education as boys. i’m pretty sure the world has agreed to some standard of “way of life”. the maldives are a signature to the un charter on human rights, right?

    sorry i didn’t mean to imply my examples where religiously rooted. of course most of those are cultural/tribal in their origin. my point was that we intervene in other cultures all the time. human rights group, women rights groups, advocacy group of all kind try to change cultures all the time. the french are talking about banning headscarfs, in public. there’s input from all over the world.

    just read 4:86 so i guess i have to top your greeting……hmm how about in the name of multi-culturalism an irish saying, “May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be ever at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face and the rain fall softly on your fields. And until we meet again, May God hold you in the hollow of his hand.”

  10. @Mike: Well done!

  11. hey naseerah,

    it just hit me, i had read something about the maldives last year, what are the odds, i was igronant to it’s existance before that. (i’ve noticed people like to call me ignorant on this site) this guy isn’t afraid to tell the british what he thinks of their way of life. of course he’s doing it in a language they don’t understand. this cracks me up.

    these guys aren’t afraid to breakout the stick. i don’t think they want to listen? not sure how you can read the koran and be the kind, gentle, thoughtful, tolerant person you seem to be, and these guys read the same book and draw these conclusions? violence not so funny.


  12. muslim concept of live and let live…..right off this site, the article, about the utah church giving away copies of the koran.

    “Great article, what a great Easter gift to give to Christian Americans. Inshallah some of those whom received that Holy Quran will read it all and finally find the TRUTH. The real truth about how Islam is, and the TRUTH on life. Hopefully some will convert. And if they do convert (which of course is a blessing from Allah) then the Church’s Pastor, Scott Dalgarno, will be praised by Allah (SWT) for helping members of his Church to love and embrace Islam.”


  13. Hoda Osman: Koran By Heart on Easter Sunday | Islamophobia Today eNewspaper…

    It was a beautiful Easter Sunday afternoon in New York and time for me to head to my first Tribeca Film Festival screening: Koran By Heart. As a Muslim and an Arab I was by default attracted to the subject matter….

  14. I know her father and I was surprized to know Rifdha is a daughter of him. I am also a Muslim, and I also a Maldivian. Let me say that education of women is also important. There were educated women and women who had great achievements even during the time of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). In fact women are needed in many professions such as Health sector, where women doctors are crucial. She can be an explorer while being a housewife as well (trying to reconcile both that was written above). If she can walk on a road, then she can be an explorer as well. What can be wrong is only the context in which an action is done, for example go to dive with another man without marriage and have physical contacts. Rifdha never said that, she just said she wants to be an explorer. But let me also say that her father is a very kind hearted man. I know him.

  15. Remarkable! Its genuinely awesome piece of writing, I have got much clear idea concerning from this piece of writing.

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