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These people met the challenge of memorizing the Qur’an

Every Ramadan, Muslims have a goal of deepening their relationship with the Qur’an, spending more time reciting the holy book and pondering its teachings.

Most Muslims have learned some of its 6,236 verses — 604 pages — by heart, reading the Arabic words when they stand in prayer.

But some have mastered the difficult task of committing all of it to memory, earning them the title “hafiz.”

CBC met some of those in Ottawa who’ve reached this challenging but rewarding goal.

Boy holding a certificate
Zakaria Mustafa started memorizing the Qur’an when he was six years old and knew the whole book by heart by 10. (Submitted by Zakaria Mustafa)

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Zakaria Mustafa, 15

Zakaria Mustafa memorized the entire holy book, down to how each page starts — all by the age of 10.

“My parents wanted me to finish [memorizing] the Qur’an at a young age,” he said. “But for me, I just wanted to memorize something new because memorization was fun.”

Mustafa said he started considering the idea seriously at about six years old, beginning with just 10 verses a day. When that became easy, he started memorizing entire pages. At the height of his study, he was memorizing five pages a day. 

“Most of the time, it was actually my mum who helped me review,” he said.

It’s like planting a tree and people eating from it.– Zakaria Mustafa, 15

Because of his knowledge of the Qur’an, Mustafa was tapped in 2019 to lead Taraweeh prayers at Ottawa Islamic School during Ramadan.

This Ramadan, he is again leading prayers for both his peers and people much older than he is.

He’s also teaching his own students the Qur’an. 

“I get why Shaykh [my teacher] says he’s tired all the time now. Teaching can be hard sometimes,” Mustafa reflected.

But when he reflects on what it means to know the Qur’an and to be teaching it as a teenager, his focus is the spiritual reward.

“It’s like planting a tree and people eating from it,” Mustafa said.

man standing in front of bookshelf
Mahdi Abd has taught hundreds of students the Qur’an in Iraq, Syria and Ottawa. (Halima Sogbesan/CBC)

Mahdi Abd, 55

Mustafa accomplished this goal thanks to his teacher Imam Mahdi Abd, whose path to memorization began a bit later than his student’s, when he was 18.

With conflict ongoing in his home country of Iraq, it took 10 years of juggling school, work and family duties before Abd knew every page of the book by heart.

Despite those hurdles, he found motivation to keep learning from a group of friends — and a promise of reward from God.

“Allah Almighty gives [memorizers] the highest level of placement in paradise,” Abd explained.

groups of students sitting on a carpet
When Abd teaches people to memorize the Qur’an, he gets them to repeat the verses until they commit them to memory. (Halima Sogbesan/CBC)

Since 1999, Abd, who’s also known in the community as Abu Kudus, has helped more than 100 students recite the Qur’an better.

He’s also taught the Qur’an in all the places he’s called home including Iraq, Syria and since 2008, Ottawa.

Two men hug on a street.
Abd, right, learned to memorize the Qur’an from his Shaykh, or teacher, Abdulatif Aldoori,left, who is now over 90. Abd says their connection remains strong, and Aldoori is the first person he visits whenever he travels to Iraq. (Submitted by Mahdi Abd)

Here, Abd is considered a leading scholar of the book.

That’s in part because he’s certified in the 10 qiraat or styles of reciting the Qur’an, and so can teach people of all cultures in a way that is familiar to them.

“That’s why I’m known in the city,” said Abd. “People come to me … and I can teach them when nobody can.”

Many of Abd’s students can read Arabic, but don’t understand it — a challenge when they’re learning a book whose message is written in classical Arabic.

Woman, holding a book, sits on a carpet
Yumna Nummer says after memorizing the whole book at the age of 14, she is committed to keep reviewing the Qur’an for life. (Halima Sogbesan/CBC)

Yumna Nummer, 22

Growing up, the Qur’an was a constant presence in Yumna Nummer’s home. As a child, she learned shorter chapters of the book at after-school programs.

When she was 11, Nummer was invited to be part of a new program at Al-Furqan School in Ottawa where students memorize the Qur’an in three years.

Though she’d never thought of taking on this challenge before, Nummer decided to take the opportunity and graduated alongside five others.

A page of the Qur'an
When Nummer was learning to memorize while attending a private Islamic school in Ottawa, her teacher would mark her Qur’an to indicate verses where she had made mistakes during her review. She says she still reviews her memorization with the same Qur’an. (Halima Sogbesan/CBC)

As part of her schooling there, Nummer started each day with a new page of the Qur’an. First, her teacher taught her to recite it properly. Then she repeated the verses over and over, until they became so familiar she could say them correctly without looking at the book. 

“I remember that first year being very difficult for me, because I suddenly had to commit a lot more to memory. But it became easier,” said Nummer.

Three years later, at age 14, Nummer became a hafiz of the Qur’an. 

She remembers the moving ceremony to celebrate the achievement. Her teacher led her class and their parents in reciting the last two verses of Surah Al-Baqarah, the second chapter of the Qur’an, in unison.

“It was a very big deal. But there was also an understanding that that was only the beginning, because I’m now a preserver of the Qur’an,” she added.

portraits of man, women, and teenage boy
From left, Mahdi Abd, Yumna Nummer and Zakaria Mustafa know all 6,236 verses of the Qur’an by heart. (CBC)

For Nummer, that means she’s committed to spending time with it for the rest of her life, continually reviewing what she has learned so it never escapes her memory and living by its teachings.

“I truly believe that it is a guidance, and I truly believe that it is healing,” she said.

During Ramadan, that commitment to the Qur’an takes on a deeper meaning.

“It’s almost like a pit stop for me to look at myself and see, what have I done with the Qur’an this year?”

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