Zahra Sultan recites the Qur'an on stage. Contestants were judged on their ability to both memorise and recite the Qur'an. All photos by Jeff Tan
When Zahra Sultan takes her seat on stage, the seven year old has the self-possessed air of a seasoned performer. Her hands rest in a neat ball in her lap. The thin strip of pale pink fabric hiding just beneath her hijab hints at a personality that may reveal itself when she taps the microphone, signalling a readiness to speak. Unlike most kids her age, Zahra can recite two of thirty parts - or juz' - of the Qur'an word for word. Two hours later, she has a gold-embossed certificate in hand and an expression that could be described as beatific, yet also fiercely intent on acheiving more.
We're at the awards ceremony of the Australian International Quranic Competition, a nationwide contest organised by the Dawn Quranic Institute. The competition premiered this year, yet it's already attracted enough followers to fill the massive Bellevue Reception Venue in Bankstown on a bone-dry Sunday afternoon. Families, grandparents and interstate travellers are all here to watch loved ones receive awards for their memorisation and recitation of the holy book. The main room, befitted with baroque light fixings and thick damask-covered carpet, brims with warm welcomes and chatter as men find seats at tables in the centre, women at tables on the sides.
Dr Zachariah Matthews of the Dawn Quranic Institute speaks at the Australian International Quranic Competition
The MC of today's events, Dr Zachariah or 'Zach' Matthews, is a tall, solemn-faced man I picture at home in a study, surrounded by wafts of tea and heavy books. He seems pleased that myself and my mate Jeff, also the photographer, have shown an interest in the competition. He also seems cautious, which comes as no surprise. In between salivating coverage of the ISIS crisis, heated debates of Sharia Law and a spotlight on every tom, dick, and Jacqui Lambie with urgent opinions of the burqa, Muslim Australians haven't exactly had a good rap recently.
Yet there's no reason for this caucasian journalist with a messy topknot in place of a hijab to feel at all nervous. A beaming usher leads me to a table with a free spot where another young woman greets me with a friendly "hello sister". While Zach introduces a line-up of contestants and guests, including local leaders and respected figures from international Islamic institutions, we polish off a spread of hummus and tabouli and pita bread and jugs of Coke. The woman beside me points to the gleaming plates of food on the empty table below us. "We should just take them," she grins, with a sweet, full laugh that immediately warms me to her.
The room was divided into seating for men at the front and centre and women at the back and sides
I later ask Zach if the competition, which swept through four different cities before culminating in today's event, was tough to pull off given the prejudices swirling around the practice of Islam in Australia. "I don't think it was,” he tells me. "The competition was centred around a safe aspect of the Qur'an, which is mainly the memorisation of the Qur'an and the correct reading of it. The competition was not designed to explore the intricacies of the meaning of what is being memorised and recycled. There were two unique aspects that are important, but safe.”
One of the top-scoring contestants, Abdulrahman Mawar, seems closely acquainted with the sense of safety bestowed on students of the Qur'an. A Melburnian with a dentist's smile, he's still on a high from placing third in the top category, in which contestants must memorise the entire Qur'an. He won $3000 for this efforts. Afterwards we talk about highs and lows in his life, including an interstate move for an exciting job opportunity with Qantas. The company made him redundant at the end of the financial year. "That's life really," he says. "It's part of the life cycle.”
Abdulrahman Mawar is congratulated for placing third in the 'whole Qur'an' category
The now-pilot has been memorising the Qur'an since the age of six. "When you memorise the Qur'an there are a lot of benefits: emotionally, psychologically, even for your brain, and also the way you live in this world. It's a miracle. So when you have that miracle - the miracle of God - it helps you live your life more peacefully," he says.
It's clear the women I've befriended share this deep respect of a text that guides so many aspects of their lives and identities. Yet over the course of three hours, the moving sight of devoted Muslims reciting ancient verses in Arabic, their voices flowing with rich, heartfelt melodies, is frequently punctuated by mundane, strange, or even quite tense moments. Australia's Grand Mufti Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, a replacement for an international speaker unable to attend, pauses his speech to scold waiters on the other side of the room for being too noisy when cleaning tables. Several people near me roll their eyes and scoff. One woman shows me a text conversation between her and her husband, who is sitting at one of the men's table: he was having a good time, he writes, until 'this guy started speaking’.
Attendees the ceremony, which featured recitals from contestants and speeches from local and international guests
Zach later stresses that despite whatever mainstream media says, Muslim Australians comprise a young, idiosyncratic, and ethnically diverse community that's certainly far from homogeneous or perpetually united. "We have a lot of learning to do, a lot of growing to do. But I'm confident and very optimistic that at the core of it, we have the essential elements to build a vibrant, cohesive, productive community. Especially for the next generation, for our kids who know nothing but Australia. They don't know the Middle East.”
He bristles slightly when I ask for his thoughts on Islamic State. "My only reference point and entry into this discussion is that open letter," he says, referring to a document recently penned by over 120 Islamic scholars decrying the actions and arguments of ISIS. "Yes, [the Qu'ran] was revealed 1400 years ago, but it has a lot to say about our current challenges. Unfortunately what happens is some people are misguided and ignorant of the core principles underlining some of these important issues… some people are adept at using religious forms and frameworks and narratives to gain traction for what are, at the end of the day, political agendas.”
Finalists in the four categories, which require contestants to memorise either two, five or 15 juz' or the whole Qur'an, stand on stage with their certificates
With comments like these, I find myself reflecting on the distinction between a deadly, fiercely political conflict raging in the Middle East and a religiosity played out each day in the lives of Muslim Australians. Any intelligent person knows the distinction is a clear one, yet I can't convince any attendees, least of all any women, to speak on record about what it means to them. My sassy, hummus-loving friend looks anxious when I gently ask her for an interview. After speaking eloquently off the record for several minutes about ISIS, her cherished non-Muslim friends, and her utterly Australian kids, she tells me she's worried her English isn't good enough.
The climate of fear that underpins this interaction is, to me, profoundly regrettable, particularly given the vital position Muslim women occupy within their burgeoning faith community. Zach is the first to acknowledge that when the final awards were given out, there were just as many women as men standing with certificates on stage. "There's no gender bias when it comes to the Qur'an, there is equal access to the Qur'an. It is a divine book, so anyone, male or female, is invited to explore the richness and beauty of it.”
Zahra Sultan placed fourth in one of four categories of the competition, which this year attracted about 450 contestants
Zahra Sultan, the seven-year-old Sydney girl with a knack for reciting two entire juz' to a crowd of hundreds, is among this group. "I think it means something special," she tells me of the book she's been memorising since she was five. "It makes me feel peaceful, merciful, safe, protected… it makes me feel happy and safe."
Follow the author on Twitter: @kristendaly