Holy Competition

Every year, more than 100 children from about 70 countries across the Islamic world converge on Cairo to participate in the world’s oldest and most prestigious Quran reciting competition. In the film Koran By Heart, Greg Barker follows three 10-year-old children from Senegal, Tajikistan, and the Maldives, whose stories illuminate the tensions between fundamentalist and moderate visions of Islam. He was interviewed by Becky Garrison, author of Jesus Died for This?

Becky Garrison: What drew you to the story of the International Holy Quran Competition?

Greg Barker: I'm an American, but I've lived overseas for most of my adult life. As someone who has spent a lot of time in Islamic countries, I was looking for a way of telling a human story that people here in the States could connect with about the eternal struggles in Islam between fundamentalism and modernity. The Quran competition was a very accessible way into a story. I didn't want to make a political tome; I just wanted to tell a good story about ordinary people who are religious, but are going through the same kind of internal struggles and dynamics that anyone goes through regardless of their faith.

What were the particular challenges involved in filming this documentary?

 We encountered a fair amount of skepticism from both the organizers and the parents of these children as to why a non-Muslim would want to tell the story about a Quran competition. I think they feel Islam is often misrepresented in the West and they were concerned we would make a film that would somehow be against Islam. I had Muslim-Americans on my team and worked to convince [the organizers and parents] that we just wanted to tell a story that would help change people’s attitudes in the States.

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