Most hafiz begin when they are about 8 or 9, many dedicating their time exclusively to the challenge. Once achieving the goal, some later enroll in Islamic schools to study to become an imam, or the director of a religious center .

Hafiz Zafeer Ali, imam of the Islamic Circle of North America mosque in Jamaica, said memorizing the book added to his understanding of Islam, and also was pleasing to God.

"We think that it is the word of God, and we get blessings… for the Day of Judgment" for reciting it, he said.

Zafeer, 34, who has been a hafiz since he was 10, moved from India and now lives in Brooklyn.

Ali said it takes about three years to learn the entire book, and many, such as Ali, study it before understanding Arabic. It was not until several years later that he learned the language and then the meaning of the words he was memorizing.

Ali said the task of memorizing was not anti-intellectual as some critics of rote memorizing charge.

"It gives you a good memory," he said, which helped him later on in his studies. "It opens the mind, the memorization."

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Islamic Circle of North America
166-26 89th Ave
Jamaica, Queens
NY 11432

Telephone/Fax: (855) 855-ICNA (4262)