On a recent muggy afternoon, Ahmed Burhan Mohamed stood on a basketball court in Hopkins ready to play when his friends suddenly surrounded him, digging into his phone to see pictures of him doing things they could only dream of: jet skiing, scuba diving and even exchanging handshakes with a prince.
The mild-mannered teen and hoops fan from New Brighton has become an overnight sensation in the Muslim world and a local celebrity after winning a prestigious international contest last month recognizing the best reciter of the Qur’an.
Mohamed, representing the United States, beat out more than 100 of the best orators from around the globe to win the Dubai International Holy Qur’an Award — becoming the first American champion.
Since then, he has been mobbed by admirers everywhere he goes.
“It’s too much, I was not expecting this,” Mohamed, 17, said of the struggle to adjust to his newfound fame. “People give me so much respect. Now people that I don’t know come up to me and they know my full name.”
This week, Mohamed will travel to Somalia at the invitation of the country’s president who wishes to meet him and congratulate him on his victory.
During the grueling two-week competition, Mohamed was tested on proper pronunciation, voice and style as he recited from memory random verses from the whole Qur’an — not an easy feat, considering the Qur’an has more than 6,000 verses and spans 604 pages.
His perfect score earned him a certificate, a trophy and a cash prize worth roughly $68,000.
His triumph shocked members of the local Somali community, who have long doubted that a youth raised in Minnesota could compete with those raised in Muslim countries.
Mohamet “Hambaase” Ali, the former principal of the Islamic school at Abubakar As-Saddique mosque in Minneapolis where Ahmed trained, said Somali parents often dispatch their kids to Africa for what’s known as “dhaqan celis,” meaning to “rehabilitate kids,” so they are better accustomed to their culture and religion.
Most families, he said, are wary of their kids growing up in the West and losing their identity, which parents say makes youth vulnerable to all kinds of problems.
But Ali believes that children can simultaneously maintain their American identity and meet cultural and religious expectations. Mohamed, he says, is living proof of that.
“Children have more opportunity here in the United States than [in] Africa,” Ali said. “They belong here.”
Making of a champion
Mohamed’s coming-to-America story began in 2002 when his father, Burhan Mohamed Elmi, a U.S. citizen, sponsored Ahmed and his mother, Fardowsa Mohamed, to settle in Minnesota. Ahmed was 11 months old.
The eldest of four children growing up in America, he feels pressure to set a good example for his siblings and for Minnesota’s Muslim youth.
His mother has displayed his accolades in the small kitchen of their three-story home in New Brighton. Mohamed has been bringing home awards since he was a little boy. Almost all of them are for Qur’an competitions. But his recent Dubai award, which sits atop the rest, is his greatest honor — a sign of his success as a Muslim-American and an official validation from the Muslim world.
Ahmed was 7 when his parents and his Islamic studies teachers at Abubakar As-Saddique began grooming him for Qur’an competitions. He started with mastering the Arabic alphabets, moved on to stringing the letters into words and then learned to memorize the verses in each chapter — all while learning the meaning. He even earned the honorable title of a “qari,” Arabic for Qur’an reciter.
“We’re extremely happy,” Fardowsa said, wiping the dust from his old trophies. “There are people who work so hard and don’t achieve what they want. We’re grateful to Allah that we got what we wanted.”
Mohamed’s talent began to show in second grade when he earned first place in Qur’an recitation and continued with a winning streak that included a first place win last year in Chicago, where he beat out 400 contestants. In April last year, he placed third in an international Qur’an contest in Kuwait.
But his biggest challenge awaited in Dubai. A record 104 elite participants from 100 countries vied for the top spot.
“I feel really proud to be the first American to win this,” Mohamed said. “They fear us now. They now know that we Americans are tough in Qur’an.”
Preparing for the contest, however, meant a packed three-month schedule.
At 5 o’clock every morning, Mohamed rose to read the Qur’an for an hour before hopping on the school bus to continue reading. He skipped playing video games with his brother and paused life on the basketball court.
His hard work paid off and now he has a new goal: to participate in an all-star competition of Qur’an reciters in Qatar in 2020. The first place prize is worth half a million dollars.
Despite his recent achievement, Mohamed in many ways is just a regular kid.
Fancy cars catch his piercing brown eyes and texting is second nature. In biology class, he sneaks in a few giggles during a recent video lesson on reproduction. Nevertheless, the junior at Ubah Medical Academy charter school in Hopkins makes good grades and is earning college credits.
After he graduates, Mohamed plans to major in biology at the University of Minnesota and go to medical school. He is determined to juggle that with a career as a religious scholar.
Fardowsa reassured him that he can do both, but reminded him that he needs to share his knowledge with people.
“There’s nothing he can’t do. It’s all up to him,” she said as her son prepared to leave the house to do a radio interview.