The boy rocks gently on his knees, eyes closed, as if lost in meditation. The young imam tilts his head to listen, and the boy begins to chant.
It is a rhythmic, almost musical, intonation in Arabic as he recites, from memory, long passages of the Qur'an.
Like the imam before them, the boys at Masjid Al-Huda in Greenfield are working to "make hifz," to memorize and recite the Muslim holy book in its entirety.
One who succeeds will become a hafiz, a guardian of the faith, whose job it is to preserve the Qur'an - not on the printed page, but in his heart and mind.
"He is preserving the word of God," said Al-Huda Imam Noman Hussain, a Chicago-born hafiz who at 22 has mastered the Qur'an in all 10 Arabic dialects.
"He understands that God has given him this honor, and he has to live up to it," Hussain said. "He has to be a good example for Muslims and non-Muslims."
The role of the hafiz takes on special significance in the month of Ramadan, which begins Monday, when Muslims commemorate the revelation of the Qur'an to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century.
During Ramadan, the Qur'an is read from cover to cover, one juz, or chapter, a night. It is the hafiz who is called on to lead those prayers, and some of the boys will share in that honor at Al-Huda this year.
"It's a great responsibility," said Omar Syed, 12, whose older brother was chosen to recite last year. "When you're in class and you hear the voices, you want to be like Shuraim and Sudais," he said - a nod to the two famed huffaz of the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
Al-Huda plays host to the largest hifz program in the Milwaukee area, with about 20 full-time students ages 8 to 17. But countless other people of all ages, male and female - study at other local mosques, with private tutors or online.
Hussain's is a rigorous class, six hours a day over the summer with a break for lunch - pizza and chocolate are great motivators, he says - and often a heated game of basketball in the parking lot.
On a recent Thursday, Hussain's students gather around wooden benches in the mosque, their Qur'ans open, and they begin reciting their passages aloud. Some rock back and forth, some close their eyes or hold their ears to muffle the din.
One by one, the boys approach the imam. They hand him their open Qur'ans and begin to chant. Hussain listens intently, shaking his head now and then at an errant syllable.
"I'm looking for that most perfect pronunciation - but also that he is living according to the Qur'an," said Hussain, who can trace his lineage as a hafiz 40 teachers back to the Prophet Muhammad.
"If one recites beautifully, but does not practice upon it, you won't call him a great hafiz."
That is one of the reasons Al-Huda instituted the hifz and Qur'an study programs, said Aijaz Noor, a Milwaukee physician and president of the masjid. Those who commit violence in the name of Islam, he said, "don't understand their religion."
"We want them to be good Muslims and good citizens of this country . . . and not on the fringe," Noor said.
The boys take that responsibility seriously.
"It puts pressure on you to be a good role model," said Aazam Chattha, 15, who attends Brookfield Academy. "The Qur'an is knowledge, and when you have knowledge, you have to act upon it."
An ability to convey emotion is also important, said Noor, who recruited Hussain to teach the hifz program. "He must recite in a way that affects a person's heart."
Knowledge of Arabic isn't necessary for a hafiz, though some students go on to study the language to enhance their understanding. Although many Muslims consult translations for study, they believe the only true Qur'an is that in Arabic, the language of the Prophet Muhammad.
With work comes reward
Making hifz is hard work. Many of the boys rise early to practice before class and go to sleep at night studying. But it comes with great rewards - in this world and the next.
According to Muslim tradition, the hafiz is credited with his own good works and those of huffaz he goes on to teach. And on the day of judgment, he may save 10 souls that otherwise would be lost to the fires of hell.
As for this life, the study and discipline required make school work a breeze, according to the boys.
And the recitation itself fills them with a sense of comfort and a closeness to God.
"It's like I'm far away from the world and just thinking about Allah," said Abyaz Abrar, 11, whose father and uncles are huffaz. "I feel a peace in my whole body."
( Annysa Johnson/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)