Like many Muslim countries, Brunei Darussalam treats the annual Musabaqah Tilawatil Quran or the Al-Quran Reading Competition with great respect. The winners will be given the honour to represent Brunei Darussalam in international Musabaqah competition as well as given great prizes.
But then Brunei had been holding its annual Musabaqah competition almost continuously since 1948. Before 1948, there must have been other competitions but those were not recorded and the recorded ones began soon after the war in 1948.
By 1948, Brunei Darussalam had lost its main mosque, the Masjid Marbut Pak Tunggal right at the edge of Brunei Town due to extensive bombing during the battle for Brunei during the Second World War.
By then a relatively large temporary prayer hall which can cater to about 500 people was built made completely out of timber with thatched roofing and thatched walls. It was known as Masjid Pekan Brunei or Masjid Kajang and is located where the TAIB Building is currently on Jalan Sultan.
The first competition was for Bruneians who resided near the capital. The roads to the towns of Tutong, Seria and Kuala Belait were not yet built. Competition in the other towns began a few years after that.
The first competition was organized by the mosque committee members at Masjid Kajang. The main aim of the competition was to commemorate the new hijra year or the new Muslim years. It was also held only for men. It would be a few years later before competition for women and children were held.
The first competition was so successful that it was decided that a competition be held annually after that.
A few years later, it was also decided that for the management of the competition to be better organized that a proper association would be set up.
In 1953, an association called Persatuan Kesatuan Islam Brunei (Brunei United Islam Association) was set up. It was the only welfare organization that was registered with the government then.
With the association being responsible for the organizing of the competition, the competition was now organized at national levels with representatives from all the five Brunei districts (Muara was considered a separate district in 1950s).
In the 1950s, every district was allowed to send as many competitors as it wanted to.
Every competitors would be competing in one major competition.
But by 1956, the number of competitors increased that preliminary rounds at district levels had to held to reduce the number of competitors during the final.
The Brunei District itself divided the competitors into two groups – one comprising those who had been in the top 3 of previous competitions and another comprising those who have yet to win.
From these two groups, a final group of 6 was chosen to compete at the national level.
Today the competitions are funded by the government but then the competitions were funded directly by donations.
It was quite expensive too.
Due to the number of readers, the competition can take place for a whole day and lunch and dinners had to be served.
Despite that, there were sufficient donations by the public to enable the competitions to take place.
By 1961, Brunei received its first invitation to compete in the International Musabaqah Tilawatil Quran in Kuala Lumpur.
To enable the proper selection of Qari to take part in the competition, the Brunei Government decided that the organization of the national level competition to be organized by the Department of Religious Affairs taking over from the association.
Up to then, the competitions had always been held to commemorate the new hijra year and always took place on the 10th Muharram (Asyurra Day).
By 1961, it was no longer held for that event.
The international competition takes place around Ramadhan, and the national level competition was moved to one or two months before the international competition took place.
Brunei’s first international competitors were Awang Yusof bin Abdul Latif (now Begawan Pehin Khatib Awang Yusof) and Awang Haji Sabtu bin Haji Ahmad.
By 1961, the format of selection from the various districts had changed. The Brunei-Muara District (the Muara District was merged in 1961) sent four Qaris and four Qariahs as compared to the other three districts which sent two Qaris and two Qariahs each.
In 1965, the international competition was extended to Qariahs and Brunei’s first competitor was Hajah Aminah binti Siling. In 1973, Brunei’s Qari, Awang Haji Masud bin Haji Awang Damit won 3rd place in the international competition placing Brunei in the international quran limelight. He finally won the international competition in 1977.
The Astaka or the stage for the competition were pretty lavish in the old days.
Nowadays with the competition held indoors at the International Conference Centre in Berakas, the magnificiently built Astakas of the past are too big for the centre.
The competition was originally held inside the mosques at Masjid Kajang and later on at Masjid Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien when that was completed in 1958.
But by the mid 1960s, the Astakas were beginning to be built on the Padang at Taman Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien, each year’s design outdoing the previous year’s.
In 1967, to commemorate the 1400th year of the revelation of the Al-Quran, the artificial ship the Mahligai Bahtera built on the lagoon of Masjid Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien was used.
Many were enthralled by the beautiful recitations of the Qaris and Qariahs then as they are now.
Aishah (radhiallahu anha) narrated that the Prophet SAW said, “Such a person as recites the Qur'an and masters it by heart, will be with the noble righteous scribes (in Heaven). And such a person exerts himself to learn the Qur'an by heart, and recites it with great difficulty, will have a double reward.” (Bukhari 6/459)