The call to prayer, azan, pervades Islamic culture. Muslims can hear azan up to five times a day--once for each of the five daily prayers. It is often broadcast from the minarets of mosques. Parts of azan can be used to gather Muslims for a public event. There is also an Islamic tradition of reciting azan into the ear of a newborn child, and azan is said to have medicinal qualities in some forms of Islamic folk medicine. Ethnomusicologists have occasionally focused on azan. Faruqi (1981) identified two styles: laythi, an unembellished recitative style popular in villages, and sultani, a less recitative and more florid, urban style. Sultani seems linked to Ottoman sultans; Turkish Muslims are still noted for their florid and highly embellished azan style.
Azan (also spelled adhan) is part of the praxis, sunnah, of the Prophet Muhammad. There are a number of stories in the Islamic oral tradition about the origins of azan. After their flight from Mecca to Madina in 622CE, the Prophet's companions were debating how to gather Muslims for prayer. One suggested a bell, like the Christians used. Another, a horn like the Jews. Others thought of beating a drum, or lighting a fire. But there was no agreement and the debate continued. Then, one night, one of the companions dreamt of calling Muslims for prayer by using a solitary human voice. When his companions related it to him, the Prophet said he already knew of the dream, and then added that the Angel Gabriel had taught him the words for azan, which Muslims have handed down since then:
Allah is GreaterI testify that there is no god but AllahI testify that Muhammad is the Prophet of AllahCome to prayer, come to salvationAllah is GreaterThere is no god but Allah
With few exceptions, the text of azan is recited in Arabic throughout the Muslim world. There is no fixed melody, though certain factors of language effect rhythm and timbre. Arabic is syllabic, with vowel and consonant duration being phonemic in that two words which differ phonologically from each other only with respect to the length of a single vowel or consonant also differ in meaning. These durations suggest rhythmic patterns that fall roughly into long-short kinds of syllabic sequences. Long vowels occur in the last syllable of the last words in most lines of the azan, and, according to taste, are often extended melismatically. The timbre of azan is effected by the pronunciation of various letters in Arabic, some of which are distinctly guttural or velarized; other letters resemble glottal stops, adding emphasis to breaks within and between words. In general, the guidelines for calling azan follow those for recitation of the Qur'an (Lois Faruqi 1983, 4; cf. Lois Faruqi 1988, Nelson 1985), though the formal rules for Qur'anic recitation are less binding on azan. Azan is codified in the five schools of Islamic law, four Sunni and one Shiite, and practices mainly vary in terms of repetitions of the various phrases.
Some Notes on the Interviews
Islam stresses collectivity, consultation, and consensus, as do focus group interviews (Stewart & Shamdasani 1990). Such interviews pose different problems from interviewing individuals. Among those problems is how to attribute statements. Except when it seemed appropriate to attribute statements to a particular person, my solution was to compose collective statements made up of phrases uttered by different persons within a group discussion. In the excerpts that follow, when I cite a "collective statement," I do not mean that this is a pre-arranged statement that participants agree upon, nor do I mean a cobbled together pastiche of assorted statements. In the context of this chapter, a collective statement is true to the sequence of the conversation as recorded on tape and transcribed. The only thing missing is the individual attributions, which in the original transcript obscure the collectivity of the statement. Focus groups have a real sense of constructing something together. To dissect these constructs into individual remarks, or worse yet to reify them as statistics, stultifies the process and decontextualizes the data. Some collective statements exemplify what Marxist-feminists have called "consciousness raising," which I think is a benefit of the focus group methodology for the participants.
I conducted two focus group interviews. Each group was comprised of three participants, plus myself as moderator. Here are the members of the group that met on 23 September 1993:
Latifah is a 58 year old Palestinian woman, born in a town north of Jerusalem. Since 1967, she visits yearly on a tourist visa, but hopes to be able to live there permanently one day. She is the mother of the other two participants in this group, Gamilah and Hamidah, in addition to two sons. Her native language is Arabic, and she speaks English well.
Gamilah is a 32 year old Palestinian woman, born near Jerusalem and lived there until 1967, also visiting regularly since then. A graduate student in molecular biology, she also has interests in Islamic and Western cultural history. She is bilingual in Arabic and English, and also knows some French. A US citizen since 1980, she has also lived in Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Hamidah is a 24 year old Palestinian woman, born in Saudi Arabia and a US citizen since 1980. She studies literature and history, is bilingual in Arabic and English, and also reads French and Spanish. She hopes to live in Palestine one day.
The second group met on 21 October 1993, and had the following members:
Harun is a 25 year Indian-American man, born in India and living in the US since 1972. He is a graduate student in engineering and computers, and has also studied cultural anthropology. In addition to English, he speaks Gujarati and reads the Qur'an in Arabic. Active in Muslim community affairs, he was co-teaching a course on Islam in American with Usamma and Osman, the other two group members.
Usamma is a 23 year old African American man, born to Muslim parents in western New York. His father is a Muslim community leader and his family is very active in Muslim community affairs. He runs a full time business.
Osman is a 22 year old Yemeni American man, born and presently living in the US, but who also lived and attended school in Yemen from age five till age eleven. He is finishing a degree in political science and philosophy. Bilingual in Arabic and English, he is also very active in Muslim community affairs.
Even when speaking English, most Muslims use Arabic words and phrases, e.g. Allah for God, masjid for mosque, salat for prayer. Since they are familiar and generally accurate glosses, I use the English forms for these words. Muslims use Arabic mu'adhdhin for the person who calls azan; both words come from the same tri-consonantal root. Muezzin--an Anglicized form of the Arabic word mu'adhdhin--is the standard English form, so I will use that. The jinn come up often in the interviews. I retain that word. Muslims accept the existence of unseen beings, among them jinn. The Qur'an is sometimes addressed to humans and the jinn, and in Islam it is stressed that--like human beings--the jinn have volition and are responsible for their actions. Therefore, we cannot gloss jinn as demons, evil spirits, or Disneyesque genies in bottles.
My commentary on the interview excerpts which follow consists primarily of interpretation, i.e. my own after-the-fact reflections on the issues being discussed. These commentaries are intended to frame the excerpts. For ease of presentation, I have grouped the excerpts into four categories: cosmology, style, technology, and America dynamics.
Muslims believe all life is interconnected and all creation sentient. Trees and stones are said to worship God. Some Muslims liken azan to Navaho chantways, in that chanting brings the world into being. Harun describes the Muslim chanting way:
If you're alone, you have the ability to make prayer universal by giving azan. This is especially apparent in the woods. When you make azan in the woods, there's nothing like it when you're alone. You can almost hear things come one by one, you get this feeling that creation is coming to join you. In the Navaho religion, they have what they call the healing way, the birthing way, and then there's the singing way. They have chants and singing which bring things about. They chant the world into being, and their chant is a representation of when the Creator created. The chanting is the creation process and chanting brings the world into being again and again. It's similar to the morning azan which represents the transition from night into day. When we make azan we are celebrating the ceremony of the creation of a new day. When the Navaho chants the world into being, he is doing his representation of the Creator. That's what the Creator did and as representatives of the Creator we might have to do the same thing. If we are the representatives of Allah and we don't make azan, we are not fulfilling our responsibility in the sense that the birds can't make azan--they're waiting for us. And the trees can't make azan, even the jinn can't make azan. Only the human being can make azan, and it makes human beings central to worship of the whole of creation. Without us the creation is just sort of waiting for us to fulfill our duties (v. 2, pp. 3, 20-21).
The word Islam literally means peace, albeit in a complex way. It implies security, serenity, and spiritual surrender more than the English word does. The following interchange between Harun and Usamma concerns how azan relates to this aspect of Islam, in the context of human viceregency:
There's this idea of a harmonic convergence, that if people sing loud enough there'll be peace in the world. There's a recognition among people that there's a cosmic force. I have a sense that this is true, and I'm not saying it has an Islamic basis, but when you think about it even the jinn wait for us to make azan. There's a connection with the rest of creation, and there can be a certain threshold with human beings, a level of integrity or peace-mindedness. As a Muslim I think of faith, and Allah says the world will be Muslim. Everyone teaches everyone and there's a threshold and all of a sudden, the world becomes a place of faith. Disbelief can no longer exist at that point. Azan is in the context of the connectedness of the creation, because everything that's other than Allah is the creation of Allah and it's all connected together in that sense. So if we make azan five times a day long enough, we're going to have a world that is in Islam (v. 2, pp. 53-54).
Discussions of azan often refer to Abdul Basit and Bilal. Abdul Basit Abdul Samad was a famous Egyptian reciter of the Qur'an, who died in the late 1980s. Cairo was the recording and broadcast capital of the Arab world throughout his lifetime. His cassettes pervade the Islamic world, and his style influences reciters from Morocco to Malaysia. His recordings of azan are widely used in mosques. Those who still perform azan live imitate them. Bilal ibn Rabah was a companion of the Prophet. An African slave in pre-Islamic Arabia, he was freed by Muslims and later became the Prophet's favorite muezzin.
Different schools of Islamic thought prefer different styles of azan. Wahhabis, prominent in Saudi Arabia, prohibit or discourage melodious chanting of the Qur'an and azan. Gamilah recalls living there:
I remember the dawn prayer while we were living in Saudi Arabia around 1970. It was the most scary thing I ever experienced. Sometimes when I got up early in the morning or if I happened to be awake, I'd try to sleep before dawn azan because it was so scary. Everything is quiet and you would hear it, and then another and another one. But it wasn't spiritually nice - it was scary. The only thing I would think of is punishment in the grave, because of what they told us in school about when happens when people die and get buried. When I heard that azan, I would recall all those punishing verses from the Qur'an like, "Allah is severe in punishment." But when we'd go to Palestine, it was more peaceful. They would start with reading Qur'an, and we would know it's not time for prayers just yet. And they used a microphone, and sometimes Abdul Basit on cassette. That style of azan would remind me of the nice verses in the Qur'an, like "Allah is All-Forgiving and Compassionate" or "Allah loves the believers," not the punishing verses. They are saying the same thing, but the Saudi style is repulsive (v. 1, pp. 9-13, 22-23).
The variation within regional and sectarian praxis, however, is evident in this lively interchange between Hamidah, Gamilah, and Latifah:
But even Saudi Arabia has some variety. The azan in the Hijaz western coastal region is not like the repulsive style that you hear by the Wahhabis in the Najd central region. In the Hijaz, it's a nice, melodious style. There's a Hijazi muezzin who has an incredible voice that can just make people cry. Yeah, but even in the Najd, there are some melodious kinds of azan. In 1986, they had this melodious azan in Riyadh that was played every day for the afternoon prayer. It was addicting, and I had to sit down and listen to it. But from the Grand Mosque, it has to be the Wahhabi style. In the Levantine practice of Islam, it's different. The azan is more delicate than you will find down south (v. 1, pp. 46-48).
Azan is nice in Palestine, in all the villages. They didn't used to use cassettes. They always chose somebody with a nice voice. Why hear azan with a bad voice? Bilal, the Prophet's muezzin, had a very nice voice. When I hear this kind of azan I remember Allah with kindness, not with fear (v. 1, pp. 13-14).
Harun comments on azan he heard in his native India:
When I went to India in 1987, I heard the azan there for the first time in 13 years. I woke up to the sound of azan. There was this guy at the mosque four blocks away. I wasn't sure whether the voice was human. Certain neighborhoods have ways of saying azan. The muezzin has a certain style, sort of a community identification. People can recognize their own muezzin, even if he sounds like a bleating goat ( v. 2, p. 6).
Beyond sound and style, Muslims recall the function of azan, as Hamidah reminds us:
There are two levels of listening to azan. You can listen to just the music and you can listen to the content, the words. There are two separate things and I don't know what happens if you bridge the two. The melody is what mesmerizes Westerners, and something transforms them. It's different for people who can understand the words, like the Arabs. We understand the words being said but at the same time prefer one muezzin over another, because there's the music of it, the melody. Sometimes I don't listen to what's being said and just listen to the sound (v. 1, pp. 49-50).
Similarly, Usamma, Osman and Harun made the collective statement that,
Azan needs to act as a reminder, but it might alienate those that don't pray anyway. Some people will say that they don't want to be a part of a fundamentalist movement that announces azan out loud. If I don't want to be a part of Islam in private, I wouldn't want that to be publicized. For example, at work people know I am a Muslim, but when they start hearing azan, they want to know if I'm part of that noise. Sometimes the sound of the azan can be very pleasing, and people might not mind hearing it, even though when you hear some of the Yemeni brothers do it, you might reconsider. But for some brothers it's just wonderful, and the sound is a definite factor. That's why Bilal was picked. Other people were ready to do azan, but the Prophet said, "Bilal is the one with the good voice so he should do it." There's a tradition that the Prophet didn't make azan whenever Bilal was around. We shouldn't select people for doing azan in the sense of having auditions, but it is a practice to call on someone with a good voice to give azan. Still, it's not necessary among Muslims that azan must be musical and beautiful. The sound is a consideration, but we need to be wary of the attitudes that say something has to sound good to be good. This is a superficial culture we live in. Everything has to look good. One thing about this culture is that they like exotic colors and sounds. Azan would probably be better accepted if done in a rhythmic and musical way. But if azan sounds good, people might see it as exotic. It might only remind them of some old movie like Sindbad. So, we should insist on azan, pretty or not. Regardless if people feel alienated or not, we have an obligation to do it (v. 2, pp. 26-27 & 33).
The issue of amplifying azan mechanically comes up often in discussions and interviews. Schafer (1977, 216) links amplifying azan to the decline of Islam as a prosperous and healthy civilization. Sounds create community, he says, and a healthy society sounds healthy. Stone (1989) places amplified and televised azan in the context of "corporate ritual" in Arabia, noting how it delimits spheres of power between expatriate communities of oil company workers and the Saudi state. Amplifying azan may assert an uneasy dominance, as in the Malay's use of azan in regions of Malaysian with non-Malay or non-Muslim populations (Bob Dentan 1994, personal communication), or the Syrian government using very loudly amplified Sunni forms of azan next to Shi'ite shrines, which I observed near Damascus in 1991. Conversely, Palestinians use amplified azan as symbolic resistance to Israeli domination, and the Israeli army frequently confiscate P.A. systems from mosques, according to people I spoke to while there in 1995.
The relatively recent impact of amplification occurs in a number of contexts. Latifah recalls some early cases while growing up in Palestine:
I remember once during Ramadan, in our town. It was around 1940, and I was four or five years old. My uncle used to go on the roof to make azan. We would wait for him, because we wanted to eat. There was no microphone, just his voice. Later on, when they used a microphone, some people didn't like it because it was noisy and not good for their children. It would wake them if they lived near the mosque (v. 1, pp. 7).
Latifah, Hamidah, and Gamilah see the increasing use of amplification for azan as necessary to compete with a louder, more technological society:
Automobiles are enough to drive the jinn out. There's no room for some things. People used to walk from Amman to Jerusalem but now it's so automized and everything. This could be related to the amplification of azan. There are so many mosques around, but if you turn on your stereo or radio, the azan has to override that. It's also a call to people who are farther away to come. And there are more houses now than there used to be, more area. So in a way it makes sense to use the amplifier, but it does take away from the naturalness of just standing up and calling. Sometimes people put recordings on, too. In parts of Palestine, they like Abdul Basit for the afternoon azan, but they use a natural voice for the sunset or evening prayers (v. 1, pp. 44-46).
Some Muslims are wary of technology. In a pre-interview private discussion, Harun enthusiastically described plans that he had to implement a telephone azan, which would ring up believers at the appropriate time and play azan over the phone. But in the focus group, he began to have doubts:
There was a time when I was thinking about the concept of an automated phone dialing service, where people would order azan calls by subscription. Five times a day they get a phone call and the azan plays on the phone. But I'm rethinking that whole thing now, starting to backtrack as we talk. I realized this has to be looked into more carefully. This is because when you think of azan as being public, but you have it in your house everyday, why do you need to go out to the mosque? God says you should go to the mosque but you can pray in your house. So azan at home gives you an excuse to stay because you just heard azan in your home. I think we should be wary of this technologization of Islam (v. 2, pp. 28-29).
Recently, recordings of Qur'an recitation and azan have come out on compact disk. Osman suggests that there are some dangers to this commodification of an Islamic tradition, including a recognition of what Barnet and Cavanagh call the "deskilling effect" that technology has on traditional musical practices (1994, 152):
By using CDs or tapes for the azan you are replacing a very important tradition. Let's say we like Abdul Basit's voice instead of us going to give azan. Then no one can make azan anymore. If you just stick in CDs with azan on them, you lose a tradition and it becomes engulfed in this technological culture that we see here. It may or may not be dangerous, and it's not to say that we shouldn't have CDs, but we have to be careful. The next thing you know no one is going to give azan (v. 2, p. 29).
Publicly announced azan gets a mixed reception as it becomes more and more a part of Muslim life in America. Some adjacent communities don't seem to mind public azan. A 1990 Washington Post headline runs, "Muslim's Song Brings Little Discord: NW Mosque's Calls to Prayer Heard Through the Neighborhood" (21 April 1990, sec. B, p. 1). On the other hand, in Dearborn, Michigan in 1979, where there is a large concentration of Arab Muslims, neighbors asked the courts to end amplified azan from a local mosque on grounds that it violated noise ordinances. The Muslim community argued their case on grounds of religious freedom, with the judge ruling after a lengthy trial that the mosque could continue broadcasting azan, but that they had do so within a noise level similar to that of church bells (Moore 1995, 132).
In the New York City area, there is probably the largest concentration of mosques in the entire United States, and many broadcast azan publicly. Usamma recalls visiting a Muslim community in Brooklyn:
I could name at least five cities that have mosques in African American communities that call azan. One in particular that I'll always remember is a mosque I visited down in Brooklyn. The azan is always called for all the prayers and it struck me my first time down there because here you have this mosque in an urban setting with all of its craziness inside of Brooklyn. You have bums and there's crime and everything, and then you hear azan. It was significant to me and it hit me right in the heart (v. 2, pp. 10 & 12).
Back in Buffalo, he adds:
There's a mosque on the East Side that calls the azan. They just started this practice in the last year or so. They do the azan publicly during business hours, for the noon and afternoon prayers. And there's a brother at another mosque who calls azan out the back door, with no amplifier (v. 2, pp. 68-69).
Muslim communities often compromise on their implementation of public azan. The Yemeni community in Buffalo began broadcasting azan in the early 1980s, about ten years after opening a community mosque, but refrains from calling for the dawn prayer. Osman recalls some responses:
We used to go to high school and people would hear azan and ask us what he was saying on that microphone. We used to get a lot of flak for that from people. They would ask what this guy is saying on the microphone. In junior high school, we got responses suggesting that it was at first kind of annoying and then it becomes sarcastically funny, something to joke about, and now it's accepted. Azan is really a part of the community. You don't hear anyone saying anything about it anymore (v. 2, pp. 12-13).
Sometimes Muslims in the United States express unease about public azan. Harun told this story:
In the mosque, azan is not an issue. The biggest issue is what people do outside the mosque when it's time to pray. Very rarely have I been in a group of Muslims here where someone will just get up and call azan when it's time. It isn't second nature yet. When we hear azan we can response but to actually initiate it outside the mosque is something else. When I was in college in Texas, where there are a lot of Baptists around and it's not what you would call the most tolerant area, I was at a Student Association gathering in one of the university buildings. When the time came, I made azan and was surprised at how loud it came out. When I stopped and looked around there were very few people left. It was like I scared everyone off, especially non-Muslims. They weren't sure what was going on. A lot of Muslims left, too (1993, v. 2, pp. 14-15).
Some Muslims say that azan can have a positive effect on non-Muslims. Usamma noticed this where he lives:
My neighborhood is predominantly African American. One of the first things to attract my friends to Islam was the azan. They would here the azan from my house in the afternoon or at night, and it's captivating. You have to sit down and you're in awe because it sounds like someone is singing (v. 2, p. 6).
Two stories come up often in this context. Maryam Jameelah, an American convert to Islam in the early 1960s, is a popular author among Muslims. She often recounts how the sound of azan and recitation of the Qur'an attracted her to Islam. Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong's apocryphal encounter with azan also comes up often. Here's Osman's version of the two stories:
Maryam Jameelah, an American Jewish woman who accepted Islam in 1961, used to listen to Arabic music and one day heard the azan. She used to sit right in front of the mosque just listening to azan. She also heard someone reciting Qur'an, and because of listening to Arabic music, she was attracted. There's also the story of Neil Armstrong, who supposedly heard azan on the moon. He was wondering what this strange voice was, and when he came back he heard it in a mosque in Cairo. It's hearsay whether Neil Armstrong is a Muslim or how he came to Islam, but the idea is that he heard something. They both heard the sound of azan (v. 2, pp. 6-7).
An American astronaut on the moon and a nice Jewish girl from the Bronx. Both apparently hearing azan, both reported to be in Islam; this odd juxtaposition stuck in my mind when I wrote up these interviews, and I couldn't find a satisfactory way to follow it up. What can you say after that? While Maryam Jameelah's acceptance of Islam is well-documented--she writes about it with a vengeance--I have not been able to corroborate Neil Armstrong's encounter on the moon. He seems to be a reclusive man, and programs about UFOs sometimes take advantage of his simultaneous fame and obscurity in telling stories of him encountering aliens on the moon. The closest I came to getting to the bottom of this story is a poem by Muhammad Iqbal, who inspired the founding of modern Pakistan. Iqbal recounts a mystical journey with the poet Rumi in which they hear the call to prayer in the heavens. The Armstrong story first surfaced, as nearly as I can tell, in an Urdu language paper in Pakistan. It seems to serve some purpose. Maybe there's a complex cultural hybridization of mystical poetry and science going on here. Only Neil knows... and Allah.
Barnet, Richard J. and Cavanagh, John (1994). Global Dreams: Imperial Corporations and the New World Order. New York: Touchstone.
Faruqi, Lois (1981). An Annotated Glossary of Arabic Musical Terms. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.
Faruqi, Lois (1983). Factors of Continuity in the Musical Cultures of the Muslim World. Progress Reports in Ethnomusicology, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 1-18.
Faruqi, Lois (1988). The Cantillation of the Quran. Asian Music, Vol. 19, No. 1, pp. 2-25.
Moore, Kathleen M. (1995). Al-Mughtaribun: American Law and the Transformation of Muslim Life in the United States. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Nelson, Christina (1985). The Art of Reciting the Quran. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Stewart, David W. and Shamdasani, Prem N. (1990). Focus Groups: Theory and Practice. London, Sage.
Schafer, R. Murray (1977). The Tuning of the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Stone, Ruth (1989). Sound and Rhythm in Corporate Ritual in Arabia. Revue Internationale de Theologie, Vol. 222, p. 75.
[This article is extracted from my Ph.D. dissertation in American Studies from the State University of New York at Buffalo, which I completed in 1996. An earlier version was given as a paper at the 19th Annual Meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology, Niagra Chapter, at Buffalo State College in April 1994. At the time I was interested in the nexus between religious chant and music, and became particularly intrigued by the musical characteristics of Islamic liturgical chanting. Although Muslims would never refer to such sounds as music, to other ears they have very musical qualities. In fact, when I produced and hosted a live radio show featuring Arabic music on the Buffalo area National Public Radio station, I'd get occasional callers requesting "the music that plays from the minarets." Eventually, I turned to the work of Lois Faruqi (cited above) to sort this out and found her idea about "the art of sound" (handasah al-sawt) in the world of Islam to be a walkable bridge over the perceived gap between music and non-music; for that reason I dedicate this version of the essay to her memory. I also wish to thank the interviewees who so freely and generously shared their views with me, and I owe a particular debt of gratitude to Robert Knox Dentan, who untiringly helped tighten up my often overly verbose and occasionally purple prose.]