In a video posted on Twitter on September 13, White Woman A stares wide-eyed into her selfie-cam. The azaan plays loudly behind her, marking prayer time for the Muslims in the area. She mouths “What the fuck?” as a hijabi walks past her, then glances quickly behind to make sure the family has gone. She lifts her puffy black coat up to her eyes as if to crudely mimic a niqab, wiggling her eyebrows expressively. “What’s going on? This is Brooklyn!” she whispers, swiveling with the camera to show us her surroundings. The caption reads, “The intolerable & intrusive sound of #Islamic imperialism in Brooklyn, New York. I thought the USA was a #Secular nation…” 4,104 retweets. 7,136 likes.
The azaan, or call to prayer, is proclaimed from mosques five times a day, once for each of the five prayers that make up one of the main tenets of Islam. The content of the azaan announcement is quite utilitarian. I don’t speak Arabic so I cannot provide an exact translation, but here is the gist as I was taught it: God is the greatest, there is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet. Come to pray.
In the old days before megaphones and microphones, the muezzin would climb to the highest point of the minaret five times a day, and perform the call to prayer at the top of their voice. At dawn, for fajr. At noon, for zuhr. In the afternoon, for asr. After sunset, for maghrib. At nightime, for isha.
The first muezzin in recorded history was Bilal ibn Ribah, in Mecca at some point around 600 AD, long before even the minarets. So he walked through the town, calling out to the believers that it was time for prayer. They say he had a beautiful voice, chosen personally by the Prophet Muhammad himself. Bilal was from Abyssinia, and they say he did not know how to pronounce the Arabic letter ش; he instead pronounced it as س. Some argued that Bilal’s azaan was incorrect because of his mispronunciation, but the Prophet insisted that Bilal’s س sounds like ش in the hearing of Allah.
In 1930, the mosques began installing loudspeakers the tops of minarets, so the muezzins now sit at a microphone five times a day to sing. They are chosen for good character but also for their singing voices, and the position often runs in families. Rahim Moazzen Zadeh Ardabili was featured on radio stations across Tehran in the 1940s. Ali Ahmed Mulla’s rendition sold thousands of tapes in the 1980s. My grandfather has two rows on his bookshelf dedicated to his favorite muezzin CDs. Even I, the type of Muslim who prays only in a crisis and who doesn’t speak enough Arabic to know what the azaan means without a Google translation, can say that it sounds beautiful.
I don’t get to hear it much anymore. There are only two or three mosques in Providence, and the aesthetic homogeneity of New England’s architecture does not allow for minarets.
In a video posted on Twitter on September 18, White Woman B records a man perched on the boot of a yellow taxicab. He is kneeling on a prayer rug, head bowed and turned towards Mecca. As he stands up on the boot to finish his prayer, another cab advertising West Side Story drives past. Other New Yorkers walk past into the subway station, some turning to gawk. Her caption reads, “I’m so ANGRY and SICKENED by This! THEY stop ANYWHERE and dare police to arrest them!! This is OUR country!” 1,785 retweets. 5,466 likes.
In recent years, countries across the world have been curbing the presence of the azaan.
Germany, France, the UK, and many other European nations have either completely banned the azaan, or placed restrictions to limit the occurrence. This is part of a long legacy of legalized Islamophobia in Europe—France banned the niqab in 2011 and the burkini (modest swimwear) in 2016, Germany called for a similar ban in 2016, and just this year the European Court of Justice ruled that employers can ban their staff from wearing any kind of headscarf. Simultaneously, there has been a sharp increase of hate crimes that target Muslim women wearing the headscarf in London, Vienna, and Barcelona.
Earlier this year, Israel’s legislative body approved a bill that bans the use of loudspeakers from religious establishments. This was widely inferred to be targeting mosques specifically, and as a protest a group of hackers took control of an Israeli news channel to play the azaan right in the middle of the evening broadcast. But even after protests, Israeli troops raided a Palestinian village that is close to the occupied West Bank to enforce the ban on speakers.
In the US, not all mosques have the infrastructure, capability, or legal permission to broadcast the azaan even once a day, let alone five times. Most mosques only broadcast on Eid days, which occur twice a year. But the country is seeing regular spikes in hate crimes over the last two years, one of which occurred in June 2015 after Donald Trump announced his candidacy, and another that December after he proposed to indefinitely ban all Muslims from entering the country. A large number of these hate crimes target mosques specifically—85 bias incidents targeting mosques (including property damage, harassment, intimidating, and refusals to permit building) were recorded in the first half of this year alone. A mosque was burned down in Texas. A mosque was bombed during morning prayers in Minnesota. A mosque near Providence, my ‘nice liberal college town,’ was vandalized in DayGlo orange.
With this vicious and calculated targeting of mosques and Islamic centers, I am surprised that muezzins still perform the azaan at all. Maybe this is my own fear talking—the fear that has followed me not just since Trump was elected, but long before, when I heard a white TSA agent pronounce my father’s name for the first time and mouth turned bitter. I cannot imagine ever being brave enough to climb the floors of a tower and sing out to a country spread out below that I know hates me, that I am here, come find me, I am here.
In the past two years, Islamophobia in the U.S. has grown to its highest intensity since the aftermath of 9/11. In this political climate of hatred, the azaan is an easy target for vitriol.
It is loud, yes. If you are near one of the limited number of mosques that broadcast its call, it is hard to ignore. The sound fills the sky, tinny and echoing from the loudspeaker, suggesting some imagined chorus of singers hiding out of sight. It is an attention-grabbing and unwavering display of Islam—we see this in the way it has been used as a form of protest in the past. So I am completely unsurprised to see that it has been adopted by Islamophobes to stand as evidence for the alleged intrusiveness of Islam. To even have to hear the presence of Muslims in one’s neighborhood is seen as an imposition, as “#Islamic imperialism.” The intolerance towards the azaan as a cultural symbol is a natural extension of the larger project of Islamophobia in this country. And all this, under the guise of #secularism, because the last thing we want is for one religious group to shove their beliefs down all our throats.
So from the beginning of November to the beginning of January, the streets around me explode with red and gold and Christmas cheer and Nativity scenes. I live near a church with a very large bell, and the air is always ringing with the sound of copper against copper. And all the schools and offices and banks and even government buildings shut down, because it is the joy of Christ.
Secularism is a wonderful word to throw around. Secularism means the government is separated from any and all religious forces, that it cannot force religious rule upon its people. It does not have much to do with controlling how private institutions or people carry out their religious practices. But when government policy and police forces and state institutions privilege one religious identity over all others, the word secularism begins to buckle under heat and warp to mean something very different.
What secularism now means: ‘We have normalized the cultural power of white Christianity to such a degree that it is invisible, part of the landscape of this world. We aren’t intrusive, we are the default. Do you even know why the week ends on Sunday? You’ll have to email your professor to request special permission if you want a day off for one of your holy days. One nation, under one God. Now, you stick out like a sore thumb with your foreign religion and your strange language and your customs. We are quiet. You are invasive and unwelcome and much, much too loud.’
I understand that in majority-Muslim countries the azaan may seem omnipresent, and holds a vastly different cultural and political significance. But I have never lived in a country that does not hate Muslims.
The closest I came was one summer in Istanbul. The city was fasting, so before dinner my mother took me for a walk in Eminonu. The sun began to set, and we waited for it in the growing cold. At the water’s edge, teenagers laughed with selfie-sticks and older men huddled around, smoking. We checked the time, but we knew it was coming soon. And then it started. First, a deep slow voice from the Süleymaniye Mosque, then another calling out from the New Mosque, and then from further away and softer the Rüstem Pasha Mosque. And joining in the chorus last, all the smaller mosques spread out over the city.
The azaan rang out, and for once I knew what it meant. The prayer that is also a song. The song that is also a salve. The air grew thick with voices so strong that if I had only reached an arm out, they would have pulled me into the sky.
SHEENA RAZA FAISAL B’18 is looking for the words to sing fearlessly.