As twilight covers the warm stone walls, an otherworldly green light appears on a minaret amidst the rooftops. Soon another light appears. And another. Before long the cityscape is dotted with green, and the Islamic call to prayer begins to echo through the streets, inviting all to remember the ancient prophet Mohammed and the law that God sent him to declare.
Learning about and appreciating the Islamic call to prayer can enrich travel experiences in many destinations, from Israel to Indonesia. Learning about the beautiful symbolism involved as well as learning what to expect and how to respectfully participate can be an amazing cultural experience and the highlight of any trip.
The call to prayer involves the adhan, or azan, an ancient chant sung in the Muslim culture to invite all to come and worship. It is comparable to the ringing of a Christian church bell.
In countries with significant Islamic populations, this call is often broadcast throughout the entire city, and sometimes it is broadcast only in predominately Muslim neighborhoods. Here are some important aspects you need to understand to appreciate this ancient custom.
“The Muslim call to prayer is a reminder to all Muslims, five times a day, to stop what they are doing and take a few moments out of their lives to worship God Almighty,” says Shariq Akhan, a practicing Muslim living in Utah. “During the time of the Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, there was a debate that took place as to how to inform the people about the timings of the prayers. After much consensus, it was agreed that the best of voices is the human voice and as such the best of voices amongst us should call the worshipers for prayers. Thus started the tradition of calling people five times a day for prayers. The words are very simple and it states that God is great and that we bear witness that there is only one God and that Prophet Mohammad is the messenger of God. It further asks the believers to attend to prayers to achieve salvation.”
Mosques and their towers are strongly built and often intricately decorated. Photo by Jorge Láscar. cc
Islamic law calls for five daily prayers. Mohammad, last and greatest prophet according to Islamic belief, was called up into heaven during a night vision. During his interview with Allah (God), he was given a law to command all of his followers to pray fifty times each day.
As he left the highest heaven, he passed Moses, who asked Mohammed what Allah had told him. After hearing of the fifty prayers, Moses convinced Mohammad to go back to Allah and ask for the number to be reduced. Mohammed did as Moses suggested and Allah reduced the number of prayers by half.
When Mohammad returned, Moses asked him the same thing and again convinced him to ask for a reduction. This continued until the number of prayers was reduced to five, and Mohammad told Moses that he could not ask Allah for more. Each prayer counts for ten prayers, making the original fifty prayers commanded by Allah.
The prayers are said at various points throughout the day: once before the sunrise, once at noon, once in the midafternoon, once while the sun is setting, and last after the sun has gone down.
Prayers are preceded by ritual washing for orthodox Muslim traditions and generally take five to ten minutes to be said.
The call to prayer is sung by a muezzin, or mu’adhdin, most often from the minaret of a mosque. The words of the adhan are a recitation of the basic beliefs of Islam. In a way, the adhan is a Muslim form of missionary work. They broadcast their basic beliefs to all within earshot in this trilling, unearthly melody. It begins with a statement about the greatness of Allah, then proclaims that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammad is his prophet. After that hearers are invited to prayer and salvation, followed by repeating phrases about the greatness and singleness of God.
In most places, the call to prayer is played within a mosque, but in countries with Islamic governments—and others with large or particularly concentrated Islamic communities—it may be called out into the street over a loudspeaker attached to the mosques’s tower.
The call generally lasts two to three minutes. It is performed by a single male with no accompaniment. An interesting thing about the call is that there is no fixed melody. Each muezzin sings the adhan differently, in the way to make it most beautiful in his own voice. There are several popular traditions, but there is no wrong way to sing the adhan. Even if one’s voice is thought to be unattractive, it is still acceptable before God.
Islam reverences the color green as a holy color, explaining the green lights that often accompany the evening adhan in cities like Jerusalem. It casts an incredible coloring throughout the city, changing its whole character in an instant. In cities like Jakarta, Indonesia, there are mosques every mile, so the call and the lights fill the entire city.
Locals grow accustomed to the adhan and can sleep through the pre-dawn call if they choose, but that is not often the case with travelers. For some, especially Muslims, this can bring a sense of excitement and wonder to hear the familiar words out in the open for all to hear. For others, it can be an unwelcome interruption of a REM cycle.
Kyle Durfee, who recently visited Jerusalem, advised tourists to resist the urge to reach for their earplugs. “Sure, it might wake you up, but that’s an essential part of the experience in going there. Also, if you can get the chance to hear one of the reciters do it live, take that opportunity! It sounds way better when it’s not over a loudspeaker.”
A good rule of thumb is to watch the locals for cues on how to behave when the prayers are called. In each country, and even in each individual city, the norms can vary. Many Muslims will pull over if driving or halt their other activities while the call rings through the city. Whatever you do, try to show respect for the symbol of devotion you are experiencing.
“When we, as Muslims, hear the call for prayers, we immediately stop talking or at least lower our voices and wait for the adhan (call for prayer) to end. Non-Muslims should at least lower their voices and not be rambunctious. It certainly is not a singing session and naturally one should not dance to the call,” said Akhan.
Rana OssamaMeghan Johnson, who visited Turkey for a month last year, said that the experience helped remind her of her own religious beliefs and encouraged her to pray in her own way.
The ritual call to prayer is a beautiful tradition that steeps any environment in color, sound, and spirit. The next time you have the opportunity to participate in a call to prayer, take a moment to reflect on the world you’re being allowed to witness.
Plan Your Visit
If you are going to tour a mosque, try to plan your tour for just shortly before the call to prayer. You may be invited to listen as the muezzin performs the call or even allowed to go up in the tower with the muezzin!
While visiting a muslim country, women should stay covered, even if it’s hot. Sleeves that cover to the elbows, no cleavage, and a head scarf are generally appreciated and will improve how those women are received by the mosque goers and the imam, or spiritual leader of that Islamic community.
—Kate ZellerFeature photo by Lipska. cc