The Islamic Call to Prayer Makes Inroads to the West
From Lahore to Los Angeles, the Azan is spreading and debated
In the Islamic tradition, prophet Muhammad negotiated with Allah (or Allah’s representative) the number of times Muslims are required to pray from a fairly large number downwards to five times a day. Such prayer is one of the five pillars of Islam for believers. Mosques were built with minarets and a call to prayer would have been shouted by an imam from its balcony, about five times a day including at dawn and at dusk. Like the Jews and their synagogues, settled Muslim communities were represented by a mosque in their midst for helping to fulfil these functions.
As Islamic communities spread within non-Muslim majority countries, the mosque and the call to prayer has followed them. Starting from the mid 20th century, this has involved the use of loudspeakers, something never sanctioned by the holy prophet. Each mosque can have a set of 4 or more loudspeakers facing the various directions, issuing its masculine call to prayer to alert the local populace. If there is more than one mosque close by, this can amount to a deafening wall of significant noise pollution, up to five times a day. In some countries, apart from grumbling, many non-Muslims have responded by using loudspeakers for their own religions. So you may hear Islamic calls to prayer (called the Adhan or Azan) as well as other religious singing and chanting, close to diverse places of worship in countries like India. In such countries, total amplified sound pollution (ASP) has really ramped up, with legislation being brought in to curb it with varying degrees of success. Not only India, ASP is a notable problem in a Buddhist country like Sri Lanka1.
The West has until recently only experienced church bells, either for establishing the time (historically, the bell was replaced by clock towers) or for summoning the faithful on Sunday mornings. There are rich traditions of bell ringing in Christian countries as epitomised by the famous English nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons”. It describes the bells of London, now actively down to a few, including Big Ben. Bell ringing does not need artificial electrical amplification and is not equivalent to the modern version of Azan.
The tradition of the loudspeaker Azan is now creeping into the West and there are moves to curb its impact as ASP. As the Muslim population increases and expands in the West, this situation is going to increasingly crop up and is doing so already.
In countries like Singapore, Islamic ASP was banned before it could even start. Existing mosque loudspeaker systems in China have either been removed by state legislation or remain under review. Amplified sound is definitely not fashionable in places where it has been introduced historically including many Muslim countries such as Malaysia as it tends to proliferate. It is interesting how parts of the West seem to be opening up to this trend for the first time. Will it be tolerated or even welcomed? Will people simply get used to it as “normal” as in many other parts of the world with significant Muslim communities?
Recently, Sweden allowed the Azan in a local context. This has now spread to the Netherlands, parts of Britain and from 2019 to both Canada and the USA. Part of the recent upsurge or requests for Azan is thanks to the Covid pandemic. Amplified prayer has been seen as supportive for local Islamic communities under “lockdown”, encouraging community cohesion and inclusiveness. It could even become a permanent feature of culture in the UK2.
Non-Muslims in the Netherlands complaining about amplified noise pollution have been advised to “get used to it”3. A similar situation is arising in LA California. Residents are complaining about the call to prayer at 4.30AM4, from the Los-Angeles Times, but the law is on the side of the planners who have allowed it.
In Harrow, a suburb of London in the UK, Councillors are considering the benefits of the Azan and similar reasoning is likely to have played a role in city planners allowing what President Obama described as “one of the prettiest sounds on Earth at sunset” beginning with Allahu Akbar! Translated as God is great or God is greater. As one of the initiators of this project in Harrow described5:
“During this unprecedented crisis before us, we are all condemned to social distancing – separated by the restrictions on public gathering we are isolated to our homes. “The Covid-19 crisis has left many isolated, not only physically but also spiritually and mentally with a sense of insecurity. “Worship and prayer are recognised to ease people’s minds and offer a sense of security that the mishap will in good time end, that wounds will heal, that normality will once again return.” She added that the UK, and Harrow in particular, has “always welcomed cultural and religious diversity” and this is what makes it a great place to live.
This sentiment has received wide support as it did in Canada from many non-Muslims too. However, critics point out that it could be seen as a sign of Islamic domination over traditionally non-Muslim communities. A recent petition opposed to Harrow mosque initiating calls to prayer has received over 20,000 signatures. About 10% of the local population. Most Western countries have until recently never really been exposed to the Azan and it may be seen as freedom of religious expression.
Originally, Harrow mosque was built on the understanding that there would be no amplified noise. They have now applied to change this planning restriction under Covid lockdown stating that it is initially seen as a temporary measure with a possibility of it, becoming permanent. Significantly, many of signatories in the above petition are Muslims.
Perhaps we should go back to the roots of Islam. The holy prophet of Islam never envisaged using loudspeakers for the call to prayer. That’s why there is a minaret and a man is expected to yell to rouse the faithful. Why shouldn’t planning permission be given without using amplification as was practised historically? Town criers were quite frequent in history with booming, almost always male voices, relating official news and legislation.
Sound pollution is a big problem in the modern world. Traffic, airplanes, horns, building work and sonic booms from ships using sonar (that seriously disturbs and sometimes kills whales). The founders of great religions were no fans of noise pollution. It disturbs the young, the old and wildlife in particular - vulnerable groups who do not have a voice or much say in such matters. Rich and wealthy suburbs the world over enjoy high levels of quiet with birdsong as an index to quality of life and surrounding greenery.
Authorities and local democracies should weigh very carefully whether greater community cohesion is a sufficient reason to allow a male call to prayer over loudspeakers (maybe women should also be considered for this important role? A female voice may be sweeter after all). Especially given that the faithful now use smartphone apps and that loudspeakers were not part of ancient religious cultures.