Azan (Adhan) – The Muslim Call to Prayers

When the Muslim community was in its infancy, prayer was a precarious practice. Muhammad lived in Mecca, a city devoted to the business of idol-worship. At the age of 40, when Muhammad began preaching that there was only one God and that idols were man-made pieces of wood and stone. Understandably, the Meccans, who made their living by catering to the pilgrims who traveled from far and wide to venerate their idols, were furious. They attacked Muhammad through a virulent smear campaign and a bitter propaganda war. When this didn’t work, and they saw many people still accepting Islam, the city authorities resorted to violence and even murder.

azan-adhanMuhammad wasn’t directly attacked at first, because of his family connections, but other Muslims weren’t so lucky. They often had to lie low. When the time for prayers came, there was no public call for people to congregate. Anyone found praying could be attacked or ridiculed. No mosques were built in the city, nor would the Meccans have entertained such an enterprise. Islam was under siege. Many Muslims had to hide their identity for fear of persecution, torture, or worse. For 13 long years Muhammad’s ever-growing following had to endure immense physical and mental pressure. Most of the converts to Islam in this period, which is called the Meccan period, were poor, young, or slaves; thus these early followers had little protection from vengeful families or enraged public officials and their mobs.

Prayer under such circumstances was difficult and unnerving. Muslims could meet only in small, secret rooms, and any Muslim who dared to pray near the Ka’bah was immediately set upon and beaten. The followers of Muhammad, who are known as his Sahaba, or companions, enjoyed no religious freedom of worship in the land of their birth. This situation is akin to the period of Christian persecution by the Romans in the first two centuries of Christianity. There were no church bells in Rome during Nero’s time, nor were there any similar devices in Mecca to call Muslims to prayer.

Later on, after Muhammad was invited to migrate with his followers to Medina, some 200 miles to the north, the Muslim community was given permission to construct a house of prayer. The first mosque was built in a small town outside of Medina called Quba, and the great Mosque of the Prophet was soon constructed in the center of the city. The mosque was a simple structure made of mud bricks with a roof of palm leaves, balanced on wooden poles. It was illuminated with torches at night. The appearance of the building wasn’t what was important, however; it was the strength of character of those who entered it.

Islam requires prayer to be performed at five fixed times, and in those days clocks were not invented. People told time by the position of the sun. Some way had to be found to let people know that the prayer time had come. Moreover, since Islam taught that prayer in congregation was better in the sight of Allah SWT than prayer alone, people needed to be informed when the congregation was forming in the mosque. Yet another reason for notifying people is that Muslim men over the age of puberty are required to attend a special service on Friday afternoon in which they hear a sermon. This is called salat ul-Jumu’ah (the Gathering Prayer). Given all of these needs, the Muslim community had to come up with a way to alert people five times each day.

Several ideas were bandied about: bells like those used in churches, horns like those in synagogues, drums, and so on. But Muhammad did not approve of any of them. He prayed for guidance from God on this issue, and the answer came in a unique way. A companion came to the Prophet a few days later and said that in his dreams he saw a man calling out phrases in a loud voice. He was asking people to come to prayer. Muhammad listened to the man’s words and declared that this dream came from God. He ordered the man to teach the words to a Muslim convert named Bilal, who had a beautiful voice. (Bilal was an African slave who was freed from his idolatrous master by the Muslims.) Bilal then stood atop a wall of the mosque in Medina and called out loudly the following words:

Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar
Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar
Ashahadu an la ilaha ill Allah
Ashahadu an la ilaha ill Allah
Ashahadu anna Muhammadar Rasulullah
Ashahadu anna Muhammadar Rasulullah
Haya alas Salah. Haya alas Salah
Haya alal Falah. Haya alal Falah
Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar
La ilaha ill Allah

The meaning is as follows:
Allah (God) is [the] greatest, Allah (God) is [the] greatest
Allah (God) is [the] greatest, Allah (God) is [the] greatest
I bear witness that there is no deity except Allah (God)
I bear witness that there is no deity except Allah (God)
I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God
I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God
Come to prayer (‘Salat’). Come to prayer (‘Salat’)
Come to success. Come to success
Allah (God) is [the] greatest, Allah (God) is [the] greatest
There is no deity except Allah (God)

Upon hearing these words, another man rushed to the mosque and told Muhammad that he also had had a dream containing those same words. Thus the Muslim call to prayer, or Azan (Adhan), was born. A person who calls the Azan is termed a Muazzin. It is not a special office or holy position. Any male can perform it, but Muslims usually appoint the person who has the nicest and loudest voice to do it. No trip to a Muslim country is complete until you’ve been awakened in the early morning to the sounds of the azan floating over the landscape.

Why don’t we hear the azan being called in the West, even though there are thousands of mosques in Europe and North America? Quite simply, local authorities largely forbid it. Now, Muslims in the West have begun asking for the same rights that Christians have in alerting their followers to their prayers. Whereas the sound of church bells ringing can be heard throughout the day and night in the cities of North America and Europe, Muslims have had only limited success in gaining permission to announce the azan outside the mosque with loudspeakers. Perhaps the coming years will see a shift in this restriction.

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