Deciphering the Muslim Call to Prayer

By Abdar Rahman Koya
September 16, 2008

It is comical to see some NGOs, under the guise of defending Islam, support the Internal Security Act (ISA) being used on Raja Petra Kamarudin and Seputeh parliamentarian Teresa Kok.

For a start, these Umno-inspired NGOs know nuts about Islam: they not only give a bad image to Islam, but also embarrass knowledgeable Muslims through their sheer ignorance about matters related to fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and Syariah.

One such ignorance is laid bare when Muslim Consumers Association president Maamor Osman, was reported to have lumped both the call of azan and kuliah (lectures) into the category of “syiar Islam”, and therefore no one should question these.

Syiar Islam is an oft-repeated phrase derived from the Arabic Sha’a’ir al-Islam, meaning ‘rituals of Islam’. The kuliah, for the kind information of Maamor and his likes, has never been considered a ritual in Islam, whether formal or informal.

Coming from a group whose modus operandi is generating unnecessary panic among Muslim consumers about the halal-ness of a certain brand of food, I, like any practising and five-time praying Muslim who is clear about the principles of halal and haram in Islam, am not at all surprised.

Fresh in one’s memory is the issue involving a bakery two years ago, sparked by the group’s questioning of its halal status, causing not only confusion among Muslim consumers but also financial loss to the bread-maker.

These groups who claim to be the defenders of Muslim consumers are actually ignorant about the basic principle of halal and haram which underlines Muslim consumership: that everything on earth is rendered by God as halal (lawful) until and unless proven otherwise, and that it is haram (prohibited) to make what is lawful as haram simply through suspicions.

Such is the state of Muslims in Malaysia that these ‘defenders of Islam’ who usually come out protesting in their childish uniforms and jackets, are allowed to carry on with their negative da’wah about Islam.

Where are the Muslim scholars and those Islamists when we need them most? With the exception of perhaps the mufti of Perlis, none of the officers from any of the Islamic departments have come out to clear the confusion among non-Muslims, and indeed Muslims too, about Islam.

Notwithstanding the accusation over the azan – hurled at Kok – is now proven false both by her own denial and the statement by the mosque involved, the damage to the Islamic call to prayer has been done.

Etiquette of Azan
Muslims have a duty to correct the wrong messages sent about azan, that inseparable characteristic of their societies around the world.

The azan was made obligatory and part of the Syariah during the first year after the migration of the early Muslims from Mecca to Medina.

These Muslims used to gather and calculate the time of prayer without anyone to call them. Discussing how to simplify this one day, some suggested that they rang the bell like the Christians, others suggested to use the horn like the Jews.

It was Umar al-Khattab, who was to be the second caliph after the Prophet’s death, who suggested that a person call the others to prayer, to which the Prophet instructed a black Muslim youth, Bilal, to make the call to prayer (hence the name Bilal in some languages becoming synonym to the word ‘muezzin’).

The azan as we hear it today has not changed a bit in its style of presentation since the Prophet’s times. The whole purpose of the azan is to make it audible enough for people to hear. When modern PA system was introduced and became an inseparable tool for azan ever since, this requirement was easily fulfilled.

With rapid urbanisation in the Muslim world, the call to the obligatory prayers naturally became louder, so as not to be drowned out by the sound of traffic and other modern day noises.

In most non-Muslim countries, the use of loudspeakers for azan is banned. Thus the azan, heard five times a day, was confined mostly to the Muslim world and characterises the environment of any Muslim country.

But what is the etiquette of azan in Islam? Because it is a form of worship, the azan too is bound by certain etiquette. For example, to pronounce the azan in improper Arabic by adding a letter or lengthening the sound of a vowel is discouraged.

According to ‘Fiqh-us-Sunnah’, an extensive work by the Egyptian scholar Sayyid Sabiq on Islamic rituals and which is considered a worldwide authority on the subject, the Prophet did not make any extra reading, supplications, chants or such practices before the azan.

To this, Ibn al-Jawzi the 12th-century Muslim jurist, adds: “I have seen people staying up a part of the night on the minaret admonishing the people, making remembrance [of God] and reciting the Qur’an in a loud voice. They keep people from sleeping and disturb those who are making late-night prayers. These are rejected and evil actions.”

This goes on to show that the azan, since time immemorial, has had a strict set of guidelines, like any other formal Muslim worship. And this applies even in exclusively Muslim locations.

Muhammad Taqi Usmani, who served for two decades at the Shariah Appellate Bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan until 2002, and whose famous judgement on usury has become an important reference material for students of Islamic law and economics, has written on the tendency of some mosques to abuse the azan.

The prominent judge chided some who abused the use of loudspeakers in mosques, which not only hurt the people living around the mosques, but also created resentments against mosque managements and other religious circles.

While the use of loudspeakers complements the objective of the azan to be heard in distant places and therefore is advisable, the same is not true of sermons, Qur’anic recitations or any other activities, such as the commonly held religious lectures (kuliah) in Malaysian mosques.

Muslim jurists are unanimous that the recitation of the Qur’an in a loud voice is not allowed just to get people listen to it while they are engaged in other activities. As such, blasting it by using external loudspeakers, as in some mosques, comes under the same prohibited act.

The Prophet’s wife A’ishah had once advised a religious orator in the following words, “Restrict your voice to your audience and address them only as far as they are attentive to your speech. When they turn their faces from you, stop.”

Such was the care taken to avoid possible disturbance from the speaker. More importantly, this was expressed at a time when loudspeakers were not even in existence!

Ata ibn Abi Rabah, a jurist and scholar of Hadith, once said: “The voice of a learned man should not exceed his audience.”

In another tradition narrated by the companion Abdullah ibn Umar, the second caliph Umar al-Khattab was said to have punished a man who used to deliver his speech in a loud voice.

Mufti Taqi Usmani concludes with these words: “In the light of this principle, the loudspeaker should not be used at all [during prayer] where the number of audience is such that they can hear the voice of the recitation [during prayer] or of the sermon without a loudspeaker. However, if there are many in number and cannot hear the voice directly, only the inner loudspeaker should be used, and not the loudspeaker installed outside the mosque.”

Pick the Battles
While it is mischievous and irresponsible of some Umno politicians and their mouthpiece Utusan Malaysia to play up the azan issue, the truth is that the issues surrounding the recent ISA arrests have generated concern and anxiety among Muslims including those who had been sympathetic to DAP because of its alliance with PAS and PKR.

The azan, like many other things in Malaysia, is considered ‘sensitive’ and therefore is fast fitting itself into the list of racialist issues in Malaysia’s racialist politics.

Some Muslim politicians, during the height of the reformasi era when the general election loomed in November 1999, had once made use of the azan issue to garner political mileage and votes. Then, leaflets and ceramahs had suggested that then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad had asked to tone down the volume of the azan at the KLCC mosque.

The truth of this claim has never been known, not unlike the many myths surrounding the former PM’s youthful looks and the story of why he sacked his cook in Putrajaya (never mind if you have not heard this anecdote).

Then in 2005, DAP’s Kepong MP Dr Tan Seng Giaw reportedly called for a regulation of azan because his constituency was a vastly non-Muslim constituency. So why is it not surprising that Kok was said to be behind a petition against the azan from a mosque, even if this later turned out to be untrue?

If Umno spreads another lie tomorrow that the Selangor government, of which DAP is a part, will rename a few locations in Petaling Jaya into Chinese names, it will also find some takers who will get riled up.

The DAP, through its own petty side-obsession over street signs and languages, is now in a defensive position of its own doing 51 years after independence.

This silly politicisation of language and scripts, as is happening in India up to today, should not have been brought up, because language and scripts have never been the source of racial tensions among ordinary people, and this is true in other countries too.

In the meantime, Muslims in Malaysia have a greater and heavier responsibility for Islam, because they live in a society with large non-Muslim minorities. Muslims must pick their battles, and know when to come to the defence of Islam.

The azan, which only lasts five minutes, is hardly noise pollution, but soothes hardened hearts and provides a divinely inspired music to remind us how mundane and materialistic our life is. As the Arabic saying goes, if one is not moved by melody, he is neither a man, nor a woman, but an ass.

If the azan is to be banned, I would be the first one to protest, even if I fail to answer its melodious invitation to attend the congregation at the mosque five times a day. Nowadays, our four-month old Salma helps the morning azan achieve its objective faster with her pre-dawn loud cries.

The mark of a successful Muslim community is how attractive its religion has become for the other communities.

In Malaysia, non-Muslims continue to have suspicions about Islam through no fault of theirs, but because Muslims themselves cannot differentiate between becoming a Malay and living as a true Muslim, as Raja Petra has rightly pointed out through his many writings.

Someone once observed that as the Muslim civilisation declines, mosques grow in number, size and beauty, so as to compensate for their decay. At the same time, the number who attend mosques decreases, even as the call to prayer can now reach every nook and corner. One may add, in the present context, that as Muslims lag behind in all spheres, their religious lectures tend to be louder than ever.

ABDAR RAHMAN KOYA, in his 30s, works at an Islamic publication firm in Petaling Jaya and is a correspondent to London-based Muslim political monthly Crescent International.


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