Changing cities amidst the pandemic brought a lot of changes in my life. One such change is the presence of a mosque within the society itself. Back in Delhi, where I lived, you won’t see any religious place as such within the societies or blocks themselves. Any sort of religious place is always facing the main road or absolutely separate from the blocks, at least in the area where my home is. But here, in this new society in a new city, I am not only finding a mosque in the society premises but even a gurdwara as well.
Javed Akhtar has spoken out against the use of loudspeakers for Azaan.
Well, it is the mosque that I am finding more fascinating as it is clearly visible from the building I am living in.
30 Days of Ramzan have passed by hearing the Azaan every day through the loudspeaker present inside the mosque. I don’t observe the holy month as such nor do I understand and speak Arabic, but something just feels right whenever I get to hear the Azaan. Well, the Muezzin still recites the Azaan five times every day and it is clearly audible even while I am in my bedroom. So, half of the time I even end up waking to the voice of the Muezzin, who starts the call to prayer known as Salah, five times a day.
Azaan is a call or a notice that marks the entry time of five-time prayer and reflected with certain sentences which have been established and existed since the era of the Prophet Muhammad. Azaan consists of Arabic-language phrases with the meaning of the greatness of Allah. The Arabic to English translation of Azaan roughly translates to
“God is the greatest (Allahu akbar)
I testify that there is no God but Allah (Ashhadu anna la ila ill Allah)
I testify that Mohammed is God’s Prophet (Ashhadu anna Muhammadan rasul Allah)
Come to prayer (Hayya alas salah)
Come to security/salvation (Hayya alal falah)
God is the greatest (Allahu akbar)
There is no God but Allah (La ilah ill Allah)”
The prayers which are recited 5 times a day are called Fajr, Dhuhr, Asr, Maghrib, and Isha, in the order from dawn to dusk.
While hearing the Azaan all this while brought me to a revelation that how peaceful and calming it actually sounds, it also made me search about what is up with calling the prayer on a loudspeaker and not otherwise.
Loudspeakers were invented in the early 20th century, and they were introduced in mosques in the 1930s, where they are used by a Muezzin for the Adhan. Interestingly, the first known installation of a microphone–loudspeaker set occurred in 1936 in the Masjid Sultan in Singapore.
“Science has come to Singapore,” declared The Straits Times, a newspaper based out of Singapore, in 1937, referring to the installation of a powerful sound system able to broadcast the Azaan from Masjid Sultan. “In future, it will be possible to address congregations of between 4,000 to 5,000 people with a good margin of power still in hand,” the report mentioned.
According to history, Prophet Muhammad never instituted the use of Loudspeakers for calling believers to assemble for the prayer. Instead, the Prophet decided on the human voice, and chose a manumitted Black slave, Bilal, for making the call. Before deciding upon this method, a discussion took place between the Prophet and his companions. The options discussed ranged from ringing a bell to raising a flag to blow a horn to even lighting a fire, but never the installation of a loudspeaker came in the talks.
In India, the use of loudspeakers for the call to prayer is surrounded by a lot of controversies. From Allahabad High Court to Javed Akhtar, from Shiv Sena to Sonu Nigam, a lot of people and entities have publicly voiced their discomfort on the use of loudspeakers over the past years.
Under the Indian legal system, the top courts have always held the opinion that while Azaan is definitely an integral and essential part of the Muslim religion, the use of microphones is not an integral part of it. The Courts, following Article 21 (Right to Life and Personal Liberty) of the Constitution, have always taken sleep as a fundamental right of Indian citizens and thus, according to them, “To disturb sleep, therefore, would amount to torture, which is now accepted as a violation of human right”. The Allahabad High Court holds that playing Azaan through sound-amplifying devices is not protected under Article 25 (Freedom of Religion) of the Constitution, and thus, doesn’t recognize any amplifying device as an integral part of the religion.
Honestly, when it comes to Hindu or Sikh processions, I have always heard much louder and seen much enormous religious celebrations than any of the Islamic traditional gatherings out here. Even the bhajan is clearly heard from the gurdwara, which is present in my society, to a good enough range which could be easily declared as a valid source of noise pollution. Interestingly, till now I haven’t heard or seen any resident creating a ruckus on either place of worship using loudspeakers or mics for their daily prayers.
Most places have also imposed partial bans on loudspeakers such as in the case of Karnataka. The Karnataka State Board of Auqaf has prohibited the use of loudspeakers between 10 pm and 6 am again for all mosques and dargahs from this year to prevent noise pollution in the state.
Recently, I was having a conversation with a Kashmiri-based photographer on Instagram. Amidst the pandemic, the Muslim majority Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir has been witnessing a low-key Ramadan since last year in fact. This year the territory’s major mosques were shut and people were advised to offer the prayers at their local mosques instead.
“Azaan zaroori hai” (Azaan is important), the Kashmiri photographer told me. “If the government bans loudspeakers for Azaan in Kashmir people will protest against the government.” he wrote. Although, residents in the UT will relent in protesting if the loudspeaker gets banned as it could evoke months of curfews and bans in the valley thereon due to the Public Safety Act,1978. There is also an ongoing debate on to what extent a loudspeaker or a mic should be used in the mosques as some Muezzins also read verses of the Quran on a loudspeaker. “How can Muslims be called for prayers without a speaker? Mere hisaab se Azaan ke liye speaker hona chahiye aur baaki jaise speeches ke liye ban.” (According to me, speakers at mosques should be banned except for reciting the Azaan.), the photographer from Kashmir insisted.
There is no universally accepted form of the recitation of the Azaan. There is in fact a divide between Sunni and Shias take on the very origin of Azaan itself. The Sunnis argue that the use of a human voice to call worshippers for prayer marks the distinctiveness of Islam. Shias believe that the Azaan had a divine presence as Allah commanded the Prophet to tell his companions the words, sequence, and mode of delivery of the Azaan.
Shias also challenge the authenticity of the Sunni Azaan. It is claimed that a few words, such as ‘Assalatu khayrum minan naum‘, meaning ‘Prayer is better than sleep’, recited only for the morning prayer, were added by the Second Caliph of Islam, Umar. Therefore, these words are not divine. Instead, the Shia Azan contains the phrase, ʾašhadu ʾanna ʿaliyyan walī Llāh, meaning ‘I testify that Ali is the Vicegerent of Allah’ to show the divinity of Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and the fourth Caliph of Islam.
Last year, during the onset of the pandemic, streets of Pakistan witnessed mosques from every stretch reciting the Azaan in synchronization with each other to ask for Allah’s mercy and forgiveness. Although there is no evidence of the practice in Prophet Muhammad’s time, Twitter at that time got flooded with some welcoming and positive reactions to the videos posted under the hashtag #Azaan. ‘The call of Azaan at this time from houses and mosques has given me goosebumps. This is a beautiful expression. May God accepts our prayers and gets us through this time.’, one Twitter user wrote.
This year’s Ramadan’s Jumu’ah- tul-Wida, the last Friday of the holy month, saw Azaan being publicly recited on a mic at the UK’s London Bridge in Southwark. The East London Mosque & London Muslim Centre along with a housing corporation Tower Hamlets Homes organized this virtual interfaith community Iftar which was broadcasted across London.
In India, such an event happening seems like a long-lost hope. With the Muslim community always at the brink of becoming a target and the rising Islamophobia in the country, a peaceful public recital of Azaan is a distant dream.
Interestingly, Singapore, as I mentioned earlier, tweaked its policies later on. In 1978, under the then government’s Community Noise Abatement program arranged for the Azaan to be broadcasted by Radio Singapore five times a day. Even the testing for different levels of sound amplification for the Azaan was done and it was decided that the acceptable sound level should be 60 dBA measured from a distance of 10 meters from the sound sources. Almost all mosques gave in and as a result, 61 sound attenuators were fixed, a device designed to reduce transmission of noise. Today, the Azaan remains — broadcasted quietly in the mosques, and on the radio for those who tune in.
While what most Indians, including the Courts, have to say on the recital of Azaan is clearly debatable, I have ended up finding solace in these beautiful recitals. In fact, now, half of the time, I am literally getting to know the time of the day upon hearing the Azaan and not through our usual means, that is a clock or a watch. I don’t know whether the residents here enjoy listening or waking up to the Azaan or not, I thoroughly find it peaceful and calming. It is, to sum up, very addicting.
Feature image is for representational purposes only.