When you live in a Muslim country, one of the sounds that becomes most familiar is the Islamic call to prayer, the azaan, which echoes five times a day from mosque loudspeakers. When you travel to a country that doesn’t have this unique sound, you miss it.
It’s a comforting sound, announcing the time of the congregation that gathers in the mosque to pray. Every Pakistani child has the memory of being told by their mother or father, “Chalo, beta, azaan aa rahi hai, namaz paro.” (Come on, child, the azaan is coming, say your prayers) It marks the progression of the day, dawn to noon to afternoon to sunset to night.
The first namaz was given by the Prophet Bilal, may Allah be pleased with him. According to the Web site Blackpast, “Bilal ibn Rabah al-Habashi was a loyal Sahabah (companion) to the Prophet Muhammad and thus one of the earliest converts in the newly-emerging religion of Islam. He was also the first mu’azzin (prayer caller) in the Muslim faith. Rabah is the first person of known African ancestry to become a Muslim.”
Here is a scene from the movie “The Message” which depicts the Prophet Muhammed requesting Bilal to give the call to prayer. It’s probably one of the most emotional scenes in the film. This 1976 movie, too, is a classic — it stars Anthony Quinn as the Prophet’s uncle Hamza, a legendary figure in Islam. It was filmed in a very innovative way, that you never see the Prophet, but you can see his companions addressing him.
Almost every Muslim child growing up in an English-speaking milieu has seen this movie as an essential part of their Islamic education… This scene always makes me teary-eyed (in the original film, you hear Bilal saying the words of the azaan in English, but they’ve dubbed it with the Arabic).
There’s no way you can grow up as a Muslim in a Muslim country and not know the words to the azaan:
Allah is Most Great. Allah is Most Great. Allah is Most Great. Allah is Most Great.
I testify that there is no god except Allah. I testify that there is no god except Allah.
I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah. I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.
Come to prayer. Come to prayer. Come to success. Come to success.
Allah is Most Great. Allah is Most Great.
There is no god except Allah.
These words are said millions of times a day in every corner of the world. It is the first thing whispered in the ear of a newborn Muslim child, marking the beginning of that child’s story as a Muslim in this world.
The Azaan itself is the story of Islam, from start to finish. Everything you need to know about Islam, and everything you need to do as a Muslim, is embedded in these words, from the declaration of God’s supremacy, to his position as the only deity, to the status of Muhammad as his messenger. And there is a very powerful act contained in the azaan: that you testify to these facts. Testifying, or witnessing, is one of the most basic requirements of a Muslim, and the repetition of this witnessing through these words reinforces this like muscle memory. Then there are the instructions to worship God, and the teaching that through that worship you attain success in this world and the Hereafter.
The lovely thing about the azaan is that because it is only ever called by a human voice, and because every human is a unique individual, every azaan in the world is unique as well as the same. There are different ways to say it, different intonations, different melodies, differences in timing and tone of voice.
Every azaan, from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia, to Bosnia, to the United States, to India, to Turkey, to China, to Indonesia, is a timeless repetition of the same words (in the dawn prayer, an additional line goes “Prayer is better than sleep). And yet each and every human being who recites the azaan and each and every human being who hears it brings their own story of striving and struggling, of pain and heartbreak and disappointment, and lays it at Allah’s feet. And in doing so, derives comfort and hope from the idea that Allah will bring them relief.
If you listen to the azaan as an aural experience, it is extremely musical, even though it’s not a song nor meant to be sung. It is neither in a major nor a minor key, but it has a pattern that is familiar to anyone who knows music theory: that a musical composition uses chord progression to move between tones in order to bring a sense of completion to the listener.
The azaan doesn’t move between chords — it stays on the same note, with variations of tone up and down from the tonic — but the combination of the words, the recitation, and the melody of the human voice gives the exact same feeling of progression, from the start of the call to the end. There is an opening, a middle, and an end. It feels as though you get on a ship, sail across a river, and reach the bank at the other side when you listen to it.
You truly feel as though you’ve taken a journey when you hear the azaan. You feel as though you’ve heard a story, the story of humanity’s relationship to God, the purpose of our existence, and our momentary existence versus the eternal nature of the creator. You hear this azaan when you are born, it is imprinted on your cells; you hear it all throughout your life, and it will be recited when you die, at your funeral prayer. And yet God will go on, even when you have stopped breathing.