The Voice that Calls to Prayer
If we are to understand the Adhaan through Cavarero’s idea of a horizon of relationality, we need to make a link between the significance of its voice to a significance of the voice in Islam in general. The history of Islam can be said to have begun when the Prophet Muhammad started receiving revelations from God through the Angel Gabriel, in a manner that “came as auditory rather than visionary experiences” (Graham 1977: 27). These divine auditory experiences continued over the course of twenty-two years, with the complete set of revelations comprising The Qur’an, the holy scripture of Islam, on which the entire religion is based. Although in the modern era it is commonly known as Islam’s Holy Book, a literary view of The Qur’an overlooks its ontological nature as a series of separate revelatory recitations, communicated through a series of separate events that were eventually compiled into a single book form. Crucially, an acknowledgement of the revelatory nature of the Qur'an serves to highlight the centrality of the voice in Islam, as the Divine revelations were revealed by way of the voice, and it is through the voice that it was communicated to others. As with other oral traditions, especially those based on sacred utterances, the voice in Islam structures and sustains the belief system.
Although the Adhaan itself does not carry the status of Divine in the same specific way that the Qur’anic words do, its form and function is also believed to be divine in origin. In Islamic tradition, it is narrated that two close companions to the Prophet were taught the words to the Adhaan in a dream. When one of the companions described the dream to the Prophet, where a man taught him the words to the Adhaan and advised him to use these words to call the pious to prayer, the Prophet confirmed it was an angel who appeared in his dream and accepted the words of the Adhaan. In this way, the Adhaan is considered sacred, its form and function revealed by a divine angel. As an acoustic signal calling for a pious response, its original form and function has not weakened since the time of the Prophet in the Seventh Century. In fact, it has actually strengthened over time through the aid of technology. In the modern era the Adhaan is typically amplified with the use of loudspeakers, whereas before the advent of technology, the Mu’adhin needed to project his voice from atop the minaret. In this way, sound amplification technology “extended the purpose of the minaret” (Lee 1995: 86) by extending the reach of the voice of the Adhaan, enlarging the surface area of its coverage into territory which would not have previously been possible. While technology and amplification is pertinent to the discussion of the presence of the Adhaan as it is felt in the modern urban soundscape, it suffices to acknowledge here that, as technology amplifies the voice of the Adhaan, it amplifies the sentiments of its referential meanings along with it.
The Adhaan is not the only sonic object in the history of religion that has been sounded. Before the arrival of Islam to Europe and the West, the soundscape of those parts of the world would have been resonating with a different religious sound: the church bell. Given the role that the sound of the church bell played in Christian communities, it is conducive to briefly discuss it here. The bell can be regarded as carrying a voice in its sonorities, one that informed and guided any community within its range of sonority. For some, the bell does have a voice, albeit one that does not communicate in words. In his book The Soundscape, Schafer often referred to historical works of literature to get a better sense of the environmental sounds of the past, and in one such an instance he introduced a passage from Emily Carr’s journal, Hundreds and Thousands, where she described the sound of the bell through its voice:
The whole air seemed alive. It was as if the tongues of those great cold, hard metal things had become flesh and joy. They burst into being screaming with delight and the city vibrated. Some wordless thing they said touched something so deep inside you that they made tears come. Some of them were given in memory of dead people. That's a splendid living memorial, live voices speaking for the dead. If someone were to die and you were permitted either to see or hear them, I think it would be best to hear their voice. (Schafer 1994: 175)
In line with such analogies of “the bell that bears a voice,” Cavarero’s ideas could conceivably be applicable to the voice of the bell when it sounds with a communal function. Although it may go without saying that the materiality of the voice of the human is distinct from that of the bell, it is worth mentioning that at the peaks of its use, the voice of the bell performed more duties than merely sounding off the time for worship. While the church bells were a symbol of worship for Christians, it also served a larger communal function; its sound served as an “auditory marker” that demarcated a “territorial identity” for those living within its range of sonority (Corbin 2016: 187). According to Alain Corbin, the sound of the church bell had an emotional impact on its listeners, one which reinforced feelings of community, mutual alliance and belonging in what was the nineteenth-century French countryside. The sound of the bell structured the daily life of its listeners, regulating the rhythms of village life while also shaping the habits and attitudes of its community, reinforcing what Corbin refers to as a “culture of senses” (Corbin 2016: 188). Church bells often sounded as part of ceremonial occasions and festivals, serving as a soundmark that “accompanied momentous rites of passage, such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals, and they celebrated civic occasions such as coronations, royal visits, or national holidays” (Weiner 2014: 21). Additionally, church bells also rang out a signal of safety and protection, as they “reinforced divisions between an inside and an outside” (Corbin 2016: 188), demarcating the physical boundaries of the community while preserving it from external threats. The church bell, in this way, was more than just a call to prayer for the community; it was a sound that called the villagers to community itself, a sound that was entrusted with the “preservation of the community” as a whole (Corbin 2016: 188). The sound of the bell can also be considered as a sound demarcating the spiritual boundaries of the Christian, “designed both to frighten away evil spirits and also to attract the ear of God and the attention of the faithful” (Schafer 1994: 174). Taking this into account, we can see that the function of the voice of the church bell is not singular like the voice of the Adhaan. While it functioned as a signal for communal prayer, the church bell also presided over a greater set of responsibilities for the Christian community who were listening out for it. Through all its interactions, the bell also opens up a horizon of relationality with its voice, one that structured and punctuated the life of its community.
If we were to understand the voice of the bell through its horizon of relationality, we would find that, while the voice of the bell is sacred, it also carried with it additional communal meanings, enabling it to play an even larger role in the “acoustic community” of Christians. Due to the multitude of its referential meanings, the voice of the bell would have needed some specificity, without which its voice could potentially be defined to mean anything or nothing at all. Perhaps it is because of this “need of specificity” that the bell can serve as the multifarious sound that adapts to the entirety of a community’s evolving culture of senses. Moreover, it follows that, for this reason, the bell can be heard to carry the sacred significance of other religious traditions. Crucially, the ambiguity of its voice, which lies in its inability to produce verbal speech, makes its referent meanings vulnerable to distortion or degradation, as Schafer noted:
While the contemporary church bell may remain important as a community signal or even a soundmark, its precise association with Christian symbolism has diminished or ceased; and it has accordingly experienced a weakening of its original purpose. (Schafer 1994: 175)
With this, we can appreciate that the voice of the bell played an important role in the life of the Christian in a similar way that the human voice functioned in the life of the Muslim. As a communal sound, both voices rely on the strength of their relationality, and their communal function is dependent on that strength as well. Needless to say, the uniqueness that is embodied in their respective voices is exceptionally divergent, the difference lying in the material bodies that are revealed and communicated through their sonorous emissions. Following Cavarero’s ideas regarding voice, when the voice of the bell resonates, what is heard before the message it conveys is the embodied uniqueness of its emitter, that is, the metal physique of its bell body. To ears that are not conditioned to the specific codes of its chime, the church bells resound as an empty, albeit melodious, sound. When the religious signal is divorced from its voice, all that is revealed through it is the body of its emitter in the form of chiming bells. With the voice of the Mu’adhin, as he calls for prayer with the Adhaan, what is heard is the embodied uniqueness of his human existence. To ears that are not conditioned to the codes of its language, the Adhaan resounds as an empty, albeit melismatic, vocal sound. Thus, even with the religious significations divorced from its vocalizations, they still actively reveal and communicate the body whose voice is heard. To the listener, it announces itself as present and reveals the uniqueness of itself and its beliefs, its politics. The voice of the bell fosters a similar relationality, yet revealing merely fleshless metal in its embodiment, a material that can be inscribed with multifarious interpretations. Furthermore, as Schafer has already brought to our attention, the voice of the bell became disassociated from its original intent over the course of history. As the original purpose of the bell and its precise association with Christian symbolism diminished over the years, listeners are left with but chiming bells. As the historian H.C. Colles once wrote, “the bells are democratic; they are for all” (Colles 1915: 530). The Adhaan and the Mu’adhin’s voice that transmits it, on the other hand, resist disassociation: as a sound, it has persisted for over 1400 years specifically for Muslims, and its voice ensures that it will persist in its specificity.
A Call to Politics
Taking into account the status of Islam in the West, it is not hard to imagine the complexities that follow when the voice of the Adhaan communicates the presence of Islam. As Cavarero has already brought to our attention, the relationality of the voice is founded on the contextual relations of its emitters as much as it is founded on the materiality of its voice. Hence, to get a better understanding of the relationality that the Adhaan fosters, it is necessary to consider the voice of the Mu’adhin in the socio-political context of the space that it is broadcasted into. Referring back to the controversy at Duke University, the hostility could be regarded as foreseeable considering the political landscape of The United States of America, where the values of Islam are predominantly perceived to be conflicting with American values. In line with Cavarero, the Adhaan is already politicized by virtue of its emission in such an environment because “by speaking to one another in a relational space and communicating themselves, men at the same time communicate the political nature of the space” (Cavarero 2005: 192). On top of that, as the Adhaan actively communicates its uniqueness to the uniqueness of others, it elevates the status of its voice to political, because political action essentially coincides with “the communication of oneself through words and deeds that distinguish themselves actively, and therefore, politically from each other” (Cavarero 2005: 189). Thus, whenever the Adhaan calls Muslims to prayer, it calls others to politics. The horizon of relationality that it opens up is bleak and threatening, and as the Adhaan sounds in the soundscape, its voice actively communicates this anxiety. An anxiety was also communicated to the residents of Hamtramck, Michigan, where the planned broadcasting of the Adhaan met with a similarly heated response from its local community. In his book Religion Out Loud, Isaac Weiner (2014) discussed the events surrounding the controversy, identifying three distinct rhetorical positions that were taken up during the debates: the Exclusivist, Privatist and Pluralist positions. This paper will only briefly introduce these positions, as my primary interest here is not in the politics of the Adhaan but in how its voice resounds its politics.
The Exclusivists explicitly argued that the problem in Hamtramck was not noise, but Islam. Their objection to this particular public sound was inextricably linked to their animosity toward those who produced it. As they interpreted its call, the Adhaan offered a regular reminder of the problem posed by the growing presence of Muslims in the United States. The Privatists maintained that in a pluralistic society, religious differences were best kept quiet. When they advocated for the secularity of public spaces, they meant that city streets should be kept devoid of particularistic religious expression. The Pluralists, on the other hand, imagine the public realm as a site for engaging with, and perhaps, even celebrating, religious differences, not as a space in which potentially diverse differences must be muted or diminished. (Weiner 2014: 171-186)
Although this is too brief an introduction of these ideas to offer a real sense of the positions they encompass, I would like to highlight here how the Mu’adhin’s voice amplifies the political concern from the perspective of these positions. This is evidenced by the Exclusivist and Privatist positions, as the voice of the Adhaan necessarily reveals and communicates the uniqueness of Islam in precisely such a way that announces its religious distinction and amplifies it. The Pluralists advocate the contrary, that “living in a diverse secular society necessarily entail[s] engaging with differences, or, at the very least, putting up with the sounds of others” (Weiner 2014: 186). However, as a result, they risked fundamentally transforming the Adhaan’s original form by advocating that the Adhaan should be interpreted for the sake of pluralism; the Adhaan could be, as Colles puts it, democratic and for all. With the Duke Chapel controversy, this meant substituting its melismatic Arabic voice with a spoken word English voice and curtailing its amplification. Thus, what is at stake in these controversies is the voice that calls to prayer along with the sentiments of its relationality with the Muslim community. Considering the horizon of relationality that its voice opens up, this can be considered a reasonable decision. Moreover, because of the multiplicity of the Adhaan’s effects, the sense ascribed to its resonance becomes altered depending on the values and the nature of the spaces in which its voice calls for. When it is broadcasted onto a politicized space, the voice of the Adhaan, for all the goodness that it beckons, will carry with it the body of Islam in a horizon of relationality that sits somewhere between the political and the sacred. Crucially, as long as Islam symbolizes and represents a threat to such spaces and its inhabitants, the Adhaan will be political, and the voice that announces it will persist in amplifying such sentiments in its sonorous emissions.
This paper has sought to understand what is at stake with the voice of the Adhaan as it resounds in the soundscape to call Muslims to prayer. With the aid of Adriana Cavarero’s understanding of the voice, we have seen that what is at stake with the Adhaan is the horizon of relationality that its particular voice opens up; by altering it, the horizon of relationality itself is altered. This works to highlight crucial issues in the managing of relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims in Western societies and non-Islamic countries, because in such places the voice of the Adhaan resonates as political speech. As we have seen, the voice of the Adhaan communicates a politics even before it announces the signal for worship, and in the global political climate of our time, this can sometimes complicate the communal harmony of such places. On the other hand, what can Cavarero’s theory tell us about silencing the Adhaan and its politics? If altering the voice alters the horizon of relationality, would removing the voice close the horizon off from the possibility of communicating a relationality? Would silencing the voice of the Mu’adhin in the soundscape be akin to muting the voices of Muslims in the landscape? Removing or substituting its voice, however, are the material solutions to the issues with the Adhaan’s horizon of relationality. Another solution might be found in redefining the contextual relations of Muslims in places where the Adhaan causes controversy, but the responsibility for doing so would fall on the shoulders of the Muslims and non-Muslims. As the voice implies a relation, just like any relationship, there needs to be a two-way effort based on mutual respect before the relationship becomes substantial. For the voice of the Adhaan, a change in the contextual relations could be a prerequisite for its sounding, because – due to its innate nature and that of the space that it is projected into – continual recontextualization and redefinition of its meaning and resonance will occur regardless of its intent. In such a space, whenever the Adhaan is heard in its melismatic, Arabic voice, it will continue to resonate as something other than a Call to Prayer.