Beyond the Azhan: Abu Dhabi’s Cacophonous Soundscape

Diana Chester

Mosque Ali Bin Ghanim Bin Hamouda, Madinat Zayed Megablock, Abu Dhabi, UAE




When we listen to an ambiance, we hear an ambiance being made; we hear the process of formation and transformation itself. Indeed, an ambiance is not only to be felt but also to be produced. When we try to understand the way an atmosphere is generated, we have to consider the interaction between the built environment and the social practices it enables and relies on. In other words, an ambiance cannot be reduced to mere sensory qualities resulting uniquely from the architecture or spatial design of a place. We also have to take into account the everyday activities of city dwellers: people walking on the streets, talking to each other, driving cars, building a new house, mowing their lawns, etc. All those activities are audible and are components of an ambiance. (Thibaud 2011)


The continuation of sounds over extended periods of time becomes a type of marker of the evolution, or at least the passing of time, in a society. The sounds of a tractor plowing the fields every autumn becomes a sonic symbol of the turning of the season, the end and soon to be beginning of the new agricultural cycle, marking a moment in the year that will repeat itself again next year. One of the most prominent examples of a sonic marker of time is the Islamic call to prayer, also known as the adhan, azhan, or athan. The call to prayer serves as a sonic marker of the passing of time in a ritualized way on a daily basis. The azhan becomes an important symbol of the unfolding of time throughout the day.


In this paper I will look at the urban ambiance of the city of Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, through a discussion of field recordings I have made of the call to prayer in the city, and a sound map I have constructed, the Sound Map of the Islamic Call to Prayer, to hold these and many other recordings of the azhan from mosques around the world. 

I will use the sound map as an example of a field recording practice and the case study of recording the azhan in Abu Dhabi city as a way to seed a discussion on the complexity and nuance of the sounds captured through field recordings. I will make the argument that through field recordings of a specific sound or place we begin to understand a more complex snapshot of that place and that the data collected through these field recordings does something important and distinctly different from data collected through other means. In this paper I will also provide a basic overview of the Islamic Call to Prayer, what it is, what it means, and why it is used.

My exploration into creating field recordings of the Islamic Call to Prayer comes from an interest in my father’s family heritage. My father is Lipka, or Lithuanian Tatar, a group of Eastern European Muslims whose roots can be traced back to present-day Belarus, Poland, and Lithuania. My great-grandfather immigrated to Brooklyn, New York, at the beginning of the 20th century with a wave of other Lipka Tatars from Eastern Europe, and in 1907 they founded The American Mohammeden Society (AMS), now known as the Muslim Mosque Inc., the oldest mosque in New York. I was not raised in the mosque or as a Muslim but have a drive to understand more about my heritage and the way Islam exists and is practiced both within my father’s community in Brooklyn and around the world. 


In 2010 I moved from New York City to the city of Abu Dhabi, where I lived for six years while working on the opening of a new University. During this time I began a field recording project of the Islamic Call to Prayer. The field recordings I collected in Abu Dhabi and my experiences conducting this field research heavily inform this paper. As an outsider to many of the communities in which I have recorded, and as someone with a familial heritage in Islam, I am always aware of my outsider-insider orientation, both to my father’s community as well as to those communities among whom I live and conduct my research. I specifically use the outsider-insider label as it depicts the experience I have of existing outside of the communities where I make these recordings while also acknowledging that culturally I have a connection to the religion. I am often asked if I am Muslim and my response is always, “no, but my father was raised Muslim.” From an ethical perspective, I foreground this outsider-insider orientation in my thinking about my field recording practice, including where I record, how I move within the communities where I live and work, and my access to these communities. From a personal perspective, the label has become a part of how I think about myself in this work, and it provides me with a space where I can be both an interested researcher as well as a person who wants to better understand her family heritage.