The History of the Azhan



In almost every Islamic community today the loudspeaker, radio and television have become essential in the traditional call to prayer, a remarkable juxtaposition of high media technology and conservative religious practice. The loudspeaker simply extended the purpose of the minaret, that towering section of the mosque where the reciter traditionally stood to perform the call to prayer, his voice reaching the surrounding Islamic community. (Lee 1999)


The Islamic call to prayer is recited five times daily as a way of calling people to the mosque to pray. Depending on the individual interpretation, the prayer times can signify when one should pray, or the time between each call can serve as a window in which to pray. The five prayer times, dictated by the sun, span from before the sun rises to after the sun sets, and are different each day and varied based on geographic location. The five prayer times are known as Fajr, the early morning prayer (before sunrise); Dhuhr, the noontime prayer; Asr, the late afternoon prayer; Maghrib, the sunset prayer; and Isha, the late evening prayer. It is also important to note that prayer times will often include the timing of Shuruq, the rising of the sun.


Traditionally the call to prayer served as a “soundmark” that identified the boundary of a given Islamic community, essentially the area over which the muezzin’s voice could be heard. Whereas traditionally the muezzin, or reciter of the azhan, would recite the call from the top of the minaret outward into a community, in recent days the azhan is most commonly recited into a microphone from the prayer room and broadcast over loudspeakers affixed to the minarets of the mosque facing outward toward the community. The field recordings of these azhan become a sonic snapshot of the community the azhan is intended to reach.


However, in some communities there are no mosques to sound the azhan, or the mosques are not permitted to sound the azhan into the public sphere and therefore the soundscape of the place does not include the call to prayer. Instead, technological aids – including Islamic radio stations, azhan alarm clocks, and smartphone applications that display the call to prayer times for cities around the world – have become common tools used to help keep track of prayer times. In Sydney, Australia, for example, there are no mosques located in the central business district (CBD) where many people work, meaning there is also no audible azhan letting people know that it is prayer time. Instead there are a network of Musallahs, or stand-alone prayer rooms where worshippers can go and pray, including ablution facilities for the ritual washing before prayer. These Musallahs do not sound the azhan and are often located on the higher floors of a building or in back rooms of stores without clear signage, making them difficult to find. Worshippers seeking a place to pray during their lunch break or while visiting the CBD will often have an app that alerts them to the prayer times. They can visit their local Musallah, or if they don’t know where one is located, they can refer to the phone app, Go Pray, which uses a cell phone’s GPS to locate the nearest Musallah. 


In contrast, a city like Abu Dhabi has a mosque on every downtown corner, and each mosque sounds the azhan. Up until 2004 there were more than two hundred mosques in Abu Dhabi city following the traditional approach of live recitation, where each mosque had a muezzin who would recite the call into a microphone inside the mosque that would be amplified in real-time to the nearby community through speakers hanging on the mosque’s façade. However, in October 2004 the UAE’s General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (GAIAE) adopted a new system whereby the azhan was recited by one muezzin from the Sheikh Khalifa Mosque (this later moved to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque upon its opening in 2007), which was then broadcast to all other mosques in the city by way of Quran Kareem Radio, the 24-hour Islamic radio station. It is said that the change was made to mitigate differences in prayer times in one area and to ensure the accuracy of the call times (The National 2011). Through this policy change many local mosques lost the familiar voice of their communities’ muezzin, and hundreds of muezzins lost their roles, which were replaced by the unified azhan. 


In GAIAE’s April 2012 monthly newsletter, entitled Manar Al Islam – in English, the Monthly Islamic and Cultural Magazine – there was an article entitled “The Unified Azhan in Al Ain City.” Al Ain is a city within the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. The article explains the move toward a unified azhan by saying they were, “applying the unified azhan at each Emirate and city with the aim of getting rid of inappropriate accents and voices” (Manar Al Islam 2012). This explanation raises questions: what is an inappropriate accent and voice or, for that matter, what is an appropriate one? It is important here to note some background data on the demographic make-up of the United Arab Emirates, specifically the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. 


According to the World Bank, the population of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as of 2014 was 9.086 million. On December 2nd 1971, when the seven Trucial States – Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Um Al Quwain, Fujairah, and Ras Al Khaimah – were unified under the first president of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the total population count was 272,211. According to the UAE’s Federal Competitiveness and Statistics Authority Census data from 2005, the total population of the UAE in 2005 was 4,106,427, while the Emirati population of the UAE was only 825,495; the Emirati population thus comprised roughly 20% of the national population. In the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, the total population in 2005 was 1,399,484, while the population of Emirati nationals was 350,277, roughly 25%, with a non-Emirati expatriate contingent making up roughly 75% of the total population. It is important to note that of that 75% a large number of expatriates living in Abu Dhabi are Muslim, with the largest contingent being of migrant workers from South Asia who travel to the Emirates for work. 


Again, this begs the question, which inappropriate voices and accents are being removed through the process of unifying and broadcasting the azhan? The UAE’s English newspaper, The National, reported that as of 2014 only four percent of muezzins in the UAE were Emirati nationals. So what were the nationalities of the muezzins responsible for reciting the unified azhan? And did these muezzins have appropriate accents and, if so, what made them appropriate? While it is true that amplifying hundreds of different voices simultaneously while reciting the azhan or, as it often occurs, seconds apart from one another, creates a cacophonous soundscape of place, it would seem that the cacophonous soundscape becomes then a part of that place. By this I mean that the variety of voices and accents and the reflections of those voices from minaret tower to minaret tower across the city becomes a representative part of the sounds of the city, speaking to the diversity of the people who live in that place. Equally, the diverse voices of muezzins from different places in the world reciting the azhan is representative of the diversity of that place. The sonic complexity of the voices of hundreds of muezzins, five times daily, intermingles with the sounds of traffic, people living their lives, and buses whirling down the road. In a city as diverse as Abu Dhabi, this soundscape does include myriad accents, tones, and temporalities of voice and sound. 


Through the process of recording the azhan in many locations I have found that there are a number of characteristics that contribute to the diversity and variety in the sounds of the recitation of the azhan. These include the Qur’anic rules and style of recitation used by the muezzin, the musical pattern or maqam with which the muezzin recites the azhan, and the voice, vocal range, and nuances of the native language and culture of each muezzin. While the azhan is always recited in Arabic, each muezzin brings their own style to the pronunciation of the Arabic words as well as their own innate speech patterns and styles to the recitation. These stylistic differences contribute significantly to the variation in the field recordings of the azhan among different geographies, between different mosques in similar geographies, and to the soundscapes that are heard in these places.


Michael Sells, a scholar of Islamic history and literature, discusses the importance of the recitation of the azhan in Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations (2007). Sells tells us there are specific rules that guide muezzins around the world in the proper way to recite the call to prayer. Though the recitations of the azhan vary by country and individual muezzin, as is evident in the field recordings on the sound map, there are two basic styles of recitation that are followed by all: the tartīl and the tajwīd. The tartīl is an extremely powerful style, characterized by a steady chant that does not boast many melodic flourishings. The field recordings from the Jumaa azhan at the Masjid Al-Taqwa in Florence, Italy, and the Asr azhan at the mosque in Tighmarte Village, Morocco, are examples of the tartīl style. 

Recording of the Jumaa azhan at the Masjid Al-Taqwa in Florence, Italy

Recording of the Asr azhan at the mosque in Tighmarte Village, Morocco

While the tajwīd, or tajawwud, is a highly elaborate style boasting vocal extensions and flourishings, as can be heard in the field recordings from the Masjid As-Sunnah An-Nabawiyah in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, and the Niujie Mosque in Beijing, China (Sells 2007: 162).

Recording from Masjid As-Sunnah An-Nabawiyah in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Recording from from Niujie Mosque in Beijing, China

The rules of recitation for the Qur’an are known as tajwīd, the same name as one of the styles of recitation. Tajwīd “involves strict standards about when and how to make elisions between words, when and how to draw out certain vowel sounds or make certain sound effects with consonants” (Sells 2007: 162). The rules of Tajwīd that I discuss here describe a type of expression within Qur’anic recitation that is not easily expressed through traditional musical language. Sells explains this phenomenon in the following way: “The Qur’an shapes sounds into particularly powerful combinations with meaning and feeling to create an effect in which sound and meaning are intertwined” (Sells 2007: 164). 


In Arabic the word maqam means place or location and is also used to refer to a system of musical or melodic patterns. Habib Hasan Touma, a Palestinian composer and ethnomusicologist, tells us in his article “The Maqam Phenomenon: An Improvisation Technique in the Music of the Middle East” that the maqam is a style or set of guidelines for improvisation, and the development of a maqam is determined by the relationship between space or tonal qualities and time or temporal qualities (Touma 1971: 38-48). There are hundreds of maqamat represented across different musical cultures, and in the Mashriq region, which includes the United Arab Emirates, there are twelve musical modes that are most common (Rasmussen 2010: 74-124). The recitation of the azhan can draw upon any of these maqamat, and this – along with the rules of tajwid, the muezzins voice and cultural background, the quality of the loudspeaker, and improvisational decisions – accounts for the sonic variation we experience when listening to different azhans. 


Currently, the azhan that is broadcast to all mosques in Abu Dhabi city, via the 24-hour Islamic radio station Quran Kareem Radio, is recited by one of four rotating muezzins at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Their voices have become the unified sound of the azhan for the city of Abu Dhabi; however, the voices of these muezzin are not unitary or uniform. Their voices and ranges are different; their native languages are different; and their recitation styles and improvisational techniques during each recitation are different. The first appointments for the position of muezzin, initially at the Sheikh Khalifa Mosque and now at the Grand Mosque, were given to the winners of a competition held for all muezzin after the unification policy was announced in 2004 (The National 2011). Two of the appointed muezzins included Saeed Al Bathimi from Cairo, Egypt, and Mohammed El Yass from Eastern Pakistan. The two men bring to their role as Muezzin of the unified azhan their own recitation styles as influenced by their home country and native language, their local mosque community, their vocal strengths and limitations, and their personal preferences.