Recording the Azhan


Through my experiences recording the azhan in different geographies I have noticed that, within cities and countries that are predominantly Muslim, I did not encounter much resistance to my recording practice. The people I spoke with did not seem uncomfortable with me recording the azhan and often did not seem bothered by my presence. In Abu Dhabi, for example, where surveillance cameras are present on every street corner and my daily experiences lead me to believe I should be discrete in recording in public places, I was infrequently approached or asked what I was doing. In stark contrast, when I recorded at a mosque in Bangalore, India, a country that has long struggled with a marginalized Muslim population, I could not get within 20 feet of the mosque without someone approaching me. While one could argue that this experience is more symptomatic of the specific countries I visited than a trend, other scholars have articulated similar experiences. Andrew Eisenberg shares a story of his experience as a young ethnographer recording khutba in Mombasa, Kenya, and writes about how community politics and historical oppression of the Swahili Muslim community lead to suspicion and concern about his actions. 


One Friday, early on in my research on Mombasa Old Town’s Islamic soundscape, I set out to make an audio recording of an amplified khutba from a window of the flat I had rented in the neighborhood. Though I was trying not to be conspicuous, neither was I attempting to hide what I was doing, naively confident in the knowledge that neither Kenyan law nor my professional ethics dictated that any permission was necessary to record a ‘public broadcast.’ (Eisenberg 2013: 200) 


Having found out later that his actions had caused suspicion within the community, Eisenberg considers “how [the] act of recording a public broadcast could be seen as threatening” (Eisenberg 2013: 200). He reveals the complexities and dynamics of the relationship between Mombasa Old Towne’s Islamic community and the dominant Christian class, who embody the authority of the Kenyan state. While the recording itself was not inherently problematic, the concern arising from his presence in the community and recording was that he was possibly a spy.


Having had varied experiences in each place where I have recorded, I have developed a particular practice of engaging with local communities in the areas where I record the azhan. Through reading and research into the religious landscape, I try to develop a sense of the local climate of the place. In my field recording practice, I travel much more lightly now than I used to, using more discrete all-in-one field recorders and earbud-style headphones, with the intention of being less conspicuous or threatening. I walk directly to each mosque where I intend to record, often without having my recording equipment out, and I try to find someone affiliated with the mosque who I can speak to about my intention of recording. I have not yet been turned away from a mosque or denied permission to record. 


I feel strengthened by the goals of the project and my intention to build awareness and break down barriers and assumptions about Islam and about Muslim communities. I feel that the ethical challenges of passing through and recording the sounds of communities I did not enter into deeply were outweighed by the work of disseminating the azhan in order to increase awareness of the beauty and nuance of this sacred sound. Though not traditional, this research aims to be in service of Muslim communities and is conducted with ethical consideration for the people, communities, and cultures that it explores.