Why do Muslims recite the Azan?    

There is a general consensus among Muslim sects that the recitation of the Azan — with or without loudspeaker — should create a soothing effect. People who hear only noise pollution should heed these discussions.

WrittenBy:Hilal Ahmed
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The controversy over the Azan began in April 2017 when singer Sonu Nigam posted a series of tweets. He argued:

“God bless everyone. I’m not a Muslim and I have to be woken up by the Azaan in the morning. When will this forced religiousness end in India…. And by the way, Mohammed did not have electricity when he made (sic) Islam. Why do I have to have this cacophony after Edison? I don’t believe in any temple or gurudwara (sic) using electricity… To wake up people who don’t follow the religion. Why then..? Honest? True? Gundagardi hai bus.”

These provocative tweets, as expected, encouraged the celebrities — mainly from the Hindi film industry — to manufacture a superficial debate on noise pollution. A section of celebrities supported Sonu Nigam for his courage and even on his nationalism, while a few opposed Nigam in the name of ‘secularism’ and freedom of religion.

Since the purpose of the debate was primarily to secure a media space by both sides, no one bothered to address the most fundamental issue that emerged out of this controversy.

What is the relevance of the Azan — is it recited only to call Muslim worshippers for prayers or is it intended to address a wider public — including people like Sonu Nigam?

These distinctive questions open up another set of inquiry: Is there only one form of the Azan in Indian Islam that is recited five times a day from mosques? What is the status of the loudspeaker in contemporary Islamic religiosity? Is the loudspeaker sacred?  Do Islamic scholars consider the effect of the loud noise of the Azan?

What is the Azan?

The Azan (Adhan in Arabic) is an Islamic call delivered by a muezzin (the person who recites the Azan) from the mosque five times a day. The purpose of the Azan is to invite Muslims for obligatory (farz) prayers, the salat (or what is also called namaz in north India).

There is no universally acceptable form of the recitation of the Azan. In fact, there is a debate between Sunnis and Shias on the very origin of the idea of the Azan itself. The Sunni sects argue that the Azan — using the human voice to call worshippers for prayer — marks the distinctiveness of Islam. There is a Hadith in which an interesting episode is narrated:

“Narrated Ibn ‘Umar: When the Muslims arrived at Medina, they used to assemble for the prayer, and used to guess the time for it. During those days, the practice of Adhan for the prayers had not been introduced yet. Once they discussed this problem regarding the call for prayer. Some people suggested the use of a bell like the Christians, others proposed a trumpet like the horn used by the Jews, but ‘Umar was the first to suggest that a man should call (the people) for the prayer; so Allah’s Apostle ordered Bilal to get up and pronounce the Adhan for prayers” (Bukhari, 578)

Shia scholars, however, do not subscribe to Sunni arguments. They suggest that the Azan had a divine presence as Allah commanded the Prophet to tell his companions the words, sequence and mode of delivery of the Azan.

Shia schools also challenge the authenticity of the Sunni Azan. It is claimed that a few words, such as Prayer is better than sleep (recited only for the Fajr prayer) were added by the Second Caliph of Islam, Umar. Therefore, these words are not divine. Similarly, in order to show the divinity of Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and the fourth Caliph of Islam, the Shia Azan contains the phrase, ʾašhadu ʾanna ʿaliyyan walī Llāh (I testify that Ali is the Vicegerent of Allah).

It does not mean that the Sunni-Shia difference is the only unsettled issue with regard to the Azan in Islam. There are a variety of Azans among Sunnis as well.

For instance, the Azan is recited very differently in North Indian Barelvi mosques. It begins with the durud (an Arabic dua dedicated to the Prophet), followed by the usual phrases of the Sunni Azan and culminates with a na’t (a poem usually composed in Urdu to praise the Prophet), especially on the occasion of the weekly Friday prayer.

However, this is not an acceptable practice in the Deobandi or the Ahl-i Hadis mosques where durud or na’t is not recited before or after the Azan. (The na’ts recitation programmes are often organised separately in these mosques.)

Loud and clear   

The use of the loudspeaker in mosques for the Azan is a 20th century phenomenon in South Asia. The assumption that the loudspeaker was an acceptable modern machine, which gradually became an instrument to recite Azan, is entirely incorrect.

Although we do not have any study that could provide a systematic account of mosque loudspeakers, the fatwas issued for and against the use of machines for Islamic prayers has a long and interesting history in colonial and post-colonial India.

It is believed that the loudspeakers were first introduced in mosques in the 1920s. These machines were used for two purposes in this phase — the recitation of the five-time Azan and the diffusion of the Imam’s voice for a large congregation so that the worshippers might follow him directly, especially on the occasion of Friday prayers and annual Eid prayers.

The Azan, in this sense, was not a serious issue as using an efficient mode to call on the worshippers is religiously justifiable. However, the use of a machine for disseminating instructions during namaz was a complex question.

It is expected for a worshipper to believe that namaz is a particular moment when one is supposed to be in conversation with Allah directly. In this schema, the Imam’s voice simply functions an instrument to provide instructions for changing positions and postures during the congressional namaz.

For this specific reason, Islamic scholars were not sympathetic to the loudspeaker. This device was considered an innovation — a new-fangled thing of some kind, which might distract the congregation during namaz. In fact, a specific question was asked — what is the status of the voice/sound that comes from the loudspeaker?

Calling the faithful—politely!

Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanwi, one of the leading Deobandi ulema, offered a way out to it. He argued that the use of the loudspeaker is permissible as it does not affect the sound/voice. In his opinion, the loudspeaker actually helps in spreading the voice of the Imam (in case of namaz) and muezzin (in case of the Azan) to the public, hence it does not distract the congregation at all. Thanwi’s fatwa paved the way for similar kind of arguments in favour of the public address system.

Despite this religious sanctioning, the debate on the loudspeaker for the Azan does not die down. In fact, it led to a new set of questions: what to do when the Azan is delivered from two or more mosques at the same time? What are religiously permissible etiquette, protocols and manners to recite the Azan on the loudspeaker? How to respond to a situation when the loud sound of the Azan is opposed by non-Muslims?

These issues have been settled on a case-to-case basis. Different Islamic sects have responded to them in a variety of ways in post-colonial India. Despite this multiplicity, there is a consensus that the recitation of the Azan — with or without loudspeaker — should create a soothing effect. The debate on noise pollution, therefore, should pay attention to these internal Islamic discussions.

After all, this is not what Sonu Nigam calls Gundagardi!

Sunni Azan

Transliteration of the Arabic textTranslation
Allāhu ʾakbarAllah is the greatest.
ʾašhadu ʾan lā ʾilāha ʾillā LlāhI acknowledge that there is no god but Allah.
ʾašhadu ʾanna Muḥammadan rasūlu LlāhI acknowledge that Mohammad is the Messenger of Allah.
Ḥayya ʿalā ṣ-ṣalāhCome for prayer (salat).
Ḥayya ʿalā l-falāḥCome for success.
Aṣ-ṣalātu ḫayrun min an-nawmPrayer is better than sleep (Recited only for the Fajr (morning prayer )
Allāhu ʾakbarAllah is greatest.
Lā ʾilāha ʾillā LlāhThere is no god but Allah.

Shia Azan

Transliteration of the Arabic textTranslation
Allāhu ʾakbarAllah is greatest.
ʾašhadu ʾan lā ʾilāha ʾillā LlāhI acknowledge that there is no god but Allah.
ʾašhadu ʾanna Muḥammadun rasūlu LlāhI acknowledge that Mohammad is the Messenger of Allah.
ʾašhadu ʾanna ʿaliyyan walī LlāhI testify that Ali is the Vicegerent (wali) of God.
Ḥayya ʿalā ṣ-ṣalāhCome for prayer (Salah).
Ḥayya ʿalā l-falāḥCome for success.
Ḥayya ʿalā ḫayrun al-ʿamalHasten to (perform) the best of acts
Allāhu ʾakbarAllah is the greatest.
Lā ʾilāha ʾillā LlāhThere is no god but Allah.


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