Is using the loudspeaker to recite Azan in a mosque a political issue?
To answer this question one has to examine the ways in which the Public Address Systems (PAS) of mosques are used. In most of the Sunni mosques, PAS are installed primarily for the recitation of Azan five times a day. Besides, the PAS is also used to make a few very highly localised announcements such as the death of someone in the concerned locality or information regarding missing children.
In relatively big mosques where Juma prayers are held, PAS is also used for disseminating the Friday Khutba (sermon) and instructions of the Imam for the congregational namaz. The Khutba that is delivered in Arabic is often preceded by a religious speech or bayan.
After the rise of the Tablighi Jamaat in the post-1980s, the bayan has become an important component of Sunni Deobandi religiosity especially in North India, which is disseminated through PAS quite regularly. The Barelvi mosques are no exception in this regard where bayan of different kinds are organised on Fridays.
The distinction between bayan and political speech on Fridays is very crucial. It is important to mention that PAS of the mosque was used quite extensively by political leaders during the independence movement for delivering political speeches. Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Shraddhananand addressed people from historic mosques such as the Jama Masjid and the Fatehpuri Masjid in Delhi. Maulana Azad delivered a powerful speech from Jama Masjid immediately after Partition to call upon Indian Muslims to contribute to the nation-building process.
Loudspeaker of mosque as a political tool
In post-colonial India, this practice took a new form. The state machinery started using the PAS of mosques for spreading its official message to the Muslims. Muslim ministers, MPs and even Muslim Presidents spoke to Muslims particularly after important congregational prayers like the Eid prayers.
However, it was the Imam of Jama Masjid, Syed Abdullah Bukhari, who transformed the PAS of Jama Masjid into a political object. The Imam recognised the PAS as an instrument to shape public opinion in a favourable fashion in the post-1975 period.
Bukhari’s insistence on the use of PAS, even some times without electric supply, was a conscious decision. In fact, his Friday speeches virtually transformed the PAS of Jama Masjid into a kind of ‘mass media’ during the time of the Ram Temple-Babri debates in mid-1980s.
Closure of Jama Masjid, 1987. Photo Source: HA Collection, 2005
No Azan, No Namaz in Jama Masjid: 1987
In fact, in 1987 Abdullah Bukhari, quite unexpectedly, decided to close Jama Masjid from June 4, 1987. Except for the staff and the members of the Jama Masjid Management Committee, no one was allowed to enter the mosque for regular prayers. A huge black fabric cover was wrapped around the minarets and domes of the mosque in order to show the resentment of Muslims against the government.
Jama Masjid, Delhi 1987. Photo Source: HA Collection 2005
The closure of a functional Muslim mosque as an expression of political resentment was a highly controversial decision. A number of fatwas were issued against this move. The famous Muslim madrasa Darul Uloom, Deoband, which had been known for its pro-Congress stance, also issued a fatwa and declared that the closure of the mosque was an un-Islamic act. The Imam openly refuted this charge. He criticised these fatwas as Sarkari Fatwas and alleged that the government was involved in an anti-Muslim conspiracy. The supporters of the Imam also started a poster war against such fatwas. Some pro-Imam fatwas were also obtained and were posted around the walls of Jama Masjid.
The government did not respond immediately. It took nearly two weeks to accept the demands of the Imam. On June 13, 1987, the government assured Bukhari that a departmental inquiry would be initiated against the guilty police officers. Those innocent Muslims who were arrested during the riots would be released soon on bail. On the same evening, Jama Masjid was opened to the common people.
Jama Masjid, Delhi 1987. Photo Source: HA Collection 2005
Birth of a media-friendly radical Islam
The closure of Jama Masjid also had a media value. The Imam, who had already established his reputation as a radical Muslim leader, used this opportunity to capture media attention. In the 1980s, national television (Doordarshan) and radio (Akashvani) were completely under the direct control of the State. People like the Imam were almost non-entities for electronic media.
However, print media, especially the English newspapers, were interested in some kind of ‘exploratory journalism’. The rise of rightist Hindutva politics was already occupying a central stage in these newspapers. The media was desperately looking for a Muslim face who could be juxtaposed with radical Hindutva politics, to reproduce the standard secularism/communalism binary.
The Imam’s moves — establishing the Adam Sena on the lines of the Shiv Sena, making provocative speeches on Fridays and finally closing the mosque in 1987 — simply contributed to his established media image.
Imam against Azan
The Imam’s decision to discontinue the use of the PAS to make Azans is very instructive. Azan is not merely a medium to make a call to worshippers; it has a religious value of its own. In South Asian Islamic cultures, Azan is considered to be the voice of the house of Allah: it marks the life of a mosque. The Imam’s move, on the other hand, disconnected the Azan from the everyday sensibilities of the local community.
This representation of the Jama Masjid – a living mosque without an Azan – helped the Imam to create a melancholic atmosphere. The covering of domes and minarets with black fabric affected the majestic image of Jama Masjid as a Mughal monument. It transformed the mosque into a ‘dead entity’. The Jama Masjid, which is known for its eternal architectural features, was given a very different image – an image of a mourning site.
This example shows that the politics of Azan is certainly not a new phenomenon.