His Master's Voice

09 September 2004

Five times a day, in every city and town in the Arab Middle East, a call to prayer reverberates through the loudspeakers of the local mosque.  It is a beautiful sound.  The words of the announcement are drawn out in such a way that it actually is more like a song.  A mellow dirge, taking its time to alert the faithful. 

The prayer begins, “Allah Hu Akbar,” which means, “God is great.”  The rest, in English, goes like this: 

God is Great (repeated four times
I bear witness that there is no God but the One God (repeated twice)
I bear witness that Mohammed is the Messenger of God (repeated twice)
Come fast to prayer (repeated twice)
Come to success (repeated twice)
God is Great (repeated twice)
There is no God but the one true God (said once)

Pretty simple really.  A five-times daily declaration of monotheistic allegiance.  Devout Muslims, whatever they are doing at the moment the prayer begins, turn towards Mecca, then stop, drop, and pray. 

This devotion to ritual is off-putting to many.  These same people would also find it strange to see the fetish-like bobbing and reciting that takes place by Jews at the Wailing Wall or the Christian calisthenics (fanatical genuflecting) demonstrated by the Orthodox faithful at the alleged tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  Of possible interest to the historically minded is the fact that is was the Jews of the Babylonian Diaspora who came up with the practice of facing a Holy City (in their case, Jerusalem), getting down on their knees, and praying at proscribed times each day.  Mohammed borrowed this ritual of faith from his Abrahamic cousins, first instructing his followers to face Jerusalem, then some years later modifying the orientation to Mecca. 

Prayers come at dawn, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset, and nightfall.  Without realizing it, the calls to prayer have started to dictate the rhythms of my life.  Sixteen months of hearing the same song five times a day most certainly has a conditioning effect.  My favorite is the dawn prayer.  Every morning, as the darkness of night dissolves into the muted grayish pink of a new day, I am gently stirred by the song coming from the blue and white, twin-minaret King Abdullah mosque located in the heart of Amman (and in clear view of my room).  I lie in bed, in a half-dream state, feeling soothed and elevated by the agreeable recitation.  It’s quite hypnotic and peaceful.  The sound fills every alley, drifts past every home and hotel, and penetrates the ears of every early morning street sweeper, delivery man, and sleepy American stretching under the covers.  The prayer caller or “muezzin” has become my alarm clock.  He is much more pleasant than the digital beast that used to bark at me from my nightstand.  (I have since unplugged it and stowed it in a drawer.)

I suppose it is like the church bells in Europe.  But there is one big difference.  Though the peals coming from a belfry do emanate from a church, they have lost nearly all of their religious meaning, becoming in many ways giant timepieces.  Big Ben and Westminster Abbey have become interchangeable.  Perhaps this also has to do with the fact that the bells do not talk, whereas the muezzin reminds the listener in words of the presence and power of Almighty God.

One cannot escape God in the Arab homeland.  That is not to say everyone worships Him with equal fervor.  There are many secular Muslims who do not stop what they are doing to roll out their prayer rug, face Mecca, and prostrate themselves before God.  Christian Arabs aren’t subject to the call either.  But for everyone, be they Muslim or Christian, Arab or expatriate, the idea of God is put front and center in everyone’s lives five times per day via these loudspeaker broadcasts.

The calls to prayer provide a consistency across the Muslim Middle East.  Just as a guy from California can feel at home when he hears JLo or Justin Timberlake on the radio in Minneapolis or Manhattan, so too can the Muslim traveler feel comfortable with the consistent melody and message he gets from hearing the calls to prayer.  From the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul to the Great Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, the song remains the same. 

For those unfortunate souls in Baghdad, the call to prayer drifting across the Tigris from the 14th of Ramadan Mosque--the one with the blue dome one sees on American TV every night--offers a few moments of stillness and calm, before the mortar rounds and rotor noise shatter the peace.  The attacks never seem to come at prayer time.  It’s too bad they can’t run the calls non-stop around the clock.  Praying for peace might for once have an effect.