The Men Behind the Muslim Call to Prayer

The adhan is the sonic symbol of Islam in Turkey. Andy Owens puts a face to the music

By / December 2013

One Sunday morning, up again before the sun, I heard through the window the familiar sound of the adhan, or call to prayer. The volume of the morning call, which acts as a kind of communal alarm clock here in Denizli, can be jarring, especially in the summer when it begins as early as 4:30 a.m. But something was different this time. Rather than one single voice emanating across the city from multiple broadcasting points, I heard a cacophony, as dozens of male voices collided in a performance that sounded less like an invocation than a shouting match at a football game.

At breakfast later that morning, I ran into Mevlüt, one of a rotating cast of muezzins who issue the call for Denizli’s population of half a million. What happened this morning? I asked him. “It was my turn,” he said, sheepishly, “but I overslept.” Mevlüt was embarrassed. The other clerics had had to scramble to fill in for him. But I was heartened by the realization that the people who pronounce the call are, well, people, prone to the same early morning mishaps as the teachers, businessmen, chefs, mothers, and students that they sing for.

The call to prayer is the inescapable sonic symbol of Islam in Turkey. Five times a day, every day, both believers and unbelievers, as well as people on the fence, are subject to the music. The call is both a summons to ritual prayer and a summary of basic Islamic beliefs:

God is the greatest (four times)
I bear witness that there is no god except the One God. (two times)
I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God (two times)
Hasten to prayer (two times)
Hasten to salvation (two times)
God is the greatest (two times)
There is no god except the One God

Other than an eighteen-year span in the 1930s and 40s when the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs mandated a Turkish version of the adhan, it has always been recited in Arabic, the liturgical language of Islam. Although various sects disagree on the exact origin of the call, nearly everyone agrees that Muhammad himself appointed Bilal ibn Rabah, a freed slave, as the first to recite it. The reason: his powerful and beautiful voice. Sincere Muslims revere the adhan as an important, almost magical aspect of their religion.

Urban legends abound concerning the power and efficacy of the adhan. It’s widely believed, for instance, that Neil Armstrong heard the adhan when he stepped onto the surface of the moon and later became a Muslim. More than one person has assured me that simply listening to the adhan in a heartfelt manner can lead to conversion. Therefore, they go on, it is crucial that the call be sung well.

Sitting on floor cushions under the staircase of the New Mosque in downtown Denizli, in a small dressing room set aside for clerics, Mevlüt agrees. The 31 year old has a slightly shy demeanor, but, like the electric heater mounted precariously close to my head, he warms up quickly. He brushes over his own story but slows down when we starts talking about singing the adhan. The schedule for the ritual prayers, he tells me, is based on the rising and setting of the sun. Before sunrise. At noon. In the middle of the afternoon. At dusk. And two hours after sunset.

The words never change, but in Turkey at least, a country whose Ottoman forebears believed music could treat spiritual maladies, the call is often performed differently depending on the time of day.

To non-Arabic speakers, this array of deliveries can make it seem like a completely different set of lyrics. The noon composition, Mevlüt says, is designed to increase love for God. The afternoon arrangement helps relax its hearers who have been stressed out by work. In the evening the call is sung in a reposeful tone. “The words are powerful,” Mevlüt says. “They give inspiration. So the guy who sings it has to have a good voice.”

Mevlüt’s other duties at the New Mosque include arriving ten or fifteen minutes before the prescribed worship time to open the doors and tidy things up. And there are several times during the prayers when he recites from the Koran. But his main job is to perform the call to prayer. Historically, the muezzin would climb the steps and bellow out the call to prayer from a balcony on the tall, slender tower beside the mosque. But nowadays loudspeakers mounted high on the towers propel the sound even farther.

Mevlüt’s first gig after graduating from a religious high school and memorizing the entire Koran was as the head imam of a small mosque in a remote village of 65 people. Attendance was low: only one guy ever came to services. The conditions were harsh with no running water and limited transportation. Mevlüt quickly requested a transfer. He hoped he might become the imam of a larger mosque. But in 2006, when the provincial religious leader asked him to take the muezzin role at one of the two main mosques in the city center, where he would get to sing the adhan over loud speakers to the whole city, it didn’t feel like a demotion.

Classical Turkish music is quite different from western music, both in theory and in practice. When muezzins recite the call to prayer, meter and rhythm take a back seat to affectation. The singing is characterized by lots of ornamentation – the voice moving up and down on a single breath. Western vocalists emphasize vowels, but Mevlüt and his companions will stretch out consonants; “n” becomes “nnnnn,” “m” becomes “mmmmmm.” But don’t let these nasally sounds mislead you. Mevlüt sings deep and loud from his chest.

 

When he sings, Mevlüt stands in a small upstairs room in front of a microphone and amplification system. The loudspeaker, perched  just outside the open window, seems like an echo rather than amplification. With his hands pressed to his head, sort of like blinders on a racehorse, he pours forth this thunderous torrent of vocal energy for almost five minutes.

Once Melvüt showed up, opened the mosque, and was about to start the call to prayer and he realized it was 4 a.m., an hour earlier than he was supposed to start. Mevlüt tells the story of how a few months ago he accidentally began singing the adhan six minutes early. One of his friends rushed upstairs and motioned to him, explaining the mistake. “I couldn’t stop once I started,” he says. “So I just sang everything longer and slower.”

But typically the problem isn’t early arrival. The text of the pre-sunrise announcement includes an extra line: “Prayer is better than sleeping.” Because he announces the beginning of prayers for mosques all over the city Mevlüt occasionally witnesses the tardiness of other imams as well. “Sometimes,” he says, laughing, “a friend will call, tell me he’s running late and ask me to stretch out the adhan a few extra minutes so he can make it to the mosque. Of course I can’t.”

According to Islamic tradition, for the prayers to register and be accepted they need to be performed according to a complex time chart resembling a tide schedule on a beach calendar. As the days grow longer and shorter throughout the year, the adhan ebbs and flows a few minutes each day.

“We’ve all heard stories of people becoming Muslims because of the effect the adhan had on them,” Mevlüt says. “I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I heard another story once. A European guy was vacationing in Turkey and heard a beautiful rendition of the adhan, and decided to convert to Islam. Shortly after he went to another city and heard someone butcher it. It was so repulsive that he changed his mind.”

Mevlüt continued: “The person who sings it really does need to know what he’s doing.”

 

Andy Owens is a writer living in Turkey.

 

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