Soundscapes of Islam

Soundscapes of Islam: The Call to Prayer and Qur'an Recitation

Sound is an intrinsic part of all our lives, an important component of what we consider home. Our “audio” lives are comprised of the noises that surround us in our home and social environments, as well as an array of musical sounds created by many different types of artists.  The tracks on a hypothetical “Sounds of Islam” album would be diverse and compelling, with some elements arising from the Islamic tradition, and the popular musical choices of people from non-Muslim cultures and communities. In this essay, we will discuss the fundamental sounds of Islam: the call to prayer and the recitation of the Quran. Further essays will explore how these original building blocks are taken up by different cultures in fascinating ways over time, from songs praising the Prophet in Pakistan to hip hop in London today.

We will concentrate here on sound that has some religious resonance or component; popular, secular music is explored elsewhere on the site. It is important to recognize that there is no monolithic Muslim world that follows particular trends, but there are some commonalities across different communities.

First, the term “music” can be a complicated one in some strands of the Islamic traditions. Some more conservative thinkers have argued that music is forbidden in Islam because its compelling nature may distract believers from a direct relationship with God. In that vein, some have argued that it is permissible only to create religious sound, and that instrumentation should not be added to the human voice and percussion. When the well-known singer Cat Stevens converted to Islam and took the name Yusuf Islam, he adhered to this strict interpretation for many years, making only albums using a capella singing and rhythm accompaniment.

In every Muslim majority country, perhaps the most ubiquitous element of the soundscape is the call to prayer, or adhan (in Arabic, with variations in different regions) heard five times a day. In fact, since the calls to prayer aren’t exactly synchronized, you may hear it twenty or thirty times from any particular point in a city, echoing and re-echoing from speakers on multiple minarets. The call to prayer begins with the shahada, the profession of faith that is one of the core pillars of Islam: “I testify that there is no god but God, I testify that Muhammad is the prophet of God.” The tradition of the call to prayer begins with the early Muslim umma (community), when Muhammad asked a slave named Bilal, who would later become one of the prophet’s most loyal companions, to be the first muezzin of Islam because of his renowned beautiful voice. The adhan spread with Islam to all the new Muslim communities, but it is always done in Arabic. The Turkish government at one point tried to perform the call to prayer in Turkish but this attempt was strongly resisted and quickly abandoned. The call to prayer compels believers to cease whatever they are doing in order to give full attention to and worship God.

Keeping in mind that some calls to prayer use repetition, the full text of the Sunni adhan is:

God is great 
I testify that there is no god but God
I testify that Mohammed is the messenger of God
Come to pray!
Come to success!
The time for the best of deeds has come.
God is great
There is no god but God

Examples of the call to prayer can easily be found online. There are also several versions of the adhan on the CD accompanying Michael Sells’ excellent book Approaching the Quran(widely available online and in bookstores). Another interesting recording is from the Radio and Television orchestra of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which has a very unusual instrumental accompaniment (available on “B’ismillah: Highlights From the Fès Festival of World Sacred Music”).

Of course, the next important sound essential to Islam is the recitation of the Quran. The Quran literally means the “recitation”, and for many Muslims it is heard as much as it is read. Recitation of the Quran forms an important part of many life rituals, from birth to funerals. Recitation of the first verse of the Quran, the Fatihah, is also part of every daily prayer: In the name of God, the Benificent, the Merciful. In Arabic, you will hear “bismillahi ar-rahman ar-rahim,” while in the Arabic script, it appears as:

“?????? ????? ??????????? ???????????”, read from right to left. Observant Muslims use this phrase every time they begin an activity, from writing the heading of a letter to entering a taxi to drive across town.

People train rigorously in the adhan and the proper recitation of the Quran, although there are some regional differences and different styles of formal recitation. As the adhan and Islam moved through a newly Muslim world, different musical traditions came into play, so while the words are always the same, the sound shifted a bit so it sounded appropriate or normative in its particular society. Again, the accompanying CD to Sells’ Approaching the Quran has a variety of Qur’anic recitations, or you can find them online here:

Quran.com provides a complete literal rendition of the Quran, surah by surah, along with readings, translations into various languages, and interpretations by different Muslim scholars.

If you want to see as well as hear the Quran recited, here is a YouTube video of a Quran recitation performance from at the International Quran Competitions held in 2012.

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