Op-ed: The call to prayer is a prayer for the future, a call to those in times of despair

Published in the Toronto Star on May 7, 2020.

By Mustafa Farooq, NCCM CEO

“Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar.”

The delivery room at the Grey Nuns Hospital in Edmonton is dark, but on May 5, 2015, at 6 a.m., I was jumping up and down as my newborn son came into the world.

The Muslim tradition is to whisper the call to prayer — the adhaan — in the ear of the newborn child after birth; but I was so filled with adrenalin in the moment, that I began to loudly chant the call to prayer even as I held him in my arms for the first time.

Five years on, almost to the day, we in the Canadian context are having a public discussion about the place of the adhaan — the call to prayer — as numerous municipalities, including Brampton, Missisauga, and Edmonton have amended their noise bylaws to permit Canadian Muslims to make the public call to prayer during the COVID-19 crisis.

I am a lawyer by training — so by nature I am inclined to want to draw out arguments before you about treating citizens equally (church bells are allowed, so why shouldn’t the Muslim call to prayer?) or around the need of citizens to adequately study the changes to the bylaws (many of the changes roll up in the next two weeks as Ramadan comes to an end), but in this case, I wish to tell you what the adhaan means to me, and what it means to me today, in the context of COVID-19 and in the context of life, birth, and death.

I cannot help — even as Nazis make bomb threats to mosques because they had the audacity to recite a five minute prayer at dusk — but think of the worshippers at the Quebec City Mosque, who reportedly heard Alexandre Bissonette state the opening words of the adhaan, “Allahu akbar” before opening fire in the bloodiest attack on a religious institution in Canadian history.

I cannot help but think of the adhaan as many traditional Muslims understand it as a matter of praxis. We are taught through the tradition that the Messenger Muhammad, peace be upon him, fled from his home to new land — Madinah — from those whose in the tribe of the Quraysh who were trying to assassinate him. Upon building the first mosque, the Medinian Muslims began to think of how to call people to prayer.

At first, the idea of blowing a shofar, as per the Judaic tradition, was considered. There was then the decision to utilize a wooden clapper, the naqus, which some of the Arabian Christians used in lieu of the bell. However, revelation came of a call to prayer, delivered without material instruments, but rather with the call of the human voice — a profound reflection on the absence of the need of the material to connect with the Divine.

Yet, there is a way in which the adhaan can be understood historically in the context of the neighbours of the Medinian Muslims, of different faith communities who lived together. It can be understood in the way that the first man who called the adhaan was Sayyidna Bilal — a freed Abyssinian slave who was tormented by his Qurayshi captor, and insulted for the colour of his skin — and who would look to the first faint light in the east on the Arabian Desert and say in supplication, “Oh God, I praise Thee, and I ask Thy Help for the Quraysh.”

I think of when Bilal, may God be pleased with him, returned to Makkah, and his voice filled the whole valley, much to the chagrin of the old chiefs of the Quraysh, who were furious at the sight of the former black slave on the roof of the Kaaba making the call to prayer — the call that equalized all human beings as being servants of the Divine, of being devoted to a call to ethics and justice.

I think of learning the adhaan in mosques across Canada from so many different folks. From a Sudanese neurologist, whose strong, bold voice made my hair stand on end, to the meliflous, lilt of a Bosnian refugee who had lost his bakery during the war, the call to prayer is a call to God, a prayer, a prayer for the future, a call to those in times of despair.

And I suppose that’s the key.