by Joseph Progler
This article was originally published by Smithsonian Folkways Magazine. The full article, with multimedia illustration, can be viewed on their website.
From the public to the intimate the Islamic call to prayer, adhan,1 literally meaning “announcement,” pervades Muslim culture. It can be heard up to five times a day in Muslim communities, once for each of the five daily prayers. Often broadcast from the minarets of mosques and through media, there is also a tradition of reciting adhan into the ear of a newborn. In Muslim folk medicine, the adhan is even said to have medicinal qualities.
There are a number of stories in the Islamic oral tradition about the origins of adhan. After establishing the first Muslim community in Medina in 622CE, early Muslims debated how to gather for prayer. One suggested that they use a bell. Another, a horn. Others thought of beating a drum or lighting a fire. But there was no agreement and the debate continued. Some say that one of the Prophet Muhammad's companions dreamt of gathering Muslims for prayer by calling with the human voice. When he told this dream to the Prophet, the Prophet is said to have responded that the Angel Gabriel had taught him the words for adhan, which Muslims have handed down since.
Originally from New York, J. Progler teaches humanities and social sciences at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan. An extended version of this essay is available at progler.blogspot.com.
1 There are several common spellings of adhan, including azan, ezan, adzan, and athan.