Must Pluralism Be Noisy? by Esther Nelson


On January 14, 2015, Duke University (North Carolina) announced that it would start broadcasting the Muslim call to prayer (adhan) from the bell tower of its campus chapel every Friday at 1:00 p.m.  This “moderately amplified” adhan would be sung both in Arabic and in English.

On January 15, 2015, Duke University reversed its decision.  The three-minute adhan would not be “moderately amplified” in the chapel’s bell tower every Friday after all, but would continue to take place in the quadrangle in front of the chapel and from there, students would proceed inside the chapel for their worship service–as they have been doing for some time.  Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations at Duke, said, “What began as something that was meant to be unifying [the call to prayer from the chapel’s bell tower] was turning into something that was the opposite.”  The university received hundreds of calls and emails–“many of which were quite vitriolic.”

Omid Safi, Director of the Islamic Studies Center at Duke University, wrote, “This is a conversation about public accommodation, and the acknowledging of diversity.”  He sees three basic options:

  1. Adamant secularism, insisting that there be no religious symbols in the public space.
  2. “My way” religiosity: There should be religion in the public space, but it should be my religion and only my religion.”
  3. Pluralism: There should be a symphony of religious symbols and practices in the public arena.

Omid went on to say that as far as he’s concerned, this is not a conversation about Islam, but one about America.  “What kind of society do we want to be?”  Omid chooses the side of pluralism.

Duke Chapel welcomes all campus religious life groups to hold prayers and worship services in its chapel facilities.  Many faith traditions represented on campus have used that space.  At the same time, there’s no doubt in my mind that there are many who agree with Franklin Graham (Billy Graham’s son), a vocal opponent of having the adhan heard from the bell tower, that “Christianity is being excluded from the public square…and Duke is promoting this [the adhan] in the name of religious pluralism.”  Graham called on donors and alumni to withhold their support until the policy is reversed.

Omid subsequently asked whether or not Franklin Graham (and others in the Graham camp) objected when Duke Chapel played church bells in 2011 to the tune of a Chanukah song.  Were people’s “Christian sensitivities” offended or is it just Islam?

I’ve not seen or read anything concerning the noise factor emanating from a Muslim call to prayer–even a “moderately-amplified” adhan.  I do know that the adhan is loud.  It engulfs you and grabs your attention–not just aurally, but viscerally as well.  It tells you that important stuff is about to go down.

Full disclosure: I am not Muslim, however, I lived for several years in a Muslim-majority country.  Five times every day, the muezzin called the faithful to prayer.  I loved everything about the adhan.  The sound.  The urgency.  The musicality.  The sense of expectancy–both individually and communally.  It’s a ritual that interrupts daily routine, allowing Muslims to focus on tawhid–the unity of God.  I liked being caught up in all of it.  At the same time, I duly noted that it was always a man who gave the adhan.  And, it was men who ran to the mosque, did their ablutions, and then arranged themselves in parallel lines in the mosque for prayer.  Never did I see a woman scurry to the mosque and line up with (or even behind) the men for prayer.

Duke Chapel rings bells from its bell tower every day and twice on Sundays.  Just like the adhan, those bells are loud.  One might argue here that bells are not nearly so “religion specific” as is the adhan when it proclaims, “I witness that there is no God but God.  I witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God.”  A wide variety of religious and secular groups use bells in their rituals and ceremonies.  Could it be that bells have a broader and less religion-specific message?  Would those who advocate for “diversity” in this circumstance be offended if the tower bells were accompanied by a loud reading of a Biblical verse where Jesus refers to himself as “…the way, the truth, and the life” and adding, “No one can come to the Father except through me?” (John 14: 6)

When “religion-specific” words accompany sound, does that change how religion in the public sphere gets perceived?  Or, perhaps people feel that loud and noisy displays of ONE specific religion are an intrusion into the notion of plurality.  After all, why should one religion register more decibels in the public square than any other?

Of course, I can’t help but wonder what the uproar would be like if a woman were on the docket (so to speak) to give the adhan.  When we speak of diversity oft times, we contextualize ourselves within the same old androcentric conventions.  Traditionally, only men can call the faithful to prayer–at least, within orthodox notions of Islam.  When I play a DVD in my “Women in Islam” class showing a woman giving the adhan, many of my Muslim students (both women and men) are scandalized.  “That woman has brought dishonor to the Prophet (peace be upon him) as well as to Islam.”

There is a degree of cohesion within the Muslim community over this incident at Duke.  There was no question (as far as I can tell) about the gender of the person lined up to give the call to prayer.  I think if there were a woman poised and ready to give the adhan, the rhetoric would be quite different–perhaps not so much from those who think like Franklin Graham and believe that Christianity is being excluded from the public square if the adhan “rang out,” but certainly from many Muslims living in “mainstream America,” who think that such a display (a woman giving the adhan!) is unseemly.

Omid is one who would NOT balk were a woman to give the call to prayer.  The conversation, he believes, is about “who do we want to be and how do we want to arrange and accommodate diversity?  Are you less of who you are if I am who I am?”

Good questions.  But, must one be put in a position of feeling engulfed by a religion not his/her own in the name of diversity?  We have an opportunity here to delve more deeply into honest dialogue about diversity and religious pluralism.  It’s a conversation that, I hope, will happen using the catalyst of love as we work towards justice.


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.  She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam.  She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE  REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.

Categories: General, In the News, Islam

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13 replies

  1. It is sad that in the times we now live, diversity had been subsumed by divisiveness.


    • Yes, there is such a need to continue the conversation–how shall we accommodate the diversity that is ever-present? My thinking is that it’s best to consider diversity to be a resource, not an aberration. Even so, how does that resource get manifest in concrete terms?


  2. Michael, Omid, Franklin, Billy, Muhammad (peace be upon Him), Jesus, John –

    “wonder … if a woman were on the docket (so to speak)”


  3. I don’t know Omid Saifi, but he might balk. I know many Muslims who have told me their “prayers don’t count” if a woman takes any leadership role in the prayer service (adthan, giving khutbah, leading prayer). Consensus is easier to achieve in a homogenous society, much more difficult in heterogenous society. But there is also more creativity in a heterogenous society. It is a trade-off.


  4. In my village which was Turkish until 1912, one of the weekly Greek Orthodox services is broadcast early on a Monday morning, waking lots of people up. I wonder, what is the origin of broadcasting the call to prayer? Was it in a context of pluralism or hegemony? Was the intent to enforce Islamic observance on Muslims or was the purpose simply to be helpful to Muslim men who otherwise wouldn’t know the times. And of course if the later was the reason, it is outdated in urban or other situations where everyone can buy a watch.


    • Carol, your post brings to my mind the ringing of the Angelus and the “Hours” of the “Divine Office”. I think there were two reasons. One was that few people had watches or time pieces and it was a way of organizing the day. Second was the devout reminder and call to prayer.

      We humans fight over the stupidist things! As if the One we call “god” was sectarian and as limited as our own hearts can be sometimes. I say ring the call to prayer in every tradition as loud as the clamour that opens the stock market each morning. Now there is an interesting action…totally contrary to Christianity and probably lots of other religions.


  5. Maybe part of the point is that bells don’t sing words and don’t name any deity. They sound, and we project our deities into their sound. Can they be a sort of nonspecific all to prayer? Well, maybe not prayer but appreciation of beauty?


  6. Good questions, Carol. Might this help?

    Book of Call to Prayer
    Bukhari :: Book 1 :: Volume 11 :: Hadith 580

    Narrated Anas bin Malik:

    When the number of Muslims increased they discussed the question as to how to know the time for the prayer by some familiar means. Some suggested that a fire be lit (at the time of the prayer) and others put forward the proposal to ring the bell. Bilal was ordered to pronounce the wording of Adhan twice and of the Iqama once only.

    Book of Call to Prayer
    Bukhari :: Book 1 :: Volume 11 :: Hadith 578

    Narrated Ibn ‘Umar:

    When the Muslims arrived at Medina, they used to assemble for the prayer, and used to guess the time for it. During those days, the practice of Adhan for the prayers had not been introduced yet. Once they discussed this problem regarding the call for prayer. Some people suggested the use of a bell like the Christians, others proposed a trumpet like the horn used by the Jews, but ‘Umar was the first to suggest that a man should call (the people) for the prayer; so Allah’s Apostle ordered Bilal to get up and pronounce the Adhan for prayers.

    Book of Call to Prayers (Adhan)
    Bukhari :: Book 1 :: Volume 11 :: Hadith 577

    Narrated Anas:

    The people mentioned the fire and the bell (they suggested those as signals to indicate the starting of prayers), and by that they mentioned the Jews and the Christians. Then Bilal was ordered to pronounce Adhan for the prayer by saying its wordings twice, and for the Iqama (the call for the actual standing for the prayers in rows) by saying its wordings once. (Iqama is pronounced when the people are ready for the prayer).


  7. As a Unitarian Universalist, I live with religious pluralism. But many Christians in our Christo-centric culture don’t understand your final question: “Are you less of who you are if I am who I am?” For those of us here at FAR, this question is a matter of transitioning to acknowledge who makes up American society at this point in time (and even celebrating this diversity). But for people who have enjoyed Christocentric privilege — where their religion was (almost) the only one acknowledged in the public sphere, with occasional nods to Judaism — any infringement on THEIR space feels like marginalization.

    It’s very similar to the recent remarks by Cardinal Raymond Burke, who blamed radical feminism for marginalizing men. “Unfortunately,” he is quoted as saying, “the radical feminist movement strongly influences the church, leading the church to constantly address women’s issues AT THE EXPENSE OF ADDRESSING CRITICAL ISSUES IMPORTANT TO MEN.” He added: “The goodness and importance of men became very obscured and, for all practical purposes, were not emphasized at all….[Because of the ‘man-crisis’ the church became] very feminized…The activities in the parish and even the liturgy have been influenced by women and have become so feminine in many places that men do not want to get involved.” His example was girls’ altar service, “led many boys to abandon altar service. Young boys don’t want to do things with girls. It’s just natural.” And then to top it all off, he blamed clergy sexual abuse on feminists (and implicitly homosexuality): “[T]here was a period of time when men who were feminized and confused about their own sexual identity had entered the priesthood. Sadly some of these disordered men sexually abused minors.” Talk about blinders of privilege that don’t allow someone to see the world as it actually exists!


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