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:
- Adamant secularism, insisting that there be no religious symbols in the public space.
- “My way” religiosity: There should be religion in the public space, but it should be my religion and only my religion.”
- 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.