What Does the Islamic Call to Prayer (Adhan) Really Say?

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Recently, during Ramadan in a few countries where Islam is not in the majority, officials decided, as a concession to the COVID-19 crisis, that in some cities and towns the Islamic call to prayer or the adhan could be broadcast over loudspeakers. Some places are calling for this to be a permanent feature. What is the adhan, and what is it calling for?

What is the adhan?

This Arabic word can be translated ‘announcement’ or ‘to make aware of’ and in Islamic usage it is the announcement of a number of key doctrines in Arabic as a call to prayer. Originally pronounced from a minaret—or tallest point of a mosque—by a muezzin, it is used five times a day, with the only variation in the pre-dawn call to prayer, which includes the words, “Prayer is better than sleep.” It states:

  1. ​​​​​​Allahu akbar= Allah is greater than… 4x
  2. Ashadu an la ilaha illa Allah= I bear witness that there is no god but Allah…2x
  3. Ashadu anna Muhammadan rasul Allah= I bear witness that Muhammad is the apostle of Allah…2x
  4. Hayya ala s-salah= Come to prayer2x
  5. Hayya ala l-falah= Come to success/prosperity…2x
  6. …only at the pre-dawn prayer…As-salatu khayru min an-nawm=Prayer is better than sleep
  7. Allahu akbar= Allah is greater than…2x
  8. La ilaha illa Allah=There is no god but Allah2x

It is recommended after hearing lines four and five, that the Muslim responds with the words, “There is no might or power except with Allah.” According to the Reliance of the Traveller, a manual of Sunni Islamic law, it is recommended that all Muslims who hear this call respond by blessing Muhammad with the words, “Allah bless him and give him peace.” After that, one is advised to add,

O Allah, Lord of this comprehensive invitation and enduring prayer, grant our liegelord [=a lord entitled to allegiance and service] Muhammad a place near to You, an excellence and exalted degree, and bestow on him the praiseworthy station that You have promised him.

It is advised that this call to prayer be whispered in the right ear of a newborn Muslim child, followed by the commencement prayer in the left ear.

According to a Muslim tradition (related by Anis bin Malik), the muezzin who announces this call to prayer is promised that his own “sins within the range of his voice” are forgiven, and according to a tradition related by Abu Dawud, it was Uqba bin Aamir who stated,

I heard Allah’s messenger saying: Your Lord wonders at a shepherd who on the peak of a mountain pronounces Adhan for prayers and offers them. Then Allah says (to the angels): “Look at this slave of Mine who calls for prayer and performs it all by himself. He fears Me. So I have forgiven My slave and admitted him to Paradise.

Other hadiths that refer to the rewards for announcing the call to prayer include:

Narrated Muawiyyiah (r), 'The Prophet said, "The Callers to the AsSalawat will have the longest neck [that is, they will be the tallest] of all people on the Day of Resurrection.

Ibn Umar (r) narrated, 'Allah's Messenger said, "The Muedhdhin who pronounces the Adhan (sincerely) regularly for a period of twelve years is declared a man of Paradise. Everyday sixty grades are recorded for him.”

Thus, we see that the Islamic call to prayer is pregnant with Islamic theology with rewards promised for those who pronounce and adhere to this call. After discussing the history of this call to prayer, we will examine the meaning of its various statements. 

The history of the adhan 

In Islamic accounts of the origins of the call to prayer, there is a subtle debate as to whether this was a directly revealed divine injunction (as suggested by the Shia) or if it was a result of deliberation or a dream (as suggested by Sunnis). Various traditions report on either version and suffice it to say; early Islamic history records a need to call Muslims to prayer. In order to distinguish it from the bells that called Christians to prayer, or a ram’s horn that called Jews to prayer, it was suggested that Muslims would be called with the words “Come to prayer.” According to Sunni sources ʿAbd Allah ibn Zayd dreamed the words of the present adhan, reported them to Muhammad, and Bilal, a former slave with a sonorous voice was given the job of becoming the first muezzin. 

A hadith reported that when Muhammad traveled on his military expeditions, he would listen to whether a place had a morning call to prayer, and if it did, then he would leave it alone, as he determined that it was a Muslim place. If he did not hear it, that gave him a warrant to attack.

As much as it is almost impossible to ascertain if these traditions were later additions to solidify the nascent religion of Islam, one can be sure that the words of the present-day adhan play a powerful role in cementing the Islamic consciousness.

The meaning of the Islamic call to prayer

According to Mark Durie’s book, The Third Choice, Islamic doctrine can be distilled down to three words: ignorance (jahiliyyah), guidance (huda), and success (falah). The call to prayer incorporates the final word (falah) and one might say that it is a call to success or prosperity: Islamicly defined.

Allahu akbar

Lines one and seven above state, Allahu akbar= Allah is greater than, a total of six times. This statement, known as the takbir in Arabic is derived from a way of expressing a superlative. The word big in Arabic is formed from the consonants k-b-r and we see the same in the word akbar. To say that something is beyond big, or beyond great uses the word, akbar. What this phrase is saying is literally “my God, Allah is beyond big/great,” “Allah is bigger than any other god,” “Allah is incomparable,” or "my Allah is way greater than your God."

In the devotional life of Muslims, they invoke Allah's greatness when they recite his 99 names. One of these names is al-Kabir (Sura 22:62), and by reciting these names, according to the hadith, one is guaranteed a place in Paradise. Another formula that is often used is the name Allah followed by words from Sura 17:43, namely subhana wa ta’alah, meaning “Allah: glory to Him the exalted or High.”

If a Christian hears these words, they are hearing that Allah of Islam eclipses God with the name of YHWH of the Old Testament and Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the New Testament.

Ashadu

Lines two and three begin with the statement,  Ashadu or “I bear witness” The sense of this bearing witness, has more than just a casual acquaintance with a certain reality, but is better rendered as “I bear witness to the incontrovertible fact….” Lines two and three essentially encapsulate the shahadah or the Islamic confession of faith. When one states the shahadah they are saying that Allah of Islam is much greater, only the Qur'an is to be embraced,  as it is the final revelation, and that Muhammad is the only one qualified to be the example for a guide to life, as he embodies the ultimate messenger for humanity.

La ilaha illa Allah

In lines two and repeated in line eight, the object of this witnessstated a total of four timesis the fact that “there is no god but Allah” (La ilaha illa Allah). Positively speaking, the call to prayer is stating that the only true god is Allah, and negatively speaking it is stating that any other god than Allah of Islam is a false god. By Islamic definition, anyone who worships a god other than Allah is still stuck in the times of ignorance (jahiliyyah) and needs correct guidance to come to the truth of Islam.

The Qur’an describes the so-called incomparable nature of Allah in Surah 112 and in a few lines of Sura 59:22-24, where it states,   

Allah is He, than Whom There is no other god; Who knows (all things) both secret and open; He, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Allah is He, Whom there is no other god; the Sovereign, the Holy One, the Source of Peace (and Perfection), the Guardian of Faith, the Preserver of Safety, the Exalted in Might, the Irresistible, the Supreme: Glory to Allah! (High is He) above the partners they attribute to Him. He is Allah, the Creator, the Evolver, the Bestower of Form (Or Colours). To Him belong the Most Beautiful Names: whatever is in the heavens and on earth, doth declare his Praises and Glory: And He is the Exalted in Might, the Wise.

Clearly, this description of Allah of Islam exhibits a type of one-upmanship. That is to say, it takes snippets of Biblical material and recasts them as if Allah is superior. This is not unlike the fact that the minarets of mosques are always constructed to a higher elevation than church buildings with crosses on them in many areas of the world. It also underscores the Islamic foundational premise that Allah has no associatesthereby eliminating any understanding of the Trinity.

A Christian would respond that God, as he has revealed himself in the Bible, is the only true and living God, and is revealed in all of his glory in the Trinity, with Jesus being the express image of God on earth. Someone familiar with the Old Testament might recall the song at the sea, sung by the Israelites after their liberation from Egypt, with the words:

“Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?

These questions which anticipate an answer "no one" are answered in Psalm 86:8 and Jeremiah 10:6 which read:

"There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours."; "There is none like you, O LORD; you are great, and your name is great in might."

Ashadu anna Muhammadan rasul Allah

The second object of witness-bearing is found in line three of the adhan. It has to do with the apostleship of Muhammad. Twice it states, Ashadu anna Muhammadan rasul Allah (“I bear witness that Muhammad is the apostle of Allah”). Positively speaking it states that Muhammad is theimplying the one and definite one—apostle or messenger of Allah, and put in the negative, all other apostles are in an inferior class. Thus, we read in Q. 2:143 in the somewhat expanded rendition of Moshin Khan,

“Thus We have made you [true Muslims - real believers of Islamic Monotheism], true followers of Prophet Muhammad SAW and his Sunnah (legal ways)], a Wasat (just) (and the best) nation, that you be witnesses over mankind and the Messenger (Muhammad SAW) be a witness over you.”

A hadith ascribes the following words to Muhammad:

I have five names. I am Muhammad; I am Aḥmad [either the one who is to be praised or the one who praises]; I am al-Māḥī, because through me God abolishes unbelief; I am al-Ḥāshir because men will be gathered behind me (at the end of time); I am al-ʿĀqib (“the last”).

The Qur’an also states that Jesus is "only a messenger" (rasul) who brings “glad tidings” of a messenger who is to come after him (Q. 61:6); namely Muhammad.

In the Bible the word ‘apostle’ literally means, “one who is sent forth” and so we refer to the companions of Jesus who witnessed his life, death, resurrection, and ascension as apostles after he commissioned them (Matt 28). The apostle Thomas boldly describes Jesus as “My Lord and my God” and at Pentecost, the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit to empower them to be witnesses. Jesus is also referred to the Apostle and High Priest “whom we confess” in Hebrews 3:1.

Now there is a problem, as Muslims confess or testify or bear witness to the ‘sentness’ of Muhammad in an ultimate sense, and Christians do the same for Jesus. Who is right? Hebrews 3:2 might give us a clue. There we read that Jesus was “faithful to him who appointed him” and in contrast to Moses who was faithful as a servant, Jesus was faithful as a son. Hebrews 1:1-3 also shows the incomparable nature of Jesus who besides being the final revelation, holds the universe together, and sits at God's right hand:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,

Hayya ala s-salah

Twice, line four repeats the injunction to “come to one of the five daily ritual prayers.” Devout Muslims are well aware that doing the ritual prayers (salat) are an absolute requirement, or obligation, as one of the pillars of Islam. Not doing them puts them at risk of hell-fire. Yet, one must not assume that Islamic prayer is necessarily the same as the prayers found in the Bible. If one compares the al-Fatiah prayer of Surah 1 of the Qur’an and the Lord’s prayer, one sees a few commonalities, but the enormous difference is that in the former invocation is made to stay on the straight path, and not to go on the path of error of Jews and Christians, while in the Lord’s prayer, the address is made by a child of God to his/her heavenly Father.

Hayya ala l-falah

Line five which rhymes with line four is an injunction to come, but this time it is to success or prosperity (falah). There are multiple instances in the Qur’an where Muslims are described as the “successful ones” and this summons is a call to be a serious Muslim, with the hope of success that reaches all the way to eternity. The word falah, as noted by Mark Durie, is a key word in Islam, and it sets Muslims apart from all other people, who are classified as losers (Q. 16:109). Thus, this call is a call to be on the winning team of Muhammad and to leave the so-called world of ignorance.

One must ask the critical question, however: Is the Islamic definition of success and prosperity the ultimate definition? How would one know?

In Biblical terms, one might define success and prosperity by the word shalom or peace with God. It is through the completely acceptable sacrifice of the God-man Jesus, that people can have this peace with God, as he has broken down the dividing wall between humans and God (Ephesians 2:14). This peace has both temporal and eternal benefits and comes with complete assurance because it is not based on the striving of the human being, but by what Jesus has done.

What can be seen in this call to prayer?

First, it declares the supremacy and uniqueness of Allah of Islam. The fact that this is sending a very strong statement to people of all faiths other than Islam is self-obvious.

Secondly, it is a summons to Muslims to get out of bed, or out of their daily routine in order to cement their fulfillment of one of their religious obligations. It also reminds them that by doing so they continue to be on Muhammad’s winning team; also, they are aggregating merit and avoiding hell-fire.

Thirdly, it sends a strong message to Christians that Allah is superior to the Trinity and to Jesus the God-man, as well as the fact—according to Muslims—that Muhammad has eclipsed Jesus as the final apostle.

Fourthly, it takes the idea of Christians bearing witness, both by sight and by faith, that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father and replaces it with two other creedal statements.

Fifthly, it serves as a unifying ‘glue’ for the Muslim community, and as the ‘successful’ they are set apart from those who are called unbelievers and the ‘loosers.’

Lastly, it is part and parcel of a system of gaining merit, either for the muezzin who is promised a better standing in Paradise or for the one who responds to this summons.

Conclusion 

The adhan, seen as an innocuous call to religious observance by some municipalities, is pregnant with Islamic theology, and summons Muslims to be on their winning team. It pronounces this superiority to people of all faiths, yet for Christians, it is most grievous as it co-opts many Christian concepts such as the incomparable nature of God, Jesus as the final revelation of God, bearing witness to Christian truth, the nature of a Divine and saving call through salvation in Christ, redefines the purpose and message of an apostle, and redefines the object and purpose of prayer.

Might municipalities and the Christian churches within them, consider caveat emptor—buyer beware—if the adoption of the adhan becomes a subject of consideration? Perhaps this topic might cause Christians to consider their own discipline of prayer and lift up prayers for their Muslim neighbors and the Muslim world.

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