Adhana: Saudi Arabia’s call for quieter prayers

Grand Mosque

Muslim pilgrims perform morning prayers at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca on August 8, 2019, prior to the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimage in the holy city.

Photo credit: File | AFP

What you need to know:

  • One does not have to be a Muslim to understand that prayer is a pillar of the faith, and the call to it is an act of social and spiritual significance.
  • It reminds the believers of their total dependence on their Maker, and of the need to keep in constant touch with him through praye

Towards the end of May this year, Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Affairs minister ordered mosques in the country to lower the volume of their loudspeakers. The ministry claimed that families had been complaining that competing speakers were keeping their children awake. We in East Africa need no telling that it is from the mosque speakers that the regular calls to prayers (adhana) are broadcast.

I told you, a few months ago, of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s memorable pause in the middle of his eulogy to the late John Pombe Magufuli. This was in Dodoma, Tanzania’s capital, and the Kenyan leader held a respectful silence till the adhana, the devotional call to prayer, was done.

That was the right course of action. One does not have to be a Muslim to understand that prayer is a pillar of the faith, and the call to it is an act of social and spiritual significance. It reminds the believers of their total dependence on their Maker, and of the need to keep in constant touch with him through prayer. The muezzins (official prayer ministers) customarily accompany their prayer calls with inspirational ayahs (verses) from the Qur’an.

I have not been to Saudi Arabia. I am not quite prepared to make the pilgrimage, as you know. My attempts to make a secular visit when my friend and former KU colleague, Prof Badru Kateregga, was Uganda’s ambassador in Riyadh, were also unsuccessful. Prof Kateregga was too busy to host me, as he was coming home to start his now premier private institution, the Kampala University, which has a major campus in Nairobi.

I think that when Professor Kateregga lived and worked in Nairobi for nearly a decade in the 1970s and 1980s, he, like me, fell in love with the city. What better way for him, then, was there to cement his love than to plant a part of his brainchild firmly in the soil of his erstwhile home?

Call for prayers

When we lived and worked at Kenyatta University, Prof Kateregga co-authored (with David W. Shenk) a beautifully articulate book titled Islam and Christianity. Subtitled “A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue”, it is a fine study in comparative religion, and profitable reading in these days of ill-informed and opinionated extremism.

Incidentally, whenever I mention such books in our conversations, I implicitly urge you to read them. You will be surprised at how well-read you will be at the end of, say, one month if you diligently seek out our titles and at least browse them. As I keep telling my students, none of us can read too much, or even anywhere near enough for our needs.

Back to Saudi Arabia and the order to control the volume of the prayer call, you probably know that the Saudi authorities are highly regarded as the “custodians of the two Holy Mosques” (Mecca and Medina). Believers everywhere take Saudi instructions and guidance to their believers seriously. What do they mean for us in East Africa? After all, nearly all of us live within hearing distance of a mosque with a loudspeaker delivering prayer messages.

To put the matter in perspective, the Saudi directive was probably a response to a situation that threatened to get out of hand. According to a report I once read from Cairo, muezzins, especially the young ones, from neighbouring rival mosques tend to try to outdo one another in their delivery of the adhana. After all, the message may be divine, but we the deliverers are only human, hence the narcissistic inclination towards exaggeration. If turning the volume up a few notches would help, the temptation to try it would be obviously strong.

The Saudi minister hinted at this in his explanation of his order. Sheikh Abdullatif al-Sheikh mentioned complaints from the public, “including the elderly and parents whose children’s sleep was being disrupted”, over excessive volume from the mosques. This is astonishing, especially in view of the fact that Islam is a faith of “sobriety” in thought and deed. But it is quite understandable in the face of the veritable scourge and curse of electronic amplification.

Noise pollution

This, indeed, is the root of the problem, especially in tandem with the “primitiveness” of large sections of our populations. As Imbuga’s Mulili, in Betrayal In the City, puts it, our people are “full of primitive”, especially with regard to the use of sound technology. You see a person equipped with all the gadgets intended to enhance his or her voice and make it easy for them to comfortably share messages with large audiences.

Then they strain with every nerve and sinew in their bodies and yell into the equipment at the top of their voices. It is as if they are trying to cover all the hills, valleys and ridges between Mount Kenya, Kilimanjaro and the Ruwenzori. It beats all logic, especially when you realise that their audience is only a handful of long-suffering individuals around an enclosed auditorium. Lord have mercy on our eardrums!

Our grand senior narrator, Yusuf K. Dawood, actually portrays a muezzin who uses his voice to full effect in this way from the minaret of a Kampala mosque, at the beginning of his nostalgic novel, Return to Paradise. But, to be fair to this particular minister, he does not have any amplification equipment at his disposal. Those, however, who yell and howl into amplifying equipment, with hoofers, boomers and all, remind you of savages who, when given a lift in the back of a truck, keep running with their loads on their heads right to the end of the journey.

The Saudis and other Muslims, with their characteristic discipline and orderliness, will tame noisy tendencies in their establishments. But the noise pandemic, especially in Africa, is a real and serious threat to the well-being of humanity. It is addictive, it is injurious to our health and it compromises our security and our social interactions, as I told you in our chat on “Kelele City”.

When it is time to vote, make the elimination of noise pollution a major issue.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature. [email protected]


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