The Call to Prayer

I’ve been back from the Middle East for close to four weeks now. Yet at least a few times a week, as I’m walking around the city, I swear I hear the Islamic call to prayer somewhere in the distant background. It’s more likely music playing a ways off that I can’t distinguish, or something of the like. But it catches me, and just for a second I pause and strain to hear.

For those who don’t know, I live in Philadelphia. If we have more than one mosque here, it’s a lot (I do believe I’ve seen one). We’re a relatively diverse city, we just don’t have a lot of mosques. So I’m quite sure that the noise I’m hearing is not actually the call to prayer. Especially because I’d never heard it before going on my trip. But while I was in the Middle East, I was absolutely awed by the call. At first, I was intrigued. As I mentioned, I’d never heard it. Now I’ll be fully honest – as a newbie to the region, I kind of pictured everyone stopping in their tracks and praying five times a day. Pardon the ignorance on that one. It had never been to the Middle East and the only people I’d known that had been hadn’t been very recently.

I hadn’t made it out of the Dubai airport when I heard the first call to prayer. It was the later evening one, the last of the night. It was faint, tough to hear over all the clanging of the luggage and voices of excited tourists, but it was beautiful.
In Dubai, I had to actively listen to hear the call, and even then it was difficult. The area in which we stayed was the newer section, filled with construction in lieu of mosques. I didn’t plan it that way; it was the pre-assigned conference hotel. I was disappointed. The bit I’d heard in the airport had piqued my interest to learn more not only about the call itself, but the whole prayer process.

In Jordan, I got to hear the call a little more, but not much. We were out in the deserts much of the time, so once again not in good hearing distance of the minarets. I did learn a bit more, though. I learned that the call is five times a day. It is based on sunrise and sunset, so it can change throughout the year. I also learned that Muslims do not actually have to stop everything they are doing, grab a prayer rug, and pray the minute that they hear the call. Our guide told us that he can “save” his prayers if he’s in the middle of guiding, and pray more when he gets home. Further more, he does not have to pray in a mosque, or any place specific. He can pray where he chooses, as long as he does pray. (For the record, I’m using “he” here because our guide was a man, but the same goes for women). I learned that there are actually two “calls” with each call – one to let people know it’s time to pray, to give them time to wash and get to a mosque if they choose, and the second, about 10 to 15 minutes later, to start the actual prayer. In addition, the imams no longer have to climb up to the top of the minaret. They now stand at the bottom with a microphone, and it’s projected over the city from speakers at the top. I guess even this age-old tradition has had to adjust to the times a bit. It doesn’t matter though, at least not to me.

As our trip progressed, I continued to listen for the call, and each time I heard it, I grew enthralled. By the time we made it to Istanbul, where mosques and minarets are almost literally on every corner, I was completely enchanted. I couldn’t understand how people could not stop in their tracks when they heard it. I don’t even pray and it made me wish that I did. It is such a hauntingly beautiful sound.

Back home, as I walk around the busy streets of Philly, I hear traffic, conversation, dogs barking, and even occasionally church bells ringing – which I’ll admit I also think are worth stopping to listen to. But nothing like the call to prayer. Nothing that makes a non-pray-er want to drop to their knees and pray to something, even if they don’t know what. This has nothing to do with religion for me. If you care to know, I’m an aspiring buddhist, and my form of prayer, if you’d like to call it that, is meditation. It has to do with simply the sound and mystique of the call for me. Perhaps if I heard it five times a day, every day, for my entire life, I’d be able to walk on without even noticing it like so many people in the Middle East seemed to be able to do. I guess I probably won’t ever find out unless my life suddenly, somehow, takes me abroad for an extended period of time. So for now, I hold the call to prayer in a special place, a place of reflection, awe, and respect for the fact that it can impact a person so profoundly.

If you’ve never heard the call, here’s a recording on my Chimera Travel Facebook page.

Disclaimer: The details I’ve stated about the prayer process were those related to me by our guides throughout the trip. If any are off a bit, I sincerely apologize. I did my best to relate what they told me in the most factual manner when it came to the aspects of the religious process.


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