We are staying in the Sultanahmet Suites, Istanbul. The Gold Suites were next door to a mosque, but had 24 hour security. We chose them, well for the security, and someone to ask for help if the wifi died, anything in the apartment malfunctioned, we needed directions to shops, attractions, or the Bosphorus cruise I’d love to take.
But the muezzin’s call at dawn!! Goodness, how loud. How unbearably loud! Beautiful? Well, not to my ears which find Gregorian chant beautiful, but all aesthetic appreciation, of course, is an acquired taste.
But at 5.15 in the morning, to be rudely awakened, with sentiments which must seem platitudinous if you are awakened with them every dawn, and hear them at mid-day, mid-afternoon, at sunset and two hours after sunset besides….
And here a translation of the call, in a call and response form, possibly derived from Judaism and Christianity.
1 Allah u Akbar, Allah u Akbar
— Allah is Great, Allah is Great
2-Ash-hadu al-la Ilaha ill Allah – Ash-hadu al-la Ilaha ill Allah
— I bear witness that there is no divinty but Allah
3 Ash-hadu anna Muhammadan Rasulullaah
— I bear witness that Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger
4 Hayya la-s-saleah – Hayya la-s-saleah
— Hasten to the prayer, Hasten to the prayer
5 Hayya la-l-faleah – Hayya la-l-faleah
— Hasten to real success, Hasten to real success,
6 Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar
— Allah is Great, Allah is Great
7 La Ilaha ill Allah
— There is no divinity but Allah
The most annoying part is that the chant—which originally required the muezzin to climb his minaret and sing–is now recorded, and for all we know the muezzin is snug in bed, his earplugs on. So, even the poetry of the singing muezzin, awaking the dawn from his minaret is lost!!
* * *
I endured what felt like 20 minutes of this at dawn and felt it was so dictatorial, so demanding for non-Muslims, non-practising Muslims, and Muslims who would rather sleep to be awakened to listen to this.
In a secular society, this would not be permitted. For instance, earlier this month a Nottingham church was fined £360 for praising the Lord too loudly. That’s apparently noise pollution.
There was a vigorous debate in Oxford about the Muslim community’s petition to be permitted to issue these five times a day call to prayers from their mosque in Cowley Road.
Charlie Cleverly, the Rector of the charismatic St. Aldate’s, Oxford (and someone I viscerally disagree with on many things) opposed it because it is “nuisance noise affecting the inhabitants that have to hear it. I feel it is un-English.”
Come on, Charlie, I thought. (Remember what I said about visceral uneasiness and disagreement?) They are here because you were there. If England hadn’t colonised Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Nigeria, Malaysia, there would be no question of a mosque in the centre of Oxford. “English” is a racial term. Why should these Muslims behave like English people, for heaven’s sake!! Did the English behave like Indians in India or Nigerians in Nigeria?
Interestingly, I was corresponding with an Italian Twitter follower, Alberto Farina who works near the Vatican earlier this week. He wrote
I work in fact so close to Vatican that each day there’s a deafening moment when I remember how the Bells always toll for me!
I answered that I hear bells throughout the day in Oxford, and think it’s magical.
To which Alberto Farina said, “I do love bells except when I can’t hear anything but! 😉
Cleverly was asked whether bells aren’t similar noise pollution. He replied
“There is a world of difference. Bells are just a signal and have been around for 1,500 years. They are a terribly English part of our culture.”
Besides, “I don’t think the meaning of the Arabic in the call to prayer is neutral.
Well, okay, having 5 onslaughts of the call to prayer so recently has laid to rest any nostalgia for the early morning call to prayer I used to hear when visiting my grandparents in Bombay which competed with the rooster’s crow, and announced a day’s adventures and surprises.
I think I can do without it. I will stick to bells (which, incidentally, I adore).
* * *
And I do not think I would like to live in a theocracy, a Muslim or a Christian one. I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale probably 25 years ago, but I don’t think her bleak, dystopian vision of a theocracy is entirely far-fetched. Once you’ve met a few power-hungry, stupid, religious bullies, you’ll agree!
What are the dangers of mixing God and statesmanship? Simply that one can make very stupid political misjudgements while believing that you are prompted to do so by God. George Bush rose before dawn to pray, read his Bible and Oswald Chambers, yet the misguided wars to which he felt led cost the US billions of dollars, thousands of lives, sowed the seeds of hatred in the Muslim world, and who knows what dreadful harvest will be reaped from it? And Tony Blair’s early morning Bible reading, sadly, did not steer him out of Iraq.
Do I trust the conclusions politicians derive from their prayer and Bible reading? Do I want countries to be run, or foreign policy to depend, on what politicians think they hear in their sessions of prayer and Bible study?
No way! Hearing God accurately is an art. It takes a lifetime to master. Remember St. Francis hearing God say, “Rebuild my church,” and so rebuilding St. Damiano where he heard this with money purloined from his father? But, as usual, God was thinking much bigger than we dream.
I think I would rather be governed by people who use their spirits in conjunction with their heads, hearts and the advice of wise peers. Power often attracts the worst people, and I do not believe that power in the hands of very religious people, who believe they hear from God, would necessarily give us a better society than power in the hands of mildly Christian people (like Obama and Cameron) who are also highly intelligent, cool, level-headed and have good judgement.
I once worshipped in a charismatic church in which the Rector and his wife sometimes did foolish and abusive things—and blamed the Holy Spirit for them. “The Holy Spirit told us,” they’d say when embarking on a naked power play, or some patently advantageous, ambition-gratifying ploy.
Can you imagine a nation run like that? No, I guess I support the American Founding Father’s principle of the separation of Church and State.
I want to live in the Kingdom of God within me, and I would love to live in the Kingdom of God in Oxford, in England, in Europe.
And one way to bring this about is by establishing the Kingdom of God in the hearts and spirits of the inhabitants of these beloved places. And let it start with me!