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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 30, New Delhi, July 10, 2021

Calling Azaan and the question of sound pollution | K M Ajir Kutty

Friday 9 July 2021

by K M Ajir Kutty *

The Hindu of March 18, 2021 had carried a brief news story about the Vice Chancellor of the Allahabad University, Sangita Srivastava, complaining to the District administration of Prayagraj about the Muslim prayer call (Azaan/Adhan/Bank) being given loudly denying her the comfort of a sound sleep in the early hours of the morning. As the copy of the Vice Chancellor’s letter of complaint dated March 3, went viral on social media platforms, her plaint inevitably became the talk of the town. Since the complaint about the loud Azaan was made by the Vice Chancellor of a University, it succeeded in eliciting some kind of response from the authorities concerned. The Inspector General of Prayagraj directed the District Magistrate and the Senior Superintendent of Police to make sure that loudspeakers stay muted between 10.00 pm and 6.00 am. The echo of this direction was heard in the distant BJP ruled Karnataka where also the authorities ordered that loudspeakers should not be switched on between the time slot mentioned. However, reacting to the Karnataka order, the State Waqaf Board took the stance that the directive would not be heeded in respect of the early morning (Subah/Fajr)Azaan being given from mosques!

This is not the first time that well-known personalities and celebrities have made loud Azaan a bone of contention. In 2016 R. Balakrishna Pillai (1934-2021), the late influential founder leader of the Kerala Congress (B), a constituent of the ruling Left Democratic Front headed by the CPI-M, while addressing a meeting organized by the Nair Service Society at Kamukincheri, in Pathanapuram, Kollam, had likened the Muslim prayer call to the barking of dogs, forcing the Kerala Police to register a case against him for making hate speech. And it was in April 2017 that the Mumbai tinsel town singer Sonu Nigam stirred up a hornet’s nest saying that the ‘cacophony of Azaan’ heard loudly from mosques near his house jolts him out of sleep at daybreak leaving him dispirited the whole day. The striking similarity in the complaints made by the Allahabad University Vice Chancellor and Sonu Nigam with regard to the loud early morning Azaan may be accidental.

It is true that the menace of sound pollution affects the private as well as the public life of people. However, it must be admitted that the volume of noise pollution caused by loud Azaans from mosques is far low when compared to the other sources of sound pollution. This is not to justify the practice of giving ear-splitting Azzan over loudspeakers. Of all the places of worship where Public Address System (PAS) is used, it is the Hindu temples that top the list of noisy worship and rituals. This is at least true of Kerala where, it seems, there is some kind of competition in the matter of using PAS at places of worship. Hindu temples as a rule play prerecorded devotional songs in the morning and in the evening apart from conducting rituals in the accompaniment of percussion music, chanting of mantras and recitations from scriptures at events got together in connection with numerous festivals and yanjas or sacrificial rituals. There is a rule that the volume of sound from speaker systems at public functions should not be allowed to rise above 65 decibels. Following this rule, many cases have been filed against giving Azaan over PAS in different States in the country. In the State of Karnataka itself, the High Court, while hearing a petition on the use of loudspeakers in places of worship, recently pulled up the Deputy Commissioner of Police (Intelligence) of Bengaluru city for saying that the Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules enacted in 2000 needed change instead of acting as per the rules against the illegality in use of loudspeakers at places of worship. (The Hindu, June 17, 2021)

All the same, it is not known whether people have gone to court over the indiscriminate use of loudspeakers at temples, public meetings and festivals. In some States like Kerala, although the Motor Vehicle Act Section 53 Clause 289 explicitly bans the use of music systems in public transport, there are many instances of the buses and other modes of public transport blatantly violating them; freakish motorcyclists are also seen screeching past poor pedestrians and rule abiding motorists. But nobody ever bothers to put a stop to such acts of hooliganism by filing suits against the lawbreakers. Different High Courts in the country as well as the Supreme Court of India have passed judgments ordering the authorities concerned to take immediate steps towards demolishing places of worship illegally built on encroached lands and by the side of roads. But no action worth mentioning has come of it. Although this question does not have a direct bearing on the subject of this article, it cannot be denied that illegally built places of worship also contribute in their own way to the problem of sound pollution. When there are many such problems out there to plague the lives of common people, what, other than intolerance, drives people to go to court or to complain to the District administration about calling Azaan, (Bank) over loudspeakers? Why Azaan alone should be a cause for irritation and a source of perennial sound pollution?

What is Azaan?

Should it be given over loudspeakers?

All practising Muslims are expected to offer prayers at five stated times in mosques under the leadership of an imam. Azaan is a call given from mosques to remind the faithful of the time for prayer. It was Prophet Muhammad himself who instituted the practice of giving Azaan/Bank in Islam. The word Bank, which is also used widely in the Indian subcontinent to refer to Azaan, is not of Arabic origin. This Persian word gained currency in the Indian subcontinent through Urdu. A collection of poems by Dr. Muhammad Iqbal is entitled Bank-e-Dara meaning the Call of the Marching Bell or the Call of the Road. The Muslim prayer call given from mosques is called Adhan (Azaan) in Arabic, and the person who makes the call is known as Muaddhin or Muezzin. The words used in Adhan translate as follows: Allah is the greatest/ I bear witness that there is no god worthy of worship other than Allah/ I bear witness that Muhammad is His messenger/ Rush for prayer/ Rush to gain success/ Allah is the greatest/ There is no god other than Allah. Apart from this, in the Azaan for the prayer at dawn (Subah), one more line which roughly translates as ‘prayer is better than sleep’ is also aired. Hence, the Azaan or Bank is a call given by using these words which are said twice over the course of its delivery. As mentioned earlier, the Azaan is, therefore, a call given at the top of the Muezzin’s voice to remind the faithful that it is time for prayer.

Some critics of Bank have questioned the need for giving it aloud on the misunderstood assumption that the God of the Muslims is so deaf as to be invoked with an ear piercing call! This charge is preposterous as the Azaan is meant to call the faithful to mosques for prayers and not to invoke God. Even the iconoclast Bhakti poet Kabir too was under the impression that the Muslim prayer call was meant to address God whom he portrays as all hearing. See what Kabir says in this poem of his: ‘I do not know what manner of God is mine/ The Mullah cries aloud to Him: and why? / Is your Lord deaf? / the subtle anklet that ring on the feet of an insect when it moves are heard of Him/ Tell your beads, paint your forehead with the mark of your God/ and wear matted locks long and showy: / but a deadly weapon is in your heart, / and how shall you have God?’ (Taken from One Hundred Poems of Kabir translated by Rabindranath Tagore: Chronicle Books, New Delhi, 2008) Given the overall atmosphere of pretentious piety portrayed in the poem, Kabir’s criticism of the Azaan may not be out of place. But it cannot be denied that the otherwise sharp criticism raised by Kabir is blunted by the fact that the Azaan is not meant to address God! Since raising questions with regard to the soundness of arguments in stories and fiction is something impermissible, let us leave the matter there for the time being!

It was Bilal ibn Rabah, a prominent Companion of the Prophet, who was deputed to call Azaan for the first time in the history of Islam. Bilal, a melodious singer in his own way was a black Arabian slave who had to undergo unspeakable suffering, torture and persecution for embracing the faith of Islam. The fact that the Prophet was very particular that the Azaan was to be given in a sweet and attractive voice could be gauged from his choice of Bilal as the first Muezzin of Islam. The Prophet asking Bilal, the freed slave of Abu Bakr, to climb on top of the Ka’abah and give Azaan in the presence of the heavyweights of the Arabian aristocracy of the time is an exhilarating incident in the history of Islam. As the late Islamic scholar and thinker Dr. Ismail Raji al Faruqui (1921-1986) has observed, the different styles adopted for the recitation of The Qur’an has contributed to making the Muslims prayer call also captivatingly beautiful.

From what has been described about Azaan thus far, it can be gathered that it is a loud call given from mosques at stated times to remind the faithful of the time for prayer. But the questions how loud it should be and should it be given over PAS remain. It goes without saying that Azaan should be called aloud; but it doesn’t need to be given over loudspeakers. Giving Azaan through the PAS is neither a requirement nor a law in the religion of Islam. It can also be stated that all Muslims are not adamant that Azaan be given over loudspeakers only. Technically and exegetically, the Azaan is a prayer, too. The manner of supplicating to Allah has been described in the Qur’an in chapter six Al A’raf verse 55 thus: ‘Pray to your Lord with humility and in secret. He does not love the transgressors.’ Regarding God being all-seeing and all-knowing etc. the Qur’an makes powerful statements in more telling metaphors than Kabir’s ‘subtle anklet that ring on the feet of the insect’ as for example in chapter seven Al An’am verse 59 it says “He has knowledge of all that land and sea contain: every leaf that falls is known to Him.” And in chapter fifty Al Qaf: verse 16 the Qur’an further states, “We created man. We know the promptings of his soul, and are closer to him than his jugular vein.” But since the Azaan is not a prayer or supplication expected to be articulated silently, it has to be given aloud with the express purpose of calling the believers to proceed for offering the prayers or salat. 

That said, it has to be admitted that there can be occasions when calling the Azaan can be irritating or disturbing to others. For instance, it can cause a lot of nuisance when the Bank is simultaneously given over loudspeakers from very many different mosques built in proximity at a particular place. It can be annoying also when people who awkwardly pronounce Arabic words happen to give Azaan in a voice that is not sweet at all. Whatever it is, any solution to the problem of ‘sound or noise pollution’ caused by Bank must come from within the Muslim community itself. The use of trumpet like loudspeakers or speakers capable of producing high decibel sound is in fact banned by law. So if a number of mosques are located at a particular place, the use of loudspeakers within permissible limits can be limited to one prominent masjid in the area with the rest either opting out of their use or restricting their use within the mosques themselves. Although it was reported some time ago that some Muslim organizations in Kozhikode, Kerala had decided at a meeting to restrict the use of loudspeakers at mosques, it is not known if they were able to implement the decision. Public Address System is used to give Friday sermons also. At certain mosques the worshippers sometimes sit together and chant or recite the praises of Allah or the Prophet, which has no sanction as a ritual or observance in the Islam taught by Prophet Muhammad, using loudspeakers. Whatever they do, they must at least show the courtesy and wisdom that performing rituals do not disturb the peaceful life of others. In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia the authorities recently went about cracking down on the use of mosque loudspeakers enforcing some measure of restrictions aimed at purging the Saudi society of its conservative images. No reform that does not come from within the community itself will have the desired effect on the people it is aimed at. Some people might argue that why Muslims can’t use loudspeakers at mosques when people belonging to the other faiths use them at their places of worship. This line of argument is quite meaningless. Religion must bring solace and peace to oneself and to all those around him. If it cannot do that, what is the use of it, what is it for? Therefore, followers of religion by themselves must become paragons of peace and harmony.

*(The author K. M. Ajir Kutty is a bilingual writer, poet and an award-winning translator; E-mail: ajirkutty[at]hotmail.com / ajirkutty[at]gmail.com)

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