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Disturbing Headlines Obscure the Meaning of Islam

Sabrine Djemil says that experiencing the Adhan in Algeria was an almost surreal experience

by David C. Barnett

This week's conclusion of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan is only one part of a spiritual life. One of the core principles of that life is prayer; it starts early every morning, even before the sun comes up.. 

"Prayer is better than sleeping," chuckles Faoud Saeed, Imam of the Greater Cleveland Islamic Center.

Every day, Muslims around the world are called to prayer by a religious chant known as the Adhan. Upon hearing these words, the faithful turn to face the holy city of Mecca to pray.  Imam Saeed  says the melodious Adhan praises God and identifies Muhammad as his messenger.

"In our belief system," he adds,  "the prophet says when you stand in the prayer you’re facing God. You stand face-to-face with God. The prophet said, when you pray, your sins are on your head and on your shoulders. With every movement you do in the prayer, you sins are washed away."

According to the Quran, God originally told Muhammad that there should be fifty prayers a day, but his friend Moses didn’t think much of that idea.   Imam Saeed paraphrases him: "Your people will not handle fifty prayers; it’s too hard for them.  Go back to the Lord and ask him to reduce.”  And, to this day, Muslims pray five times a day.

Through the years, Muslims have found various ways to stay on schedule.  In the Middle East, the Adhan is delivered by robed men in tall towers, known as minarets.  Many American Muslims, like Sabrine Djemil get their prayer reminders from mantelpiece alarm clocks --- which occasionally can be awkward. She recalls the time some non-Muslim friends were visiting.

"I’m sure it was kind of jarring," she says.  "We were all watching TV and then suddenly I have singing and poetry in Arabic in the background.  I’m sure they’d heard it in movies, and it was strange that it was coming from a clock in my home."

And, there’s even an app for that. 

The Call to Prayer sometimes reaches across faiths. Julia Shearson grew-up in a Catholic home and was raised in a tradition where worshippers were summoned by steeple bells.  She says her spiritual life changed about 20 years ago, during a visit to Syria when she found herself surrounded by the sounds from multiple mosques.  She remembers:

"I heard the first call, and then you hear somewhere else, in a more distant minaret, you hear another call, and then another, and another, and another, until it sounds like the entire city is about to lift up into heaven.  I mean, it was just absolutely magical." 

Muslims first came to Northeast Ohio in the 1920s, but the population has spiked in more recent years as newcomers arrived in the ‘70s and had children here.  There are about 70,000 Muslims who live in the region, now, and about a third of those --- like Julia Shearson --- are converts.  She says it was both the soulful sound and the inspiring words of the Adhan that called her to be a Muslim.

"Because, it’s saying, whatever your problems are, whatever your sorrows are, whatever your difficulties are --- God is greater. When we hear that God is greater than all this, it calls us to be greater, it calls us to be better, it calls us to do more.  I think the Call to Prayer is both an admonition, and a solace --- it’s kind of what connects the human being to the Divine."

And no matter how one makes that connection, the thing that unites all Muslims is a sound that is centuries old, calling the faithful to pause their busy lives for a few moments, and contemplate something bigger than themselves.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.