Call to Prayer

Blue Mosque

Istanbul is a fascinating city of paradox. East meets West, old meets new. I won’t attempt to do justice to writing about these paradigms, as others have done so with far greater insight than me. But one of the things that has fascinated me this week is the Islamic call to prayer.

The minarets of mosques were traditionally built  so the imam could chant the call to prayer from the highest point in the city, and therefore be heard. Today, the minarets are equipped with speakers that look like bullhorns. Five times a day, at times determined by the lunar calendar, the call to prayer is chanted across the city. There are so many mosques in Istanbul that you hear the call as if it’s echoing, coming from one mosque, then another, just a few moments behind its neighbor.

I’ve heard the call to prayer while at the Turkish bath, a bookstore, clothing stores, from friends’ homes, on the bus, and at the Istanbul Modern art museum, viewing  work that violated all sorts of Islamic prohibitions on representing the human image (not to mention nudity). I never cease to be surprised by the juxtaposition of the call, which feels like something from deepest history, against the modern circumstances in which I hear it.

But more than anything, I’m always struck by how sad, how haunting, the voice sounds to me; how such a mournful tone could be using words that declare the greatness of God. Sadness and declaring God’s greatness seem even less concordant than a mosque and a shopping mall on the same block. I recognize that my cultural lens has little experience with Islam, but still—I wish for a deep joy in this place, in this region, often.

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