Wistful Memories of a Soulful Azan

Written by Sehba Imam | Published on: April 19, 2017
Azan, specially if the muazzin is besura, is a torture for auditory senses. Unfortunately, it’s very rare to hear soulful azans these days. In Aligarh, in our early childhood days, the masjids were somehow never too close to the kind of places we lived in. A strain of Azan would float by unobtrusively, through the playground, indicating the time to go home. 'Maghrib ki azan se pehle ghar aa jaana' used to be the standard instruction from Mom. 

Masjids were few and far between, they didn't seem to get in your way on random roads. For years, the only Masjid I knew was this quaint, faded pink, single minar structure called Ek Minar ki Masjid. It was on the way to Qabristan and I had an eerie fascination for it. Once when a friend asked us to go in with him, I ran back the moment my feet touched the cold marble floor spreading out into a resounding silence. 

I don't remember if it had a loudspeaker those days. Azan was an alarm clock for parents, a curfew to get back home for us kids, a segue into night after a cluttered day filled with school, friends and random visits from relatives  - it was a lot of things to a lot of people - but never a war cry or an announcement of faith. 

Later, as the town started spreading haphazardly beyond the neat rows of elegant University residential quarters or old kothis, Masjids started sprouting up here and there. These were not quaint - but belligerent. They got in your face at corners, Squatted in the middle of playgrounds, they grabbed breathing spaces between houses and screamed for attention. They had protruding corners and stubborn pointy towers. Some were a screaming white, some looked like they had been dropped in a tub of loud green by mistake. Grown ups scoffed at them complaining about gulf money. 

While earlier one single familiar voice of the muazzin wafted across,  knitting many mohallas together - gently inviting or marking time... now azans barged into homes from many directions. Loudspeakers amplified the harshness of untrained muazzins. These were not artists but more like raw zealots - There was more passion than reverence in their voices. We giggled, laughed poked fun at them and called them phata baans... irreverent, irreligious people like me and devout aunties who covered their heads when they heard the azan - we all called an unpleasant intrusion by it's name. No one judged us for laughing at the muazzins and covering our ears or for running indoors and shutting the door to keep the noise out. Religion was not a live bomb that could go off with the slightest touch of irreverence, it was more like a favourite delicate curio which people wanted to protect from harsh glare. You were free to not share their enthusiasm without being branded as an enemy of faith.

Around the same time in school, a teacher poked fun at azan quoting Kabir, 
'Kankar, pathar jod ke, Masjid liye banaye
Taa chadh mulla baang de, kya behra hua khudaye.' 


The doha appealed to me. I was impressed with the idea of calling out the stupidity in screaming at the top of your voice to a God you claimed was omnipresent anyway! 

My father, the staunch atheist, explained why the doha was faulty on a factual point. Azan is not a call or a prayer to Allah neither is it in praise of Allah, it is a call to the faithful to remind them that it's time for prayers. It's more like an alarm, a reminder and was needed in the time, when clocks and alarms had not been invented. 

This was a harsh blow to my reverence for both, my teacher’s knowledge and for Kabir’s wisdom. I had just discovered that I liked Kabir for his thought process, his ambivalent identity and the fun he had with language. I don’t know if it came to me later or if my father spoke that day about how a single person cannot have all the right answers. Later too, instead of dogma, Daddy always fed us with the importance of questioning, seeking, finding our own answers. He said there are other ways to interpret the doha, and that Kabir was critical of outward expression in all religions. But facts are sacrosanct, so it’s important to know exactly what one is criticising. 

I think we agreed on the redundancy of loudspeakers in the time of alarm clocks and wrist watches (now mobile phones too). If someone really cared for their God, they would find a way to remind themselves - after all you do not forget to do things that you really care for.

Loudspeakers then, it seems - in a masjid, mandir, mandap or pandal - are not about religion, reverence or spirituality. They are attempts at forcing your idea of your god or your leader down my throat. They are a war cry, an announcement of your supremacy, a gaudy display of your shallow faith or power and a rude invasion into someone else's space. 

Kabir and Sonu Nigam are both right if we carefully consider the essence of their criticism about imposing our faith on others or inconveniencing others for what we consider sacred.

(The writer wrote this on her facebook page)