I’m in Turkey now. The country just had an election and it swung to the religious right. It’s the holy month of Ramadan and the atmosphere is charged.
Let me share some things I’ve learned about Muslim tradition — apologizing in advance for anything I get wrong because this is always dangerous territory…especially when you try to simplify and inject any playfulness.
(Any Muslim readers are welcome to set me straight, as I am quite certain that I have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God somewhere here. Any Christian threatened by the growth of Islam…please comment only in a constructive spirit of seeking understanding. I am a Christian who can live peacefully with Islam. I’d rather this not be one more battleground on that issue.)
Traditionally, as the sun prepares to rise, an imam stares at his arm. When he can tell a grey hair from a black one, it’s time to call his parish to prayer.
While quality and warble varies, across the land the Arabic words of the call to prayer are exactly the same. The first one of the day comes with an extra line.
Praying is better than sleeping,
God is great (Allahhhhhh akbar…)
I witness there is no other God but Allah
I witness Mohammad is Allah’s prophet
Come join the prayer
Come to be saved
God is Great…God is great
There is no other God but Allah
My hotel is within earshot of five mosques. They say tiny mosques can’t afford a musician, so the imam himself does the singing — not always top-quality. Big mosques have a trained professional singer — much better. To the non-Muslim ear, it sounds like coyotes howling in a cacophony. My challenge (which I succeed at) is to hear it as a beautiful form of praise that sweeps across the globe like a stadium wave, undulating exactly as fast as the earth turns…five times a day.
As pre-Vatican II Catholicism embraced Latin (I guess for tradition, uniformity and so all could relate and worship together anywhere any time), Islam embraces Arabic. Turks recently experimented by doing the call to prayer in Turkish, but they switched back to the traditional Arabic.
The trained singer is a “Muezzin.” “Ezzin” means prayer. “Mu” before a word in Arabic is like “er” after a word in English — it means “one who does it.” Muezzin.
The Koran says “Abraham was a good submitter (to the will of God).” The word for submitter is “Muslim” derived from “Islam” (submit) with a “mu” (one who). Islam means submit, Mu-Islam (contracted to “Muslim”) is literally one who submits. I followed up asking my friends “how about eat and eater?” They said, “We don’t know Arabic.”
Traveling in Islam, the call to prayer sounds spooky to many Americans. My time in Turkey, with the charming conviviality of neighborhoods in the streets that comes with Ramadan (just as it comes with Christmas where I come from), reminds me how travel takes the fear out of foreign ways.
Traveling here also reminds me how my Dad used to be absolutely distraught by the notion that God and Allah could be the same. I taught our son, Andy (when he was about three years old) to hold out his arms, bob them up and down, and say “Allah, Allah, Allah” after table grace just to freak out his Grandpa.
Then I took my Dad to Turkey.