The word of the month: the muezzin
26 April 2018
The word of the month is dedicated to the role and the history of the muezzin. An essential figure in daily life in the Middle East, the muezzin is particularly in charge of calling the muslims to the five daily prayers from the minaret. Depending on his vocal qualities, he will illuminate your days with his beautiful voice, or on the contrary will put a painful end to your sleep wellbefore the dawn … The two options are not incompatible with each other!
Now some ethymology…and history!
In Arabic, Muezzin, is written مؤذن. Actually, you’re not supposed to pronounce it plainly “muezzin”, but rather “MOU’AITHIIIN”, with a TH as in “thing” in English. Should be easy for the english native speakers, but less for the other ones. The pronounciation is important, as your keep the “z” instead of the “th”, you might just have said “decorated” in arabic instead of “muezzin” 🙂 .
Well, now at least french people have just repainted their computer screen with their spit trying to pronounce muezzin correctly, let’s move on with a few anecdotes about this unavoidable function in Islam.
Where does this word come from, “muezzin” or mu’aḏḏin?
The Arabic language is structured with root letters in each word, which enables us to connote the word. Muezzin means “the one who calls”. This word contains the same connotation as “aḏḏan“, which stands for the usual call to prayer for Muslims (it is the one you hear five times a day from the minarets).
And both mu’aḏḏin as aḏḏan are related to “i’ḏan“, (ear), “aḏina” (listen)! … In short, it is all question of listening or hearing what the man has to say from thetop of the minaret.
When did the first muezzin exerce? According to solid sources (an interesting article of Historia magazine , that I invite you to discover here – french version), the first muezzin carried out his role during the very first years of Islam. He was a slave converted in secret to Islam, and he was then bought and freed by Abu Bakr. First companion of the Prophet Muhammad, one of the first converted to Islam, Abu Bakr became in 632 the first Caliph of history, after Muhammad’s death.
The first call to make the pilgrimage to Mecca was launched in 630AD by this muezzin , once the Islamic forces had seized Mecca to the polytheists;
Was the first muezzin an Arab?
Nope ! This freed slave was originally from Abyssinia from his mother (today, Ethiopia – Eritrea-Sudan). His name was Bilal ibn Rabah, and he was black-skinned. This detail has certainly had a role in the development of Islam in the early days. Indeed, in a pre-Islamic Arabia where slavery wad more than common, the vision of a black colossus, ex-slave, calling to the prayer, constituted at the time a symbol of openness and diversity.
…And later on, the power of this symbol was also broadly exploited in the hagiography of Islam. Just one example here : check out your youtube with the keyword “Bilal ibn Rabah”, and you will see how much the image of the freed is mythified. Especially compared to actual history: if you go deeper into that , you’d probably know that the Arab slave trade lasted for more than 13 centuries. And also, slavery was still legally allowed until the twentieth century (yes, yes, twentieth) in some Arab countries (Morocco, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania).
Live my life as a muezzin
Muezzin and imam, same thing?
Nope, agains! The role of the Imam is to lead the prayer. He takes his legitimacy from his knowledge of Islamic law, texts, and sunnah. The word “Imam” comes from the Arabic “إمام”, whose root means “the one who is in front”. To summarize, an imam is etymologically the one who stands instand of the other believers in order to lead the prayer.
The muezzin is primarily responsible for calling believers to prayer. He is therefore recruited on his vocal qualities. Initially, remember it’s all about singing loud and good enough to convince as many believers as possible to go to the mosque. In addition to being a freed slave, the first muezzin, Bilal, was reputed to be a colossus with a stentor’s voice.
What is the job description of muezzin? How to apply?
The muezzin calls for prayer 6 times a day. waitwaitwait….Did you tell me “6 times” , while there are only 5 prayers per day in Sunni Islam?
actually, yes…It is because the first call (the one at the end of the night, well before dawn…) is made two times! Yes, you have to make sure that believers have correctly heard the call! :-). According to the tradition, the call is made by plugging the ears with hands or fingers, so as not to be distracted …
And according to another tradition, the muezzin is also ideally blind , because it he should not be able to observe the intimate life of people from the top of his minaret. Particularly, he must not be able to observe women living on the terraces of houses, whose roofs are traditionally flat in the Middle East …
The muezzin also plays a role during the prayer, since he sometimes echoes the preachings of the imam. Finally, because the calls to prayer are often pre-recorded, and transmitted by powerful speakers (the expats of the Middle East will understand what I mean :-), the muezzin also participates tothe mosque’s life as a factotum. It is not a well paid job (a hundred euros per month in Egypt …), and even, the muezzin is not supposed to ask for a salary, since his work is an act of faith.
Ups and downs of a muezzin
Like football players, muezzins are often detected and recruited young because of their technical qualities. The best ones sing their first aḏḏans at the age of 10 or 12 years. Sometimes, this gift is hereditary: some muezzins, like the Kazaz father and son in al aqsa mosque in Jerusalem/al Qods, are real stars. They are issued from a 5 centuries-old dynasty of muezzins! And one must admit that the aḏḏan of Firas Kazaz is truely magnificient:
Meanwhile, newcomers inth middle-East can feel a slight cultural shift when they discover that here … one doesn’t decide the wake up time by its own ! :-). Some like it, some don’t…please allow me a short cultural opening, by showing you the setbacks of Hubert Bonisseur de la la Bath, a.k.a OSS117, the french equivalent of James Bond 007:
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On the same theme, please check out our other articles on:
The word of the month (february) : the Hashemites, who are they?
The word of the month (march) : keffiyeh…and shemagh: what’s the difference?
And to get deeper into it (french readers only)
les muezzins aujourd’hui: je vous conseille cet intéressant article de Claude Guibal, pioché dans Libération en 2009, sous le titre “Les muezzins s’amenuisent” (attention jeu de mot), ou encore ce reportage de Marie-Armelle Beaulieu, “muezzin de père en fils à al-aqsa” dans le Fig’ .
le mythe de Bilal ibn rabah: une biographie en anglais de Bilal ibn trouvée sur le site blakkpepper, site (ghanéen? ) générique d’informations centré sur les aspects ethniques;
et enfin, un très intéressant article déniché sur le site de Sciences Po Paris, tiré d’une recherche d’ Eran Tzidkiyahu sur la problématique du bruit crée par les appels à la prière en Israël…Entre liberté de culte, respect de l’autre, relations interconfessionnelles, géopolitique, le sujet est complexe, et les solutions adoptées varient considérablement selon les pays !