Of the azan, kuliah and Arabic signs
I wish to comment on the recent arrest of a member of parliament who was allegedly requested by her constituents to take issue with Muslim Malays in regard to the azan or call to prayer, kuliah or religious lectures and Arabic letters for road signs.
The azan is the traditional call to prayer and seems to be synonymous with the birth and growth of Islam. In the eyes of the Muslims, the azan is as sacred to Islam as the performance of solat or prayers.
The issue of the azan came to the Muslims in Medinah where a group of them along with the Prophet were discussing various ways to gather Muslims at a particular time for prayers as there were no mechanical means of telling time at that time.
The Prophet disliked the suggestion to use bells or drums. Someone said that he had dreamt of a person calling out the prayers in a melodious voice. Umar Al-Khatab, who was the Prophet’s close companion, father-in-law and later-to-be Second Pious Caliph of Islam also mentioned that he had a similar dream.
When the Prophet heard the two accounts, he agreed for the call to prayer to be that of the human voice. Bilal, the black slave from Abyssinia, was asked by the Prophet to be the first muadzin and thus history was made.
The birth of the azan gave rise to the architectural feature of the minaret attached to mosques. From that historical account, it can be seen that the azan was born to solve the problem of ‘timing’ and gathering of Muslims. Thus, technically, if one has the means to tell the time, there is no need for the azan . The performance of prayers without the call of azan is valid.
However, the Prophet had stressed the importance and encouragement of the azan through many sayings about how Satan runs away when he hears the azan as well as the special rewards given to the muadzin .
When I was in Milwaukee, US, the Islamic Center was not allowed to make the azan audible to the community of non-Muslims and thus it was heard only within the building.
In Muslim-dominated countries, it should be acceptable by non-Muslims that the traditional call to prayer be audible since it takes only a few minutes and does not fall under the category of ‘disturbance’ due to its duration and traditional historical significance.
With respect to the kuliah or religious lectures or talks, it is simply an educational tool to teach Muslims about Islam and its values. The kuliah subuh is usually done immediately after morning prayers and lasts between 30 minutes to an hour.
It should not be necessary for the mosque committee to make the kuliah audible through the loudspeaker as this would breach the adab or manner of teaching religion as taught by the Prophet Muhammad.
Although the committee may have the noble intention of teaching those who had not attended the morning prayers, it is better that both Muslims and non-Muslims who are resting not be disturbed.
When advising the imam or prayer leaders in performing congregation prayers, the Prophet Muhammad reminded them to shorten their recitals to respect the rights of old people, people who had business to attend to and women who had to tend to little children.
The Prophet had also advised his companions not to hold religious teachings more than three days in a week as he feared this might cause hardship or boredom. The Prophet was very tolerant and accommodating in inviting people to Islam to make it easy initially on them.
The story of the Pious Umar Abdul Aziz when he was the governor of one of the provinces of Islam would serve to make a point as recorded by Imam Al-Ghazali in his magnum opus , the Ihya Ulumuddin .
Umar loved to perform the tahajjud or night prayer, I assume, at 3 or 4 am. He would recite the Quran loudly in the mosque in the hope that others would hear him and be awake to perform the prayers.
A man heard him and asked his son to tell the reciter to lower his voice and not to disturb people in their sleep. His son saw that it was the governor himself and did not dare to do so and reported to his father.
The man then said, "O, you who is reciting! If you wish Allah to hear your recitation, know that Allah hears everything and is not deaf. If you recite to make known that you are praying, then it is best you go back to sleep (one is not supposed to tell others that one is praying as it is a private ‘audience’ with Allah in the dead of night)".
The governor ceased his loud recitation henceforth. The message here is that doing good has its contexts and teaching religion must be done in a manner that is proper for the receiver.
With respect to the use of Arabic letters on signs, if the existing sign was written in Arabic or Chinese or Indian, it should be necessary to keep this historical significance especially if the people in the neighbourhood are still there to appreciate it.
It is necessary then to add Roman letters underneath them to spell out the words in a modern contexts. I do not think that signs must be written in various languages. It would indicate that Malaysians are not united under the national language. Vernacular letters can be justified in a historical site and context.
I hope that the following explanation is useful for Malaysians to understand the sensitivities of various cultures. It is because of a lack of education by the administration that such a situation of ignorance among the people of Malaysia exists.
Future leaders of the new Malaysia must take heed of such a problem and build a more tolerant citizenry towards a harmonious existence.