The call to prayer

Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Tuesday 11 Apr 2023



There it stands throughout the world, a visible landmark of any Islamic city.

Tall, stately, beautiful, it looks up to the sky, almost touching it, in humble worship of Allah. It is an architectural masterpiece.

It is the minaret, the visual symbol of the mosque where faithful Muslims come to pray.

There are two purposes of a minaret: a platform used to summon Muslims to prayer; and an impressive, powerful symbol of the influence of Islam.

The holy month of Ramadan demands the most rigorous fast, abstinence from food and drink from 11 to 20 hours a day, depending on season and location. Simultaneously, the exacting Muslim prayers increase during those holidays, yet the atmosphere is full of joy, love and peace. Muslims glory in their faith and its rituals, holding on to their beloved traditions.

As important as fasting is prayer, including the Taraweeh, or night prayers extended by two to 20 rakaa — the kneeling in humility to God Almighty.

Although some young Muslims complain about prayers interfering with their modern lifestyles,-an inconvenience hard to adhere to, yet Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world.

According to a study of the Pew Research Centre, from 2010 to 2050, Muslims will increase by 73 per cent, Christians by 34 per cent, and Hindus by 34 per cent. It is also projected that 10 per cent of Europeans will be Muslims by 2050.

The simplicity, purity, and logic of the religion as well as its adherence to the Bible’s Old Testament appeals to those who learn about it.

Since the birth of the religion in 610, Muslims prayed at dawn and sunset. The call to prayer was not established as it was in religions that preceded it.

The Jews used a ram’s horn to call their followers to prayer.

The Christians used a wooden gong, a cracker, or a bell. The sound of a bell ringing from a Christian monastery was a frequent image in pre-Islamic poetry.

Muslims needed some sign to call the faithful to prayer in an organised fashion.

According to a hadith (a saying by Prophet Mohamed), a member of the Sahaba (his followers) Abdallah Ibn Ziad had a dream where he saw an old man carrying a trundle with a bell in it. He asked the old man to sell him the bell. “What for?’ asked the old man, and Ibn Ziad explained: “To call Muslims to prayer.” The old man answered: “Just call God is great, God is great.” Ibn Ziad told Prophet Mohamed about his dream, who immediately considered it a vision. He suggested another follower, Bilal, make the call to prayer since he had a stronger voice than Ibn Ziad. Bilal learned the words. He sought a high or public place, a doorway or a roof, a balcony or even a city wall in order to reach a greater number of ears.

His chant of the azan, or call to prayer, was so powerful, so spiritual, so strong, Muslims flocked out of every corner at the command, to perform the prayer ritual.

It was never performed from a tower.

There were no towers, manara, or minaret, then.

Where did the idea come from? Its origins remain unclear.

In 1859 Julius Franz Pasha in his Baukunst del Islam (Islamic Architecture) sees no connection with the architecture of other faiths or races

Many 19th and 20th century scholars traced the origin to the Umayyad Caliphate period (661-750). They believed minarets emulated the church steeples found in Christian Syria.

Scholars A J Butler and Herman Thiersh argued that the Egyptian minarets were inspired by the form of the Pharos Lighthouse in Alexandria, which survived up until mediaeval times.

J Creswell, important orientalist of the 20th century and scholar of Islamic architecture, contributed a major study on the question in 1926, which became the standard scholarly theory. Creswell ascertained that the first mosque was that of Amr Ibn Al-Aas, Arab conqueror of Egypt, built in Fustat, old Egyptian capital, in 673.

It is baffling that none considered the ancient Egyptian obelisk as an inspiration to the minaret

Art historian Jonathan Bloom contends that the first true minarets only appeared under the Abbasid rule, in the ninth century and the purpose was not the call to prayer, but always attached to a mosque, as a visual symbols of the mosque’s status.

They were used as a call to prayer in the 10th century and it was only in the 11th century that minaret towers became universal features of a mosque, visible from afar.

To us, they are a beacon of religion, a holy tower from which the faithful are called to prayer five times a day by a muezzin (one who chants the azan). Their designs are basically Islamic, but differ according to cultural influences.

Minarets spread from Africa to Asia, now to Europe, the UK, the US, and Canada announcing the presence of Islam.

The tallest minarets are found in Algiers, Bosnia, and Pakistan, but the most charming are right here in Cairo.

Known as the “city with 1,000 mosques”, Cairo now boasts 7,000 mosques. A unique metropolis Cairo with such charm, a multi-cultural mix, and minarets galore.

Despite radio, TV, mobiles and other technological means for a call to prayer, one’s heart still throbs at the lyrical chant of the muezzin from atop a slender minaret with all its glorious beauty and splendour.


“You pray in your stress and in your need; would that you might pray also in the fullness of your joy”.

        Khalil Gibran (1883-1931)


* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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