The Call to Prayer
Five times a day, throughout the Muslim world, life is interrupted, aurally and often physically, by the call to prayer. As a reminder to Muslims beckoning them to gather to pray, the call is almost uniform throughout the Muslim world. This call is heard, originally by a voice without artificial projection, but in modern times a PA (public address) system has been used, and sometimes even a recording, coming from the rooftop of a mosque or the heights of its minaret. In the Sunni* world, the call to prayer consists of seven elements, one of which is repeated, and another two which are very similar to each other, meaning there are five distinct and unique elements to the call to prayer. Each element consists of a sentence, which is most often chanted with a rhythmical melody, repeated one or more times depending on the particular element. It can take anywhere from two to five minutes to recite. In order, each of the elements of the call to prayer are described briefly below.
This is a phrase often heard from the mouth of someone just prior to performing a violent act in the name of God or spoken by someone when hearing traumatic news, such as the death of a loved one. It means “God is the greatest.” Coming from the root k-b-r, which forms the adjective meaning big, old or great, it is transformed in this phrase into the superlative form.
ashhadu an lā ilāha illa ʾllāh
For those of you following the blog that don’t know Arabic, you might recognize most of this phrase, as it contains the first part of the shahāda for Muslims, “There is no god but Allah.” This phrase is introduced by the verbal phrase, “I testify that...” So, following a declaration of the greatness of God, the call to prayer then recites the creed of the faith, one part at a time.
ashhadu anna Muḥammadan rasūlu ʾllāh
This is the second part of the creed of faith for Muslims, “Muhammad is the messenger of God.” It also is introduced by the phrase, “I testify that...”
ḥayya ʿala ʾl-ṣalāt
The last word in this sentence, ṣalāt (note that the letters ʾl, sometimes seen as al, represent the definite article “the,” and therefore are not included in the reference here), is the Arabic word for prayer. The first part of the sentence is a verbal imperative (the command form, if you’re having trouble remembering your grammar), meaning "come." There are other verbal forms that are used for come, however this verb is from the same root that can mean live, to live to see or experience. So this phrase can be translated as “Come to prayer!”
ḥayya ʿala ʾl-falāḥ
Similar to the previous element, this is also an appeal to come, with the different word being success. I recall the first time I really understood this sentence many years ago, as I had always confused it with the meaning of farmer. It seemed strange and initially I wondered if the call to prayer had a specific focus on urging agriculturalists in a rural economy to come to prayer. However, in Arabic, the word for success used here (falāḥ), and the word for farmer (fallāḥ - notice the doubled central consonant), are from the same root. As I’ve reflected on how this may have come about linguistically, it appears that farming, or tilling the soil, leads to harvest and harvest is a sign of blessing or success. So my initial instinct of associating this word with agriculture was correct. This part of the call to prayer reminds the faithful that prayer itself leads to success.
This sentence, a repeat from the initial element, is the first part of the conclusion of the call to prayer. "God is the greatest."
lā ilāha illa ʾllāh
Similar to the opening line of the call to prayer, this is again the first half of the shahāda.
Prayer is a ritual practice that devout Muslims will engage in five times a day. This call to prayer is recited at the appropriate times of day reminding Muslims who pray, and even those who don’t, that it is time to gather and pray.
Although there are many recordings of calls to prayer that you can find on the web, here a couple of them that I enjoy hearing.
*Sunni is the largest identifiable grouping of Muslims in the world. Other groups would include Shiaʿ, and sometimes the division of Sufi. Sunni and Shiaʿ Muslims can be further broken down into smaller identifiable groups based on common distinctive beliefs.
**Allāh - Arabic for the one true god worshiped in Islam. This name will be used almost interchangeably with God through this website to refer to God in English.