One of the fascinating details from my experience in Kenya was the prevalence of members of the Islamic community in the area in which I lived. There were so many Muslims living in the town where I lived that there were four Mosques in our area. Even though the home where I stayed was a mile from the nearest one, I heard the call to prayer with regularity. I loved to hear the reminder for the people of the community to stop what they were doing and pray. I didn’t get to catch it all five times of the day, only when the wind was right. If I was really lucky, I would be walking on my route to town, which took me directly next to one of the mosques at the outskirts of the city. They had a school there as well, I know because I would see children coming with backpacks out of the meeting area at the end of the day. They, like all the children in the area, played pick-up games of football (global football, mind you, the round ball kind) with their makeshift balls formed from discarded paper, plastic, and twine.
When I left Kenya, I missed hearing the call to prayer on a regular basis. Even though it wasn’t my tradition, I knew that it was reminding people from another tradition to pause and pray, and so I also would pause, and pray. In the Christian tradition, we don’t have much of that. The only times I tend to hear sounds emanating from a church is when I probably need to be in church, because it is the bells of the beginning of worship. There are a handful of churches with bells that ring the hour, and sometimes a song here and there, but nothing like the intense regularity that comes from a Mosque.
When I went to school at Duke I learned that the bells were played by a carillonneur who began at five o’clock each evening. Perfect timing for a pause after a long day in class. A few friends and I would make at point of going out to listen to the two or three songs that he would play. It was a space to pause and reflect on the holy. And even if I was not able to pause and listen, I still got to hear the bells as I walked away, though the sound didn’t carry as far as I would like.
This week Duke University announced that they would sound out a call to prayer for the portion of Islamic students at the school once a week. The students had already had a worship time each Friday, which was in full practice while I was still there. This single call a week would be a reminder for the students to come to that prayer service, to remember to pray in their tradition.
Unfortunately, the call to prayer broadcast has been cancelled. I don’t know all the reasons why. People spoke out about the proposed broadcast of the call to prayer for reasons of ignorance and fear, saying that the sounding of the call to prayer would crowd out the lifeblood of the Christian symbols present in the University. They must have never stepped foot on the grounds of the University, or seen any symbols from Duke, because the presence of the cross is everywhere on campus. Christianity is not in danger because another group from another faith is saying “God is Great” in their mother tongue.
The Islamic community of faith will continue to gather for their worship and prayer. The Christian community on campus will continue to have its nearly dozen opportunities for worship around campus and in the Chapel. The university is a space for inter-religious conversation and community, where students, faculty, and staff learn from each other, challenged and strengthened in their growth in faith.
If anything, the Islamic Call to Prayer should be a reminder for Christians to also be called to prayer, to our God, who is Great. My faith is not so shallow that someone else worshipping in another tradition does not negate my own worship of the God I serve. I hope your own faith may be strong enough to celebrate the faith of others.
Folks from the school have put together a petition to support religious diversity on campus. I invite you to go read it for more information, even if you don’t sign it.