By Leila Tarakji, Michigan State University | –
Minneapolis recently became the first major U.S. city to allow the “adhan,” or Muslim call to prayer, to be broadcast from mosques five times a day.
In April 2023, the Minneapolis City Council unanimously approved a change to the city’s sound ordinance, effectively eliminating time constraints that previously prevented the pre-dawn and evening prayer calls from being broadcast.
For the citizens of Minneapolis and for many Muslims across the United States, this represents a historic moment. Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, described this as a victory for religious freedom and for the U.S. Constitution. The resolution demonstrates that Muslims are not only “welcome here, but they’re also here – that they are part of the fabric of the diversity of this city and our state,” he said in a statement.
As a scholar of Islam and Muslims in America, I am particularly interested in how Muslim Americans express themselves as a faith community at the local, national and global levels. The practice of calling worshippers to prayer is an important aspect of daily Muslim life, one that has a long history on American soil.
Adhan: Tradition and meanings
Adhan literally means “announcement” in Arabic and refers to the Islamic call to prayer that takes place five times a day. The five daily prayers signify one of the five pillars of Islam that are traditionally considered obligatory for every Muslim. The prayers are performed in the direction of Mecca throughout the day.
The practice of calling the adhan dates to the time of Prophet Muhammad, when it became the standard way to mark the beginning of each prayer’s time and to call Muslims to prayer. In his text “Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations,” scholar Michael Sells notes that “the call to prayer punctuates daily life five times, drawing people out of their everyday preoccupation to matters of ultimate concern.”
Recited in Arabic, the adhan translates as: God is most great, God is most great; I testify that there is no god but God; I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of God; Come (alive) to the prayer; Come (alive) to flourishing; God is most great, God is most great; There is no god but God.
In Muslim-majority countries, the distinctive sound of the adhan loudly called from every mosque’s minaret is one of the most memorable sounds for visitors.
The significance of the adhan is such that Islamic tradition recommends that it be one of the first sounds that a newborn baby hears. Often, the father will gently recite the adhan in the baby’s right ear. The words mark the beginning of a person’s life on the “right path,” with the remembrance of God.
In America, where the adhan is not commonly heard in public settings, many Muslims make do with a prayer app, on their cellphones or other devices, that lists the various prayer times and calls the adhan at the appropriate time.
Influence on popular music and culture
The earliest practice of the adhan on American soil dates back to the hundreds of thousands of enslaved African Muslims who, to varying extents, brought their Islamic practices with them. In the process, the adhan has left a deep influence on American music and culture.
Diouf specifically makes a comparison between the adhan and “Levee Camp Holler,” a song that was written and sung by former slaves. Holler songs were precursors to the blues. “It features the same ornamented notes, elongated syllables sung with wavy intonations, melismas, and pauses. When both pieces are juxtaposed, it is hard to distinguish when the call to prayer ends and the holler starts,” Diouf writes.
More recently, Muslim rapper Lupe Fiasco released an album called “Muhammad Walks” that clearly includes sound bites from the adhan along with various references to Islamic traditions.
History of the Muslim prayer call in the US
Generally speaking, mosques in the U.S. make the call to prayer inside the prayer space, where it is audible only to those present. The earliest documented public broadcasting of the Muslim call to prayer took place during the World’s Columbian Exposition, a world’s fair that was held in Chicago in 1893.
The fair featured “Cairo Street,” a popular attraction that sought to recreate a small cross section of Cairene life. Among the 26 different structures that were specifically built for this project was a mosque where tourists could hear the muezzin – one who makes the call to prayer – call the adhan from the minaret and then watch Muslim worshippers perform their daily prayers.
Later the same year, the prayer call was broadcast from a third-story window of the Union Square Bank building in New York City. After John Lant, a convert to Islam and co-founder of First Society for the Study of Islam in America, made the adhan, a congregational prayer was held before the group proceeded with the society’s first meeting.
This moment was documented by The New York Times: “For the first time in New-York’s history, cosmopolitan as the city is, the melodious call of the Muezzin, celebrated by every traveler in Mohammedan countries, was heard yesterday morning.”
Since the 1970s the adhan has been broadcast from mosques in the U.S., such as the American Moslem Society, which was established in Dearborn, Michigan, in 1938 and is arguably the first U.S. mosque to be granted the legal right to transmit all five prayer calls through loudspeakers.
In nearby Hamtramck, considered to be America’s first majority-Muslim city, the adhan was legalized by local government in 2004, when a noise ordinance change was put to a citywide vote. At the time, this stirred notable tensions between Hamtramck’s different faith communities.
In 2020, the city council of Paterson, New Jersey, also authorized the call to prayer between certain hours of the day. In 2023, several mosques in Astoria, New York, received permits to broadcast the five calls to prayer specifically for the duration of the holy month of Ramadan.
Similarly, a small mosque in Occoquan, Virginia, was invited by the local mayor to broadcast the adhan on two separate occasions to mark the month of Ramadan.
Indeed, the public broadcasting of the adhan is part of a larger narrative of American plurality. It is a natural manifestation of Muslim American presence and communal expression.
The fact that the adhan can be heard in the streets of Minneapolis, Hamtramck and Astoria – alongside church bells and other sounds of worship – signifies that Muslim beliefs are not deemed less worthy, nor must they be confined to a private space. It is a sign that Muslims are at home and welcome here.