By Abdar Rahman Koya
6 September 2014
There used to be a vacant bungalow opposite my parents’ house in Petaling Jaya where I grew up.
After the last family had left, the new owner rented out its many rooms to bachelors.
For some time, we had to put up with the tenants’ cars parked at our side of the road, but there was nothing much we could do. After a year or two, the house became vacant again, and a “For Sale/Rent” sign was put up.
One day, a group of people came to view the house. My father had the gut feeling that they might be out to set up some commercial or even a religious entity next door.
He approached the group and the property agent. I remember this clearly because it was to change significantly my outlook about privacy and peace in a neighbourhood.
After finding out that the group had wanted to set up a worship house there, my father warned them that he would never give them peace if ever they went ahead with the plan.
He said “I will not allow you to even erect a mosque here”, because it would attract unnecessary traffic and noise in what used to be a quiet neighbourhood.
It then occurred to me that privacy is universal. Just because you are Muslim, does not mean you are not disturbed by the sound of loudspeakers from a nearby mosque.
Fast forward to 2008, there was a controversy over the sound of loudspeakers from a mosque in Selangor, culminating in the arrest of DAP’s Seputeh MP, Teresa Kok, under the Internal Security Act (ISA), after she was accused of trying to silence the mosque’s call to prayer, or Azan.
I had then written a stinging article to a news portal, criticising mosques which blast their lectures and other prayer programmes, when the loudspeakers were there only to broadcast the Azan, that familiar sound five times a day which has characterised the cultural environment of the Muslim world from time immemorial.
I know of many non-Muslim families who live next to mosques or Surau. Their main complaint is not the Azan, for this lasts a couple of minutes.
There are even those who feel it gives them a sense of time, an alarm clock to start the day. So was the late Karpal Singh, who was said to have found the Azan helpful during his confinement under the ISA.
It is said that he even remembered the five different times of prayer after getting used to the Azan from the mosque at the Kamunting detention centre.
But this tolerance to Azan as a cultural, indeed a romantic legacy of the Islamic world, appears to have been abused by some Muslims, thinking that it is a licence for them to blare out sermons, speeches, chanting and Quran recitations any time they want.
This was what one Kelvin Yip had to put up with on the first day of Hari Raya this year, but foolishly, he broke into expletives on his Facebook. (To his credit, at least he didn’t deny it was his own posting or claim that his account had been hacked, as is now the standard response from our politicians following any faux pas).
Kelvin’s posting mentioned the time of the incident as 6.45 in the morning. So it was not the Azan that Kelvin was furious about, for the earliest Azan would be before 6am.
Since it was the first day of Hari Raya, it could have been the Takbir, or the hymns recited for Eid.
If only he had not used the expletives, Kelvin’s fair point would have got serious attention from Muslims who sympathise with his predicament.
He has since apologised, and whether or not it was to avoid being charged or hunted down like Perkasa’s Pahang poster girl Kiki, his grievances deserve a fair hearing.
It is wrong for a mosque, or for that matter any other building in residential neighbourhoods, to blare out their activities on loudspeakers.
If a mosque could mean disturbing the peace of the people around it, then the whole idea of Islam as a religion of peace becomes a mockery. When a mosque becomes a source of anxiety among surrounding residents, it is time to ask some hard questions.
The fact is that even the Azan, for the acceptance it has enjoyed universally, should take into account its environment. Its objective is to announce, with the intention to make those Muslims who happen to hear it to heed the call to remember God.
It has never been the goal of Azan to wake up tired people deep in slumber in the wee hours of the morning, or exhausted mothers trying to get some sleep after breastfeeding hungry little thugs throughout the night.
The Prophet never made it his business to go around knocking on Muslim houses to wake people up, even when the Azan of his time had no loudspeakers and microphones and would have been heard only in a radius of several metres.
But today, there are mosques blaring out religious lectures in the early hours of the day, as well as during late evenings.
Believe me, no amount of loud sermons would make any Muslim want to rush to the mosque or non-Muslim to convert to Islam.
One does not have to invoke modern rules of privacy to state the case against loud mosques. Travelling back to the Prophet’s time, we find that the Azan, too, is bound by Islamic etiquettes.
According to Fiqh-us-Sunnah, probably the Muslim world’s most authoritative work on Islamic rituals, the Azan during the Prophet’s time had no extra reading, supplications or chant, whether before or after.
Even the recitation of the Quran in a loud voice is not allowed just to get people listen to it while they are engaged in other activities. It is prohibited to blast it with external loudspeakers, as some mosques do.
The Prophet’s wife A’ishah had once advised a religious orator in the following words, “Restrict your voice to your audience and address them only as far as they are attentive to your speech. When they turn their faces from you, stop.”
In early Islamic history, it is stated that the second caliph, Umar al-Khattab, punished a man who used to deliver his speech in a loud voice.
Several hundreds of years later, Ibn al-Jawzi, a 12th-century Muslim jurist, said: “I have seen people staying up a part of the night on the minaret admonishing the people, making remembrance (of God) and reciting the Quran in a loud voice. They keep people from sleeping and disturb those who are making late-night prayers. These are rejected and evil actions.”
More recently, Muhammad Taqi Usmani, who served for two decades at the Shariah Appellate Bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan until 2002, wrote on the tendency of some mosques to violate the privacy of their surroundings.
The prominent judge chided some who abused the use of loudspeakers in mosques, which not only hurt the people living around the mosques, but also create resentment against mosque managements and other religious circles.
And this is especially true when it comes to mosques in Malaysia, where it is common to hear religious lectures (Kuliah) blasted on loudspeakers placed outside the mosque.
And with the standard of Malaysian religious lectures which tend to put audience in stitches rather than provoking any intellectual thought, one can expect such resentment to be accompanied by mockery and disdain of the religion.
Taqi Usmani further says: “In the light of this principle, the loudspeaker should not be used at all (during prayer) where the number of audience is such that they can hear the voice of the recitation (during prayer) or of the sermon without a loudspeaker. However, if there are many in number and cannot hear the voice directly, only the inner loudspeaker should be used, and not the loudspeaker installed outside the mosque.”
Islam does not show its strength by the volume of its rituals, or the size of its mosques. Sadly, this is what is happening in the Muslim world. As it declined politically and socially, its mosques got larger, their speakers louder.
Nowhere is this mentality more pronounced than right smack in the heart of Islam, in Mecca, where the Saudis’ historical terrorism was sealed with a huge and monstrous clock tower overlooking the Kaa’bah, with the “Allah” calligraphy at its peak, as if to symbolise that God is watching from a distance 24/7 as imagined by Bette Midler.
The problem is not unique to Muslims. In India, for example, millions of dollars are spent on beautifying temples and constructing idols, when this in no way inculcates any sense of religiousness in the masses other than the superficial and ceremonials.
Which makes me sometimes wonder if this was why Karl Marx famously remarked that religion is an opium. Think about it. You keep wanting it, and once you get it, you forget about it for a while.
Oh, by the way, in case you are wondering what happened to that old bungalow, well, my father got more than he bargained for.
It is now a centre for palliative care. Can one ask for better neighbours? – September 6, 2014.
Abdar Rahman Koya is at the end of his thirties, and considers himself to have all the qualities of an ordinary Malaysian, a practising Muslim, and an incorrigible cynic