One of Islam’s most characteristic – and stirringly evocative – symbols is the adhan, the Arabic call to prayer, dramatically intoned in a resonant cadence by a muezzin (prayer caller) from high atop a lofty minaret.
The adhan(also called in Turkish: Ezan) is the Islamic call to worship, recited by the muezzin at prescribed times. The root of the word is ʾadhina meaning “to listen, to hear, be informed about”. Another derivative of this word is, meaning “ear”.
The announcement of the adhan goes back to the lifetime of the Prophet, and is mentioned once in the Qur’an, in connection with the Friday assembly:
“O believers, when the proclamation is made for prayer on the Day of Congregation, hasten to God’s remembrance and leave trafficking aside; that is better for you, did you but knew.” -(Q 62:9)
The Prophet’s mace-bearer and steward, Bilal, an Egyptian Negro was the first muezzin to call the adhan at Makkah. After the emigration of Muhammad and his followers from Makkah to Madinah, a believer named Abd Allah ibn Zaid had a vision in which he tried to buy a wooden clapper to summon people to prayer. But the man who had the clapper advised him to call out to the people instead and to intone a short message.Ibn Zaid went to Muhammad with his story, and Muhammad, approvingly, told him to ask Bilal, who had a marvelous voice famous for majestically sonorous renditions of the adhan, to perform the task. The Prophet also approved the adhan. The rich cadence continues to stir believers five times each day: “Come to .prayer. Rise up to your welfare!” And in the last hours of darkness just before dawn: “Come to prayer. Rise up to your welfare. For prayer is better than sleep.”
Ibn Ishaq, the Prophet’s biographer, corroborates this incident. (in Albert Guillaume’s translation): That he should go to Bilal and communicate it to him so that he might call to prayer thus, for he had a more penetrating voice. When Bilal acted as muezzin, ‘Umar, who later became the second caliph, heard him in his house and came to the Prophet” saying that he had seen precisely the same vision. The Apostle said, “God be praised for that” the Prophet used to say: “Comfort us, Bilal!” The Prophet used to say that because Bilal was the Muazin of the Muslims in Madinah. Each time he did the call to prayer, Muslims of that era used to experience indescribable joy; in prayer (salat) they found joy; in prayer they found comfort.
Borne aloft five times a day, from Shanghai to Chicago, Jakarta to Timbuktu, the cadence of Islam’s call to prayer stirs the soul of devout Muslims everywhere. Whether cast from metal loudspeakers over teeming city streets or lifted as the murmured song of camel drivers kneeling in the sand, it begins with the same Arabic phrase Muslims have used for nearly 1,400 years, Islam’s melodic paean to the Creator: God is most great! God is most great! I testify that there is no god but God.
A Negro slave originally from Habasha (Ethiopia), Bilal ibn Rabah’s story is a poignant tale as well as evocative evidence of Islam’s respect for human equality, anti-racism, and social equity. Born in 680 CE in Makkah, to his slave parents — Rabah and Hamamah — Bilal too served as a slave to a lady close to Umayyah ibn Khalaf, an arch-enemy of Islam. When Umayyah heard about Bilal converting to Islam, he tortured him and tried to pressurize him to relinquish the new faith. But filled with love for the Prophet and Islam, Bilal remained steadfast in his faith despite extreme torture and kept saying “Ahad, Ahad.” (Allah is One, Allah is One). When the Prophet learned about his tribulation, he sent Abu Bakr, who relieved him from the oppressor and freed him. Freedom was Islam’s first gift to Bilal.
Bilal became one of the most trusted and loyal Companions of the Prophet. He migrated with the Prophet to Madinah and participated in major battles including those of Badar, Uhud, Ditch, and others. In the battle of Badr, he killed the staunch enemy of Islam — and his own former tyrant master, Umayyah. Another great honor came to Bilal after the Conquest of Makkah in 8 AH. When the city surrendered and all the nobles from the Muslims and the non-Muslims had assembled in the courtyard, the Prophet asked Bilal to climb the roof of the Holy Ka’bah and give a call of the adhan from the top of it. This was the first adhan, which was given in Makkah. Once the Prophet said, “O Bilal, what special deeds you have done that I heard sounds of your walking steps ahead of me in Paradise.” Bilal said, “Whenever I make wudu (ablution), I offer two units (rakah) of prayer as Tahayyatul Wudu.”
Bilal was among Ashab Al-Suffa, a generic name given to the Companions who stayed in the arbor, or verandah, next to the mosque of the Prophet in Madinah after the emigration and studied religious sciences there. When King Najashi of Habasha sent three spears as gifts to the Prophet, the latter gave one each to Umar, Ali, and Bilal, who used the spear to fix the direction of prayer.
Responding to adhan, praying in the mosque, and making the pledge to God, is the only thing needed to become a Muslim. At this point, one crosses over from Dar ul Harb, the house of the pagan, into Dar ul Islam, the house of Islam (submission). The slave can no longer be beaten carelessly, and the Coptic Christian must hereafter be given work and treated with respect.
This is a very simple, faithless, and almost mindless exercise. The emphasis is not on making a verbal mistake but rather believing something. If the Muslim makes an error in the word sequence of prayer in the mosque, he will rise and quietly exit in shame.
The prayer carpet is carried by Muslims when he travels abroad. At the times of prayer, he will determine the direction of Mecca, roll out his prayer carpet, and say his prayers to Allah.
After the Prophet passed away, Bilal felt it challenging to spend time in Madinah without his beloved Prophet. He asked then Caliph Abu Bakr to let him go to Syria for jihad. And there he spent the rest of his life. He said adhan only twice after that. The first was when Caliph Omar Ibn Al-Khattab came to Syria; the second time, he visited the tomb of Madinah.
Bilal spent his last days in Syria. He died in 18 AH at 64 and was buried at Bab-Al Sagheer near Jama Umavi in Damascus. He served the Prophet for 25 years.
While on death bed, his wife Hind cried, ‘wa hazanaa’ (what a great grief), to which Bilal replied, ‘Wa Tarabaa’ (what a great joy); “Tomorrow I will meet with my loved ones – Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his companions,” he is said to have told his wife.