In April, the Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously to remove the noise ordinance that restricted religious sounds to between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. The measure, as reported by the Star Tribune, allows the adhan—the Muslim call to prayer—to “be broadcast from speakers atop the city’s 20 mosques at any time of the day,” making Minneapolis “the first major American city to allow all five daily calls to prayer to be amplified outdoors at any time, including the early morning hours before sunrise and late evening hours after sunset.” Mayor Jacob Frey signed the bill into law in a ceremony at a local Islamic center, surrounded by Muslim leaders.
The ceremony was also attended by supportive Christian and Jewish leaders, and the bill was widely welcomed, drawing “no organized community opposition.” And how could it, when to speak out against the bill would seemingly mean to speak out against equality? When the city council passed a resolution in 2022 affirming the right of mosques to broadcast the adhan between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., council member Jamal Osman noted that “these are the hours that church bells are supposed to ring.” Allowing the call to prayer “is a signal of the equality and community we have built here.” To treat church bells and the adhan as anything but equal, the reasoning goes, would be manifestly unfair.
It would be difficult to argue with the bill’s proponents from this standpoint. Minneapolis, after all, is home to many Muslims. (Some estimates have placed Minnesota’s Muslim population at upwards of 200,000, most of whom live in the Twin Cities.) If church bells ring throughout Minneapolis—and they do: From my apartment south of downtown, I often hear the pealing of nearby bells—then why should the adhan not also be permitted?
There are, however, dissenting voices beneath the chorus of approval. The Star Tribune published several letters opposing the measure, including one by a self-described practicing Muslim who expressed concern about the “negative feelings about the faith of Islam” that might arise when non-Muslims begin to hear—and be woken by—the adhan, which was broadcast as early as 3:30 a.m. this summer.
Nor is this opposition limited to Minneapolis. At a meeting in November, the city council of nearby Barron, Wisconsin, discussed a request by the city’s two mosques to broadcast the adhan; the request was opposed by several local residents who attended the meeting and eventually withdrawn. These debates are reminiscent of those in Western European countries, almost all of which have higher Muslim populations, proportionally, than the United States. Controversy recently erupted in Cologne, Germany, when mosques were given the right to broadcast the adhan just once a week (on Friday afternoons); this echoes earlier debates in Switzerland, England, Norway, and elsewhere.
What exactly is the basis of this opposition? Some of it can be chalked up to racism or xenophobia: Isaak Mohamed, a city council member in Barron, reported that some residents told him to “go back to Somalia.” But more thoughtful critics of these measures—who for the most part welcome the presence of mosques while opposing the call to prayer—suggest that to frame the debate as a religious equality issue is to draw a false equivalence between church bells and the adhan.
The adhan consists of verses recited in Arabic. “God is the greatest,” the call begins. “I bear witness that there is no deity but God. I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God. Hasten to the prayer. Hasten to the salvation.” In Muslim countries, a recording of the adhan (recordings are more common than calls from actual muezzins) is broadcast over loudspeakers from the tops of minarets five times per day; each call runs for about five minutes. The adhan thus literally structures the day: It lays out the times at which people should wake from sleep (“prayer is better than sleep,” runs a verse that is recited only for the morning prayer), have meals, come together as families and friends, and so forth. In doing so, it gives each day a decidedly religious quality: The rhythm of one’s existence is organized around the calls to prayer.
While non-Muslims in Minneapolis will not suddenly feel compelled to go and pray at their nearest mosque, the calls will nevertheless become part of the fabric of their lives. For unlike attendance at a place of worship, hearing the call to prayer is not a matter of choice; on the contrary, it imposes itself on everyone within its range, forming part of—and, depending how close one lives to a mosque, dominating—the acoustic landscape for the better part of a half hour each day.
Church bells also occupy a space and impose themselves upon us when they ring. But this does not mean that they are equivalent to the adhan. Church bells remind devotees of times for prayer and worship, but unlike the adhan, they create a soundscape that is not primarily one of injunction; if they make a demand on attention, it is by way of a wordless musicality that, in the best of cases, comes to enhance activity rather than interrupt it. The difference between the two might be stated thus: Church bells form a music that is also, but only distantly for most, an injunction, while the adhan is an injunction that is expressed with a certain musicality.
Furthermore, church bells belong to the inheritance of the places where these debates are occurring. For many, church bells are only a reminder of a way of life that was once more widely shared. But if non-Christians nonetheless take comfort in them, it is because their sound was heard in these places by past generations, in past centuries. Church bells have marked Western culture in an indelible way: One need only consider their importance in so much of Western literature—whether as protagonists of sorts, or, more often, as background elements that provide a “soundtrack” and indeed a structure for the events depicted. Quite simply, places have traditions, even places as suspicious of tradition as the United States. It should be permissible to express preferences based on those traditions.
This is what is missed by those who speak solely in terms of equality. To be sure, equality is important, and it may be that communities with large Muslim populations will decide, as Minneapolis has, that the call to prayer serves the interest of equality—not to mention the freedom of religion that is enshrined in the country’s Constitution. I do think it is important, however, to ensure that our understanding of equality does not lead us to believe that we exist in an empty space—one devoid of customs and traditions—that can be filled in however we like. In other words, we should not conflate equality and equivalence. Those who do so risk cutting themselves off from the traditions that make a place what it is, and that make them who they are.
Cory Stockwell is a translator and a lecturer in comparative literature at the University of Minnesota.
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