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Istanbul Adventures VI: Call to Prayer


Two muslim women stand on the bank of the bosphorus in Istanbul, Turkey. Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country - approximately 99 percent. Kat Russell / Daily Sundial

It was 5:32am, on my first morning in Istanbul, when I was awakened by the loud crackle of a speaker. My hotel room was still shrouded in nighttime darkness. I rolled over, assuming what I had heard must have been the rickety air-conditioner, and invited sleep to return.

Moments later the speaker crackled again, this time followed by a voice. It started as a low wail, which escaped through the speaker in a short burst. Almost immediately it started again, this time longer, building in volume and momentum as it climbed higher and higher up the scale of notes until it reached a high pitched cry.

I sat up in my bed confused, startled, and more confused as the voice continued to wail its slow, drawn out song, on a roller coaster of notes and pitches, which lasted for approximately six or seven minutes before it ended with another crackle of the speaker, leaving me sitting in quiet again.

Unbeknownst to me, in the wee hours of that morning, I was to become extremely familiar with that “song” as I would hear it five times a day for the next two months and what started as a rude interruption to my sleep would become one of the characteristics of Istanbul that I loved the most.

Turkey is home to a predominantly Muslim population – approximately 99 percent – and Istanbul is Turkey’s largest and most populated city – home to more than 13.2 million people.

Much like the rest of Turkey, Istanbul’s population is predominantly Muslim. There are approximately 3,000 active mosques throughout the city, their minarets piercing the skyline as they rise from every neighborhood and district. I later learned the “song” I had heard my first morning was actually a Call to Prayer, which is sung in each mosque and broadcast from speakers mounted on to their minarets.

Five times a day this call rings out from the minarets of each mosque throughout the city, calling Muslims to the mosque for prayer. Each call to prayer is unique to the mosque and to the muezzin who sings it. The verses being sung say: God is great. I bear witness that there is no God except the one God. I bear witness that Muhammad is God’s messenger. Come to Prayer. God is Great. There is no God except the one God.

From where I lived in Besiktas, I could hear the calls of three different mosques. At first, it seemed strange, but during my time in Istanbul, I came to look forward to hearing them ring out across the city. Each call became a moment for me to pause, place my hand over my heart, and take a moment to relish in the beauty of its simple display of devotion.

Coming to Istanbul from a country where the opinions of Islam are often negative and grossly misinformed, I must admit that I was wary at first. All I had ever heard of Islam was negativity, stereotyping and violence. What I found is Istanbul was nothing like what I expected.

I found people who were deeply devoted to their faith and deeply rooted in traditions that are centuries old. I found a younger generation, who struggled against the constraints of those old traditions to be their own modern selves. But most of all, I found a new perspective and a deep-rooted respect for the traditions and the spiritual principles rooted within the Islamic faith.

Istanbul opened my eyes to a world I had never known and had, admittedly misjudged. My heart was opened and my perception was changed. The calls to prayer markedly became reminders for me of how blessed I was to be in Istanbul and privileged I was to be able to have the experiences I was having while I was there.


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  1. Anonymous Nov 10, 2011

    I have to say the picture accompanying this article says it all, no?

    While students occupy the American street crying out for more economic equality what do we see in Turkey?  Women guilted (or forced) into wearing indistinguishable black cloth sacks making them look all the same and anything like women. 

    Wassup with dat?  I suppose it’s the ulimate form of “equality” in a repressive sort of misogynistic sort of way.

    Turkey, shmurkey.  Can the romantic BS and get real.  Turkey = imprisonment for those who speak freely and death to those who are apostates from Islam.

    Viva le revolucion for the Kurds of NW Turkey!  (Those that have not been killed yet.)

  2. Anonymous Nov 10, 2011

    99% certainly is “predominantly” Muslim.

    Interesting to note that Istanbul was once Constantinople one of the most important seats of Christendom.

    Also interesting to note that in 1915 Muslims visciously killed 1.5 million Armenian Christians, and now it is a crime to even mention this part of “Turkish” history.

    And today the 1% of Turkey’s population which is not Muslim is soon to be forever eliminated.

    Interesting that you either do not know about this, or choose not to mention this.  Here is a different perspective on Turkey:



  3. Simhedges Nov 9, 2011

    @e48d11054adde9a518fdbedb8aead657:disqus  Please don’t feel degraded by the use of the word song.  The word “Song” is not one that I would use for the call to prayer, but songs can be beautiful, and can be devotional.  Songs are just words put to music.  In Christianity, hymns, which are devotional, are referred to as songs (“Songs of Praise”).  The Psalms too are songs.  I don’t know if there is a derogatory implication once the word “song” is translated into Turkish or Arabic, and I do know that it can be problematic when used in an Islamic context, but there is no derogatory implication for the other faiths of the book, so I don’t believe that Kat was belittling the call to prayer in any way (but will now know the effect the word “song” can have).  Had she referred to the call as a “wail” (as others have done), then it would be derogatory.

    In the book of Job, God says: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare,
    if thou hast understanding . . . When the morning stars sang together,
    and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4-7)

    Listening to the calls of the Muezzins is indeed a special part of being in
    Istanbul (although sometimes I could wish for better sound systems).

  4. D. Nov 9, 2011

    I like this story a lot.  Much respect.  But one thing I noticed in this story is referring to Call to Prayer as a “song” or the muezzin “singing” this.  However, it is a recitation done with emotion, which can be misinterpreted as a song.  As a muslim, and a muezzin myself, I feel degraded when this is referred to as a song.  It is an invitation to prayer.  Great work on the story, and I’m happy to hear that your experiences went well.  I’m happy to hear a story that breaks down ignorance and encourages open-mindedness.  Thank you.

  5. Mik7murrell Nov 9, 2011

    Congratulations, Ms. Russell. Your treatment of today’s exceedingly interesting subject matter is technically spot-on and so well rendered that in reading it one feels as if they are right there with you. Thank you.

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