Calling the Faithful To Witness

On Language

By Philologos

Published June 10, 2009, issue of June 19, 2009.
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‘I am a Christian,” President Obama declared in his June 4 address in Cairo, “but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan (sic) at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk.”

Although many English speakers know the word “muezzin,” “azan” (the double a in “azaan” represents a long Arabic vowel, which is generally not indicated in English transliteration) is less often come across. (This indeed may have been the reason that it was chosen by the president or his speechwriters, who -— careful to insert several Arabic words into his talk — preferred a word that indicated a familiarity with Islam.) The muezzin calls the faithful to prayer; the azan is the prayer call itself. In classical Arabic, as well as in some regional Arabic speech, the words are pronounced mu’aththan (with the doubled “th,” as in “them,” and the accent on the next-to-last syllable) and athan (accent on the last syllable). The substitution of “z” for “th” is a peculiarity of Egyptian Arabic, whose pronunciation, which English has followed, was appropriate for Obama’s talk, because he was speaking to an Egyptian audience.

It is also the Egyptian pronunciation that most rings a bell with those of us who know Hebrew, because mu’azzan and azan are cognates of the Hebrew word ozen, “ear” which in Egyptian Arabic is uzun). The Hebrew word ma’azin, “listener,” is even more like mu’azzan, the difference being that the mu’azzan gives voice, while the ma’azin — which in modern Israeli Hebrew denotes a member of a lecture or radio audience — lends an ear. Yet it is curious that in the Bible, the verb he’ezin almost always occurs in a solemn religious context, often one invoking the act of witnessing. Thus, for example, Moses, in his poetic farewell address to the people of Israel before his death in the Book of Deuteronomy, begins, “Listen to me [ha’azinu], you heavens, and I will speak.” The free medieval Judeo-Aramaic paraphrase of the Bible known as the Targum Yerushalmi or “Jerusalem translation,” which was undertaken in Palestine in early Islamic times, goes: “When the time came for Moses to leave this world, he said, ‘I call as my witness [ana mas’hid] the heavens and the earth, which will never die in this world.’”

It is interesting, in this regard, that the azan is a call to witness, too. After repeating four times Allahu akbar, “God is the greatest,” the mu’azzan repeats twice, “Ash’hadu [a cognate of the Aramaic mas’hid] an la ilaha illallah,” “I bear witness that there is no other God but Allah,” and twice, “Ash’hadu anna Muhammadan rasulullah,” “I bear witness that Mohammad is the messenger of God.” The last two statements, when combined, form the shahada, the Muslim “witnessing” or declaration of faith, which is recited daily by Muslims and is incumbent on the convert embracing Islam. (From here, too, comes the Arabic word shahid, “religious martyr,” much encountered in the media these days.)

Is there then some historical, rather than merely linguistic, connection between Hebrew he’ezin and Arabic mu’azzan and azan? It is not impossible. Islam, in its earliest stages, took a great deal from Judaism, which in later periods borrowed as much if not more from Islam. Conceivably, the Arabic verb azzana, to issue a solemn proclamation, from which both mu’azzan and azan come, was influenced by Hebrew he’ezin. (One also must not rule out an influence on the shahada of the Jewish declaration of faith, the “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”) But it is also possible that the vector ran the other way, and that it was Islam that influenced such things as the Targum Yerushalmi’s translation of Deuteronomy.

In any case, ancient Judaism, as far as we know, did not have anything like the Muslim azan or the Christian ringing of church bells to call the faithful to prayer. The closest thing to it that I know of was the custom in parts of the Jewish world, during the middle-of-the-night penitential prayers said in the month of Elul, to go from house to house waking the worshippers. In Eastern Europe this was generally done by the shamash or synagogue sexton, who went about banging on doors and windows and crying out something like, “Shtey uf, shtey uf, tsu avoydes haboyre,” “Get up, get up, to worship your Creator.”

The azan is far more majestic. Indeed, living as I do in a town in Israel near enough to a neighboring Arab village to hear its muezzins sing out the azzan five times a day over the loudspeakers of its mosques, I can testify that I never really tire of it. Even in the middle of the night — especially in the middle of the night — it is a haunting chant. Never mind that it’s all done today with electronic tapes and timers.

It is still full of the starry night and of the great silences of the desert in which a human voice can carry for miles. I hear it in my sleep and turn over in bed and put off getting up till the morning.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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