Monday, March 11, 2013

Religion and Community - Zakat and the Call to Prayer

Religion and community are two concepts that fit together rather well.  Of course, there is community without religion, although I think it is challenging to find religion without community.  In predominately Muslim countries, and especially Turkey, I believe the religion-community connection is especially strong.  One of the five pillars of Islam*, Zakat (alms-giving) , which emphasizes the importance of giving back to those less fortunate, is one driving force for community.  While I was in Turkey this past winter I heard many stories of the wonderful acts of Zakat people had done for one another, and for those that needed a little hand up - not only substantial donations of money, food and brand new belongings, but donation of service - such as using financial and real estate skills to help a struggling family finally buy a place of their own and achieve some security for later in life.  

Grains are often given as Zakat, especially during Ramadan
(Photo credit TafreehMela)

I know that donating to those in need is a common phenomenon throughout the world, and especially in the US there is no shortage of Goodwill and Salvation Army stores where people can drop off their unwanted junk, excuse me, goods and get a tax write off while also "donating" to the community.  There are also many fundraising drives through churches that help raise money to give to the needy.   Yet, the examples I heard in Turkey did not involve donations at the mosque, they did not involve giving away unwanted stuff, and as far as I could tell, no tax write-offs were given.  Instead these examples involved middle-class people taking significant portions of their income and time to help others fulfill large, important, unmet needs.  I'll be honest - I was extremely impressed with this personal initiative and generosity.  Society did not rely on religious institutions, charities and their $1 donation into the coffee can at the grocery store to help others.  Instead, those in the community took care of each other.  While some of this attitude is surely Turkish culture, I would say the root is in religion - in Islam.

Islam, indeed, has a strong role in the historical and modern culture of Turkey (and other countries, of course).  One aspect of Islam that shapes the audible Turkish landscape is the call to prayer, the Ezan. Discussion of the Ezan is ubiquitous throughout the travel literature.  Yet, I find that there is a common reaction, a common story - a traveler is shaken out of bed by the echoing, out-of-tune, voice blaring through a loudspeaker - a traveler is annoyed by the intrusion of this voice peaking into their windows every morning, bright and early, to send out the call to prayer to all believers. 

Often these accounts are meant to be humorous and to highlight the exotic nature of the call to prayer.  It may in fact, be quite exotic for those of us that have never heard it before.  I remember my first time hearing it - I was high up in a historical tower in the middle of the Muslim section of Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh in India, where I was studying abroad.  I was 19, knew nothing about Islam, and so I asked our local guide what the singing was for.  "It's the call to prayer coming from that mosque over there."  I was informed.  I felt the goose bumps rise on my arms, the way they will sometimes during a song when the singer hits an emotional high note. 

A few images of minarets - the ancient structure designed to send the call to prayer far and wide, these days electronic speakers are more commonly used and often all are synchronized within a city to prevent the various echos.
(Image from

In Turkey, each time the call to prayer begins to pulse through the city streets I secretly savor the quite moments that pass, when people seem to slow down a little, the loud music in restaurants and clothing shops is turned off, and the air seems to hum with a different energy.  Even at five in the morning, the Ezan has never been an intrusion for me.  One morning I awoke on my own minutes before the call started.  I was thrilled that I had happened to wake up at that moment.  I laid in bed listening to the low undulations echoing down the boulevard in front of the apartment.  I knew exactly where the sound was coming from, we had passed the speaker the other day.  I took that moment as a minute of peace for myself.  I thought about those, just down the hall from me, that were pulling themselves out of bed at that very moment, laying out their carpet and kneeling towards Mecca. 

Later in the trip, I asked H. what he would miss most about Turkey when we went back to the US, besides his family of course.  I expected to hear tarhana or Maras ice cream, or his mom's amazing food!  Instead, he said, "I'll miss the Ezan."   

That reminder, five times throughout the day, to pray.  To practice faith. 

While there are plenty of software for the computer, iPhone, iPad and other devices that will sync to your location on the globe and play the call to prayer at the appropriate times - it's not the same.  

What is missing?  


When the entire town hears the same call (or in reality often multiple calls that are mostly synchronized), it seems to drip little drops of glue into the community structure. 

I realize there are many people who are not Sunni Muslim in Turkey - there are Christians, Jews, Atheists, Agnostics, Alevis, and more.  I realize that for some (or many) the call to prayer may not be a welcome sound during the day.  Yet, I can say for myself, it doesn't matter that I am not Muslim, or that I do not pray five times a day.  I still need a reminder to quiet my mind, to stop worrying about petty things, to think of those in my community in need, to look to something bigger beyond me, and to say a small prayer for the health and safety of those close to me, for those suffering around the world, and for the wellness of the planet.

Yes, I like the call to prayer.  Do you?

This post is second in a series of posts on religion and culture in a cross-cultural relationship, you can read the introduction here.

For those who would like a little more information:
  1. Shahada: Declaration of faith and trust in one God
  2. Salat: Prayer - 5 times daily at dawn, noon, afternoon, evening and night
  3. Zakat: Alms-giving to the poor and needy - important point - zakat is distributed within the community from which it was taken (give back where you generate your wealth)
  4. Sawm: Fasting - most commonly we think of fasting during the month of Ramadan
  5. Hajj: Pilgrimage to Mecca

1 comment:

  1. Oddly enough, I've been to Turkey once and what I missed most is the call to prayer. My Turkish husband is thrilled, as he feels the same. :)


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