The Adhan at Harvard

Published On Thursday, March 13, 2008 1:07 AM


Two weeks ago, the Islamic call to prayer, or adhan in Arabic, was broadcast
from the steps of Widener Library across Harvard Yard as part of Harvard
Islamic Society¹s ³Islam Awareness Week.² No doubt, the week¹s events have
broadened some horizons, and exposed some in our community to facets of a
religion with which they were not previously familiar. This is certainly a
good thing. However, it should be asked if other, more important concerns
have been overlooked. We feel compelled to write this editorial to initiate
a discussion on the intersection of pluralism and Islam, and the content of
the adhan itself, which translated into English reads:

God is the Greatest

I bear witness that there is no lord except God

I bear witness that Mohammad is the Messenger of God

Hurry to prayer

Hurry to success

God is the Greatest

There is no lord except God

It is wonderful that we embrace the free practice of many religions at
Harvard. We are thankful that most members of the Harvard community
understand the importance of respecting people¹s rights to have their own
beliefs. We are deeply committed to respecting and protecting the rights of
others to believe at they choose, and we believe that one of the first
principles of respectful conduct and religious practice is to avoid
unnecessarily criticizing or confronting others¹ personal beliefs. We
cherish the fact that it is possible to discuss our differences with our
classmates and neighbors without that discussion erupting into conflict and
sowing the seeds of division and disrespect.

We believe that the adhan, issued publicly in a pluralistic setting, does
indeed sow those seeds of division and disrespect. It does so by declaring
that ³there is no lord except God,² and that ³Muhammad is the Messenger of
God.² To the extent that this statement is a profession of faith, it is
benign; however, by virtue of its content, it is also a declaration of
religious superiority and a declaration against all beliefs that conflict
with those two statements. This puts the adhan in a different class of
religious expression than, say, the sounding of church bells or the
displaying of a menorah because it publicly advances a theological position.
By doing so, it comes precariously close to crossing the line between the
legitimate creation of awareness and proselytization. Imagine, if you would,
a Southern Baptist evangelist standing atop the steps of Widener Library,
exhorting passersby to pray, denying the validity to other faiths, and
declaring the divinity of Jesus. Would such an activity be congruent with
Harvard¹s tradition of liberalism and tolerance?

We do not believe so. Indeed, other religions make truth claims similar to
those contained in the adhan, but those claims, as a matter of practice at
Harvard, are voiced privately or not at all. The adhan, it seems, is the
exception to Harvard¹s unspoken rule of religious respect and tolerance.

The authors of this piece do not believe that there is no lord but God. Nor
do we believe that Muhammad was God¹s prophet. In fact, we do not believe in
prophets. We expect that our statements might be offensive to some, and for
that reason, we believe that it wouldn¹t be appropriate, in the name of
spreading awareness about our beliefs, use a public address system to
declare to everyone in Harvard Yard that God is imaginary, that prayer is a
waste of time, or that Muhammad was not a prophet. Similarly, it is best
that those who hold similar beliefs about Hinduism or Buddhism or any other
religion avoid loudly declaring the falsehood of other faiths.

The Harvard community should be very aware of Islam, as it is one of the
world¹s most influential religions. We believe that Islam Awareness Week
ought to continue, but in a way that does not foist Islamic doctrines upon
everyone. We believe that students who resent the forceful infusion of
theology with their Harvard experience should be spared the indignity, and
we believe strongly that our community should not grant license to any
religious group, minority or otherwise, to use a loudspeaker to declare
false the profoundly important and personal beliefs of others.

Benjamin Taylor is a graduate of Harvard University¹s John F. Kennedy School
of Government. Aaron D. Williams and Diana K. Esposito are graduate students
at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.


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