In Turkey, the Adhan (the Muslim call to Prayer) is a peculiar world and a unique story, whose chapters relate the traditions of the Ottoman palaces, the battle of the people against secularism, and the details of an inveterate heritage of musical keys.

The Adhan is the call that notifies Muslims of Prayer times. The first Adhan was performed in the first Hijri (Muslim) year (corresponding to 622 AD) or, according to other accounts, in the second Hijri year (623 AD).  `Abdullah ibn Zayd ibn Tha`laba (may Allah be pleased with him), one of Prophet Muhammad’s Companions, had dreamed the how-to of the first Adhan, which the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) ratified after a Divine confirmation. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) instructed Abdullah to teach the Adhan’s words to Bilal, whose voice was very sweet, and he was the first Muslim to deliver the Adhan. It has since been an eternal melodic call, echoed by the world until the Day of Judgment. The Turks have been one of the peoples for whom Adhan has represented an aspect of their unity. In fact, the Turks are the dramatis personae of the most interesting and strangest Adhan story in history.

The Turks and Adhan

There are few sources and references about the history of Adhan during the time of the Saljuk Turks, founders of the first Turkish state in Anatolia (1070-1299 AD). However, some of their religious monuments found in Konya, Kayseri, Sivas and Nighda in Mid-Anatolia indicate that the Saljukis cared very much about the Adhan ritual. This is inferred from their magnificent mosques with high minarets and splendid decorations, and their schools for learning the Qur’an, the Prophetic traditions (Hadith) and other religious sciences.

The Turkish attention to Adhan, nevertheless, was more clearly crystallized in the period of Ottoman rule, which lasted for about six centuries (1300-1923 AD). The Ottoman Sultans, princes and even the Sultans’ wives and daughters paid great attention and care to the Prayers’ Adhan. In cultural centers, like Istanbul, Bursa, Konya and Izmir, Adhan had a special folkloric status known as Saraya Ta’weeri or the Palace Key, performed during the holy month of Ramadan in the mosques of the Sultans.

In the government houses, the Sultans devoted a special department, the Adhan Administration, whose job was to select sweet voices, teach them certain lessons in music, and finally select the best for Adhan. The Palace Mosque’s muezzin was given the title Pash Muezzin or Honcar Muezzin (senior muezzin) and he would deliver Adhan on Fridays and during the Feasts in the great mosques that were attended by the Sultans. The senior muezzin led a group of fifteen to thirty muezzins, dubbed “Special Muezzins.” 

The Ottoman Sultans even consecrated charities for Adhan’s sake; for example, the Sulmaniyya Mosque Charity (Istanbul) and the Yanni Jami` Charity of Khadijah Torkhan Sultan (Istanbul). The following sentence is inscribed inside the Sulmaniyya Mosque Charity, “It is requisite that a number of 24 muezzins be appointed; each must be knowledgeable in the various musical keys and skillful in the art of cue exchange and intonation… Each muezzin is to receive a daily allowance of five Turkish aqajat.” 

Inside the Yanni Jami` Charity the following sentence is written, “Twelve muezzins must be appointed to deliver Adhan for the five daily Prayer times, providing that they are known for their integrity and religiousness and that each of them is knowledgeable in the art of intonational keys and the science of time and possesses strong lungs and fine voice… Each muezzin is to be paid a daily allowance of 10 Turkish aqajat, and the distinguished ones are to be paid 12 aqajat.” The term “popular, or congregational, Adhan” refers to the kind of Adhan delivered by more than one muezzin simultaneously, whether at the palace mosques or at the grand mosques. The job “Head of Muezzins” was introduced during the reign of Sultan Bayzid II (1481-1512 AD).

The Adhan has long been the focus of many writers’ and poets’ interest across all the phases of Turkish history until the present day. Of the great literary persons who paid keen attention to Adhan are: Najeeb Faddel, Yahya Kamal, Ahmed Hashim, Medhat Jamal Konttai, Aqa Gondooz, Khalida Nasrat Zurlotona, Farouk Nafiz, Ali Olwi Qurujo and Saza’ee Karaqosh. All of them wrote about it in their poetry and fiction.

The Ordeal of Adhan

The Turks delivered the Adhan in Arabic since they first embraced Islam in their original homeland in Asia Minor, after the establishment of their first (Saljuk) state in Anatolia and during the rule of their second (Ottoman) state, until the period of the Turkish nationalist surge known as “Turkishization.” A team of Turkish nationalists started the call to deliver Adhan in Turkish after the issuance of the Second Bill of Conditions (the title given by the Turks to the Second Constitution 1908-1918).

It is likely that the Turkish writer Diyya’ Joc Alb was the first to call for such an idea in 1918, after the fall of the Ottoman state and the Turkish nationalist expansion in Salonika, in present-day Greece. The New Islamic Encyclopedia (in Turkish) states, “In 1928, Ataturk asked Ismail Haqqi Baltagi Oghlo, then a professor at the Divinities College, to insert into the Reformation Bill an article (Third Article) asserting the necessity that everything be in Turkish. On April 10, 1928, the Basic Formations Code was issued, holding that ‘Islam is the State’s Religion’ and that ‘the National Congress assumes the responsibility of enforcing the legislative rulings.’”

In 1930, President Ataturk and Minister of Education Rashid Ghalib appointed nine muezzins to deliver Adhan in Turkish, disregarding the violent popular opposition. Ataturk even enjoined the police to supervise the delivery of Adhan in Turkish and to punish the dissenters.

Al-Hafiz Omar Bek Al-Saloniki is considered the first to have delivered Adhan in Turkish—in the Soznaq key—at the Hessar Mosque in the coastal city of Izmir in 1932. In 1933, after delivering Adhan in Arabic at the Mosque of Ulou, which is located in the city of Bursa in mid-Anatolia, the muezzin Tobal Khalil was savagely beaten and detained by the police. On receiving the news of this incident, Ataturk discontinued his visit to Izmir, went to Bursa and stated to the Turkish News Agency of Anatolia, “Such ignorant, narrow-minded people will not go unpunished by the Republic… the question is less about religion than about language.”

Until 1941, according to Provision no. 526/Code of Punishments, the judiciary and police authorities inflicted the punishment of three-month imprisonment and fine, on whoever delivered the Adhan in Arabic. After 1941, Sheik Kamal Bilau Ughlo, head of the Tigani Sufi Order, and his successor, Abdul-Rahman Balgi were the leaders of the campaign to deliver Adhan in Arabic. Many muezzins delivering the Arabic Adhan had already been imprisoned, paid fines and/or were hospitalized in lunatic asylums.

On September 22, 1948, the Turkish Department of Religious Affairs issued the bold fatwa (religious edict) that the Arabic Adhan is not against the law. In the first free civil elections in Turkey, Adnan Mandris ran for public office against Ataturk’s successor, Ismat Inono, focusing his electioneering on one popular demand; abolishing Provision no. 526/Code of Punishments, which bans the Arabic Adhan. Mandris crushed his opponent and formed the first civil government whose first action was legitimizing the Arabic Adhan once more on June 6, 1950, corresponding to the first of the holy month of Ramadan.

The cinematic director Ismail Gotch and the screenwriter Omar Lotfi Matta, produced a film titled Shizma (The Shoe), relating the story of the inhabitants of Kasabat Turkia on the Black Sea coast, who resisted the Turkish Adhan and challenged the local authorities until the return of the Arabic Adhan.

The Keys of Adhan in Turkey

The Turks have a special key for each Prayer’s Adhan and the keys, of Persian origin, differ from one Adhan to the other. In Istanbul, the key for the Fajr (Dawn) prayer is Dilikchen Azaran (Al-Saba); the keys for the Zhuhr (Noon) Prayer are Raast and Hijaz; for the `Asr (Afternoon) Prayer, they are Biatti, Ushaq and Hijaz; for the Maghrib (Sunset) Prayer, they are Hijaz, Raast, Sika and Dujah. The `Isha’ (Evening) Prayer’s Adhan is delivered on the Hijaz, Biatti, Ushaq, Raast and Nowa keys.

It was also the custom in the city of Istanbul, that the prayer, “May God’s blessing and peace be upon the Prophet Muhammad,” be recited by the muezzin followed by a hymn of praise on the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) before delivering the Prayer’s Adhan. The “blessing and peace” prayer dedicated to the noble Prophet used also to be recited after the Adhan for the Noon, Afternoon and Evening prayers. It is noteworthy to point out that the muezzin delivered the Adhan in the key he was skilful at, not necessarily on one of the previously mentioned keys. The city of Istanbul also witnessed the “Double Adhan” performed by two muezzins by turns simultaneously—imitating a style popular during the Umayyad era.

The Most Famous of Turkish Muezzins

By the end of the Ottoman period, both Al-Hafiz Jamal Effendi (Muezzin of the Walda Sultan Mosque in Aaq Saray Square) and Al-Hafiz Sulayman Qarabajaq (Muezzin of the Yanni Walda Sultan Mosque in Askadar Square), were the most famous Double-Adhan deliverers. Both delivered the Adhan in the same key as the Friday khateeb (the one who delivers the sermon) recited Qur’anic verses.

The Ottoman government houses (Sarayat) used to host very famous musicians to teach muezzins the delivery of Adhan in the different known keys. Of the eminent musicians who worked in the Sultan’s Sarayat during the nineteenth century were, Shaker Agha, Hamami Zada Ismail Da-da, Hajji Hashim Bek and Refa’at Bek. In the early twentieth century, the most renowned muezzins in Istanbul included Al-Hafiz Shawkat and Al-Hafiz Kamal (at the Sulaymanayya Mosque), Al-Hafiz Sulayman (at the Yanni Walda Mosque in Askadar Square), Al-Hafiz Karim Aaq Shahin (at the Mosque of Bayzid) and Al-Hafiz Jamal Effendi Al-Aqsara’ee (at the Walda Sultan Mosque in Aqsara’ee Square).

As the Turkish Department of Religious Affairs assumed responsibility of religious issues, after the abolishment of the Ministry of Islamic Mortmains in 1926, the Department has cherished the Ottoman custom of appointing a muezzin for each mosque and observed the organization of muezzin training sessions and an annual contest for the selection of muezzins. Consequently, an immeasurable group of distinguished, sweet-voiced muezzins has emerged to deliver Adhan in the various cities, regions and territories of Turkey. Bakir Biok Pash, Sherif Domann, Al-Hafiz Murad and Muhammad Sefinsh are probably the most famous of them.

. By Sa’ad Abdul Majid, Translated by Abdelazim R. Abdelazim