Make Haste Towards Prayer

September_2007_minaretsSeveral times a day, I open our windows and listen as voices begin floating over the city. I look over the tops of apartment blocks and dusty buildings, over the many minarets and palm trees, and I visualize the calls to prayer. I imagine the voices as drops of water sprinkling over the city, spreading in little circles until they meet each other with soft bumps and then continue on, blending and flowing. The song sounds mystical to me, all words I don’t understand sung in dozens of different voices, different tones, different distances from me. Each of them from a single man in one of the graceful spires that shoot up across the skyline, claiming that part of the city for its own.

I have been in Cairo for two weeks now and despite the dire warnings of friends who had toured the city on brief vacations, there is a lot of beauty here. The city has been hard to get used to, with its heat, its dust, its crazy dogs that roam around, its honking cars and unstable drivers. I spent a good part of the first day here panicking and crying, unsure of what I committed myself to. I quickly adapted and let myself fall into the natural rhythm of one who is uprooted and replanted in strange soil. Anxiety gave way to starry-eyed romantic notions of souk markets and ancient land. The stars dimmed and a sense of optimistic reality has set in, occasionally interrupted by brief bouts of panic as small inconveniences pop up that I realize I will have to deal with for years.

Through this tumultuous experience, whether I am thrilled by what I have discovered at the market that morning or angry at feeling helpless in a foreign land, I have found an island of peace. Several times a day I hear those voices floating through the thick Cairo air and I open my window and sit. The peacefulness of prayer is a universal comfort, be it in my language or yours, in my faith or theirs.

The muezzin in the minaret calls the faithful to prayer by singing out eight repeated phrases stating faith, extolling prayer and welfare, praising Allah. All the muezzins are singing the same phrases in the same order, but each with his own intonations, the peaks and valleys of his words flowing like a river, crashing into and buoying up the songs of the other calls like a symphony in the sky.

Having been around Notre Dame for so long, I have heard many a bright-eyed Utahn or fresh Indiana missionary make a snide remark about vain repetitions and memorized prayer. True, I feel closer to my Lord when I speak to Him in my words. But I believe the Spirit lies not always in what is being said (memorized or not) or indeed, in the quantity of times it is repeated, but often in the meditation and peace that is felt when the mind focuses solely on becoming close to God.

Prayer is pervasive in everyday life here. I shop in the market and pass merchants who politely excuse themselves, unroll their green carpets, and kneel outside their shops. I meet men who have bruises on their foreheads from the frequency of touching their brow to the ground in humble prayer. While I ride in taxis during prayer time, the drivers have the radio tuned to the local muezzin’s voice. And even in the air-conditioned cocoon of my apartment, the call to prayer ignores the window panes between us and fills my home with peace.

This is the first in a series of reflections on the five pillars of Islam that one observes in everyday Cairo life. More on my adventures in Egypt can be found at State of D’Nile.


  1. “But I believe the Spirit lies not always in what is being said (memorized or not) or indeed, in the quantity of times it is repeated, but often in the meditation and peace that is felt when the mind focuses solely on becoming close to God.”

    Well said Melissa. My wife and I work at the temple and your comment reminds me of the beautiful and peaceful feelings I get when I recite the repititious words of the initiatory blessing. I think the ordinance worker, in that case anyway, gets more out of the words than the patron because once the words are learned, the become part of that person. I once thought of the initiatory as an uncomfortable place to serve, either as patron or worker, but as I’ve become proficient in that ordinance it has taken on great meaning and giving me much comfort. Thanks for you thoughtful words.

  2. I can’t get enough of this. I love your description of coming to the point of optomistic reality.

    Too many people who hear the muezzin only hear noise — I remember an especially hateful comment by a missionary companion. I admire your ability to be edified, and look forward to the other 4 pillars.

  3. Lovely. Positively lovely.

  4. Steve Evans says:

    More please!

  5. Thanks, Melissa. I love the calls of the muezzin. Snide commenters may want to reflect on 1) the hymns we sing are memorized and repeated prayers, 2) our ordinance prayers are fixed in the same way, and 3) William Phelps in Evening and Morning Star in 1833 told parents to ensure that they trained their children how to recite the Lord’s prayer verbatim. I personally like both approaches.

  6. Sam, I’m so happy to read that. I love the Lord’s Prayer and always say it along with everyone else when I visit mass or go over it in my head when I’m scared or anxious.

  7. I miss the call to prayer. I was always sad that the last Muslim country we lived in was so secular that you could only hear the call to prayer in a very few places around the capital and small villages. I do live near a cathedral now that chimes its faithful to prayer twice a day. I like that too.

    I hadn’t thought to compare this to the initiatory blessings as lamote did. Maybe that’s one reason why I’ve always preferred doing initiatories when I go to the temple.

    Have you visited many mosques yet? My husband loves Ibn Tulun and I love Qayt Bay’s mausoleum in the Northern Cemetery.

  8. Too many people who hear the muezzin only hear noise

    Really? I think of opening scenes of movies depicting conflict in Muslim countries…

  9. Melissa, this is beautiful. Thank you.

    Sorry for the threadjack, but I couldn’t resist. The Lord’s Prayer was frequently used in the 19th century by our people and was a fixture in the Sunday Schools.

    In 1855 Amasa Lyman (JD 3:218-219) explained to the Saints:

    …We have now got through with the Lord’s prayer, but I do not want you always to get through with it so soon; I do not care if you are a week about it. Most of you teach your children this form of prayer, before they can appreciate it. You can appreciate it, but they cannot. You teach them to say, “Our Father who art in heaven,” without their having any rational supposition who He is, or whether He is anybody or nobody.

    On April 7, 1895 Francis M. Lyman spoke at General Conference stating:

    Every Sunday school teacher and pupil should know the Ten Commandments and repeat them each morning in addition to our own prayers and the Lord’s prayer. We should make them a part of our daily practice, for it is the oldest moral code in existence. (AH Cannon Diary)

    Elder Seymour B. Young at General Conference (April, 1898) also spoke on the Sunday School’s use of the prayer. After an anechdote about a child saying the prayer he said:

    I relate this, my brethren and sisters, to impress upon your minds the wonderful power for good that can be made and impressed forever upon the hearts of our little children in these wonderful Sunday schools of the Latter-day Saints, where they are being taught and made acquainted with these noble principles, not only of the Lord’s prayer, but of living its precepts and the wonderful example that is contained within its tones and utterances.

    The practice must have been quite common, as Elder Rudger Clawson, on page 507 of his diaries described a family reunion followed this outline

    Song, by the family
    Lord’s Prayer (opening), grandchildren
    Shower of flowers, under direction Georgie Foote
    Dialogue, Elsie and Myrtle Green
    Whistling, Monroe Clawson
    Quartet, S. B., Shirley, Seldon Clawson, and Seymour B. Young, Jr.
    Recitation, Kinksley Clawson
    Punch and Judy, under direction Fred Clawson
    Shadow pantomime, by the boys
    Grand march to fishpond, grandchildren
    Refreshments at 6:30 p.m.
    Distributions of souvenirs
    Benediction and blessing, by father

  10. Melissa, this was a delightful reminder. I feel just the same way. We heard these for years in Riyadh. Vain repetitions? Listen to the expression in the singing! As you say, each call is an original, even though the words are the same.

    Here is a site with a collection of them in mp3 format. I’m having fun listening.

  11. Wonderful, Melissa.

    Don’t let the panicking and crying and brief bouts of panic get you down. You’re having the experience of a lifetime, and I’m glad you’re starting to feel at home.

  12. For a closer approach to the experience Melissa describes, try this: open a tabbed browser (e.g. Firefox or Safari), go to the site I linked, and open three or four different calls in succession, in different tabs. Having grown up with this, listening to one at a time is just not the same. Try to include the “Bakir Bash” call, which includes the birds singing . . .

  13. Say hi to Hussein and Phyllis from the Qureshis for us! Don’t know if you’re there studying Arabic, but if you are and it steps up a notch, if you dig around in the branch library you should find an old transcript and/or CD of some interviews I did with Hussein in Arabic almost a decade ago where he told his life story. Enjoy it, Cairo is dirty, crowded, insane and yet all together magical.

  14. Beautiful, Melissa.

    Like lamonte, I immediately thought of the temple workers and patrons as I read of those who observe the call to prayer that interrupts what they otherwise would be doing. I admire the Islamic dedication to prayer, since I’m pretty good at keeping a true prayer in my heart continually but struggle to stop, kneel and vocalize.

  15. This was wonderful. Thank you.

  16. J- what a family reunion! I especially like the grand march to the fishpond. Any ideas on when the LP went out of vogue or at least why there are such varied attitudes about it?

    My mom is a 2nd grade teacher in a great Catholic school. She starts the kids on their core religious education and prepares them for Sacraments. She posted the following on our blog:

    “Teaching about prayer is one of my favorite sections of my religion class. I put off teaching this part until I feel my little ones have a good grasp of who God is to them. Then I teach that there is no preferred way to pray to Him. God leads each person according to his or her needs. I teach 3 different kinds or models of prayer:vocal prayer, meditation, and contemplation. Vocal prayer can be a recitation of formal prayers, such as the Lord’s Prayer. The memorized phrases that seem only repetitious to some may be soothing comfort to others. We can also speak to God in our own words at any time. Meditation should engage their minds, imagination, and emotions by focusing on a psalm, Scripture passage, God’s creation, or such. Contemplative prayer is attentiveness to God. Done in silence, it is active listening to the word of God.”

  17. Ben- great idea, thanks for posting those links! When are you going to come crash on our couch? We actually have plenty of room now!

    Jamal- I just met Phyllis last week, she’s great! And what a cool idea. When my Arabic is better, I’ll have to check out those tapes.

  18. Melissa, I’m not completely sure why it ended (I just happened to keep files on miscellanea). I know that JFS in the 1910’s wrote against the repetitive use of the prayer, perhaps that was the end. It really is amazing, how quickly we can change somethings (and how long it takes to change others).

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