Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Recently, an op-ed by appeared in the Harvard Crimson that criticized the University for allowing the Harvard Islamic Society to perform the adhan (lit. announcement, the traditional Muslim call to prayer) in the Tercentenary Theater. Members of the Islamic Society shared the adhan with the University community in the early afternoon of each days throughout Islam Awareness Week. The issue--along with the other recent Muslim-related controversy at Harvard, i.e. the University's decision to set up womens' hours at one of its many gyms--was mentioned in a short but fair piece that was recently published in the NY Times. While the authors of the Crimson Op-Ed appear to raise reasonable questions about the nature and limits of tolerance and pluralism at Harvard, on closer inspection, their objection to the Islamic Society's performance of the adhan for the University community appears to rest on a rather tenuous definition of the limits of public religious expression.

I will not attempt to deal with the problems raised in the Op-Ed comprehensively here. One of our major contentions with the article's authors argument, however, is that, although they attempt to do so, they in fact fail to convincingly explain why performing the adhan on campus differs from other religious expressions that are allowed to be performed in public on campus. They argue that performing the adhan in public, since it contains the Two Testifications (shahadatyn) "I bear witness that there is no god but God; I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God (in Arabic)" and the Statement, "There is no god but God (again in Arabic)," is 1) an act of proselytization and 2) offensive to those who believe that that God does not exist, that there are gods other than God or that Muhammad (upon whom be peace and blessing) is not the Messenger of God. They argue that other expressions, such as the public lighting of the menorah or the ringing of church bells from Memorial Church (which is a steady feature of the sonic landscape here at Harvard) do not share this proselytizing and offensive aspect and therefore should not be supressed by the University (as they call for it to do with the adhan). The question that I leave the reader with however, is the following: Is it in fact the case that other religious rituals do not convey their performers' affirmation of core principles of the religions with which they are associated? More on this later in sha'Allah...

3 comments:

andrea useem said...

This is actually a very interesting question: Do church bells contain some affirmation of a theological principle? Could you argue that the adhan has more of a functional purpose (calling people to prayer; it is, after all, the express equivalent of church bells) than a theological one? Here's my take: I am persuaded by the argument that having someone stand on Widener steps, reciting the Nicene Creed or Lords Prayer is probably too much religious express in that "public" space. If the adhan were in English, I think this issue would have come up a lot earlier. So, personally, I think IAW should not include a public adhan.

Abū `Abdul-Raḥmān said...

As-salamu `alaykum Ms. Useem! Jazakumullah khayran for the comment! Your first question is one that we could explore further. A student of ritual studies or perhaps a semioticist might have something to share on the question of whether religious expressions that do not take the form of explicit verbal statements, such as the adhan, also communicate something to the audience. My non-expert suspicion is that every traditional religious expression or ritual associated with an world religion, expresses the performer's commitment to, profession of and--in the case of the world religion in which advocates are encouraged to share these principles with others-- even an invitation to the core principles of the religion in question. The issue then becomes this: what test does a university use to decide which expressions are "too much" and which are not? Put differently, should Islam receive special attention from the university because its public rituals tend toward the explicitly verbal/oral. Is comprehensivity the issue? If the expression is verbal and explicitly simple in its communciation, should it receive special attention compared with traditions whose system of synbols is less obvious to the University audience. Finally, I note that although mention that IAW "should not" include a public performance of the adhan, you are careful to not phrase it as support for University suppression of the performance, which was what our graduate student op-ed authors openly called for.
Wa s-salam.

Anonymous said...

i never understood how the public expression of religious truth claims can be considered prosyletization, to be suppressed, while the public expression of ostensibly "non-religious" truth claims is a natural right to be defended vigorously. everything depends on these arbitrary categorizations that are all but designed to promote one worldview, culture at the expense of others.