Just before Winter Solstice go I received an event notice for an Interfaith Holiday Sing-A-Long. Seemed like an odd name but I love to sing along. Hoping to do some caroling but the evening was more than that. I went down to meet the group at the public market, a relatively large space with lots of parking, nestled in one of the old neighborhoods in the city. About three hundred people were gathered on the cobblestones, a great crowd, Black, White, Asian, families with old people, young people, children, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, other . . .People were talking and getting coffee from a table off to one side. At 4:00, it was chilly, but not cold, and dusk was settling over us.
The organizers had planned different routes for 15 or 20 different groups of singers. We were encouraged to talk to strangers, and most of us did so. My group included all sorts of people and only one other person that I knew, We had booklets with the lyrics to holiday songs and songs about peace and justice. We sang about winter sleigh rides and peace on earth. We sang ‘If I Had a Hammer’ and ‘Let There Be Peace’. We recited and Islamic prayer, which I suspect could have been chanted, but no one was quite prepared to lead.
We found some young people in a park, who joined us for a round of ‘Sleigh Ride’. People came to their doors to greet us as we stood on the sidewalk singing. One woman said we should leaflet in advance as, had she known we would be out there, she would have joined us.
When we returned to the Public Market, there were people there, and we could also hear various groups of carolers singing in the dark streets beyond. There were some kind of preparations under way, and some of the men were standing around the back of a pickup truck where they were setting up a sound system. Sheikh Ismet Husny Ahmad Akcin, the Imam of the Rochester Islamic Center began to chant the evening Call to Prayer and my mind stalled for a moment as the beautiful chant permeated my consciousness. Then I began fumbling for my phone to record him.
I’ll interject my own experience here. I once lived in a little apartment in the Kurdish city, Suleimaniya, in northern Iraq for the month of June. My favorite time of the day was evening. I had a door onto the roof and would sit outside in the relative coolness of evening, and at dusk, the call to prayer would begin. The sound would float above the traffic noise, and since there was more than one mosque nearby, the call would be repeated by different voices beginning, like rounds, in succession, and overlapping the verses, then falling away one by one into the ordinary sounds of the street. The Call to Prayer is a lovely peaceful sound. It is, for me, a favorite tradition in the Islamic societies I have visited.
So then, I snapped back and did begin recording – only a little late.
After the Call to Prayer, Dr. Mohammad Shafiq, Director of the Hickey Center For Interfaith Studies and Dialogue at Nazareth College, took the mic and explained the meaning of what we had just heard. Its in the recording, but I have typed it here for clarity:
[Sunni] Muslims have the Call to Prayer five times per day. The Imam chanted:
God is great (4x)
I bear witness that There is no God but the one God (2x)
I bear witness that Mohamed is the messenger of God (2x)
Come for worship (2x)
Come for success (2x)
God is great, God is great (2x)
There is no god but the one God (2x)
God is great (4x)
As he spoke, a group of members of the Islamic Center gathered in the cobblestone courtyard of the Public Market for their evening worship. One thing I think is nice about hearing this is the way that the words ‘Allahu Akbar’ resonate in their proper context. The phrase is not primarily the victory cry of a bunch of half mad barbarians. In fact, it is a natural part of worship for all Muslims to say glory to God. Before Imam Akcin began, Dr. Shafiq explained the service. Again, I have transcribed his words here for the sake of clarity:
He (Imam Akcin) will first recite the first verse of the Quran, called the Fatiha. Then they will begin the bowing. When they are bowing, he will say ‘Glory be to god, the most high’, ‘Glory be to God the most High,’
I always remember the first sentence of the Quran because it begins with ‘rahim’ and ‘rahman’, ‘grace’ and ‘mercy’. Below is a translation of the Fatiha:
In the name of God, most gracious and most merciful
Praise be to God, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds
Most Gracious. Most Merciful
Master of the Day of Judgement
Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we see
After the Muslims completed their worship, a Rabbi said a few words that embraced the moment, and then we all sang ‘We Shall Overcome”. There are a couple verses of that at the end of this recording, – followed by Dr. Shafiq’s closing remarks.
If you have a few minutes, it is just nice to listen so as to have a feeling of the moment. So much of it was music.
It was a lovely evening with so many different celebrations from different cultures, really a good time for savoring diversity and oneness as well, at the human level.