We live in strange times. The Vice Chancellor of a prominent central university got disturbed by the sound of Azan at dawn and went to the District Magistrate’s office to complain. Taking notice of this situation on priority, the DM intervened and the mosque, called Lal Masjid, reduced the volume by 50 per cent so as not to disturb the Vice Chancellor and therefore, as per her claims, not to affect her work days.
A column by IPS officer Najmul Hoda followed this incident in a news portal. In his column, Mr Hoda invokes the past of Islam, the selection (by the Prophet) of Bilal over a bell or a horn to recite the first Azaan (call for prayer) in Masjid al Haram in Mecca, and the principles of civility and citizenry; to make the point that Muslims must give up loudspeakers.
Both the DM and the policeman are fine bureaucrats, I must concede. They have successfully devised undisputable ways of executing political will. One uses legality to single out one community, the other turns to the community’s own history to teach them values of citizenry. The DM of Allahabad, presumably, worked in the light of the Noise Pollution Rules, 2000 and might have also taken notice of the Allahabad High Court Order of May 2020 where the court opined that loudspeakers are not a part of essential religious practices of Islam; Mr Hoda invokes scripture and history to tell his fellow Musalmans how they are in the wrong to be using the ‘devilish’ and ‘blaring’ sound of the loudspeaker because the Prophet himself chose the low decibel human voice of Bilal over horns and bells.
Both the bureaucrats are correct in facts (as good bureaucrats always are) both, however, ignore the context and politics of the time (as good bureaucrats must always do).
The DM of Allahabad ignores the context of space. Lal Masjid is located in Civil Lines area of Allahabad. A quick search on Google Maps will show you at least four temples within a kilometer of the mosque and from the images available on the internet, one can observe that most of them, like most religious places in India, have loudspeakers mounted on top. In the sub-continent, barring the Parsis, Christians and the Jains, all religious communities conduct their ceremonies using loudspeakers. Processions on occasions like Ganesh Chaturthi and Moharram are much louder. I wish we someday have District Magistrates who are actually sensitive to noise pollution and regulate the decibel levels in our surroundings. The DM of Allahabad, by overlooking the many more sources of noise pollution around Lal Masjid, sadly, does not seem to be motivated by concerns for the acoustic experience of Allahabad.
Mr Hoda ignores the context of time. He writes in the India of 2021 and invokes two time periods – the first from seventh century Arabia and the second from the India of 1970s. It is a rather purist argument to say that something is not a part of religious practice because the founder did not follow it 1400 years ago. For all we know, given the fact that Prophet Muhammad was on a quest that was as political as it was spiritual, the choice of a human voice to call for prayer over that of a horn would have made more sense if he wanted to connect with the people. Moreover, many local practices which originated much later in the history of Islam have become a part of religious life and practice.
It is therefore self-contradictory, to first invoke seventh century Arabia, then remind us of the 1970s when Muslims were skeptical of using loudspeakers, and then completely ignore what has happened in India ever since. The truth is that Muslims, like every other religious community in the subcontinent, adopted loudspeakers as a part of their ritualistic performance and while I agree that we would be better off without unsolicited Azaans and Bhajans at dawn every day, to completely dismiss this performance as something outside of the Islamic life is to assume that religious practices are static and stand frozen in time, and that they do not borrow elements of their geography and culture as they grow and change.
Philosophical arguments, however, are the least of my concerns here. Loudspeakers, especially in the subcontinent, serve a dual purpose for a religious community. Firstly, they allow transmission of the rituals or chants to the fellow members of the community as an exercise in invitation and propagation, and secondly, they are used to assert religious identity in the space. They are, as I have discussed, an element of performance. Denying one community the ability to that assertion and performance of identity while allowing others to do so with impunity and support is not only an obvious example of double standards, but also snatches away an important aspect of religious public life from Muslims. It sends a message that Azaan is contributing to noise pollution, while loud Bhajans and night-long chants of scriptures on the microphone are not just acceptable, but must be celebrated. It implies that if a Muslim performs their identity, it is public nuisance; but the assertion of the Hindu identity is a matter of pride – such pride that the Prime Minister will attend the ceremony, if need be. If Mr Najmul Hoda was to reflect on how his fellow bureaucrat – the Allahabad DM– operated and singled one community out, the existence of this bias would not have escaped him.
More importantly, the controversies regarding loudspeakers on mosques are a part of a larger political zeitgeist that has dehumanized the Indian Muslims by delegitimizing every aspect of their life. Birth rates, for example, instead of being diagnosed and solved as public health crisis in Muslims, are actually used to characterize the community as filthy and therefore, unwanted. Similarly, legislations like the Love Jihad Law restrict who a Muslim person can marry. An effort to study and join the bureaucracy becomes ‘IAS Jihad’ in the Hindutva narrative. The ability to buy a house in any other place except for the Muslim ghetto is termed as ‘land jihad’. Being careless and falling sick in a pandemic was termed ‘Corona jihad’ and, the focus of this discussion; loudspeakers on the mosques (and exclusively the mosques) become a matter of noise pollution and bureaucratic concern.
This project to dehumanize the Indian Muslim has desensitized the country to violence. Violence can more easily be committed on a people who have lost legitimacy to life. The recent news about a boy named Asif who was beaten up for entering a temple for water reminds us of an Akhlaq, the merciless killing of whom was given an implicit approval by the BJP when its MLA from Sardhana, Sangeet Som visited the culprits to show support. It also reminds us of a young girl who was raped in a temple in Kathua and for the rapist of whom, Hindutva groups rallied in support. There are many others who have been reduced to numbers and are nameless today as a result of this desensitization. For if you de-humanize a community enough, violation of human rights is no longer a matter of shock and shame.
It is this context of time that Mr Hoda ignores in his historically and theologically backed opinion about the use of loudspeakers. One cannot deny that the sudden concern and focus on the Azaan is not one without bigoted motivations, and is certainly not about noise pollution. It is driven by the same agenda that seeks to demote the Muslims of the country to a second class of citizenship.
When history and mythology is actively used to degrade a community as either outsiders who are invaders or as natives who got converted and therefore, adulterated and hence, are eligible for ‘ghar wapsi’ today; historical arguments and appeal to theological purity hold little water.
(The author is an Ahmedabad-based academic and writer. Views expressed are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Outlook Magazine)
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