Updated November 17, 2019


Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

During a recent trip to Islamabad, a friend who was attending this year’s Islamabad Literature Festival with me excused himself for a bit when he heard the azaan. He wanted to go to a mosque to say his prayers. I heard two such calls from two different mosques, but the second call was heard about five minutes after the first one.

In February 2018, the PML-N government had claimed that 606 mosques (out of 615) in Islamabad had agreed to implement uniformity in azaan timings. So when my friend returned from the mosque, I asked him whatever happened to that agreement. He told me that even though some mosques continue to observe similar azaan timings, others have gone back to doing what almost all mosques in the country do: determine their own azaan timings.

He also added that the cleric of the mosque in his area of residence was so angered by the agreement that he once told the worshippers that this was the first step by the state to eventually change the medium of the azaan from Arabic to Urdu.

Of course, this was gibberish, but it reminded me of a 1961 pamphlet distributed presumably by a group of clerics and ulema in many areas of Punjab. Portions of the pamphlet were reproduced in an anthology of essays published in 1968 by the now defunct Urdu magazine Nusrat. In 1961, the pamphlet was penned as a critique against the Ayub Khan regime’s decision to bring the country’s mosques and shrines under state control. The leaflet claimed that the regime wanted to change the language of the azaan to Urdu.

There is a long history of rebellion against state-imposed religious practices

It is true that the Ayub regime nationalised the mosques and the shrines. According to S.H. Ansarim in the Journal of Political Studies, “Ayub wanted to implement a modern reformist interpretation of Islam.” But there is no evidence whatsoever to claim that the regime also exhibited a desire to change the language of the azaan.

So where was this coming from? I believe it’s an exaggerated fear born from a rather suspicious reading of history. In a February 1946 article, the prolific Islamic scholar Abul Ala Maududi dreaded that the future founders of Pakistan, under Muhammad Ali Jinnah, were capable of treating the ulema in the same manner which the father of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, had after coming to power in 1923.

Ataturk unleashed a social and political programme to radically reshape Turkish society through a nationalism and republicanism that were largely influenced by the French concept of secularism called laïcité.

The secularisms that evolved from British and American traditions of liberalism give religions in a republic freedom of expression and practise but little say in the making of government/state policy. Laïcité — which has its roots in the radical strands of nationalism and republicanism that emerged during the French Revolution in the 18th century — is a lot stricter. It aggressively advocates the relegation of religion to the private sphere and actively discourages exhibitions of faith in the public domain.

In 1932’s Grey Wolf: The Life of Kemal Ataturk, the first authoritative biography of Ataturk, H.C. Armstrong writes that Ataturk and his circle of Turkish nationalists were influenced by the aforesaid French nationalism which, in turn, influenced the formation of modern Turkish republicanism.

More than simply turning Turkey into a republic from the decaying caliphate that it had become by the end of World War I, Turkish nationalists under Ataturk wanted to instil secular Turkish nationalism in almost every aspect of Turkish society. Wearing traditional dresses was discouraged, women were allowed to work and forced to appear without the veil in public, mosques and shrines were brought under state control and the state dictated what could or could not be said in places of worship.

According to an anthology edited by R. Kalia, Pakistan: From the Rhetoric of Democracy to Military Dictatorship, Jinnah was an admirer of Ataturk and gifted Grey Wolf to his daughter Dina in 1933.

In Islam and Secularism in Turkey, U. Azak writes that Ataturk wanted to completely integrate Islam in the paradigm of modern Turkish nationalism. Turkish nationalist ideologues thus found it necessary to ‘eliminate the influence of Arabic in Turkish Islam.’ This also meant changing the traditional Ottoman Turkish script to a new Latin-based alphabet. This gradually led to the imposition of the Turkish azaan.

According to Azak, Turkish nationalist ideologues insisted on the ‘vernacularisation of Islam.’ He writes, “The use of Turkish in worship would, according to nationalists, render the word of God more accessible to Turks and lead to the elimination of superstitious beliefs which obstructed the progress of the society. The rational essence of Islam would be unveiled through the Turkification of worship.” So they refashioned Islam as part of the Turkish nationalist project.

Interestingly, in 1930, when the Ataturk regime was planning to completely exorcise Arabic influence from Islam in Turkey, Muhammad Allama Iqbal, during an address to the members of the All India Muslim League, in Allahabad, said: “The truth is that Islam is not a Church [...] I, therefore, demand the formation of a consolidated Muslim State in the best interests of India and Islam. For Islam, [it means] an opportunity to rid itself of the stamp of Arabian Imperialism … and to bring it closer to the spirit of modern times.”

In 1932, the Turkish azaan was implemented and clerics defying the order were to be arrested and/or heavily fined. The Friday sermon (khutba) too was to be delivered in Turkish. By March 1933, the Turkish azaan had been adopted by all mosques in Turkey. And even though there were some protests, especially in the city of Bursa, they were crushed.

Such manoeuvres were greatly troubling for Islamic groups in India. They understood men such as Jinnah as being South Asian manifestations of Ataturk, especially when, in 1938 on the death of Ataturk, Jinnah praised him as being “the greatest Musalmaan of the modern age.”

Three years after Ataturk’s demise, the penalty for not delivering the azaan in Turkish was relaxed. Nine years later, in 1950, the ban on the Arabic azaan in Turkey was lifted. Even though there was a tendency in some Urdu literary circles till the 1960s in Pakistan to expunge Arabic influence from Urdu poetry — especially by the great poet Noon Meem Rashid — there is no evidence to suggest that even the staunchest Muslim modernist in Pakistan ever planned to change the language of the azaan to Urdu.

Ironically, according to Kurdish Awakening, 59 years later, in 2009, Turkish municipalities governed by the Kurdish nationalist party, the Partiya A tî û Demokrasiyê, had the azaan delivered in Kurdish “to distance the Kurdish masses from the state-controlled Islam of Turkey.”

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 17th, 2019