A few months ago my wife, Maureen, reserved an AirBnB for my travel to Brooklyn, New York. My son, Bam, had planned to stay with me for this visit. We arrived at our destination relatively late at night. The host, Sahr, was a very pleasant dark skinned woman who showed us the place.
Originally an Arabic word, Sahr (سحر), depending on how it is pronounced can mean magic, voodoo or it could mean the dawn. At some point we talked a bit about her name and its meaning. It seemed that the dawn was its meaning and we skipped over talking about other variations of her name. Our space was in the lower part of her home. We needed to walk through her living room to reach the stairs. Detailing the living arrangements, Sahr mentioned that she would be fasting during the day, as it was the month of Ramadan, her bespectacled face brimming with satisfaction. Sahr wanted to make sure that we understand the reason for her odd hours of movement. Fasting for Muslims is to eat before sunrise and again eating late after sunset. Ramadan is the 9th month of Islamic lunar calendar. It is the most venerated month. In this month the Muslims practicing their fasting ritual do not consume any food or water, and they cannot take in any other substance other than breathing air, between the early morning meal until the time they break their fast with the evening meal.
As Sahr was telling us about her Muslim tradition and her ways of observing it, an urge began to consume me. Uncontrollably I wanted to tell her about the idea that I had developed and to see her response, reaction. This was my first chance to examine my idea through a practicing Muslim. “Do you know that Muslims are liars!” I blurted out. Jolted a little, Sahr looked at me somewhat unsure of who we were. Bam, looking more surprised than our host, said “Daaad!” his voice picking up with a nervous smile as if he was trying to diffuse a developing situation.
I looked at Bam momentarily. Every muscle in his face was telling me to “shut up!” With my hand gently waving up and down, “Bam, it is OK!” adding “I am a Muslim too!” I turned to Sahr whose concerns did not seem much alleviated with my expressed Muslimness. “Have you heard of Liar Paradox”. She did not seem to know anything about it.
“A Greek philosopher who I can’t remember his name devised this paradox” as I began to tell her about the Liar Paradox Bam jumped in seemingly relieved from the change of the subject, saying "it is actually an Spanish paradox". I interrupted him, I did not want to lose the thread of my thought, “I know of its Greek version, it has many versions” and I continued.
The more fuller version of Liar Paradox goes this way: It is attributed to Epimenides, from the Greek island of Crete, reportedly saying "all Cretans are liars". This statement of Epimenides examined logically will quickly lead into an unresolvable paradox. Logic of it is that since Epimenides is Cretan and “all Cretans are liars” then Epimenides is a liar too. It follows that since he is a liar, then the opposite of his statement is true, i.e. “Cretans are not liars", they tell the truth and therefore Epimenides is telling the truth and as such his original statement is true, “all Cretans are liars”. We have gone full circle.
Here I am not trying to repeat Epimenides by creating a new version of Liar Paradox, being a Muslim and saying “Muslims are liars”, as much as it might look playful!
Sahr looked slightly amused with my description of Liar Paradox and I continued with my subject of "Muslim are liars". Every time a Muslim recites Adhan or Azaan (أَذَان), call to prayer, or stands for his/her prayer, Namaz (نماز), he/she is uttering "lies" from a logical perspective. You might ask how could a sincere prayer to Allah be interpreted as a lie?
Recitation of Adhan and Namaz is the repetition of a few phrases. One among them is (أَشْهَدُ أن محمداً رسول الله) I recited it to her in Arabic, trying to pronounce it as close to the Arabic enunciation as I could. Sahr seemed more relaxed hearing those words that probably were quite familiar to her. I repeated the phrase in English, “I bear witness that Mohammad is sent by Allah [is Allah’s prophet]”. Mohammad is Allah’s messenger.
The summary of what I explained to her is: There are two problems with the utterance of this phrase as a belief.
The first one is:
Muslims of different sects have many differences but almost all of them, if not all, agree on one premise that Mohammad was a mortal man like other men. In the prevalent stories about him, Mohammad is quoted saying so, [إِنَّمَا أَنَا بَشَرٌ مِّثْلُكُمْ ]. Every Muslim attest that he died some 14 centuries ago and he is not on this earth. Moreover he is not about to return. This is unlike Christian belief. Christians believe that Jesus rose from the death. Jesus is among us and he will reappear or return someday. In that sense “Jesus is Lord”, he is present. In the same sense Mohammad is not present and “Mohammad was sent by Allah”. To say that “Mohammad is sent by Allah” implies that he is present thus he is alive. This is a fallacy and the repetition of it is a lie. If one says Mohammad was sent by Allah, as a phrase, this statement might make some sense but that will change the Adhan as has been practiced for more than a millennial. Besides we cannot escape the second problem:
To bear witness, as in “I bear witness” (أَشْهَدُ ان), one has to be present to testify for what is witnessed, otherwise the testimony, bearing witness, is false and the person is lying and is committing perjury. No one alive can claim that they have been concurrent with the Prophet Mohammad, let alone being in a position to witness when and where he received prophethood from Gabriel, the archangel of Allah. The dilemma is that no one earthly was a witness to that event, Mohammad receiving the prophethood, other than Mohammad himself. Therefore one can say that the statement of “I bear witness” to the prophethood of Mohammad has been a false testimony from day one.
Sahr eyes were squinting behind her glasses. She was clearly pondering and at the same time she looked relaxed. Maybe we were not that weird anymore!
During our stay we tried to be respectful of her Muslim life, for one thing we took off our shoes crossing her living room, not to soil the area in case she prayed there. We chatted a little every day about lighter things of life. At the end of our stay when we left we did not see her. A few days later we went back to pick up a gym pants that we had left behind. On this occasion we met Sahr again. During good byes, Sahr initiated to hug us which we returned by embracing her. At the high level it was a sign of friendliness but also it was an indication of her more modern version of Islam.
With our departure I did not cease to think about these Muslim rituals being a lie! Is this the biggest lie in history or the most massive deception that one can observe considering the number of people who say it day after day?
At face value, it seems that Adhan is full of lies and deceptions. Probably this is true about any belief. With the internal contradictions sooner or later a belief will turn into a deception and a lie, unbeknownst to the believers. The self deception can last for a long time. Can we stop here and conclude that yes “Muslims are all liars”.
Whenever I hear the sound of Adhan, it has a soothing effect on me. It is a music from my childhood. It resonates with me. It reminds me of the time that I lived in a small town, Shahroud. I yet feel the lazy sunny noons of Shahrood with the sound of Adhan coming out of the radio speaker tuned to the station, Radio Tehran. It feels warm, cozy and safe. Whenever I yearn for a solemn moment my mind flies back to that spot mingled with the warm voice of Moazzen Zadeh, (Rahim Moazzen Zadeh Ardabili), singing. Of course Moslems shy away from calling Adhan as a song. In my mind Moazzen Zadeh is uttering words musically. That is singing. In that sense Adhan is no different than any other song. Can a “lie”, meaningless words, be a song, enjoyable at that?
Many songs are that way, if not most. A few years ago I heard a tune, “The Weight” by The Band, a rock group. This song hit a chord with me and for a few days I listened to it and I liked it more. The song does not have a fast pace and the words are easily discernible but I could not understand what the song was saying. It was beautiful to my ears but without a comprehensible thread or meaning. I looked up the lyrics and the meaning improved only a little. I could not decipher the meaning, but my failure did not detract from the beauty of the song.
The song, The Weight, is composed of a seemingly disjointed set of phrases, each set of phrase with its own expression, but there are no apparent connection between them. In my search to find a context for the song I ran into an interview with one of the members of the rock band. He was asked about the meaning of their song. His reply, as I remember, was that the song does not have any particular meaning. Some songs have the context in the song, but for The Weight the context is not known. It is like someone walking along a road seeing a dog barking and then passes by a fence and later observes a few passersby. One can compose the impressions of all those little events into a song without the context of walking along a road being expressed in the song. Maybe this can be seen as a sort of abstract expressionism. That song would be as disjointed as The Weight.
Is there a context for Adhan? I think there must be. The context cannot be the prophecy of Mohammad, no one was “bearing witness”. The history of the region tell us that reciting the name of the current ruler or warlord were common. After Mohammad, the recitation of Adhan included the recitation of the name of the current ruler as an associate of the prophet or Allah! This was common. Other than Adhan, the rulers, when addressed directly , were called with titles as, خداوندا or خداوندگارا, meaning “god like” or they were called ظل الله, meaning “shadow of Allah[God]”. All these titles portray a much higher standing than “messenger of Allah” which is the office of Mohammad. While Adhan has found a musical expression that has stayed with us, nevertheless there is a lie associated with it that is catching up with us beyond the necessities of our times. The huge difficulties in maintaining an Islamic State in Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria are realities that we are actually witnessing and recording in many ways.
“To bear witness” [استشهاد], some fourteen centuries ago was an escape route for the defeated people, mostly tribal, from being killed at the hands of Mohammad's armed bands and later at the hands of advancing Arab armies. It was also a way to get a reprieve from paying special taxes or tributes [جزیه], as non-Muslims, to the victors. Through the ages a few of these “god like” titles has found a permanent place in Adhan and this has been compounded in other ways. In the Shiite sect of Islam, the name of Ali, the fourth Caliph after Mohammad [اشهد ان علیا ولی الله], is recited in Adhan. This one means that “I bear witness Ali is god’s substitute ruler". This is clearly a more defined and structured status than “god’s messenger” which is Mohammad’s status. This lie through the ages has found a more structured form, particularly in the Shiite sect. We have “Hojat ol Islam” [“حجت الاسلام”] meaning “proof of Islam” a title for certain Shiite clergies. Another more elevated title is, “Ayat-ollah” [آیت الله] meaning “sign of Allah” or “an indication of god”. Shiites have a knack in creating god like titles, more can be cited.
All these mouthful titles insinuate a much higher status for Shiite clergy than Mohammad’s. His title was “Messenger” and a secondhand messenger at that. After all, Mohammad did not receive his message directly from Allah. According to the story, Allah sent his message through his primary messenger, Gabriel!
All said, I still like Adhan! And that is the magic of music and culture and it has its perils confronting new outlooks, the breaking point of both.