[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
EDIRNE — The magnificent Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, in Turkey’s northwestern end, has hosted millions of prayers since the late 16th century, when the great Ottoman architect Sinan built it. But last Sunday the splendid shrine hosted an usual event: an “ezan contest,” during which 10 competing muezzins (ezan-reciters) performed the Muslim call for prayer with all their artistic skills in order to win the financially modest but spiritually invaluable prize.
The ezan (or Adhan, in Arabic) is the Islamic call for prayer that has been recited in Islamic lands since the time of Prophet Mohammed. The Koran does not speak about this practice, and tradition says early communities of Muslims invented it when discussing how to call fellow believers to the mosque for prayer.
According to tradition, it was Bilal El-Habashi, or “Bilal the Ethiopian,” one of the first non-Arab Muslims and a close companion of the prophet, who suggested using the human voice and did so by his strong and beautiful tone. He climbed up the first mosque in the first Muslim city, Medina, and recited the Muslim call for prayer.
Since Bilal, the first muezzin, these sentences have been read aloud by muezzins from many nations five times a day every single day. For most Muslims, hearing the ezan is a blessing for the heart.
Even if they don’t rush to the mosque, they listen to it respectfully. Some people even stop talking until the end of the call. They might sit up straight if they are lying or leaning. And they will murmur, “God is powerful.”
And since the ezan is so important, Muslim tradition has developed special styles for reciting it in order to make it more musical and impressive. Virtually all Muslim cultures have developed their own style, but, arguably, it is the Ottoman Turks who made ezan reciting an art in itself.
In the Ottoman tradition, the five ezans of the day are recited in five different styles, which actually come from Turkish classical music. For the morning prayer, there is the “Saba” style, for example, and for the evening there is “Segah.” The toning, speed and emphasis are all different. A good muezzin should know about all these details, and, of course, should have a beautiful voice.
In Turkey there are more than 80,000 mosques and, of course, not all muezzins are great tenors. Moreover, not all of them can follow the traditional styles of ezan reciting. Hence more and more Turks complain about the low-quality ezans, which not only fail to reflect the beauty of the divine message, but even become an annoyance for refined ears.
The Diyanet, Turkey’s state-sponsored official religious directorate that controls all mosques, has decided to bring a solution via promotion. The organization, which is undergoing a silent reform under the directorate of theologian and professor Ali Bardakoğlu, started to arrange ezan contests four years ago.
Since then, every city in Turkey selects the best muezzins it has. These singers are eliminated by a group of experts until the top ten are selected. At the final stage, the top 10 contestants show their skills in front of an experienced jury and hundreds of fellow believers.
That’s what happened in the Selimiye Mosque of Edirne last week. Ten muezzins from 10 different Turkish cities recited the ezan in front of a jury of four academic experts and at least 1,000 mosque-goers.
It was an interesting scene, because in Turkey mosques are regarded only as places of worship, not centers of social activity. But here were four serious jury members sitting at a long desk, 10 excited contestants with their huge name tags, and dozens of reporters and cameramen, including a TV team from Austria.
The contest started after the noon prayer. First the muezzins came to the jury’s desk and cast lots to figure out the ordering. The jury’s head, Dr. İsmail Karagöz, explained that the contestants would be scored by each jury member over a maximum 100 points and each mistake they did would take five points away. It sounded a bit like a Eurovision song contest.
Then the muezzins read the ezan out loud one by one. The audience listened to their strong voices with a deep silence. Some were taken away by the holy words and moved into tears. And after a short break for discussion, the jury announced its decision.
The winner was the participator from Istanbul, muezzin İsa Aydın. A young and smiling character, and definitely a great soloist, Aydın was also humble. The other muezzins were also very good, he insisted, and he was lucky.
“They traveled from far cities to Edirne,” he said, “that might have badly influenced their voice.”
When asked about the meaning of the prize he won — which included a few coins of gold, suits and shirts — he said the most important award was spiritual. “You cannot measure the value of ezan,” he said. “We do this for the sake of God.”
From 1932 to 2007
All of this corresponds to a very interesting phenomenon, because it tells us a lot about Turkey’s complex ways of modernization. Contests are modern things. They promote individuals, not communities, and thus contribute to individualization in a society.
In Turkey, the culture of contest grew as mainly a secular fashion. The daily Cumhuriyet organized the first beauty contest in 1929. In 1932, a young girl named Keriman Halis won the contest and became “Miss Turkey.”
What would make her even more famous was her success in the Miss World contest held in Spa, Belgium, in which she represented Turkey. On July 31, 1932, she was crowned Miss World among competitors from 27 countries. Atatürk celebrated her achievement and declared that it proved “the beauty of the Turkish race.”
Since then, beauty contests have become a tradition in Turkey not only to celebrate the “Turkish race,” if there really is such a thing, but to proclaim that Turks are a fully Westernized nation.
Turkey’s Westernizers, who dominated the state and society in the first decades of the republic and acted as vanguards of the social transformation, expected the whole nation would gradually follow the same path. At some point, they hoped, all cultural ties with Islam would be erased and replaced by “contemporary,” i.e., secular codes.
Yet the Westernizers soon realized that not all Turks were buying into their dream. A considerable part of the society was willing to preserve its Islamic identity and culture. The Westernizers labeled these believers as “reactionary forces” and threatened to “crush” them by force, which they have repeatedly done.
But there was a crucial point that the Westernizers were missing: The Islamic parts of society had started to modernize themselves, too, albeit in a way of their own. They were not taking their headscarves out and putting on bikinis, or abandoning their mosques and rushing to cocktail bars, but they were advancing themselves and their children in education, business, culture and even politics.
In the 1990s, they even started to out-perform the seculars in integration with the global economy and the desire to strengthen Turkish democracy. In the 2000s, they emerged as the champions of the EU bid. Theirs was a type of modernity, too. But unlike the Westernizers’ secularist dream, it was a modernity with Islamic values.
Perhaps the long and bumpy road from Keriman Halis, Miss Turkey of 1932, to İsa Aydın, Mr. Muezzin of 2007, should be seen within this perspective. The practicing Muslims are discovering modern means to express and proclaim their traditional faith. This doesn’t mean the end of modernization as some secularists fear. It only means that Turkey’s story is, and will be, much more complex and colorful than it was imagined in the 1930s.