I had heard those words before. Strange and mysterious initally, with time I learned what they meant. If I had heard them before becoming a Muslim, I had no idea what they were. Like someone who is not Muslim recently told me, "I thought they were different each time." But they weren't. They were always the same but not like a chant. It was not a mindless act to use these words. They were a call to prayer, a call to respond and reflect. They were the words of the adhan.
The first time I consciously listened to these words was in a small masjid in Texas. Trying to connect the flowing Arabic words with the English translation I had read before coming to the masjid, I struggled to understand what I was hearing. "Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar." Being a brief phrase, I remembered that these first lines of the call roughly meant: "Allah is the Greatest."
Repeated four times, this phrase moved my heart and mind to reflection. "You are a humble creation among creations. Your Lord is the Almighty. You were made to acknowledge His greatness and serve Him." These and other thoughts like them must have filled my mind as they do today.
Then the caller of the adhan declared for us all, "I bear witness that there is no god but Allah." And then a second time, he proclaimed this ultimate truth over the microphone filling the prayer hall and announcing it to the immediate outside world. What magnitude the words possessed!
Like raising a verbal banner for the Muslims within earshot, the caller continued with our declaration of faith, "I bear witness that Muhammed is the messenger of Allah." Calling out again the same phrase, my heart was compelled toward the remembrance of Allah and His messenger. Of course still unfamiliar with the Arabic, the ability of these words to stimulate my heart and mind while at the same time giving me a sense of peace was mystifying.
Furthermore, this call was not only a call to belief; it was a call to action. "Rush to prayer," he cried out in Arabic. Then pausing and repeating this phrase, his call was inspiring, especially when the consequence of responding to this call was pronounced within the next line. Drawing out the eloquent Arabic words, the caller reminded the Believers, "Rush to success." Taking a moment to let us reflect on what that might mean, the caller remained silent before once again giving the order, "Rush to success."
Truly answering this call and standing side by side for the sake of worshipping the Creator with my brothers and sisters who had also chosen to believe was an encouraging and enjoyable experience. And yet, not until many years later have I begun to acquire a glimpse of the depth of these words that have been calling for a response from the Believers for over a thousand years. A significant hint of this came when I made my first journey to a Muslim country.
Unlike in the US where I would set my alarm clock to get up in time to prayer, I was eager to wake before dawn and hear the adhan resound from the top of the nearby minaret. Even still, I was worried I would miss the adhan and my prayer due to the fatigue of my journey. But Allah had mercy on me, and I awoke before the first lights.
As I waited peering out the window trying to see the masjids that dotted the hillsides around me, I strained to hear the beginning of the adhan as the darkness of the night began to fade. But there was no need to strain, because within moments I began to hear "Allahu Akbar. (Allah is the Greatest)," echoing in the distance closely followed by the caller at another masjid starting his giving of the adhan. And to my tremendous and somehow unexpected joy, another began and then another and another until all the minarets were resonating with this magnificent series of words. It was as if the whole world had been filled with this call to mankind to remember their Lord, their belief, their duty, their reward, and their destination.
Standing there with those words reverberating over me again and again, I was enveloped with such happiness and hope that I began to cry. This moment reminded me that there once was a time and place where the people did hear these declarations and commands accepting and obeying them. They had reaped the succulent, bountiful fruits of submission to Allah's will, and this moment was a remnant of that bounty. I so longed to be a part of those who had succeeded, to join the ranks in the masjid as often as I could, and to be unified with others in striving thereafter for Allah's sake. For in the end, as our prophet told us and the ending of the adhan proclaims to us five times a day, all that matters is: "Allah is the Greatest. Allah is the Greatest. There is no god but Allah."