Duke and the call to prayer: 3 things to keep in mind

January 19th, 2015

Have you ever noticed how cookbooks, in spite of their plain intention to include “just the facts,” will every now and then insert an unexpectedly dramatic instruction or description? I’m thinking of the injunction to heat water to a “full, rolling boil.” I can’t ever read that phrase without picturing the water as some kind of upset.

Recently Duke University has immersed itself in the “full, rolling boil” that is religious pluralism in the 21st century. In recent years Duke has begun to offer more opportunities for its Muslim students, including opening a Muslim prayer room and hiring an imam to work alongside Jewish and Christian campus ministers. Continuing that trajectory, on Wednesday, January 14 the university announced that it would allow the adhan, the public call to Muslim prayer, to be chanted from the tower of the iconic Duke Chapel. By Thursday afternoon, however, the university had received enough complaints, protests and credible threats of violence that they had to conclude that “what was conceived as an effort to unify was not having the intended effect,” and hence that the call to prayer would be sounded from in front of the tower instead.

This episode, coming as it has on the heels of the heinous attacks on the staff of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, has generated more than its share of umbrage and vilification from all sides of the culture wars. It’s also brought about some helpful reflection on life in a world where ignoring or forgetting about religious differences is no longer possible. In an attempt to add to the latter, let me offer three thoughts that can inform a Christian response to this week’s events:

First, this incident reminds us that Islam is an inherently public religion. As I mentioned above, ministry with and to the Muslim community at Duke has been growing for years; why all the uproar now? I suspect it’s because the muezzin’s call from the bell tower feels very different than a Muslim group meeting for prayer or to break the Ramadan fast in a room somewhere on campus. It’s easy to ignore the latter; out of sight, out of mind, right? But if you’re walking across the quad when the call to prayer sounds from the tower, it’s going to impinge on your attention in an entirely different way.

One of the reasons this feels so intrusive to American Christians is that we’ve been listening to the Enlightenment tell us for a few centuries now that religion is a purely private matter, to be practiced in your church or living room. The world created by the Enlightenment tells you to keep your religion to yourself, thank you very much. But the thing is, Islam never got this memo. In Muslim theology the sovereignty of God is so complete that the dichotomy between public and private makes no sense. You issue the call to prayer in a public way because God is calling everyone to the life of prayer, not just a few folks gathered in a basement.

A second thing to bear in mind: As many Christian leaders in the Duke community have pointed out, Duke Chapel was endowed and constructed as a place of Christian worship. Its art and architecture are explicitly Christian in character. Although the university is now a multicultural, pluralistic institution, Duke has long and deep ties to the Methodist tradition. Allowing the bell tower of Duke Chapel to be used for religious purposes other than Christian is a significant departure from what the founders of the university intended. Many feel that the decision to employ the chapel bell tower for chanting the Muslim adhan was made without sufficient regard to these facts.

But finally, and most important: The two considerations listed above do nothing to excuse Christians from the biblical injunction to welcome the stranger in this situation. The hospitality Scripture tells us to practice comes with no strings attached. We aren’t hospitable just to those who think like us or whom we might one day convince to do so. Whether we see Muslims as fellow worshippers of the God of Abraham or children of a strange deity is immaterial to our obligation to welcome them and share with them what is ours.

To those Christians especially who point out that Duke Chapel was intended to be a Christian, rather than multireligious, worship space, I would say that this is precisely the reason we should invite the muzzein to climb those steps every Friday noon and sing the call to prayer. If we believe that space is Christian, then the most Christian thing to do with it is welcome our Muslim neighbors to use it in service to their faith.

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