A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Takbir: praising God.

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 4, 2007

One of my favorite Beirut signs is a small two-way neon light box perched atop the guard stand for an underground parking lot near Hamra. Deep pink letters on a plain white background spell out “takbir”. I love this sign: quietly pious, the expression of some unnamed donor’s devotion.

Takbir means “Praise God”, to which believers respond by saying “Allahu akbar” (which, despite NPR’s obstinate resistance to linguistic accuracy, is not the “Muslim war cry”.). Praising God is the purpose of the five daily prayers – not because He needs praise, but because praise is due Him from His creation. (Other types of prayers exist, but the five daily prayers are about God, not about human life and the requests for help that it engenders.)

To me the phrase itself is interesting – “God is the greatest” (not great, as it is often mistranslated).

The superlative (which in Arabic is grammatically the same as the comparative, so it could be equally well translated “God is greater”)
implies comparison. But for a monotheistic religion, God is beyond comparison; there are no others.

The expression reminds me of the first commandment: Thou shalt have no other gods before [also translated “besides”] me. To me both reflect the ambiguity of a monotheistic religion in a multi-religious world. The presence of other humans worshipping other gods introduces comparison. God may be sui generis in absolute terms, but on this earth His grandeur is expressed comparatively.

Such are the things I contemplate in my free time.

This morning’s gym reading brought a (relevant) smile to my face. Conde Nast Traveler‘s November 2006 issue included a “word of mouth” feature on the least and most expensive time-oriented keepsakes from Dubai:


The top-of-the-line suggested buy is a limited edition Tiret watch whose face reproduces the layout of Dubai’s “The World” luxury created-island living project.  As limited edition watches that reproduce well-known vanity housing projects go, its quite lovely.

The low-end keepsake is one that … I own! As do many people in my family – Intlxpatr gave them out as stocking stuffers one year, shortly after she and the khalo had moved to Doha. (They come in white and green, and sometimes blue – not only pink.) Seeing the mosque clock in a US travel magazine was a total hoot. I love my mosque clocks – to me they express a lovely synthesis between religious practice and daily life.

What I do not like about my clock, though, is the harsh azzan. Conde Nast says that these clocks come from Malaysia, but I believe mine was imported from Pakistan by a Saudi holding company.

Regardless, the call to prayer (which sadly is the standard and not the early morning “al-9salat khayri min al-nawm”) is nothing like the melodious Levantine calls that I love. Flat, nasal, un-decorated – a far cry from the rich timbre and deep passion of “my” neighborhood muezzin. I love the clock, but I never use the alarm.

On the other hand, perhaps the Gulf state style call to prayer does prevent muezzins from focusing more on the musicality of the azzan than its devotion.

I have begun to wonder whether “my” muezzin isn’t a bit of a prima donna; he usually waits until the calls from all the other area mosques are almost completed before starting his own.

I love hearing his voice call into the silence, but … much like believers are enjoined to stand as closely as possible next to one another in the mosque, my understanding is that the collective call to prayer reaffirms the community aspect of Muslim prayers.  After all, everyone is equal before God – even those with the most glorious voices.

5 Responses to “Takbir: praising God.”

  1. […] Takbir: praising God. […]

  2. intlxpatr said

    I love this post, Little Diamond. And, in this recent trek, I loved hearing REAL people muezzin(s) in some of the small villages – melodic and reverent and haunting. I also love the reminder to praise at least 5 times a day.

  3. intlxpatr said

    PS – you didn’t mention how LOUD those clocks are, that you can hear the “alarm” from one end of a large house to the other!

  4. hmm. the muezzins i hear are definitely real people – or at least I think they are, since the calls vary slightly from prayer to prayer (every so often, someone hits a flat note …!), and voices call on different days. but perhaps (this is Lebanon after all!) the mosque simply has a large collection of cds and rotates them in accordance with idhaan fashion.

    they are loud! maybe this is why the clock doesn’t say “prayer is better than sleep” – it doesn’t need to cajole the faithful from their dreams because it has already blasted those dreams away.

  5. […] After Sarah agrees, Rayyan brings her something to help her keep track of the prayer times: a mosque clock! I’ve never seen one that keeps track of the five prayer times, as the television […]

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