Capital muezzins: the faces of Abu Dhabi's most familiar voices
It's 3.30am when a slight figure strides across the courtyard of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, his path lit only by the dome lights and moon above.
Saeed Al Bathimi is on a holy mission to wake up the city.
His task is to perform the adhan, also known as the call to prayer. Stopping outside the entrance of the grand prayer hall, Al Bathimi removes his sandals and enters the hall shoeless.
Where the hall has the capacity to hold up to 7,000 people for Friday prayer, this time it holds only three. Al Bathimi greets the stationary security guard in the back and makes his way to the front where the sound engineer, a wiry Pakistani named Mumtaaz, waits beside the microphone stand.
Mumtaaz, who arrived hours earlier, ensures the mosque's in-house, sophisticated sound system and the satellite technology linking the Grand Mosque to more than 200 other Abu Dhabi mosques, are in order.
He also ensures that a direct live-feed from the Grand Mosque is carried to Quran Kareem Radio, the 24-hour Islamic radio station, which will broadcast the adhan live.
Al Bathimi is a few minutes early. He sits down and takes deep breaths. He has already ensured his throat is clear by avoiding cold liquids throughout the night. This is the extent of the physical preparation, as most of the work occurs mentally.
"Sheikh," Mumtaaz quietly utters as he turns on the microphones. 4.09am. It's time.
When Al Bathimi gently gets to his feet, his face reflects a mix of both concentration and serenity.
He stands in front of the microphone, facing Mecca. He places both hands beside his ears, the tips of his fingers touching the earlobes, and clears his throat.
Al Bathimi's booming voice is not in line with his small frame. At once commanding and beautifully melodic, the words echo across the cavernous prayer hall.
Courtesy of satellite technology, Al Bathimi's voice is also able to cross roads and suburbs to mosques on the outskirts of Shahama to the labour camps of Musaffah to the residential zones of Khalifa cities A and B, the urban centres of Khalidiya and the mosques near the Corniche.
When he is finished, about two minutes later, Al Bathimi lowers his hands and whispers a short prayer.
Mumtaaz turns off the microphones and the small procession heads toward the smaller hall where Al Bathimi will soon lead the fajr prayer.
"I don't sleep in the evenings if I make the adhan for the fajr prayer," he says. "I would rather sleep later in the morning than sleep in fear that I may not wake up in time. The responsibility is too big."
The adhan is a big and historically laden responsibility and, in fact, could well be the UAE's oldest feature.
It is a practice extending back 1,400 years to Medina, where the Prophet Mohammed and his companions were examining different methods of announcing scheduled prayer times to a growing Muslim community.
Discounting the options of blowing a horn or ringing a bell - methods adopted by the neighbouring Jewish and Christian communities at the time - the Prophet decided a powerful human voice would suffice.
This practical task also carries a spiritual dimension, with words for the adhan reportedly revealed in a dream shared by a number of companions.
The Prophet instructed one of his companions, a powerful Abyssinian named Bilal ibn Rabah, to climb upon the minaret of the Prophet's Mosque to announce the call. Bilal was specifically chosen, as his voice was renowned for its passion and melodic tenor.
Since that first call, which came to symbolise the full formation of the first ever Muslim community, it became a practice that spread globally with the faith and which is used to announce every prayer.
For such an enduring message to inspire the faithful continually, however, it needs to be delivered with a voice both stirring and inspirational.
Until 2004, each mosque in Abu Dhabi had its own responsibility to call the prayer, resulting in more than 200 muezzins vocally duelling in five daily bouts.
Deeming the sounds a cacophony, the General Authority for Islamic Affairs and Endowments decided to centralise the adhan from the Sheikh Khalifa mosque near the old souq before moving the muezzins to the newly built Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
While some bemoaned the end of an era, the decision to centralise the prayer also presented a unique opportunity to seek out the best voices in the city.
The authority invited Abu Dhabi's soon-to-be-dismissed muezzins to take part in auditions to join the new elite team that would call the prayers for the city.
Muezzin Mohammed El Yass, who has been making the adhan in various mosques since arriving in Abu Dhabi 30 years ago, described being "compelled" to enter the audition.
"I always love the adhan - it was really as simple as that," he says. "From a young age I fell in love with it and I always wanted a job where I can just do that all the time. That has been my goal since I was 10."
El Yass recalls following his father as a scrawny 10-year-old to his village's dilapidated mosque in the rugged mountains of east Pakistan.
Noticing his son's fascination with the adhan, El Yass's father summoned him to make the call himself at dawn.
"The first time wasn't the best," El Yass chuckles. "I was nervous, my voice was young and it was all over the place."
But his father and the congregation recognised the little boy had potential.
When an opening came to be the mosque muezzin, El Yass was appointed and was immediately put through the rigorous schedule of making the call five times a day.
When it came to the auditions at the Sheikh Khalifa mosque, surreally, according to El Yass, they were held in a format similar to any talent search.
El Yass remembers walking into the empty prayer hall and standing in front of a five-man panel from the authority. After introducing himself, El Yass launched into his rendition of the adhan.
Impressed, the panel then examined his vocal dexterity, asking him to perform using a different register.
El Yass received a phone call the same day informing him he was the first person to make the team. He looks back at that moment as more of a miracle than a personal triumph.
"There is no real way to prepare to make the adhan," he says.
"All I knew is the judges were looking for a voice... a voice that is accomplished and filled with sincerity. The fact they picked me means it was just my lot that was destined to me by Allah."
Al Bathimi's rise to become one of Abu Dhabi's top muezzins came on the back of a more arduous audition in 2001. He was one of 15,000 Egyptian imams lining a central Cairo street leading to a large auditorium. Inside, a travelling panel from the General Authority for Islamic Affairs and Endowments was seeking 15 Egyptian imams for various Abu Dhabi mosques. The ensuing examination not only focused on Islamic knowledge of the Quran and religious injunctions, the authority was also looking for a golden voice to make the adhan.
At the time, Al Bathimi was the imam of a small Cairo mosque and had been making the adhan for the best part of 30 years. It was the power of his call that allowed him to move from the small mosque in his Egyptian village to successively larger ones in central Cairo.
Al Bathimi waited in line for eight hours for his assessment. A few months later, he was leading the congregation at a mosque in Abu Dhabi's Tourist Club area.
In 2004 Al Bathimi was able to skip the audition process, and was personally invited by the authority to become one of Abu Dhabi's official muezzins.
The life of a muezzin is one of routine and punctuality. It revolves around the five daily prayers of fajr (dawn), duhr (noon), asr (afternoon), maghreb (sunset) and isha (evening). To enforce these commitments the authority restricts muezzins from seeking additional employment during their tenure.
Instead, the authority offers muezzins a full-time salary with tasks depending on their skills and religious knowledge.
The four-man muezzin team works to a set roster covering all five prayers with roles ranging from making the adhan, leading the prayer and publicly reciting the Holy Quran in the mosque.
Since the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque has no residential quarters for the muezzins, they are all required to live close by and be on the mosque grounds at least half an hour before the adhan.
While the words of the adhan never change, Abu Dhabi residents may notice that there are various melodic styles in which they are delivered.
This eclectic array stems from the muezzin's knowledge of the various musical modes, also known as maqams, used to perform the adhan. Each of these maqams has it own vocal patterns, pitches and phrasing, but at the same time gives scope for the muezzin to improvise vocally.
Traditionally, the adhan is performed using seven different maqams, each one linked to the particular geographic region where it originated.
For example, the lilting maqam Nahwand is named after a city in Iran while the more solemn maqam Hijaz derives from the Hijaz region of Saudi Arabia.
El Yass uses maqam Hijaz, the one used most often by his favoured muezzins from the Holy Mosque in Mecca; while Al Bathimi's signature maqam is of Ajam.
Persian in origin, Ajam is viewed by some muezzins as the most technically challenging, as it requires supreme breath control due to shifting vocal dynamics.
Speaking after the conclusion of prayer, a slightly drowsy looking Al Bathimi says he began using this maqam after a colleague told him it resonated with a wide array of listeners.
"He told me that some non-Muslims would wait for my adhan in the evening and open the windows just to hear it," he says.
"This makes me very proud because this is what I try to do, to make it pleasing for everyone, Muslims and non-Muslims."
Al Bathimi says the city's muezzins would take it personally if residents found their work to be a nuisance.
"Let me tell you something, if the adhan is performed correctly and it comes straight from the heart of the muezzin, than I guarantee it will go straight to the heart of the Muslim, and non-Muslims will feel peace when hearing it," he says.
"If no, that means we are not doing our jobs the right way."
And with those parting words he slips on his sandals and walks out into the courtyard of the awakening city, looking forward to a restful sleep.
The adhan are a series of short declarative statements summing up the key tenets of Islam: the overriding belief in one God, Mohammed as a Prophet and that prayer is the pathway to success.
Allahu Akbar (repeated four times)
God is Greatest
Ash-hada al-la ilaha illal lah (twice)
I bear witness there is no God except the One God.
Ash-hadu anna Muhammadan rasulullah (twice)
I bear witness that
Mohammed is God’s
Hayya ala-salah (twice)
Come to salat (prayer and worship)
Hayya ala’l falah (twice)
Come to success
(For fajr prayer only) As-salatu khayru min al-nawm (twice)
Salat is better than sleep.
Allahu Akbar (twice)
God is Greatest
La ilaha illal lah
There is no God except the One God.
Published: August 1, 2011 04:00 AM