The minaret today is one of the most important and prominent symbols of Islam. But in the very beginning, this was different. In his article, you will learn more about the origin of the Islamic prayer call (Adhan) and the history of the minaret attached to the main building of mosques.

Before Islam: What Jews and Christians used

The very first Muslims came to pray without answering a specific call. When Islam was revealed in the early 7th century, Jews called the faithful to prayer with the shofar (Hebrew: שׁוֹפָר) – a ram’s horn -, and Christians used a bell, a wooden gong, or a clacker.

The sound of a bell from a distant monastery was a frequent image in pre-Islamic poetry. When Muslims became aware of that, they wanted something equivalent.

One of the companions sugges­ted using the human voice. It is not entirely clear who had the idea of a call to prayer, the so-called al-’Adhān (الْأَذان).

Did you know? In Sunni Islam, the Muezzin says “prayer is better than sleep”. But is he really saying “better”? Read this article to get the answer.

Islamic source for the Adhan

There is a Hadith telling the story of ‘Abd Allah ibn Zayd (عَبْد الله بن زَيْد). One of the Prophet’s com­panions narrated that when the Messenger of Allah ordered a bell to be made so that it might be struck to gath­er the people for prayer, a man carrying a bell in his hand appeared to him in a dream while ‘Abd Allah was asleep.

  • ‘Abd Allah said: “Will you sell the bell?”
  • The man asked: “What will you do with it?”
  • ‘Abd Allah replied: “We shall use it to call the people to prayer.”
  • The man said: “Should I not suggest you something better than that?”
  • ‘Abd Allah replied: “Cer­tainly.”

Then he told ‘Abd Allah to call: “Allah is most great, Allah is most great… I testify that…

…قَالَ لَمَّا أَمَرَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِبِالنَّاقُوسِ يُعْمَلُ لِيُضْرَبَ بِهِ لِلنَّاسِ لِجَمْعِ الصَّلاَةِ طَافَ بِي وَأَنَا نَائِمٌ رَجُلٌ يَحْمِلُ نَاقُوسًا فِي يَدِهِ فَقُلْتُ يَا عَبْدَ اللَّهِ أَتَبِيعُ النَّاقُوسَ قَالَ وَمَا تَصْنَعُ بِهِ فَقُلْتُ نَدْعُو بِهِ إِلَى الصَّلاَةِ. قَالَ أَفَلاَ أَدُلُّكَ عَلَى مَا هُوَ خَيْرٌ مِنْ ذَلِكَ فَقُلْتُ لَهُ بَلَى. قَالَ فَقَالَ تَقُولُ اللَّهُ أَكْبَرُ اللَّهُ أَكْبَرُ… Sunan ’Abī Dāwūd 499


When the morning came, ‘Abd Allah went to the Messenger of Allah and informed him of what he had seen in his dream. He [the Prophet] said: “It is a genuine vision, and he then should use it to call people to prayer, for he has a louder voice than you have.”

So I got up along with Bilāl and began to teach him, and he used it in calling to prayer.

…قَالَ لَمَّا أَمَرَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِبِالنَّاقُوسِ يُعْمَلُ لِيُضْرَبَ بِهِ لِلنَّاسِ لِجَمْعِ الصَّلاَةِ طَافَ بِي وَأَنَا نَائِمٌ رَجُلٌ يَحْمِلُ نَاقُوسًا فِي يَدِهِ فَقُلْتُ يَا عَبْدَ اللَّهِ أَتَبِيعُ النَّاقُوسَ قَالَ وَمَا تَصْنَعُ بِهِ فَقُلْتُ نَدْعُو بِهِ إِلَى الصَّلاَةِ. قَالَ أَفَلاَ أَدُلُّكَ عَلَى مَا هُوَ خَيْرٌ مِنْ ذَلِكَ فَقُلْتُ لَهُ بَلَى. قَالَ فَقَالَ تَقُولُ اللَّهُ أَكْبَرُ اللَّهُ أَكْبَرُ… Sunan ’Abī Dāwūd 499

Did the first Muslims use Minarets?

Most probably not. In the movie The Message (1976), which was approved by several Muslim historians and scholars, Bilal – the first muezzin in Islam – went up to the roof to make the very first call to prayer in Islam.

The earliest mosques most probably lacked minarets. According to Islamic tradition, Bilāl and his early suc­cessors gave the call to prayer from a high or public place, such as the doorway or roof of a mosque, an elevated neighboring structure or even the city wall, but never from a tall tower.

Who was Bilal ibn Rabah (بلال بن رباح)?

Bilal was one of the slaves of the Quraysh and later became an important companion of the Prophet. He is said to have been tortured by his master ’Umayya ibn Khalf (أُمَيّة بن خَلْف). ’Abū Bakr (أَبُو بَكْر الصِّدِّيق) bought and manu­mitted (freed) him.

In the movie The Message (1976), Bilāl was played by Johnny Sekka, an actor who was born in Dakar, Senegal. How­ever, according to the movie database IMDB, the famous boxer Muhammad Ali expressed interest in playing the role of Bilāl – but the producer, Moustapha Akkad, re­fused his offer. He was afraid that such casting “would smack of commercialism”.

The first occurrence of the minaret in Islam

The idea of a min­aret first arose under the Umayyad Caliphate (الْخِلافة الأُمَوِيَّة) in Syria where Muslims came in contact with Syri­an church towers. They converted the churches into mosques and adapted the towers.

In 673, four towers were erected on the roof of the mosque in al-Fustāt (الْفُسْطاط) by the Umayyad governor of Egypt. Al-Fustāt was the first capital of Egypt under Islamic rule and was located close to Cairo (which, by the way, had not been established yet). The English archi­tectural histor­ian Cameron Creswell identified them as the first min­arets built as such in Islam.

The minaret is certainly a later invention, coming after the call to prayer. Jonathan M. Bloom, a professor of Islamic and Asian Art, gave in his book The Minaret (2013) interesting facts about the genes­is of the Islamic minaret.

Why were blind men chosen to do the Adhan?

It is said that ‘Alī ibn ’Abī Tālib (عَلِيّ بن أَبِي طالِب), the Prophet’s cousin, son-in-law and fourth Caliph, ordered a tall place from which the call to prayer was given to be dismantled be­cause its height en­abled the muezzin (مُؤَذِّن) to see into the homes around the mosque.

The call to prayer, ‘Alī believed, should not be given from any place higher than the roof of the mosque. “It is for the same reason that, in later years, blind men have often been selected and trained as muezzins, for they are unable to in­advertently violate the privacy of other people’s homes”, Bloom wrote.

The origin of the shape of a minaret

Scholars tried to trace minarets back to various traditions of tower building in the pre-Islamic cultures of Eurasia. Over a cen­tury ago, for example, A. J. Butler, the British historian of Ro­man Egypt, specu­lated that the multi storied form of the typical Cairene minaret of the Mam­luk period might have been derived from the Pharos (light­house) of Alexandria, one of the wonders of the ancient world.

The German archaeologist Hermann Thiersch (1874-1939) thought that square minarets, such as those found in Syria, North Africa, and Spain, were derived from church towers. Bloom noticed that this church tower theory was strengthened by the sur­vival of the Arabic term al-Sawma‘a (الصَّوْمَعة), meaning hermitage, which had been used in medieval North Africa and Spain to refer to minarets.

Thiersch be­lieved that cylindrical minarets, like those common in Iran, Afgh­anistan, and Central Asia, were derived from Roman and Byz­antine monu­mental victory columns. Bloom suggested that this explanation would support Thiersch’s view that minarets were “erec­ted principally as sym­bols of Islam’s triumph over other religions”.

European scholars sought the origins of the minaret in the ancient nomadic cultures of Central Asia and India. The Aus­trian art histor­ian Josef Strzygowski (1862-­1941) compared the round brick min­arets of Iran and Central Asia to early medieval round towers in Ire­land. He set up the hypothesis that all these towers derived from a common source in the folk arts of the steppe nomads of Asia who had migrated to Western Europe in the early Middle Ages.

What is the Arabic word for minaret?

In classical Ar­abic, the word for minaret is Mi’dhana (مِئْذَنة) – with the vowel “i”!

This noun is de­scribing a tool or instrument derived from the verb to call to prayer. In Arab­ic gram­mar, this is a so-called noun of instrument (اسْم آلة).

In dialects, nowadays, people usually say Ma’dhana (مَأْذَنَة) – which would be the place or time, where the act of calling to prayer is carried out.

This indic­ates that early sources probably saw in the minaret not a place, but rather a tool or instru­ment.


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