Heralds of Dawn in the Heart of the City

By Alexander Fernandez, Lokman Redzuan

November 2022 A DAY IN THE LIFE
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Mr. Radhi reciting the Adhan. Photo by: Alexander Fernandez.

TEN MINUTES BEFORE the break of dawn, Mr. Radhi arrives at the doorstep of Masjid Melayu Lebuh Acheh to prep for the day. It is a Friday, so he is garbed in a special robe provided by the mosque; on other days, he would be clad in ordinary prayer clothes. He switches the lights on and does a quick sound check on the microphone and speakers. With his hands covering his ears, he begins reciting the Adhan, which is blasted through loudspeakers, waking its listeners within the vicinity to pray.

At Masjid Melayu Lebuh Acheh, Radhi is one of three muezzins who recite the Adhan (or Azan in Malay) five times a day to summon Muslims to prayer. It is a tradition that extends back to the time of Prophet Muhammad. The very first muezzin was a slave named Bilal ibn Rabah, one of the earliest Islamic converts chosen by Muhammad himself.

Since Radhi resides within the vicinity of the mosque, it is often he who recites the Adhan at dawn, while his peers take turns throughout the rest of the day.

Nearby, at Masjid Kapitan Keling, a close acquaintance of Radhi, Mr. Sapno, is also a muezzin. He sounds the Islamic call twice in the morning, the first aimed at waking up Muslims to prepare for Solat Subuh (the dawn prayer) while the second calls worshippers to prayer.

Situated along the Street of Harmony, Masjid Kapitan Keling was named after Cauder Mohideen Merican, popularly known as Kapitan Keling, the leader of the Indian Muslim community during the early 19th century.

Both Radhi and Sapno began their journey as muezzins as a means of contributing to or “striving” for their religion, driven by their devotion to Allah.

Radhi has now served as a muezzin for 15 years. He had worked in a shipping company for 30 years before retiring six years ago to work as a muezzin full-time. When not on duty, he stays in the comfort of his home reading the Qur’an, among other things. 

Sapno, who is still hard at work at the age of 55, functions as a security guard at Masjid Kapitan Keling from 7pm to 7am as well, on top of his duties as a muezzin. Throughout his 10 years as a muezzin, Sapno had served at three different mosques in Penang. In 2017, he was serving at Surau Taman Free School when a devastating flood struck. He escorted numerous families to the safety of the surau (prayer hall) and was awarded the Maulidur Rasul award by the Penang state government.

As muezzins, Radhi and Sapno are sometimes involved in the collection of Zakat Fitrah (an obligatory alms-giving by Muslims during Ramadan) and in telling the history of the mosque to visitors, among other tasks.

Before becoming official muezzins, Radhi and Sapno had to undergo an interview by the State Religious Department, and tryouts were done by reciting the Adhan. Potential muezzins are chosen for their dulcet and melodious voices, and accurate pronunciations.

“[The Adhan] has to have a beautiful tune that is not only soothing for Muslims to hear, but for people of all religions and races, including foreigners,” Sapno says before demonstrating how he changes his tone effortlessly while reciting the call to prayer.

Only after receiving a Surat Tauliah (letter of accreditation) from the State Religious Department does their status as muezzins become official. Renewal of the said status happens every two years at the discretion of the mosque’s Chairman. Muezzins with the letter of accreditation can also assume the role of an Imam (Muslim priest) in leading prayers when the Imam is unavailable.

The Acheen Street Mosque or Masjid Melayu Lebuh Acheh was founded in 1801 by Tengku Sheriff Syed Hussain Al-Aidid, an Acehnese clan leader, making it one of the oldest mosques in Penang.Photo by: nizarfaez © 123RF.com.

Radhi and Sapno say that there is no age limit to becoming a muezzin – at least to their knowledge. “Even a youngster is able to take over the role of a muezzin as a replacement if the Chairman of the mosque allows.”

Most mosques employ two to three muezzins to rotate throughout the day. Only two would be provided allowance by the State Religious Department; the hiring of any additional muezzin depends on the mosque’s Chairman and the allowance for the additional muezzin would be borne by the mosque itself.

Adhans, at different times of the day, are traditionally sung in different tunes. When Sapno recites the first Adhan before dawn, he soothes his voice to wake worshippers up gently. In the Solat Subuh that takes place after, his voice is assertive and firm to persuade listeners to pray. The Adhan, like all Islamic prayers, is sounded in the direction of qibla – the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca.

In a neighbourhood with many mosques, the Adhan, recited by different muezzins in their own unique inflections and cadences, can be heard layering and overlapping one another. But all of them serve the same purpose – to sing praises to Allah and Prophet Muhammad and to repeat the promise that Allah is the one and only God.

Alexander Fernandez

is a USM graduate. While most people eat to live, he lives to eat instead.

Lokman Redzuan

is interested in defense and security issues. Late-night drives are one of the ways he gets ideas.