Traditional Islamic modes of communication have evolved to become very effective at enhancing conformity and obedience, and in strengthening ingroup cohesion. Three illustrative examples are discussed here: the azan (call to prayer), the daily prayer, and the month of Ramadan.
It is particularly important to attend to Islamic modes of communication, because Islam is the fastest-growing major religion in the world, soon to constitute about a quarter of the world population. Although the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism (Moghaddam 2006) has focused attention on Middle Eastern countries, particularly Saudi Arabia which is the home of Wahhabism, the most populous Islamic countries are outside the Middle East. Indonesia alone has about 220 million Muslims. Approximately 90 percent of Muslims in the world belong to the Sunni sect; Shi’a is the second largest sect, Shi’a Muslims make up the vast majority of the populations of Iran, southern Iraq, and southern Lebanon. The historic conflict between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims has intensified since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003; on the borders of India and Pakistan, Islamic fundamentalists are fighting for control over Kashmir.
Anyone traveling in Muslim societies immediately experiences the azan, the call to prayer, which is heard from every mosque, in every neighborhood of a city and every village in the countryside. Radio and television stations also broadcast the azan (Bowen & Early 2002). The migration of millions of Muslims to western European societies means that the azan is now also heard in some western citie. The moazen, the person singing the azan, is specially trained, and the most successful moazens have a wide following and appeal. In traditional societies, each mosque has a moazen who climbs up the minaret and sings the azan five times a day, but in many places now tapes of the most famous and successful moazen are played through loudspeakers, and are available on the Internet. An important consequence of the azan is that five times a day, the entire Muslim community is immersed in the call to prayer: everyone – people shopping, walking in parks, driving though the city, lingering in tea houses – undergoes the same experience. Even secular parts of society are forced to hear the azan.
Prayer may not be considered by some to be a mode of communication for study, but the social influence exerted by the practices associated with Islamic prayer play a unique and highly important role. All Muslims are obliged to pray five times a day at specific times. The prayers are to be said in Arabic, and are preceded by ritual cleansing. Children start learning the prayers by heart from an early age, and in Muslim families girls over 9 and boys over 13 are expected to follow the routine of daily prayer.
Muslims are encouraged to pray as part of a group, led by an imam or a community leader. The spiritual value of prayer is said to be higher when it is undertaken as part of a collective, rather than as an individual act, separate from others. Thus, the azan calls the faithful to prayers five times a day, and the expectation is that individuals will try to join others in saying their prayers. This arrangement creates opportunities for the collective to exert continuous influence on the individual, maximizing possibilities for achieving conformity to group norms and obedience to Islamic authorities. In particular, the gathering of Muslims for prayer presents Islamic preachers with daily opportunities to communicate with the faithful, passing on messages that come from local, regional, or national authorities (Parshall 1994).
The tradition of Ramadan, a month during which, from sunrise to sunset, practicing Muslims abstain from eating, drinking non-alcoholic beverages (alcohol is forbidden to Muslims at all times of the year), and smoking, represents another unique and effective mode of communication in Islamic societies (Bakhtiar 1995). Again, the emphasis during Ramadan is participation in collective life and conformity to group norms. First, the practice of fasting disrupts the normal routine of daily life and sharpens the difference between ingroup and outgroup. Muslims find it very difficult to interact with non-Muslims during the month of Ramadan, because they must fast between sunrise and sunset. A consequence is that during this month social and business meetings with Christians, Jews, and other non-Muslims becomes difficult. This is in part because during Ramadan fasting becomes a national preoccupation and there is far less attention on getting work done. Also, lengthier meetings typically involve sharing food and drink (e.g., a “business lunch”), which is not possible when Muslims have to fast. The result is that during Ramadan business slows down and even grinds to a halt in many parts of the Muslim world. Second, Muslims are encouraged to break their fast at sunrise each day as part of a group, as well as to attend various sermons and gatherings special to this time of the year.
The power of traditional communication modes is weakened by some alternative sects and reformist Muslim groups, which have challenged the priority given to the interpretation of Islamic rules by authority figures. For example, Sufi groups tend to highlight personal inspiration rather than dictates from authority figures.
- Bakhtiar, L. (ed.) (1995). Ramadan: Motivating believers to action. Chicago: Kazi.
- Bowen, D. L., & Early, E. A. (eds.) (2002). Everyday life in the Muslim Middle East. Bloomingdale: Indiana University Press.
- Moghaddam, F. M. (2006). From the terrorists’ point of view: What they experience and why they come to destroy. Westport, CT.: Praeger.
- Parshall, P. (1994). Inside the community: Understanding Muslims through their traditions. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.