top of page

Come to Prayer

Jacob Slichter

I grew up in a house divided by faith.  My mother is a devout Episcopalian; my late father was a devout physicist.  I followed my mother to church and into a life of belief, but at our dinner table, I got a healthy dose of my father’s atheism.  “Do you kids know who Galileo was?  Do you know what the church did to him?”  His lectures about the church’s rejection of science, from Galileo to Darwin, the Vatican’s stances on birth control and abortion, the Salem witch trials, and the role of fundamentalists in launching the prohibition era instilled in me an awareness not only of religion’s dangers but of the ire and fatigue it can inspire in atheists.  When proselytizers left tracts on our doorstep, I’d snatch them up and stuff them deep in the trash, lest my father be provoked into another rant. When athletes on TV started to thank Jesus for their game-winning heroics, I quickly changed the channel. 


This childhood shaped me into the believer I am today.  I go to church every week, but I keep my spiritual life at a remove from my mostly atheist friends, including my wife, Suzanne. When I hear politicians invoke God or the Bible, when I see evangelists approach strangers on the sidewalk, or when a cleric is called forward at a graduation ceremony to offer an opening prayer, I tense, surveying the reactions of the atheists in my midst. Even as I long for God outside of church walls, I find myself wondering who believes and who does not, ever on guard against religion’s impositions on those who want no part of it.


I was little prepared for how these concerns would follow me to Istanbul, on a vacation Suzanne and I took in the spring of 2013. I anticipated nothing more than a week in a city I had never seen. As a drummer, I looked forward to perusing Istanbul’s trove of percussion offerings and hoped to purchase a doumbek, a type of hand drum I had recently begun to play. Various friends had urged me to visit Hagia Sophia, the Byzantine cathedral subsequently transformed into a mosque during the fifteenth century, for me, a point of architectural more than spiritual interest. Otherwise, I planned little more than to sip some of Istanbul’s legendary tea and stretch my legs on its streets.


Within seconds of dropping our bags in our hotel room, however, my old anxieties surged as the midday prayer call blared through our window, broadcast through loudspeakers that could not have been more than fifty yards away.  I recognized the first phrase, Allahu Akbar, which translates to God is the greatest.  Another call, perhaps from several hundred yards beyond the first, soon overlapped, and in the staggered nature of the calls, one could suppose that the muezzins were taking turns singing to each other.  The remaining Arabic was beyond me, but translations of the call that I’d come across in my reading about Islam over the years came back to me. 


        God is the greatest

        I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God

        Come to prayer

        Come to success

        God is the Greatest.

        There is no god but God.


“It’s so loud,” Suzanne said.  


“Yeah,” I said, worried that by pushing my preference for a hotel in Sultanahmet, a neighborhood that is home to the city’s oldest mosques, I’d failed to consider our proximity to the public address systems used by these mosques. I handed her our guidebook in hopes of changing the subject, and as she led the way, we exited the hotel and walked past merchants hawking their wares and tourists seated at sidewalk tables. Soon we passed a group of men, most of them over forty, bowed on carpets outside a mosque, which was apparently too small to accommodate more than a few dozen worshippers. In the near distance, across a large open plaza, worshippers prayed out another, larger mosque. I felt implicated as a believer amidst the apparent omnipresence of observance. I kept an eye on Suzanne, wondering what she thought. 


We strolled to Hagia Sophia, whose domed top and surrounding minarets were easy to spot. I had looked forward to seeing its famed mosaics and the light streaming in from its dome. After waiting in the line outside, however, we entered to find much of the interior under restoration, hidden behind a vast, mesh-covered scaffolding. With the mosaics largely hidden and the light beneath the dome muted, my eyes turned to the other visitors crowded around us. I made guesses about their religious affiliation and wondered which Hagia Sophia they had come to see—the Byzantine church, the Ottoman mosque, or the historic architectural wonder.  


Similar questions followed me as we exited and wove through the stream of pedestrian traffic.  “Maybe those with the head-coverings and slacks are the younger, somewhat observant folks,” I thought. “And these people in the jeans and t-shirts, maybe they’re fed up with all the prayer calls and religion.  Or maybe they’re liberal believers.”  Such speculations continued through the length of our stay. When Suzanne was asked to wear a headscarf upon entering a mosque, I was relieved that she never seemed to mind, but then I wondered how my continued fascination with visiting mosques in general—the guidebook was full of them--had registered with her.  I wondered which of the people we passed on the street might be my Muslim analogs, the believer paired with an atheist.


After a couple of days, I adjusted not only to the strength of the tea but also the prayer calls heard throughout the day.  Though jarring at first, I learned to hear them as something more akin to church bells, sonic markings of the day’s progress.  I wondered if Istanbul’s atheists felt so accepting, especially of the first call, the Fajr, which pierces the pre-dawn quiet and concludes with the phrase “Prayer is better than sleep.”


“Suzanne might not agree with you,” I thought, pulling a pillow over my ears when the call woke us at 4 AM.  On our third or fourth morning, however, after I was woken by this first call, I saw Suzanne, standing at the window, weeping.  


“What’s wrong?”


“The singing.  It’s so beautiful.”


I was relieved, and then a bit amazed. Was she having an aesthetic experience? A spiritual one?  My reflexes told me to shield her from religion, but was that what she herself wanted?


After exploring Sultanahmet, we walked over the bridge that spans the Golden Horn, the waterway that divides Sultanahmet from Beyoğlu, a neighborhood described by our travel guides as a vibrant, younger, more cosmopolitan scene. There, we visited modern art museums, perused clothing stores, walked by nightclubs, and, at last, located a percussion shop that had been recommended to me by my doumbek teacher. After I tried a couple of drums, the chief salesman made a passing reference to my beginner’s technique. I asked him to play the various drums so I could listen, and as he played, I wondered what he would think about the fact that I planned to play my drum at church. We left the shop with a drum under my arm, but the questions continued. Were the salesman and his fellow doumbek players in the shop looked upon with disapproval by clerics because these drums are traditionally used to accompany belly dancers?  Perhaps they were on friendly terms with the more liberal clerics. Were there any hipster clerics?  


As we crisscrossed the city, the religious and secular dividing lines continued to tangle themselves in my mind. Did a headscarf worn above a tee-shirt, designer jeans, and colorful sneakers denote a progressive believer? A conservative one with a style sense? An atheist dressing to appease an observant family member? 


One afternoon, as we walked through Beyoğlu along a cobblestone street lined with shops, I shot some video to capture the scene. Soon, I realized I was filming several hundred riot policemen. I quickly put my camera away. Across the street from the police stood a group of people in their teens and early twenties. Sensing a brewing conflict, we kept walking, but as we arrived in Taksim Square, where the street opened into a plaza of monuments and nearby Gezi Park, we came upon an even larger gathering of young people and, across the street from them, a phalanx of armored police. An English photographer we bumped into explained, as he snapped photos, that the young people were university students and that they had been facing off with the police for several nights. He described the various issues driving this conflict, and though I couldn’t follow all of them, one of the flashpoints for these protests was then Prime Minister (and now President) Erdoğan’s rollback of Turkey’s longstanding commitment to secularism. Erdoğan, who had founded an Islamist party, opposed gay rights, had moved to limit alcohol sales, and was seen as threatening personal freedom generally. Before we heard much more, however, the police began to stir, the student voices rose into chants, and Suzanne and I hastened back from where we came. These protests continued and spread into a nationwide uprising lasting weeks, and in the brutal crackdown that ensued, 22 people were killed and thousands were injured.


As we walked back from Beyoğlu to Sultanahmet across the Galata bridge, my mind ran back to the students behind us. I thought about the Occupy Wall Street protests of two years earlier.  Some of the protesters had come to my church on Sundays, and I had followed them back to the protests in lower Manhattan. How many of those in Taksim Square protesting for freedom from religious strictures might also be believers? How many of them, like some of my atheist friends back home, had lost their patience with even the most progressive forms of belief? The questions mounted, as did a familiar weariness.


Suddenly, the Asr, the late afternoon prayer call, emerged from the Yeni Cami, the mosque on the far side of the bridge.  


        God is the Greatest!

        God is the Greatest!


This call was immediately joined by others from minarets behind us and then from all directions, colliding overhead, filling the sky with a muezzin symphony, a kaleidoscope of shifting consonance and dissonance. My breaths deepened as we walked, and as my ears followed the singing, I started shooting video to capture the sound but couldn’t decide where to point the lens.  I felt my awe inspired from every direction — in the prayer calls swirling above us, the Yeni Cami towering before us, the students behind us, the pedestrians strolling past us, fishermen gazing over the water with their poles and cigarettes, the seagulls floating above them, the aroma of grilled sardines emerging from nearby kiosks, the diesel fumes from trucks idling on the bridge, the wisps of fog blowing off the waters of the Golden Horn, and my beloved atheist wife at my side.  


“Come to prayer” the voices above beckoned, and I answered by letting go of my attention to lines of division. I melted into the great human train crossing the bridge, believers and unbelievers alike, all of us suspended between the sacred and profane, where small revelations flare in the glorious patina of the everyday.

lumina logo blue.png
bottom of page