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After controversy, Muslim call to prayer sounds from front of Duke University Chapel

After Duke University canceled plans to amplify the Muslim call to prayer from the chapel bell tower, people gathered in support of the prayer Friday from the chapel steps. (Video: Sari Horwitz, Shaker Samman and Casey Capachi/The Washington Post)

The Muslim call to prayer echoed across Duke University’s quad Friday, the day after university officials canceled plans to have weekly services begin with an amplified call to prayer from atop the chapel’s bell tower.

That initiative had sparked such intense debate, even threats, according to university officials, that they reversed the decision. But Friday’s call to prayer, held at the base of the chapel rather than at its pinnacle, was a peaceful gathering.

Hundreds of students and faculty members gathered in bright sunshine to listen and support the Muslim students, some hugging, some holding signs such as, “Let us worship together,” with a cross, star and crescent, symbols of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. A speaker explained the history of the adhan, or call to prayer, and people passed around an English translation of the words. When the Arabic chant sounded, the crowd seemed to hold its breath.

Duke University's decision to scrap plans to allow the Muslim call to prayer to emanate from its chapel bell tower raises controversy on campus. (Video: Reuters)

The Duke University Chapel with its Gothic spires is for many the symbol of Duke, which has historic and symbolic ties with the United Methodist Church. The university is non-sectarian today.

The idea of amplifying the adhan from the chapel tower was made by the Office of Religious Life and the growing Muslim population at Duke, said Omid Safi, director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center.

It is a familiar sound in many majority-Muslim countries, but it immediately sparked controversy for Duke. There were calls to boycott the campus and, Safi said, violent threats phoned in to the Center For Muslim Life.

On campus, most seemed to support the call to prayer and were surprised by the reaction it set off. Many decried a university council’s decision Thursday to not allow the chant to resonate from the chapel tower.

“We appreciate the fact that the broadcast of the call to prayer from such a prominent location was designed to be a display of religious diversity and inclusion at a time when the issue of freedom of expression is front and center in the United States and worldwide,” the Council on American-Islamic Relations said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that a prestigious institution like Duke University ultimately bowed to intimidation by anti-Muslim bigots.”​

There are about 700 Muslim students at Duke, and typically 100 to 125 come on Fridays to pray in the lounge of the chapel. Safi said that many Muslim students are attracted to Duke for the “extremely popular” Islamic studies program. Some have been frightened by the response, he said; for many of them, this is the first time they have been attacked for who they are.

“What is happening here is not an Islam issue,” he said. “It’s an American issue. This is a conversation about pluralism and about people who say there should be only one religion in the public arena.

“This is an intense moment for the university,” he said. “But it’s also an intense moment for the world.”

Shaker Samman, a 19-year-old Muslim student from Michigan who had come to the prayer, said the controversy brought more people into a more open, public space. “That’s the irony of it.”

Another student passing by asked him, surprised, “They’re still having this?”

Samman smiled and said, “Yeah. They’re just changing it from the top of the tower to the bottom of the tower.”