Muslim Prayer Call Sparks Debate

Up for discussion: the role of the chapel and religion on campus

In less than a week, Duke made decisions that were criticized and praised and launched a national and campus discussion about religious pluralism and the chapel’s role. After an announcement that the traditional Muslim call to prayer would be broadcast weekly from the top of the chapel, the university reconsidered the decision and moved to an alternative approach.

The incident began quietly enough, when in mid-January Duke announced that members of the Muslim Student Association would chant the adhan from the top of the chapel, amplified to be heard in the quad in front of the landmark building. Weekly jummah, or congregational prayers, have taken place in the basement of Duke Chapel for many years; several hundred of the university’s 15,000 undergraduate and graduate students identify as Muslim. Duke was one of the first research universities to appoint a Muslim student chaplain, in 2008, and has an active Center for Muslim Life on campus.

Reaction from people and groups connected to the university and not was vitriolic and thoughtful, supportive and dismayed. In reconsidering the decision, administrators cited a concern that “what began as something that was meant to be unifying was turning into something that was the opposite,” as Michael Schoenfeld ’84, vice president for public affairs and government relations, put it. Schoenfeld also cited “serious and credible concerns about safety and security.”

A compromise was crafted. On a sunny Friday afternoon, the Chapel Quad was packed with supporters and worshippers while the adnan was delivered— in English, then Arabic—over a small speaker on the chapel steps.

Hundreds of alumni expressed their opinion on social media, including the university Facebook page. “My feeling is that religion should be personal. I don’t want Duke to ring a bell for a Muslim call to prayer, just like I don’t find it necessary for Duke to have a public call to Hindu worship, or gongs to publicly sound meditation time for Buddhists. The church bells that ring from Duke Chapel are not a call to worship. They ring the hour like a clock, or a concert from the clarion,” posted Tula Holmes ’73.

From a different perspective, David Graham ’09, a former editor of The Chronicle and a staff writer at The Atlantic, wrote about the incident for the magazine’s website. “Now, one might argue that while Duke’s gesture was well-intentioned, the timing was wrong—why rile people up at a moment when nerves are already on edge about Islam? But I think it’s the other way around. There’s no time when it is as essential to stand on the side of a minority as when that group is under fire.”

The university admitted it could have done things differently. “In the process that led to the initial announcement, we should have engaged more broadly with interested stakeholders within the university and beyond,” Schoenfeld told The Chronicle. Indeed, in a letter to the Duke Divinity School community, Dean Richard Hays acknowledged he was not consulted about the original decision and did not agree with it.

In an open letter, Luke Powery, the chapel’s dean, said the controversy reaffirmed the chapel’s role as a place of hospitality toward the diverse religions and cultures on campus. “Thoughtful, faithful people have agreed and disagreed with the various decisions made this week,” he wrote. “In the coming weeks, the chapel will seek opportunities for constructive dialogue about these complex and important subjects as we all strive for deeper understanding and greater faithfulness to God.”

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