Singer Sonu Nigam’s critical comment on the Azaan, or the brief call for prayer from mosques five times a day, starting from Fajrat dawn, has resulted in a wholesale controversy with critics and defendants not wanting. Perhaps the singer went a bit overboard, though he was not the first to do so. Six hundred years after the birth of Islam, Omar Khayyam had also made an adverse remark, "And a muezzin from the tower cries, Fools your reward is neither here nor there". It only went on to emphasise his belief that there was no after-life. Another comment in his Rubaiyat says, "Each morn a thousand roses brings you say, Yes but where leaves the rose of yesterday?… The flower that once blooms forever dies." At the same time Omar observes, "And this first summer's month that brings the rose/Shall take Jamsheyd and Kaikobad away".

Jamsheyd with his fairy seven-ringed cup and Kaikobad were both hoary figures in old Iranian history. And, despite being highly revered with magical attributes, were also doomed to die like lesser mortals. But all the same are still remembered at Hosh-Baam, the morning prayer in the Parsi temples. Coming back to the Azaan, an ex-African slave Bilal was the first muezzin as the Prophet's favourite companion. He gave his Azaan both at Medina and Mecca, the first one in a place called Quba. At Mecca he ran into opposition from some of the faithful, says Sadia Dehlvi, who is quite an authority on Islamic history and performs the half-pilgrimage (Umrah) nearly every year to Mecca. She elaborates that somebody else was asked to give the Azaan instead.

As a consequence the sun did not come out and "there was no morning" until Bilal was persuaded to climb up the Kaba and give the Azaan. To this day the Azaan of Medina is said to be the most sonorous and it's not only Arabs who excel but others too. Interestingly enough, it was an Indian, who once won the best Azaan competition. It's worth narrating that it was a mistimed Azaan by a man named Miskin, deputising for the designated muzzin, that led to the death of Humayun.

The Emperor, a keen astronomer, had gone up to the roof of his library in the Purana Qila to observe the planet Zohra (Venus) in the ascendant. When he heard the call for prayer he hurried down to offer namaz but his garment got caught in his foot and he fell to his untimely death. As historian Stanley Lane Poole has aptly observed, "He stumbled into life and tumbled out of it", because of ill-luck throughout.

Aurangzeb responded to Azaan and won a battle, as the Balk-Badakshan adversaries fled thinking it was Iblis coming from hell to tempt them. In more recent times, the blind Kambalia used to give a very melodious Azaan until he began to rouse the "rozadar" for Sehri in Ramzan of the World War II years. Salim Pehalwan was another great Azaan-giver but one summer went mad and called the faithful to prayer at an ungodly hour in the morning. Incidentally, it's only at a Sooni Masjid (Silent Mosque without amullah) where the Azaan is not given. That the Azaan is highly prized can be gauged from the fact that it is also sounded for the first time into the ears of an infant by a family elder, who does it very gently. Of course, there are people who, acting as muezzins, give a jarring Azaan hurtful to the ears. But otherwise it is quite exhilarating.

For that matter so is the Aarti but at times it too does not sound so pleasing if done in a harsh and aggressive way like at the Raja-ki-Mandi station at Agra, where a temple has come up to platform No 2. Because of the cacophony, with each young man trying to outdo the other, one can't even hear the train arrival and departure timings. And yet, see the Aarti on the Yamuna and Ganga banks, which attracts even foreigners because of its melodiousness.

One often used to hear the Azaan in Ghattia Azam Khan years ago that woke up one with a pleasant sensation ~ more so as it coincided with the Angelus bell from the nearby Cathedral, rung thrice a day ~ morning, noon and evening ~ as a reminder that God became man in the form of Christ to redeem mankind.

Now, whenever it's Ramzan, the Azaan from the Kutcha Tihar mosque (once believed to attract strangler thugs) catches one on the way back from the bazaar and, despite the distance, does not fail to enliven the mood even as the sun is sinking in the west and (to quote T S Eliot) "where the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherised upon the table". Sant Kabir's comment, as to why the muezzinhas to cry out so loud when God is not deaf, was countered by saintly Begum Naheed Ausaf Ali with the remark that the cry is not made to the Almighty but to summon the faithful to the mosque.

Incidentally, the best Azaan can still be heard in Mehrauli and in Nizamuddin, where Iftiqar's voice is highly appreciated. There are others like him at the Jama Masjid, where the Maghrib prayer at sun-down begins after the Azaanis given by not one but seven muezzins. It's just as emotion-arousing as the make-believe Azaan by the Khadims in the Cenotaph Chamber of the Taj Mahal, which makes one feel (like Sir Edwin Arnold) as though one was in the highest heaven with Mumtaz Mahal and the angels.

To make a communal issue of such a glorious tradition hardly bodes well for Sonu or any other critic, especially when the Azaan that (sic) disturbs the singer's "beauty sleep" comes from some distance and so couldn't be so jarring to the ears as made out to be. But even so criticism at the personal level should be taken with a pinch of salt or Omar Khayyam would have been burnt as a heretic in an age which was much more brutish than our own. Calling the faithful to prayer is not only limited to Muslims.

Hindus and Christians also do the same though in different ways. The ringing of the Curfew was a sign in Medieval England that the day was ending and it was time to thank God "lest the sun go down on your wrath". The poet Thomas Gray wrote his famous elegy on a country churchyard after he heard the Curfew, in the memorable words, "The curfew tolls the knell of parting day/ The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea/ The plowman homeward plods his weary way/ And leaves the world to darkness and to me”.

The aarti at twilight in temples is also a signal to thank the creator for a day well-spent and the need for his continued benevolence during the fast approaching night. The Azaantoo should be accepted in the same way ~ whether it is sounded in the morning or evening ~ just like the aarti and the Christian Angelus (so well-depicted by Jean Francois Millet ~ as the "Potato Field", showing a hatless peasant and his wife saying the Angelus prayer with bowed heads at noonday, since the Church bell is also rung at that time, making even the Pope rise from his chair in the Vatican). Why then blame the Azaan alone?