The tale of the Duke University minaret [updated]

The decision by Duke University to allow the Muslim Student Association (MSA) to broadcast the adhan from Duke Chapel, and its subsequent reversal, has elicited much commentary over the last twenty-four hours. Concerns were initially raised by Richard Hays, Dean of the Duke Divinity School and one of the foremost New Testament scholars today. Hays questioned the wisdom of using a Christian church to promote the worship of Islam’s god.

Celebrity evangelical Franklin Graham decried the university’s initial decision equating it with the advancement of sharia (Islamic law) across the west–today the adhan, tomorrow the stoning of adulterers in the quad. On the other side, voices like Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove have chided the university–and American Christians–for muffing a great opportunity to extend hospitality to Muslims. Wilson-Hartgrove questions the legitimacy of the chapel as a religious building in the first instance since it contains a statue of Robert E. Lee, the famous Confederate General and later President of Washington & Lee University. Presumably Mr. Wilson-Hartgrove would disqualify numerous european churches and cathedrals on the basis of the theology or politics of those commemorated therein. This seems, at least to me, a sort of odd argument to make.


When the university granted permission to the MSA to broadcast the adhan from the chapel, they continued an established trajectory. Over the last five years the university has provided space for Muslim prayer in the basement of the chapel in a small room that is ostensibly a Christian place of worship. Opinions vary on the appropriateness of this move including former Dean of the Chapel, the Rev. Canon Sam Wells who–at least at some point–publicly opposed the move (if memory serves).

Is it appropriate to broadcast the adhan from a Christian church? Is it an act of hospitality? Is it an act of desecration?

In considering the issue, it’s important ask whether the comparison of the adhan to the traditional Christian call to worship (i.e., church bells) is an appropriate one. Some have suggested that since the chapel already uses its bells to announce Christian worship it’s only fair that the same be granted to other faiths.

In principle, I agree. However, it’s worth noting that while bells do communicate a call to worship they are not–in themselves–speech or communication with an explicit theological content. The adhan, however, is essentially a quasi-creed, even a form of proclamation (or evangelism):

Allāhu akbar, Allāhu akbar
Ash-hadu an-lā ilāha illā allāh
Ash-hadu anna Mohamadan-Rasulullāh
Hayya ʿala ṣ-ṣsalāt
Hayya ʿala ‘l-falāḥ
Ḥayya ʿala khayr al ʿamal
Allāhu akbar
Lā ilāha illā-Allāh

God is greatest, God is greatest.
I bear witness that there is no deity but God.
I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.
Hasten to worship (salat).
Hasten to success.
The time for the best of deeds has come!
God is the greatest.
There is no deity but God.

This is an important distinction between the two examples. The former tells all that worship is happening, the latter tells all who is being worshipped and why in a manner that’s difficult to ignore.

If the university believes that it is important to broadcast religious speech across the campus–and it’s difficult to believe that there’s another religion they’d consider this for–then that’s their decision to make. However, the only way its appropriate for the administration to use a Christian church for the purpose is if the administration believes that, at its heart, the building is simply a meeting house and not a church (in the traditional sense).

A church is a place that has been set aside for the purpose of the worship of God, it has been consecrated and has become–in a real sense–a place that is a parable of the God who is there worshipped. Every church building tells a story–it recounts and embodies beliefs about God and self.

Given this, it is inherently problematic to employ something that is a sign and symbol of one God to be an instrument for the proclamation of another God. We know this to be intuitively true when dealing with other religions, but “heresies left are heresies hated.” The modern American university has found classic Christianity to be a heresy that it has left and now despises. For this reason the average secular university person sees little problem with the Duke proposal. After all, Christianity has been “privileged” for too long–time to make up for lost time.

At the end of the day, Duke University–whose real religion is basketball, anyway–should feel free to grant space to Muslims for prayer. But let them do this without encumbering Christians or Christian places with the obligation to preach a religion they do not believe to be true.

In lieu of a comments section, I accept and encourage letters to the editor. If you would like to write a letter to the editor, you can do so here.

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