Midtown mosques worry their prayer calls will cause disruption



Masjid Ar Rahman mosque on West 29th Street. Photo by Shayeza Walid

As New Yorkers strolled the streets on their lunch breaks, just north of Madison Square Park, hundreds of empty shoes could be seen piled up at the entrance of Masjid Ar-Rahman mosque on West 29th Street. 

While a congregation of people crowded onto the carpeted floors for the weekly Friday prayer called “jummah,” only a faint call announcing the Muslim ritual could be heard from the loudspeakers. 

Now, to help amplify the sound, a new policy allows mosques to make prayer calls audible from the streets.

In an announcement Mayor Eric Adams made on August 29, Muslim places of worship in New York City are allowed to broadcast calls to prayer, known as the “adhaan” on Friday afternoons between 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m., and every day at sunset during the holy month of Ramadan. 

But some Midtown mosques are hesitant to start.

“I was so happy, Alhamdulillah, to know we will now hear the adhaan, but you still can’t hear anything from the street,” said Mohammed Rafiq, invoking the Arabic phrase “Alhamdulillah,” meaning “Praise God.” Rafiq, a retired shopkeeper, has been attending Masjid Ar-Rahman for 20 years. 

The new prayer guidance, led by the New York City Police Department’s Community Affairs Bureau, states that citywide mosques can announce the adhaan, which lasts about 90 seconds, without sound permits, despite sound restrictions in city neighborhoods. 

Yet for the two mosques located in Midtown, the adhaan has yet to be broadcast loudly on speakers, despite the mayor’s approval.

“It’s obviously a good change, but it’s a commercial area, so we have to have discussions and see what the official guidelines are. Not that there will be, but we have to be sure in case there are complaints,” said Abdul Haque, an imam at Masjid Usman Bin Affan on East 55th Street. “It’s much easier in residential areas like the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens where we can hear the adhaan clearly.”

According to the Association of Religion Data Archives, of the approximately 724,000 Muslims in New York State, Brooklyn and Queens have more than 150,000 each, along with 112,000 in the Bronx, and about 63,000 in Manhattan. 

The data also shows that Manhattan is home to the least number of mosques at 20, compared to an average of 66 in other boroughs, with the most mosques in Queens at 83.  

But Haque isn’t the only imam hesitant to start broadcasting prayers.

“It is a big win for us,” said Mohammed Aslam, an imam at Masjid Ar-Rahman mosque. “But no, we have no plans of setting up speakers outside, although I know the police will not come. We don’t want to bother our neighbors.”

The initial guidelines from the mayor’s office allowed for prayer calls five times a day on Fridays but was later reduced to jummah prayer and sunsets during Ramadan, said Aminul Islam, an NYPD traffic officer. 

“The day we received the guidelines from the bureau, I came down here to inform the imam of the good news myself,” said Islam, who hopes Midtown mosques will stop hesitating to broadcast the prayer calls loudly.

“I understand this is an office area, but if anyone can walk down the street with a jukebox or smoke marijuana because they are free by law, I don’t see why a minute and a half of a prayer is a problem,” said Islam. “I know the imam here and he’s told me they won’t put the adhaan on the speaker. It’s really our weakness ‘til we have the courage to do what we’re now allowed to.”

There is a cultural element in the reluctance of mosques to announce the call to prayer, says Afaf Nasher, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. 

“Ultimately, it depends on which community you speak to,” said Nasher. “If you speak to the African-American Muslim community, who are aware of their rights and run some of the larger mosques in the city, the response will be starkly different from Muslims who are immigrants, who want to keep their head down.”

Nasher said heightened media coverage of the Muslim community is also a reason why some mosques want to keep a low profile.

“Post 9/11, with the increase in surveillance, most Muslims are more anxious about their public action, it plays into the psyche. They don’t want to garner unwanted attention.”

“Religion and politics have become too mixed up here,” said Khalid Sloan, a photographer based in Manhattan who attends both Masjid Bin Affan and Ar-Rahman mosques. “The imams don’t want to bother people, sure. But as Muslims we shouldn’t feel the need to be discreet. That’s not what this change is for.”