Duke University is probably best known for its legendary college basketball team, but perhaps now it will be remembered in a different way. Though founded by Methodists and Quakers in Durham, North Carolina, Duke recently announced that the Muslim student group would be allowed to chant their weekly call-to-prayer from the Duke Chapel bell tower on Fridays. Even though the Chapel also rings its church bells for Christian services on Sundays, the controversy over the chanting of the adhan led the University to rethink its decision to allow the Islamic call-to-prayer in such a demonstrably public manner.
The folks at Duke probably should have contacted some folks at the College of William and Mary before making their initial decision. Alas, the intendedly noble desire to promote religious pluralism and stand against discrimination yet again runs afoul of honoring the historically Christian heritage of these now secularized institutions of higher learning.
I asked a Jewish friend of mine if there was a rough Jewish equivalent to Christian church bells (not as popular as they once were) or the Islamic adhan. The closest thing he could think of was the practice of some orthodox Jews to employ air raid sirens to signal the start of the sabbath.
I recently finished reading Philip Jenkins’ The Lost History of Christianity, and the incident at Duke made me think of Jenkins’ recounting of historically Christian lands in Africa and Asia having church bells ringing for hundreds of years before the Islamic invasions that began in the late 7th century. Over the centuries, the dhimmi status of the Christian population eventually led to the de-Christianization of these areas. The bells that announced the Christian call to worship were becoming less and less while the Islamic adhan soon dominated the soundscape, as formerly Christian communities were converting to Islam.
Is the situation different now? Duke University surely has a relatively small yet active evangelical Christian presence, but officially the school is only nominally connected to its Methodist and Quaker roots. Do that many Duke students, faculty and staff pay attention to the bells that ring on a Sunday morning? What difference would the Islamic call-to-prayer make on a Friday?
UPDATE: Friday, January 16
This was supposed to be the first day that the Islamic call-to-prayer would be made from bell tower of the historic Duke Chapel, but the university announced that the call-to-prayer will be moved to a different part of campus because of the controversy. Sadly, part of the university’s decision was due to a credible threat of violence. These type of threats should be greatly troubling to the followers of Jesus.
As an aside, the update news article linked above notes that most students at Duke were supportive of the university’s original policy proposal. Is the student support for the call-to-prayer from the Chapel bell tower primarily an indicator of a commitment to religious plurality in public life, or is it partly due to an ignorance of Christian history? I wonder.