SHAFAQNA – Holding his hands over his ears, Jameel Syed stood in front of the congregation at a Farmington Hills mosque, calling the faithful to prayer.
“God is the greatest,” the Auburn Hills man recited in a melodious voice in Arabic that extended the vowels. “There is no god but God … Come to prayer.”
The scene inside the Tawheed Center mosque on Thursday night is similar to what happens five times a day at mosques around the world, a resonant voice that cries out to remind believers that it’s time to worship God. Called the “adhan,” the Muslim call to prayer is one of the more familiar parts of Islamic life, and one that Syed, 40, has become known for in metro Detroit. He’s been the main muezzin – the name for the man who gives the call to prayer – at three big mosques in Michigan, currently at the Islamic Association of Greater Detroit in Rochester Hills.
And now, Syed is aiming to become the first person to perform the adhan in all 50 U.S. states, using his voice across America to help educate the public about Islam, praise its prophet, and also honor the memory of his father. He kicked off his spiritual journey Thursday at the Tawheed Center and performed his first call to prayer on Friday in Indiana at the national headquarters of the Islamic Society of North America, one of the biggest Muslim groups in the U.S. His efforts are being supported by several Muslim groups and donors through Go Fund Me, who hope to spread the message of Islam and promote religious understanding.
He’s traveling with Yahya Sultan of New Jersey, who will document the trip with photos and videos uploaded to their website and social media, trying to amplify the call to prayer with modern technology. The 35-day road trip will include occasional flights to reach states like Hawaii, and will end May 8 at the Rochester Hills mosque.
As an American-raised Muslim born to immigrants and who crosses cultures, Syed is uniquely positioned to promote cooperation at a time of heightened focus on Islam and the Muslim world, a focus that can sometimes turn into a hostile glare.
“We’re living in a world where Muslims are being demonized,” Syed told the worshipers in Farmington Hills. “We have a pretty bad rap around the entire global community.”
That perception is inaccurate because extremists “are outside the fold of Islam” he told the Free Press afterward inside the mosque as congregants prayed. “They hijacked our religion.”
After reciting the call to prayer at each mosque in 50 states, Syed will deliver the last sermon given by Islam’s prophet, Mohammed, a talk that Syed said promoted gender equity, racial equality, trust, and peace.
“It is the most eloquent speech every delivered in the history of humanity,” Syed told the worshipers. “I want for us to be able to hear those words and take it to our family members, take it to our co-workers, take it to our neighbors and live by them.”
“There is one objective above and beyond anything else, and that is to basically praise my own hero in life, and that is Prophet Mohammed,” he told the Free Press. “I want to praise him. I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration form him, and millions of others have.”
Syed said there are already several Muslim-American groups who are “putting efforts into saying who say they’re not: We’re not ISIS. We’re not terrorists. We’re not radical. We’re not extremists. You’re always playing defense. You’re always on your heels. I would rather spend my time telling people who I am.”
“I want to show Muslims can be beautiful people.”
At some of the mosques, Syed and Sultan will have breakfasts and hopefully meet with both Muslims and non-Muslims, engaging them in a discussion. But while the focus of the trip is about his faith, “I’m not in the business of converting people to Islam.”
Muezzins, also spelled as Muaddhins, are an important part of the rituals of the prayers, which are recited five times a day by observant Muslims. Being one requires a voice that can capture attention and also be pleasing at the same time. In metro Detroit, most calls to prayer are broadcast inside the mosques, while a couple in Hamtramck and Dearborn do it outside, echoing traditions in the Middle East.
“There’s a science to this,” Syed explained. “The adhan has to have the power to pull the strings of the heart. It’s designed to. You’re drawn to it.”
Syed’s diverse background has forged his identity, which is rooted in Islam, but draws on different cultures.
He was born in the U.S. to immigrants from Pakistan and grew up in Ann Arbor, where his father was a professor at the University of Michigan. His first teacher of the Muslim call to prayer was Isa Abdul Baseer, an African-American convert to Islam. At the age of 11, he started reciting it for the first time at the Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor and Vicinity.
As a boy, “I was very, very, very shy,” Syed said. “I would never speak in front of people … but I was willing to do that (Muslim call to prayer).”
Syed would do it privately, catching the attention of Baseer, who told him: “Why don’t you do that in front of everybody. I said, ‘No.’ And he forced me do do it, and I did it. And after that, it helped me with my confidence and I just kept on doing it.”
Syed went on to become the regular muezzin at the Ann Arbor mosque, and later at the Unity Center in Bloomfield Hills, and now in Rochester Hills.
Syed was also trained in vocals by a former Catholic nun in his high school, choreographed bhangra, a Punjabi dance, in college, and is a huge fan of U-Michigan college football. Today, he’s a married father of two, a 13-year-old boy who has already memorized more than half of the Quran, and a four-year-old girl.
On Thursday night, he sported blue jeans, a white long tunic popular in India known as a kurta, a red scarf over his right shoulder in keeping with Islamic traditions, and white Muslim cap. His diverse fashion reflects who he is, a persona that often isn’t in the news when people see stories involving Muslims.
“We’re going to see the beautiful landscape of America,” he said. “We’re going to go out there and have fun.”
He’s also doing it for his family and the memory of his father, who passed away in 2003 at the age of 63 – coincidentally the same age that Islam’s prophet died – inside the Tawheed Center during prayer time in Ramadan. He recalled how his father would tell him: “I want you to be a good Muslim. How are you going to be a good Muslim? …You’re going to follow the Prophet.”
Speaking to the crowd inside the Farmington Hills mosque, Syed worried about the future of the Muslim population in the U.S: “The number one problem facing the community is they’re apostacizing. They’re leaving Islam.”
He hopes his trip can help younger Muslims connect with their faith.
“I’d like to leave a legacy for my children, my children’s children,” he said. “This is what it’s about.”