Volume 49, Issue 3 :: By Mark Baechler and Tammy Gaber :: Photos by Mark Baechler
The Abrahamic God — worshiped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims—is often called the “invisible” God. When compared to others worshiped during the inception of Judaic monotheism, the Abrahamic God is devoid of a visual presence or image. Abram is introduced to his God through sound–he is called, and then he responds. The importance of sound in the Abrahamic traditions’ worship of their God is paramount. Yet, in the study of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic architecture sound is frequently overshadowed by sight. Scholars often discuss and document the presence of light and darkness; colorful icons and prayer carpets4 offer an endless architectural hermeneutic. However, in addition to the visual interpretation of synagogues, churches, and mosques there is much to be gained in the study of their sound.
Is architecture an instrument that facilitates a sacred dialogue between the Abrahamic God and his people? In this article we discuss an unfolding Abrahamic Soundscape project we undertook inspired by this question. The project seeks to record and re-present, through the compilation of soundscapes, the acoustical characteristics of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic architecture. Composed of music, prayer, silence, and the aural aura of space, the soundscape intercepts moments of sacred dialogue and the auditory experience of architecture.
The purpose of the project is to draw attention to the importance of the auditory experience within the Abrahamic religions’ buildings. Our research attempts to describe their architecture using sound. We select a number of urban synagogues, churches, and mosques housing Jews, Christians, and Muslims and record the call to prayer, rituals, songs, prayer, and architecture that connect the Children of Abraham to their God.
The first iteration of this project focused on Abrahamic houses in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. We recorded two worship services at the Shaar Hashomayim synagogue, Fielding Memorial Chapel of St.Mark, and the Islamic Association of Sudbury mosque between 2014 to 2015. The services were documented with a Roland SD-2u recorder, a device with dual microphones that sensitively capture the atmospheric sound in a space. The recorder was located centrally within each of the worship spaces. The raw recordings were collected, structured, and edited into a soundscape using Audacity software.
A study of the raw recordings revealed patterns and common rituals that informed the structure of the soundscape compilation. Our analysis suggested that the soundscape opened with a systematic layering of the call to prayer from each of the three spaces, followed by scripture readings, melodic and musical worship, ritual worship, and concluding with an invitation to speak God’s word in the world. The graphic analysis shown at the bottom of this page illustrates the editing structure of the 35-minute soundscape (Editor’s note: Listen to the soundscape below).
Architecture as a Place of Sacred Dialogue
The Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scriptures point to the importance of auditory dialogue in the revelation of the Abrahamic God, and form a foundation for the study of their ritual sound. In the Book of Genesis, God speaks to Abram and tells him that he will be the father of a “great nation.” At this moment, Abram joins a select few5 that have heard the voice of God. In time, Abram becomes Abraham and he begins a conversation with God that extends to his “great nation” of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Abraham established a precedent for how believers are to communicate with the invisible God. And all those who followed Abraham from Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad to the faithful among us, call to the Lord and listen for His response.
In the Book of Exodus, Moses is instructed to communicate with God by entering the Tent of Meeting—a structure designed for this specific use.6 While secluded in contemplation, in a cave in Mount Hira near Mecca, the first word of the Islamic revelation heard by Mohammed7was “recite,” followed by the remaining verses of Surah 96 (al-‘Alaq). Mohammad is invited to “recite” the revelation of God; he obeyed and later built a mosque in Medina.8 In the Abrahamic scriptures, architecture is often described as an instrument to converse with God.
The tradition of architecture as a place of conversation between God and His people illustrated in the scriptures continues in contemporary Judaic, Christian, and Islamic worship as revealed in the soundscape. We hear the invitation to worship at the beginning of the soundscape, Jews enter the synagogue reciting sabbath of peace, “Shabbat Shalom,” similarly the threshold is traversed in a Christian prayer of call and response, and Muslims are called to submit to the greatness of God, “Allaho Akbar.”The Children of Abraham are drawn into the architectural atmosphere of worship. The second part of the soundscape includes readings from the scriptures that articulate the tenets of individual Abrahamic faiths. Following the recitation of God’s word, worshippers voice their melodic offerings expressing exaltation. A single delicate voice calls out from the synagogue, a piano and cello rejoice in the Christian Messiah, the prolonged incantation of the name of God echoes in the mosque. In the fourth part of the soundscape requests to God are made, in the form of direct supplications Muslims ask for forgiveness and mercy and Christians chant “Dona nobis pacem” (grant us peace) in the church, in the synagogue ritual prayer is recited in unison, followed by the Christian Eucharist and the formal prayer in the mosque. In the last part of the soundscape Jews, Christians, and Muslims transition out of their conversation with God.“Assalamu ‘alikum wa Rahmatu Allah” (peace be upon you and may God’s mercy be with you) is voiced by Muslims, the Reverend invites Christians to “go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” the threshold of Jewish worship is crossed with “Shabbat Shalom.” The cyclical nature of the services is reflected in the editing of the soundscape.
In the soundscape we hear the synagogue, church, and mosque framing the sacred dialogue in the Abrahamic traditions. Several architectural scholars have written about the phenomena and clear relationship of sound and space including Juhani Pallasmaa,9 Steen Rasmussen,10 W.J. Ong,11 and others who describe architecture acting as an instrument as much as the source of sound. In their arguments, Christian churches are often cited as examples of buildings that offer an exceptional auditory experience.12 According to religious scholar F.E. Peters, within the spaces of Abrahamic worship “…the Revelation comes full circle and is once again given voice by the very creatures to whom they were first addressed.”13 Architecture is instrumental in shaping the sound of worship and is an active participant in offerings to God.
The Abrahamic Soundscape project extends from an argument that auditory dialogue in the Abrahamic religions is scriptural and of primary importance. Further, architecture is often a mediating instrument of sacred communication between the Abrahamic God and His worshippers. Our research suggests that a true understanding of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic architecture is incomplete without an interpretation of its unique ritual sound.
- The Tanakh, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999), p. 21.
- The Holy Bible (NIV), (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Bible Publishers, 2002), p. 833.
- The Sublime Quran, English Translation, Laleh Bakhtiar, translator, (Chicago: Library Islam, 2006), p. 545-546.
- See discussion on light in Gothic cathedrals in: Otto Von Simson, The Gothic Cathedral (New York: Bollingen Foundation,1956), pp.3-20, and the discussion of the manifestation of divine cosmology in Islamic architecture in: S.H. Nasr, Islamic Art and Spirituality, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987), pp.37-39.
- In the Book of Genesis, God also spoke to Adam, Eve, Cain, and Noah.
- The Holy Bible (NIV), Exodus 33:7-11, p.75.
- The moment of revelation is described using Mohammed’s description in authentic ahadith documented in Sahih Bukhari Arabic-English Translated, Book of Revelations, 1:3, Mohamed Muhsin Khan, translator, (Riyadh: Dar-us-Salam, 1996), p. 50.
- Al-Masjid al-Nabawī, commonly referred to as the Prophet’s Mosque in Madina.
- Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses, (Cornwall: John Wiley & Sons, 2012), pp. 53-56.
- Steen Eiler Rasmussen, Experiencing Architecture, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1959), pp. 224-237.
- W.J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, (London: Routledge, 1982), pp. 70-73. Rasmussen, p. 231.
- F.E. Peters, The Voice, The Word, the Books: The Sacred Scripture of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 247.