Transcript for A Feminist Call to Prayer

Nelufar v/o (00:05):

Hi, I'm Nelufar Hedayat and welcome to Ritually.

Nelufar v/o (00:12):

In each episode of this podcast, I will try out a new spiritual or wellness ritual to find out if practicing it can make us feel better. Why am I doing this? Well, before the pandemic, I traveled like it was an Olympic sport, reporting stories around the globe. And then, in March, 2020, I flew back home to England from a film shoot in Florida. London locked down. And for the first time in my life, I had to stand still. I found myself turning to my faith to make sense of this really weird time in all of our lives. I grew up Muslim, but up until then, I wasn't really bothered about my religion. But after Covid hit, I found myself kneeling in prayer. I started to wonder what spirituality looks like for my generation. And if rituals can help us stay grounded in an upside down world.

Nelufar v/o (01:07):

I became obsessed with these questions and I found I wasn't alone. I knew other people who felt this way and I wanted to start a conversation. So I started this podcast. I'm not here to preach to you. This is not that kind of a podcast. I'm not some kind of spiritual guru. I'm just a person, like you, trying to figure out how to live a better life. I've got an open mind and an investigative reporter's brain, and I am determined to discover what can really make a difference. So I'm gonna try some rituals and let you know how it goes. In this episode, I'm gonna explore a ritual that is at the center of my religion: the call to prayer. I'm a Muslim, but my relationship to Islam is complicated, and so is my relationship to prayer. More on that later. So, for an entire week, I'm going to challenge myself to wake up at the crack of dawn to hear the call to prayer. I wanna know if this ritual will bring me some comfort and connection to the world around us. But first, I'm gonna need a guide.

Sara Zoltash (02:32):

My full name is kind of ridiculous, Nelufar. It's Sara Sheikh Alazani Zoltash, but I don't go by that in England. That would be ridiculous. My name is Sara Zoltash. And then my working name, the name that I share when I'm holding space in order to show myself as the person that I'm becoming, is Beloved Sara Zoltash.

Nelufar v/o (02:53):

Beloved Sara Zoltash is a spiritual practitioner who's offered the call to prayer in all sorts of secular places, from Extinction Rebellion protests through to Burning Man Festival. I asked her why she chooses to call herself Beloved Sara.

Sara Zoltash (03:07):

I wanted something that would demarcate that, yes, this is my vocation, and I looked, and a Muslim nun would be referred to as Habibi. And I'm sure you know Habibi translates one of the words is, yes, beloved. And so that's where it comes from. It's like a way to say, I have held myself in this path and I continue to hold myself in this path. And as much as I hope that people hold me as a beloved one, it's also to say that I'm dedicated to the Beloved.

Nelufar v/o (03:36):

Beloved Sara has been practicing, teaching, and learning about Islam for a long time, and she's made headlines for giving her unique version of the Islamic call to prayer all over the world. So, I wanted to talk to her about this particular ritual.


What is the call to prayer?

Sara Zoltash (03:51):

The Azzan, the Adhan, in Islam. It is the way that Muslims are called in to come in to pray five times a day. In that sense, it is a prayer in itself and it's also a beckoning in saying, come, come. You know, come, come. And it's a way for people to be able to recognize that they are part of something bigger and greater than them.

Nelufar v/o (04:14):

Beloved Sara and I are both in our thirties and we've both grown up knowing what it's like to be a liberal, open-minded Muslim. Yet, I feel like our religion has no place for us, right? For women who are different, who choose to speak up. I struggle to be in a religious world that silences women and a secular world that doesn't have space for spirituality. So does Sara.

Sara Zoltash (04:42):

My father, my mother who were Muslim, they really wanted my siblings and I if we wanted to come into faith by ourselves to have respect for it and to be aware of it, but really just to make our own choices. So when friends started going through this, like, fashionable atheist phase when they were like sort of 12, 13, 14, I was like, no number of answers to scientific questions can answer that big question of like, yeah, but what put all of this here?

Nelufar v/o (05:09):

I, too, lost many an argument in school with friends who decided Richard Dawkins was their God and Nietzsche their prophet. But, at the same time, Sara points out a lot of people, including me, associate religion with some form of oppression.

Sara Zoltash (05:27):

Even if somebody is willingly going into prayer, perhaps they go in that place and witness gender inequality, they witness that their mother has less of a voice than their father, and they don't understand why. And this threading of oppression alongside spirit means that it's natural that people want to pull away from that. Nobody wants to be oppressed. And everybody, every human, every plant, every animal longs for liberation. And for that reason, we kind of throw the baby out with the bath water. We, like, we lose this incredibly natural capacity for faith, for belief, for questioning, and for communicating with something far greater than us. And so when I talk about God, I'm not talking about the God of some people over here or over there. I'm talking about my God. I'm talking about the God that I experience when I'm at a rave. I'm sorry, talking about the God that I experience when I'm with my partner. I'm talking about the spirit of life force that moves through everything that is in all of creation.

Nelufar v/o (06:24):

Beloved Sarah grew up hearing the call to prayer every summer in Iran where her family's from.

Sara Zoltash (06:30):

You know, it comes out of every mask, it comes on the tv, it comes on the radio. It interrupts the day to let people know that it's time to pray. Until I was about nine years old, I thought it was a lovely song that the Islamic Regime was playing for everyone until one day I said that out loud to my uncle. We were driving and the Azzan came on and, and he switched the radio off. And I was like, Oh uncle, please, it's the lovely song. And he was like, Sara, it's not a lovely song. I was like, What are you talking about? It's a lovely song. And he started to explain to me, like, the purpose of it.

Nelufar v/o (07:03):

But that lovely song was only ever uttered from a man's lips. And Beloved Sara just couldn't accept that. So she decided to learn to call the Azzan herself.

Sara Zoltash (07:15):

I've been told I'm not allowed to do this in Islam, that a woman's voice is Haram.

Nelufar v/o (07:20):

‘Haram’, an action or deed that is deemed to be sinful and therefore prohibited in Islam.

Sara Zoltash (07:28):

And that the call to prayer can only, can only be heard by, from a woman's voice, by other women. That it's somehow dangerous for men to do that. Mm-hmm. And when I look at Islamic culture around the world, I see the enormous suffering that both men and women and non-binary people are really stuck in because of the patriarchy of Islam. I see that lack of female voices in Islam as being one of the things that all people can address in order to shift the suffering of Muslims under patriarchy. And so really it begins from there of, like, I just wonder what happens if people hear this in a woman's voice.

Nelufar (08:03):

I've heard this call to prayer countless times, right? But I've never heard it in a woman's voice. And there's something terrifying and beautiful and agonizing and transgressive and just owning it about the whole thing is making me giddy. And this is where I'm gonna be a bit, bit of a journalist ‘cause that is my job. Yeah. Arguably what you are doing is Haram, right?

Sara Zoltash (08:30):

Yes. I've, yes. Many, many people would say that.

Nelufar (08:35):

Have people told you to your face?

Sara Zoltash (08:36):

Oh yeah.

Nelufar v/o (08:37):

Beloved Sara has been heckled when she's given the call to prayer on stage at festivals and gatherings. She told me about one time when an older Muslim man confronted her at an event.

Sara Zoltash (08:48):

He was trying to admonish me. And I just kept saying, dear father, dear uncle, that all I have done is bring people into connection with Allah, and that's all I wanted to do. And then he would say, Yes, but you know this, and then this, and then this, and this is the problem, and this is the problem. I'd say, I know uncle, I, I know it's hard for you, but I just want them to understand the beauty of Islam. And I know that this is an unusual way to do it. Please forgive me for being unusual, but can you see that it has been effective? And he was like, Yes, yes, it has. I gotta get a Hallelujah, a Mash’Allah.

Nelufar v/o (09:23):

‘Mash’Allah’. God joyfully wills it. Okay, I have to jump in here because what Beloved Sara just said means so much to me. There are so many times in my life a man has confronted me and told me, No, you shouldn't be allowed to do this because you are a woman. Work, religion, personal life, all of it. It makes my blood boil. Beloved Sara was able to connect with an ideological foe in a way that made her more powerful. She used her voice not to ridicule or degrade the other person. In one instant, she wrote herself into the vast and varied tapestry of Islam. It's time to hear that voice.


Beloved Sara Zoltash, let's hear your call of prayer.

Sara Zoltash (10:13):

Oh my God. Is it time? Okay.

Nelufar (10:16):
It's time. I know I'm actually quite nervous. No, I'm not. I'm excited. Hold on. Let me turn the volume up.

Sara Zoltash (10:21):

I just want to say, Nelufar, that the words that I use and the order that I use them will be different to the one that you have regularly heard.

Nelufar v/o (10:29):

In Sara's version of the call, it's not a demand to make an offering to God, it's a call to connect with God. She's changed some of the words to make the call feel more inclusive. At least to me. You are going to hear Beloved Sara's call in full at the end.

Sara Zoltash (10:49):

Bismillahirrahmanirrahim. In the name of Oneness, Compassionate and Merciful. <Azzan> I would normally invite people now to find some piece of nature, even if that is their own hand, and to kiss it and to place their forehead upon it three times in order to ground the prayer in life. Thank you.

Nelufar (12:18):

I don’t know how to conceptualize what I'm feeling right now. Um, I can only thank you for introducing me to that and to say that I've never experienced anything like it. Mm. And I feel like I've been waiting to hear it forever, mm, which is kind of crazy. Mm. I'm gonna, I'm gonna need some time to process that. It's just, I can't explain to you how profound that is, just to hear it in your voice, Sara, just to know that you, you mean it with all the, all the good intention and all the, all the beauty that you speak of.

Sara Zoltash (13:04):

I feel so grateful that you have opened your heart to it. That's all I really want is that it reaches people.

Nelufar (13:14):

To all of the people that were listening to this conversation and your call to prayer, your Azzan, how can they incorporate this into their lives, if they're not Muslim? Like, do you need to be Muslim to kind of listen to you do this?

Sara Zoltash (13:27):

You know, we don't need to be a Chinese person to eat Chinese food, and I don't think we need to be any specific religion in order to appreciate the beauty and the gifts of that religion.

Nelufar (13:39):

So, every day for the next week, I will be waking up at the crack of lovely dawn to  partake in this ritual. Thanks. Bloody hell. You couldn't have picked a better slot, could you?

Nelufar v/o (13:57):

We'll be back after this break.


Day one <alarm ringing> I'm up, I'm up. It looks light outside already. Sorry. I have my teeth, um, guards on. I'm still really sleepy. Um, so, okay. Wait, hold on. This is, it's happening. It's happening. Here we go. Here we go. Okay.

Sara Zoltash (14:33):

Good morning dear ones. I've found a perch.


Hi, Sara.

Sara Zoltash:

Here in the vastness of Temple Hufferfeld. Sometimes I hear the call to stay with my dreams and sometimes I hear the call to come and share them with you.

Nelufar (14:58):

That's lovely.

Sara Zoltash:



Okay, here we go.

Sara Zoltash (15:03):

In the name of Oneness, Compassionate and Merciful.

Speaker 6 (15:08):


Nelufar (15:10):

My main instinct is to go and hunt for coffee, but this is just the most beautiful way to wake up in the morning. I'm not gonna pray, not like in the traditional sense, but I'm gonna think about everything Sara just did. I'm gonna start my day.

Nelufar v/o (15:32):

I felt energized. It was the first time in many, many weeks where I had something to do. I was on a mission, I was going to challenge myself in a way that felt healthy, inspirational, even maybe enlightenment might be at the end of that tunnel? Day two, and I woke up earlier than the call.

Nelufar (15:55):

I kind of can't sleep, because I want to hear it. I'm gonna go downstairs, lookout in nature as Beloved Sara Zoltash would like me to.

Nelufar v/o (16:08):

Despite my enthusiasm, my internet connection cut out. And Beloved Sara had internet issues too, so I couldn't really wake up to the call as intended. Onwards to…<alarm ringing>.

Nelufar  (16:25):

It's day three. Today, I have woken up well before the actual time to call.

Speaker 6 (16:34):


Nelufar (16:36):

I set my alarm 15 minutes early so that I can go downstairs, make a cup of tea, sit down. I look forward to it the night before when I set my alarm. And it's got nothing to do with the prayer element of it. I think at this point it's really soothing to me her voice, her call, just looking at her, watching her, the fact that she's outside and making an effort to kind of be amongst nature. And I feel like she's talking to me directly, even though I'm just, I'm just watching.

Sara Zoltash (17:18):

Ashadu an la ilaha illallah.

Nelufar v/o (17:39):

Then came day four

Nelufar (17:47):

<alarm ringing > So, it's five minutes until the call. Um, I was up late working and I'm just not in the mood today. I think. No, I don't want to think, it's dawn. I want to sleep. I'm not thinking, I'm going to sleep.

Nelufar v/o (18:10):

Yeah, so that was a tough day. I missed the Azzan altogether.

Nelufar v/o (18:19):

I was losing my drive to keep up this ritual. And I needed inspiration from a devotee of Islam and someone passionate and learned. So I reached out to the person who made me a Muslim. My mum. For as long as I can remember, my mother has heard the Azzan blaring from the radio or from her phone five times a day. And she answers. My mum is cool, she's smart, and she's really confident. She grew up in the hopeful hippie days of Kabul, Afghanistan, in the sixties and seventies. That's where she got the firebrand version of feminism that she raised me with. So in the midst of this challenge, I went back to my childhood home in London to talk to her about what I was feeling. I wanted to know more about the origin of this ritual.

Nelufar (19:06):

Mama, do you wanna be on my podcast? I will take your silence for a yes.

Nelufar (19:13):

Say it!

Patuni Hedayat (19:14):

My name is Patuni Hedayat. I am a TA in one of the London secondary schools.

Nelufar v/o (19:23):

When I was a kid, she used to tell me stories from the history of Islam. So, I asked my mum to tell me the story of how the Azzan came to be.


Can you tell me the story of Bilal Ibn Rabah? Bilal Ibn Rabah was a slave. Yeah. He was black.

Patuni Hedayat (19:46):

He was black, yeah. When he accepted Islam, he always wanted to - because he had a beautiful voice - he was hoping one day there will be the opportunity for him to say Allahu Akbar.

Nelufar v/o (20:04):

‘Allahu Akbar’. God is great.

Patuni Hedayat (20:09):

At the beginning, Muslims were just few and they were very weak and they were practicing. Muslims were praying in secret. Omar…

Nelufar v/o (20:21):

Omar was one of the most powerful people in Islam at the time.

Patuni Hedayat  (20:25):

He asked Bilal to go to the roof and do the Azzan. So, for the first time, he climbed the roof and said Allahu Akbar in a very loud, uh, voice. And at that time being black is is…

Nelufar (20:45):

Looked down.

Patuni Hedayat (20:45):

Looked down, yes. Him getting this position. So it makes me so happy that Alhamdullilah…

Nelufar v/o (20:57):

‘Alhamdulillah’. Praise be to God.

Patuni Hedayat (20:59):

I have a religion that there is no difference between colors, between rich and poor.

Nelufar v/o (21:09):

So just to recap, Bilal Ibin Rabah was the first ever person to offer the call to prayer back in the seventh century. When Bilal converted to Islam, his enslavers tried to torture him into renouncing his faith, but Bilal would not give in. And then he believed that he was an important enough devotee of Allah to go and stand on a minaret and tell the world about Islam, despite the fact that he really, really didn't fit in. A rebel. The goal of this man. I felt lost in this story. This wasn't the Islam that I had grown up fearing. This was an open invitation, not a closed book, but here's the awkward part that I couldn't get my mum, Patuni, to tell me about. It's something that's uncomfortable for most Muslims to even acknowledge. In Islam, it's not forbidden to enslave people and prominent Muslims, well, they did. So Bilal found himself part of a religion that was okay with a system that had dehumanized him. I don't want this to feel like a win for Islam, but a win for rebelliousness. The story made me feel even more respect for what Beloved Sara has done. And so I wanted to share the story of her rebellion with my mum.

Nelufar (22:33):

I want to show you something that I've been listening to, because when I heard the story of Bilal Ibn Rabah for the first time, I cried because I didn't know about Islam. That there is space for people who are different. When I went to Arabic school and I learned the Quran and all this, they didn't tell me that you can be different and you will find a place. So I wanna play you something, um, and see what you think.

Nelufar (23:05):

Good morning, Nelufarjoon, and Nelufar’s mother. I am recording this especially for you. As precious as you’re welcoming me into your heart and your practice and your ritual is, I hope that this is precious for you. Bismillahirrahmanirrahim, in the name of Oneness, Compassionate and Merciful. <Azzan>

Nelufar (24:00):

What do you think of that?

Patuni Hedayat (24:02):

Beautiful. This lady just sang and she said it from the bottom of her heart. She feels it when she said that call for prayer. It was beautiful.

Nelufar (24:22):

It's unusual to hear it from a woman.

Patuni Hedayat (24:24):

Yeah, they do it, but not as loud a speaker like men. You know, in the prayers time, even women are excused for it because they are so busy with their lives, their children, they can miss it and do it later.

Nelufar (24:43):

Why is it not women who do this? Why do women not do the call to prayer? Why does that shock you and shock me?

Patuni Hedayat (24:51):

Uh, because of the culture. It's not because of the in, in Islam, in Quran, they are not allowed to do. It's the culture. In Quran, there is no difference between, in prayers, there is no difference between men and women prayers. Why? Because they don't let women to voice, to have a voice. Don't bring this in, in that's not included. I think in this…why? Because of the men. They wanted to control women from having a voice.

Nelufar (25:24):

Do you think that praying for you is like meditation is like…

Patuni Hedayat (25:30):

Yes. It relax me a lot. It keep me away from all the day disturbing things that happened on problems that I had or or sad news and from the media, from my children, from my family. Thanks. But this is the time that I make time for myself when I am with my God, when I am connected with him.

Nelufar (25:58):

Okay, well you didn't get angry at this, so I'm happy. Thank you for talking to me about it, mum.

Patuni Hedayat (26:05):

It was, it should be the last time.

Nelufar (26:07):

Never. I will speak to you again.

Patuni Hedayat (26:09):

No, I'm getting old. I don't have the voice and energy to interview you all the time, no.

Nelufar (26:13):

You are my mother. I listen to you differently. Okay. Until next time. Say goodbye to the audience.

Patuni Hedayat (26:20):


Nelufar v/o (26:25):

On day five of the ritual, something really special happened. So just before dawn, I opened my phone to a private call to prayer just for me from Beloved Sara Zoltash, to make up for the days that we'd missed. <Azzan>.

Nelufar (26:47):

So, that was incredible.

Nelufar (26:53):

So much of my relationship with my religion is just action. And this just feels so refreshing. Oh God, I am so glad I got up at dawn today. It's so different to how I usually get up, which is five minutes before I have to actually functionally sit in front of my laptop and start my Zoom day, probably rolling through Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok in a hot toxic mess of the three, trying to just get validation from the likes of my posts the night before and see whatever toxic crap is in the news and in the ether that day. And this is just a different way.

Nelufar v/o (27:46):

By the final day of rising for the call to prayer, I could see some positive changes in my life. For example, my daily social media time was down. I felt less pulled to pick up my phone. I felt more attuned with my faith closer to it and the Muslim community than ever before. There was something about hearing a woman's voice first thing in the morning, oozing with devotion. This ritual, it was begging me to have a better day. It's like a golden thread that connects me, a modern day Muslim woman all the way back to the seventh century, to a black man named Bilal who, emancipated, stood on top of a minaret and called to his people to come and be together. And this, well, it's just the beginning. I'm gonna start this journey to find rebellious voices on the margins of spiritual life that offer rituals that I hope will really help me connect. I hope you'll come along.

Nelufar v/o (28:56):

Thank you for listening. If you'd like to share your experience of this ritual, or you've got another one for me to explore, please let me know. Connect with me @Nelufar on Twitter and TikTok and follow us on Instagram at the Ritually Pod. If you'd like to learn more about the series, check out our website,, and we have a bonus listener episode coming up. And I wanna hear from you, what do you think of the series so far? Are there any rituals you've been doing or that you think I should look into? You can record a voice memo and send that over for us to listen to or just write down your thoughts and I'll read them. Our email address is You can also record a voicemail on our website, If you like what you've been hearing, please give us a review. Rate us and subscribe and sign up for our newsletter to get the latest Ritually updates. We've got the link in our show notes. I would like to say a massive, gigantic, humongous thank you to Beloved Sara Zoltash for coming on our first ever episode. And of course, my mum as well. If you wanna hear more from Beloved Sara, subscribe to Brazen Plus on Apple Podcasts to hear the extended version of our interview. Beloved Sara tells me all about what she sees as the liberating side of faith.

Sara Zoltash (30:20):

My sense is that neoliberalism, the 20th century industrial capitalism, they've hijacked the human capacity for belief for its own ends. You know, it says, don't believe in God. That stuff's nonsense. It's also, you know, free. It also makes you feel good without you having to buy anything. Instead, believe in lipstick, believe in the car, believe in the career. And, from that position, I'm like, actually, my liberation depends on me reclaiming and regaining my capacity for faith.

Nelufar (30:51):

Next week on Ritually, we're going to take a turn down my, um, haunted house as I explore exorcism rituals with my parents. Okay, so it's just coming to half past seven tonight, and I kid you not, it is foggy as heck outside. You can't see a thing. I mean, it couldn't be spookier if you tried. See you then.

Nelufar v/o:

This has been Ritually with me, Nelufar Hedayat. This podcast is written and co-created by me and Sarah Kendall, who's also our series producer. We produce the show in partnership with Brazen. Susie Armitage is our story editor. Troy Holmes is our audio editor. Mixing and Sound Design by Clair Urbahn. Our theme tune is by Amaroon, and our original music is by Jay Brown. Executive producers for Brazen are Bradley Hope and Tom Wright. At Brazen, Mariangel Gonzalez is our project manager, and Lucy Woods is our fact checker and head of research. Charlotte Cooper is our marketing consultant, Francesca Gilardi Quadrio Curzio, and Nour Abdel Latif are our podcast strategists. Megan Dean is programming manager and Ryan Ho is a series creative director. Our cover art is designed by Julien Pradier. For more from Ritually, head to the Brazen channel on Apple Podcasts. There, you can subscribe to Brazen Plus for ad free listening and exclusive access to bonus episodes.

Sara Zoltash (32:27):

Bismillahirrahmanirrahim, in the name of Oneness, Compassionate and Merciful.