Duke University cancels Muslim call to prayer from its famed chapel

The Duke University Chapel on the campus in Durham, N.C.
The Duke University Chapel on the campus in Durham, N.C.
(Lance King / Getty Images)

Duke University canceled plans Thursday to broadcast a weekly Muslim call to prayer from its famed chapel, a move that was originally intended to reflect the school’s commitment to religious pluralism but instead backfired.

“Duke remains committed to fostering an inclusive, tolerant and welcoming campus for all of its students,” said Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations. “However, it was clear that what was conceived as an effort to unify was not having the intended effect.”

The decision to cancel the plans was made Thursday in consultation with the university’s faith leadership, including the director of Muslim life, Schoenfeld said.

He said there were “credible concerns about safety and security,” but would not elaborate or discuss security measures. After the initial Tuesday announcement about the call to prayer, Schoenfeld said the university received a large number of hateful statements online and over the phone, but said that alone was not why plans were changed.


“I think we expected some response,” he said. “We’re used to a level of public contention. This was as intense as I’ve seen it.”

He also said the Duke University Chapel figured into the decision, after the university received “thoughtful” messages of concern from members of the Duke community.

“The Duke Chapel is a very visible and powerful and deeply emotional symbol of the university,” Schoenfeld said. “We need to be even more thoughtful in the way that we address it.”

Instead, Muslim students will gather Friday outside the chapel, where interfaith programs are typically held, and then move to their regular location in the chapel basement for prayers.

Previous plans called for the chant, known as the adhan, to be recited by members of the school’s Muslim Students Assn. The call was to begin Friday from a “moderately amplified” chapel loudspeaker.

Those plans drew the ire of North Carolina evangelist Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, who took to Facebook to denounce the school for embracing Islam at a time when Muslim extremists are attacking the West.

“As Christianity is being excluded from the public square and followers of Islam are raping, butchering and beheading Christians, Jews and anyone who doesn’t submit to their Sharia Islamic law, Duke is promoting this in the name of religious pluralism,” Graham wrote on his Facebook page.

News of the call to prayer prompted dozens of comments on Duke’s Facebook page. Many were barbed, and few were in favor of the move. Some examples:


“Ooooh what’s next? Burka Fridays? Sharia Saturdays? Stone an infidel Mondays?”

“Is this really what you want your university, in a Christian-founded country, to be known for?”

“Goodbye Duke. My company’s yearly endowment will no longer be sent.”

One woman wrote, “This should be recited from your intercom EVERYDAY,” and posted a copy of the Lord’s Prayer.


Christy Lohr Sapp, associate dean for religious life at Duke University Chapel, wrote in an op-ed in the News and Observer of Raleigh on Wednesday: “At Duke University, the Muslim community represents a strikingly different face of Islam than is seen on the nightly news: one that is peaceful and prayerful.”

Sapp wrote that the chapel is “a symbol of faith of the school’s founders, but the use of it as a minaret allows for the interreligious re-imagining of a university icon.”

While this might seem “an odd juxtaposition,” Sapp wrote, “it is actually in keeping with the university’s commitment to fostering the spiritual development of all students.”

On the school’s website, a FAQ section about the call to prayer announcement said the Neo-Gothic Duke Chapel had been the site of prayer services for Hindus, Buddhists, Lutherans and others. It says the campus has dedicated worship spaces for Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus.


About 700 of Duke’s 14,850 students identify themselves as Muslims, according to the university. The school hired its first full-time Muslim chaplain in 2009, when it created a Center for Muslim Life.

The Duke Muslim Students Assn. said on its Facebook page that it is dedicated to promoting “engagement with Islam and related issues.”


Zucchino reported from Durham, Masunaga from Los Angeles.