Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 September 2004
Issue No. 709
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

All together now

Will the call to prayer be made with one voice? Reem Nafie finds out

For decades the call to prayer has emerged, five times a day, from loudspeakers attached to every mosque in Egypt. Nearly every mosque has a muezzin in its employ who recites the azan, or call to prayer. Not all of these men have perfect voices. And although they are supposed to start at the same time, the calls are usually not simultaneous, and seem to blare from the city's mosques, seconds apart, often creating a cacophony of sound.

All that is suddenly set to change, if the Waqf (Religious Endowments) Ministry manages to pull off a much-debated plan.

The plan to lower the volume on the loudspeakers and establish a unified call to prayer was bound to cause controversy, since it is so radically different from what people are used to. The idea is to have just one person (with an appropriate voice of course) recite the five daily calls to prayer, and then amplify that call simultaneously from all of Cairo's mosques.

Religious Endowments Minister Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq said that the plan stemmed from people's growing complaints about the disharmony and noise created by "loudspeakers in the mosques". Zaqzouq said that by unifying the calls to prayer, the "well-being of the people, especially those who are sick, or pupils who need to concentrate on their studies," would be better served.

The call to prayer was instituted in the first years of Islam as a way of calling on the faithful to perform their five daily prayers. Prophet Mohamed had entrusted a freed black slave, Bilal, to recite the azan, having been blessed with a strong, pleasant voice. It soon became standard for a caller to be chosen for having an agreeable voice.

According to Zaqzouq, ensuring that appropriate voices emerge from Cairo's many mosques is "exactly what we are aiming to do". A panel of professional muezzins will choose the most suitable candidates.

Some religious scholars disagree with that kind of logic. Abdel-Sabour Shahin, head of Al-Azhar University's faculty of Islamic law, argued that the call to prayer was meant to get people up to pray rather than showcase a melodious voice. He said the fajr (dawn) call to prayer was expressly meant to wake people up to pray. "If we turn down the sound, how will the faithful wake up to fulfill their duty?" Shahin asked.

Zaqzouq said the dynamics of mosques today have changed the equation. Nowadays, there are hundreds of zawyas (prayer rooms) in garages or on ground floors of buildings, as well as lots of small mosques that attract few worshippers. Since each prayer room and mosque calls for the prayers using a loudspeaker, with some starting seconds, and sometimes even minutes, after each other, the results can be an inharmonious clash, a noisy symphony of calls. "I am sure, in the days of the prophet, they never faced these kinds of problems," Zaqzouq said.

An engineering team is currently studying the possibility of installing a network linking different mosques in the same district, thereby enabling a single call to go out at the same time throughout the zone covered by the network.

The local press has had a field day with the "unified call to prayer" plan. Some papers quoted an anonymous Islamic scholar claiming there were hidden "American hands" behind the ministry's plan. The US was pushing Egypt to constrain Muslim religious practices, it was alleged. Al-Azhar University professor Ahmed Sayer was so angry that he said, "one day we will order the cancellation of Friday prayers in the mosques, and be satisfied with prayers broadcast on the radio".

Another major potential logjam in the ministry's plan concerns the fate of nearly 200,000 muezzins. Zaqzouq promised that the 70,000 muezzins officially working for the ministry would not be sacked. "Some can be deployed to do other jobs within their mosques," he said. Others could deliver seminars and religious sermons.

But what of the remaining 130,000 or so muezzins who do not work for the ministry? Sheikh Ahmed Abdel-Azim, who recites the call to prayer at a small Nasr City mosque, is one of many who could end up jobless if the plan goes through. Although Abdel-Azim essentially lives off monthly donations given to mosques, he is worried that if he does not call for the prayer, "the mosque will no longer need" his services.

While no one had complained about the sounds from Abdel-Azim's mosque, a nearby prayer room had been the target of a great deal of complaints by people living in the building across from it. Similar situations inspired several muezzins interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly to champion the ministry's idea. They were acutely aware, they said, that many of their colleagues did not recite the call to prayer in an adequately professional manner.

One muezzin, Sheikh Mahmoud Hosni, suggested that instead of banning everyone from calling the prayer, "maybe the ministry could deploy professionals to listen to the different sheikhs and decide who should stay and who should go."

The ministry, however, said that implementing that kind of plan would be impossible, considering the sheer number of official and unofficial muezzins across town.

In any case, and despite press reports to the contrary, a final decision has also yet to be taken on the overall unified call to prayer plan as well.

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