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Cairo dilemma over prayer calls (BBC) By Sylvia Smith CAIRO, Egypt 04/29/05 14:35 GMT 15:35 UK)Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4485521.stm BBC} BRITISH BROADCASTING COMPANY BBC} BRITISH BROADCASTING COMPANY Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
Just before dawn, Cairo resident Muhammad Ahmad is jolted out of his peaceful sleep by a thunderous azan, or call to prayer, roaring out from huge speakers attached to a very modest mosque two streets away.

A few moments later a second, even louder muezzin´s voice joins in - not in time or in tune with the first call to prayer - summoning him to do his duty, this time at the local prayer hall just around the corner.

Over the next few minutes, at least half a dozen other voices of varying tunefulness join in - distorting the sound of the azans and making them sound like a military order.

Being invited to rise and pray is one thing, but discordant bellowing is quite another.

After years of suffering this aural assault, Muhammad finally put pen to paper to make his displeasure felt.

He sent his complaint to the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which oversees issues of public worship, saying that high noise levels coming from the dozen mosques in his immediate neighbourhood ruined the real religious meaning of the azan.

"Some of the mosques blast not just the roughly dozen sentences of the call itself," he wrote, "but all of the verses and actual prayers intoned by the local imam."

When all the local mosques do the same thing competing with one another in volume, what should be an announcement lasting at most two minutes goes on for 45 minutes, keeping the entire neighbourhood in a state of high alert.

"I´m not an irreligious man," he explains.

"But there were no loudspeakers at the time of the Prophet. Now, rather than being a joy, to listen to the call to prayer is a daily torture to the ears."

He speaks almost apologetically and, more significantly, he wrote anonymously to the ministry. But he is not alone.

Single call plan

Countless fellow Cairenes share his sense of displeasure. Nor have the floods of similar unsigned complaints gone unheard.

Last September, the Ministry of Religious Endowments decided to bring Cairo´s 4,000-odd mosques and prayer halls into line by broadcasting a live, centralised call to prayer to replace the current ear-splitting cacophony.

But since Religious Endowment Minister Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq made the announcement, there has been a huge outcry of public anger at his proposed reforms.

Although crackling sound systems, mediocre muezzins and staggered prayer calls have long been the butt of jokes among local people, the official plan to tamper even in a minor way with the running of individual mosques unleashed deep disquiet at what might really lie behind these new moves.

The conspiracy theorists prophesied that the centralised sound system was just a test case for the real goal: to disseminate a single Friday prayer sermon, approved beforehand by the government.

The outcry reached such a pitch that the minister felt obliged to hold a news conference to quell doomsayers and to explain that the move was just a practical modern solution to combat one contributor to noise pollution.

But that explanation just did not hold water. As analysts and historians point out, Egyptian authorities have always run into trouble when they try to regulate religion.

They say that most fervent support for the plan comes from secular city dwellers who endorse the move as a practical means towards greater government control over the proliferation of small prayer halls that often preach a violent, extremist form of Islam. Yet Mr Zaqzouq insists that his proposal enjoys wide grass-roots popularity:

´´There are loudspeakers that shake the world,´´ the minister protested.

´´Everyone hears them. Every day I receive bitter complaints from people from all walks of life about the loudspeakers. When I ask them to register official complaints, they say they fear others will accuse them of being infidels.´´

´Ulterior motives´

The wording of the calls is set, but the way each is sung - melodious or strident - sets a tone for the mosque and it is this individuality that is seen as being under attack.

Opponents have expressed deep outrage at the very idea of someone tampering with the tradition of each mosque having its own muezzin, of different voices echoing across the city in a continuous round.

They claim their religion is being muzzled.

In response, Cairo´s government has produced senior religious leaders to reassure people that the plan is not in contravention of Islamic law.

But many Egyptians continue to suspect a sinister conspiracy, backed by Washington, to stifle the voices of more conservative religious leaders.

There have also been dire predictions that the change would throw at least 100,000 muezzins out of work in a country already suffering severe unemployment.

Mr Zaqzouq maintains his position saying that the proposals are for Cairo alone.

However, there are provisions for the country´s other 26 governorates to follow suit if they wish.

Mr Zaqzouq also claims that the capital has exactly 827 officially recognised muezzins, and insists they could easily find other useful tasks around each mosque.

A world without amplifiers

And the move does have its supporters.

"The call to prayer, when I first heard it as a child, was beautiful to hear. It wafted over the city in soft and sometimes musical tones," wrote activist Nawal El-Saadawi in the al-Ahram Weekly.

"Now it has become a cacophony of strident voices, a threatening call shot through with violence."

But Mr Zaqzouq has had to concede that the US government has pressured Cairo on various issues of religious reform, arguing for example that textbooks in many of the country´s mosque-backed institutions teach anti-Western principles.

But the official line remains that there is no nudging from Washington behind this effort.

Furthermore, so as to avoid further charges of bias, the centralised radio broadcasts will feature a revolving group of religious leaders, who will offer a range of religious viewpoints.

But at least one conservative imam has argued that "technologising" the call to prayer will start the nation down an ungodly path that will one day terminate with people bowing down before TV sets tuned to pictures of Mecca.

As Muhammad Ahmad leaves the house in the faint pre-dawn light, he suggests that a return to the days when technology played no part at all in religion would be the best solution.

"Every mosque has a different minaret and so it´s right that every mosque should have a different voice," he says.

"I think the simplest way is to ban all amplifiers and return to the way muezzins called the faithful to prayer in the Prophet´s day, using just their natural voices." (© BBC MMV 04/29/05)

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