Sunday, August 08, 2010

In Cairo, An End To The Cacophony Of Calls To Prayer

In Cairo, An End To The Cacophony Of Calls To Prayer

by Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson

August 5, 2010

There are few Islamic traditions in Cairo older than the ritual, five-times-a-day call to prayer. But as of next week, that call is undergoing a radical change.

No longer will the melodic call, the azan, be delivered by a sea of voices from minarets across the sprawling Egyptian capital.

Responding to criticisms that the current uncoordinated delivery lacks dignity, the government's Ministry of Religious Endowment has announced plans to broadcast a single Islamic call to prayer from a downtown Cairo studio.

That call will be transmitted through special receivers to thousands of mosques registered with the government. The mosques, in turn, are required to stop using their own callers, or muezzinine, and instead use the new call.

The hope is to bring uniformity to a ritual that some say is out of control.

"It's chaos, chaos," says Abdul Munam Suroji, during a visit to a hilltop park in the capital where he listened to the call. The 54-year-old Syrian tourist says the azan in Damascus sounds much better because it is a uniform call.

Egyptian officials say they have selected 30 of the best muezzinine from among the thousands in the city to take turns delivering the call to prayer starting on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan next week. The new call will be heard in a single district of Cairo, but will gradually be introduced throughout the capital and eventually to all of the 106,000 official mosques across Egypt.

Many religious scholars, including Mohamed el Shahat el Gindy, who heads the Islamic law department at Helwan University, support the decision. El Gindy said the current call is "against the spirit of azan."

Also, he added, the verses sung may differ from mosque to mosque, thereby confusing worshippers.

New Policy Meets Resistance

But muezzinine like Ehab Mohammad, who will no longer be allowed to deliver the call, are not happy about being silenced, even though he and others will continue to receive their monthly salary of roughly $55 a month.

His friend, Mohammad Fawzi, who delivers the call to prayer at a mosque down the street, says it is not just a job. He believes being a muezzin gives him and others a leg up in the next life.

"The prophet says those who lead the [call to] prayer have the longest necks and will stand the tallest on judgment day," Fawzi says. "So of course I'm against them denying us the azan."

Cairo resident Aya Hassan, a 20-year-old pharmacy student, is displeased about the ministry's plan.

"All the different voices make you feel like everyone is kneeling and praying to Allah at the same time," she says. "One voice will seem empty."

Hassan worries that residents in the city's many squatter neighborhoods could end up unaware of when to pray if their unofficial mosques are not given transmitters.

Others say the call to prayer is a religious matter and the government shouldn't be involved in changing it.

But for the religion ministry, the matter is no longer open to discussion.

Read the story, listen to the broadcast story (4 minutes) with sound examples plus photograph HERE.

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