Page last updated at 13:56 GMT, Thursday, 5 November 2009

One voice for Cairo's call to prayer

Said al-Rifai calls out the Adhan in Cairo (2009)
All of Cairo's 4,000 mosques could soon broadcast the same call to prayer

By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Cairo

As dawn breaks over the twin stone towers of Bab Zuwaila, the evocative Islamic call to prayer echoes across Cairo as it has since the massive, fortified gate was built in the 11th Century.

Back then, the muezzin would close his eyes, raise his voice to the heavens and sing out the Adhan, the ritual reminder made to all faithful Muslims five times a day.

From mosques a few streets away, the call would be repeated across the old walled city until hundreds of minarets were united in a mighty, man-made chorus.

We have lost the spirituality of the Adhan. These days, muezzins are competing on microphone to see who can sing it loudest
Mohammed Zaqzouq
Minister of Religious Endowments

Today, technology has taken over in the form of amplifiers, microphones and speakers.

All too often, the call to prayer is broadcast to a less-than-divine accompaniment of crackle, hiss and feedback.

A preparatory clearing of the throat, swilling of saliva or clicking of the jaw can be unblushingly transmitted at top volume.

Increasingly Cairenes complain that the call to prayer has become less a pleasant reminder than a raucous aural assault on the senses.

Now the government is poised to unify the Adhan by broadcasting the voice of a single muezzin five times a day to all of the capital's 4,000 mosques.

Centralised and synthesized

The Minister of Religious Endowments (Awqaf), Mohammed Zaqzouq, has overseen the ambitious - and controversial - project.

Egyptian muezzin Salah Abdul Fatah (2007)
Some critics fear the government will also seek overall control of sermons

"We have lost the spirituality of the Adhan," he explains. "These days, muezzins are competing on microphone to see who can sing it loudest."

In a few months' time, the call to prayer will be both centralised and synthesized.

The same Adhan will be transmitted from a state radio studio to every mosque.

There, it will be picked up by newly fitted receivers and relayed in perfect synchronicity across Cairo, from the Great Pyramid to the smallest of shacks.

The slick uniformity of the call to prayer will be in stark contrast to the chaos that lends Cairo much of its character.

Some critics of the plans also worry that the Egyptian government will in future seek overall control of Friday sermons too - a charge that ministers reject.

Selection process

A further concern to opponents is the future of the many thousands of muezzins, who traditionally give each mosque an individual voice though their singing - be it melodious or not.

The faithful think it is against the spirit of Islam. They are used to hearing the muezzins' voices from all corners of the city
Sayyid Hammad
Loud-speaker installer

They pride themselves on fulfilling the particular job specification - being men of fine religious character who can pronounce, with crystal clarity, each syllable of the Koran.

Their number will be whittled down to just 30, hand-picked from hundreds of applicants.

Ministers say those who are not selected for the honour will be asked to perform other duties at their mosques.

Sayyid Hammad, one of the engineers charged with fitting the receivers in the mosques, says most of the faithful are against it.

"They think it is against the spirit of Islam. They are used to hearing the muezzins' voices from all corners of the city. It is going to take some getting used to," he explains.

'All for change'

At the al-Hussein Mosque, close to the bustling medieval souk of Khan el-Khalili, the proposed reforms have divided worshippers.

Youssef Bakri, who is attending Friday prayers, embraces the current diversity among muezzins.


The call to prayer is one of the most distinctive sounds of an Islamic city

"The Adhan we hear should be different, unique to every mosque. Not one from all of Cairo," he says.

But a fellow worshipper, Said Abdul Wahab, describes the noise as a "racket" that sometimes lasts for 30 minutes or more.

"The mosques are all starting at different times," he points out. "You get confusion and very loud noise. I'm all for the change."

Mr Abdul Wahab who lives near a mosque in downtown Cairo, agrees on the need for reform.

"Generally in Islam, it is important that the muezzin has a beautiful voice. But recently anybody taking care of the mosque has been allowed to sing,'' he says.

Mosque in Cairo
Officials says only mellifluous muezzins are needed in 21st Century Cairo

"Sure, it can be enchanting for some people. Cairo is the city of 1,000 minarets, and when they are all doing the Adhan at the same time it can be quite beautiful."

"But when you live like I do close to the mosque and the muezzin is not particularly good - I am not sure that is the way of the Prophet," he adds.

Some suggest that the simplest solution would be a return to the old days, when the call to prayer over Bab Zuwaila was boosted by nothing stronger than the muezzin's larynx.

Historically, of course, they were competing only with the noise of donkey carts and street traders. Whether they would be heard today above the 24-hour pandemonium of Cairo's unruly traffic is another matter.

The government, in any case, is adamant that only mellifluous muezzins are needed in 21st Century Cairo.

And so - to the dismay of the more nostalgic residents - this ancient element of the city's raucous charm will soon disappear.

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