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Last Updated: Friday, 29 April 2005, 14:35 GMT 15:35 UK
Cairo dilemma over prayer calls
By Sylvia Smith

Cairo minaret
The minarets were designed for natural acoustics
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.

Rather than being a joy, to listen to the call to prayer is a daily torture to the ears
Muhammad Ahmad
Cairo resident

"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.

Cairo cityscape
Cairo, home to 15m people, is one of the world's biggest cities

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.

Cairo minaret
Some fear the mosques would lose their individual character

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."

Do you think there should be one call to prayer or should Cairo mosques be allowed to have their own? What is it like where you live?

Your comments:

Nothing is more beautiful then waking up to the sound of the magnificent Azan. I personally find it soothing and calming. Nevertheless, I agree that lately in my city, Aleppo, the number of amplifiers have increased and it seems as though the mosques are competing among each other on who can be the loudest. I no longer wake up with a smile when Azan starts; instead I wake up startled and shocked. In my neighbourhood there are now five mosques. We need only one at the maximum two. The irony is that so much funding goes into these mosques instead of going to charity organizations or orphanages.
Dana, Aleppo, Syria

The solution is simple: Impose a decibel limit for each masjid (mosque) based on the distance from the other nearest masjid. This would need some basic acoustic engineering and could be funded and regulated by the government or the local masjid committees.
Asad, New York, USA

I don't impose my religious and daily routines on others, so I certainly wouldn't want others' to be imposed on me. I wonder what the Prophet himself would have to say about all this artificial amplification and competition?
SK, Ottawa, Canada

We have a central azan here in Abu Dhabi, people are happy and no-one is complaining. They use different voices in every prayer and it is all just beautiful... a real 'call' to prayer. This is what the azan should do to you and this is the aim that we should try and achieve. If people are put off by the amplified azan and hence praying then we are clearly mistaken.
Gaber Ali, Abu Dhabi, UAE

I lived in Cairo for eight years and agree that prayer calls should be done without microphones. It is awful walking down the street and suddenly you get blasted just above your head - because often the microphones are not hung very high. It would not do to just hang them higher though - it is necessary to take them off completely. During the time of the Prophet there were no microphones around either.
Manuela Kunkel, Stuttgart, Germany

I have listened with pleasure to choristers and cantors and muezzins in many countries. I have now been living in Cairo for some 13 years, and I hope not to cause offence if I say that I have yet to hear a sweet and harmonious call to prayer. I have two mosques and two prayer rooms within 50 metres of my flat, and the competing cacophony beggars description. But it is not only the morning call to prayer that distresses one: try to imagine 4 preachers bellowing 4 lengthy Friday sermons simultaneously, using megawatt loudspeakers, at a distance of not more than 50m from one.
Michael Deman, Cairo, Egypt

The azan is a beautiful thing to hear. I used to take it for granted back in Beirut but now living here in Scotland I realised how attached I really am to it. The azan isn't just a call to prayer, for me it gives a sense of security and lets me know that I'm home. Centralizing the azan for the morning prayer may be a good idea, but I do not think it should be done over all. Such an action will take away from the beauty of each mosque. I think the best solution is to remove the speakerphones and amplifiers. As a final note, it's a shame that mosques in the West are not allowed to perform the ritual azan.
Maya Baltaji, Edinburgh, Scotland

Here in Pakistan, we have exactly the same problem, but one thing I can't understand is the need of so many mosques after every one or two kilometres. Currently, the situation is that there are not as many worshippers as there are mosques and each mosque muezzin uses its loud speaker and amplifiers to tell the other mosque muezzin that "its time to pray".
Muhammad Tahir, Islamabad, Pakistan

Coming from India, I was used to hearing as a child the call of muezzin for morning prayers from the different mosques of my town. It has a beauty of its own. Calling them as cacophony is nothing but secularism to its extreme. I have real fond memories of the azan and I miss them in USA. In fact, during afternoon prayers when the loudspeakers were turned to a low volume, I used to get a bit annoyed. The main purpose of dawn azan is to wake up people from their deep sleep and call them to prayer.
Yusuf, Houston/USA/Silchar/India

If it's a question of noise pollution, why is nothing done about the endless roar of traffic in Cairo? Car exhausts and horns are far less melodious than the muezzins.
Ali Schmitt, Sharjah, UAE

Damascus has the same problem. We have marathon calls to prayer in the middle of the night. The loudspeakers are so loud that can hear the muezzins sniffle! I use earplugs. I enjoy the call to prayer sometimes. I would probably find it much more interesting and faith-promoting if a real person without technology was doing it.
Jeremy, Damascus, Syria

Having lived in Cairo, directly above a musullah (small prayer room), down the street from a mosque and over a block from another, I know very well the unmelodious irritation the azan caused. The athan was chosen to be in the human voice because it was the most beautiful natural sound from God. Prayer goers must understand it is not beautiful with blasting faulty sound systems and the muezzins must understand it is not a competition. Just unplug the amplifiers.
Kyla Hakim, South Hadley, Massachusetts

After living in Cairo this spring, I can tell you that the melodies of morning prayer were not a joy in many people's life. The azan is beautiful in its invitation to worship, and centralizing that, forcing each individual mosque to give up what makes it unique among it's kind is not the best solution. There are 4,000+ call to prayers each morning, take out the amps and allow for the natural voices to be heard, this will call the people to worship. Take away the alarm clock and wake me up with a beautiful song of prayer instead.
Theresa Cecka, Cairo, Egypt

I think that only one call per city is enough. This could be heard everywhere in the City at one appointed time. It should be like the Mecca and Medina, where one call is made for all the surroundings. The government of the city should appoint a mosque from where such calls should be made.
Alhaj, SheikhMuzaffar-uz-Zaman, Gujranwala, Pakistan

Everyone has a right to peace and quiet. Everyone has a right to freedom of religion, but that doesn't include disturbing other people's sleep. One right has to end where another begins. If you want people to respect your rights you have to respect theirs. Car alarms are also an infringement of other's rights. Casablanca is a noisy city and would be better without amplified mosques and car alarms.
Ali Tariq, Casablanca, Morocco

I am Egyptian living in Canada, but I always wish to go back to Egypt and enjoy hearing the azan at prayer times, it really touches the heart. I agree that if the voice of muezzin is harsh or too loud it is more irritating than inviting. It would be much better if the mosques are provided with special amplifiers that have low decibels, or alternatively go back to the Prophet time with no amplifiers.
Amal, Ottawa, Canada

I think they should get rid of the amplifiers. Sometimes they are just too loud. However, I am perturbed that the Egyptian government is trying to bring in a central call to prayer. The beauty of the azan is also in its diversity. I hope sane heads prevail but I doubt it. Once again the battle between the secular and religious factions rears its ugly head.
Mohammed Choudry, Leicester, UK

Having lived in Cairo for three years, and having friends who lived in towns up and down the Nile, I like Muhammad Ahmad's solution the best - let the muezzins do the call to prayer without the aid of a sound system. Go back to doing it as in the days of the prophet. It is truly a cacophony right now.
Doug Amstutz, St Catharines, Ontario, Canada

I think the call to prayer should be changed back to the muezzins using their own voices. These sound so much better than the really poor amplifiers and crackly speakers they currently use and gives a feel of more towards traditional worship. These people who think this is influenced by America but if you use the proposal of using voices then what can the Egyptian government or America complain about? br />Martin, Nottingham

Each mosque should be allowed their own call to prayer but only in their own voice without the aid of loudspeakers. My neighbourhood sounds like a rock concert each morning and has become nearly uninhabitable; I now sleep with earplugs. Compounding the problem is that other faiths are not granted the same privilege. Christians are forbidden to ring bells, broadcast Christmas carols or religious songs. As in many Islamic states, religious freedom is suppressed and the verbal onslaught each morning is merely one of many powerful tools used to dominate other faiths. When I was young I used to enjoy the lone, clear voice calling us to prayer but no longer.
Ahmad, Cairo, Egypt

I strongly feel that we have to take a practical approach. When the azan (call to prayer) stops being beautiful and aesthetic and starts to be a nuisance then that is ungodly.
Sarah Khawaja, Surrey, England

One of the things I have always loved about visiting Muslim countries is to hear the first call of the first muezzin at dawn, followed by another and then another, rising to a certain pitch and then dying out to the last single voice. If the loudspeakers are not blasting and the voices not strident, then it is a beautiful way to wake up - much less annoying than a loud alarm clock. But I agree that muezzins must have melodious voices, because it was not the Prophet's way to annoy people with harsh voices or lengthy prayers. The first muezzin, Bilal, was chosen in part because of his strong and beautiful voice. The best solution for this problem is to eliminate the loudspeakers and return to the unaided human voice, especially in areas like Cairo where there are so many mosques and the call to prayer can easily be heard without hi-tech measures.
Fatima, Watford, UK

In the city of Algiers we have exactly the same problem. I am 100% for a single call to prayer in any city holding a large number of mosques close together. It is nicer to listen to, it gives the city a chance to pick one voice of choice with a perfectly recorded call to be used. The Friday sermon can still be done individually with a lowered sound level that can only be heard within the neighbourhood the mosque is in.
Malik Oussalah, Algiers, Algeria

I certainly understand where this article is coming from. As my family and I live in Malaysia, we live in a neighbourhood that has a mosque. It is most disrupting when prayer calls are belted on loudspeaker out at 0530 in the morning. I do believe that there should be one call to prayer instead of every mosque having their own.
Ruth B, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

As a person coming from India, where there is a sizeable population, we are used to the familiar morning prayer calls. Since I lived quite far off from the mosque, the prayers sounded quite pleasant and rather ambient. But in the last few years with newer mosques being built and no regulations in place, I feel that a centralised prayer would make things easier and most of all the purpose of a religious prayer would be solved. Not only is this convenient, but it would also make the message or the discipline of prayer streamlined.
Gurudarshan Somayaji, Glasgow, Scotland

Around 12 years ago, my parents lived in Cairo for 5 years while my Dad was working out there. Being a Muslim, Azan is an important event for me. At the time, the fact that there was a local mosque on every street corner, the call to prayer at Azan time was excellent. You hear the sound echo across the city. The best time was when the Azan was recited in the evening at Magrib time. I hold great memories of Cairo and my time there, but the greatest must be of the azan resonating around the city. Please don't interfere with that, it's part of Cairo's culture, religion and heritage. It's what makes Cairo feel like an Islamic city. If it's too loud, then have limit on the volume of loudspeakers but don't replace them with a single monotonous voice.
Ali Abedi, UK

I have only been to Cairo once, but I have visited places like Amman in Jordan where the problem is not too dissimilar... The tourists don't complain because they are sleeping in rooms that have been as sound-proofed as possible and in the quieter regions only have to put up with the contending din for the short duration of their stay - hence the call does not lose its appeal. Fond memories of Cairo admittedly ended as soon as the growing calls became too much to ignore with one's head under the pillow! But the multiple callings are the ultimate alarm clock; it's easier to just give in and get up and go to prayer; surely the common goal of every mosque?
Jenny Bird, Aberystwyth, Wales

I agree with Muhammad Ahmad - stop the use of loudspeakers which will reduce the noise but allow the muezzins' individuality to survive.
Deb Stephens, London, UK

Even in the relative quiet of my district, Zamalek, I cannot help but frown each time my building starts to shake from the inaudible cacophony blasting through the loudspeakers of the mosque around the corner. On Friday noon, it reaches the point where you cannot even hear the person sitting next to you in the living room. Moreover, it is all mingled with echoes of other nearby mosques into a seeming cosmic dissonance. Even in my short life of 20 years, I recall a time when the call to prayer was a joy to hear and gave a moment of tranquillity to our already noise-plagued city. Not anymore; the discordant call has even discouraged me from my own prayer. If broadcasting a live, centralised call to prayer of bearable volume worries folks of the "demonic" touch of technology, then perhaps we should do away with loudspeakers altogether and return to a more natural time using natural, loudspeaker-free, voices.
Hazem Zohny, Cairo, Egypt

Cairo mosques should be allowed to have their own prayer calls. This is one way of getting deep sleepers up to perform their duty.
S. Messelhi, Toronto, Canada

We also face the same problem. In the city of Pune there are at least 10 mosques in Muslim clusters. All of them give have discordant notes. The authorities should ban this and invite pious Muslims to pray through other means.
VK Abdulla, Pune, India

Frankly, if Cairo wants to spend its time being deafened by loud speakers every dawn then that's their choice. However maybe this is a chance for the Egyptian government to try a little local democracy, and hold a local referendum where in the secrecy of the ballot box people will feel free to vote for the removal of amplifiers, or have only one central broadcast, without the obvious fears of retribution by the more extremist followers of some mosques.
Andy, UK

I've been to Cairo a number of times and the call to prayer is wonderful and a joy to listen to, you really get the feeling you are taking a step back in time. However, having the call blasted out on 2k rigs designed for music festivals is another thing. I'd prefer to keep it more traditional with unamplified voices. Then again, if we had the same thing in Preston I'd hate it, I hate waking up in the morning as it is but to be woken up by someone else... ...I think I'd crack!
John Hodgson, Preston, UK

If the problem is the amplifiers, ban the amplifiers. It's a simple solution to a simple problem. Don't take the soul out of Cairo by broadcasting a central call to prayer, as if it's a news bulletin coming from central government a la George Orwell's 1984. The competition for harmonies, for worshippers, and for people's ears is part of the beauty of the call to prayer. It's like telling artists that we have too many of you, so a central government artist is going to paint all of Egypt's paintings from now on.
Sakhr, London, UK

Living outside the Islamic world, I really miss hearing the azan on a daily basis, which can be truly beautiful and spiritually uplifting. However, It is true that the way some muezzins do it, it can be painful to the ears and spiritually bland. I agree that the use of amplifiers should be banned, but every mosque should have its own muezzin. Another option would be to allow amplifiers, but put a limit on decibels, but it won't be practical in the long run. People will just end up abusing it.
Hamza Zuberi, London, UK

The problem is what happens if their is a power failure? who will then coordinate the call? the local electricity board? Leave a beautiful tradition alone and let people enjoy it. Thank you.
Abu Zubayr, Bradford, UK

Having lived for a couple of years in Bangladesh when I was a child, I remember the various muezzins giving the azan combining to produce a quite tuneful and melodic sound. When I returned for a visit a couple of years ago, I was struck by how loudspeakers and megaphones changed this sound to something extremely harsh and off putting. It gave rise to irritation, not spiritual thoughts.
Sifat Chowdhury, Telford, UK

I believe that if they insist on loudspeakers then there should only be one call for prayer. If they can do without loudspeakers then they can call individually. I have the same problem in Istanbul where we have a very aggressive and extremely loud mosque right next door. He is out of sync with the rest of the mosques and continues for much longer than anybody else.br />Jens Christian Bang, Istanbul, Turkey

I'm a Hindu but still agree with Muhammad Ahmad. Prayer should to do with love and in peace. It should not be a rush hour. While we pray we try to connect ourselves with God and we cannot concentrate on our prayer if their is high volume of noise. It seems to me that there is a competition going on in between places of worship. Leave the religion in peace.
Mukesh Kumar, Liverpool, UK/Delhi, India

The origins of the call to prayer were rooted in beauty, and melody. At the time of the Prophet, options were sought for the best way to call the faithful to prayer. Through providence, they opted for the tones of Bilal. The people of Cairo, and the naysayers of a centralised broadcast should remember those origins. And if they want individual 'azans', then they should be allowed to do so, without amplifiers.
Tariq, London, UK

Cairo mosques can choose what they want to choose - as long as the azan is called in mosque - this will suffice. It is also a shame the councils in this country will not allow azan through loudspeakers. Realistically, it will not disturb locals as the prayer only lasts 1-2 minutes. Let's hope this can be possible in the future.
Ismail, Preston, UK

Egypt plans to unify prayer calls
25 Sep 04 |  Middle East
Country profile: Egypt
09 Apr 05 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Egypt
09 Apr 05 |  Country profiles

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