x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Cairo set to centralise the city's call to prayer

The adhan, the ritual Islamic call to prayer, is the city's timeless sound. But the government is to unify the dissonant voices and competing adhan styles.

CAIRO // In person, the diminutive Ahmed Abdel Aziz speaks carefully, softly and modestly. But five times each day, his voice soars to the rafters of Al Maghfara Mosque, spills into the streets, floats between minarets and swirls among the cacophony of noise, both sacred and secular, that has defined this city for centuries. The adhan, the ritual Islamic call to prayer, is Cairo's timeless sound. But after 22 years spent perfecting his own unique chant, Mr Aziz's time is almost up. When Ramadan begins next month, Egypt's ministry of religious endowments will begin broadcasting a single voice from one central downtown studio to Cairo's 4,000 mosques. "When I hear the adhan, I'm going to be chanting the adhan by myself and I'm going to get the blessings the same way as if I was making the adhan," said a sanguine Mr Aziz, who said he supports the ministry's decision. "I'm still going to take advantage of God's blessing." Egyptian religious officials, who in most cases are appointed by the government, have tried for several years to unify the dissonant voices and competing adhan styles that add to Cairo's enchanting chaos. But their efforts have been blocked by an entrenched orthodoxy that suspects any centralisation of religious authority as yet another attempt by the Egyptian state to extend its control over matters of faith. "It's a negative decision and it doesn't follow the tradition of the Prophet or Islamic jurisprudence," said Nasser Salam al Said, an imam and muezzin at the Al Rahma Mosque in Agouza, a suburb of Cairo. "It's a dangerous decision because it's being made logically, or it's using logic to argue for it. And if we follow this logic, we could extend logic to other issues in the religion, and that is not good." Yet even critics acknowledge the logic behind the ministry's decision, which officials describe as a simple question of municipal beautification. As it stands, every one of Cairo's thousands of mosques has its own muezzin, each with a different voice, a different style and, perhaps most importantly, a different watch. The calls, which are broadcast from loudspeakers on minarets, tend to start and stop at slightly different times, to a somewhat maddening effect. "The main reason for this plan is to reduce the noise and, when the adhans overlap, that's confusing for the listeners," said Salem Abel Galil, a deputy minister of religious endowments. "Also, it is to get rid of the voices of the adhan that are not so nice or beautiful." To prepare each mosque for the unified call, the ministry of religious endowments is planning to distribute special radio receivers to each mosque at a cost of about one million Egyptian pounds (Dh640,000). Conventional radio is inadequate for the task, Mr Galil said, because prayer times differ at varying latitudes, and the unified call is meant only for Cairene ears. As a counter to critics, Mr Galil requested fatwas supporting his decision from Egypt's highest religious authorities. Al Azhar, the centre of Sunni Islamic learning, and the Dar Al Iftaa Al Masriyah, an authority on Islamic jurisprudence, both approved the plan about a year ago, Mr Galil said. Despite the green lights from high clerics, such approval is hardly enough for Egypt's conservative Muslims. The authority of Egypt's once vaunted religious institutions has eroded substantially since Al Azhar and others were placed under state control in the early 1960s. The government now appoints Al Azhar's imam. Although the substance of the call to prayer will remain the same, critics consider the decision to be an example of bida'a, or religious innovation that exceeds the norms prescribed by the canon. Despite that the mosques will continue business as usual, hardliners say unifying the call to prayer is a violation simply because the practice is not cited in the Quran. "We're asked to follow the Prophet and the Prophet didn't unify the adhan. So as long as the Prophet didn't unify it, we shouldn't unify it," said Mr al Said. Muezzins should be an accessible and visible part of the community of worshippers, he said. "Instead of unifying the call to prayer, why don't they train muezzins in the ministry according to the job description and distribute them to the mosques? Then there will be beautiful voices in every mosque." Despite his disagreement, Mr al Said said he plans to stay away from the microphone this Ramadan. After all, those who disobey the new rules will be "be subject to an investigation and they could be interrogated", Mr Galil said. Punishments have not been decided for those who refuse to forfeit their microphones. For the time being, however, conservative opponents appear prepared to remain as quiet as the cast-aside muezzins. But as with any question of religion, the unified call to prayer will probably remain a sensitive issue. "The people, they start screaming and say 'this is against God, and against Allah and against Islam'," said Gamal Zayda, a columnist and managing editor of the government-run Al Ahram newspaper. "Part of the government policy is to flatter the religious people just to send them a message telling them 'we are not against religion'. They are not courageous in saying that we are a secular society, unfortunately." mbradley@thenational.ae

What better way to find the best muezzins than to hold auditions? Salem Abel Galil, a deputy minister of religious endowments, sat on a committee of clerics, sound engineers and musicians who selected the 20 best muezzins from a field of more than 100 applicants. For the nearly 4,000 other muezzins whose voices will be muted, the decision will not be catastrophic, Mr Galil said. Most muezzins serve multiple roles in their mosques, often managing duties that range from janitorial work to that of that of the imam. Their voices will also still be heard: the muezzins will still be allowed to make the interior call to prayer, called the iqama, to worshippers who are already in the mosque at prayer time. mbradley@thenational.ae