Egypt to press ahead with adhan unification – but quietly

July 1, 2008

A muezzin calls Muslims to prayer, 20 August 2007/stringerIs Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowments planning to blindside people by quietly implementing an unpopular project to unify the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer?

That’s certainly the impression I got when I recently spoke to one of the ministry officials in charge of the project to enquire about its status. There has been talk for years about how chaotic and noisy it is to have each mosque in a city call out “Allahu akbar” at slightly different times, in quite different voices, sometimes in different musical keys and different tempos. A project unveiled two years ago to have one centralised call to prayer seemed to officials to be the answer.

The official was cagey at first, refusing to be drawn on whether the plan was going ahead or had been suspended, and refusing to give an ETA for the mythical unified adhan.

But then he relented and said, revealingly: “I’ll tell you something, one day you’ll find us, without media coverage… you’ll find (a unified) ‘Allahu akbar’ from the minarets.”

That goes some way to explaining why the whole thing seems to have dropped out of sight since it was “inaugurated” more than two years ago.

Back then, the project was hailed by officials as “a civilizing step.” In a ceremony at the ministry’s neo-Islamic offices in downtown Cairo, the minister handed out commemorative shields and monetary rewards to a number of people involved in the project. Everything about the news conference suggested the project would be up and running imminently.

Pyramids seen behind two Cairo minarets, 19 Dec 2005/Aladin Abdel NabyBut there’s been no almost no sightings (hearings?) of the unified adhan, save for some experiments carried out in a number of mosques, presumably to the delight of the plan’s many opponents – which includes the parliament’s religious affairs committee.

The committee expressed its opposition to the project in 2006 and said the money could be better spent elsewhere, on one of Egypt’s myriad problems, but local media quoted ministry officials as saying they were adamant about going ahead with it.

An IslamOnline report (in Arabic) on some of the ministry’s experiments described the scorn poured on the initiative by worshippers at the mosque where it was tested. “Flavourless, canned adhan” was how one described it. Another said he might just as well stay home and listen to the adhan on the radio. Others resented the mechanical nature of the thing, saying the move removed the human touch from the ritual and made it seem less spiritual.

The ministry says the move is meant to end the “clamour” that can result in areas with multiple mosques, where it can sometimes sound like the muezzins are attempting to drown each other out. They sometimes start seconds or even minutes apart.

Some Egyptians complain that the adhan in their neighborhood is too loud and disturbs their sleep. But sheikhs point out that the adhan is intended to do exactly that: wake people up to pray. They also say the argument that Egypt’s Christians shouldn’t be subjected to that is about as reasonable as expecting church bells to be silenced in Rome for the benefit of Italian Muslims.

IslamOnline also posted two fatwas prohibiting the use of an electronically transmitted adhan, saying that the recitation of the adhan is a ritual of worship in itself. The religious requirement was for an actual human voice at the location to recite the adhan.

A Muslim praying, 18 Sept 2007/Loay Abu HaykelThey also point out that the performance of the adhan is a greatly meritorious deed. People draw lots for the privilege. Limiting the adhan to one person citywide or nationwide, they said, effectively denies people the spiritual reward.

The ministry says that currently, a lot of people with really horrible voices end up chanting the adhan, much to the discomfort of surrounding residents. The parliamentary committee responds that, well, maybe the ministry should carefully select the muezzin on the basis of vocal talents. And if noise pollution is the issue, how does the adhan compare to the 24/7 din of Egypt’s notoriously snarled and noisy traffic?

It looks like all that is moot, as the ministry seems unwilling to be deflected from a project that is way behind schedule, possibly over budget and almost certain to further alienate a large segment of Egypt’s devout Muslims and independent sheikhs.

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