Adhan in Egypt

Courtesy Abeer Anwar, Al-Ahram, Egypt

Cairo–The Ministry of Religious Endowments and the People’s Assembly Religion Committee are at loggerheads over plans to unify the call to prayer, reports Abeer Anwar

During a meeting last week, the Religion Committee of the People’s Assembly voted unanimously against moves to unify the adhan (call to prayer), first proposed by the Ministry of Religious Endowments in 2004. The committee said the failure of the experiment, introduced last September in selected Cairo mosques, had influenced its decision. At the time members of the public joined preachers in complaining that the voice of the mu’zin was sometimes blurred.

“If the aim behind the call for the adhan to be unified was to prevent those with awful voices from calling prayer then a competition could be held to choose the best voices,” suggested Ahmed Omar Hashem, head of the People’s Assembly’s Religion Committee, during the meeting. He added that the money allocated to the project would be better spent on providing services to the homeless, particularly street children.

While many religious scholars and preachers have welcomed the Religion Committee’s stand — they had opposed moves to unify the call to prayer as soon as they were mooted, claiming the real aim was to muzzle religion — the Ministry of Religious Endowments seems unlikely to back down.

Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq, the minister of religious endowments, insists it falls within his ministry’s mandate to decide whether or not to continue with the project. Zaqzouq’s advisor, Hazem El-Guindi, has severely criticized the decision of the Religion Committee which is, he says, a recommendation with no statutory force.

Ministry officials point out that the sheikh of Al-Azhar, the mufti and the 40- member Islamic Research Council all approved the project, with the proviso that the call to prayer can be heard by everyone. Given the approval of religious authorities, El-Guindi said, the ministry will plough on with implementing the project.

“Abu Dhabi, Amman, Sanaa and Istanbul have had a unified call to prayer for years,” said Zaqzouq. “Together with the sheikh of Al-Azhar I visited some of the mosques where the system is implemented and it works beautifully. If we want to improve the image of Islam outside we have to start by improving at home.”

The aim of unifying the adhan, say officials, is to ensure the best voices are used and to avoid the din created by thousands of loudspeakers in Cairo.

Last September, the ministry moved to bring Cairo’s 4,000 mosques and prayer halls into line by broadcasting a live, centralized call to prayer.

A group of muedhineen with outstanding voices were chosen, including the celebrated Sheikh Ne’na’, to perform the adhan from Cairo’s major mosques, including Omar Makram and Al-Azhar. Complaints, say officials, were a result of teething problems. Volume settings at some mosques were not readjusted, with the result that the call to prayer could not be heard over the whole of Cairo.

With the ministry insisting that it will continue with the project, the arguments that greeted its launch suddenly have a new lease of life. The opposing camps seem irreconcilable. On one side are those who see the move as an attempt to replace the daily torture caused by loudspeakers and terrible voices with something more melodious, on the other those who see it as part of a wider conspiracy, claiming that it is just the opening gambit in a plan to replace individual Friday sermons with a single text approved by the authorities.

Mustafa Mahmoud, a Cairo resident, suggests that a return to the days when technology played no part at all in religion would be the best solution. “The easiest thing would be to ban all amplifiers and return to the era of the prophet when the muedhin would call the faithful to prayer, using just his voice,” he said.

Ahmed El-Sayeh, a professor at Al-Azhar University, worries that the project will lead to an estimated 200,000 muedhineen losing their jobs. Yet Zaqzouq says the ministry itself employs only 827.

But what about the thousands of muedhineen not employed by the ministry? Sheikh Akef Hussein, who works at a small mosque in Cairo’s Faisal district, is worried that if he is stopped from issuing the call to prayer then the mosque will no longer need his services.


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