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Cairo mosques begin unified call to prayer

Project aims to control prayer's timing, voice quality

Is it even remotely feasible to get Cairo's 4,000 mosques to all sing the same tune?

That's just what Egypt's government is aiming to do, beginning an ambitious project Thursday to unify the timing and sound of the Islamic call to prayer across the sprawling city of 18 million people, neighborhood by neighborhood.

The project, which has been six years in the making, was meant to start in Cairo's northern suburbs on Wednesday, the first day of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, but system glitches and a communication breakdown delayed it by a day.

Accurate timing, voice quality

"Egyptians have a problem with timing," said Sheikh Salem Abdul Galil, the official at the Ministry of Religious Endowments who has done more than anyone to push the project forward.

"Our goals are to accurately set the time of prayer so that it is called at the same time from each mosque, and to control the quality of the voices that call the prayer," he said.

Like pretty much everything in the densely populated, traffic-choked city, the call to prayer, or azzan, in Cairo is a chaotic affair of wildly different voices ringing out at different times.

Even though it is technically a requirement for the caller, or muazzin, to have a beautiful voice, many who perform the call simply do not.

The $175,000 project will equip each mosque with a receiver that will broadcast a single call to prayer from a downtown studio. Abdul Galil said every one of the city's mosques should be on the system by the end of Ramadan.

"We are in the age of laptops and computers, technology is advanced and it is better regulated than humans," he said.

Cities in Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey have all successfully enforced some sort of unified call to prayer, but in Cairo there is the additional challenge of thousands of unregistered mosques.

To take advantage of tax breaks, many landlords convert a small room at the foot of their buildings into a mosque, also known as a zawya, which often makes up for its small size with massive loudspeakers.

Tampering an age-old ritual

For many of the muazzins, however, it means a loss of livelihood and prestige as they are in some cases downgraded to little more than mosque custodians.

"People in the mosque here compete to make the call and find joy when making it, and we will be depriving people from this rewarding practice," said Sheikh Youssef Salah, who leads the prayers at the al-Noor mosque in the lower-income neighborhood Imbaba.

"Our mosque will definitely lose some of its spirit and it will detract from the personality of our great city," he said. In the Middle Ages, Cairo was known as the city of a thousand minarets and was famous for the diversity of its azzans.

Religious conservatives have also said the project is wasteful and against Islam because it tampers with an age-old ritual.

"The Prophet Mohammed never ordered people to unify their calls to prayer in (his home of) Medina, so we shouldn't do the same in Cairo," said Sheikh Youssef al-Badri, a conservative famed for his religious-inspired lawsuits.

Abdul Galil dismissed the critics as narrow-minded, saying that Egypt was a very difficult place to change because of its conservative mindset.

"These are the same people who once said television was an anti-Islamic innovation and now they use the television to spread their extreme messages," said Abdul Galil.