CAIRO, April 30 — Sitting on the bluff at the Giza pyramids in late afternoon, as the sky turns pink behind the great pharaonic tombs, you can hear the 5 o’clock call to prayer rise from mosques in the Nile River valley below until the air becomes filled with a drone of proclaimed faith.
Some of the calls begin early, some a few minutes late. Some last a rather long time, some peter out in a matter of seconds. Hundreds of muezzins, who appeal for the faithful to pray, issue the call from an estimated 4,000 Cairo mosques.
The cacophony of the call to prayer, one of the five required daily of orthodox Sunni Muslims, is about to end, if the government of President Hosni Mubarak succeeds in an ambitious electronic project unveiled Sunday. Declaring the different voices, starting times and volumes an unattractive “randomness,” the Ministry of Religious Endowments signed a contract with a state firm to centralize the call to prayer by transmitting the voice of a single muezzin simultaneously to all the city’s mosques.
Under the scheme, the voice heard at the tiny mosques in Giza will be the same one issuing from the giant mosque at the Citadel across the valley, and the two calls will begin and end together. “This is an important civilizing step,” said Religious Endowments Minister Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq. “We live in time of clashing microphones. People want an end to randomness.”
The call to prayer is a revered ritual in Islam and congregants as well as imams compete to be allowed to give it, if they are of good character and can pronounce each and every syllable in proper Arabic. By whittling down the number of muezzins employed to chant at prayer time, the government is robbing hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of people of the opportunity to perform the ritual.
Ragab Zaqi, a blind imam at a mosque on the east bank of the Nile, is having none of it. He acknowledged, as the government has claimed, that there is no doctrinal prohibition against the simultaneous muezzin idea. But in his view, it runs counter to the spirit of Islam. “Islam urges people to compete to give the call to prayer. This seals the door for many,” he said in an interview.
Zaqi, who is known for acerbic sermons that sometimes criticize government policies, said the project is a waste of money: “A luxury rather than a necessity,” he said. “If the government wants to do something useful, hire more rather than less people to be muezzins.” Zaqi said he suspects the plan foreshadows possible deeper interference in religious affairs, such as handing out identical sermons. “If we are silent on this, more may come,” he said.
He acknowledged that some Egyptians find the loud calls irritating, especially those that occur in the early morning, but that is a small price to pay. “The people who want this want to get rid of loudspeakers altogether so they can get a good sleep after coming home at 4 in the morning,” he said, acidly. “This is not a reform done on God’s behalf.”
The government plans to install receivers in mosques which would be tuned to a single radio station that beams the call to prayer from al-Azhar mosque, one of the city’s main Muslim houses of worship. The receivers would be activated at the proper times and shut off when the synchronized chant is over. Twenty-five muezzins have been selected to work in rotation.
Zaqzouq, the religious endowments minister, said the project will cost about $100,000. Installation should take about eight months and eventually the venture will be extended to all large Egyptian cities.
Zaqzouq denied there were plans to unplug loudspeakers for the pre-dawn call to prayer. “The muezzin will be there. It’s not like he’s disappearing, but just in one place,” he said. “There’s no justification for rejecting this.”