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January 5, 2017 Special Dispatch No. 6730

Egyptian Writers Argue Over Mosques' Calls To Prayer Using Loudspeakers

January 5, 2017
Egypt | Special Dispatch No. 6730

For several years, Egypt's Ministry of Religious Endowments has been attempting to get mosques to limit their use of loudspeakers for the five-times-daily call to prayer and even for broadcasting the prayers themselves, which is a source of disturbance for local residents. In April 2015, the ministry issued a directive permitting electronic amplification only for Friday services and for the five calls to prayer on other days, and specifying the precise time the calls must be broadcast. The directive also stipulated that violation would be punishable by docking the salaries of the relevant authorities.[1]

Additionally, in late November 2016, it was reported that the ministry was testing a system for broadcasting a single series of calls to prayer and a single Friday prayer service across the country, to be rolled out first in Cairo and its environs, in order to prevent the cacophony of multiple simultaneous calls and prayers.[2]

A debate recently developed on this issue among journalists writing for the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm. The debate followed the November 14, 2016 publication of an article by the paper's owner and founder Salah Diab, a businessman who also writes under the pen name Newton, criticizing mosques' use of amplification, and arguing that the public calls themselves had been necessary in the early Islamic period when people did not have watches and everyone needed reminding that it was time to come pray. Today, he wrote, the amplified calls constitute "noise pollution" that damages the environment, and particularly disturbs children and the sick and elderly. Diab added that some Islamic countries currently ban amplified calls to prayer, and that it detracts from the importance of the religion and the respect due it.

Nihad 'Asqalani, a former aide to Egypt's foreign minister and former ambassador to Lebanon, wrote an article supporting Diab's view, as did senior Al-Masri Al-Yawm writer Osama Al-Ghazali Harb, who stated that amplification is an environmental and public nuisance and that it should be banned entirely for smaller mosques. Both argued that, unlike the imams themselves, there is nothing in the religion that promotes amplification and it does not indicate piety.

On the other hand, Al-Masri Al-Yawm columnist 'Abd Al-Nasser Salama, who is a former editor of the official daily Al-Ahram, criticized Diab and the others, saying that the calls to prayer disturb no one, and they should not provoke the public in this way. If they don't like the noise, he wrote, they should keep their distance from mosques.

In a rebuttal article, Diab stressed that he was not complaining about the calls to prayer, only about their volume when amplified, and reiterated that they do indeed harm the environment and disgrace the religion.

It should be mentioned that this debate took place as Israel was debating a law banning similar amplification by mosques; however, only Salama referred to this.

The following report will highlight excerpts from the debate in the Egyptian press on this issue:

 


Salah Diab (image: Al-Masri Al-Yawm, Egypt, June 21, 2014)

 

Owner Of Egyptian Daily: Amplification Of Call To Prayer Constitutes Noise Pollution

In a November 14, 2016 article titled "The Minaret Wars," Salah Diab, writing under the pen name Newton, criticized the use of mosque loudspeakers due to the excessive noise it creates. He wrote: "My grandson came to visit me; I live in an area that is packed with mosques, both large and small. We strolled together in my garden, conversing quietly and innocently, as is natural for a grandfather and his grandson. The time for afternoon prayer came, and suddenly we heard a sound like an explosion, bursting forth from dozens of loudspeakers in the area all at once. I was startled to see my grandson start to cry, and that he was fearful and terrified.

"I drew him close to me in an attempt to reassure him. I was at a loss – what should I say? Should I apologize for what scared him? Should I tell him, 'Don't be afraid, my little one – these are merely innovations in our praiseworthy religion?' How could I explain to him that ignorance prevails in the country?

"The mosques have been taken over by those who are boastful and who compete with each other to have the loudest voice, by means of microphones! Perhaps the loudspeakers will increase the value of the religion!

"Since then, I have been confused and ashamed. Every time voices burst forth from the loudspeakers all around me, I remember that day, and that little one's terror, and it deeply saddens me.

"The same thing happens with Friday sermons – dozens of sermons mix together, blaring from mosque loudspeakers in every neighborhood, and it is impossible to tell them apart, or to focus on a single one; they infiltrate, uninvited, into homes.

"I neither support nor oppose a [countrywide] uniform sermon [in all the mosques],[3] but I condemn this noise pollution that recurs five times every day, without an explanation – it is just pointless clamor. What would be the harm if every preacher focused solely on his own worshippers – that is, on those who answered the call to come hear his sermon without the noise pollution that he produces outside his mosque?

"[Islam's first muezzin] Bilal bin Rabah[4] would call people to prayer without using a microphone. His voice was extremely pleasant. At that time, there was no such thing as a clock, [so] there was a reason for announcing the prayers so that everyone would know it was time [to come pray].

"Unfortunately, we use every new Western invention for harming the beautiful manifestations of our religion. The fundamental [things] that we were used to 1,400 years ago no longer give us pleasure. Moreover, we have made them into a source of noise and of torment for the sick, children, and the elderly.

"Turkey bans the use of microphones [for these purposes] and so does Morocco; [both are] Muslim countries proud of their religion, but [they do not allow] it to be used to torment others.[5]

"The Prophet, peace be upon him, said in a respected hadith: 'Allah is beautiful and loves beauty.' By Allah, is this racket, these clashing voices, this harassment, and this harm done to Allah's words related to beauty [in any way]?"[6]


Excerpt from Diab's first article on this issue

Former Egyptian Diplomat: Small Mosques' Amplification Is Pointless – And Is Rooted In Rivalry And The Wish To Promote Their Own Imams

As noted, Diab's article launched a debate among Al-Masri Al-Yawm writers. Thus, on November 17, three days after his original article was published, he published in his column a response by Nihad Asqalani, a former aide to Egypt's foreign minister and former ambassador to Lebanon, seconding Diab's criticism of mosques' use of amplification and expressing the hope that the government would ban it for small mosques: "My dear Newton, I agree with the premise of your article 'The Minaret Wars' dealing with the amplification used by large and small mosques. [In the past,] I yearned for legislation that criminalizes the use of outside loudspeakers other than for the call to prayer and the prayers themselves. But now I hope for a total ban on use of outside speakers, except perhaps for calls to prayer for large mosques, but not small ones. Then we can implement Allah's command: 'Do not pray [too] loudly or softly – find the middle way.' Meaning that [Allah commanded that we seek] moderation and the middle path...

"As for small mosques – this is a big problem. I live near Qasr Al-Eyni Street [in Cairo], and there are three small mosques around us, less than 100 meters apart, each no larger than a small apartment. They have no need for inside amplification. Nevertheless, each has an amplification system and outside speakers that broadcast calls to prayer and each of [the five] prayers every day, as well as Friday sermons. Sadly, there is no coordination among them, and the calls [to prayer] come minutes apart, as though each has its own separate [prayer] times.

"I hope you agree with me that unlike large mosques, small ones require no amplification, because all the worshippers can hear the muezzin or preacher just fine. But [the amplification] is for the rivalry among the small mosques, and for promoting their imams.

"Therefore, I hope that the government decides to ban amplification in small mosques and restrict it to large mosques only. I also hope that they only will use them for the calls to prayer, and not for broadcasting the prayer itself. These are only hopes, since [state] officials would never dare make such decisions..."[7]

Egyptian Writer: We Cannot Actualize Islam's Supremacy By Loudly Broadcasting Calls To Prayer And Friday Sermons

Egyptian journalist Osama Al-Ghazali Harb also wrote in support of Diab's position, adding that today there are many technological solutions allowing people to keep abreast of the correct times for prayers. He also, like Diab, argued that Islam's supremacy can only be actualized through good deeds, not through loudly broadcasting the muezzin's call to prayer and the prayers themselves: "Newton's November 15 [sic] article 'The Minaret Wars' in Al-Masri Al-Yawm, and Nihad Asqalani's November 18 [sic] follow-up piece, are worthy of debate, because the chaos surrounding the use of amplification in mosques, large and small, persists. Indeed, there might be no solution, even with [intervention by] religious endowments ministers, many of whom have tried to fight this, such as former minister Dr. Hamdi Zaqzouq and current Minister Dr. Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa...

"I completely agree with Newton and Ambassador Asqalani, and I too argue that we must restrict the use of these loudspeakers to large mosques only, not small ones, and only for calls to prayer, not for the prayers themselves. The over[use of amplification] and the chaos [that it creates] have nothing to do with the religion or religious adherence. I remember that when this issue was raised one individual in favor of the use of loudspeakers said that in the early days of Islam [loudspeakers were not used because] they did not exist, [and] in any event the Muslims were few in number and concentrated in small areas. But I reject [this argument]. Within a few decades [after the advent of Islam], the Muslims swiftly established a large empire [stretching from] the Maghreb to India, and for many centuries, this vast land had neither electricity nor amplification. On the other hand, today we have an unprecedented number of technological solutions on every cellphone allowing us to be up to date on prayer times. So why do we need these disruptive broadcasts in mosques across [Egypt]? No other Islamic country, from Morocco to Indonesia to all the Arab countries and Turkey, can compare [in terms of mosques broadcasting calls to prayer and prayers?].

"Why does this exalted religious act [meaning prayer] become something that harms people, many of whom are too scared to complain? The supremacy of Islam and Muslims will never be realized by amplifying calls to prayer and Friday sermons, but only by good deeds that save the Islamic world from its sordid reputation of least developed and advanced relative to other world cultures. Do you remember Samuel Huntington's famous book Clash of Civilizations?[8] Take another look at it, because, unfortunately, its prophecies were accurate and are now coming true..."[9]

Egyptian Journalist Criticizes Call To Ban Amplification: If The Noise Bothers You, Stay Away From The Mosques, And Leave The Rest Of Us Alone

On November 24, 'Abd Al-Nasser Salama, a columnist for Al-Masri Al-Yawm and former editor of the Egyptian state daily Al-Ahram, rebutted the other writers' positions. Nowadays, he maintained, children are used to loud music, so it is pointless to complain about amplified calls to prayer which are, after all, a source of blessing for the Muslims and the secret of Allah's protection of them. He also criticized Israel's moves to ban amplified calls to prayer by mosques: "Some believe that the call to prayer harms children, but children today are, with unprecedented intensity, attending parties [at which the partygoers are] deafened by the DJs' amplified [music]... These same children cannot be separated from their headphones and Walkmans in the streets, clubs, and nearly everywhere. These same children cannot be separated from loud music in their daily lives, even at home – and perhaps the call to prayer, which isn't as loud, will spur [them] to pray...

"I believe that all those who live in closed compounds and areas far away from [densely] populated areas can choose not to use amplifications in their mosques as long as they are happy with that. But we, in the populated, unplanned, or rural areas, are happy with the calls to prayer by all the mosques, large and small. We are blessed by them and they do not bother us at all – on the contrary. So leave us alone, and don't annoy us – at least not on the grounds of freedom of worship. You can stay away from these areas so you are not exposed to the hazard of the mosque loudspeakers...

"Incidentally, for those who do not know, [the need for] the call to prayer was explicitly set out by Allah; it was revealed in the dreams of some of the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, and the Prophet said that these visions are real and not a human invention that can be permitted or banned. One may ask for guidance [on this], or ask that [the call to prayer] be pleasant, or ask that all [calls to prayer] be the same, or anything else – all these are fundamentally legitimate demands. But [demanding] that they be banned on the pretext that they [cause] disease, [impact] sleep and study, [make] noise, or anything else of this nature is unacceptable, since there are even worse noises in society that no one seeks to prevent...

"What I find sadder – without condemning those who imitate European practices – is Israel's moves to prevent calls to prayer in occupied Palestine, specifically at Al-Aqsa Mosque... This move by the occupation authorities is based on measures taken in Egypt and on [statements by] some who consider themselves clerics in [this country], and also on some of our TV shows and articles [in the newspapers]. But it was the churches there [in Israel] that rose up against this move, and immediately started using amplification, including in many homes, in order to send a clear message: Only the texts of Allah or the call to prayer – that is all we hear in most European capitals, with no harassment and no measures of this kind...[10]

"There are some among us who call to prayer, some who read the Koran, and some who wake at night when everyone else sleeps, and some who turn to Allah all the time in prayer and supplication. They are the secret of [Allah's ] protection [of us]. Leave them alone. Maybe we will remain alive [by virtue] of their prayers..."[11]

Diab Responds: My Request To Ban Amplified Broadcasts From Mosques Is Rooted In Protecting The Sanctity Of The Religion

In an article responding to Salama, Diab explained that his statements had been misinterpreted, that he had no problem with the call to prayer, just with its overloud amplification which disturbs people: "I am one of the many who read 'Abd Al-Nasser Salama's writings. But I am surprised that he always [insists on arguing] with any opinion, idea, or position [that is expressed]. He chooses the opposite position, even when the argument is sound.

"That is what he did in his article of two days ago on calls to prayer. There is a big difference between Israel's [and our] position on this – [Israel] want to silence the calls [altogether], while we want to turn down [the volume]... so that it is pleasant [to the ear]...

"On November 14, in my article 'The Minaret Wars,' I criticized the chaos of the calls to prayer and the loudspeakers. I was not criticizing the call to prayer [itself] – this would be unthinkable for any Muslim or Coptic Egyptian. But [the wish] to purify the call to prayer of the [damage] done by broadcasting it loudly actually reflects adherence to the religion and to its commandments... According to [Salama], Islam is based on six principles, not five, with the sixth being jihad of the loudspeakers – and there are so many kinds of jihad that have been brought down on us recently.

"[Salama] is defending the dozens of voices emanating from the loudspeakers of the mosques, large and small, in every neighborhood, that clash with each other and that are indistinguishable from each other, when it is impossible to focus on any one of them – they infiltrate homes without permission... Abd Al-Nasser [Salama] misunderstood this message, deciding that I wanted to stop the calls to prayer [altogether], while my statements concerned only their amplification. There are many who are negatively impacted by the chaos – some sick people are disturbed by it, children are startled by it, the elderly suffer from it. What harm would it do for this voice to come from a single source? Undoubtedly, it would make a better impression on all of us, and would be better received by the non-Muslims even before the Muslims...

"Such cacophony exists only in Egypt. Do you know of any other country where it happens? I think not. I have already noted that Turkey bans loudspeakers, and that Morocco does as well. This is not suppressing Islam, or a blow to the status of the religion. On the contrary – it preserves its sanctity and keeps it from being presented in an unseemly fashion.

"Will our religion be harmed if we control the use of amplification? If we choose a pleasant sound that people like? Begging your pardon, my friend 'Abd Al-Nasser."[12]

 

Endnotes:

 


[1] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), April 17, 2015. In February 2016, Minister of Religious Endowments Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa reiterated that mosques may only use amplification for calls to prayer and Friday prayers. Al-Misriyyoun, February 26, 2016; Following that, in May 2016, Undersecretary of Religious Endowments Sheikh Gaber Tayee said that the ministry's decision to allow amplification only for calls to prayer and Friday prayers is not new and had been the practice in mosques for a long time. Al-Watan (Egypt), May 27, 2016.

[2] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), November 30, 2016.

[3] On the initiative to introduce uniform Friday sermons in ministry-funded mosques across the country, see MEMRI

Inquiry and Analysis No. 1263, Egypt's Al-Azhar Opposes Ministry Of Religious Endowments Plan For Uniform Friday Sermon, August 4, 2016 .

[4] 580-640 CE. The first muezzin in Islam, appointed by the Prophet Muhammad.

[5] This is inaccurate; to wit, Turkey recently allowed the call for prayer to be broadcast from the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, even though it has not been an active mosque for 81 years. See Huffpostarabi.com, October 21, 2016; islammemo.cc, October 20, 2016.

[6] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), November 14, 2016.

[7] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), November 17, 2016.

[8] Samuel Huntington (1927-2008) was a professor of political science at Harvard. His book Clash of Civilizations predicted that culture and religion will be the main sources of global strife in the post cold war era.

[9] Al-Marri Al-Yawm (Egypt), November 22, 2016.

[10] In response to the Israeli government’s plan to prohibit the call to prayer, churches in Nazareth showed solidarity with Muslims by broadcasting the call to the night prayer. See e.g., Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), November 18, 2016.

[11] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), November 24, 2016.

[12] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), November 26, 2016.

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