CAIRO: The sound of Cairo’s hundreds of mu’adhins (caller for prayer) chanting the daily prayers in diverse voices and rhythms through loud speakers is a integral part of the residents’ daily lives, a sound they’ve grown accustomed to.
But according to Deputy Minister of Religious Endowments for Preaching, Salem Abdel Gelil, “Just because you are used to something, doesn’t make it right.”
The Minister of Religious Endowments, Mahmoud Hamdy Zaqzouq announced on July 4 that the ministry will “unify the azan [Islamic call for prayer]” in Cairo, starting the beginning of Ramadan.
The project will also be implemented in Alexandria and other governorates in Egypt, following Cairo.
This decision created controversy among religious scholars and many people who seemed confused as to the nature of the unified azan.
According to Abdel Gelil, the mu’adhin will chant the azan live, five times a day, from a studio in Greater Cairo Radio.
The studio includes a transmitter that will transfer the mu’adhin’s voice to the many receivers installed in the 4000 mosques around Cairo, at precisely the same time.
Abdel Gelil said the ministry had chosen more than 20 qualified Sheikhs who will alternate in chanting the azan live, including Sheikh Rafiq Al Naqalawi and Sheikh Mohamed Al Toukhi.
The idea of a “unified azan” was first proposed in 2004 and approved in 2005 by the Islamic Research Council and Sheikh Ali Gomaa, grand mufti of Egypt.
But the religious committee of the People’s Assembly voted unanimously against the
However, the Ministry of Religious Endowments decided to go ahead with the project nonetheless since the mosques are under the ministry’s jurisdiction according to the law.
Many are questioning the reasons behind delaying the approved project.
“When we first started to execute the project of unifying the azan, we agreed to do it through Radio Quran Egypt,” Abdel Gelil explained.
“But people complained that this project would deprive them from listening to the azan from their favorite sheikhs, who have passed away, including Sheikh Rifaat and Sheikh Al-Minshawi, which they usually listen to on Radio Quran Egypt. So Radio Quran Egypt dropped out of the project,” he explained.
“We had to put the project on hold for a while until Greater Cairo Radio welcomed the idea,” he added.
The ministry said the unified azan is meant to replace the voices of some of the mu’adhins chanting the azan in extremely loud speakers, which Zaqzouq described as a "war of microphones."
It is also meant to avoid the slight lag between one mosque and another, where azans are seconds and sometimes minutes apart.
“This irritates the residents and causes confusion and chaos,” Abdel Gelil said.
The Zawaya (small mosques often located in the basements of apartment buildings) will be excluded from the project, because according to Abdel Gelil, it’s difficult to survey them.
“The Sheikh [of these small mosques] will abide by the law and chant the azan inside the mosque only, he won’t be allowed to do that outside the mosque or use any speakers,” Abdel Gelil explained.
“It makes no difference whether I chant the azan inside the mosque or outside,” said Atef Lamada, an imam of a small mosque in Heliopolis, Cairo.
“My worry is that unifying the time of the azan in Cairo despite the differences of the time of azan in its districts violates Islamic Sharia,” he said.
“The time for azan in Helwan for example differs from the time of azan in 6th of October,” Lamada explaned.
Khaled Amir, an imam at Hafsa mosque in Heliopolis, agreed with the ministry on the importance of having a mu’adhin with good vocals chanting the adhan, but he disagreed on the method.
“Prophet Mohamed (pbuh) already solved this problem when he chose Belal and Abdullah Ibn Umm Maktum to call for prayers because of their beautiful voices,” he said, implying that mu’adhins should be handpicked by the ministry for the voices.
“Unfortunately this process would take a lot of time, effort and money,” Abdel Gelil said, “imagine choosing 100,000 mu’adhins around all of Egypt.”
But this argument did little to convince Amir. “There are 80 million people in Egypt. If the ministry held a competition to choose the mu’adhins with the best voices, I’m sure many people would apply and it would help solve the unemployment problem in Egypt as well,” he said
Abdel Gelil said that unifying the adhan is in line with Islamic Sharia and is more cost effective than choosing qualified mu’adhins at this point.
The cost of implementing the project is expected to range between LE 100,000 to LE 1 million, “a small price to pay,” according to Abdel Gelil.
Taxi driver, Mustafa Ismail, welcomed the ministry’s decision.
“Before, anyone could perform the adhan, it doesn’t matter whether he has a good voice or whether he can pronounce the adhan correctly or not, this really upsets me,” he said.
“The adhan here is very unorganized, every mosque calls to prayer at a different time," he added.
The fate of the Mu’adhin
Other people expressed concerns about the fate of the mu’adhins and whether they would be forced to join Egypt’s unemployment pool.
Abdel Gelil said, “The mu’adhin is usually a worker in the mosque, his job is to clean the mosque, take care of it and guard it, in addition to calling for prayer.”
“When we unify the adhan, the mu’adhins will still continue doing the rest of their work as ‘custodians of the mosque’,” he added.
Amir agreed that unifying the adhan won’t lead to the unemployment of mu’adhins. “We don’t have an official post for a mu’adhin in the mosque. Anyone with a good voice can call for prayer,” he said.
Some argue that the decision to unify the adhan would give the government too much control and would eventually extend to the individual Friday sermons. However, Abdel Gelil said, “The unified adhan won’t be implemented on Friday prayers, every mu’adhin will personally call for Friday prayers.”
Mona Mohamed Rizk, a librarian in the Faculty of Engineering, believes the adhan is a ritual worship in itself that gives a Muslim spiritual reward.
“Limiting the adhan to one chosen person will deprive all the other mu’adhins out there from receiving the spiritual reward of chanting the adhan,” Rizk told Daily News Egypt.
To that, Abdel Gelil argued that whoever hears the mu’adhin’s voice and recites the adhan after him gets the same spiritual reward as the mu’adhin himself.
Abdel Gelil added that it’s almost impossible to recite the adhan when there are many mu’adhins chanting the adhan a few seconds apart.
The “unified adhan” has already been implemented in several capitals around the world including Abu Dhabi, Amman, Sanaa and Istanbul.
Abdel Gelil, however, did highlight one major concern regarding technical problems that might occur during the execution of the project in Cairo.
“But if any technical problems occur, we won’t abort the project, we’ll just fix them and move on,” he said.
Amir said that the ministry tested the project at Hafsa mosque.
“The people complained. Sometimes the adhan was too loud, other times it was too low, sometimes we even heard Omm Kathoum songs interfering with the adhan,” he said.
“I was told all these problems would be solved, but I’m not sure how they (the Ministry of Religious Endowment) are going to do that exactly,” he said.