Islam's Daily Thunder

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It turns out that there's a curious problem in the Muslim world that few people have been willing to acknowledge publicly. In recent years, an increasing number of mosques have been putting up ever-more-powerful speaker systems to remind the faithful that it's time to pray. The result is that the call to prayer from the neighborhood minaret has ceased to be a melodious expression of faith that echoes across the city, and has instead become a thunderous cacophony. As one Cairene has complained, "Rather than being a joy, to listen to the call to prayer is a daily torture to the ears."

The problem is exacerbated by mosques that amplify not only the brief call itself, but whole prayer services. "When all the local mosques do the same thing competing with one another in volume," writes the BBC from Egypt, "what should be an announcement lasting at most two minutes goes on for 45 minutes, keeping the entire neighbourhood in a state of high alert." The effect is particularly noticeable at dawn.

Although the BBC's online report is entirely about Cairo, the story's worldwide, mostly Muslim reader/commenters reveal how widespread this situation has become. From Aleppo: "I no longer wake up with a smile when [the call to prayer] starts; instead I wake up startled and shocked." From Islamabad: "Here in Pakistan, we have exactly the same problem." From Morocco: "Casablanca is a noisy city and would be better without amplified mosques and car alarms." From Damascus: "The loudspeakers are so loud that [I] can hear the muezzins sniffle!" From Algeria: "In the city of Algiers we have exactly the same problem." From Kuala Lumpur: "It is most disrupting when prayer calls are belted on loudspeaker out at 0530 in the morning." From Turkey: "I have the same problem in Istanbul where we have a very aggressive and extremely loud mosque right next door." From Cairo itself: "My neighbourhood sounds like a rock concert each morning and has become nearly uninhabitable; I now sleep with earplugs."

Addressing Cairo's problem should be simple, but isn't. People are apparently afraid to complain to the mosques because they don't want to get a public reputation for being irreligious. Of course, their (often anonymous) resort to the Egyptian state for relief has led to a proposal for total regulation: The state wants to replace all of Cairo's muezzins with a single, official call to prayer. That has led in turn to a predictable conspiracist reaction: A single call to prayer is the purported first step in Washington's secret plot to control Islam.

A generation ago, people probably wouldn't have been so shy about dealing with bellowing mosques. The rise of a hectoring Islamism, however, has made some people more religious and everyone more cautious. But people are apparently becoming weary of such intrusions.

The call to prayer didn't used to be a sacrosanct subject. In 1970, for example, the great Egyptian author Yusuf Idris published the sardonic tale, "Did You Have to Turn on the Light, Li-Li?" It tells the story of a muezzin who, from the top of his minaret's circular staircase, can see into the second-floor bedroom of an attractive woman who sleeps naked. The sight takes hold of the poor man's mind, increasingly addling him and distracting him from his religious duties.

Idris's generation knew the difference between piety and fallibility, and was willing to laugh at that difference. This generation obviously knows the difference between piety and noise, and may be cautiously beginning to insist on it as well.

NEXT: Moore's Law at the Multiplex

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  1. It was that way in Iraq, too. People need to be prodded more and more to maintain their faith, as I alluded to here:

    http://mattsissel.blogs.com/mattsissel/2005/05/fear_and_fearle.html

  2. Couldn’t Radio al-Shaq sell people little gadgets like the Weatheradio? cube that turns on automatically when NOAA broadcasts a severe weather warning? The mosque could send out the calls by microradio, and the faithful’s Prayerkabas? could pop on five times a day! Sure, their might be some infidels who wouldn’t get to hear the lovely ululations, but that’s progress.

    Kevin

  3. “Rather than being a joy, to listen to the call to prayer is a daily torture to the ears.”

    Boo fuck’n hoo. Cry me a river, Islam.

  4. I’m just glad I live in a wealthy moslem country where they can afford decent quality loudspeakers on the mosques. In Indonesia, the volume was just as loud, but all you could hear was a cacaphony of crackle, static, hiss and distortion coming from the cheap speakers.

    I’m also lucky that the closest mosque is a relatively quiet one. I always sleep right through the fajr and shorook calls.

  5. No wonder Muslims seem to be such an angry bunch; no beer, no pork tenderloin, no single malt scotch, no hotties in bikinis, and to top it all off, you have some asshole yelling through shitty loudspeakers every morning at sunrise.

  6. no pork tenderloin

    Bacon is good! Pork chops are good!

  7. Ditto Qatar. When I was there, despite being able to afford decent speakers, they overamped the things and of course they put me in the shitty Frog hotel in the old city center, surrounded by five mosques. And it’s not sunrise; it’s 5 in the morning, and the sun isn’t up for another hour and a half.

    But yeah, they are woken up early, they can’t look at women, they drink AMAZING amounts of coffee because they get up so allahdamned early, and they can’t kick back with a Cold One in the evening. No wonder they get cranky and start blowing shit up. I was about to start myself.

  8. Sounds like what they really need is for Bose to come in and consult on sound quality. Since no one seems to be upset about the content it must be purely the delivery. Sure.

  9. This sounds way more annoying even than what happens during Puerto Rican elections (at least back in the 70s when I was there), which is that guys drive around with crappy old baseball field horns on top of their cars broadcasting slogans and whatever else in favor of whatever candidate hired that car. They go right through the neighborhoods, past restaraunts, wherever. It’s only during daylight hours. I think if John McCain saw something like that his brain would explode.

  10. “But yeah, they are woken up early, they can’t look at women, they drink AMAZING amounts of coffee because they get up so allahdamned early, and they can’t kick back with a Cold One in the evening. No wonder they get cranky and start blowing shit up. I was about to start myself.”

    It’s in-depth sociological observational and analytical powers illustrated in statements like this that underlie and illustrate our intelligence successes at finding the WMDs and quickly suppressing Iraqi resistance, reversing Islamist propaganda, and successfully tracking down bin-Laden within weeks of 9/11.

  11. I think I’m with Matthew Hogan on this.

    …although I suspect some of these people were just tryin’ to be funny. I suspect most of them would jump on anyone who drew similar conclusions from most any other religion or culture, though I don’t know about the “Cry me a river” guy.

    “Boo fuck’n hoo. Cry me a river, Islam.”

    I find myself asking this question a lot lately–what is that supposed to mean?

    …Are you suggesting that the Muslim world wouldn’t have this problem if the call to prayer wasn’t such an important part of Islam? Are you suggesting that if Muslims don’t want so many competing loud speakers then they should convert to some other religion? Are you suggesting that because so many people in the Muslim world choose to continue to practice Islam, they’ve made their bed and now they should have to lie in it? …that this is somehow just desserts?

    What the hell is your statement supposed to mean?

  12. I too think the comments are maybe a tad glib and I would have made a few myself. Having stayed in the region and endured the annoying alarm cacophonous clock in several towns including Cairo and Damascus, and commiserated with local residents too about it and alleged it to be a human rights violation, I can say with absolute confidence that nobody really cares and it has minimal social significance, except for its politicization, which can be made over any issue in any religion. Had more issues with the hourly church bells in my American college.

    The secularization of most Middle East society is a generation or more away and will go at different speeds in some places, even backwards, and may not always be an unambiguously good thing.


  13. nobody really cares and it has minimal social significance, except for its politicization,

    I totally agree with you mathew. The current discussion about unifying the call for prayer in cairo and other middle eastern countries is triggered mainly by the governments plan to control the mosques. This is just the pretext.

  14. Ditto Istanbul. So what mellow old melismatic recording do Hollywood sound engineers use for all those movies set in the Middle East? Sure as Jahannum ain’t from any mosque I’ve ever heard.

  15. Detroit solved this problem decades ago. The growing Muslim community started broadcasting the call to prayers over loudspeakers and the non-Muslims in the neighborhood complained. But there is a problematic First Amendment issue here. For the city to prohibit the calls to prayer would be a very real invitation to a constitutional challenge and one Detroit thought it could well lose. So, in what has to be recorded as a true miracle, reason prevailed. The city fathers went to the mosques and explained that it was really beginning to bother the Catholics and Jews and Buddhists that these loudspeakers were blaring 5 times a day. And the mullahs knew it is bad to piss off your neighbors. So the compromise was reached where the city installed a closed-circuit network (I don’t know if it was radio or a hard line or what) so that each Muslim could have his very own little speaker right in his house. I think the city even paid for it rather then be seen as a heavy. What I would love to know is how many of those little speakers had a pillow taped over them or the wires cut. Ahh America, truly the land of the free.

  16. No wonder Muslims seem to be such an angry bunch;

    Angry? Pretty much all the Arabs I know (and I’m surrounded by them) are perfectly happy in their daily monotony: prayer, work, eating, family, shopping and reckless driving. It’s my first hand experience that far more Americans or Brits are angry, disaffected and annoyed at the state of the world, and their station in it.

    In other words, most people here in the wealthy UAE, as well as people in not-so-wealthy places like Egypt, Oman and Indonesia, seem to be at peace with their existence. The al Qaeda types are serious outliers.

  17. But there is a problematic First Amendment issue here. For the city to prohibit the calls to prayer would be a very real invitation to a constitutional challenge and one Detroit thought it could well lose.

    Actually, there’s absolutely no Constitutional issue, as long as the prohibition is part of a well-defined noise-prevention or public nuisance law of general applicability that would happen to affect Muslim prayer calls as well as everyone else. (Street vendors, politicians, block parties, church bells, etc.) What usually ends up happening is that religious groups are given special legal exemptions to these laws, which really raises a Constitutional issue of giving the religious special privileges to which the nonreligious are not entitled.

  18. Apparently the Iraqis buy their loudspeakers from the same companies that sell to inner city idiots who play rap music at 200 decibels in their SUVs (like Wynton Marsalis, I’m a black snob that hates rap).

    I used to hear the morning (Fajr) call to prayer as loud as can be at 4 am, when I was on guard post at Camp Fallujah. And CAMP Fallujah is actually a 15-minute drive FROM the CITY of Fallujah.

    The Kuwaitis, on the other hand, seemed to be fairly “liberal” in regards to non-believers and prayer-times (at least from what I saw on supply runs into Kuwait City), as long as you weren’t openly disrepectful of Islam.

    I saw many non-Muslims in Kuwait (maybe even Muslims, for all I know) who were still conducting business, going about their lives, etc. even during prayer times.

    But you always knew when prayer time was in Kuwait, as all the radio stations would interrupt their programming to play this gawd-awful “Lawrence of Arabia” symphonic music.

    Unfortunately, Kuwait also taught me the global ubiquity of so-called Hip Hop culture, even in “hard-core Islamic” countries.

    One day in downtown Kuwait, I happened to come across an abandoned gas-station building with “THUG LIFE” spray-painted graffiti style in English on the wall.

    Damn, I thought. Even in the Middle East, a 6’4″ Black man who hates basketball and rap music isn’t safe!!

  19. I find it odd that the theocrats here supposedly hate the Mooslims, yet wouldn’t they just cream at the chance to install speakers on every corner and scream out their dogma at all the heathens in the US?

    Instead of all that “Allllaaaaabadbabaayaya!!” nonesense we would be hearing “Oh yaz! Oh sweet Jay-zus!” every morning.

  20. I know next to nothing about music, but this reminds me of the jug band we heard over the weekend: Why does symphony music blend, but jug band music clash?
    I’m guessing the answer is cooperation is better than competition.

  21. Angry? Pretty much all the Arabs I know (and I’m surrounded by them) are perfectly happy in their daily monotony: prayer, work, eating, family, shopping and reckless driving. It’s my first hand experience that far more Americans or Brits are angry, disaffected and annoyed at the state of the world, and their station in it.

    The same could be said of Mormons.
    Right up until you go to any sporting event where there is an abundance of Brigham Young devotees in attendance.

  22. Pretty much all the Arabs I know (and I’m surrounded by them) are perfectly happy in their daily monotony

    I was surrounded by them as well. They were all on edge. And these were the reformers doing the work of the Emir. Fortunately they mainly just screamed at the Indians, Nepalis, and Pakis.

    Then again, most fundy Xians I know are pretty wound-tight as well, but fortunately they get drunk and do hookers so you can always blackmail them when they get uppidy. C’mon, somebody’s gotta have pics of Bush…

    PS — lay off the coffee yourself. Being there has ruined your sense of humor. Or go to Bahrain for some Brewskis.

  23. Sandy:

    I think my humor is intact. And if I want brewskis, I can go to the liquor store across the street from my flat. Or one of the 20 bars within a 10-minute cab ride.

    All I’m saying is, the image of the average Arab in the US is a little bit distorted. For the most part, they’re just folks.

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