Islam's Daily Thunder


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.