CAIRO: Plans by Egypt's religious affairs minister to silence the myriad of muezzins' calls to prayer in mosques and prayer rooms - some 3,000 in Cairo alone - have provoked an unholy row among the religious who want a deaf ear turning to the idea.
"People complain bitterly about the cacophony from loudspeakers in the mosques," said Mahmoud Zaqzouq to justify his ordering a study on the possibility of a centralized or "unique" call to prayer. This would rule out mosques making their own individual calls, in keeping with a tradition which goes back to the beginnings of Islam.
The minister told the daily Al-Akhbar that his only concern was the "search for calm and the well-being of the people, especially those looking after the sick, or pupils who need to be able to concentrate on their homework."
Jealously guarded autonomy by the mosques inevitably produces a slight difference in timing for the call to prayer. The result is a clashing and inharmonious noise of competing calls. Complaints come mostly from those who live near the mosques, whose sheer numbers ensure that thousands of people are affected.
Most objections focus on the muezzins' call at dawn, summoning the faithful to the first of Islam's five daily prayers.
The minister is studying the installation of a network linking different mosques in the same town or district so that a single call goes out at the same time throughout the zone covered by the network. He says this method, along with choosing the most melodious muezzin's voice, would help control noise levels.
Another suggestion is to let only the biggest mosque of an area make the calls to bring the faithful to prayer - ruling out prayer rooms and less well attended mosques.
The Religious Affairs Ministry is responsible for some 90,000 mosques and prayer rooms throughout the country, with some 3,000 rooms and mosques in the crowded capital.
Imams fear the reform project will undermine Muslim liturgy. A single call to prayer would not conform to Sharia, according to Ahmed Sayer, a professor at Al-Azhar University; his colleague Mohammed Sayyed Ahmed Yassir said he feared "one would finish by calling for cancelation of Friday prayers in the mosques and be satisfied with prayers put out over the radio."
Another opponent echoed this, asking "if we are not going as far as limiting Muslims to pray behind an imam officiating on television."
Others questioned if there was not "a U.S. hand" behind the ministerial proposition. Islamists frequently accuse the U.S. of pushing Cairo to constrain Muslim religious practices.
Fears for the jobs of the 200,000 muezzins working throughout Egypt have also been expressed, although the minister has promised not to sack any of the 70,000 muezzins officially working for the state. He says they may be redeployed to other jobs within their mosques.
Those working for religious associations and private organizations appear to be the ones facing the biggest upheaval.
Opponents of the reform project question the rationale of limiting the decibel level of the morning calls.
"How can they pretend to lower the sound level of the call (to prayer) when it is aimed at awakening the faithful so they can accomplish their sacred duty?" asked Abdel-Sabour Shahin, head of the Sharia faculty at Al-Azhar University, the most prestigious seat of learning in the Sunni Muslim world.
By Hassen Zenati, Agence France Presse