In Egypt, row over mosque loudspeakers in Ramadan

Sunday 28/05/2017
Recitation sounds. Egyptians walk near Cairo’s Sayeda Zeinab mosque on May 24, ahead of the start of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan. (AFP)

Cairo - Egypt’s Religious Endow­ments Ministry, which oversees the country’s mosques, is coming under fire for ordering mosques to unplug their loudspeakers during night prayers through the holy fast­ing month of Ramadan.
Detractors warned that the de­cision would lead to public anger, dampen the Ramadan spirit and deprive millions of Muslims living near the mosques of hearing imams melodiously reading verses from the Quran during night prayers.
“I totally reject this decision because it turns Ramadan into a month like all others, although it is not,” said Mohamed Mazroua, a professor of jurisprudence at al- Azhar University. “Egypt is an Is­lamic country and everybody is used to hearing Quran recitation coming from all places all the time during this month.”
Reading and hearing the holy book is of special importance to Muslims during Ramadan, the month that, tradition has it, the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Mohammad.
The night prayers — known as Tarawih — start after Muslims per­form the fifth and last prayer of the day. They sometimes extend for hours, taking a musical reading of the Quran as its basic element.
The Endowments Ministry, however, said loudspeakers cause problems for people living near the mosques and turn the prayer time into a dissonant experience.
“We have received many com­plaints against mosques that cause noise to those living around them all night long,” Religious Endow­ments Minister Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa said. “We will not allow the abuse of the prayer and Quran reci­tation by turning them into a tor­menting experience for those out­side the mosques.”
More than 100,000 mosques us­ing loudspeakers to be heard read­ing the Quran at the same time can be disconcerting, the ministry said. The resultant cacophony, the min­istry said, distorts the sanctity of Ramadan and causes more harm than good.
Enforcing such a decision can be difficult, observers said, given the number of mosques and the fact that some mosques are not con­trolled by the Endowments Ministry but are run by Islamist movements, including ultraorthodox Salafists.
Some people expect the decision to begin debates between the min­istry and Islamist movements and perhaps stoke religious extremism.
“This is the problem,” said Abdul Karim Zakaria, a member of parlia­ment’s Religious Affairs Committee. “Some extremists can use decisions like this one to incite anger against the government, which is very dan­gerous.”
The committee plans to summon Gomaa to parliament soon to, as Zakaria put it, “grill” him over the decision.
Egypt has been struggling to control religious extremism, tak­ing a series of measures, including changing school curricula and re­newing religious discourse. Egypt is the birthplace of some of the world’s most important Islamist movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood.
Although Gomaa is not the first endowments minister to issue a de­cision for unplugging mosque loud­speakers during Tarawih prayers — a similar decision was made ten years ago — some people accused him of acting against Islam.
Mazroua described the decision as a “war against Islam,” accusing Gomaa of seeking to only satisfy secularists and those who want Is­lam confined to mosques.
“Can the minister prevent loud wedding parties organised on the streets?” Mazroua asked. “This is not actually about noise but about the desire to eliminate this coun­try’s Islamic identity.”
The ministry said that it is mind­ful that some people would turn the decision, which is “an organisa­tional measure” related to the work of the mosques, into “a political is­sue.”
It added that it had instructed its offices to oversee the implementa­tion of the decision and investi­gate complaints against violators. Disciplinary action, the ministry said, would be taken against min­istry-appointed imams running the mosques who violate the decision.
“We will not heed campaigns launched by radicals and ones that aim to vilify us,” said Abdul­lah Taye, the spokesman for the Religious Endowments Ministry. “Some people want to turn the de­cision into a political issue but we will not allow them to drag us to this area.”