In Egypt, row over mosque loudspeakers in Ramadan
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.”