Just before the sun rises in Cairo, and four more times every day, the air fills with a mass of amplified voices. “God is greater. God is greater. I testify that there is no god but God.” Like a Bach fugue, the voices mix confidently in melodies careening upward, some reaching heights of intensity as others duck out to draw in breath for their next phrase. Some are scratchy with feedback and the gritty crackle of a cheap speaker, and some bounce off shops, apartments, and pavement so that the original and its echo are difficult to distinguish in the still, warm air. “I testify that Mohamed is God’s prophet. Come to prayer. Come to salvation.”
In some neighborhoods, the whole process takes fifteen minutes or more, while in others, one or two voices breeze briefly past. At the end of the call, a lone voice usually lingers on the last line, “God is greater. There is no god but God.”
The experience of hearing these voices evokes a feeling of timelessness. Called the azan or adhan (“call to prayer”), it is a ritual to invite worshippers to pray that has survived since the earliest days of Islam. Whenever filmmakers want to set a scene as ‘Islamic’ or ‘Arab’, they put it in the audio track. (To experience it yourself, listen to one of my field recordings of the call: Cairo Azan). Yet over the last century the call to prayer has undergone enormous changes, and those changes have been fraught with politics, and with competing visions of Egypt’s future and the piety of its public space.
In the early 20th century, access to electricity expanded in Egypt. Prayer leaders purchased microphones and plugged them into speakers. Construction and traffic increased the ambient noise level on the streets, and the mosques had to compete to be heard above the din, egging each other on to higher and higher volumes. By 2009, when I first lived in Egypt, complaints about the noise were as ubiquitous as talk about the weather. An American University in Cairo student named Samaa was playfully hyperbolic about it. “The call to prayer is annoying,” she told me. “It’s screeching and every time I hear it I want to tear my skin off and bang the speakers with my fists.”
Unifying the Call to Prayer
The Mubarak government expressed their agreement. In 2004, the Religious Affairs Minister, Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq called for the unification of the call to prayer, meaning that a single performer would be broadcast by radio throughout all of the mosques in Cairo in a synchronized address. He cited the benefits of a unified call for the “well-being of the people, especially those who are sick, or pupils who need to concentrate on their studies.” The Egyptian Cabinet sponsored a poll and found that 58% of 1,150 polled preferred a unified call to prayer.
Criticism of the plan, which would involve auditions for a tiny set of muezzins to take turns chanting over a single radio signal, came almost immediately. Abdul Azeem Al-Matani at Al Azhar University suggested that “American hands” were behind the idea. Some claimed that it was the secular Mubarak regime’s tactic to “muzzle” religion, or more insidiously, to dominate the religious sphere of society from the inside, leading down a slippery slope to a state-mandated text for the weekly sermons delivered by imams. Since the secular and socialist-leaning rule of Gamel Abdel Nasser in the 1950‘s, the Ministry of Religious Affairs had slowly taken control of many aspects of Islamic life in Egypt, to the point that now all mosque employees, including 70,000 of Cairo‘s 200,000 muezzins, are employed by the government (many muezzins donate their time and thus aren’t employees). Distrust has always marked the relationship, and the unification project only served to confirm the fears of religious leaders who saw the government as an adversary.
The Ministry announced an audition process, which would in theory reduce the number of practicing, state-employed muezzins to about twenty, while the rest would retain their employment but without its centerpiece task. According to one of the muezzins ultimately picked to perform the call, Mohamed El Mereigi, over five hundred applied to be official state performers. Those selected had to convince a rigorous committee, which included members responsible for judging vocal quality, Arabic pronunciation, and appearance. Now, El Mereigi performs the call to prayer several times a week from the offices of Radio Cairo downtown. “I find the radio station to be the best place to broadcast the azan because everything is so orderly,” he explained in 2010. “With all the equipment, people that I know outside the station told me that there is better sound quality and clarity than ever before.”
With the official muezzins selected, the unification project began without fanfare on a balmy Thursday in August 2010, in Heliopolis, an Eastern neighborhood of Cairo full of sunny, wide open spaces and many-lane highways. The holy month of Ramadan had just begun, so nobody had eaten since before sunrise. Engineers arrived representing a government-contracted company called “The Arab Agency for Production” at several mosques in the area, carrying small black boxes with the words “Ministry of Religious Affairs” printed in white letters. Each box cost 170LE, or just under $30, and had a three-year warranty.
The engineers quickly installed the boxes and explained that they would turn on and off by themselves and would not need to be touched. The call to prayer would be unified across Cairo, and Heliopolis was just the first stage. The muezzins felt totally excluded from the process. “We found out from the newspapers,” one recalled. “Nobody told us.” Because they wouldn’t even operate the boxes, they were now effectively employed only as janitors and human substitutes in case a box happened to break.
A few months ago, I met the architect of the project, a friendly if self-promoting Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs named Salam Abdel Galil. He wore a blue-grey galabiya (a kind of robe popular among the religious leaders as well as the working class) with matching pants, the small red and white cap associated with the scholars of Al Azhar, and a light, trimmed beard, nothing like the bushy styles favored by political Islamists, though he had not worn a beard at all before the revolution.
His ministry office included a large wooden desk, a long table, a couch, and several bookcases. I was working with a documentary crew, and we were filming his interview. He was plainly excited to be on camera. I handed him a small clip-on microphone and he knew exactly how to attach it to the inside of his galabiya, threading the cord and wireless transmitter smoothly through his pocket. He knew how to answer each of my questions in the best possible way for documentary footage, forming complete sentences that restated the questions and pausing between each phrase so that isolating quotes might be easier. “The muezzins did not want this project to succeed, because they want to do the call to prayer themselves,” he told me. “But after the first tests, the audiences, both Muslim and non-Muslim, began to encourage it.”
I asked about political dilemmas and lurking doubts, but Abdel Galil was resolute, cool, and easily quotable. “Thank God, it faces no problems culturally or politically.” When I asked if anyone had protested the unification, he admitted that since the parliamentary elections, some “worshippers who belong to the extremist Salafi movement,” had neglected to enforce the unified call to prayer, but that most muezzins are “satisfied with the new situation.” I asked him, what of the old fears about increasing government control over worship? What of the worries of muezzins concerned about the loss of their jobs? Abdel Galil parried those questions easily, too. “Unfortunately, some of the people are not able to imagine the project and think that we will stop the call to prayer,” he told me, in the tone of a parent with immature children. “And naturally, human beings are enemies of the unknown. But when they get to know the project, they will accept it.”
But mightn’t muezzins lose their jobs if, after all, they had significantly less to do now? Abdel Galil explained that they would continue to perform the iqama, or a second call to prayer that takes place inside the mosque, and would be trained to take the imam’s place leading prayers in case of sickness or absence. “There was some nervousness when the project first was being implemented,” he told me, “but those fears no longer remain.”
But surely the revolution must have affected the project? “The unification project and the technology involved,” he said, “were not influenced at all by the revolution because there is a mechanism for continuing the project dynamically.” That sounded like a dodge. Surely the elections must have made a difference. “This ministry belongs to the Egyptian people, not any one party, so the results of elections will not impact the unification in any way.”
There was one moment, however, that I felt might represent the only crack in the immaculate surface of his delivery. I had asked who tends to the box (though it supposedly does not need tending), but Abdel Galil slipped. “The imam [prayer leader] is responsible for the box,” he said, “not the muezzin, who is an employee of the mosque and doesn’t have any decision-making power.”
I knew that although the muezzin might not technically have decision-making power, he was often the only person at the mosque, especially between prayers. Aside from reciting the call to prayer, the muezzin cleans the mosque and generally maintains the property. To say that the one person in the mosque most of the time and most responsible for upkeep, would never touch the box, seemed strange. And despite Abdel Galil’s assurances, I knew that the muezzins were not all happy about the unification. In addition to the threat of job loss, they were losing out on a spiritual practice and an important religious role. “There are those who will continue to feel a longing for performing the call to prayer, and being spiritually rewarded for it,” said one muezzin in Heliopolis. “As the Prophet said, ‘Muezzins will have the longest necks on the Day of Judgment.’”
The muezzins do not have a professional union or organizing body, although many are well-connected socially. Each would need to deal with the unification on their own, since an organized protest was bound to be quelled by the Mubarak government. They certainly had no idea that in February 2011, less than a year after the unification began, Mubarak would no longer be in charge, and that nobody would be coming to check on the boxes.
The First Muezzin
The first muezzin was Bilal Ibn Rabah, a freed slave from today’s Ethiopia. According to an old biography, he was “tall, gaunt” and “bushy haired,” and died just short of his hundredth birthday. He converted to Islam in secret while enslaved to an enemy of Mohamed and his companions. When Bilal’s owner discovered the conversion, he tortured him and according to one chronicler, Ibn Ishaq, “would bring him out at the hottest part of the day and throw him on his back in the open valley and have a great rock put on his chest; then he would say to him, ‘You will stay here till you die or deny Mohamed.”
Mohamed sent one of his companions, Abu Bakr, to purchase and free Bilal. Another companion told Mohamed that he had dreamed of the call to prayer the Prophet, knowing that Bilal had a beautiful voice, asked him to perform it. Some of the prophet’s associates believed that Bilal should not recite the call because he could not properly pronounce Arabic, and made the sound ‘s’ when the Arabic called for ‘sh.’ Mohamed reportedly said, “The ‘s’ of Bilal is ‘sh’ in the hearing of God.” Pronunciation was secondary to intention.
The pronunciation issue concealed something bigger: Bilal was one of the most famous early Muslims without Arab ancestry. As a result, he has become a symbol of egalitarianism, representing the idea that although Arabs are the founders of Islam, they are not superior. The more Islam spread beyond Arabia, the more important Bilal’s symbolic role became. His status as a trusted companion of Mohamed also ensures that muezzins, many of whom hold other jobs as doormen and teachers and farmers and who are usually of a low economic class, are still highly respected.
Bilal is said to have recited from the roof of Mohamed’s house in Medina and from the big black stone, the Kaaba, at the center of Mecca. After Mohamed’s death, he accompanied the Muslim armies to Syria, where he died around 640 C.E.
A generation later, Islam was expanding into Egypt. The caliph Mu’awiya ordered the governor of Egypt to add a new architectural feature to the region’s first mosque, tall cylinders with staircases at the four corners of the building which muezzins could ascend and stand in while reciting the call to prayer. Several names for these have been used, one of which means ‘the place for calling to prayer.’ The more popular one today, ‘minaret,’ refers to the light that draws in worshippers. By the 14th century, some of Cairo’s biggest mosques staffed twenty to thirty muezzins, who took turns ascending several minarets to perform the call to prayer.
You still meet old men and women from Baghdad, Jerusalem and Damascus who remember the days before the call to prayer was amplified. Nearly every man or woman I interviewed who grew up in one of these cities told me about the old sounds: small, delicate voices outside their windows, mingling with the sounds of vendors opening up their shops and carts clinking along the cobblestones of the old cities.
Eventually, muezzins stopped climbing the minarets and chose instead to use microphones on the ground floor, and Cairo’s streets grew louder and louder. Yet this was not the first time people considered Cairo an overly loud city. Florence Nightingale, who famously traveled down the Nile in 1849 and 1850, had called the people she encountered “the busiest and noisiest people in the world.” She makes reference several times in her memoirs to “the furious din of the Arabs, whose noise and confusion is inconceivable” (a Turk, by the way, “never says an unnecessary word”). Around the same time, Lucie Duff Gordon, in her Letters from Egypt, wrote of being “dismayed by the noise and turbulence of the people here.”
Over a century later, William Golding (Lord of the Flies) wrote of being unable to sleep due to the noise while visiting Cairo. “Even with the double-glazing of our room,” he described, “we suffered once more that whining, parping, screeching, howling disharmony which is the background to life in Cairo.”
It is difficult to find a Westerner’s travelogue of Cairo that doesn’t mention the noise. In 2008, the New York Times bureau chief in Cairo, Michael Slackman, published an article called, “A City Where You Can’t Hear Yourself Scream.” He wrote, “Egyptians in this capital city say it is harder and harder to be heard and to have a voice, but they are not talking politics. Well, not only politics.”
Slackman’s opening sent me on a journey to understand the way the call to prayer, and issues of sound more broadly, intersected with the politics of secularism and religion.
Noise and “Backwardness”: Cairene Cacaphony
In 1895, a French psychologist named Gustave Le Bon published a celebrated book called The Crowd, in which he argued, in the paraphrasing of Timothy Mitchell (Colonizing Egypt), that “every nation had a ‘mental constitution’…that was composed of its sentiments, ideas, and beliefs, and was created by a process of slow, hereditary accumulation.” This “mental constitution,” Le Bon thought, could be unlocked in the form of a crowd, because in a crowd one would find a “collective mind,” in which “the intellectual aptitudes of the individuals, and in consequence their individuality, are weakened.”
Le Bon’s arguments were rooted in specific images and more importantly, in sounds: the cacophonous, unruly swarm and the persuasive leader’s voice working upon the weakened mentality of the delirious mob. Le Bon became immensely popular with Egyptian intellectuals once it was translated into Arabic. “Scarcely two years later,” explains Mitchell, “the future rector of the Egyptian University was writing that [Le Bon‘s] ideas have been completely assimilated by Egyptian minds, as shown in the very vocabulary used by writers in the press.”
The popularity of Le Bon’s ideas represents at least one strand in a long tradition of elite distaste for the cacophony of the pious lower classes, represented by their “screeching” call to prayer. Mitchell argues that Le Bon’s writings served as the intellectual groundwork for efforts by the Egyptian elite to remake their country according to their vision of a modern, secular state, with Islam as a largely symbolic state religion. The Crowd could hardly have become so popular if it did not resonate, on an experiential level, with the perceptions of Cairene elites, increasingly separated from the concerns of the lower classes and looking to European tastes and mores. Working in tandem with intellectual texts on the means of modernization, The Crowd gave Egyptian elites a sensory justification. Cairo no longer just appeared in need of modernity. It sounded in need. It felt in need.
While living in Egypt in 2009, I spoke with numerous members of Egypt’s educated, wealthy elite class, who not only disliked the volume of the call to prayer, but argued that it needed to be restrained if Egypt was ever to truly develop. They felt that the noise of the call to prayer was both a symbol of the country’s religious backwardness, as well as a practical impediment to getting any real work done. Most importantly, they felt—in line with Le Bon—it led to a crowd mentality among the publicly religious majority that was dangerous to secular, democratic politics. It might have been ironic that the way to solve the problem was for an authoritarian government to impose the unification, but the opposite was far more worrisome, they felt: a religious state led by imams spouting groupthink through public speakers. The call to prayer was not just a reminder of religious extremism. For these elite Egyptians, it was religious extremism.
While the Ministry of Religious Affairs began to put the unification plan in motion in 2004, man of Cairo’s elites dealt with the noise by leaving Cairo. Over the last ten years, the wealthiest Egyptians moved to suburban satellite cities with names like ‘New Cairo,’ ‘Beverly Hills,’ and ‘Cairo Festival City.’ They set up spacious communities in the open sand, free for the most part of the crowds, chaos, and noise.
In 2008, the American University in Cairo (AUC), the most elite educational institution in Egypt, moved its campus out to a stretch of desert. I studied there shortly after the move and witnessed fervent debates on whether or not to allow a student to recite the call to prayer on the new campus (the old campus had been located downtown, in earshot of several mosques). In a letter to the editor of the campus newspaper, one student made an aesthetic distinction between different types of call to prayer: “the azan one hears on campus is much more beautiful and calm than the usually irritating, not to mention screaming voices you often hear coming from Cairo mosques.” For others, allowing the call to prayer on campus would put AUC in danger of no longer being a self-professed secular institution. “It‘s ridiculous, it‘s insane,” said an American student to one of the newspaper’s reporters. “If this is supposed to be an American University, then it’s negating all the liberties associated with America.”
Islamic Noise in Public Space: Local and National Debates
The AUC, though located in a Muslim-majority country, was becoming a home to debates familiar in places where Muslims are a minority. Only five years before, right around the time Egyptian authorities developed the unification plan, a small mosque in Hamtramck (near Detroit), Michigan, petitioned to broadcast the call to prayer and set off a host of local religious and racial tensions. A resident told the New York Times, “It’s against my constitutional rights to have to listen to another religion evangelize in my ear.”
A pattern emerges when you look at Cairo’s call to prayer and the debates it unlocks about secularism and Islamic politics in a global context. In Cologne, Germany, in 2007, politicians spoke of allowing minarets but banning loudspeakers. In Mumbai, in 2008, politicians called for restrictions on loudspeakers. That same year, residents in Oxford, England worried that the call to prayer would turn their city into a ‘Muslim ghetto.’ In December 2011, the Israeli parliament considered banning the call to prayer outright. In April 2012, the Moroccan government issued a law requiring public television to broadcast the call to prayer. In all of these cases, it was clear that much more was at stake than the decibel levels.
Because no matter how quietly it is broadcast, the call to prayer must enter public space in order to reach its audience of worshippers. At the same time, there are few urban spaces left in the world that are exclusively Muslim and none left untouched by the language of secularism. In Europe and the U.S., Muslims who would like to hear the call to prayer often form a minority. In countries where they form the majority there is often, as in Egypt, Turkey and Syria, a self-identified elite hoping to define and limit the influence of religion and/or certain religious groups in public life.
In 1932, the Turkish government mandated that the call to prayer be performed in Turkish (Turkey returned to the Arabic call in the 1950s). In a recent article for the journal Music and Politics, ethnomusicologist Eve McPherson explains that by “mandating Turkish language call to prayer recitation, the populace of Turkey experienced a public five-times-daily reminder that the secular nation now took precedence over previous allegiances and more than a millennium of practice.” A similar argument could be made for the unification in Cairo, where the government also intervened to alter the call to prayer. Hearing a single centrally-orchestrated voice five times a day, will be a reminder for many Egyptians that a modern, technologically sophisticated practice has replaced the older, organic cacophony.
The imposition of reforms concerning the call to prayer, whether in Turkey in the 1930’s or Egypt recently, required some level of authoritarianism. Egypt’s unification plan, despite the assurances of Salam Abdel Galil, was the product of the Mubarak regime’s values. Once the regime fell, the status and future of the unification was thrown into doubt. “The revolution confused everything,” Sheikh Hamed, a muezzin, told me. “Nobody is working on the unification project now, with the elections and political stuff taking all the time.”
Many of the small black boxes were installed just months before the Mubarak regime fell. Although Salam Abdel Galil kept his job as a deputy minister, his superior Hamdi Zaqzouq was replaced. Now the Muslim Brotherhood is a political force with more clout than it has ever had before, and they will surely have an opinion about the call to prayer.
For decades, the Mubarak regime presented itself as unofficially pious and officially secular, occasionally praying in public to placate its critics while banning headscarves from state-owned television. In that context, Mubarak maintained the Ministry of Religious Affairs in order to keep an eye on Islamic institutions and keep religious men who might turn against them on a government salary. Under new leadership that does not proclaim itself to be secular, the entire dynamic will change. While the unification debate became a wedge issue between secular and religious sensibilities under Mubarak’s authoritarian regime—something you could debate because you couldn’t debate much else—under a democratic system it may become a campaign issue analogous to school prayer in the U.S.
In the meantime, the unification is still official policy, even if tracing the relationship between policy and reality is a Sisyphean task. Anna Kipervaser is a Ukrainian artist from Chicago making a documentary about the call to prayer and the unification (I worked closely with her on the film for several months). In June, Anna met with Sheikh Gamal, a muezzin in one of Cairo’s wealthier urban neighborhoods. He had been actively involved in the revolution and was the first muezzin either of us had met who openly, loudly, and disdainfully doubted the unification project. He told Anna that the project was now a “total failure,” a bad idea from a corrupt minister that would now be reversed by Mohamed Morsi, the new president.
She also spoke with a researcher at a mosque in Sayed Aisha neighborhood, who told her that the process for choosing muezzins to perform the unified call to prayer had been corrupt from the beginning, that one could not be chosen without having connections at the ministry and that the “lack of fairness was obvious.”
Months earlier, I had visited a mosque in the neighborhood known to foreigners as ‘Islamic Cairo’ and to Egyptians simply as ‘Old Cairo.’ The muezzin, Sheikh Said, greeted me warmly and led me to join him sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor. He lives in a small village a ways from Cairo, so he has to grab a microbus and make it to the city before the sunrise prayers at 4:30AM. It is unclear when he goes home or sleeps. He is humble, friendly, even a little goofy. We chatted for a while, but when I asked about the unification project, his mood changed dramatically. “It’s going to put me out of work,” he told me.
He led me to a small office and pointed to a tall stack of blinking and purring boxes, all held together by a thicket of red and green wires. He pulled out from the stack the small black box, and explained that every time the call to prayer needs to be recited, he just unplugs the box and recites it himself. “Nobody has come back to check on this since they installed it,” he explained. “Is this common?” I asked him. “Oh yes. We all do it.”
We left the room and returned to sitting on the carpet. He offered me tea, and a few minutes later, it was 3:30pm, time for afternoon prayers. The speakers, mounted in two corners of the room, clicked on and out came the call to prayer: “God is Greater, God is Greater, There is no god but God.” The muezzin disappeared into the office and cut off the voice mid-sentence. Then, he walked over to a microphone and unhooked it from the stand. He tilted his head back, held the microphone in one hand and cupped his ear with the other.
He recited the call to prayer, in a long, clear, and simple melody, each word clean as it left his mouth and fuzzy as it left the cheap speakers, with the echo of other muezzins drifting in like ghostly comrades through the windows. When he finished, he walked back to the office and plugged the box back in. Abdel Galil had told me that employees from his ministry only check on the boxes if someone complains. Here, I gathered, nobody has complained.
“In my experience,” Anna told me, “nine out of ten mosques have the receiver, and out of those, about five of ten have the receivers permanently broken.” Only one in ten, she estimates, have a receiver that works consistently and is never turned off.
A few days later I visited another mosque, across the street. “They installed a box here before the revolution,” the muezzin told me, “but then after a few months it broke, so I perform the call to prayer now.” I paused to think about how to phrase the next question. I wanted to ask if he unplugs the box, but I did not want to accuse him, even implicitly, of lying. So I asked him, “What about the other mosque, across the street?”
We locked eyes. “His box broke just like mine.” I tried to communicate that I knew this was not the case, without saying so out loud. I raised my eyebrows and grinned slightly. “It’s broken, really?”
“Yes,” he answered. “Many of them are broken, so we have to perform the call to prayer ourselves.” I have trouble remembering whether he winked at me as I left.
This piece grew out of a 2010 thesis completed at Cornell University. I’d like to thank Susan Buck-Morss, Ross Brann, and Ruth Mas for their help on the larger project on sound in Cairo.
Maurice Chammah is a writer and musician in Austin, Texas who studied journalism in Egypt as a Fulbright student, 2011-2012. More about him at http://www.mauricechammah.com. He writes regularly for The Revealer.
Anna Kipervaser is a Ukrainian-born Chicago artist. She has been the recipient of numerous grant awards and residencies including the George Sugarman Foundation Grant, New York Studio Program Residency, the Bertha Langhorst Werner Award, and the Stephen H. Wilder Traveling Scholarship. Anna was so captivated by the call to prayer in Cairo — this rich, thousand-voice aural tapestry rising up above the city — that she started walking into mosques during the times of the adhan just to listen closely to the muezzins.
Anna’s documentary on the call to prayer in Cairo, “Cairo: Voices and Faces of the Adhan,” is seeking finishing funds. Learn more about the film at http://www.onlookfilms.com/ and contribute on Voices and Faces’ Kickstarter page: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/olf/voices-and-faces-cairo-finishing-funds
With support from the Henry R. Luce initiative on Religion and International Affairs.