MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Im Melissa Block.
In Cairo, a Muslim tradition nearly as old as Islam itself is about to end. No longer will a sea of voices boom from minarets across the sprawling Egyptian capital to call the faithful to pray. Instead, the Egyptian government plans to broadcast a single Islamic call to prayer from a downtown studio. Mosques in the city will be required to use the new call, bringing uniformity to a ritual some feel is out of control.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Cairo, and she reports that many residents there are uneasy about the plan, especially the prayer callers who are about to be silenced.
Mr. EHAB MOHAMMAD (Muezzin): (Singing)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Five times a day over the past nine years, Ehab Mohammad has delivered the melodic azan, or call to prayer, from his neighborhood mosque in Cairo. So have thousands of other prayer callers. And not always in unison, like on this windy day.
(Soundbite of a multitude of muezzins)
NELSON: Critics say the result is hardly music to the ears.
Mr. ABDUL MUNAM SUROJI: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: It's chaos, chaos, says Abdul Munam Suroji, during a visit to a hilltop park in the capital. The Syrian tourist says Cairo should do what his hometown of Damascus does: issue a uniform call to prayer. He and others, tired of the uncoordinated Egyptian version, will soon get their wish.
Officials at the Ministry of Religious Endowments say after years of wrangling over the issue, theyve selected a handful of callers to take turns delivering the azan, starting next week. This new azan will soon be the only allowed here, a single voice broadcast from a downtown studio that is transmitted through special receivers to thousands of mosques registered with the government.
Officials who declined to speak on tape, say the change is necessary to restore the dignity of the azan. They add the callers, or muezzin, being banned get to keep their salaries. They will be assigned other tasks in their mosque, such as leading prayers or cleaning.
Many religious scholars, including Mohamed el Shahat el Gindy at Helwan University, support the decision.
Professor MOHAMED EL SHAHAT EL GINDY (Islamic Law, Helwan University): This kind of confusion, this kind of crowded voices, I think is against the spirit of azan.
NELSON: El Gindy adds the verses sung may also differ from mosque to mosque, thereby confusing the worshipper.
Mr. MOHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: But muezzin Ehab Mohammad is not happy about being silenced, even if he does get to keep his salary of $55 a month.
(Soundbite of traffic)
NELSON: His friend, Mohammad Fawzi, who delivers the azan at a mosque down the street, says to them it's not just a job. He believes being a muezzin gives them a leg up in the next life.
Mr. MOHAMMAD FAWZI (Muezzin): (Through Translator) The prophet says those who lead the prayer have the longest necks and will stand the tallest on judgment day. So of course I'm against them denying us the azan.
(Soundbite of conversations)
NELSON: Back at the hilltop al-Azhar Park, some residents like Aya Hassan also expressed displeasure over the ministry's plan.
Ms. AYA HASSAN: (Through Translator) All the different voices make you feel like everyone is kneeling and praying to Allah at the same time. One voice will seem empty.
NELSON: The 20-year-old pharmacy student worries that residents in the city's many squatter neighborhoods could end up unaware of when to pray if their unofficial mosques are not given transmitters. Others say the call to prayer is a religious matter and that the government shouldn't be involved in changing it.
But for the religion ministry, the matter is no longer open to discussion. It says the new azan will be introduced district by district in Cairo when the holy fasting month of Ramadan begins next week. Officials don't plan to stop there. They say eventually more than 100,000 mosques across Egypt will deliver a uniform call to prayer.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.
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