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Government looks to muffle the clamor of Cairo's mosques

But for many Egyptians, the cacophony of the call to prayer is the whole point.

Cairo, Egypt
The sun sets behind modern buildings and mosque minarets in Cairo, Egypt. (David Silverman/Getty Images)

CAIRO, Egypt – Several hours before the first light breaks through the smog-filled skies above this sprawling capital city, Sheikh Ayman Gamal begins his days the same way.

“Allahu Akbar [God is great]! There is no God but Allah, and Mohamed is his prophet,” he cries into a microphone in a small mosque on the Street of Flowers in the Sayeda Zeinab district.

Those simple words, as old as Islam itself, form the first part of the adhan, or the Islamic call to prayer. For Muslims, it is soaring, almost melodic poetry, summoning and uniting the faithful below to a five-times daily prayer.

But it’s loud.

The sheikh’s voice, amplified through a distorted megaphone perched just outside the mosque, booms and echoes off the neighborhood’s worn buildings and throughout its narrow alleyways.

It’s a bit too loud, according to the Egyptian government, especially considering that the other estimated 4,000 mosques in Cairo all perform the same adhan at slightly varying times with different voices.

A recent decree by Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowments aims to reduce the cacophony, syncing mosques like Gamal’s into a unified system that will eventually broadcast a single voice reading the prayer call through every mosque in Cairo.

The move – which started rolling out in select mosques earlier this month – has not been without controversy.

“I do not want them to sync our mosque,” said Sheikh Gamal. “The prayer call needs to be loud so that more people can hear the adhan. And there should not be just one voice reading the adhan in Cairo.”

Sheikh Gamal is just one of a growing number of Cairo residents who believe that the decision to unify the mosques symbolizes a government attempt to impose greater control over their faith.

And just like New Yorkers grappling with their city’s decision to build a Muslim community center near Ground Zero, many here in Egypt’s largest metropolis have spent the past several weeks engaged in a similar debate over what they describe as their own religious freedoms.

In Islam, the muezzin, who five times a day announces the call to prayer, plays a highly esteemed role in the community. Many Muslims believe that the muezzin receives greater rewards in the afterlife.

Khaled Abdallah, 42, has always dreamed of performing the adhan at his local mosque in the western neighborhood of Imbaba. Now that the prayer call is to be unified, Abdullah fears he will never get that chance.

“I can read the adhan without a microphone, but it won’t be the same,” said Abdallah, a lawyer by training but taxi driver by profession. “This is the government taking away my religious rights.”

At the heart of the debate is the all-important Friday sermon, a longer prayer performed on the Muslim holy day through loudspeakers in each mosque in Cairo.

Throughout the city, the Friday prayers vary in length and subject matter. Sermons are not only religious, but also sometimes discuss political and social issues affecting the various neighborhoods.

Some Egyptians are suspicious that mosque unification is the first step in Cairo’s plan to control the script and delivery of the Friday prayers.

“A danger is that the government could attempt to synchronize and control more, which could ultimately lead to greater censorship,” said Said Sadek, a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo. “If the government is trying to control the mosques in this way, it would be very problematic.”

The government, however, vehemently denies that mosque unification will ever lead to the regulation of Cairo's Friday sermons.

Sheikh Salem Abdel-Gelil, the driving force behind the project at Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowments, admits that much of the criticism his office has received called the project “un-Islamic”, despite having received approval from the nation’s highest religious authorities.

Abdel-Gelil says the ministry was merely reacting to the large number of public complaints over noise levels, as well as the quality of the voices reading the adhan.