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Egyptian archeologist's comment on call to prayer stirs controversy

Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass becomes target of criticism after calling for one call to prayer across all mosques in an area.
Egypt minaret

CAIRO — Recent statements by famous Egyptian archaeologist and former Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass questioning the need to amplify the calls to prayer came as a bombshell in Egypt.

While peaking to Balad TV, Hawass previously said, “The call to prayer disturbs tourists,” adding that the calls from mosques shouldn’t be amplified. 

In an interview with Al-Monitor from his office in Cairo, Hawass said, “There’s nothing shocking about my statements. Sheikh Shaarawi previously said the same thing,” in reference to Muhammad Metwalli al-Shaawawi, a prominent Islamic scholar and former minister of endowments. 

The amplified calls to prayer “have nothing to do with religion. In order to be more respectful, we need to unify the call to prayer. That’s my personal opinion,” he added. “I have never called for banning the call to prayer altogether. I am a Muslim man at the end of the day.”

But, he added, “When I am in the Luxor Temple and I hear 10 calls to prayers at the same time, I think that becomes noise pollution. Islam is a religion of ease, not of hardship. I think unifying all the calls would be gratifying.” 

In 2019, the Egyptian government issued a bill to unify the call to prayer to be performed by one muezzin, according to the local time, through a joint broadcast signal in mosques, and at a medium volume so that it does not cause any disturbance.

However, the bill applied only to the mosques owned by the government (Egyptian Endowments Ministry) in Cairo, not to private mosques. The “united call to prayer” is now practiced in the governmental mosques in Cairo as a first phase.

Those who attacked him for his remarks, Hawass said, "can hit their head to the wall. Cairo is historically known as the city of a thousand minarets, and it is not acceptable for it to be emitting all these sounds. What is happening undermines Cairo’s historical image.”

MP Ahmed al-Sharif, however, said in a press statement, “Hawass’ statements are fascist and lousy. Such remarks undermine the state and are in direct conflict with the opinion of Egyptians.” He also pointed out that Spain’s tourism "is thriving with better revenues than all Gulf countries combined, and the churches’ bells keep on ringing there.” 

MP Rania al-Gazairli said in a statement that the real problem lies in the voice of those who perform the call to prayer.

Al-Azhar scholar Ahmed Karima told Al-Monitor, “Egyptians are extremely proud of Hawass, who has added value to Egyptian archeology. But I think he was better off not making these statements, especially since it is not within his remit to decide.”

Karima added, “The call to prayer is an essential Islamic ritual. ... We will not give up our religion to please tourists." Islam protects tourists, he said, but "they also have to respect the customs, traditions, and constitution of the country they are visiting.” 

Karima called on the Endowments Ministry to be selective in choosing the best voices to perform the call to prayer.

A report issued by the Cairo governorate at the end of June revealed that the number of mosques in the capital affiliated with the Ministry of Endowments increased to 4,775.

The Egyptian Minister of Religious Endowments, Muhammad Mukhtar Gomaa, said in a September statement that Egypt has become “the country of 140,000 minarets, and not only the country of a thousand minarets."

Egyptian singer Muhammad al-Sharnouby also came under attack for comments which he said were misconstrued. In a video that circulated in the media Nov. 10, Sharnouby, who was in Istanbul, described the mosque prayers as “terrifying.”

“What I meant was that the call to prayer is ‘terrifying’ because of how strongly moving it is,” he said in a press statement in response to the criticism. “I saw two mosques facing each other in Istanbul and the call to prayer was so harmonious. And for those who say that tourists are bothered by the sound of prayers, I say, these tourists can simply leave. This is our religion and our heritage.” 

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