The minister, Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq, announced that one official call to prayer would be broadcast live from one central Cairo mosque five times a day, and that it would be carried simultaneously by the 4,000-plus mosques and prayer halls across the capital.
From the ensuing national brouhaha – the outraged headlines, the scathing editorials, the heated debates among worshipers – one might gain the impression that Mr. Zaqzouq was leading an assault against Islam itself. “Minarets Weep,” intoned one banner headline, while another suggested sarcastically that the minister was less than a good Muslim. “The Call to Prayer Upsets Minister,” it read.
Comedians and intellectuals had a field day. Ali Salem, one of Egypt’s leading playwrights, envisioned a turbaned, high-tech SWAT team dispatched across Cairo whenever one mosque or another inevitably sabotaged the centralized prayer-call operation.
Not everyone ridiculed the idea, though.
Secular Cairenes endorsed it as a possible means toward greater government control over all of the tiny storefront mosques that have often proved a font of violent, extremist Islam. And Mr. Zaqzouq insisted that his proposal enjoyed wide grass-roots popularity.
In the surging religious environment of the last decade, the multiplication of mosques and prayer halls is such that any random Cairo street might house half a dozen, each competing with the others in volume and staggering the timing of their call slightly in an effort to stand out.
Particularly at dawn prayers, some mosques blast not just the roughly dozen sentences of the call itself, but all of the Koranic verses and actual prayers intoned by the local imam. When three different mosques do the same thing, what should be an announcement lasting at most two minutes can drag on for 45 minutes, keeping the entire neighborhood awake.
“There are loudspeakers that shake the world,” the minister protested. “Everyone hears them. Every day I receive bitter complaints from people about the loudspeakers, but when I ask them to register official complaints, they say they fear others will accuse them of being infidels.”
Opponents, meanwhile, express deep outrage at the very idea of someone tampering with the tradition of each mosque having its own muezzin, of different voices echoing across the city in a continuous round.
“During the time of the Prophet there used to be more than one mosque in each town, in each quarter, and he didn’t unify the prayer, so why do it now?” asked Sheik Mustafa Ali Suliman, who works as a muezzin in a small mosque amid the twisting streets of Cairo’s medieval quarter. “There is even a saying by the Prophet Muhammad that implies that in God’s eyes muezzins will garner special honor and respect on judgment day.”
Given the widespread sentiment that no decent Muslim could ever consider such a change, no small number of Cairo residents seized on the obvious alternative: it is a C.I.A. plot, they muttered, right up there with other American attacks on Islam, like demanding changes in the Muslim world’s curriculums.