Visitors to the Middle East soon discover that Islam has an irritating way of calling its adherents to prayer. Five times every day, a raucous chant breaks out from a legion of loudspeakers, notifying Moslems that it is time to drop whatever they may be doing and drop onto a prayer mat. For non-Moslems, this is exasperating, especially when pre-dawn wails rouse up people in the small hours of the morning.
To be Different
Moslems do things differently. Just as their year is neither the Jewish lunar year nor the Christian solar year, but a lunar year that does not really work, so too, when they enacted how to call people to prayer, they avoided the Jewish shofar or Christian bell. Instead of using unoffending flags or lamps, they hit on the notion of having someone scream from a tower top. To prevent the muzzien (as these functionaries are called) from peering down into people’s courtyards and windows, a blind man was often chosen for the honor.
For centuries, people were not all that bothered by the muzzien for after all, there is a limit how loud a person can shout, and it was handy to know the various times of day. A previous article discussed how residents of Moslem countries, including Jews, utilized the evening prayer call to reset their watches to the zero hour that starts a new day according to Arab Time or z’man Eretz Yisroel. This system begins every new day at sunset in correlation with Torah hashkofoh. Seforim even discussed how to correlate the muzzien’s call with halachic sunset.
Indeed, the first muzzien call in the USA bothered no one and was dismissed as a cultural curiosity. In December 1893 when there was probably no mosque in on either side of the Rockies, the New York Times reported that the ritual of calling Moslems to prayer had finally crossed the Atlantic: “For the first time in New-York’s history, cosmopolitan as the city is, the melodious call of the muzzien, celebrated by every traveler in Mohammedan countries was heard yesterday morning. At 11 o.clock, Mr. Lant of Tarrytown on the Hudson, who, like Muhammed Alexander Webb [a famous American born Moslem missionary] is a devout follower of Islam, dressed in the picturesque robes prescribed by the Moslem ritual, leaned out of a third-story building in the Union Square Building at 8 Union Square and chanted in the language of the Koran the call to prayer.” The trouble started when Moslems began fixing powerful loudspeakers onto their mosques and setting them on volumes up to 130 decibels (the noise of a jet engine) that makes them loudly audible for as far as four miles away.
In places with many mosques, the effect can be cacophonic. In Cairo, for example, where muezzins cry out from 4,000 officially recognized mosques five times a day, authorities have been taking steps to reduce the noise.
In non-Moslem towns, the noise of mosques can be enough to drive people away. A 2004 article about a Moslem community in Bridgeport, Connecticut, mentioned how .most non-Muslims moved away from the mosque neighborhood, frustrated by traffic jams on Fridays and the call to prayer that rang out over mosque loudspeakers..
But, opposition to mosques’ noise can make headway such as in Cologne, Germany, where planners of a new mosque agreed to a ban on loudspeakers outside the building. Generally, however, when people try to oppose the Moslem impingement on their peace and quiet, Moslems counter with their favorite argument that they are as entitled to freedom of religion as much as anyone else. In Hamtramck, Michigan, protests of Polish residents were ineffectual so long as mosque calls kept within the city’s noise ordinance.
Even in India where the Hindu and Sikh majority is highly antagonistic to Moslems, Moslems are free to install mosque loudspeakers so long as they are not used for political agitation.
In Israel, the situation is stickier as the government is leery of offending Arab sensibilities even when Moslems clearly contravene noise limits. In addition to bothering Jewish communities of Yehuda and Shomron, mosques annoy inhabitants of Yerushalayim neighborhoods such as Ramot and Neveh Yaakov, and irritate Jews of towns with mixed populations including Lod and Haifa.
Indeed, the police are even reluctant to interrupt Arab weddings, which are among the noisiest celebrations on earth. Earsplitting music continues until two in the morning amidst the sporadic bangs of rockets and fireworks.
A Yerushalayim community that has suffered from noisy Arab weddings for years and complains that the noise seems to be getting worse, recently received an ambiguous reply from a community official. “The problem of fireworks/shots/ loud noises at night has come to my attention from a number of sources in the community,” he wrote. “Here is our advice: Any time someone hears the noises the proper place to call is the police. People have informed me that the police push the responsibility over to the army, this may be true but the proper place for your complaints is the police. The more complaints the better. “Once the police see that there are many complaints G. has assured me that that the minhal [neighborhood council] will back up the complaints and demand action for the problem. If you, the residents, don’t complain to the police, we, the community center, won’t have as much power in the matter to move things along.” “One must understand,” he warned, “that the problem is complicated and can theoretically involve political issues on a national level and not just personal ones. Please keep calling the police to complain and we will do our part in terms of pushing them to action. Kol tuv and hopefully a quieter summer.”
Repeated attempts to restrict mosques. noisemaking are only partially successful as M.K.s attempts to introduce legislation are drowned with accusations of religious discrimination.
Two years ago, M.K. Aryeh Bibi of the Kadima party promoted a bill to stop the speakers from “awakening people in the middle of the night for no apparent reason.”
“There is no reason,” he said, “why they can’t do what they do in Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere, and that is to have a “silent radio station” which “awakens” every day at 4 o’ clock with the call to prayer. This way, those who want to wake up can do so; why do they have to wake up the whole world?” At the time, a Jewish resident of Chevron was taking matters into his own hands by repaying the noise in kind. “The local mosques received money from Saudi Arabia to buy high-quality loudspeakers, which for some reason they directed straight at my window,” he said. “So I went out and rented some loudspeakers myself, and played Shlomo Carlebach and Mordechai Ben- David – quality music – right back at them. The Civil Administration came and asked me to lower it, and I said I would as soon as they turn down their own. And they did!”
The political struggle has not let up. This May, M.K. Anastassia Michaeli of Yisrael Beitenu proposed legislation to ban the muezzens’ noise pollution. She complained in her proposal that .hundreds of thousands of citizens in Israel, in the areas of the Galilee, the Negev, Jerusalem, Haifa and various areas in the center, suffer daily and regularly from an environmental nuisance . the noise of the muezzin call from the PA systems of mosques. Accordingly, she requests to forbid houses of prayer, including mosques, from using PA systems.
The proposed law, which is an amendment to the law for the prevention of hazards, explicitly notes that mosques will be prohibited from using a PA system, and that the punishments imposed on violators will include heavy fines and prison time..
As usual, there were complaints that the proposal was racist. Arab MK, Raleb Majadele, claimed that, “This is a dangerous and anti-democratic initiative that harms religious worship, which is a cornerstone in the declaration of independence of the state of Israel.”
Arabs Clamp Down
Yet even Arabs know how to clamp down on mosque noise when it suits their purpose. In Saudi Arabia where amplified muezzin calls and mosque lectures reached such a crescendo that they were disturbing other mosques, a 2009 report noted, “Ministry inspectors have removed some 100 loudspeakers from dozens of mosques in the city of al-Bahah in western Saudi Arabia because they were so loud they smothered out the broadcasts of other mosques. The ministry says some mosques have speakers that can be heard as much as five kilometres away. The result is that mosques in close proximity drown out each others’ broadcast to the point that they are unintelligible even inside the mosques. Government inspectors are to travel throughout the country to tackle the noise nuisance.”
Moslems also see nothing wrong with cutting down the noise of other religions. In north London, when the Muslim neighbor of a church recently complained he was unable to use his garden or living room at weekends due to its amplified music, drums and loud sermons that made conversation impossible, the neighborhood council ordered the church to restrict its music to twenty minutes.
Last year some, it seemed that Jewish victory was in sight when the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah surprisingly banned the recitation of the Islamic verses and muezzin calls over external loudspeakers in the West Bank. Accusing the Authority of doing this in subjection to Jewish pressure (the Authority denied this) Hamas announced, “We warn the Fatah authority in Ramallah against waging war on religious people and institutions in the West Bank. Those who are waging this war on Islam and All-h will have to bear the consequences of their actions.”
Yet, judging by the noise presently emanating from mosques, the Authority’s rule against muzziens does not seem to have taken hold, although there is a decrease in mosques’ amplified lectures that used to drone on for an hour at a time. Perhaps there is hope that Israel will one day be liberated from the unwanted howl of the muezzin.