Call to Prayer, Eastern Spice

5:14 pm - February 6th 2008

by Robert Sharp    

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Its been a while since a good multicultural conundrum came along to bother us. For a while, I thought that the issue of the mosque in Oxford that wants to broadcast its call to prayer might be one such issue, but while reading a couple of articles in order to write a blog, I came across this quote from the Telegraph:

“We want to fix a loudspeaker to our minaret to broadcast our call to prayer. We would like to have three two-minute calls a day, but if that is not accepted then we would like to have it at least on Fridays.

“In Islamic counties the call is loud so people are reminded to come to prayer. We do not need the volume to be loud, that can be adjusted because our members have a time-table for the prayers. But we want to have the call in some form because it is our tradition.”

Now this doesn’t look like a culture clash to me, so much as groups engaging in a dialogue with a local authority, just as they should in a liberal democracy.

It is being portrayed as an example of the Muslim community making unreasonable demands, when in fact it is merely a polite request, and a modest one at that. Its obvious that the Friday broadcast will be approved, and tolerated, and finally accepted as part of the city, just like football stadiums, nightclubs, and cathedral bells.

Some, such as Daniel Finkelstein in the Times today, complain that this particular addition to Oxford’s sound-scape amounts to an erosion of British, Christian culture. Yet I do not see the validity in this argument. First, we know that culture is a nebulous term and cannot be protected in the way Finkelstein suggests. Adding a new tradition for Oxford does not dilute or those already in existence – it is not as if noise is regulated by a carbon-like trading scheme. Nor is it the case, as Finkelstein seems to suggest, that the existence of a call to prayer will somehow undermine Anglicanism. Religions are not chain pubs trying to out-do one another with larger and brighter advertisements of cheap beer. The call to prayer will not tempt customers aways from the church down the road (and in any case, the wine they serve in the mosque is horrible).

If anything, a new sound in the mix causes us to notice and appreciate the others already there. In this sense, the muzezzin’s call is a piece of genuine Eastern spice.

Second, if anywhere in the country should have a Call to Prayer, its Oxford. The city of dreaming spires is well known for its theological heritage, from medieval times up to the present day. It has been a centre for the study of Islam, the Orient, and Arabic for centuries.

To my mind, only thing offensive about the Call to Prayer is the often poor quality loudspeakers through which it is piped. This is not an offence to culture, but to the good taste for which we British are so well known. Oxford City Council should ensure that funds are available for a decent sound-system, which can do justice to the full-flavoured tones of the vocallist.

Either that, or some kind of scholarship so that young men and women can train to sing the call unamplified, like opera singers, choirboys, and (so long as we are talking traditions, here) town criers.

Related: Call to prayer controversy – the truth is stranger…

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About the author
Robert Sharp designed the Liberal Conspiracy site. He is Head of Campaigns at English PEN, a blogger, and a founder of digital design company Fifty Nine Productions. For more of this sort of thing, visit Rob's eponymous blog or follow him on Twitter @robertsharp59. All posts here are written in a personal capacity, obviously.
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Reader comments

Well, that’s all well and good, but I note the claimed purpose of the proposed call to prayer is not to call people to prayer, but tradition.

What about the tradition of Oxford to NOT have a call to prayer? It IS a conflict of traditions, pure and simple. If Oxford’s traditions can change for a minority, why shouldn’t the Mosque’s change for the sake of the majority? And in any case, if traditions are so mutable, one could argue that the Mosque already has a tradition of no call to prayer. And, why should a “tradition” which is dependent on electricity and modern technology trump one which dates back to the 12th century, or whenever? That can’t be right, can it?

On top of which, amplified speech sounds are just too intrusive. If the suggestion was bells or music, that’s one thing, but is well-known that speech sounds in any language automatically commandeer the attention. It is impossible not to attend to them. In one of England’s oldest and finest seats of learning, I do not think forcing a high-volume thrice-daily distraction upon the brains of academics and students who are trying to concentrate is really desirable, whatever its multi-cultural credentials.

… this goes on and on, and where it apparently originated is just downright funny now it has all gotten out of hand.

What about the tradition of Oxford to NOT have a call to prayer? It IS a conflict of traditions, pure and simple. If Oxford’s traditions can change for a minority, why shouldn’t the Mosque’s change for the sake of the majority?

Is there a referendum somewhere to show a majority of Oxford residents oppose this? It isn’t necessarily about a minority vs the majority – it is about a compromise. Surely that is what a democracy is about? Or should the majority always dictate to a minority rather than negotiate? The 12th century reference has nothing to do with anything. We have Roman Catholic traditions in this country that go back further.

Jock’s link is actually quite amusing and worth highlighting.

Oxford has a lengthy tradition of having a call to prayer. The noise from church bells (every quarter of an hour) is audible across much of the city. Adding a total of three two minute calls on a Friday (many of them while most people are at work) is hardly going to change that.

To be fair Dan quarter chimes are about telling the time, not calls to prayer. Nonetheless I am sure there must be places in Oxford with all the high churchers around that ring the Angelus three times a day, plus some for mass and maybe even compline. It’s no big issue, but it was also no big story until people with an axe to grind picked up on it….typical!

I love that Finkelstein’s column bangs on and on about how tolerant and mild the English are, under a frankly offensive headline of “Have your loudspeakers. But not here” – roughly translated as “by jove, other religions are all very well as long as they shut up and stay out of my sight and hearing”.

I don’t really see why this is a debate at all, and generally agree with what Robert says.

However, I do feel like I should call you up on this, Robert:

“If anything, a new sound in the mix causes us to notice and appreciate the others already there. In this sense, the muzezzin’s call is a piece of genuine Eastern spice.”

Eastern spice? How would Edward Said respond to that sentiment?!

It is funny how no-one wants to address the pragmatic issue here, isn’t it?

Oxford has a tradition of being relatively quiet and tranquil. The reason for this tradition is because Oxford also has a tradition of some of the finest academic work in the land. Do you think the two are unrelated?

As I have said, but no-one wanted to notice, amplified speech sounds (especially those which sound as though they have an emotional content) will disrupt this tradition, which I think is deeply unfair and disrespectful to the academics and students who are trying to study in peace, and not disturbing anyone, especially when the majority of residents do not share the proposed tradition. It is an empirical fact that speech sounds are cognitively intrusive, whatever language they are in, in a way that other sounds, such as bells, are not. No-one’s bothered to think about that, have they, in their rush to prove their liberal credentials?

In Islamic countries, I am sure that Muslim academics are glad to work around their religious observances. I just don’t see why non-Muslim academics should be forced to do so, whether they like it or not, in a non-Islamic country, which is exactly what this suggestion would entail. That just doesn’t seem fair to me. You really would be hard-pushed, I think, to choose a less appropriate place to introduce this.

And ps, Sunny, you are wrong. The 12th C reference was to make the point that the academic tradition in Oxford, and the C of E or Catholic traditions go back a lot further than the invention of electrical sound amplification. It is disinegnuous to describe something that hasn’t happened yet as a “tradition”, in any case. The Muslim call to prayer is a tradition in Islamic countries, but we are not talking about those, we are talking about Oxford. But if we are to adjudicate in conflicts of “tradition”, then I do think the embeddedness of the traditions in question have to be taken into account, if only in terms of understanding people’s attachments to them.

It is also a slippery slope, as well as a contradiction in terms, if “tradition” is used as a reason to introduce things that negatively affect people who don’t share the tradition in question. It’s a few short steps away from claiming “god’s will” as an excuse to do anything one damn well pleases to other people, however abhorrent. I don’t buy that type of thing.

Clarice – have you read the proposal that explains how loudly this call to pray would be exactly? Have you read Jock’s piece, linked above?

Yes, I have, and no I don’t think it’s funny. I think it’s uncomfortable for some people, but I think it’s a good thing, because it’s made people put their cards on the table. It’s shown the LIMBYs up for what they are, and it’s made the rest of us see that we don’t have to be bullied or cowed by their ill-conceived and eroneous cries of bigotry.

I see no specific reference to the volume, only to the tri-directional speakers, but I know that Oxford is pretty small, having lived there. And I know that the wind blows, and that sound carries, and that speech-sounds in particular are cognitively intrusive. As I have said. I also know that lots of students live in Cowley, and Iffley, and Headingly and the rest.

The poor chap who suggested this was clearly not very bright. Like the homophobes who blew up the admiral duncan and inadvertently got homophobia a rather bad name. This chap’s done the same for multi-culturalism, I’d say.

Eastern spice? How would Edward Said respond to that sentiment?!

Yes, I did worry when I wrote it, but I stand by it nevertheless. I do think adding a new and different cultural tradition into the mix will draw attention to the ones already there.

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