Oxford Skyline by Ed Webster

Call to Prayer, Eastern Spice

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.

(Cross posted at the Liberal Conspiracy)

14 thoughts on “Call to Prayer, Eastern Spice

  1. Well, that’s all well and good, Rob, 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?

    Essentially, you’re subjugating the traditions of the majority to those of the minority. And that is not what democracy is. Just because one group is presently associated with worse terrorism (in the true sense of the word) or with fundamentalists who call for stonings and beheadings at the smallest perceived slight, that is not a good reason to ride rough-shod over the historic traditions of the peace-loving people of Oxford. This is LIMBYism at its worst.

    Whatever happened to “when in Rome?” I’m sure no-one ever emigrated to Britain thinking it was an Islamic country, did they?

    On top of which, amplified speech sounds are just too intrusive. If they wanted 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 enforcing 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.

  2. Dear Clarice, this looks liek a non-comment to me. I think my original post deals with all your objections, which are similar to Finkelstein’s.

    First, the ‘riding rough-shod’ charge is rubbish, as demonstrated by the quote from the mosquespokesperson.

    Second, I don’t think the concept of ‘negative tradition’, whereby its somehow a tradition not to do certain things, really stands up, because (as I say above) the addition of a new tradition does not undermine the old. How are Christianity or British values harmed here?

    Its silly to say that the rub is the noise pollution, when there are other noisier and more intrustive activities on the go.

    And in my final paragraph, I’ve addressed the problems with amplified speech with some good ideas, I thought.

  3. Afterthought:/Clarification: At root, would it be true to say that your objection is “the C of E no longer has a position of primacy”? That certainly seems to be Finkelstein’s argument.

  4. Dear Rob, this looks like a non-comment to me. I think my objections are in light of your original post, which for some reason you don’t seem to have taken as read.

    The riding rough-shod objection has nothing to do with the politeness of the request. It relates to one view of what granting the request would constitute.

    The objection is not to do with volume per se. Other sounds are indeed noisier. But where they are not speech sounds, they are less cognitively intrusive. Unless we are talking really high-decibel such as road-works, which though undesirable are sometimes pragmatically necessary.

    The objection is also not to do with the quality of amplification. It is to do with the fact, yes, fact, that speech sounds are by definition cognitively intrusive. In a seat of learning, as I have said, I do not feel this is fair or appropriate.

    As for your “negative tradition” remark, I think this is disingenuous. Oxford has a tradition of being relatively quiet and tranquil, yes? That is a positive tradition. The reason for this tradition is because Oxford also has a tradition of some of the finest academic work in the land. As I said, amplified speech sounds (especially those which sound as though they have an emotional content) will distrupt 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.

    I think I made my objections very clear in my first comment. It has nothing to do with the C of E, and everything to do with not seeing why a relatively recent tradition of a minority should have the right to distrupt a centuries-old and very productive intellectual tradition of a majority.
    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.

    While you’re mentioning the C of E though, you’d have to admit that where there is any religious tradition in this country, it is that of C of E and not Islam. To be completely fair and unbiassed, when considering the rights of one tradition over another, you’d have to be democratic about it. I think that’s only fair.

  5. What an interesting debate. When I read Robs post I intuitively and immediately felt that broadcasting the call to prayer somehow didn’t sound right but then felt perhaps it could and should be allowed on a Friday. I am not sure of my reasons for these feelings and will have to give them some thought. I do think there is something in what Claire says about “when in Rome..” If I lived in an Islamic state I would hope I would be allowed to worship in the way I wanted but I would want to be reasonably unobtrusive about it. And on the basis of do as you would be done by I would not expect church bells to start in an area where they were not part of the tradition .
    Anyway I shall give this further thought.

  6. nd on the basis of do as you would be done by I would not expect church bells to start in an area where they were not part of the tradition.

    I take the opposite view for the same reasons. I would fully expect an Islamic country to allow church bells on a Sunday. If they don’t, then they’re clearly not as tolerant as they should be. But their intolerance should not excuse our own.

  7. Rob – If you lived near it and got woken up by a call to prayer at dawn I think you might have a different view.

    Matt, that’s the point. I have lived near a cathedral and the bells woke me up every Sunday. At least on Friday mornings I’m getting up for work anyway, and not trying to get a lie in like I am on Sundays.

    And what time are Friday prayers in a mosque anyway? I have a notion that they’re in the evening, in which case the point is moot.

  8. Dawn ! The first call to prayer is at sunrise so anywhere from 4am to 7am depending on the time of year.

    I think you are being a bit disingenious. Hearing a call to prayers just isn’t british, it’s not cricket, it would particularly jar in Oxford, of all places which is the very essence of Englishness, dreaming spires, punts on the ox, toffs and all that .
    It will create an aytmosphere that is well, islamic. I’m not islamic so I don’t want to live in that atmosphere. The deeper point is that this demand (and the kerfuffle over sharia law) is not going to be the end of muslim demands, it will be just the beggining. How long before alcohol is banned, women must be covered etc etc

  9. How long before alcohol is banned, women must be covered etc etc

    A little alarmist, perhaps, but I think this could be a fair point. For some people, these are “traditions”, after all.

    The question with the call to prayer is not just about people doing their own traditions for themselves without bothering anyone else. To which I don’t really object, except where they contravene british law. This one is about enforcing one group of people’s tradition on everyone. If they have the call to prayer, then everyone’s got to listen to it. And that isn’t fair.

  10. Yeah, and the rag and bone man shouting “any old iron” at 7 in the morning is a Great British tradition. And I feel a blaring ice cream van only underlines my ardour for our proud Christian empire.

    Either go out for some ultra violent Paki bashing to get it out of your system, or stop the barely repressed racist under current nonsense. Even the BNP don’t come out with this claptrap.

  11. This one is about enforcing one group of people’s tradition on everyone. If they have the call to prayer, then everyone’s got to listen to it. And that isn’t fair.

    Clarice, I don’t think the bubble of comfort you ask for has. Ever since the dawn of human civilisation, people’s activities have impinged on their neighbours. “No man is an island” and all that. To say “everyone’s got to listen to it, and that isn’t fair” is cloud cuckoo land, since people make sounds for other people to hear all the time. That’s part of living in a city. The question is the degree to which the noise impacts on your day. A weekend of roadworks is acceptable where a year is not. A single afternoon of the Notting Hill Carniaval is OK, where a month is not. And – I say – a call to prayer of Friday afternoon is OK, where a five-times-a-day, seven days a week, probably isn’t.

  12. For clarification, the call to prayer on a Friday would not be in the morning and certainly not for the dawn prayers.
    Friday prayers are always in the afternoon, the call around 1pm.

Leave a Reply