Holy Noise

Wistfulness is the general feeling evoked by the writings of Intizar Hussain but I feel particularly so when I read, from the novella Basti, the following description of the coming of electricity to Rupnagar:

Electricity had now begun to be installed in the mosque as well, but Abba Jan had thrown a spanner into the works. “This is ‘innovation.'” And equipping himself with a cudgel, he stood on guard in the doorway of the mosque. The electricians came, received a reprimand, and went away. Hakim Bande Ali and Musayyab Husain tried very hard to convince him, but he gave only one answer: “This is ‘innovation.'”

On the third day of his guard-duty, Bi Amma fell ill; her breathing became fast and shallow. Abba Jan, giving up the guard-duty, hurried home; but Bi Amma did not wait for his arrival.

The next day when Abba Jan went to the mosque for the dawn prayer, he saw that the electricity had already been installed. When he saw this he came right back, and for the first time in his life offered the dawn prayer at home. From then on he never entered the mosque, and never offered his prayers except at home. [Translation: Frances Pritchett]

I feel nostalgic for quiet times for electricity is like the devil – it does not leave you alone and pursues you into your safe havens. With electricity came the loudspeaker – and all hell broke loose.

I live in a compound enclosed by a circular wall along which I have been able to identify a mosque at around every thirty degrees of rotation. That is the inner circle. About a quarter of a mile further back there is an outer circle nestling in the corridors radiating beyond the inner one.

Five times a day, all hell literally breaks loose as the twelve to fifteen imams of the various mosques initiate the call for prayers – not in unison but with lags of various lengths. Then they proceed to ululate at variable tempos and at quite distinct registers. The one thing that is clear is that none of them have had any voice training whatsoever – to a man they are off-pitch and off-beat.

As a result, all that can be heard is an infernal din that scares even the birds from their resting places. After a good fifteen to twenty minutes of intense pain inflicted by the cacophony, a heavenly peace descends upon the surroundings.

For some of my breaks from work I go to another city to live in a semi-rural suburb. The number of mosques here is about the same – as is the noise. The difference is the greater license enjoyed by the imams on the outskirts of town. One of them practices his sermons at four o’clock in the morning. Another recites endless verses at random times. A third runs a seminary of sorts – his young charges practice their lessons in the middle of the night, their piercing soprano wails a testament to the intensity of their passion.

This last is clearly a violation of the law that governs the use of loudspeakers in places of religious worship. My host informs me that he tried conveying that to the imam of the seminary only to be told that the enforcers in the latter’s control would not take kindly to that kind of message.

I don’t believe the irony has been missed. Not surprisingly, no one has take up the issue or that of exceeding the allowable level of noise emanating from the loudspeakers.

This is a phenomenon that has intrigued me for some time and I have often wondered why each mosque does not content itself with a volume that suffices for the residents in its catchment area – as, I am sure, it was meant to be in Rupnagar. After all, every loudspeaker has a volume control and there is no religious injunction against adjusting it up or down.

I have also wondered why a pre-recorded call to prayers in a mellifluous voice could not be employed since the use of technology is no bar to religious practice. Here is another irony related to the selective use of technology – it is used where it amplifies power not where it dissipates it. This is quite akin to insisting that the Eid moon has to be spied with the naked eye no matter what the ensuing confusion. The call to prayer must continue to be delivered by a living being untainted by any training in diction or elocution.

A heretical thought that occurs to me is that the call to prayers might well have outlived its purpose from a purely utilitarian perspective. Now that everyone has a cell phone with a choice of ring-tones, the faithful could be alerted of the precise timings of prayers simply via their devices. That would also spare the imams the onerous responsibility of a repetitive task and they might be encouraged to allocate their time to more productive uses.

I have enquired from various intrepid travelers if the same cacophony is experienced in other cities, like Istanbul, with many mosques. I have been told, although I have not been able to verify it personally, that most cities that thrive on the largesse of tourists have worked out a way to control the noise and to preserve the dignity of the call to prayer. Only one mosque, in a cluster of mosques within audible range of each other, can issue the call for prayer. The honor is rotated amongst the establishments with the aid of a pre-announced schedule.

In our desire to retain our purity we have done away with tourists. And even if we had tried, I doubt if we would have managed the coordination. As it is, our imams are used to imposing authority not acceding to it – hence the employment of enforcers to keep us on the right path.  

On the few occasions that I have dared to voice my thoughts, I have been told to emigrate. It’s not that I am irreligious – it’s just that I wish to decipher what is being said and my threshold for noise pollution is low. Consequently, I am looking at various cities with a good mix of religious places but with more sensitive and dignified ways of making their pronouncements.

Please let me know if you have suggestions.

Frances Pritchett’s translation of Intizar Hussain’s Basti is here.

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  • Asad Shah
    Posted at 07:12h, 20 October Reply

    Excellent article. I do feel that there is need for Ijtehad in this area. Religion provides a basic framework for human conduct. Matters of detail can not be assumed to be for all times to come and must take into account the social and scientific developments that take place over time. It is the responsibility of enlightened intelligentia in Muslim communities, well versed with religious knowledge, such as the Islaamic scholar Ghamadi, to come up with practical solutions compatible with the developed status of the societies.

    Asad Shah

  • Wasif
    Posted at 03:56h, 21 October Reply

    Can generally agree with you and also confirm that Istanbul has the most beautiful and indeed mellifluous arrangement for the azaan… I have personally experienced standing between the Blue Mosque and another mosque. Each imaam recites one verse and then waits as the other imaam recites the verse. Then, the first imaam takes over with the next verse and so on. It is indeed spellbinding and compelled me to walk to the Blue Mosque and say the three maghrib farz along with a hundred or so other faithful. Duago

  • ijaz
    Posted at 05:00h, 21 October Reply

    Conserve your energy…and get your self some nice earplugs or headphones with noise cancelling technologies.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:58h, 21 October

      Ijaz: disagree with this approach of never addressing an issue just finding a way around it. Quite like getting armed guards to ride behind us instead of rooting out the violence.

    • ijaz
      Posted at 16:38h, 21 October

      If that is what you understood, I agree with your disagreement. We do need to address the problem. However since both energy and time are limited,we will need to prioritize our actions so that we get the most ‘bang for the buck’. Trying to tackle this issue has more chances of getting entangled in issues which are superficial and socially charged. And while you work on the priority areas, such as education, enlightenment and economic prosperity in society, wear noise cancelling head phones, hire Blackwater, get a rocket launcher or whatever it takes to secure your physical and mental sanity. Not for mere selfish preservation but so that the job gets done.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:15h, 21 October

      Ijaz: I am not sure what jobs can get done when all the sores are left to fester in society. This getting the jobs done is a myth. Are things getting better or worse? It might be some consolation to go down with the ship with noise cancelling headphones and a Blackwater hugging a raocket launcher – but we will go down all the same. I agree we need to get the priorities right.

    • ijaz
      Posted at 14:42h, 22 October

      South Asian seems to be missing the point. Perhaps it is tired. And that is precisely why my emphasis is on conserving energy. Focus on priority actions else you will just lull yourself to sleep after taking on or talking about a lot of trivial issues.

      I am NOT proposing that sores are left to fester. And the noise cancelling headphone along with and/or the Rocket launcher are options. Only for those who are getting disturbed to the point of losing a focus on ‘REAL’ issues.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:15h, 22 October

      Ijaz: Clearly the trivial problems have been ignored. Does that mean energy has been conserved and the REAL issues addressed? You didn’t answer whether things were getting better or worse? People who can’t tie their shoelaces can’t fight wars.

  • sabihaashraf
    Posted at 14:27h, 21 October Reply

    I loved the content and the quality of its rendering of all the articles ive read written by you – I loved this one the best
    discussion is something we need to get in ..
    the turkish version, as amplified by wasif’s comment is something to emulate – but for it to work we need to educate…
    how to go about educating the mullahs needs serious thought – and is worth thinking about, discussing and doing

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 05:42h, 22 October Reply

    Romance of these stories never fade. I think sage Bharat of ‘Natya Shashtra’ forgot to count nostalgia as one of the important emotions in his classical ‘Nav Rasa’ ……..

    As to mayhem of noise I think entropy naturally increases until some event causes the disorder to reorganize. Alternatively you can take out the handgun and blast the loudspeakers that however will not solve the problem but what follows will do. They will put you to eternal silence.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:12h, 22 October

      Anil: From one of the comments I get the sense that in Istanbul they did solve the problem.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 03:04h, 23 October

      SA it depends what you call noise. To me even a whisper is noise if the same thing is repeated ad nauseam. Kabir and some other saints centuries ago had the sense to be rational about these things but we seem to have made not much progress in these matters, in fact become more regressive. You don’t set alarm to go to office because it becomes reflex response after a while.

      कांकर पाथर जोड़ के मस्जिद लियो बनाय
      ता चढ़ मुल्ला बांग दे बहिरा हुआ ख़ुदाय

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 01:23h, 25 October

      Anil: I get your point but the comment mixes up too many things including definitions.

      First, what do I call noise? Well, the starting point is obviously sound which can be pleasnt or unpleasant. For me, noise is unpleasant sound. This is elaborated in one of the posts on this blog:

      “Just as painting is the art of color, music is the art of sound. Painting is a visual art form; it is seen by the eyes. Music is an aural art form; it is heard by the ears. Music and sound are intertwined and so the first step in understanding music is to understand sound.

      “One thing should be obvious: While all music is sound, not all sound is music. In fact, most sound is not music; it is noise. So, our first question should be to ask: What is that turns some sounds into music so that they are pleasant to the ear while turning other sounds into noise that are unpleasant to the ear? I would like you to reflect on this question to which we shall return later in the series.”

      With this definition, a whisper by itself cannot be noise otherwise poets would not be thrilled by the whispering of sweet nothings in the ear which they would not mind being repeated. Something that is repeated ad nauseam can be irritating but that does not make it noise.

      Finally, whether something is necessary or unnecessary is also another dimension. Redundancy by itself cannot be equated to noise. The most pleasant organ music can be redundant if it is pressed into service for a function for which it is not needed.

      You are right though on Kabir and have quoted the appropriate lines. In Arvind Mehrotra’s Songs of Kabir, Kabir puts it very simply to the muezzin – “What’s ypur problem?” It is both reassuring and frightening to know that this is an old problem.


    • ijaz
      Posted at 03:41h, 25 October

      “Something that is repeated ad nauseam can be irritating but that does not make it noise.” ?!?!

      I suggest SA needs to revisit this understanding after some rest.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 06:28h, 25 October

      Ijaz: I will do so on condition you revisit your comment after some thought.

    • ijaz
      Posted at 07:09h, 25 October

      Will certainly do, but it might be a capacity issue.

      And I am reminded of a classic…“A moment’s THOUGHT would have shown him. But a moment is a long time, and THOUGHT is a painful process.”

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:39h, 25 October

      Ijaz: I hope you won’t assert that because thought is painful, it is noise.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 04:46h, 26 October

      SA: Apparently silence can be deafening therefore my claim of whisper being noise can’t be far fetched. In Chinese torture drops of chilled water after a while begin to explode in your head …

      You say that unpleasant sound is noise I think irritating sound can’t be anything but unpleasant..

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 07:01h, 26 October

      Anil: You have a point, a good one with silence being deafening and drops exploding in the head. Too be precise, a whisper is a sound which may or may not be noise. However, any irritating sound would be unpleasant and would therefore qualify to be called noise.

  • Sakuntala Narasimhan
    Posted at 14:02h, 22 October Reply

    What a coincidence that this blog came in, a few minutes after I was bemoaning the fact that a temple nearby was blaring loud music, in the name of some ritual (Pre-Divali, post-Ganesha, whatever) Any one objecting is denounced as “anti-Hindu” anti-national, heretic etc etc….. we have lost sight of the core rationale of prayers….. not just among Muslims but also among Hindus…

  • yayaver
    Posted at 14:49h, 28 October Reply

    काँकर पाथर जोरि कै, मस्जिद लई बनाय।
    ता चढ़ मुल्‍ला बांग दे, बहिरा हुआ खुदाए।।


    I don’t know if anyone can read here Hindi in Devnagari Script. But Kabir, a mystic poet and saint of India has commented on the habit of praying habits of Mullah loud as Allah is deaf or what !!!

    • skynut
      Posted at 16:21h, 28 October

      It is hard to believe that Kabir really did not know the difference between the call to prayer and prayer .

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 04:10h, 29 October

      Skynut: I am not sure what makes you conclude that Kabir could not tell the difference between the call to prayer and prayer. He is speaking very explicitly of the baang.

    • skynut
      Posted at 04:22h, 29 October

      1: I have not concluded anything. This is just food for thought.
      2: The fact that Baang is not prayer to God, but a call to prayer to people.
      3: It is interesting that Namaz, which is the muslim prayer, is pretty much silent.

      regards and lov

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 03:57h, 02 November

      Skynut: The aim of the post was to draw attention to the fact that the call to prayer in dense modern areas where there are many mosques within audible proximity needs some reform and regulation. The follow-up question is who will do this ad how will it be done.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 04:04h, 29 October

      Yayaver: Many on this board can read Hindi in the Devnagari script. There was an article on this blog some time ago making the point that it was very easy to learn for those whose first language was not Hindi:

      Kabir has made a good point. Just imagine that in his days there were no loudspeakers. What would he have said had he been around today?

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