LONDON (Reuters) - A battle of faiths is being waged in Oxford, where some people are bitterly opposed to Muslim plans to broadcast the call to prayer over the fabled dreaming spires.
Local residents, clergy and now the head of the Church of England have been drawn into a debate over a proposal from the Central Oxford Mosque to broadcast a recording of the call to prayer, or Adhan, from its minaret over loud speakers.
Residents who live near the mosque claim the call will annoy their mainly non-Muslim community and won’t even be heard by the majority of Oxford Muslims, who live more than half a mile away.
“We are very angry that they are presuming to inflict this on a non-Muslim community,” Allan Chapman, a historian at the university and a local resident who described himself as a practising Christian told Reuters.
“We see this as an attempt to impose Islam on a Christian-culture community,” he said.
The rector of one of Oxford’s largest Anglican churches, Charlie Cleverly of St. Aldate’s, has also attacked the plans.
He told the Oxford Mail that it was “un-English” and could create a Muslim ghetto in the neighbourhood around the mosque.
“When such an area is subject to such a call to prayer, it may force people to move out and encourage Muslim families to move in,” he told the newspaper.
Oxford’s population is 150,000, the Central Oxford Mosque estimates that around 7,000 of these residents are Muslim, predominantly of south Asian origin.
Anxious to avoid a clash of cultures, Imam Munir Chisti said he is happy to compromise and has amended his proposal to broadcast the call to prayer once a week, instead of the five times a day heard in Islamic countries.
“We suggest that we have a call to prayer every Friday, because that is a special day for Muslims. It won’t be heard over the whole of Oxford. It won’t hurt anybody or force anything on anyone,” Imam Chisti told Reuters.
At the centre’s busiest time, during Friday prayers, there are around 1,000 faithful worshipping inside the purpose-built mosque.
The debate has become heated enough to draw comments on BBC radio from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and prompted the Anglican bishop of Oxford John Pritchard to post a letter on the diocese’s Web site explaining his support for the Muslim plans.
Williams — who sparked controversy last week after suggesting aspects of Sharia (Muslim) law in Britain are unavoidable — said he would be “uneasy” about a regular daily call to prayer.
“I think we need a bit of an injection of common sense in a mixed community which will never be homogeneously Muslim about what’s appropriate. A daily call to prayer doesn’t seem to be appropriate in that sort of environment,” Williams told the BBC.
Pritchard explained in his letter to the Oxford diocese Web site that he was happy with the call to prayer as long as practical issues could be ironed out, such as frequency of the call, the volume, and whether a trial period was advisable.
The bishop urged tolerance of other faiths.
“Part of living in a civilised society is respecting our diversity, even if aspects of it are not to our taste or belief,” Pritchard said.
Others complain that the call to prayer is not a neutral summoning and that any comparison to church bells, which have rung out over Oxford for centuries, were inaccurate.
“Church bells are a signal, they don’t contain words, the call to prayer is political,” Chapman said adding that to his ears the Adhan sounds like a “battle-cry”.
Certainly 18th century historian Edward Gibbon would be surprised to hear the call to prayer echoing out over Oxford. In his renowned “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” Gibbon famously mused on what would have happened if the Muslims had not been defeated by the Franks at the Battle of Tours in France in 732 and prevented from pressing further into Europe.
“Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mohamet,” Gibbon wrote.
More than two centuries after Gibbon’s work, Oxford’s modern-day residents along with many others in other Christian countries across Europe are discussing relationships with Muslim neighbours that would have been unthinkable in his day.
“I do not care what religion someone follows, I do care that a loud verbal praising of a god I don’t believe in, is broadcast into my home,” one reader wrote on the Oxford Times Web site.
For the mosque to go ahead with the broadcast of the call to prayer it must get permission from the city council. The imam said that given the level of controversy, he has not yet applied because he wants to canvas opinions from the faithful first.
Imam Chisti said heightened tensions have caused what he calls Islamophobia: “Its a lack of knowledge, they don’t understand our intentions.”
The call to prayer traditionally involves a muezzin singing from a minaret. It begins with “Allahu Akbar” or “God is the greatest” and ends with “There is no God but God”.
The Muslim Council of Britain says increasingly Muslims are choosing more modern methods of receiving the call to prayer via a special FM frequency on their radios, or receiving a text message on their mobile phones informing them of the times of the day they should pray.