Middle East

Tehran's Minarets Have Gone Quiet

The call to prayer once made Iranians think of the theocracy. Many would rather not.

Quiet, please.

Photographer: BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)

In Tehran, you can spend days at a time without hearing the wail of the call to prayer. For someone who once lived in Istanbul, where the muezzin compete to be heard over minaret-mounted loudspeakers cranked up to 11, that comes as quite a surprise.

This is, after all, the capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Women are obliged to cover their heads and every official speech or comment begins with an invocation of God. The Supreme Leader is a cleric; so is the current President of Iran, as were two of his three predecessors. And yet the volume on the call to prayer has been turned down, because people complained.

"The call to prayer used to be much louder, but then it was decided to shorten it and turn it down," said Seyyed Mohammad Ali Ayazi, a reformist cleric in the city of Qom, one of Iran's most important religious centers, 110 miles south of Tehran. Ayazi said the directive was issued to mosques about a decade ago, asking them to keep the volume down. The process showed that the clergy cares about the concerns of ordinary Iranians, he said, adding that nowadays many people set a recording of the call on their cell phones, instead. As if to make the point, his own sounded.

Seyyed Mohammad Ali Ayazi
Seyyed Mohammad Ali Ayazi
Photographer: Marc Champion

Maybe, although the theocratic regime's record of tender care for its citizens is otherwise poor. Neither of the agencies responsible for such matters could find any record of any official government directive, but senior clerics have publicly weighed in on the issue. The call to prayer's volume became -- like so many things in Iran -- a matter of dispute between hardline and reformist clerics and, as in the recent parliamentary elections, reformists won the argument in Tehran. 

However this surprising quiet came about, the neighborhood complaints fit a pattern that Ayazi recognizes: Young, urban Iranians in particular have become less religiously observant over the years, largely because they have come to associate religion with an unpopular state. They've grown less tolerant of public symbols of religiosity as a result, even as political Islam is experiencing a revival in other parts of the Middle East. Said Ayazi:

Statistical surveys show that in the 10 years of [former President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, people began to practice their religion less, especially after 2009, when a wide gap opened between society, the state and the ruling system.

Comparable studies conducted in 1975 (before the revolution) and 2001 suggest that religious attendance had been falling for some time, leading one academic paper to suggest that: "while Iranians continue to have strong religious beliefs and faith, Shi’ism is being privatized under the theocratic rule."

This reactive process can work both ways. In the 1930s, the last Shah of Iran's father, Reza Shah, imposed similar Westernizing policies to those of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in neighboring Turkey. He established secular courts and schools, undermining the immense power -- and livelihoods -- of the Shiite clergymen. He also forced Iranians to wear Western-style dress and abolished the wearing of the veil. His son continued many of these policies, and they help to explain the fiercely religious nature of Iran's revolution.

Ali Mirmoosavi, another liberal cleric in Qom and an assistant professor of political science at Mofid University drew the relationship still more clearly:

It seems to me there is an inverse link between the amount of force used by the government to impose religion, and the faith of the people.

Ali Mirmoosavi
Ali Mirmoosavi
Photographer: Marc Champion

Don't get me wrong: This remains a deeply religious nation and neither of these clerics is calling for a Western-style separation of mosque and state. Iran's fundamentalist regime is entrenched. That's especially true in cities such as Qom, a place of religious pilgrimage where virtually all women wear the black chador robes in public, even as they are shunned by women in the chic cafes of Tehran, in their fashionable clothes and headscarves just clinging to the backs of their heads. It's just that for a growing number of Iranians, faith is becoming more private, and political Islam resented.

Friday prayers, which I attended recently in Tehran's Grand Mosalla Mosque, was indicative. The mosque is vast, with a chamber the size of multiple American football fields. It was perhaps half- full on the day I went, and was being filmed for TV. I estimated the crowd, punctuated by the occasional military unit, at around 5,000. That sounds like a lot people, but just a handful of mosques hold Friday prayers in Tehran, in part because of rules on the distance (at least one Persian "farsakh," or a bit more than three miles) there must be between venues, but I suspect also because they would be empty. In a city of between 9 million and 16 million, depending on how you measure, even if each Friday prayer mosque had as many people as Grand Mosalla, that implies a tiny rate of attendance.

Friday prayers in Tehran.
Friday prayers in Tehran.
Photographer: Marc Champion

Middle class Tehranis I spoke to stay away from Friday prayers, because they see them as political theater. Sure enough, during a sermon, the prayer leader began punching the air, shouting: "Death to America! Death to Israel! Death to the infidels!" When my neighbors and most of the congregation followed suit, they raised their fists without any obvious enthusiasm, speaking rather than shouting the words. The two groups of soldiers in fatigues I could see from where I sat did nothing.

Moments after he'd joined in calling for the death of America, the neighbor to my left leaned over to ask politely where I was from. When I told him I was from London, he asked if I was English. I explained that I was American. "Ah, I like America," he said, brightening. "It is a country with very much freedom." From wherever you stand, Iran could use more of that.

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    To contact the author of this story:
    Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

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    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

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