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In Egypt, religious ringtones set off controversy

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Amr Nabil/AP

(Read caption) A woman talks on a mobile phone in Cairo, where religious ringtones featuring koranic verses remain popular despite a fatwa condemning them.

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Five times a day, the cacophony of Cairo traffic is overwhelmed by the sound of the adhan, or call to prayer. Projected by cackling loudspeakers, the call reverberates around the city. Taxis blast imams’ sermons through open windows, while shops play koranic recitations. In Egypt, religious expression is everywhere – even on mobile phones.

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Ringtones with religious themes have steadily gained popularity over the past few years. That was until Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa of Al-Azhar mosque, the country’s highest religious authority, issued a fatwa condemning the popular ringtones that feature koranic verses and the call to prayer.

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“Putting the Holy Koran or the call to prayer as a mobile phone ringtone trivializes the sanctity of the verses,” Mufti Gomaa told the state news agency. Interrupting a religious verse to pick up the phone or having a recitation play in an inappropriate place, such as the bathroom, were among his examples.

But while many Egyptians on the street accept the rationale behind Gomaa’s thinking, some think a ringtone fatwa is going a little too far. Fatwas are edicts issued by Islamic scholars to provide religious guidance. While they are nonbinding in Sunni Islam, many turn to fatwas to understand how to apply traditional teachings to modern life.

“In my opinion, if a koranic verse is playing and you pick up and you interrupt it, that’s haram [forbidden],” says Monier Sami, a bakery cashier. Mr. Sami knows a lot of people who have removed their koranic ringtones since hearing Gomaa’s opinion.

“You interrupt a hadith or the Koran, the word of God, just to talk?” scoffs Mustafa Mohammed Ali at the whole concept.

But others question the fatwa.

“If I want to have the Koran on my cellphone, I think that’s a personal freedom,” says Hanaa Ezeldeen, a veiled shop manager at a sock store. For her, issuing a ruling on ringtones is going a little too far. “It would be haram to play it in the bathroom, but in the end, that’s my right,” she says.

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