Clash of cultures: the screaming minarets of Oxford

A plan to call Muslims to prayer with a loudspeaker has divided opinion in Britain's oldest university town. By Andy McSmith

A small metal cross in Oxford's Broad Street marks the spot where one of the worst acts of religious bigotry in English history was perpetrated: the burning of bishops Latimer and Ridley – the Oxford Martyrs – during the reign of Mary I, Bloody Mary, the last Catholic ruler of England.

Four hundred and fifty years on, a row has now flared in the city which threatens to pitch Muslims and a few Christian allies against an outraged coalition of both secular and non-secular figures. The issue in question is whether the cry of Muslims being summoned to prayer should be allowed to resound over Oxford's dreaming spires.

The row blew up after the Oxford Central Mosque said it would apply to the city council for permission to broadcast the call to prayer from loudspeakers in the minaret in a newly built mosque, three times a day. The sound is familiar to anyone who has visited any part of the Muslim world, but in Britain it is rare, even in those cities with a high concentration of Muslims.

Some people might think that it would add a beautiful new sound to the already rich cultural diversity of the nation's premier university town, but that is not a view shared by people living within earshot of the minaret, who face having their lunchtimes, early afternoons and early evenings punctuated by the sound of the muezzin calling "hasten to prayer".

The proposal has attracted so much opposition that it has prompted the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev John Pritchard, to issue a plea for tolerance, in one of his first public statements since taking up his new office.

For the moment, the Oxford Central Mosque has said it is going to delay the request for planning permission. The new mosque, in Manzil Way, east Oxford, is still under construction, and will not be finished until the end of the year.

Muslims are summoned to prayer five times a day: at dawn, at midday, in mid-afternoon, just after sunset, and at night about two hours after sunset.

There is no suggestion that the call is going to be sounded at dawn or at night in Oxford, but the mosque will ask to be allowed to broadcast the three daytime calls, though their spokesman, Sarder Rana, said they will be "happy" if they get permission to make the call to Friday prayers only.

Allan Chapman, a devout Christian who is leading the campaign against the call to prayer, was relieved by the delay, which he attributed to the opposition from local residents.

"If there hadn't been hell and fury we would have had this place wailing away already," he said. "The opposition to this brings together people who on paper are totally apart. It links true blue Tories who go to church with ex-Marxists who don't believe in God. We see it as naked Islamic imperialism. The community around the mosque is very Christian and European.

"The call to prayer is a sound many people find menacing. It's redolent of things they don't want to think about. It's also a form of preaching. It will destroy the cohesion of a very well integrated community."

He added: "What has angered people – and it has absolutely screamingly angered many people – is when we see Anglican clergymen overtly supporting Islam. We're totally staggered. It's being a traitor to the job description of their employment."

Opponents of the call to prayer believe they have a natural ally in the Bishop of Rochester, the Right Rev Nazir Ali, who has not commented directly on the Oxford row, but who alleged in a newspaper article this month that parts of Britain were being turned into "no-go" areas for non-Muslims.

He said: "Attempts have been made to impose an 'Islamic' character on certain areas, for example, by insisting on artificial amplification for the Adhan, the call to prayer. Such amplification was, of course, unknown throughout most of history and its use raises all sorts of questions about noise levels and whether non-Muslims wish to be told the creed of a particular faith five times a day on the loudspeaker."

The new Bishop of Oxford has implied that people are getting worked up for no good reason.

"I would say to anyone who has concerns about the call to prayer to relax and enjoy our community diversity and be as respectful to others as you would hope they would be to you," he told the Oxford Mail.

"I sympathise with those who find any kind of expression of public faith intrusive, but I think part of living in a tolerant society is saying, 'I don't agree with this but I accept it as part of my responsibility as being part of a diverse community'."

Mr Rana denied that Oxford's Muslims wanted to force their religion on anyone. He said: "In Spain, Muslims ruled for 800 years, but they didn't make everybody Muslims. Islam doesn't allow us to force anybody [to convert].

"In Pakistan, the bell rings in Christian churches. We never object. There is a tradition in Islam that we issue a call to prayers. It's a very beautiful sound. I don't believe most people will object."