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Philip Hensher

Philip Hensher: How wrong of Oxford to still the call to prayer

Personally, I find the sound of the muezzin one of the most romantic and wonderfulin the world

The association of Oxford and the Arab cultures goes back centuries, and was being considered many centuries before it became a reality. The Church Council of Vienne, in 1311-12, decreed that chairs of Greek, Hebrew, Chaldean and Arabic should be established at five universities, including Oxford. Nothing came of the decree as far as Arabic was concerned, and Robert Irwin, in his brilliant history of Orientalism, regards it as the fag-end of the Crusaders' engagement rather than the beginning of something interesting.

When Arabic began to be studied in earnest at Oxford in the 17th century, then, there was at least the ghost of an interest behind it. First there were itinerant human curiosities, such as Abudacnus, as the Egyptian Coptic Yusuf ibn Abu Dhaqan was known on his arrival in 1610. Subsequently, in 1636, the Laudian Chair in Arabic was founded. Its first occupant, Edward Pococke, had an excellent knowledge of the language through living in Syria – still the best place to learn Arabic. Ever since, Oxford's engagement with Arabic has come and gone, and a tenuous but real line of scholarship can be traced back four centuries.

That has occasionally been forgotten. Gibbon, in the 18th century, wanted to study Arabic when at Oxford but was discouraged by his tutor from doing so.

Perhaps some memory of that arose when he wrote, in a famous passage from The Decline and Fall, about the consequences of a famous Frankish victory over the Arabs. "But for the victory at Tours, the Koran might 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 Muhammed."

That's been a favourite quotation of commentators in recent years, whenever anything vaguely Islamic happens in Oxford. A high degree of Gibbon-quoting fury has been expressed over a suggestion made by the 700 or so Muslims who attend the city's central mosque. They would like to have an amplified call to prayer from their minaret, three times a day, or, if that is too much, only on Fridays.

Of course, Oxford has quite a lot of calls to prayer already in the form of church bells, but this suggestion has raised the ire of local residents. Some claimed it was a matter of "community cohesion" – rather a dubious notion if it leads to recommendations that minorities keep quiet, all in all. An academic told the paper "What an utter cheek to inflict this on a non-Muslim area of Oxford. Christian churches ring bells, but they are just a signal. The Muslim call is a theological statement." (In Arabic, I feel I should point out, so it's not all that likely that the non-Muslim area of Oxford will be roused to technical disagreement with the muezzin.)

Though I can't claim any enthusiasm for the forces of organised religion, and don't care for anything which increases the general noisiness of modern life, one does wonder why people are objecting so virulently. I very much doubt that the Oxford central mosque is a hotbed of anti-western hatred, and they themselves sound genuinely puzzled why such objection to one of their central traditions is so violent.

Personally, not caring about or indeed understanding what the muezzin is saying, I find the sound one of the most romantic and wonderful in the world.

To be deep in the winding mediaeval streets of old Cairo as dusk falls, to hear a single voice raised in song, from the minaret of al-Azhar, perhaps; and then another, answering, and another and another, in serene discordant rivalry across the rooftops and into the indigo sky; that is an unforgettably poetic experience. Every time it happens, for me, there is a little tug at the heart.

I don't suppose I will ever convert to Islam, but I like to have a glimpse, through what is only an aesthetic response, of the deep feelings of others. Well, the inhabitants of Oxford don't like it and don't want it, even once a week. And since, in this country, one person's freedom is limited by the significant nuisance it causes another, there does't seem to be any room for manoeuvre. There won't be an amplified call to prayer, and I would have thought that objections will be fairly strong against a muezzin standing on a minaret and singing without amplification, too, if he could be heard at all.

Oxford is famously rather self-absorbed, but can it really be true that nobody would find charm, interest and perhaps even some beauty in the call to prayer echoing, once a week, across its domes and spires? Hardly anyone agrees any more with what those church bells represent, but we go on enjoying them. Can Oxford really not take any pleasure in the outward and aesthetic form which other people's beliefs take? Do they have to be sanctioned by Gibbon first?