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The love of the loudspeaker

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By Hussain H Zaidi

 When the khatib of a mosque was asked what in his opinion constituted the most useful invention of science, his reply was “the loudspeaker”. If the same question were put to any other khatib, his answer would be the same.
In our society, there is a special relationship between a khatib and the loudspeaker so much so that it is difficult to think of the former without the latter. Just as a soldier needs to be a good shooter, a khatib must be a good speaker. And one can hardly be a good speaker without being adept at using the loudspeaker.
Once a khatib told the present writer that he as eagerly waited for Friday as the salaried class waited for the first of every month. Not that he receives any salary on that day, but because on every Friday he addresses Juma congregations, which gives him an opportunity to parade in front of a large number of people his oratory and the esoteric knowledge of who amongst us will be blessed with paradise and who will be condemned to hell. Without taking away credit from his oratorical skills and the knowledge of who is a true believer and who is not, he admitted that the effect of his sermons owed a lot to that wonderful invention of science – the loudspeaker. “Without that,” he said, “I can hardly make a forceful and persuasive speech.” “Besides,” he argued, “this is the age of propaganda, and the louder you speak, the more attentively you are heard and the more influence you exercise on the hearts and minds of the audience.”
The khatib’s argument explains a lot. We are living in hard times. Those of us who want to sell some good, service or idea have to face stiff competition. The competition stems from two sources: those which offer similar products and those which offer substitute products. The key to success is how strongly we appeal to the hopes and fears, needs and wants, of our target-market or audience vis-à-vis our competitors. The stronger the appeal, the more loyal the target audience – brand loyalty as the marketing people call it. A khatib also has to face a double competition. One, from the people for whom religion is a private affair of the individual and who disapprove of any attempt to be made religious. Two, from the khatibs belonging to some other school of thought. In such a situation, he can hardly afford to twiddle his thumbs. One moment of negligence and the ignorant people may be misled by the rivals. Therefore, he needs to communicate with the souls he wants to save – regularly and forcefully.
Once I went to see my uncle who lived in a small town. It was the mid of summer – hot and humid. As we were having dinner, electricity went out, and was restored only at dawn keeping us awake the whole night. But as soon as we went to sleep, the khatib of the nearby mosque started his sermon. My uncle, a retired government servant, went out of patience. At the risk of being declared a heretic, he went to the mosque and begged the khatib to let him and others sleep. He even offered him some money. But the khatib was too pious to be swayed by monetary considerations. He simply told the old man to mind his own business and do not interfere with his freedom of expression.
All government attempts to regulate the use of the loudspeaker in mosques, like many other measures to discipline the clergy, have failed. The credit for this goes to the clergy, who have strongly safeguarded their freedom of speech. And why not. Those who cannot protect their liberty hardly deserve it. Only power breakdowns or shutdowns can prevent the clergy from using the loudspeaker. Perhaps the men and women who control electricity supply are not truly religious, otherwise mosques would have had an uninterrupted power supply, particularly during Friday sermons.
The growth of the electronic media, particularly private TV channels, has enabled the clergy, like other segments of society, to reach a much wider audience round the clock. Therefore, the clergy are no longer wholly dependent on the loudspeaker as a means of communication. However, for the large majority amongst them who have no access to the electronic media the loudspeaker remains the only means of reaching their audience.
When the loudspeaker was introduced in Pakistan, guess who opposed it most vehemently? Not the students. Not even the old and the sick. Yes, the clergy, who believed it to be un-Islamic. But today it’s they who make the most of it. Who says the clergy do not change?

The author is a freelance contributor based in Islamabad. Email:

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