From Baghdad's mosques, calls to pray echo -- but don't quite match

Baghdad (AFP) –


Centuries after Islam's historic schism crystallised in Iraq, Sunni and Shiite muezzins in its capital chant subtly different calls to prayer -- just a few minutes and streets apart.

The staggered, lilting appeals blanket the western Baghdad neighbourhood of Rahmaniyah, thanks to Shiite muezzin Mullah Muntadhar and his Sunni counterpart Ahmad al-Azzawi.

"Sunnis come for our holidays, and we go to their mosques for theirs. There's no difference between us," Muntadhar said, wrapping up the call to prayer at the Abu Salawat mosque.

Their calls have more in common than not, but a few key differences may be missed by the untrained ear.

Azzawi, from the Hajji Rashid Daragh mosque, rises before dawn and issues the Sunni call to prayer five times a day.

Muntadhar and other Shiite muezzins begin a few minutes later, and only chant for three out of the five prayer times -- dawn, midday and sunset.

The Shiite calls also include two additional phrases.

One refers to Imam Ali who, as the fourth Islamic caliph and relative of the Prophet Mohammed, is among the most revered figures in Shiite Islam and is buried 200 kilometres (120 miles) south of Baghdad in Iraq's Najaf.

The lands of present-day Iraq saw the rise and fall of pre-Islamic civilisations, including Babylon and Sumeria, and then became the stage for crucial episodes of Islamic history.

In 680 AD in Karbala, the Sunni-Shiite split hardened when the army of Yazid killed Mohammad's grandson Imam Hussein and his followers -- an event commemorated today by Shiites around the world.

From 762 to 1258, Baghdad was the capital of the Sunni Abbasid caliphate and witnessed a golden age, particularly under Caliph Harun al-Rashid.

- Mixed neighbourhood -

In Iraq's more recent history, under Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-led regime, public Shiite pilgrimages were banned.

Saddam was toppled in 2003 by a US-led invasion, bringing leaders from the country's Shiite majority to power and ushering in a period of greater religious activism on their part.

But starting in 2005, a brutal sectarian war saw killings between Sunni and Shiite communities that left bodies strewn in Baghdad's streets.

To escape the violence, many families moved to districts to live among people of the same sect -- but Rahmaniyah steadfastly remained a mixed neighbourhood.

With Baghdad still reeling from intercommunal violence, Muntadhar and Azzawi, both young men at the time, began studying and practising to become muezzins.

Muntadhar trained at the prestigious Imam Kadhim shrine in Baghdad and became the muezzin at Abu Salawat in 2007. Azzawi followed suit a year later at his local mosque.

While Baghdad is no longer gripped by sectarian violence, points of friction and differences remain between the two communities.

A few years ago, Shiite clerics in a religious ruling sentenced to death a Sunni caliph who died centuries ago, for his role in killing a Shiite figure.

The sects also mark different feast days and the exact time at which they break fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts later this month, varies by a few minutes.

- From praying to staying -

But in some special corners like Rahmaniyah, coexistence -- not conflict -- is the tradition.

Built in 1957, the Hajji Rashid Daragh mosque represents just that, says Azzawi.

"It's a historic symbol for local people and a sign of our coexistence. It's our duty to preserve it," he told AFP.

Hussein al-Jubury, who has attended prayers there since the 1970s, agreed.

"When we were young, we didn't even know whether this was a Sunni or Shiite mosque. All that counted was that we were with our neighbours," Jubury said.

Sunni and Shiite mosques in Baghdad -- many of which are centuries old -- have some design differences, but they equally suffer from poor maintenance.

Sometimes, that creates room for cooperation.

Omar al-Taei, a caretaker at the Ottoman-era Sunni Ahmadiya mosque in Baghdad, called on friends and neighbours to help renovate the dilapidated structure.

But it was a businessman from Kadhimiya, a Shiite shrine district, who ultimately provided the biggest donation.

Now, with Iraq under lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, Baghdad's 10 million residents have grown accustomed to a new sound echoing through the city.

Well after the final call to prayer from Sunni mosques has faded away, another voice crackles over speakers at exactly 8:00 pm (1700 GMT) each night.

"To prevent the spread of coronavirus," the voice urges, "please, everyone, stay home".