Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Making any kind of comment on the Swiss vote to ban the construction of minarets seems to involve re-stating the obvious in one way or another, and yet it's hard not to.

So my comment is this: clocks is the next thing that the Swiss should ban.

Here's an opening passage from Kenneth Cragg's The Call of the Minaret (1956; quote from the 2000 third edition) - a re-statement of the obvious, of course:

The clock is an important item in the mosque. The muezzin must be punctual in announcing the call to prayer. His timepiece marks the points for Salāt, "prayer," between dawn and sunset. [...]

And here's a little excerpt on the history of the minarets, from Robert Irwin's Islamic Art (1997; pp. 63-64):

Minarets may now be seen as entirely characteristic of Muslim religious architecture, but the very first mosques had none. The call to prayer was customarily made from the roof of the mosque itself. Equally, while it is now widely taken for granted that the purpose of a minaret is to provide the muezzin, who gives the five daily calls to prayer, with an elevated platform from which to make them, it is not so clear that this was its original purpose. The word minaret is related to nur, the word for light, and it is possible that not only was the form of the minaret influenced by that of the ancient Pharos or Lighthouse of Alexandria, but also that many of the early minarets were not designed as places for making the call to prayer. Indeed, some were not attached to mosques at all [...]. Rather, they seem in some cases at least to have functioned as lighthouses, guiding travellers across both seas and deserts. Others served as watchtowers, and still others were put up as monuments to commemorate Muslim victories.

The earliest minaret attached to a mosque was allegedly put up at Basra in southern Iraq in the 660s, though it has not survived. Early mosques had only one minaret [...] - if any - but over the centuries there was a slow proliferation in their number. These additional minarets had a decorative rather than a functional purpose; in later centuries as minarets increased in height nad became more slender, they were to all intents and purposes useless as places from which to make the call to prayer. Since the minaret was unknown in the lifetime of the Prophet, some strict Muslims denounced (and continue to denounce) minarets as ostentatious and unnecessary innovations. [...]"

Finally, here's a passage on Don Quixote's well-known Adventure of the Windmills (1605; Part 1, Chapter 8):

[...] At this point they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that there are on plain, and as soon as Don Quixote saw them he said to his squire, "Fortune is arranging matters for us better than we could have shaped our desires ourselves, for look there, friend Sancho Panza, where thirty or more monstrous giants present themselves, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay, and with whose spoils we shall begin to make our fortunes; for this is righteous warfare, and it is God's good service to sweep so evil a breed from off the face of the earth."

"What giants?" said Sancho Panza.

"Those thou seest there," answered his master, "with the long arms, and some have them nearly two leagues long."

"Look, your worship," said Sancho; "what we see there are not giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms are the sails that turned by the wind make the millstone go."

"It is easy to see," replied Don Quixote, "that thou art not used to this business of adventures; those are giants; and if thou art afraid, away with thee out of this and betake thyself to prayer while I engage them in fierce and unequal combat."

So saying, he gave the spur to his steed Rocinante, heedless of the cries his squire Sancho sent after him, warning him that most certainly they were windmills and not giants he was going to attack. He, however, was so positive they were giants that he neither heard the cries of Sancho, nor perceived, near as he was, what they were, but made at them shouting, "Fly not, cowards and vile beings, for a single knight attacks you." [...]


  1. Those quotes really do fit, though I certainly wouldn't expect an imminent clock ban...

    However, there are a couple of things about the Swiss minaret story that still strike me. It's very telling, for instance, that the constituencies where most voters supported the ban seem to be the kind of rural districts where no Muslims live at all, while in cities like Geneva or Zurich (i.e. where the few Swiss mosques are) the results were way more balanced (as can be seen in this item from Le Temps:, the rare violet coloured districts being those having rejected the ban).

    Not to speak about the ones who voted in favour of exporting weapons and against the minarets on the same Sunday. As French journalist Jean Quatremer – Libération's EU correspondent – put it: "on n’aime pas les musulmans en Suisse, mais on veut bien leur vendre des armes ou accueillir leurs avoirs…" ("we don't want any Muslims in Switzerland, but we don't mind selling weapons to them or taking care of their assets").

    Sad. And I'm afraid a lot of people in other European countries would vote just as the Swiss did if they were given the chance.

  2. As a Swiss citizen, I now know what embarassment means : there will be an after November 29th for us just as there is an after September 11th..
    Your post – AND the comment by BRIAXIS – give good information on the vote. I would add just a point : in Switzerland, the populace is called in to vote about 5 times a year. Not just elections, but also initiatives and referendums à la Suisse : sometimes on trifling things, that would be hilarious would it not be for the price of the whole process. That is why part of the population does not care at all, expresses lassitude. This time, after the Lybia case, many a simpleton went to vote, who had never done so before : I was amazed at the participation rate. And among those simpletons :
    - 50% of them voice their xenophobia, or their view that minarets “do not fit in the landscape”, as I heard a passerby comment on a TV poll
    - 50% of them had good intentions, but did not READ the text properly : the answer to give was NO, No to this initiative to inscribe the ban on minarets in our Constitution . So, some people voted YES to the initiative, thinking they were showing their openness and voting YES to …minarets
    The head of the mosque in our town was interviewed yesterday : he feared people of his faith who acquired Swiss citizenship recently, and had never voted before, might have made up part of this second category. For a solace…
    Direct democracy has its limits and dangers. It is now time to take stock of it : should a plumber be in charge of surgery when you are ill? We face this question now.
    As for the intelligentsia, they are now rubbing shoulders to occupy this land : a “moderate” MP from my region is making headlines with the burqha, meaning it violates human rights more than minarets, and we should address the issue! In my whole life, I have NEVER SEEN a burqha-clad woman. And this idiot is the president of the Institute I work for…
    Thanks Neeka for blogging about it

  3. P.S. : ... I've been wanting to read Don Quixote for years : it is apparently the right time.

  4. Dear Genia and Briaxis,

    Thank you so much for your comments - very, very interesting!

  5. For Briaxis and other "françisants", a link about your post's last line :

    I wish I were Neeka to post pictures of all the tiny and witty signs of solidarity with Muslims here on doors, windows, etc. :)

  6. Dear Genia,

    If you wish, you're welcome to send me the pictures and I'll be happy to post them here!!!

  7. A quick follow-up with a photo taken by Genia is here.