State of Emergency: Friday Khutbahs in the United States
by Hesham A. Hassaballa
In the Name of God, the Subtle, the Loving
Last week, I was trying my best to hurry and finish all of my hospital work in time to catch the second Friday sermon at a mosque not that far from one of the hospitals at which I work. I made it to the mosque on time, thank God, only to find that the Friday service consisted of a 25 minute speech in Urdu, a language which I do not speak, followed by a 3 minute “khutbah,” which was nothing more than one verse of the Qur’an, one hadith, and a long-winded, rhyming supplication in Arabic. Then, we all prayed and went our separate ways. Now, I have endured this type of Friday prayer service for years, and there is inherently nothing wrong with it. In fact, sometimes, I use this model of Friday prayer to my advantage.
If I know that I am going to run late working in the hospital, I will go to a local mosque that has this Urdu speech, Arabic “khutbah” model so that I can pop into the mosque right before the speech ends. That way, I am not bored to sleep by (a likely wonderful) talk which I cannot understand, and I can focus on the “khutbah,” during which I am supposed to pay my undivided attention. I can fulfill my Friday prayer obligation in ten minutes flat (a “Drive-thru Jumu’ah,” if you will). Yet, the purpose of the Friday prayer is not to pray and leave, as I did on that Friday, but to re-charge my spirit on a weekly basis. For far too long, too many Friday prayers have left me totally disappointed.
As I reflect upon the state of our Friday Khutbahs today, I can see a number of problem paradigms:
1. Many mosques have this Speech/Arabic “Khutbah” hybrid for Friday prayers.
Presumably, this is in belief that it is “sunnah” to give the sermon only in Arabic. But, the khutbah should be for every worshiper, and if one worshiper does not get the message, then the concept of the Friday sermon is completely lost. Thanks be to God, I understand Arabic, so when I hear the one verse and one hadith, I can get a sense of what the Urdu speech was about. Yet, what about the worshiper - who may even be of South Asian descent - that understands neither Urdu nor Arabic? What becomes of him or her? What lesson has he or she learned on this particular Friday that will help him or her live a better Muslim life? What if a non-Muslim visitor, who is interested in Islam, happens to show up during the Urdu/Arabic hybrid service? What benefit will he or she gain?
2. The Khateeb can barely speak English and/or is an un-engaging speaker.
Sadly, the English/Arabic hybrids or all-English sermons are no better. The Friday sermon is an opportunity to make an impact on the lives of the congregants. So many times, however, I have sat through horrific English sermons given by people who cannot speak the English language with any sort of coherence whatsoever, or who read from a piece of paper and barely make eye contact with the audience. Why, I was chastised by the leadership of the mosque at which I give an occasional sermon because I “move my arms too much.” In fact, the young students who were charged to give sermons from time to time at that mosque, were told not to make eye contact, but rather look at the tops of head of the worshipers. How can you keep the attention of the people like this? Frequently, when I look around, I see people either bored to tears (or sleep) or even talking, which is not allowed.
3. The topics of our Friday sermons are the same or can be read in a book.
How many times have we heard the verse: “Fasting has been prescribed upon you as it was prescribed upon the people before you that you may learn God-consciousness” right before Ramadan each and every year? How many times have we been told that “the fasting person has two happinesses…”? How many times have we been informed that the bad breath of the fasting person is like Musk? Once, on Ramadan 26, the khateeb read to us the detailed fiqh of fasting, including the fact that we can kiss our wives without breaking our fast.
Or, our sermons are nothing more than fiqh lessons that we can all read in “Fiqh of the Sunnah”: how many times have we been told about the things that break our wudu? How many times have we been told that we have to bathe after spousal relations or nocturnal emissions? How many times have we been told that blood that is bigger than a quarter will make our prayers invalid? How many times have we been told that, if we don’t hear a sound or smell an odor, we don’t have to repeat our wudu if there is doubt.
In many mosques across the country, there is very little effort to give us khateebs that (1) can talk about a familiar topic in a different way; (2) or talk about a completely new topic altogether.
4. Many times, the Khateeb does not inspire or give hope to the congregation.
Another problem is that, so many khateebs continually remind us of how bad we are as Muslims. They constantly tell us how far we have deviated from the standard of the Sahabah, and we leave the prayer feeling sad and dejected. Almost no khateeb I have ever heard has told me that God loves me; on the contrary, he has reminded me that God will punish me severely for my sins. In fact, one khateeb devoted an entire sermon reminding the congregation of the punishment of the grave.
Yet another problem is the fact that, so many khateebs tell us what we should do, but do not tell us how. A relative of mine complained to me about this recently: “The last thing they want to hear is being told “You have to…..’ “You have to get close to Allah….” [and then not be followed up with]....HOW.” HOW are we supposed to get close to Allah? HOW are we supposed to increase our fear in prayer? HOW do we increase our “dhikr” of Allah? HOW do we implement the Qur’an in our lives, as the Sahabah did? HOW? Sadly, our khutbahs almost never include “how,” just “do.”
I declare this emergency not because I am at risk of never going to a Friday sermon again. Far from it. No matter how bumbling, no matter how incoherent, no matter how un-inspiring, I am going to go to Friday prayer. It is part of my routine; I could not fathom not going to Friday prayers. Yet, there are so many others who may not be as obsessed as I am with Friday prayers, who very well may not come back if they sit through a terrible khutbah.
It is tough enough being Muslim in America, with all the constant attacks on our faith in American media and popular culture. It is tough being Muslim in America, when many in the country look at Muslims with the utmost suspicion, if not outright hostility. It is tough being a young Muslim in America, when, many times, the dictates of the faith clash with the cultural norms of society. When I was growing up, it was tremendously difficult staying true to Islam; it is even worse today.
The mosque on Friday should be a refuge, an hour when one can come to the House of God and feel relieved, refreshed, and reinvigorated. The Friday prayers should energize the worshiper, remind him or her how wonderful it truly is to be a Muslim. After leaving Friday prayers, the worshiper should be encouraged and inspired to live a better life during the coming week than than he or she did in the preceding week. After leaving Friday prayers, the congregant should be looking forward to next week’s services, where he or she will be inspired again. If they come to Friday prayers and get demoralized even further, they may conclude that going to Friday prayers is simply not worth their time. This simply cannot be allowed to happen.
So, what should be done about this crisis? Here are some humble suggestions:
1. The “official language” of our mosques must be English.
The khutbah must be in the English language. If the mosque believes that the khutbah simply has to be in Arabic, because the Prophet (pbuh) spoke Arabic, then make the “pre-khutbah speech” in English and then translate the Arabic “khutbah” later. We live in America, and we all must use and understand the English language to live our daily lives. We must have our sermons in English as well. Everyone must have an equal opportunity to benefit from the Friday sermon, be they long-time or first-time
worshippers. Having the sermon be only in English will accomplish this goal.
2. Our khateebs must have a good command of the English language and should be the community’s best speakers.
Each of our communities has its respected elders and leaders. We owe them a tremendous amount of gratitude and respect, as our faith tells us we should. But, that does not mean they have to give the sermon on Friday. Not everyone is as eloquent as President Obama. We are not looking for an “I Have a Dream Speech” each and every Friday. But, we are looking for someone who can articulate a point well and proficiently. The Friday khutbah is supposed to teach and inspire the congregation, and if the khateeb cannot be understood, than it is a lost opportunity. No matter how accomplished a particular “uncle” may be, no matter how long the “uncle” has served the community, no matter how many dollars an “uncle” has donated, if he bores the congregation to tears with his sermons, then he simply should not be allowed to give them.
3. Topics should be timely, pertinent, and most important of all, HOPEFUL
No more sermons about the breath of the fasting person; no more sermons about what things make our clothes unclean; no more sermons about how Allah is “severe in punishment.” In fact, why not have the congregation request specific topics they want to have discussed? After all, isn’t the Friday sermon for the people? In addition, the Friday sermon needs to uplift and inspire, not depress and deject. If I ever am blessed with the opportunity to give a sermon in a mosque to which I have never gone before, I almost always talk about God’s love. Thanks be to God, I almost always get an overwhelmingly positive response. Our people are hungry for positive, hopeful messages. We need to deliver these messages, especially in this difficult and trying time in the history of Islam and Muslims.
4. Create a well-paid position of Imam/Khateeb in our mosques
I remember once hearing that, in traditional Islamic societies, the Imam of the mosque was simply the person who lead the five daily prayers, and the Khateeb was a distinct person, who was more equipped to speak to the people. We should revive this tradition. In fact, I am not opposed to having well paid Imams/Khateebs for our mosques. They should make six-figue salaries, in fact. That way, we can attract the best and brightest to be shepherds of the Muslim flock. This may not work for all mosques, but it is something to
think about, nonetheless.
Our khutbahs are in crisis, one no less important than the global financial crisis which threatens to be drag the world economy into depression. The khutbah crisis, in fact, is akin to the global financial crisis, because it is also liable to bring the spirits of Muslims into a depression out of which may be very difficult to climb. My brother-in-law told me once that his daughter brought a paper from her Islamic school that talked about how she can become a better Muslim and asked her father, “Dad, does this mean that I am a bad Muslim?”
If our young people continue to be bombarded, week after week, with khutbahs that tell them they are not good enough, or rehash the same old topics, or cannot even be properly understood, then we are at risk of losing them completely. They are the future of Islam in America, and we cannot afford to drive them away with our Friday sermons. Our future, our survival, and our very salvation is at stake.
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago doctor and writer. He has written extensively on a freelance basis, being published in the Chicago Tribune as well as other newspapers across the country and around the world. He has been a Beliefnet columnist since 2001, and he is also a columnist for the Religion News Service. In addition, Dr. Hassaballa is Deputy Director of Illume Magazine. Dr. Hassaballa is author of the essay “Why I Love the Ten Commandments,” published in the award-winning book Taking Back Islam (Rodale). He is also co-author of The Beliefnet Guide to Islam (Doubleday). In 2007, he was nominated for a Brass Crescent Award for a blog that is “the most stimulating, insightful, and philosophical, providing the best rebuttals to extremist ideology and making an impact whenever they post.”