mustafa hussain mustafa.hussain at GET2NET.DK
Thu Nov 13 22:12:57 UTC 2003

Enough Is Enough: A Blueprint for Enlightened Friday Sermons in Our Mosques

By Hasan Zillur Rahim

Let's face it: the average Friday sermon in American mosques is often a complete waste of time, reflecting the abject failure of our imams and scholars to articulate the critical issues facing American Muslims. 

Instead of alerting us, say, to the dangers of religious chauvinism or reflexive anti-Americanism, what we often get are lectures on the obvious and the irrelevant on the one hand, and a hodgepodge of conspiracy theories and victimhood grievances on the other. The predictable hectoring, the hair-splitting arguments, the opportunistic invocation of the moral high ground, all these and more often make us wonder if our leaders can ever deal intelligently with the complex religious and political issues of our times, instead of glossing over them with platitudes or denial.

A large percentage of the sermons fall in the category of preaching to the converted. The five daily prayers are important for our spiritual growth, we are solemnly told. Or, without zakat, our wealth becomes a catalyst for our downfall. Or, fasting during Ramadan cleanses the body as well as the soul.

Reminding us of the basics of our faith is, of course, useful. And occasionally we hear a sermon so eloquent and persuasive--on the transcendence of prayer, for instance, or the spirituality of caring for others--that it opens eyes and touches hearts.

But these are the exceptions.

More often, the sermons contain nothing new even for newcomers to Islam. It isn't uncommon for Muslims flocking to the Friday prayers to hear, week after week, passionate lectures on the importance of consuming halal meat, or for women to wear hijab, or for sighting the hilal to mark the beginning and end of Ramadan.

If an imam tires of the obvious, he relishes taking us on guilt trips. We don't pray, he may lament (what are we doing here then, O wise one?) and we don't read the Qur'an and we don't fast and we don't remember Allah often enough and we don't visit sick Muslims in hospitals and we don't do this and we don't do that, on and on and on.

But, at least, these sermons are benign in that they do not extend beyond issues of personal piety. More malignant are the types of sermons our khatibs routinely feel obliged to deliver to promote an "us versus them" mentality, "us" being the Umma, the worldwide community of Muslims, and "them" being the West, particularly America. 

It is easy to attribute "global Muslim suffering" to an unchanging cabal of imperialists, Muslim-haters and modern-day Crusaders, but when Muslims themselves are responsible for the sufferings of other Muslims, the imams ignore or deny their culpability.


The September 11 attacks have raised the bar for the Friday sermons. After years of resignation, congregants are demanding accountability from the sermonizers. 

Many Americans are also tuning in. Before the 9/11 attacks, teachers and students from local schools sometimes visited our mosques on Fridays to observe how we prayed, or to collect data for a research paper on Islam. Occasionally, a reporter or two would drop by to get an "Islamic perspective" on a breaking event. 

In the post-9/11 world, the sermons have become the main draw, offering our fellow citizens a glimpse into Muslim thinking and a chance to evaluate firsthand where we stand on various issues.

A critical concern for American Muslims is: How can we sustain a high level of discourse in our sermons in the post-9/11 world? How can we ensure that our imams and scholars are intellectually honest and rigorous when they ascend the pulpit on Fridays? Can we put in place a system of checks and balances that will help filter out those who are unworthy of this task and promote those who are?

Here are some ideas that have crossed my mind over the years but that came into focus only after the 9/11 attacks. It is not an exhaustive list but offered as a springboard for discussion. Any Muslim can create her or his own list. The goal is to come up with a core set of guidelines that will help ensure that the Friday sermons in our mosques are consistently enlightening and inspiring.

English-Only Sermons

In mosques in America, the Friday sermon should always be delivered in English. This may seem obvious but is by no means a given. 

Any Muslim, and any interested American, should be able to understand the Friday sermon in any mosque in America. That leaves only English as the language of choice for the sermon. If an imam or a scholar or a shaykh, no matter how lofty the reputation, has not invested the time and the effort to master English, he shouldn't be allowed to deliver sermons in our mosques.

Some Muslims may object. After all, if the sermon is followed by an English translation, as is sometimes the case, why should it prevent a Muslim from sharing his knowledge in other languages?

For someone who has seen this practiced innumerable times, I can only say that it just doesn't work. The experience is surreal. The non-English-speaking khatib gesticulates, raises his voice, lowers and raises it again, and pleads and admonishes as his eyes sweep the congregation from one side of the prayer area to the other, and we sit there transfixed by the performance, not understanding a word. 

By the time the translator attempts to summarize the sermon for us, with his own ebb and flow, there is a complete disconnect and the mind has wandered away.

For Muslims born in America whose only language is English, having to sit through a sermon incomprehensible at the elemental level of language can be particularly discouraging. Frustration leads to tension with the parents and a reluctance to return to the mosque.

The need for English-only sermons have become even more important after 9/11, with Americans visiting our mosques in greater numbers than ever before to get a pulse on Muslim thinking and perspective. 

There are, of course, mosques in America where most, if not all, of the congregants share a common ethnic background. They may be from Bangladesh or Afghanistan or Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. I have attended such mosques myself, in which the Khutba is given exclusively in Bengali or Pashtu or Urdu or Arabic. These mosques promote clannish behavior and project an insular image that can only be detrimental to our future. Board members of these mosques should actively try to recruit khatibs fluent in English.

English is the lingua franca of the land. As American Muslims, it is in our interest to ensure that the Friday sermons are delivered in English. Not only will the maximum number of congregants benefit from this policy, it will also help improve the quality of the sermons themselves.

Diversity of Views

When I was settling down in Northern California in the late '70s, there were relatively few mosques in the San Francisco Bay Area, and hardly any with permanent imams. As our numbers grew, Muslim communities began looking for qualified imams for their mosques. The imams were expected to lead the daily prayers, teach in the Sunday Islamic Schools, and deliver the Friday sermons. Muslim communities in other states were conducting similar searches.

The positions were filled soon enough. While the selected imams, mostly from the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East, performed reasonably well in leading the prayers and in teaching Arabic, they floundered with the Friday sermons. I have stated some of the problems: preaching to the converted, repeating the obvious and sometimes being irresponsible and incendiary.

Meanwhile, the number of Muslims increased dramatically as a new generation came of age. Expectations for the sermons grew proportionately, as did the discontent. 

In a sense, it was unfair on the imams. They were expected to maintain a high level of discourse week after week without becoming predictable and repetitive, a tall order for anyone.

Ultimately, the board of directors of many mosques decided to switch to a new format: keep a core group of speakers--teachers, doctors, engineers, lawyers and other professionals who were also keen students of Islam--and rotate among them for the Friday sermons, with enough flexibility to accommodate visiting scholars. In some mosques, the traditional imam became a member of the core group, in others, not.

This has worked out rather well and the routine of rotation among speakers is catching on in mosques throughout America. Muslims are exposed to different ideas, sometimes even contradictory ideas, and find themselves more intellectually and spiritually challenged. The practice is consistent with what the Prophet Muhammad (saw) had said: "The differences of opinion among the learned in my community are a sign of God's grace."

There are many mosques in America that still rely on the same person for the Friday sermons most of the time. Those responsible for running these mosques should consider the benefit of having different speakers for the congregational prayers.

The American Context

In the early '90s, on a business trip to Hong Kong, I attended the Jum'a prayers at one of the beautiful mosques in the then British colony. The congregation consisted mostly of local Chinese, South and South East Asian Muslims, with a sprinkling of Western converts. There was a cosmopolitan feel to the setting, much like the city itself, and I eagerly looked forward to the Khutba.

At the appointed time, the imam, an immigrant, began to speak. To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement. His plaintive sermon was all about his native country, how it had fallen on hard times, how corrupt politicians were destroying it, how his once proud and beautiful land had lost its moorings and how Islam was disappearing from it, along with modest women and respectful children. He continued in this vein for the entire length of the sermon, his lamentations becoming increasingly teary. At the end, with voice breaking, he asked us to join him in praying for the salvation of his homeland and the sanity of its leaders.

I have had my share of "homesick" sermons in America, although none quite as extreme as the one in Hong Kong. Here, though, the yearning is not so much for a specific country as it is for a certain era. I am all for understanding what made the golden age of Islam from the 8th through the 14th centuries possible and why it regressed, with lessons for us today. Instead, what we get is only a yearning for it that typically includes a recitation of the achievements of some of the Muslim scientists and physicians of that period. This serves no purpose whatsoever.

Nostalgia can be a powerful narcotic. It can mask reality while easing the slide toward denial. Whether theological, social, economic or political, the issues raised in our sermons should be framed in a way that makes sense for Muslims living in contemporary America. To do this requires, at the very least, some knowledge of American history and government, and an awareness of the key issues of the day. How do we engage in the pro-choice versus pro-life debate, for instance? Where do we stand on the death penalty? What can we do about the failing public school systems? How can we live up to our environmental responsibility? How concerned are we with the obesity epidemic in the country? How can we help reduce the violence and promiscuity that pervades much of our entertainment industry? In what ways can we influence our government in pursuing prudent policies at home and abroad?

Our khatibs must be intelligent and constructive about addressing these issues. The last thing we need from them is sanctimonious bombast. For too long, they have been waving the magic wand of Umma to make us docile and malleable for accepting their opportunistic rhetoric and unexamined ideas. This will not work any longer. We have goals and aspirations for America that transcend our ethnic backgrounds. Our imams and scholars risk ridicule and rejection if they fail to recognize this simple truth and accordingly transform themselves.

Confront Difficult Topics

Our tendency to tiptoe around difficult topics, or ignore them altogether, particularly when it relates to the actions of other Muslims, is one of our most serious failings. We must engage in honest discussion of problems that beset us and recognize that the Friday sermons provide the best forum for enunciating them. Where candor is called for, clich├ęs and playing to the congregation reflect only cowardice and irresponsibility. We must demand that our khatibs confront such issues as the immorality of suicide bombings, the absurdity of reducing Shari'a to stoning and amputation, the undeniable presence of misogyny among Muslims, the nihilism inherent in striving for a utopia of yore through tyranny, misusing the sayings of Prophet Muhammad to advance personal opinions, and so on. 

When such issues occasionally find their way into the sermons, the khatibs undermine them with an equivocal "but." Yes, we condemn suicide bombings but . and you get an earful of root causes and rapacious policies, as if past and present wrongs can justify this particular abomination. Or: Yes, Muslim extremists are destroying the image of Islam but . and you end up with a lecture on Western imperialism, beginning with the Crusades.

Like our Catholic counterparts who have confronted sexual abuses in their churches, we have done better in confronting some of the social scourges--domestic violence, to name one--that bedevil Muslim communities in America. We must be as forthright in discussing painful political and theological issues involving our coreligionists as we are about our social problems. This requires that we rid ourselves of the "Yes, but" syndrome; otherwise, the good works of many Muslims will be undermined by the acts of a few.

Invite Neighbors and Friends

A month or so after the 9/11 attacks, a colleague approached me. "I know you are a Muslim," he said, "but I know nothing about your religion. I don't know what to make of all the stuff being written about Islam. It's complicated and contradictory. Can you give me a tutorial?" 

I promised to do that but I also invited him to accompany me to the Friday prayers at a mosque that week.

It turned out to be an eye-opener for him. Starting with the call to prayers to the sermon to the actual prayer itself and, afterwards, talking with some of the congregants and visiting the mosque bookstore and eating a halal sandwich, he said he learned more about Islam in an hour than in several weeks of media bombardment. 

To which I could only say, "Amen!"

While there has been a steady increase in the number of American visitors to our mosques since 9/11, these visits are often organized by interfaith groups and local schools and colleges. But individual Muslims can also occasionally invite their neighbors, friends and co-workers to the Jum'a prayers at their mosques. This can go a long way toward removing misconceptions and helping us to discover how open-minded most Americans are, or can be, in their outlook.

In the same vein, Muslims should also visit churches, synagogues, temples and other places of worship from time to time to maintain a perspective on the values that bind us together. However brief, a first-hand encounter will always be more meaningful than the second and third-hand chatter of overrated opinion makers and rush-to-judgment pundits.

Make Use of the Internet

Several years ago, I was handed a flyer at the end of the Friday prayers that was unlike any I had seen before. Instead of announcing an upcoming religious event or advertising the sale of halal meat at a Muslim grocery store, this one sought our opinion on the sermon we had just heard. "Your feedback will help us improve the quality of the Khutba," it said. Finally, I thought!

There was a special box marked "Khutba feedback" on a table beside boxes for donations. But the congregants were in a hurry to return to work and, although filling out the form would have taken only a few minutes, most said they would do so later. "Later" never materialized and the well-meaning experiment fizzled.

But the sermon feedback is now making a comeback, thanks to the Internet. Some mosques are soliciting feedback on the Friday sermons over the Web, with questions that pertain not only to the content of the sermon (Was the sermon relevant? What was positive about it? What was negative?), but also to the style and preparedness of the speaker. In fact, it gets fairly personal. "Should we invite this speaker back?" asks one question. "Does the speaker need additional communication skills?" asks another.

This is a wonderful development. Congregants are writing back, helping to weed out those who fall short in substance or style, while elevating the deserving. As a result, we are hearing fresh and progressive voices that lay dormant for far too long in our mosques.

Mosque management can take the feedback format one step further by posting summaries of sermons on their Websites.

Unfortunately, most mosques in America do not yet have any Web presence. They are missing out on an opportunity to make the Friday sermons a more meaningful experience for their congregants. The Internet is now woven into the fabric of our lives. By facilitating the free flow of competing ideas, it can help weaken the extremists and strengthen the moderates. We ignore this powerful medium at our peril.

There are also many independent Muslim Web sites that cover a vast range of topics, from piety to politics and Rumi to Ramadan. The authors can enhance the value of their sites by bringing the Friday sermon into the loop. By posting sermon summaries from as many American mosques as possible, they can also help Muslims around the world differentiate between regressive and regenerative sermons.

Promote Independent Thinking

Perhaps the most valuable contribution khatibs can make in their sermons is to promote ijtihad, the practice of independent thinking and reasoning among Muslims on theological issues.

Although many Muslims believe in the need for interpreting sacred text in the context of the times, the overall record of most traditional imams and scholars in this department has been poor at best and disastrous at worst.

In one breath these insecure imams and scholars will acknowledge the need for ijtihad but in the next they will proclaim that only those who have, like themselves, "paid their dues," that is, studied at religious universities or were tutored by shaykhs with established reputations, have the right to engage in it.

The result is the perpetuation of an old boys' club that tries to subvert any attempt by ordinary Muslims to reflect on the Qur'an and apply it to new and changing conditions.

What compounds the status quo is the acquiescence of some Muslims to this line of thinking and their sheep-like following of the certitude-laden clergy. These alims have all the answers in advance and expect only deference from their underlings. I cannot count the number of times I have listened to such scholars who say the most banal thing, yet their groveling disciples act as if an oracle had spoken, and take offense when the rest of us fail to share in their enthusiasm.

Fortunately, this is changing. After 9/11, many Muslims are awaking to the importance of individual inquiry for insight into Islam, in keeping with the Quranic injunction for believers to think and reflect. They are realizing that in theology, as in other fields, knowledge comes from using one's faculties to the best of one's ability, that received wisdom is no wisdom unless subjected to personal reason and reflection, and that the path to God cannot be defined by others for us but must be continually sought and chosen.

The opposite of ijtihad is taqlid, which means blind imitation, and imitation, as Ralph Waldo Emerson pointed out, is suicide.


The pulpit has the power to shape perception. Rank-and-file Muslims have never been more aware of this truth than now. Whether the topic is faith or foreign policy, science or social responsibility, citizenship or civil rights, we are demanding honesty, integrity and even a certain amount of imaginative daring from those who speak to us on Fridays. 

We can set an example for Muslims around the world by the quality of the sermons in our mosques and the creative thoughts and deeds they inspire. In many Muslim countries, anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism are staple subjects for the Friday sermons. We can help change this sad situation. In the battle for the soul of Islam, the sermons can play an important role in empowering the moderates and marginalizing the extremists. 

But this requires American Muslims to be ever demanding of themselves and of their imams and scholars. The price for enlightened sermons is vigilance.


Dr. Hasan Zillur Rahim is Ph.D. in Physics, is a Commentator for Pacific News Service and is the past editor of Iqra magazine of South Bay Islamic Association, San Jose, California. His articles have been published in San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, Arizona Daily Star and Washington Report on the Middle East Affairs.

( Primary Source: Asiapeace Stockholm)

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