“The Khutbah”- Muslim Sermons Deserve Review

Muslim speeches, media, and our ideas deserve public scrutiny in order to jumpstart a real awakening within the Muslim consciousness

M. Zuhdi Jasser
Chairman, American Islamic Forum for Democracy

Too often, if not virtually uniformly, sermons given by Muslim ‘imams’(prayer leaders and teachers) remain unanswered, whether for praise or for criticism, in the public square. The same imams, thus continue to speak with no checks or balances from the ideas of the community. They have changed little over time and have gotten even less feedback from fellow Muslims. Their sermons represent formative ideas in the Muslim community whether in Phoenix or in any locality around the United States and abroad with little to no critique. Many imams wear multiple conflicting hats in the political, educational, and spiritual areas of our society which they try to centralize in the mosque. Evaluating the ideas flowing from Muslim pulpits will create a new dynamic at the core of the intellectual basis of the Muslim community.

Last Saturday’s Valley-wide Muslim prayer service was no exception. The ideas conveyed to the thousands of Valley Muslims present were given on the occasion of our spiritual holiday prayer. The messages were delivered into the public consciousness, the public ether of local Muslims if you will. But, per routine, no perceptible discussion or intellectual engagement of that message ever follows from the commuity.

Without that, how can there be growth? How can there be any ijtihad (critical renewal of religious ideology in light of modern day thought)?

Time for an Open Muslim dialogue of change

In the humble perception of this one Muslim, and perhaps many other silent ones, part of the first steps toward intellectual growth and reform of our greater community will need to come from the establishment of a new public discourse. Whether it is meant to actively marginalize the radicals and militants or whether it is meant to establish the equality of women, to discuss the role of sharia law, or the deeper issue of political Islam, we, Muslims, need to establish a public academic discipline which encourages and celebrates variation of opinions and debate– publicly.

It should very soon become commonplace that any opinions whether written or spoken publicly on behalf of Muslims, can and should be responded to by a wide range of Muslim opinions. The response must be fully public and accessible to all so that the ideas of every Muslim are equal regardless of status.

There is no clergy in Islam and thus no hierarchy or intermediary between a Muslim and God despite the daunting presence of a global ‘pseudo-hierarchy’ of imams and clerics that has evolved. There are certainly teachers in Islam. But in my view and understanding of Islam, all who practice the faith should have a right to opine on the general direction of our ideas, speeches, and consciousness. Certainly, those with intellectual deference to the ulemmaa (the established, respected scholars of the Muslim community) will fight against this intellectual free-for-all.

There is no denying that the intellectual domain of the Islamic religion is for all Muslims, each and every one. It is not only for clerics, professors, imams, muftis, sheikhs, and Islamists to name a few of the current power brokers.

Changing this accountability is how Muslim credibility and diversity can be regained.

Without the development of this skill of engagement and respect for an all-inclusive debate, diversity, and critical thinking, we, Muslims, will remain entirely stifled.

Real public debate concerning the myriad of pressing controversies within the local, national, and global Muslim community has yet to be seen on any apparent scale. Yet, any Muslim will tell you that the diversity of opinions within the community is there and aplenty for anyone who knows more than a few Muslims.

The beginning of this process is long overdue. Our Muslim community needs to regularly engage one another intellectually, respectfully, and frequently regarding the ideas being disseminated at our sermons and in community publications in both the political and the religious arena in the name of Muslims and Islam. Without this engagement, growth will never be possible.

Imams, teachers, and leaders who are not questioned and cannot tolerate public questioning do not deserve to lead or teach. The best teachers are always those who encourage, respect, and cherish any and all criticism.

Conversely, it is difficult to deny that the greater Muslim community is basically allowing the imams and other ‘leaders’ to speak for them unquestioned in the public arena. Whether this is active or passive is moot. At some point in time, silent Muslims end up being tacit endorsers of these speakers, their media, and the status quo.

Beginning the process with this most recent sermon

This past Saturday, thousands of local Muslims attended a Valley-wide prayer service at the Phoenix Civic Center on the holiest day of the Muslim lunar calendar- Eid Al-Adha (the Holiday of the sacrifice). This holiday commemorates Abraham’s challenge from God to sacrifice his son and his demonstrated belief in God- a story which all three faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam basically share. This holiday is also marked by the end of the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca for nearly 3 million Muslims from around the world.

This year’s holiday sermon (khutbah) at the Phoenix Civic Center was led by Imam Ahmed Shqeirat of the Islamic Community Center of Tempe.

A video and transcript of Imam Shqeirat’s sermon is available online for review.

This column may not ultimately be the most ideal venue to illicit diverse Muslim and non-Muslim responses, but perhaps it is a start, a single example, of what can be the future of real critical discourse and intellectual growth within the local and greater Muslim community.

A sermon is by definition part of the public domain since it is a very public speech addressed to all Muslims. Public availability as done here of these public speeches or sermons (khutbah) should become commonplace in our community. American Muslim sermonizers should have nothing to hide in their words to our community whether Muslim or non-Muslim.

This will not only serve to provide greater accountability through critical analyses but also greater reach and educational value for those sermons (khutbahs) which do truly advance the spirituality and personal growth of Muslims.

Any speech in the public domain should be the beginning of a discussion, not the end.

Challenging Muslim thought leaders- creating a culture ijtihad

Muslim sermons, as exemplified in this most recent one, often try to stimulate Muslim political and religious activity outside the mosque. However, imams and other ulemaa will often conversely bristle at any critical discussion of the sermons or Islamic proceedings within mosques from outside the mosque.

On the one hand, Muslim clerics use their pulpit to propagate their own political platforms to the Muslim community for enactment outside the mosque. And on the other hand, they seem to greatly discourage any critical discussion about the sermon content outside the mosque and interestingly often inside the mosque also. This insularity and self-perpetuating intellectual leadership needs to be challenged.

Recent history has shown that ijtihad, or the renewal of Muslim thought in light of modern day thinking, will never happen unless this mindset changes. There is great precedent in Muslim history regarding the public review and analysis of khutbahs (sermons) and public debate of established ‘dogma’ or precedent. It has just been lost over the last five hundred years.

The Anatomy of Last Week’s Sermon

As an example after viewing or reading the transcript of this weekend’s sermon given to thousands of local Muslims by Imam Shqeirat, it would be exceedingly valuable for many diverse local Muslims and non-Muslims to discuss a few of the controversial issues highlighted below and taken from Imam Shqeirat’s speech.

1- When Imam Shqeirat discusses Muslim unity at the outset, what are the parameters of this unity? What does this mean? Is it only spiritual? Is it only for Muslims or for all Americans in the greater political context of the U.S.?

2- Imam Shqeirat speaks of Abraham being ‘one nation’ and compares him to the Muslim ummah (community). What is the relationship of this ummah to our American nation in the context of his speech? In a political context? Spiritual context?

3- Imam Shqeirat also sermonized the following:

“This is the law of the almighty God. No religion, no spiritual, no constitution, will be raised up, will be honored, unless the sincere the true followers are to carry, to practice, and to honor this scripture. God said to Mohammed, may peace be upon him, with the Qur’an, but Mohammed raised the sahaba [close friends of the Prophet], raised the sincere and the true for Muslims that God supported, and enabled these Muslims to spread the message of Islam and be victorious.”

What does this exactly mean? Does it belong in a spiritual sermon? What are the Constitutional implications here if any?

4- Imam Shqeirat later finishes his khutbah (sermon) by saying,

“The Muslim community these days have no other option but to stand firmly and to prove their Islamic identity and to prove their Islamic presence in the societies they are living in through the political Avenue, through the social Avenue, and through the proper Avenue. This will never be achieved by individuals but by organizations, by foundations. The best foundation to attach ourselves to is the house of God. Brothers and sisters, from the masjid (the mosque), the Messenger of God started. From the masjid, the Messenger of God took a stand. From the masjid the banner of Islam and the message of Islam was carried to all mankind.

This appears to be an attempt at a drive toward a central political empowerment of the mosque as a base for activism in the community. Is this the direction the Muslim community should move in? Will this not empower the Islamist movement? Should we rather oppositely be moving toward the de-politicization of the mosques, Muslims, and Islam. Moreover, where in this thought process is the spiritual focus of Islam? Should political activism or spirituality be the focus of our faith?

These and other deeper questions should arise after Muslims listen to any Imam or ‘spiritual leader’. Not to ask these questions is to remain intellectually dormant and to resign ourselves to the ideas of the day and of the same few imams who always end up representing us as Muslims.

(Previosuly published at the Arizona Republic WeBlog)

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