Thursday, May 19, 2005

Performance Based Sermons

Ever since I made the conscious decision to start going to Friday prayers again a few years ago, I have at times regretted the decision. It is not that I believe that I don't believe in the good of prayer in general or the communal prayer in particular. I'm a believer (scientifically speaking, of course) in the relationship between religious engagement and positive social benefit. Numerous studies purport to link churchgoing with lower rates of teen pregnancy, alcohol and drug abuse, school performance, etc. (I have yet to see the study that shows such a benefit from watching "The 700 Club," or reading any of the "Left Behind" series, however.)

I'll also readily admit that I've had some good experiences at the mosque on Fridays. Even so, it's not as if I demand to be lifted off the carpet in awe, my life forever changed, by an enrapturing service. (I don't think that I could handle more than a few life-changing moments at this point as it is. It's hard enough just slogging to the gym.)

No, what reduces me to bouts of perditional dissatisfaction is the unpredictability of what I'm going to hear on any given Friday. Mosques vary in their degrees of organization, and it's the rare one that has a reliable imam who is likely to give the khutba every week, allowing you to develop a degree of consistency. Even at the largest, most wealthy masjid you are as likely to hear from a studied scholar one week, a gynecologist the next, and a high schooler attempting to spread the chocolate milk across his face into a beard the week after that.

My most recent pang of regret hit about a month ago, smack in the middle of what had been an uplifting Friday service. The imam, of Arab descent and based at a different mosque than the one I was visiting, had spent a good 10 minutes about one of the finest qualities of our prophet, peace be with him: his love for people, Muslims or not. It is a quality that is not emphasized enough among Muslims (and it is safe to say that it is almost never emphasized among non-Muslims, especially in American discourse).

Unfortunately, after a precious few minutes of self-reflection on how I need to emulate Muhammad's love, my spirit was slammed down against the cement floor of the mosque. Within seconds, the imam's gentle demeanor evaporated revealing an agitated animation about what he supposed to be the antithesis of the prophet's inimitable love: women leading prayers.

Yeah, the connection eluded me too. It took me a minute to regain my bearings and realize that the whole exhortation to be excellent to one another had been just a setup, a tease for an unpleasant switch-and-bait. The imam, as he ticked off almost by rote the religio-legal reasons against women being imams, morphed like Jim Carrey in "The Mask" into an bundle of activity and volume, waving his arms, eyes glaring, the occasional spittle flying off his lips.

By the end, I didn't just feel dejected - I felt had. The whole brouhaha about women leading prayer had been beside the point. Regardless of whether or not I agree with the concept of or need for women to lead prayers, the imam had disingenuously injected his own reflexively regurgitated (at least by what he presented) opinions on the issue into the mosque by using "`The Prophet's Love" as a mere pretext. I wondered which of these two points was really more important to him.

On leaving I had a brainwave that I followed on impulse. If it is required for me as a Muslim to go to the Mosque for Friday prayers, do I really need to sit back and take it when I find the imam's words unpleasant? I decided to take a small, personally important action. After prayer, I usually donate $5 to the mosque for hosting the service; but with that illuminating display, Pffffffffft went the donation. I only gave $1.

Of course, $4 makes no difference to the mosque in any real sense. It's arguable whether mosques pay attention to the opinions of their congregants at all, as most seem to cater their policies to the beliefs of the few heavy hitters donating large amounts of cash. Perhaps, though, this is my effort to suggest a new trend in Muslim circles: performance based sermons. It seems only fair that if in every other aspect of life - spiritual as well as lay - we are rewarded based upon our performance, we have the right to expect our imams and mosques to undertake their Friday responsibilities much more seriously in return for our support.


At 1:43 AM, Blogger ESZ said...

I recently had a conversation with a friend about taking action in the face of such outrageous khateeb behavior. My initial thought was to put a pointed note in the mosque fund collection box instead of money. My friend rightly pointed out that the designated money counter would either toss the note as it obviously didn't resemble money, recognize the importance of the note but fail to report it to mosque leadership out of fear, or make an executive decision to destroy the note given its prevailing order-challenging premise.

But then, if enough of us started doing the same (assuming enough of us are still going to Friday prayer), perhaps the mosque decision-makers might take notice.

So, next time an imam gets up there and starts unduly fixating on a woman's moral imperative to avoid makeup and tight clothing, you might consider the "suggestion box" instead. At least you'll keep your dollar (or five)for a worthier cause. And, if you're promoting performance measurement, it's hard to get more unequivocal than a stack of complaint letters.

At 9:18 AM, Blogger Abuljude said...

Good point, esz.

Then again, that presumes that there is a suggestion box to begin with...

At 10:47 AM, Blogger ESZ said...

Sorry for the confusion. By "suggestion box", I mean the co-opting the collection box as a form of explicit protest. Could you imagine the mosque accountant opening it up, dumping out the contents, and peering down at them, only to realize that a third of the little pieces of paper aren't money at all? I doubt that guy would keep it to himself.

Could you imagine if that experiment were replicated, systematically, in all of the offensive-khutba tolerating masajid throughout the city/suburbs?

I don't imagine it would have nearly the impact of Asra Nomani's mosque sit-ins, but mosque leadership throughout the area would start wondering who comes to prayer on Friday (which, in the larger mosques, is a somewhat anonymous affair), and whether the khutba-selection committee might need to have a talk with their more wahhabi-leaning imams.

My point is that appearing before a mosque board and pleading one's case might be a wasted exercise, in the sense that one could be written off as one of those marginal "progressive Muslims" (whose presence, a mosque board might correctly presume, is somewhat minimal at regular congregational services). But an anonymous vigilante spree of complaint letters might make the mosque leadership question whether the now-silent minority of folks like us is in fact becoming more a bigger threat to mosque stability. In the latter scenario, whether the leadership actually agrees with the cause (such as the women's barrier issue at MCC), they might adopt a stance of appeasement.

Wouldn't that be something?

But then, I'm such a dreamer, and few of my schemes in life have yet to come to fruition.

At 10:38 AM, Blogger fromclay said...

I got an idea. Let's put a website together that grades (seriously) the khutbas we attend and then have a section in which we compose our fantasy khutbas, so that those who experienced a bad one (however rare that may be) will have a place to go for commiseration and for an alternative. All for this, raise your hands. All against, take a hike.

At 3:39 PM, Blogger Abuljude said...

You may be joking, fromclay, but the reality is closer than you think...

At 1:24 AM, Blogger osh2 said...

how do i get a username/password to "salatomatic"?

At 5:46 AM, Blogger Abuljude said...


Salatomatic is still in beta revisions. Its owner expects the site to be up within the next couple of months. For a quick preview go to and click on the 'salatomatic' button in the upper right corner.

At 8:36 AM, Anonymous Shahed said...

The waiting is over - is now operational! Institutional accountability starts now!


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