CRUCIBLE: Truth and Khutbah

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 26 March) – It is another case of déjà vu or plain coincidence that as we talked about the subject of bayan (speech) and its grade as shown in the tradition of discourses including khutbah (preaching) last Friday, there was a report from the Arab News two days ago about a survey in several mosques in Saudi Arabia wherein “53% of those who attend do not remember the Friday sermon.”

Accordingly, “over half of Friday sermon listeners do not remember the subject of the sermon.” This is according to the survey conducted by the King Abdulaziz National Dialogue Center (KANDC). Also, “two-third of the 865 respondents picked randomly from the Kingdom’s 13 regions said that sermons had impacted their lives.”

But about “52.4% of respondents wanted sermons to focus on social issues, while more than 74% said they do not seek guidance from prayer leaders,” indicating according to the report, “a lack of personal communication between preachers and their guidance.” Although about “60.4% of participants said they found the sermons appealing,” around “31.6% said preachers encourage them to deal with personal and social issues in a positive manner.”

According to Ismael Maritheri of the King Abdulaziz University, “the significance of Friday sermons in changing society and renewing spiritual energy” is undeniably important. “But there is a need,” he said, “to train spiritual leaders to deliver more appealing sermons in order to attract people.” He also said “there must be an element of information and enlightenment as well as conducive methods for personal, social and family development.” Finally, Maritheri said “preachers who deliver sermons must be able to inform, motivate and enlighten people to achieve success in this world and in the hereafter.”

We are quite sad but a bit elated with the findings of the King Abdulaziz National Dialogue Center. We had felt the same even long time ago the limitation on how discourses or khutubah are being conducted in many countries. What could be the most representative if not the case of supposedly holy sites in Saudi Arabia; yet the statistics seemingly confirmed what we had long felt?

Truth and bayan

Hence, this is not to raise our selves. Like many others, we had been, in our own simple way, trying to raise the bar of informed and enlightened discourses; we’d long struggled to fully reflect the wisdom of the tradition of bayan or speech in the Holy Qur’an.

As we had already provided a simple frame about the relationship between bayan and truth, we just would like to reiterate that bayan, in a sense, could be considered as instrument of truth. According to the Qur’an, “truth is from thy Lord so be not at all in doubt (Al-baqarah: 147).”

Bayan then should be anchored on truth and pinpoints truth. There is supposedly no element that should interfere in the process since there is only one truth. Prophet Muhammad (SAW) reminded us: “speak the truth even if it is bitter (murran).” The notion of murran or bitter is something that is intended to heal the sickness of the heart – that is, to refine and purify it.

You know men, unlike animals, operate in a kind of moral pendulum that sways from one point to another. There is much dynamics in the moral make-up of a person. Hence, there are times when one may develop the “sickness of the heart.” Truth is the way into which the heart is softened and thus be purified so that it regains its original constitution as seat of spiritual essence. What is directed, then, is actually the purification and the removal of blemishes that can incidentally develop in one’s being. Hence, truth is the anchor of the whole corpus of tradition as far as discourse like khutbah is concerned.

Jum’ah prayer

When we attend jum’ah (Friday) prayer, we actually would like to be inspired. We don’t want to be put down or condemned as all of us are, in a sense, “wounded;” we carry wounded hearts. Therefore, we need to be healed through the words of truth that comes from Divine revelation.

We also do not need to develop a kind of mechanical fear: that we only believe because we are afraid of something. Taqwa cannot be simply defined as fear in God and His wrath. Real taqwa is to feel that state or expression of how the fullness of Love in the Divine has been embedded or enveloped in both man and creation; that is that dimension we want to have in our selves when we attend jum’ah congregation. We expect, no less than, enlightenment through the khutubah or discourses of our khatib (preacher); we expect to get that kind of inspiration.

Khutbah should also not be divorced from social reality. In fact, reality should be read and dissected properly or made more vivid through creative discourses in such a way that each of us is able to identify truth from falsehood so that we are fully guided on how we are able to choose haq (truth) from batil (falsehood). This is the role of our ulama and our khatib in trying to guide us and bring us to that stage or state we all desire.

Prophet Muhammad (SAW) also has a hadith (Prophetic tradition) reminding us with some kind of creative application of how we apply truth when he said (as we paraphrased): “When you see something is wrong, change it with your hand; when you cannot afford it, change it with your tongue; when you cannot afford it, change it with your heart, although it is the weakest of faith.”

The methodology of bayan therefore should be anchored on the foundation of truth. There should be certain methods in such a way that it is not only removing the munkar (wrong) in rather linear, mechanical fashion; but there has to be some creative mechanisms in a such a way that the levels of action, say, when and how we can afford it, should also be recognized. Hence, if we see wrong yet we could not afford to change it drastically, then, we are given other options, other layers of how to do it. This means there has to be methodology and even epistemology into which we conduct ourselves, when we dissect truth and engage with our discourses.

No wonder, the response in the KANDC survey showed people’s thirst to experience something personal – a dimension, we feel, that indeed people are craving for healing or inspiration. There is also a dimension or feeling that the discourse should address their condition or situation; it should not be divorced from reality. People should be able to fully grasp reality so that they are able to frame their aqeedah (belief) and their actions (amal) in the right understanding of Islam.

Sacred space

The role of mosque including the role of imam and khatib stands at a crucial juncture in this regard. No wonder when Prophet Muhammad (SAW) reached Madinah during the hijrah (migration), the first task he did was not to build his house or beautify any parts of his surrounding. But he together with his sahabah (companions) built the first Mosque.

The first Mosque is the first sacred space after the Ka’aba. It is a space that connects the sacred and the world. It mediates the Divine and the mundane. Thus, the thoughts and ideas that burst forth from the mosque should reflect the same sacredness enveloped by the truth that is supposedly embedded in that space. Hence, the articulation of the ulama and khatib in that regard should fully reflect the foundation of truth, of bayan, of sacred space.

Patrick Gaffney, “The Prophet’s Pulpits: Islamic Preaching in Contemporary Egypt,” encapsulates our point (and attendant holistic methodology in engaging in discourse). It reads:

“The messages and ideas that are conveyed through mosque preaching cannot therefore be isolated from other local, national, and ultimately from international spheres of experience and their corresponding systems of reference without sacrificing a large measure of sermon’s actual significance to those who hear it. The transmission, transformation and reproduction of symbolic expression, what Eckelman has termed the political economy of meaning,” constitute an interaction whereby “belief systems…shape and in turn are shaped by configurations of political domination and economic relations among groups and classes in societies of different levels of complexity (30).”

This impresses the importance of articulation raised in sacred space like mosque. The qualification of a khatib is such that he is both the axis of Divine and secular knowledge. He has to wade through and balance such realms of knowledge where he is able to relay them clearly to the jama’ah (congregation). It is not enough that one is simply learned in the tradition of religion. It is also not enough that one is simply learned in social issues, political problems, and so on. He must have, at least, in the minimum, the full grasp of things. He represents, no less than, a reader of ayah (sign) that is universal; thus one has to be learned in both system of religion and society (or the world). If you divorce the two, then, the holistic sphere of knowledge and the axial role of the mosque will be destroyed. People will severe their ties and detach themselves from the mosque, the khatib, and so on. They cannot relate, let alone remember, what is being said there. It is reflective of the survey we cited.

We are not yet there as to how we are able to utilize this strategic institution of the ummah and how we can fully empower our ulama and our khatib to engage in this universal understanding of religion and society. At least, there are some signs in the horizon into which the khutbah is beginning to be given importance at least in far away places like London. In the Royal Hollaway University of London, a khutbah bank has been created arranged in several categories like Belief and Practices in Islam; Building Good Character; Current Affairs and Politics; History of Islam; Inspiring Feel Good Khutbah; Knowing Allah; Noble Companions; Muslim Heroes, and, Prophets of Allah. This is, in our view, a pioneering attempt to systematize the discourse tradition in, at least, this part of Europe. It is just quite unfortunate that it should happen far from the center of daru l-Islam.

Tongue and heart

When we identified the critical role of sacred space like a mosque and the role of the imam or the khatib, it is important that we get inspiration from a Spiritual Master not only in his time but also in our days. In his work, “Futuh al-Ghaib” (Revelation of the Unseen), in the thirty-third discourse, Shaykh Abdulqadir Jailani refers to the role of the tongue and the heart and their supposed synchronicity into which these two organs should govern the foundation of those who want to engage in discourse.

He said: He (may God be pleased with himself) said:

“There are four kinds of men. One who has no tongue and no heart and he is a man of ordinary position, dull and lowly, who does not count with God and one who has nothing good in him. He and people like him are like chaff, which has no weight, unless God covers them with His mercy and guides their heart towards faith in Himself and moves the organs of their body in obedience to Himself. Beware that we do not become one of them and do not entertain them nor mind them nor yet stand among them…”

“The other kind of person has got a tongue but no heart; he speaks on wisdom but does not act according to it. He calls people to God but himself flees from Him. He abhors defects in others but he himself persists in a similar defect in himself. He shows to others his piety but contends with God by committing major sins. And when he is alone he is like a wolf in clothes. Here is a person against whom the Prophet has warned. He has said: “The thing to be most afraid of an which I am afraid of in respect of my followers is the evil learned men. We seek the refuge of God from such learned men. So you should keep away from such a man and run away from him, lest you should be carried away by the sweetness of his talk and then the fire of his sin will burn.”

“There is a third kind of man who has a heart but no tongue and he is a believer. God has screened him away from His creation and hung around him His curtains and given him an insight into the blemishes of his own self and enlighten his heart and made him aware of the mischiefs of mixing with people and of the evil of talking and speaking and who has become sure that safety is in silence and retirement in a corner, as the Prophet (peace and blessings of God be upon him) has said: “Whoever kept silent attained to salvation.” And as further he has said: “Surely the service of God consists of ten parts, nine of which are in silence.” Thus this man is a friend of God in His secrets, protected, possessing safety and plenty of intelligence, companion of the Beneficent God, blessed with His favors and as for good, everything good is with him…”

The fourth kind of man in one who is invited to the world invisible, clothed in dignity, as it is related in the tradition: “Whoever learns and acts upon his learning and imparts it to others is invited to the world invisible and made great.

Such a man is possessed of the knowledge of God and His sign and his heart is made the repository of the rare things of His knowledge and He intimates to him such secrets as He has kept hidden from others and He has selected him and raised him towards Himself and expanded his heart for the acceptance of these secrets and points of knowledge and made him a worker in His cause and inviter of God’s servants to the path of virtue and warner against the chastisement of evil deeds and an argument of God in their midst, a guide and rightly-guided man, an intercessor and one whose intercession has been accepted, a truthful man and who verifies the truth of others, a deputy of God’s prophets and messengers, on whom be the blessings of God….”

These are the words of the Great Wali (saint) Shaykh Abdulqadir Jailani. In sum, the Shaykh spoke actually of two categories of men each with two types. In the first category, is someone who has no tongue and no heart and the other, with tongue but has no heart. And the other category is a person with heart but no tongue; and the latter one is someone who has heart and has tongue.

It is clear from the Shaykh’s discourse that he favored the last two categories: one with heart but no tongue (third type) and the other one with heart and with tongue (fourth type).

Per our subject, it is clear that the one who could play the role to engage in discourse is not the third type (who has heart but with no tongue). Bayan or speech could be articulated in other ways, but the major instrument is through speech or through the use of tongue. Therefore, it will need a rare kind of spiritual seeker to be able to understand a person who hardly speaks, although in our view the best form of conversation is conversation in silence. But very few amongst common people would be able and capable to read hearts, possibly with the exception of Mansur Al-Hallaj who is referred to as “the reader of the heart.” We can count people capable of doing that. Hence, who is qualified to engage in a discourse or real discourse with the foundation identified earlier is the fourth type, a person who has heart and with tongue – two familiar terms – but which carries immense qualification and responsibility close to what is referred in literature of Islamic spirituality as “universal man” or known sometimes as “insanu l-kamil.”

That is to say that the obligation and responsibility to stand before a jum’ah prayer is so immense that one should, if not fully reflect but at least proximate, many of the qualification that the Great Wali identified as qualities of khatib. This way discourses and discoursers become effective as they can heal many hearts and draw people from all walks of life to listen to and touch by them.

[A slightly edited khutbah delivered at the UP Institute of Islamic Studies on 21 March 2014. MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines.]