Originally published in January 2010
We are sitting in the masjid. Front row, clean clothes on, ready to hear something that will inspire us, teach us, and give us gems of spiritual wisdom gleaned from the mountain of Prophethood. Our hearts fill with hope that today will be the day that a young, vibrant and dynamic speaker, or a wise, seasoned, and knowledgeable scholar will step up and deliver the message that our hearts so desperately yearn to hear.
A man steps up with a jumble of papers in his hand. He begins.
Speaking? No…Reading. Verbatim.
In an accent that makes us wonder if it was Arabic we just heard or an ancient form of Na’vi, “Today, we are going to learn about faith.”
The first fifteen minutes will be spent on telling you that iman means faith, belief.
The second ten will be spent telling you that you need more of it.
The last five will tell you that you suck for not having enough.
Your hopes are dashed almost immediately as you realize that there is no dynamic speaker or scholar today – but there is someone who is about to read to you the teacher’s notes from what might possibly be a second grade Sunday school class at the local masjid.
What will we do? First, we must understand that the purpose of the Friday khutbah is to remind, exhort, inspire, and engage the community on the spiritual, social, moral, ethical, philosophical, cultural, and political issues which affect it – and draw it all back to loving, serving, and glorifying God and improving the human condition. When the khutbah at any given masjid absolutely fails to do this on a long-term basis, we MUST bring it up to the management of the masjid in a polite, gentle, and eager manner. We cannot sit and complain if we are too lazy to advise and offer alternatives.
But on the actual day that we are delivered a khutbah which does not engage us, we still have a good alternative (excluding falling asleep or playing with our phones) – and that is to engage the khutbah ourselves.
First, we must learn to listen humbly to the khutbah. Then…we can actively engage it and have a good and productive time!
Part I: Points to Consider in Listening to the Khutbah
1. We worship Allah – we do not worship the spiritual high that may sometimes come with worshiping Allah. Often times, we are blessed with incredible feelings of profundity, awe, and grateful servitude when worshiping Our Creator. These feelings and states are mentioned in virtually all the books of tazkiyyah (purifying the soul). However, we should always strive to worship our Lord whether that feeling comes in a prayer or not, whether the khutbah is intellectually and spiritually stimulating, or not. The worship is to obey Allah’s command, not to chase a spiritual or intellectual high. One of the greatest mistakes of the saalik (one seeking spiritual closeness to God), is to focus on the spiritual high, and not on the worship itself. If the spiritual high ever falters, he begins to doubt his worship and may even become lazy in it. He has made his goal the feeling, not the actual act of obedience and submission to Allah.
So we should remind ourselves that just being in the masjid and listening to the sermon, is by itself a blessed opportunity to worship God and follow the Sunnah of His Prophet (saw).
2. We must be humble in what we think we know when we think we’ve heard something similar.
Shaykh Abdul Fattah Abu Ghuddah (may Allah have Mercy upon him) wrote:
“If a person started telling you or your group something that you know very well, you should pretend as if you do not know it. Do not rush to reveal your knowledge or to interfere with the speech. Instead, show your attention and concentration. The honorable follower Imam ‘Ata ibn Abi Rabah said: ‘A young man would tell me something that I may have heard before he was born. Nevertheless, I listen to him as if I have never heard it before.’
Khalid bin Safwan Al-Tamimi, who was with the two caliphs Omar bin Abdul Aziz; and Hisham bin Abdul Malik, said: ‘If a person tells you something you have heard before, or news that you already learned, do not interrupt him or her to exhibit your knowledge to those present. This is a rude and ill manner.’ The honorable Imam ‘Abdullah bin Wahab Al-Qurashi Al-Masri, a companion of Imam Malik, Al-Laith bin Sa’d, and Al-Thawri, said: ‘Sometimes a person would tell me a story that I have heard before his parents had wed. Yet I listen as if I have never heard it before.'”
Al-Hafiz Al-Khatib Al-Baghdadi said in a poem:
“A talk never interrupt
Though you know it in and out”
Recognizing that new shades of meaning, new contexts, and new ideas may be exposed to us about verses and ahaadith that we had heard before, should keep us humble and eager, listening for knowledge.
Often times, we will hear the beginning of a verse or hadith, and quickly complete it in our heads, mentally turning off our listening because we assume we already know exactly what will be quoted as well as how it will be explained. This practice, when it becomes a habit, will keep us from learning new, important, and amazing tidbits of knowledge in the Friday khutbahs.
3. Listen for gems. Every khutbah, even a bad, lazy, ill-prepared one, has at least one gem of reflection for you if you seek.
Even in the khutbahs which seem to be incredibly boring, or have been drawn verbatim from the most ancient Islamic text – we will find that the beauty of Prophetic wisdom still colors the speech and will bring to us at least one beautiful gems. In a khutbah I once listened to, as I was almost on the verge of slumber due to a long day at work, it was repeated over and over again that the dunya (this world) was bad. There was an almost drone-like recitation of various ayat with a lack of proper Arabic pronunciation that made me cringe, and English grammar which was reminiscent of Yoda from Star Wars.
Then suddenly as the khutbah drew to a close, he quoted Imam Ghazali’s beautiful analogy: “The believer is the ship and the dunya is the water. As long as the water remains outside the ship, it will sail through it. But once the water enters the ship, it will sink. So navigate through the dunya but do not let it enter your heart and sink you into itself.”
The analogy nearly brought a tear to my eye and I wondered what a loser I would have been had I just dozed off like the others had done or played with my phone or stared at the wall blankly. Regardless of who is speaking, if the khateeb is aiming to remind you about our Lord, we should pay attention, and such gems will find their way to our ears – and insha’Allah – our hearts.
Part II: Engage the Khutbah
4. Whenever repetitive advice is given, remember in your mind that you aren’t the best you could be at this and start taking down points in your head about how to improve.
Often times, the advice given in khutbahs is repetitive and not crafted in a manner that is particularly engaging. The khateeb may do little more than quote some verses and ahadeeth that you could have looked up yourself. There is no effort to make you think and make you ponder upon your condition – and you have heard it hundreds of times before, from parents, teachers, Sunday school instructors, ‘ulama, other khateebs, and from books and lectures. This advice may be centered around:
- You should pray (more/better/on time);
- You should read Qur’an (more/better/with reflection);
- You should give charity (more);
- You should be kind to people;
- You should be more pious and aware of God;
None of the above statements are weak or simple. Behind them are oceans of wisdom. The people of knowledge and dynamic speakers have the blessing and ability to give the above advices their DUE RIGHT, and put them forward with the kind of zeal, energy, and enthusiasm, that the power and greatness of such advice deserves. Your khateeb on a given Friday may not.
Rather than smugly thinking to ourselves: “I know this advice” and tuning out the khateeb, the best way to benefit is turn the repetitive advice of the khateeb into a self-reflection and thinking process that will give you enough steam to last the rest of the khutbah while paying attention. Use the time to plan and strategize how you will implement the advice, instead of sitting there bored and sleepy. Examples are:
- Pray Better: “What can I actually do to make my prayer better. Should I learn more about what I am saying? Is there a way I can make sure I wake up for fajr? How can I focus better in Salah…maybe I should learn the translations and explanations of more Surahs, etc.”
- Read Qur’an: “What can I do to better my own relationship with the Qur’an? What is my favorite moment with the Quran that I can remember that made me realize how awesome God is and how wonderful His book is? How can I try and relive those moments and how should I begin reading again? What is my favorite surah and why do I love it so much?”
- Be Kind: “When do I lose the most patience with people and act without kindness? Am I rude to anyone? How can I be a better person in treating my family? My kids? Strangers?”
So, when it has become clear to us that the khutbah will be no more than a list of repetitive sentences about the same advice, we should take that time to actively begin finding our shortcomings in our application of that aspect of the deen, and start creating a strategy to better ourselves as we listen.
5. When Qur’anic verses are quoted without due justice to the message or meaning of the verse, begin pondering about the ayah and how it connects to what is being said. If you know the deeper explanation, ponder upon it.
Often times, a khateeb may quote a Qur’anic ayah and give a terrible translation or explanation of it that does not do it justice. Rather than becoming bored or upset about it or letting the verse go, think about the explanation you have read or learned and how you can better implement the message in your life.
If the khateeb says:
“And Indeed you (Oh Prophet) are upon the most supreme and excellent of character.”
and then does not provide any detail, we should start to think of all of the wonderful stories we know about how the Prophet’s character was beyond question. From his generosity to the weak, his kindness to his family, his tenderness towards slaves and orphans, his smile and attitude which would make each person feel that he was the most beloved to him. Then allow this to connect into the khutbah to fill in the blanks that the khateeb may not have filled in himself.
6. When Ahadith are quoted without explanation, think about the implications of the Ahadith in your life, and imagine what the context of the Prophet must have been like based on whatever information you have.
Many times, we hear various Ahadith repeated in khutbahs without due justice or connection to the subject matter. Often times we hear: “Actions are by intention” and we immediately become bored because we have heard that hadith ever since the beginning of our understanding of Islam.
Instead of becoming bored, we can ponder upon the state of our own intentions in every action we have taken that day, that week, or that month. We can think about what the Prophet’s environment was like at the time when the migration to Madinah had just occurred and some people had migrated for various reasons such as monetary gain or to marry someone, rather than for the sake of the Allah and His Messenger. We can imagine what it was like when the Companions heard the Prophet say this, and relayed it to each other. We can think about why so many hadith collections begin with this hadith.
If possible, try to place the hadith into the context of the Seerah of the Prophet and understand what life must have been like for the Companions when this Hadith was stated.
Allowing our minds to think, ponder, and reflect, will allow us to engage the hadith to call us to action and reflection, rather than almost arrogantly responding in our minds with: “I’ve heard that one already so many times!”
7. When all else fails, start drawing together all the knowledge and everything good you have heard on this subject and bring it to bear upon the material the khateeb is presenting. Focus upon softening your heart through these thoughts and letting them settle in your mind, and then focus on small practical steps to implement the advice of the khateeb.
If the khutbah (ex. about gratitude to God) is going extremely bad, and you understand for the 50th time that you should be grateful to Allah and no new information has been provided in the past 10 minutes, you should begin to think about every single hadith, verse, idea, beautiful thought, and awesome statement you have ever heard on gratitude toward Allah, and allow those thoughts to inspire you. Reflect upon them to make up for the lack of reflection in the khutbah and allow them to carry you away in the journey of reflection and implementation.
8. Don’t judge the khutbah, judge yourself.
No matter how bad a khutbah is, it is not a speech competition or a show. It is not meant to be picked apart by our critical – sometimes arrogant – minds for intellectual deconstruction over lunch.
The khutbah is meant to advise you and remind you. No matter how bad it might be, the point remains, we are not as good as we could be in pleasing Allah and perfecting ourselves as His slaves. Rather than focus on how bad it is in telling us to be grateful, we should focus on the actual idea of being grateful. Take the good, leave the bad. Be grateful that you are blessed with the guidance of being in the masjid.
9. For students of tajweed, Arabic, and Islamic studies:
Be careful of letting arrogance enter into your heart as your listen to the khutbah. Many khutbahs you hear may be given by people who have not studied the recitation of the Qur’an, the Arabic language, or any subjects in Islamic studies akin to what you have studied.
This can easily become an opportunity for Shaytan to come into the heart and whisper about how much more knowledge you have than this person and how it sucks for you to sit there and listen. This is a trick. Rather, think upon your own state 5 years, 10 years, 15 years ago, and be grateful that Allah brought you to hear His words today.