Community Dawah (Outreach)

Depressive Da`wah Style—[The Bitter-Pill Treatment] Othman Mohammad

Of the many Friday sermons that I have attended since my adolescence, one in particular stuck with me. I thought the speaker made a shocking statement to the people who left their businesses, homes, families, and busy life schedules in order to devote this hour to Allah (subhanahu wa ta`ala – exalted is He). I bring up this story not to belittle the speaker but to draw our attention to a particular style of preaching that seems to have made its way across our Islamic history. The speaker was giving an example about our inherent weaknesses as human beings, and how that should foster a state of humility. He said: “Remember – O slave of Allah – that you are none but a decaying rotten body, full of remnants of eaten food [i.e. waste], that came from a filthy drop of semen!”

The first “visceral” reaction that I have as I recall this memory is a verse from the Qur’an about the creation of humans: “And We have certainly honored the children of Adam and carried them on the land and sea and provided for them of the good things and preferred them over much of what We have created, with [definite] preference,” (Quran, 17:70).

Reflecting on what that Imam said, and studying the verses in the Qur’an, I can’t help but ask, did Allah (swt) ever call the nutfa (drop of semen) filthy? Did Allah (swt) ever describe the decaying nature of our existence by the words that the speaker used? My humble review of the topic suggests this is not the case.

The rhetoric used by the speaker is not completely alien to the process of tazkiya (self-purification), but the scholars of this discipline know what spiritual treatment should be used for the respective spiritual ailments. This treatment however, can be repelling when used for the masses, especially when this style keeps recurring over time in a pattern which I like to call “Depressive Da`wah Style.”

I am in no way, shape, or form implying that da`wah (outreach) should be all about cheerleading and tree-hugging; but a more balanced approach should be taken. The Qur’an above all is balanced in calling people to worship Allah (swt), to enter into His Jannah (Paradise), and to be saved from the torment of Hellfire (may Allah [swt] save us all). “What would Allah do with your punishment if you are grateful and believe? And ever is Allah Appreciative and Knowing.” (Quran, 4:147)

Moreover, da`wah should address our daily problems and struggles; our emotions; our behaviors; our intellects, and many other aspects of our lives that are naturally disheartening. Nevertheless, this does not validate a style of da`wah that is gloomy, subduing, and domineering. I say this to myself before anyone else, because I am guilty of the depressive da`wah business before. May Allah forgive our mistakes and our shortcomings.

That said, I have realized that depressive preachers’ da`wah is characterized by the following:

  1. Belittling the listener and destroying their self-esteem. Depressed people might fall for this style more easily since they may come in with low self-esteem. Depressive Da`wah Preachers (DDPs) often project their own issues of insecurity, in an attempt to fill the listener’s emptiness with unquestionable fear. This fear would then facilitate blind following, or a cultish-like practice of religion.
  2. Comparing our current state to the state of the sahaba (companions of the Prophet ﷺ, peace be upon him), or the righteous predecessors, without clarifying the difference in context. They neglect to clarify the drastic environmental difference such as common knowledge of Arabic, proximity to the time of the Prophet ﷺ, having a predominantly Islamic environment, etc.
  3. An emphasis on how insignificant our deeds and efforts are in contrast to Allah’s blessings. They implicitly suggest that nothing we can do will get us close to Allah (swt) or our desired goal, yet they neglect to mention the forgiving nature of Allah (swt) and His name Al-Shakoor (the One who accepts good deeds—obligatory pillars included—from a servant who tries hard, even though the deeds are not perfect.)
  4. Focusing on the torment of the grave and the punishment of the hereafter without mentioning the beautiful rewards Allah (swt) has prepared for His righteous servants. In contrast to this, the Qur’an uses both to motivate us to do the good deeds and refrain from the bad.
  5. Attributing all the catastrophes in our ummah (community) to the sinful behavior of Muslims. Talk about sustained guilt! I say there was never a time in history when the whole ummah was free of sin; not even during the time of our beloved Prophet ﷺ .

Now why am I saying all of this? Well, during the life of the Prophet ﷺ,  there were examples of sahaba who, while well-intentioned, had to learn the wise way of giving da`wah because they were not cognizant of important details while dealing with people. I see the same thing happening again with DDPs; while they mean good, they may be repelling people. If you’re not sure what I mean, watch Baba Ali’s Episode on the “Haram Police”: haram, haram, haraaaam!

There are many stories that we can use to give evidence of why a gentler and kinder style of da`wah is more encouraged and indeed even more fruitful, such as:

  • The story of the ignorant Bedouin man who was almost jumped by a sahabi for urinating in the middle of the masjid before the Prophet ﷺ intervened with his kind wisdom, asking the sahaba to let the man finish, then clean his mess, then educated him about the sacredness of the masjid.
  • The story of Moath bin Jabal (radi Allahu `anhu – may Allah be pleased with him) who was prolonging his recitation while leading the people in prayers until someone complained to the Prophet ﷺ, which made the Prophet ﷺ summon him. He then taught him that he might be repelling people by doing that and that he should read shorter surahs, especially if there are babies crying during the salah (prayer).
  • The story of the confrontational Tofayl Ibn Amr Al Dawsi (ra) who was threatening to his tribe when calling them to Allah (swt). After failing, he returned to the Prophet ﷺ and asked him to ask Allah (swt) to destroy them! Then the Prophet ﷺ, a man of gentleness and mercy, taught him how to be kind when giving da`wah until they all became Muslims.

My message is: Don’t fall for it!

Islam is a balanced religion and calling people to Allah (swt) thus has to be balanced. We need to be reminded of Jannah and of Nar (Hellfire), of reward and of punishment, of hope and reverence of Allah (swt). We need to boost the belief in Allah’s mercy and forgiveness, while not setting the ego free. We need to present the facts of Islam in a context-specific way without changing a single atom of the sacred teachings of our beloved deen (religion). We need to smile more often in the faces of people (when appropriate of course, lest we should be thought crazy!), and introduce hope into their lives, lifting them up—with the help of Allah (swt)—from the misery of worshipping the dunya (this life), to the transcendence of worshipping its Creator. People come to the masjid longing to feel closer and more connected to Allah (swt) and the speech that they hear at the masjid can be a turning point towards Allah (swt) if we learn to be wise in delivering our da`wah.

No one summarizes this principle better than Allah (swt) in His holy book as He praises the great kindness of His mercy to humankind, His beloved Prophet ﷺ :

“So by mercy from Allah, [O Muhammad], you were lenient with them. And if you had been rude [in speech] and harsh in heart, they would have disbanded from about you. So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them and consult them in the matter. And when you have decided, then rely upon Allah. Indeed, Allah loves those who rely [upon Him].” (Qur’an, 3:159)

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  • Salaam Brother Othman Mohammad, I really enjoyed reading this article. I wanted to know do you specialize in psychiatry and if you may share any other reading material about this subject matter, I would really appreciate it. Jazakallah.

    • WA. Alaikum assalam Hafsah,
      Yes I am a Psychiatrist. I have taken interest in the cross roads between Islamic spirituality and psychology although I am not sure if there is anything contemporary written about the topic. I do believe that we will find a lot more about the topic in the books of Ibn Al Qayim and imam Al Ghazali, but I don’t have specific readings to suggest at this point. JAK for the kind comments and for stopping by.

  • It really depends on one’s personal learnign style and one’s own upbringing and one’s culture. i for one, though i am born in n. america, i really find i respond well to this type of daawah and it wakes me up and shakes me up and produces a better state of motivation in me. i have friensd like this too.
    basically, it’s important to acknowledge, just like we do in school taeching, that there are diff. learning styles, and try to meet them all at diff. times, so all learners can have their needs met inshaAllah.

    • I believe this dawah style is the way Shaitan wants it because it discourages people and makes them think they aren’t good enough for Allah SWT
      “And who despairs of the Mercy of his Lord except those who are astray?”

  • As Sallaamu Alaikum. Beautiful article. I needed to hear this. I have stayed away from the masjid a lot in the past year. Not because of anything that any Imam has said or done. They are awesome. But because I often hear this kind of speech amongst other muslims in the masjid. They make me depressed and sad. I feel overwhelmed and anxious around so many muslims at the masjid. They smile at you. Say salaams. Invite you to sit down. And before you know it you are immersed in a conversation about all the problems with the muslim ummah and the sad state of the muslims around the world and how unjust brothers are or how inconsiderate sisters are or how evil some arab government is or how the teenagers will never grow into good muslims….etc. You leave feeling so sad and disappointed. All the while there are usually small children playing nearby who also hear everything. When you see a new muslim or a new revert muslim or someone new at the masjid, please set a happy uplifting tone with your speech.

  • I think both ways have their effects and a balance ought be strike between them. Like mentioning the importance of saun (fasting) its’ reward and the punishment for not observing it. It makes the reader/listener become more self conscious and determined. However, we shouldn’t focus majorly on demoralising ourselves. We ALL need a little bit of both. Ma salam

  • Salaams with regards to the despicable nature of the semen Al Mursalat 20 Did We not create you from a liquid disdained?

    Hence our beginnings are humbling and this is a reminder to us when we are arrogant and forgetful and consider ourselves self sufficientThen We return him to the lowest of the low,..
    However I agree with the negative tone used because even though our beginnings are despicable by the Mercy of Allah we have been made into something so fascinating that even after centuries of medicine the end product from the despicable fluid is not yet understood. How grateful should we be to our Creator?
    We have certainly created man in the best of stature;
    Except for those who believe and do righteous deeds, for they will have a reward uninterrupted.
    So what yet causes you to deny the Recompense?
    At Tin 4-7

    • *We have certainly created man in the best of stature;
      Then We return him to the lowest of the low,..
      Except for those who believe and do righteous deeds, for they will have a reward uninterrupted.
      So what yet causes you to deny the Recompense?
      At Tin 4-7

  • There is a huge organization based on this kind of preaching. I won’t name it, but I will say that they are well-meaning brothers from the Indian subcontinent, and they love to recruit young people to travel for 40 days to random masajid. They come to your door like missionaries and tell you to pray, using the exact same tactics pointed out by the author. This organization controls my local Canadian masjid and its impossible to escape them. Every Friday khutbah is boring and pointless, I’m ashamed to say. They always try to guilt people into joining them on their trips, when men leave their families behind for months just to go and travel to different areas and preach. They see themselves as the continuation of the Prophetic message, as if theirs is the only way to call people to Allah. They have no problem with broadcasting their past sins. Everyday some clearly unqualified old shaykh comes and gives a “bayaan”, a short talk, again saying the exact same things mentioned in this article. The books they use are filled with weak ahadith and made-up stories used to prove their points. I’m so grateful to the author because I’m finally able to make sense of this kind of preaching, and why I’m being driven away further from my masjid and Muslims in general.

    I completely agree that a good position to take is the balanced one, because Allah motivates us with both fear of Hell and hope for Jannah. But what is even better is a position that is biased towards the Rahmah of Allah, since His Mercy is greater than His Judgement. As scholars say, if Allah took into account everything we have ever done, we would all be in Hell. But He is Exceedingly Merciful, and He forgives when we repent. He rewards us even if we think of doing a good deed, but will not punish us for thinking about a bad deed. On the contrary, He will reward us for thinking about a sin and not doing it! So clearly, the good outweighs the bad. Rahmah is where our focus should be, and it is easy to take that position when our default attitude everyday is that of love and compassion.

    This is my opinion, of course. An opinion that has been formed thanks to imams, parents, relatives, and khateebs that want to scare you into being a good Muslim. I cannot tell you how many times I have been screamed at from the pulpit (which is against adab), been told to wear my pants above my ankles otherwise my salah is not counted (difference of opinion anyway). I’ve been told to push my cap up so that my forehead is exposed, otherwise my salah is not counted (never came across any evidence personally). Did anyone care to teach me the purpose of salah, and what it means to be close to Allah and to love Him? No. All they tell you is what’s haraam and what’s even more haraam. When I was a kid, the imams announced that all children are to be sent to the back to pray, away from his father, and still do. Why would a child ever want to come to a masjid after that? Only Allah in His Compassion guides His slave, even when others have misguided him, alienated him, and pushed him away. Thank you, I want to print this article out and stick it on the door of every masjid.

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