Confessions of an Imam #2: The Arabenglish Khatib

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During the past month, I had 3 interesting Friday sermon experiences, all related to the language of the Khutba, understanding our diverse audience, and the psyche of the Muslim American and Arab American crowd in general.

Normally, I give four sermons per month, which may get up to 5-6 (yes you read that right, this may mean two khutbas on a given day !) 99% of my time here in the US, these Khutbas are given in English, since a bilingual Imam (regardless of the level of the knowledge or the method of delivery) is always a rare commodity. Therefore, I have always been interested in studying the Jumma platform and how can one capitalize on it to educate, inspire, and mobilize the community. In addition, after living in Dearborn for more than 13 years, I was also intrigued by the two “species” that live on the same planet in our community and even in a single masjid: The Arabic speaking crowd (mainly adult immigrants of Arab descent) and the English speaking folks (mainly American born and raised, with a very diverse background). Both crowds have very different backgrounds, expectations, and standards that need to be investigated carefully by community activists and scholars.

On November 16th, 2018, I happened to be in Lebanon, and ended up giving the sermon at Masjid Ibad AlRahman in Beirut. Of course, the Khutba has to be in Arabic, and my biggest concern was to make sure that no English words penetrate into the 100% All-Authentic Arabic Fusha Speech (and believe me, it happened once). In addition, I had to try my best to include the following ingredients into my message:

After The “Arabic” Jumma Khutba in Ibad Al Rahman mosque in Beirut, Lebanon, with my buddy Jihad Fathallah

  • The crowd normally appreciates going on tangents and merging multiple topics into the conversation.
  • Building on the previous point, an unprepared speaker who “wings it” is an indication of how much the speaker is knowledgeable and can delve into multiple topics without prior preparation.
  • Eye contact is very important; Minimal to no usage of papers and notes are required to ensure relatability and authenticity.
  • Reference to politics and to the global causes and pains of the Umma is always expected. The Arabic psyche is deeply connected to the wars, resistance, and political turmoil in the middle east. Hence the khutba that has no reference to these causes is not considered relevant and  effective.  For clear reasons, the bias to the Palestinian cause is evident and understandable.
  • Many segments amongst the audience are highly educated in the Arabic language, and are very picky in pinpointing mistakes in the Arabic grammar and the like.
  • Arabic poetry, rhyming prose, and preachy style are very effective.
  • With some few exceptions that actually prove the rule, most Arabic sermons tend to be lengthy and exceed the allotted time. I remember once during my undergrad days how I had to stand up during the sermon and use sign language to remind the khatib that it was raining, and why it was very inconvenient for those of us on the carpets outside the masjid to keep listening to his ever-elongated speech.

 

At Masjid Al Fatih in Istanbul, Turkey

The following week, I was privileged to visit Turkey and pray Jumaa in Al-Fatih Masjid. My inspiration due to the Ottoman history and glory did not last long, as I felt immediately disengaged after the Khateeb switched to the Turkish language. It was that weird feeling of a foreigner, an intruder, an unwelcome guest, even if people around you were nice and smiling. Of course, it would be very arrogant for me, the American Muslim who thinks that the whole world should speak English, to expect a tourist-friendly language that fits my preferences. However, it struck me that for the first time ever, I got to experience what some Muslim brothers and sisters in America feel on a weekly basis. Their concerns – and most of them are valid – go beyond the language to include:

  • The relevance of the Khutba, and how much does it address their needs and concerns.
  • The explanation and translation of Arabic terms, no matter how basic they may seem
  • While relevance is important, it should not become another “TED talk” that is full of hype with no solid content or  credible material. What makes us special as Muslims is the availability of the authentic Hadith and Quranic sciences and the huge history and tradition of scholars. We NEED that, we don’t shy away from it, we should not lose our identity in trying to appeal to the masses and end up watering down the “not so catchy and cool” content from our Islamic sciences.
  • Having One topic and one topic only, no jumping into irrelevant tangents, and no inclusion of a multifaceted and complicated topics and information. The Khatib should not intend to teach the community seminar-style lectures, but rather use the platform to raise awareness and send a positive message.
  • The Khutba should address social justice and human rights causes that represent the diverse nature of the Muslim community, not only be concerned with a specific region or cause.

 

My Blog article at Aljazeera Arabic Blog on the recent dilemma for American Muslims (picture was chosen by them, not by me)

Afterwards, I came back to Michigan, and was assigned to give an ARABIC Khutba at the ICD (Islamic Center of Detroit) on December 7th, 2018. This was way out side of my comfort zone, since I was known for the same audience as the “guy who talks to the youth” and I am in no way perceived as a scholar or even as a preacher / Da’ee. Still, I accepted the challenge, since I had a lot of messages that I felt were needed to that crowd. In my humble opinion, the Arab American community and especially the immigrants who still live in the Dearborn bubble need to consider on the following points:

 

  • Stop behaving as being FOB (Fresh-off-the-Boat) and start accepting the reality of being American Muslims.
  • This does not stop at participating in the elections once every two years, but goes beyond that to a holistic involvement in the American community life (PTO, town hall meetings, …)
  • Start caring for other causes and particularly the struggles of the African American Community.
  • Stop the victomology and move towards actionable items that can increase our certain of influence
  • Understanding that piety and righteousness should not stop at the rituals, but should extend to other aspects of our lives (taxes, insurance games, and other fraud that unfortunately our community is plagued with)

 

Last but not least, I will leave you with three thoughts, basically one actionable item for each segment of our community mentioned above. Hopefully, this piece can be a discussion starter that can hopefully bridge the ever increasing gap between the segments and fractions inside communities with large immigrant population, such as Dearborn:

 

 

  • To my dear English-only speaking crowd:

 

I completely understand the language and cultural barriers that may limit your opportunities to improve your skills in the Arabic language. However, we should agree that English-speaking Khutbas are not meant to be a permanent solution. They are a BAND-AID, and you cannot live on band-aids forever. And there are many well-respected opinions and schools of thoughts that require the khutba to be in Arabic. And Guess what? In some non-Arab countries, such as Malaysia, the people end up learning the Arabic language and excelling in it, maybe more than many Arabs. We should not allow the exception to be the norm, and we should always push ourselves to increase in knowledge.

So what’s the action item here: Try your best to attend an Arabic speaking Khutba from time to time. Feel free to walk to the Imam, introduce yourself, and ask for help after the speech is over. Feel free to ask your Arab friends to translate to you after the prayer is done. There are lots of opportunities to improve, so please don’t surrender to complacency

 

 

  • To my awesome Arab American community:

 

Being native speakers of the language that Allah chose for His final book places a huge burden on our shoulders. We need to clearly separate our cultural practices and draw a line to distinguish it from the teachings of Islam. We also need to widen our perspective and be humble enough to accept the huge scholarly work that the non-Arab Muslim world has to offer.

 

 

  • To every Jumaa Prayer attendee:

 

You also have a responsibility to share with your speakers, local imams, and masjid boards about your feedback, experience, and recommendations for Jumaa. It is not enough to praise a Khatib with an inflated thank you statement, or to curse him behind his back because he did not include your Fiqhi opinion in his khutba. Whether your feedback is positive or negative, you have to learn how to present constructive criticism. Instead of appointing yourself as a judge in a “Khateebs got talent” contest, and you start rating every khatib from 1-10, why not use another format? Why not mention “this worked for me well”, or “I connected with this statement of yours more”.

 

We can keep on blaming our khateebs, leaders, and politicians,

or we can take the extra step, or maybe the first step, towards a better, more inclusive community, with more bridges and fewer walls and bubbles..

 

Yours,

Imam Mohannad Hakeem

 

 

 

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