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22 March 2013

Power of the pulpit

THE power of the minbar (pulpit) in Muslim societies such as ours is considerable. For whatever flows from this source is heard with rapt attention and largely accepted as true by most believers. Hence the responsibility of the sahib-i-minbar (one who occupies the pulpit) is immense.

While local society may be composed of people with varying degrees of involvement in religious activities, it can safely be assumed that a large number of Muslims in Pakistan attend the mosque at least once a week, to offer Friday prayers. And with the khutbah (sermon) being an integral component of Friday prayers, the imam-i-jummah (who leads Friday prayers) or khateeb (who may also deliver sermons on other occasions) has a large, captive audience.

Considering this, the Friday sermon can be instrumental in changing society and inculcating ethical values amongst the believers. Even if worshippers act upon a percentage of what they hear in the sermon, visible changes can occur in society. But for that to happen preachers must plan their sermons in such a way that the khutbah identifies society’s many ills and, more importantly, proposes ways inspired by Islamic tradition to find a way out of the moral darkness that has enveloped us.

What is usually addressed in the Friday sermon? In most mosques the imam dilates on certain Quranic verses while punctuating the sermon with hadith, often citing examples from the early Islamic era. Yet while citing from these sacred sources is perfectly fine, perhaps not many preachers make an attempt to link tradition with solutions to address modern man’s problems.

Perhaps we forget that the Holy Quran was not revealed for a certain time or for a certain people, but to address mankind’s spiritual and existential issues across the limited boundaries of time and space. It is this disconnect between Islam’s eternal message and the content of most Friday sermons that the learned men of religion need to address.

The sermon can be an essential tool for the character building of society. It is important to address theological and philosophical issues, but preachers should not forget the people’s problems while addressing believers. Society is brimming with issues that need attention. Seemingly small problems, if regularly highlighted, can lead to big changes.

For example, despite Islam’s focus on personal hygiene and an environment free of all sorts of pollution, our streets and neighbourhoods overflow with filth and garbage. If khateebs constantly exhort their flocks to make an effort to keep their homes and neighbourhoods clean, people may go the extra mile to do so considering it a religious duty.

Similarly, despite Islam’s insistence on education for all — men and women, rich and poor — we as a society do not value knowledge and revel in ignorance. If our scholars use Friday sermons to send clear messages to the faithful that educating themselves and their children is a religious requirement, perhaps it may change attitudes. To paraphrase a renowned hadith, knowledge has been equated with life and ignorance with death.

There are countless other questions that can be addressed through the pulpit within the Islamic framework which can be instrumental in changing society. These include respect for women, problems of the youth, treating others with empathy and respect, eliminating ethnic discord, how to raise responsible children etc. Islam provides a wide array of tools for character building. It is up to the men of religion and society as a whole to properly employ different tools in different situations.

Perhaps the root of the problem is selecting the right candidate for the right job. Unfortunately, while there are notable exceptions, many of those who occupy the pulpit across Pakistan may not be qualified to bear the heavy responsibility the minbar demands. After all, preaching has become a profession and unfortunately in many instances preachers lack the broader vision the Quran and the Prophet’s (PBUH) tradition seek to give man.

What, then, are the qualities one who occupies the minbar should possess? The base should be impeccable character fused with a firm knowledge of faith and the religious sciences. But it does not stop there. A truly progressive and socially conscious khateeb should be a capable public speaker, able to use the nuances and subtleties of language to effectively communicate the message.

A thorough knowledge of history should be an added bonus, for Muslims do not live in a bubble and should be aware of the changes the world has gone through both before and since the final revelation. Also, the khateeb must have a working knowledge of sociology in order to addresses society’s myriad problems.

But perhaps the most important prerequisite for a khateeb must be hikmah (wisdom), as explained in verse 125 of Surah al-Nahl. Wisdom cannot be learnt in a university or a college, in a madressah or jamea. Academic training is important, but perhaps wisdom is received after studying the book of life, ultimately depending on the Almighty and following the Prophet’s tradition.

It may be a tall order but if our society is to be reformed, responsible and socially aware khateebs must occupy our pulpits, from plush air-conditioned mosques to more modest set-ups in villages and katchi abadis. Mosque boards and trusts must primarily take up this responsibility.

Preaching must focus on societal reform and harmony. Those who preach hate and fan the flames of difference must not be let anywhere close to the minbar. Only by placing capable individuals on the pulpit can we hope to change society for the better and stem the further spread of the poison of sectarian and communal hatred.

By Qasim A Moini: http://dawn.com/2013/03/22/power-of-the-pulpit/
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