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August 21, 2004

The State of Khutbahs in Chicago


Is it haram for someone to give a boring or broke khutbah?”  –Samir Samra (wrongly attributed to Masood Merakai at first…)


This is an issue that I have been discussing with many people for several years now; unfortunately, the situation is only getting worse and worse in nearly all the masjids of Chicago. While there are notable exceptions of brilliant, engaging, and powerful khutbahs given by some excellent khateebs, the overall state of khutbahs in Chicago can best be described as apathetic, impotent, and lacking reality and relevance to the assembled gatherings. There are several key areas where these khutbahs are ineffective in reaching audiences, as people either space-out, sleep, or make a serious struggle (some might even classifiy this as a form of jihad) to get some benefit from the khutbah. I don’t know if this is true in other cities as well–I would surmise that it is–but this is something that while it seems comical to many, it’s an important issue with serious ramifications for the greater American Muslim community.



In medical classes, diseases and pathological conditions are best understood when one studies a case history. The case history that has motivated me to finally lay out what I am referring to is the jumu’ah today at Islamic Foundation. Please note that before I get into actual details, I must remind myself and others that this isn’t to criticize or “call-out” people; this isn’t to question people’s sincerity or intentions; rather, these are my impressions–and many, including the infamous Kazim Mohammed–will agree and support my assessments of the situation.


First off, I got to Foundation around 12:50, ecstatic that I had beat the parking rush and got some prime parking. I got out of my car and walked into the masjid, only to find that the masjid’s entrance had been converted into political campaigning headquarters by the LaRouche campaign. A small army of LaRouche campaign workers were passionately wearing billboard signs and shouting to everyone who walked in that LaRouche now supports Kerry, and that everyone should therefore vote for Kerry, as if LaRouche is some sort of saint whom all Muslims have given bay’ah to and therefore we must say “we hear and obey” and follow whatever he does. When did LaRouche become the moral spokesperson for Muslims in America? I mean, I’m sure that every Muslim of conscience–note that I said conscience, so that Muslim film producer doesnt count–will already vote for Kerry. Is it really necessary to have this fun fair type of advertising to everyone who comes to pray Jumu’ah about political elections? The Jumu’ah prayer and khutbah are supposed to be about reminding people’s obligations and commitments to God, encouraging them to re-establish that spiritual relationship with God, reminding them to serve humanity and do righteous deeds, etc. It is NOT meant to be a political tool of publicity; granted that this is the time when the most Muslims come to the masjid, but I feel that mixing politics before the prayer is adulterating and diluting the purity of prayer. Shaykh Mohammed Amin (perhaps the best English khateeb in Chicago) once gave a khutbah about this same issue and he brilliantly pointed out that never in our past was the Friday sermon mixed with political agendas, even when the Muslims were conquering and/or being conquered (for those who were there that Friday several years ago, you will remember that he got the most flak from people because of this statement). If they want to allow for these political parties to advertise after the prayer, I would be ok with that, since that will fit better into the Qur’anic, “And when the prayer has finished, scatter in the earth (ie, return to your work)…”. However, to have this before the prayer is to short-change Jumu’ah attendees and is an affront to the historical and spiritual institution of Jumu’ah itself.


Wow, so all those thoughts were in my head before I even walked in the door.


Anyway, so I was content that I was among the first to be there and was able to secure a spot in the first row (Lord knows I need the forgiveness and blessing of being in that row). After the adhan, the khateeb ascended the pulpit, and as soon as he started talking, I hung my head in utter disbelief: I couldn’t believe that this habit of selecting and assigning khateebs of this nature was still continuing at Islamic Foundation, one of the largest masjids in the Chicagoland area. Now, I have nothing against this brother, I’m sure he’s an excellent and sincere individual; however, as the man began his khutbah on the importance of the masjid in a Muslim’s life, I realized that we’re in a serious crisis here. Unless key issues can be highlighted and brought to the attention of the powers-that-be, I fear the situation will not only continue, but will steadily deteriorate until the Jumu’ah becomes a prayer wherein people time their schedules to arrive just as the iqamah is starting (not that this isn’t happening in many places already). As the risk of being called a chaos-mongerer or demagogue (which they called Malcolm X)–though these might be some of the nicer names I might be called–I’m going to go ahead and lay out my issues of concern, for better or worse.


1. “And We have not sent a Messenger except in the tongue of his people in order that he may make it (the Truth/Message) clear and evident to them… (Surat Ibrahim: 14:4)”. I think this is clearly the biggest issue: khateebs lack the ability to speak and express clearly their message to the audience in terms, metaphors, and examples that audiences will understand. Khateebs need to know the dynamics of their audience: who attends their gathering, their attention span, what topics will interest them, etc. Particularly of importance is to understand that most people that attend the larger centers are American-born Muslims. So what does that mean? In the larger centers then, masjids need to realize this and not have people who cannot properly speak English in an American dialect/accent (the only exception: Shaykh Amin and his incomparable James Bond British accent). Masjids need to stop having khateebs who speak in thick desi/arab accents. No matter how knowledgeable/accomplished a speaker is, if he cannot get his message across to the people, he has no right to be up there, as he’s actually alienating and driving people away since he’s not making his reminders clear to them. This is a serious issue that not many people realize. When one reads the story of Prophet Musa, after he is given the revelation and is made a Prophet, the FIRST du’a that he makes is “O Lord, expand my breast for me; make my task easy; and remove the impediment from my speech so they may understand what I say.” I think this is huge, a Prophet of God is beseeching God as the first thing after being given the Message to be able to express it clearly to those around him. If a Prophet of God is so concerned about this, how can we as lesser humans not be concerned about this? The khateebs of today, who are essentially the inheritors of the Prophetic (note, all Prophets) tradition of inspiring and reminding people, cannot express this message clearly in ways that their people can understand, then they should not be allowed to continue delivering khutbahs. For what will happen if they continue is one of several possibilities: the people don’t understand what they’re saying and thus receive no benefit (the best possibility), they become bored and drift off/sleep during the talk, or become so disgusted with the khutbah that coming to Jumu’ah becomes a chore–instead of a blessing–with the actual listening of the khutbah being the hardest part. It was ironic that the topic of today’s khutbah was about the role of the masjid in a Muslim’s life, and one of the points that I struggled to glean from it, was developing a love for the masjid; if people are bored and receive no benefit from a khutbah, then how can we expect them to develop a love for the masjid? Love requires understanding as a prerequisite; khateebs who cannot facilitate that understanding will certainly be unable to cultivate that love for the masjid in their audiences.


2. As the quote that I began this post suggests, khutbahs must be entertaining and lively. We’ve got to remember that we live in an age of entertainment, where people are used to being entertained, implying that most people have extremely short attention spans. This doesn’t mean that khateebs need to have smoke screens and laser light shows to accompany their khutbahs (though this would be quite interesting to see someone have the daring to do that), but it does mean that they cannot deliver the khutbah in a monotone voice that is typical of the Muslim world. While it may work there, khateebs must realize that they need to speak in differing tones, with energy, with enthusiasm, and with sincerity (ie, speaking from the heart) if they really want their audiences to benefit from the talk. Now by this, I don’t mean that khateebs need to just start yelling with no end in sight (aka the classic “we’re all going to hell” khutbah). Entertainment, specifically, must be defined for khutbah-settings as something that will keep the audiences attention for 20-30 minutes. Therefore, this includes (but is not limited to) having a lively topic, voice inflections, relevant stories/examples, and encouraging people by giving them hope. I’d like for all of us to think back and see whether some of these criteria are present in recent khutbahs we have heard.


3. It also means they can’t just read the khutbah from prepared notes or read off an old Ahmed Sakr (God bless him) khutbah from a book. I’m tired of people reading of Mawlana Maududi (may God have mercy on him) khutbahs of the past as their khutbah now; Maududi himself, in a visit to the US, said–this statement is not known to many–that his speeches and rulings were for the people of the Subcontinent only, and he didn’t like how many were using his words outside the Subcontinent.  Many khutbahs–including Friday’s–are written out word for word, and the khateeb is doing nothing more then reading off an already prepared talk. This is quite useful for rookie khateebs who are learning to give khutbahs, but for veteran khateebs, this is like continuing to use training wheels: it’s holding them back from delivering a more refined and efficacious product to their audiences. More importantly, written khutbahs are accompanied by a lack of speaking from the heart, something that audiences most definitely need to hear on a weekly basis. When khateebs read from notes, it not only is ineffective, but it’s pretty downright boring. I find it amazing that the scholars of the past probably saw this coming and provided conditions in the books of fiqh that one can sleep during the khutbah and not lose his/her wudu (ie, sleeping without resting his/her head on anything)–for those of you who sleep during khutbahs, pay attention to that previous point. But on a serious note, khateebs ought to use notes only to provide an outline for themselves as they proceed through the khutbah and to have a quick access to needed verses/hadith. The actual speech of the khutbah ought to be from the heart if it is to reach the hearts of the people.


4. Concerning ayahs and hadith: Many khateebs pepper their talks with ayahs and hadith liberally, without taking the time to explain/comment on quoted verses/hadith and tying them back into the main focus of the khutbah. It’s really not much use to most people in the audience, especially if they don’t know Arabic or know the verse, if the khateeb doesn’t take the effort to elucidate and relate a given verse to his main points.  Also, many khateebs seem to wander off into extensive Arabic, over-using Arabic terminology in places where English would suffice. Yesterday, rather than simply saying “rights of parents, rights of neighbors”, the khateeb instead said “huqooq al-walidayn, huqooq al-jiwaar, etc” without translating them, confusing many people who were wondering what the khateeb is trying to say. Khateebs must understand that their audiences do not know as much Arabic/Qur’an as them, and must therefore take an extra effort to make sure their audience understands what they’re saying. I’m not saying that khateebs need to avoid Arabic during their sermons. Rather, a simple rule of thumb, something which I try to follow, is that if one uses an Arabic term/phrase/verse/hadith, then it is necessary to translate it immediately so that there is no confusion in the minds of the audience.


5. Khateebs need to choose topics that are relevant to the present day. Considering that the greatest crisis in the ummah–among all the crises that exist–is the death of spirituality amongst the masses, khutbahs need to focus on exhorting people to acts of righteousness, reminding them of Allah’s favors and their responsibilities to Him and His creation, encouraging them to seek forgiveness despite their sins, instilling within them a deep respect and love for the Prophet, and motivating them to develop good character in their daily lives, among many other topics. Unfortunately, khutbahs either completely forego these topics in favor of political topics or only touch on them on a minimal basis.  Topics such as ‘the need to invest women’s earnings’ or ‘calculating your zakat’ are fine topics for workshops/seminars at the masjid; however, they’re not appropriate for the actual Friday khutbah. I’ve also heard a sermon given that started to talk about the need to follow a madhab, and then somehow wound up bashing all non-Hanafi madhabs as illogical and blasphemous. Also included in this category of ineffective topics is the classic “Palestine” khutbah (oh man, I know I’m going to piss off some people with this one), wherein the khateeb will lament about how terrible it is for Muslims in certain part of the world, pausing only to curse out the Jews and Crusaders, before ending with not telling the audience what can be done to help the situation. Now, I understand it’s important for Muslims to be aware of what’s going on in other parts of the Muslim world, but I don’t believe that it falls under reminding the congregation of their spiritual obligations. I certainly agree that these are important issues and we ought to have other events (such as Islamic Relief dinners, etc) where this message is brought to the people. The problem with the Palestine khutbah is that it only makes people feel worse after coming to the masjid, and it doesn’t give them any practical steps they can take home with them as they leave the masjid.


6. Speaking of practical steps, it’s also extremely important for the khateeb to summarize his khutbah at the end in 2-3 sentences to re-emphasize his main points. This will not only drive home the point to the audience, but will also give the crux of the khutbah to all the latecomers who missed earlier parts of the khutbah. This is also quite useful for attendees to have a few gems of wisdom they can leave the masjid with and think about during the upcoming week. The khateeb also ought to end with some “take-home” points or practical things listeners can do to achieve the goals of the khutbah topic. For example, if the khutbah topic was about the achieving serenity and focus during prayer, the khateeb ought to list things such as praying in a secluded area with no noise, closing one’s eyes to shut out visual stimuli, concentrating on making a perfect wudu, etc., as practical steps that the congregation can take to achieve the topic’s goal.


7. This final point is actually for the attendees of the khutbahs. We need to remember that despite how boring a khutbah is, it is our individual obligation to pay attention and try to benefit from it, regardless of its delivery or deliverer. The Friday khutbah is part of the Friday prayer and just as we strive to have concentration and excellence during our actual prayer, we must strive to have those same qualities during the actual khutbah. This means, among many other things, that one ought to strive to come early to the khutbah and to pay attention no matter how difficult it gets. Understand that Allah knows that you’re struggling to fulfill this obligation, and the harder it is to fulfill that obligation, the more rewarding and pleasing it is to Allah. Perhaps this trend of ineffective khutbahs is actually a blessing in disguise, since those who struggle to understand/stay awake are being rewarded greatly. Moreover, we need to understand that none of these khateebs are purposely delivering “broke” khutbahs. Mashallah, all of them put in a considerable amount of effort in preparing and are doing the best job they can possibly do. While I believe that there is room for much improvement, we as audience members cannot use a khateeb’s inability to relate to the audience as an excuse for not taking the khutbah seriously. An experiment that I’ve tried many times with people is to ask them–whether it’s immediately or a few days later–if they even remember the topic of the khutbah. It’s quite disheartening to see that most people don’t even remember the topic, let alone any important messages, examples, or lessons they learnt from the topic. This isn’t just for the “boring” khutbahs. There’s times that people have attended Shaykh Hamza, etc. talks and I’ve asked them what did he talk about. The response I get: “oh man, you should have heard Shaykh Hamza, he tore it up, he was quoting like Aristotle and Rumi and going into astronomy and stuff, man, he was on fire today, it was amazing.” If I ask again, what did he talk about; the response again, “I can’t say, but it was off the wall man, it was hyped up!” To me, this suggests that a lot of times, people go into talks expecting the speaker to get them interested and teach them something, rather than going in with interest and the hopes of learning something. If audience members cannot make this initial effort, no matter how great the speaker is, no matter how effective the presentation is, listeners are still going to go away empty handed. Rumi says of this, “I say what comes. If God wills, he will make these paltry words beneficial. He will lodge them in your breast and make great use of them. If He does not so will, you can take a hundred thousand words but they will not stick in your heart; they will pass away and be forgotten…We hope to God that you hear these words from within, for there lies the benefit. A thousand robbers may come from the outside, but they will not be able to open the door until another thief helps them by unlocking it from the inside. You can say a thousand words on the outside, but so long as there is no one on the inside to say that they are true, there is no benefit.”


I guess I can simplify all of my points into certain principles, or Laws, to follow up on my point about giving people simple take-home messages. I’ll call them KR’s Khutbah Laws.


1st Law: The effectiveness of a khutbah is directly proportional to the amount of khutbah generated from the khateeb’s heart.


2nd Law: Khutbahs should not be diluted with politics or other unspiritual matters


3rd Law: Arabic terminology must be translated


4th Law: Khutbahs must not be read from scripts.


5th Law: Khateebs must be able to speak English without any foreign accents; the only exception to this rule is if they can speak in an immaculate British accent like Shaykh Amin.


6th Law: The effectiveness of a khateeb is directly proportional to the amount of interest that a listener has before even entering the masjid.

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7 Comments
  1. Anonymous permalink

    How fitting that i’m adding a ‘broke khubah’ to a post about broke khutbahs.
    I must admit that the khutbah’s at UIC are definitely the best, and khutbah’s that i look forward to. Simply put the reason is that people have one maybe two shots of doing a good job so they bring their A game.
    Although issues of modern day Islam, issues that affect the community (read: investing the wealth of the wife into the financial market) is key, i’m looking for the bang bang, inspirational, damn i didnt think of how grave this is, khutbah’s.
    Let me note that the masjid in Rolling Meadows (ISNS) has the MOST sleeping jummah attendees every friday!
    Thank god school started again, cuz i need a infusion of good khutbahs.
    You

  2. Anonymous permalink

    The khutbah’s that i have attended at IFS, i agree not too many, have been broke so far.
    Thats why i gotta appreciate the khutbah’s at UIC because there is a different khateeb every day, and there is a infusion of bright ideas. They bring their A game for one reason, they prolly figure this is their only shot to speak their mind in front of such a large audience, and they have to make an impact.
    ISNS has one khateeb every friday, and though the issues of investing money in the market is all well and good, I prefer the bang bang, spiritually uplifting, make me think how grave/subhanllah something really is.
    Good Post KR. If there were more eprops to give, i would give.

  3. GREAT POST MASHALLAH.
    Make dua for me wassalam
    http://www.strive4allah.blogspot.com

  4. You can count on KR to say what needs to be said. It’s true we do need better khutbas. One axiom popularized by the great Islamic thinker and parking expert, Kazim Mohammed is, “What comes from the heart goes to the heart.” The more thought and feeling goes into the khutba, the more benefit tends to come out of it.
       I don’t know if I would necessarily tell khateebs not to write their words beforehand. Part of this is me being defensive because whenever I give a khutba I write out my main points. I think some decisions need to be left up to the khateeb.
         A khateeb can have his own style of speaking and story-telling. In fact, he should have his own style, rather than making the congregation feel like their listening to someone else, say Hamza Yusuf.

  5. wait a second…doesn’t KR think he’s Hamza Yusuf? just wondering…:)

  6. i agree with kazim’s parking expertise…
    but great islamic thinker????
    and to smshariff: why dont you just go and get married on sept 12 or something
    to aamair: its too bad the board never takes suggestions from the common people who suggest and recommend khateebs. the IFS powers-that-be will only put IFS-friendly khateebs (read: khateebs that will fundraise for the full-time school) up on the pulpit. two summers ago, hesham hassaballa gave an amazing khutbah… yet they’ve never called him back. i gave khutbah there this summer, and i think alhamdulillah it went pretty well from what people said. however, they wanted me to stress the importance of donating to the full-time school and i chose to talk about balancing one’s physical, mental, and spiritual character. haha, i bet i won’t be asked back either.

  7. Aamair I dare you to list five khutbahs that you’ve attended at IFS that you can clearly remember as being awesome and personally influential. And those khutbahs have to be given by someone who’s over the age of 30 and isn’t Shaykh Amin.
    “i’ve heard way too much Foundation hate in my day.”
    The post had nothing to say about IFS in any negative aspects. It simply showed the lukewarm nature of khutbahs at IFS. Saying that the majority of khutbahs at IFS are boring isn’t “Foundation hate”. If Kamran hated IFS he wouldn’t ever go there.
    Let it be known, that Islamic Foundation Villa Park is one of the most amazing places in the world.
    Once again, that has nothing to do with the fact that if I go to Jummah at IFS I’ll either hear why women can own land or why I should send my kids to IFS. I know you’re trying to defend IFS, but from what? No one’s bashing the actual place itself. If anything other than the khutbahs, it’s the board that’s lame.
    No one’s “hating” on IFS. I fear that if you continue accusing people of doing so they’ll start to hate you. But I got your back.

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