I hope this doesn’t become a series. It probably will. Yup. You know it will.
I attended Friday prayer this afternoon at a location I shall not disclose so that I do not embarrass anyone or call any person or group out in particular. It’s been a while since I’ve made the commitment to go out and attend the Friday khutba– and anyways I normally have class during the afternoon prayer time slot, but seeing that it was midterms week and classes were on-and-off, I decided to join a local prayer in downtown Chicago. One of the key reasons why I haven’t been motivated in recent months to attend Friday prayer is because the sermons that I usually go to do not fulfill at least one of the two following criteria:
1) I leave the prayer feeling spiritually replenished or uplifted
2) I leave the prayer having been intellectually challenged
Instead, I find myself making this face most of the time when the preacher is giving their half hour monologue:
You all know that face very well, I’m sure. (Her name is Chloe, also known as Side-Eyeing Chloe).
Example. The preacher/imam uses the word “kuffar” (apostates) to describe non-Muslims:
The imam includes every instance of suffering around the world, except any suffering experienced by people who aren’t Muslim, in his final prayer:
The imam spends the whole khutba talking about Masjid al-Aqsa, the Muslim Brotherhood, Syria, or Burma, being extremely graphic and emotional, again and again and again, every week:
The imam talks very passionately about how everyone is misrepresenting Kanye West and how Yeezus was a brilliant album and that Kanye is in fact a genius and that we are all haters:
Today I found myself just as disappointed. The imam was a young Desi/Pakistani/Indian American man. He opened the khutba recalling the beautiful story of Salman al-Farisi, one of the famous companions of the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him). It’s a remarkable story about personal growth, endurance, and soul-searching– basically, a gold mine of lessons and takeaways. But we as a collective audience were not ushered into this gold mine of lessons and takeaways.
Let me use the NBA for a moment to help describe what happened here. One of my favorite articles on Phil Jackson’s recent employment by the New York Knicks discussed the mismanagement of the franchise, and how its ownership ditches real, organic, proven championship-contender building methods for gaudy, knee-jerky, and irrational decisions. (Examples: throwing away a pretty solid young core to sign Carmelo Anthony; inking Amare Stoudemire, a big man with a history of knee injuries to a $100 million, 5 year max deal; signing Chris Smith, JR Smith’s scrub brother, just to convince JR, one of the least trustworthy, most lazy, and most on-and-off players in the league, to re-sign; picking up Andrea Bargnani.) The author depicts this strategy as akin to walking thirstily in the desert and being presented with the option to drink either champagne or water. Or better yet: you’re allowed to have both! But the Knicks opt for the champagne (max contracts and hiring a septuagenarian with no front-office experience to magically turn things around), and open the bottle of water and spill it all on the ground because “f*** the water.”
These khutbas feel just like that. We ditch real critical thinking, soul searching, spirituality, and raw openness for cliche, feel-good chest-thumping about how great Islam is and how being a good Muslim will lead to converting everyone around us. Because f*** growth. Here we are with the brilliant, borderline tear-jerking story about this amazing historic figure (and to the imam’s credit, he was a solid storyteller). The speaker DID touch a bit on what he thought were some morals of the story. But he devoted the longer, more memorable parts of his sermon to talking about how by us trying to do good things and being better Muslims, people will notice us more and iA people might ask for a copy of the Quran and iA maybe they’ll get interested so that iA they can make an awkward shahadah in front of a convention hall audience, taraweeh crowd, or, as is the case 98% of the year, in front of the few, the proud, the elderly who do in fact show up to the mosque during Asr time. (And iA there’s a solid convert/revert support system and an inclusive, not-single-ethnically-dominated community to incorporate them! mA)
Instead of talking about how it is inherently GOOD to take care of one’s environment, or how it is inherently GOOD to take care of oneself– to not lie, cheat, backbite, or steal, we talk about appearances or the random anecdote “where someone somewhere at Disneyworld once saw me and Brian smile and we explained that it’s Sunnah and I gave him a run down on maqasid as-sharia while we were on Magic Mountain.” For a community that talks so much about what we as Muslims look like, it is amazing that our PR and representation in the mainstream media is as bad as it is today. We could really use some work on the inside. That’s what’s missing– that’s what Salman al-Farisi travelled across the Middle East to find: salvation, purification of the heart, inner-peace, purpose. That’s what I’m looking for when I get myself to go to Friday prayer– something that I don’t want to take for granted or brush aside. I’m really trying.
I know that this is a multi-layered problem that touches on the fact that most of the imams and boards at these mosques or centers are mainly immigrants probably trying to appeal to an immigrant crowd or a community that still has a displaced, immigrant/otherness mentality. God bless the immigrant generation for building our institutions and keeping them afloat. But they’re still pretty much foreign institutions. That’s why you still see the community trying to build mosques that resemble Andalusian or Umayyad-era architecture. Like, guys, we’re in Illinois: we should be building Frank Lloyd Wright prairie-house style mosques with open, green, energy efficient, minimalistic, woody spaces. That’s why you could listen to most of these khutbas and imagine those same khutbas being presented in Egypt or Pakistan (and LOL you probably wouldn’t have to change the language either). They’re not American products reflecting an owned, empowered identity or a sense of rootedness or stewardship in the local city and community. They’re political rallies or “seasonal” sermons, and we’ve all heard them– the same ones– many, many times.
Our products only reflect our nostalgia, a word which in and of itself reflects something very much detached from the present reality. And when we keep hiring good-hearted people simply because they have a degree from Al-Azhar and we keep them on board because they give you a weekly emotional tirade about Syria and Burma and “may Allah destroy our enemies and whatnot,” when we keep running into the same problems but point to Islamophobia as the cause and then pine about the omnipotent “youth” and how they are somehow going to figure everything out on their own and lead our “ummah” one day (should the elders ever give us the authority and time of day), this is what comes to mind:
Thank you Chloe. HAVE A GOOD WEEKEND.
Latest reads regarding Muslim Americana:
It’s a pleasure to share these two pieces by my friends–
Layla Shaikley wrote for The Atlantic about “The Surprising Lessons of the ‘Muslim Hipsters’ Backlash.”
Laila Alawa had a piece in the Islamic Monthly titled “Let’s Stop Talking About Being Muslim In America.“