Mon, 01 Dec 2003

Sermons should stir the soul and engage intellect

Johan Jaaffar, New Straits Times,

The khatib (Islamic preacher) was lamenting that Hari Raya (Idul Fitri) has lost its "true meaning", especially among the young. He was speculating that come Hari Raya, the airwaves would be filled with festivities - singing, dancing, entertainment all. In the making of an insan kamil or syumul (pious Muslim), these things should not be encouraged.

Hari Raya came and, as predicted by the khatib, all the channels - government-owned or private - were full of, well, what else, songs, dance, comedies, dramas. I guess he would rather shut off his set. Or, like many hypocrites among the Muslims today, enjoy it.

There are enough people out there who actually believe that television is the scourge of modern society. After all, what do you expect from TV channels these days - programs that are, according to them, detrimental in the making of a good Muslim. What you see are shows that are mungkar and menyesatkan (bad and misleading).

How do you explain shows like Akademia Fantasia that kept the old and the young glued to TV for nine weeks? How could you justify the airing of Sex and the City, Joe Millionaire, Friends, WWE Wrestling and many others? There are enough people who actually believe that even football and rugby and other sports are bad for Muslims.

The thing that annoyed me most was that he was reading a text provided by the same government that allows all these entertainment programs on TV.

Why speak a different "language" on the pulpit? After all, we have an "open sky" policy. The fact is, Muslims have been complaining silently about the quality of the khutbah in the mosques. It is an integral part of the Friday prayers. But for too long, sermons have never really been able to reach out, especially to the young. They blame the young for all the ills in society. The young have every reason to be offended. The standard text is to instill fear among the Muslims to do good in this world and to submit to God Almighty. Most Muslims have no problem with such sermons. The fact is, these sermons neither stimulate the mind nor challenge the intellect.

Even in the villages, people seldom take these sermons seriously. They pray because it's required. Friday prayers are supposed to be an important gathering. Once a week, Muslims congregate to show not only unity and a sense of purpose, but to seek solace in the One God. There is no class or status. Everyone is the same to the eye of God.

Prophet Muhammad used the pulpit to preach, to send messages and to educate. In the times when communications were not defined by technology, the Caliphs and other Muslim rulers made use of the pulpit to reach out to the people. Some were ulema in their own right. Some were patrons of culture and the arts.

I wonder why the text of today's sermons can't be written by the best and the brightest among the Muslims scholars and thinkers. Make them concise, eloquent and interesting. Why can't they talk about earthly matters as well - the need for Muslims to excel; the need to go back to learn from the glorious past; to encourage scholarship traditions among the Muslims, to remind them of some of the best mathematicians, scientists, physicists, cosmologists and philosophers and to replicate some of the successes of great Muslims? Why can't they talk about the need for Muslims to be competitive and strong? They must understand the predicament of Muslims the world over. Many are poor, marginalized and neglected. They may be 1.3 billion strong, but they are, by almost all accounts, backward. Can't we stop blaming the others for our failures? Sadly, the pulpit has become a battle ground for politics. It has become an instrument to win support and popularity. The khatib in mosques controlled by the Opposition gleefully take the Barisan Nasional to task for all the problems they can think of. Follow our path, they exhort the congregation, and at least half of heaven is guaranteed.

On the other hand, mosques controlled by the government take a "safe line" - talking about God and afterlife. Issues pertaining to the ummah (people) are never really dissected, quality of the ummah hardly discussed and their future seldom a matter for priority.

Members of the congregation tend to be selective these days. They tend to avoid mosques perceived as "too pro-government". The trend became evident in the 1999 election where some of the most ferocious critics of the government were the darlings of the congregations.

The void of "quality" sermons is filled by these anti- government ustaz (Islamic teacher). The kneejerk reaction is to "ban" them, and "to take control" of any mosque deemed antigovernment.

That will solve only part of the problem. Remember, Muslims do not go to listen to fiery speeches attacking the government. Or to be told of the need to buy local fruits. They want quality sermons: those that can challenge their intellect, arouse their interest and remind them of the need to be the best. The want to be positively reminded of their responsibilities as a good ummah. Never underestimate the congregations.

The writer is also a farmer and traveler.