Life From the Minbar

It is slowly closing in on a year since I’ve taken to the minbar. The experience has been a humbling one in many ways. Frustrating in others. For those who have never done so, it is hard to know the pressure and responsibility one ensues when stepping up in front of your fellow brothers and sisters, let alone the time commitment it takes to write meaningful material week after week. It is also meeting the challenge of fulfilling a role that the Prophet [s] himself carried out. The challenge of saying something pertinent, meaningful, and appropriate whilst being careful to not commit errors, or speak something amiss. In many ways, it makes one an easy target for vain ridicule, from those who would peck at splinters in another’s eye, whilst ignoring their own glaring shortcomings. Such has been my experience thus far.

In the past ten months I have experienced several odd and disturbing circumstances from audience members who feel the need to correct, even when there has been no infraction. This may seem defensive, as if I would not welcome honest criticism. I do indeed welcome it, when it is sincere, and when it is conducted with etiquette and the mannerisms befitting the circumstances. I will try and be as straight forward as I can be.

One of the first khutbahs I delivered, I man from the audience approached me afterward, wishing to have a discussion about certain Arabic words I uttered during the service. The man was a native speaker of Arabic and thus seemed compelled to defend his language. Oddly enough during this engagement, another brother, also a native speaker, happened to present as well. The first brother accused me of misspeaking some words, of which I defended my position. The gentleman’s rebuttal was based in the fact that Arabic was not my native language, despite having taught and studied it for over 15 years. In the end, my friend, also a native speaker, interjected and corrected the brother, stating that in fact, my use of the word had been correct, and that he was mistaken. This only resulted in strengthening his regard against me and in result, consumed a considerable amount of time defending his position that was becoming weaker and weaker. To this day, the brother approaches me from time to time to challenge me on various facts of Arabic grammar that have little personal meaning for me.

Another case, more recently, came after the khutbah and resulted from my recitation of the prayer which I led. The brother [it’s always men!], of Turkish extraction, took me aside and inquired about the “odd way” in which I recited the Qur’an. I smiled, knowingly, and explained to him that he was not the first person to ask about my recitation style, which was not, by the way, personal, but rather of a qira’ah that he had never heard before, namely Warsh. I asked him if he knew the name of the style that he recited in, to which he replied, “you know, just normal Qur’an”. I laughed, in good mirth, and told him that he was used to Hafs, and that I had recited in Warsh, a style perhaps not so familiar in his native Turkey. I also asked if he had studied tajwid formally or not, to which he replied in the negative. To this he continued and insisted that I had made a mistake in my recitation. Welcoming the possibility, I asked him where [I had recited suwrah al-A’la and ash-Sharh]. He noted certain places in the suwar that he felt was incorrect, of which I informed him these were places where the styles between Hafs and Warsh were most apparent to him and it was mainly a result of him not being familiar with the latter’s style. To my amazement, despite admitting he had no formal training with tajwid and more specifically, Warsh, he pressed his case forward. Having to get back to work, I recommended he learn the rules of tajwid and tried to leave it at that. However, the conversation did not finish here, to which he met me at my office just a few short hours later, where he continued to cry his case for my supposed error. Being in an overly indulgent mood, I showed him my mashaf of both Warsh and Hafs, clearly demonstrating the differences between the two as well as playing the recitations of noted reciters, both in the two schools of recitation. The brother left my office with lingering traces of mistrust, as if by some witchcraft I had won my case, though he still seemed to distrust what had been presented before him. All the while during this he persisted in inquiring where I had learned my Arabic and other Islamic knowledge. It just seemed too amazing that a kid from Detroit could have learned two Qur’anic recitations when he, hailing from the lands of Islam, had not even understood the basics of one.

I say all this in that it is one, on a personal level, aggravating to have to deal with such treatment. I have been present at other khutbahs where there have been other khatibs who have made mistakes in their recitation, yet, when they happened to be of the right persuasion – i.e., Arab or Desi, then they were beyond reproach. After all, how could such genuinely Muslim people commit an error when the religion pumps through their veins? Two, that it is a real lack of respect for the religion, to treat a person, who has been elected by the community to take the mantle of delivering the khutbah, but because they are not of the proper ethnic group, the proper respect is not given them, no matter what level of knowledge they may have obtained.

I knew that when I accepted the responsibility to do this, of putting myself up on that minbar, that pulpit, that I would be opening myself for shots. However, after nearly a year of doing so, I am now in serious consideration of stepping down. It may not prove to be worth the insult and disrespect.

18 Replies to “Life From the Minbar”

  1. However, after nearly a year of doing so, I am now in serious consideration of stepping down. It may not prove to be worth the insult and disrespect.

    You’ll never change some adults. But, I believe, this is an important step in making Islam indigenous; to the youth who are growing up in your area, having an American trained khatib will be part and parcel of normal experience. I mean, the adults who are arguing with you judge Islamic authenticity on the basis of their own experience growing up. So too will the youth.

    More important, I believe, is truth. Insults shouldn’t stop anyone from speaking, or being, what is true. Easier said than done, I suppose, but this is what I’m always reminded of when I read the Koran. Interestingly, I heard someone say that the story of Exodus in the Bible narrates it in an “Us vs. Them” discourse. In the Koran, this “Us vs. Them” is replaced with “Truth vs. Falsehood.” And, of course, the price for speaking truth; even the Prophet (S) had to be reminded of the struggles of previous prophets.

    Anyways, these are just my own ignorant thoughts.

  2. Okay, just commenting again because I found where exactly I heard replacing “Us vs. Them” with “Truth vs. Falsehood” enables one to recognize truth from wherever it comes. It’s from Sh. AHM’s speech which can be watched here.

  3. Omar – jazakallahu khayran. I really appreciate those words of insight and encouragement. I have not decided to throw in the towel just yet, but I am waying the pro’s and con’s in terms of two things:

    1 – it’s impact on my wife, seeing her husband having to rankle with being consistently disrespected in public.

    2 – the impact of converts seeing “one of their own” constantly challenged and disrespected.

    I do not want the struggle to help establish a vibrant Muslim reality here to boil down to some egoistic skirmish that becomes more about me, and less about “the cause” if you will.

  4. Nooo! Please don’t step down. It would be disastrous. I didn’t know you were getting disrespected like that, but the problem is easily solved, at least superficially (not at the roots, that’ll probably only be affected by you continuing to do what you’re doing) – I’ll make you a nice “I recite in Warsh and have studied Arabic for 15 years so please let me get my tea and shwarma and get back to work” T-shirt. Deal?

  5. Maybe these personalities who are giving you a hard time need a different approach. One time I was promoting an event, “Faith in Action — Muslims of Ireland,” about indigenizing Islam in Ireland, and came across an opinionated (but friendly) brethren. He questioned the Islamic authenticity of it. Muslims in Dublin are international so I said look, there’s Islam in Pakistan, Malaysia, Nigeria, Egypt etc. Islam was able to accommodate all of these cultures. When Islam came to Indonesia, the ‘ulema acted as cultural mediators — one leg in the culture and one leg in Islamic tradition. Again, he was opinionated, yet didn’t object to historical reality when pointed out to him. But then again he was friendly, so that does make a lot of difference.

  6. My Dear Brother in Al-Islam,

    I say to you pay NO attention to the skeptics who hide their presumptive privilege of arrogance and ignorance under the cloak of Islamic facade. Continue to do your great and noble work. There’s much that can be said about this as it relates to the notion of cultural and intellectual privilage and the arrogance that always accompanies such thought styles that some Muslims hold for themselves but we won’t go there.

    May Allah continue to be the Nur in your tongue and in your words. May Allah fill you with His Nur, Amin.

  7. AA- Marc,

    I’m very sorry to read about your negative experiences. I would hope that the positives of your standing on the minbar far outweigh the negatives and that’s why I second those calls against your stepping down.

    But I’m curious, why you feel that the criticism against you stems from your American roots? I ask because I have witnessed countless times laymen members of the congregation questioning (or even mocking) the khateeb on issues they felt he was wrong – this includes a case where an elderly desi fellow yelled at our imam, Dr Mohammed Adam El-Sheikh, a member of the ISNA fiqh council, in the middle of the khutbah!

    I believe this issue is common across the board (be the khateeb american, desi, or arab).

    Granted, the issue to which you allude is an existing and very real problem (the false superiority in deen felt by some arabs/desis over their american counterparts), I wonder whether your experiences can be categorized as such.

    Hope you and the family are well,

  8. Naeem! as-Salaam ‘alaykum. Very good to hear from you. How have you been? Well, I will write you an e-mail and see how things have been.

    One of the concerns I would have with your question is that it assumes a couple of things:

    1. I am imagining that the cause of the issue is due to my “American roots”, meaning that I have some how misinterpreted the issue.

    2. That the very specificity can be boiled or reduced down to a grand, across-the-board issue, thus, negating the “American roots” aspect of it again.

    This is somewhat problematic, especially #2 in my opinion, in that this is a common response: it’s nothing to do with you being non-Desi/Arab/Turkish, but it’s just some bigger albeit un-nuanced problem. I would ask: why could my assumption not be correct? That it is in fact as I have stated in the above account? There’s also the assumption in your argument that the older man who yelled at the khatib [that had to have been amusing] did it for the very same reasons.

    I have observed a tendency in observation over the last several years when indigenous Muslims would bring to light certain aspects of their experience that might not render “ethnic” Muslims in a favorable light. I feel that the problem is best dealt with by not watering it down to generalities. I am not the American Muslim or even khatib to experience the above issues – I have received numerous e-mails on this post alone from many other indigenous Muslims who have experienced the same thing. So I would not vote for “flattening” the issue to one dimension.

  9. The only possible exception to that rule has been when the brother or sister is white.

    Careful, son. We may have to get you some security with a comment like that! But seriously, yes, that is a factor. Of course, that is not a statement against our white brothers and sisters, but rather calls for examination as to why white is preferred or seen as more extraordinary? Some could argue the latter in a way, but the first does call for some introspection and investigation.

  10. Marc what this sounds like to me is a csae of “who is an authentic Muslim” in the eyes of many immigrants. I say that because like yourself I have had the exact same experience as many other indegenious brothers and sisters. The only possible exception to that rule has been when the brother or sister is white.
    Yes, race and the privilege of being white along with the socio-historical power politics that accompanies that pathology plays a vital part in how we as indegenious Americans are viewed through the prism of “cultural islam” (small “i” intended).

  11. As Salaamu Alaikum Brother:

    Don’t step down. Unless, of course, you want to. But, not for them.

    Unfortunately, what you are experiencing somewhat goes with the job 🙂

    As a Muslim chaplain in a female correctional facility, I am constantly challenged by the inmates. Sometimes it’s frustrating. But it is always a real learning experience. And some people will never be convinced no matter how much you try.

    Keep up the good work. And remember that Allah (swt) gave permission for YOU to be there 🙂

  12. AA- Marc,

    I think you misunderstood my initial comment. I do not believe that you are imagining the existence of the ‘American roots’ issue, for I explicitly stated that this unfortunate phenomenon does exist.

    Basically, I believe there are two plausible explanations for your negative experience (ignoring the unlikely, such as personal vendetta or mental illness):

    1. The immigrant individuals suffer from a superiority complex over their indigenous counterparts. That is the stance you have presented in your blog post.

    2. The individuals are arm-chair khateebs who feel they could do a better job than the imam standing on the minbar. That is the *possibility* I presented.

    My question to you, while making no assumptions on my part, is what convinced you the issue was #1 and not #2? I may not be privy to certain background info that led you to your conclusion.

    Just to be clear, I am not attempting to negate your experience nor ‘flatten’ the issue (is that a Photoshop reference? heh) – simply trying to understand where you are coming from…

  13. what convinced you the issue was #1 and not #2?

    Wa ‘alaykum salaam, Naeem. My argument does not negate #2, but rather sees #2 a result of #1. #1 is the psychological stance, if I can use such a word, that informs said individuals, which then results in #2. This is based on observation, not only my own, but from many other converts who have ascended to roles of authority or responsibility in the community. To add a small tidbit to the recollection above, the brother, when faced with his obvious deficiencies in knowledge of tajwid, attempted to marginalize my rebuttal by stating I could never really know what I am talking about because I am not a native speaker of Arabic [despite the fact neither was he!]. I do believe there exists a superiority complex in some immigrant Muslims. I have even had some relate to my face as well as to other friends of mine that our Islam would always be suspect. The examples could go on and on. Yes, I think that perhaps because one, you are not one such individual, and two, you have not been sufficiently exposed to this behavior, that you will have a hard time seeing it as such, and may come to alternative conclusions.

  14. Tim – wa ‘alaykum salaam.

    Yes, it’s bad enough or rather difficult enough to strive against one’s own character defects and base aspects that having to also contend with others makes the task doubly arduous.

    I received my copy of To Honor God. I look forward to exploring it.

  15. We start by striving against our own nafs. This seems hard enough. Then you have to strive against everyone else’s. That major jihad x2, x3, x10, x100, x1000… And to think, some people want to be Khalif!

  16. AssalamuAlaikum Marc. I am really very sorry to read about your experience regarding the treatment of some of the brothers during khutba. Believe me, these people have no other job but to cause the “Fitna” any where and every where. As a khateeb myself for last 16 years and the person who organizes Jumuah prayers in academic settings, I came across many times with these kinds of people. They have lot to complain but whenever asked for some responsibility, are the first one to back off. My advice to you please do not heed to their nonsense complaints about your “accent and “pronunciation”. Simply, tell them that you are a student of Islam and are learning and trying to improve (as learning is a continuous process. If they can help you in that reagsrd, they are most welcome. Think about that you do not want to deprive hundreds of brothers of your knowledge because of a few. Tell them that this is the responsibility given to you by a large number of brothers and you can not step down because of their baseless accusations.

    I have chance to listen to your khutba at least six or seven times. We brothers here at Jefferson admire your knowledge, choice of unique topics and sincerity to propagate the message of Islam. Remember, Allah (SWT) has chosen you for this purpose and not many brothers have the opportunity to stand on the Minbar and call people towards “Haqq”.

  17. Wa ‘alaykum Salaam, Tariq. Thank you for the kind words. Not to say it couldn’t happen, but my experiences at Jefferson have all been positive! Must be your influence over the brothers there. 🙂

    Yes, it’s frustrating dealing with this issue. And it’s not as if I am beyond reproach or cannot do things better. But I often find it annoying when certain people wish to criticize solely based on the fact that they think their ethnicity is some sort of gatekeeper of knowledge. In the Turkish brother’s case [not sure if it’s the same guy] he wasn’t even familiar with Warsh. And yet he felt comfortable enough to open his mouth. It’s disrespectful, both to myself as well as the position that it signifies. Ironically, I just had someone approach me after prayer and mention it was so neat to hear another riwayah – recitation – of Qur’an. And they recognized it as Warsh!

    This other brother you mention, who is complaining about Arabic, I would love to know what he finds fault with my Arabic. I have studied it for over ten years, have taught it, to both native/non-native speakers, and when I often speak in public with other native speakers, I am assumed to be one. Yes, my focus with the language is more literal than oral. Most of my time is spent reading old books, so my voculary may be a bit archaic, but I would be curious as to his capacity in the language.

    The above example only outlines why I do become frustrated. But, in sha’Allah, for now, I will continue to trudge ahead and keep going. I very appreciate your support. May Allah reward you for your kindness. Amin.

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