Khateeb Workshop

3 Pillars of Prophetic Communication

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For purposes of this article, Prophetic communication is in the context of a general community address. Practically, that means khutbahs, family night presentations, and general halaqahs or reminders. It is not directed at classroom instruction, seminars, or other such mediums.

The three pillars below are meant to serve as a reminder to the speaker. These are fundamentals that must be kept in mind when crafting a speech.

Iḥsān (Excellence)

Verily, Allah has prescribed excellence in everything. (Muslim)

I was speaking to a brother about khutbah preparation process. He said that he would go sit on the minbar on Friday, and as the adhan was being called, he would think about a topic. Then, he would stand up and deliver it. This was a bit of a humblebrag - being so knowledgeable that you can literally get up and wing it.

This is not something to aspire to, it’s actually disrespectful to an audience. If you get up to address a congregation without having put any effort into the message or construction of your speech, the audience will tune you out.

So what does ihsan tangibly look like? For purposes of a general talk or khutbah, use the following bullet points as a starting checklist:

  • There is a clear one sentence take-away message that summarizes the entire talk.

  • You have done at least 10 times the amount of research on the subject you are speaking about. Rule of thumb - for a 30 minute talk, you should have a minimum of 5 hours of preparation invested.

  • Practice and rehearse your talk multiple times to iron out inconsistencies in speech flow or development of talking points.

If that sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is a lot of work. Addressing an audience is a privilege. Addressing an audience from a position of representing the religion is an amanah (trust) between the speaker and The Creator. The hard work is a prerequisite to speaking.

Excellence in a talk comes from crafting a meaningful message to deliver, constructing a speech to communicate that message, and then delivering it in a manner that makes the audience receptive to receiving it.

Make Things Easy

The Prophet (ﷺ) said, "Make things easy for the people, and do not make it difficult for them, and make them calm (with glad tidings) and do not repulse them (Bukhari).

God did not send me to be harsh, or cause harm, but He has sent me to teach and make things easy. (Muslim)

Whatever your message is, make sure the audience can implement it. It is the job of the speaker to anticipate objections to their message, or obstacles that can prevent it from being practiced.

Some adopt an attitude of “dropping knowledge”, or “establishing the hujjah (proof),” and leaving the audience to fend for themselves. This is rooted in arrogance. It is one of those characteristics, like unapologetically telling the truth, that is incorrectly lionized.

The Prophetic model is to understand the audience, empathize with them, and find ways to help (and serve) them.

Concern

There has certainly come to you a Messenger from among yourselves. Grievous to him is what you suffer; [he is] concerned over you and to the believers is kind and merciful. (9:128)

We all get “vibes” from different speakers. Someone can be a sophisticated speaker, but still leave you with a bad vibe (like a politician). On the other hand, someone may not be a well-refined speaker, but their message still resonates when we feel it “comes from the heart.”

The core of this is the attitude of the communicator toward the audience. The only way to establish a connection with the audience such that they are receptive to the message is by sincerely being concerned for their well being.

This cannot be faked.

If the audience feels you are speaking down to them, or do not have their best interests at heart they will not listen - regardless of how amazing your talking points are.

Connecting requires sincere caring.

The True Purpose of the Khutbah in Serving Our Communities

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Once a week, for about 30 minutes on Friday afternoon, we sit and listen to a khutbah (sermon). What is the actual purpose of this talk? What are the audience’s expectations? How do we best capitalize on the opportunity of a large, captive audience? Should the khutbah be used for fundraising? What about raising awareness for social causes? What about teaching people how to make wudu properly?

As with most things, it’s essential to start with the fundamentals. The other questions can be addressed after this foundation is established.

There is an entire surah in the Qur’an dedicated to the day of Jumu’ah (Friday). The ultimate command comes toward the end of the surah -

Believers! When the call to prayer is made on the day of congregation [Friday], hurry towards the reminder of God... (62:9)

Leading up to that command are ayaat of Qur’an that provide insight into the purpose of the weekly khutbah.

Everything in the heavens and earth glorifies God, the Controller, the Holy One, the Almighty, the Wise. (62:1)

Allah (swt) is the focus of everything we do. The Names of Allah mentioned here remind us of Allah’s greatness, and our need to reconnect with Him in our daily lives.

It is He who raised a messenger, among the people who had no Scripture, to recite His revelations to them, to make them grow spiritually and teach them the Scripture and wisdom—before that they were clearly astray—to them and others yet to join them. He is the Almighty, the Wise (62:2-3)

The formula for a khutbah is laid out here - spirituality first, then education.

  • ‘Recite His revelation’ - Remind people about Allah first and foremost in everything they do

  • ‘Make them grow spiritually’ - Inspire and help people with their spirituality so they can reconnect with Allah.

  • ‘Teach them’ - Education is mentioned third. It is not the primary focus of a khutbah,

  • ‘They were clearly astray’ - Always be hopeful in the audience. Do not get angry with them because of their situation or status at a given moment.

  • This process of reminding, inspiring, teaching, and serving will continue.

Such is God’s favor that He grants it to whoever He will; God’s favor is immense. (62:4)

Delivering a khutbah is a privilege and a trust (amanah). It is a message on behalf of Allah (swt) and His Messenger (saw). Give it its proper due - it can be taken away from you at any time.

Those who have been charged to obey the Torah, but do not do so, are like donkeys carrying books: how base such people are who disobey God’s revelations! God does not guide people who do wrong. (62:5)

A warning about how preachers acted in the past. Scripture was dumped on people by their leaders, even though they did not have the capacity to carry it. The job of the leader is to inspire, motivate, and inculcate a thirst and desire for more within the people. It is not to merely deliver a message as a means of discharging a duty and then walking away.

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Some years ago, as part of the Qalam Institute Khateeb Workshop program, we sent out surveys to thousands of people. Some major Islamic centers even surveyed their congregations as well.

People were asked how many khutbahs they heard in the past month that had a positive impact on them or were even relevant to their daily life. The answer averaged out to 1.7. That means less than half of what people heard had any real effect.

Overwhelmingly, people shared the same type of feedback. They wanted to hear messages that were relevant to their struggles and inspired them to come closer to Allah (swt), As a community, we have fallen behind that ultimate (and seemingly simple) goal.

There was a heavy sentiment in the surveys of people feeling guilty for falling short, and coming to the masjid in hopes of finding a solution. Instead, they sat through messages that were incoherent, non-sequitur, irrelevant, or made them feel worse and further disconnected from Allah.

It seems that what people want is congruent with the guidance of the Qur’an. So why aren’t we getting that?

There are a lot of ways to answer this question, but there is one trend, in particular, I want to highlight: turning the khutbah into a social media platform.

Let me explain.

The Friday khutbah is the one time a week where hundreds or thousands of people are sitting with rapt attention at any given masjid in the country. This is an opportunity to help people with their spirituality.

It’s also seen by some as an opportunity to capitalize on that attention to further a particular cause (social justice, political activism, etc.). Instead of the primary focus being on spirituality, the primary focus shifts to something else like fundraising, raising awareness, or even turning the khutbah into a class.

This is not to say those things in and of themselves are wrong or cannot be done (although personally, I feel strongly that fundraising should never be done during a khutbah). The issue is one of priorities and serving the congregation.

When leadership is focused on the people and what they need, that is reflected in the message. When leadership is focused on their own projects and advocacy, that too is reflected in the message delivered.

The counter-argument is always making a case for some type of necessity. This is the only chance to reach so many people, so we have to fundraise, or we have to raise awareness for this issue, or we have to get people to do this or that.

As a regular khateeb, I’m often given requests. Things like, “please talk about selling liquor”, “talk about teenagers and drugs”, “give a khutbah on how to use the bathroom”, “give a khutbah on registering to vote”, “tell everyone in the khutbah to donate $20”, and the list goes on and on - every social cause, political situation, and so on.

Many khateebs are not qualified to speak on these issues. They aren’t imams or scholars. They’re often people with full-time jobs who are trying to serve the community by delivering a message of spiritual upliftment the best they can. To have someone like me get up and give a talk on Friday on something like mental health would not help raise awareness for mental health issues - it would be a huge disservice to the community because I’d be addressing the congregation from the minbar on something I have zero experience in.

The khutbah is not the only means of addressing the congregation. You can do a Friday night program, a Saturday workshop, send emails to your community, make videos, or any of the other options technology has given us to reach people. To isolate the khutbah as the end all be all means that you’re worried people won’t listen to you unless they’re forced to. This indicates a messaging problem and a lack of patience. In extreme cases, it’s borderline spam. Unfortunately, it all comes at the cost of the general spirituality of the audience.

There are, of course, exceptions. It often boils down to the right way and the wrong way of addressing something. I mentioned earlier how someone like me delivering khutbah on mental health could be counterproductive. On the other side of that is an example of how to properly address something of genuine importance for the community in the appropriate way. The khutbahs delivered by Sh. Yaser Birjas (link) and Omar Suleiman (link) on mental health and suicide are a good model for how this is done well. These are delivered by Imams who have experience with the issue and have the appropriate credentials and authority within their community to speak about it.

The khutbah is indeed a tremendous opportunity - an opportunity to help people come closer to Allah (swt) and follow the guidance of His Prophet (saw). Each Friday is a chance to sow a small seed of inspiration and awaken souls.

Let’s get back to those basics and do our best to deliver messages in service of that mission.

Click here to bring a 1 day workshop on Khutbahs, and Public Speaking to your community.

Jabir informs, “When the Prophet delivered the khutbah, his eyes became red, his voice rose, and his anger increased as if giving a warning to the enemy.” … it should be an organized speech that the people can understand. It should not be a speech, which is over the heads of the people, nor should it be shallow or contain foul language as that would defeat its purpose. Its words should be chosen carefully to make them attractive and meaningful.”

Giving his views on the subject, Ibn al-Qayyim says, The khutbah of the Prophet reinforced the fundamental articles of faith, like belief in Allah, the Exalted, His angels, His books, His messengers, and the meeting with Him. He would mention the paradise and the hellfire and what Allah, the Exalted, has promised to His devoted servants and the people who obey Him and what Allah has promised to His enemies and the miscreant. While listening to his khutbah, the hearts would be filled with belief in Allah, His oneness, and His majesty. His khutbahs were not like speeches of those who speak only of matters of concern of common folk, lamenting earthly life and frightening people of the approaching death. Such speeches cannot inspire faith in Allah or strengthen belief in His oneness or move people by allusion to His mighty works in history, nor can they kindle in hearts intense love for Allah, making the listeners look forward eagerly to the time they will meet Him! The people who hear such speeches gain no benefit at all, except that they will die and that their wealth will be distributed and their bodies will be turned to dust. Woe to such poets, what sort of faith is fostered by such sermons, and what sort of tawhid do they teach or knowledge disseminate? If we study the khutbahs of the Prophet sallallahu alehi wasallam and his companions, we find them embued with perspicuous guidance, tawhid, attributes of Allah, explaining the basic articles of the faith, inviting people to Allah, and drawing their attention to His providential care that makes Him so beloved to His slaves. His khutbahs referred to Allah’s dealings with others in the past so as to wam his listeners against His wrath and exhort them to remember Him, thank Him and win His pleasure and love. Those who heard these khutbahs were inspired with the love of Allah and they looked forward eagerly to meeting their Lord. As time went by, the example of the Prophet was forgotten and other things prevailed. The main purpose of the khutbah was forgotten. The eloquent and nice words that moved the hearts became rare in speeches. The main thrust of the khutbah was neglected. The hearts were no longer touched and the basic purpose of the khutbah was lost.

Confessions of a Public Speaker: Masjid Edition

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Originally posted at MuslimMatters.org. I recently finished a great book, Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun, and thought it would be interesting to contrast some of what is in the book with masjid 'speaking' experiences. Berkun's book offers interesting discussion on public speaking itself, observations, and then a few tips and tricks.

What follows here are my random notations and thoughts from when I read through the book. The focus is heavily on the main public speaking activities in the masjid (i.e. khutbahs).

Lesson: Four Versions of Each Talk

He quotes Dale Carnegie as saying,

Good speakers usually find when they finish that there have been four versions of the speech: the one they delivered, the one they prepared, the one the newspapers say was delivered, and the one on the way home they wish they had delivered.

This is perhaps one of the most important lessons for any public speaker. Everyone has something they wish to communicate, a formulation of it in their head, and then there's what actually comes out. Often though, the speaker ends up obsessing about points that do not matter - in fact, as Berkun notes, they're often the opposite of what the audience even cares about.

It's kind of like that khateeb who quotes some esoteric 'point of benefit' that he feels is truly amazing, but no one else gets. Then after the khutbah, you see him going around asking everyone what they thought about that one point, and no one cares. Then he cannot figure out why people didn't like his talk. The book gives a poignant advice that everyone should keep in mind,

It's the mistakes you make before you even say a word that matter more. These include the mistakes of not having an interesting opinion, of not thinking clearly about your points, and of not planning ways to make those points relevant to your audience.

I cannot emphasize enough how much this describes the vast majority of khutbahs and halaqahs I have listened to at the masjid. What I find is not necessarily a lack of knowledge from our speakers, but rather a lack of the simple skill of planning your talk. The more that it is planned and mapped out, the less likely that the audience will walk away with something you weren't expecting.

The Conundrum of Finding a Good Khateeb

They must find speakers who are:

  1. Famous or credible for a relevant topic
  2. Good at speaking
  3. Available

Two out of three is often the best they can do.

This is true for most general organizations. Most masjids can only meet one of the three criteria, and it is usually the last one. While there is a vicious cycle of too many spots to fill without enough qualified people, there are some steps we can take to mitigate this.The primary one is an attitude shift in our communities. Congregations need to raise the bar for what they expect out of the khutbah and communicate it to the administration. This is the only spiritual nourishment many people get for the entire week, and if the person giving the khutbah is just a warm body with an audible voice, then we have failed the community. The second thing that needs to happen is for the masjid administration to put more emphasis on having a good khutbah.

Too many masjids just worry about filling the spot without looking at the quality. If your regular khateeb isn't a good speaker - send him to Toastmasters. Do SOMETHING. But administration has to take this responsibility seriously. Once they fully grasp the importance of the khutbah, then khateebs will also step it up and stop mailing it in every Friday. There has to be an effort to find the best khateebs and do whatever you can to bring them in to your community.

The Sunnah Helps the Speaker

We all know that we should sit as close to the speaker as possible to show that we are paying attention, and so on. Keep in mind that this benefits the listener as much as it benefits the speaker. When someone is talking and the crowd looks empty, it can negatively affect them. This is true even if 500 people are in the room, but it's a room that holds 3,000.

For an hour I sucked - an endless hour of misery, speaking into the Grand Canyon of rooms, with each and every word traveling slowly across a sea of empty chairs. I heard every word twice, once when I said it, and two seconds later when it echoed against the back wall, unimpeded by the sound-absorbing powers of an actual crowd. ... The solution to this ... rests on the density theory of public speaking ... I realized that the crowd size is irrelevant - what matters is having a dense crowd.

So next time you are at the masjid, move in closer to the speaker. It will make the speech itself better too.

Simple Keys to a Good Speech

Great speakers are connection-makers, sharing an authentic part of themselves to create a singular, positive experience for the audience.

If anyone has ever looked for a guideline on how to do a halaqah or khutbah, this is an indispensable piece of wisdom.

The difference between you and JFK or Martin Luther King has less to do with your ability to speak - a skill all of us use hundreds of times every day - than it does the ability to think and refine rough ideas into clear ones. Making a point, teaching a lesson, or conveying a feeling to others first requires thinking, lots and lots of thinking, before the speaking ever happens. But we don't see the thinking; after all, it's not very interesting to watch. We only see the speaking...

Also, never forget why people are there to listen to you speak. They might want to learn, or be inspired. Whatever the case may be, make sure to service that purpose. A speech given without the audience on your side is doomed to failure. The key to keeping them on your side is the preparation.

Audiences are very forgiving. They want the speaker to do well, so they will overlook many superficial problems. But if the speaker is not going to think carefully about his points, willfully disregards his own material, and gets lost as a result, how forgiving can the audience be?

In other words, most people don't care to hear random rants and raves, and people definitely notice when a speaker is mailing it in. If you have the responsibility to speak to a crowd of people, take it seriously and prepare.

How I Feel About a Lot of Islamic Speeches

All talks and presentations have a point of view, and you need to know what yours is. If you don't know enough about the topic to have an opinion, solve that problem before you make your presentation. Even saying, "Here are five things I like" is a strong position, in that there are an infinite number of things you did not choose. With a weak position, your talk may become, "Here is everything I know I could cram into the time I have...."

I also call this "quotation knowledge." You all know the types. It's that one speaker, who every time he speaks, the talk is just full of quotations. It might be ayaat, hadith, quotes from famous scholars - but it's just quotes. No reflection, no communication. Have you ever heard a khutbah on adab, and it sounded like the speaker was just reading the titles of Bukhari's chapter headings? I have. It's not fun to sit through.

What's Your Point?

Points are claims. Arguments are what you do to support your points. Every point should be compressed into a single, tight, interesting sentence. The arguments might be long, but no one should ever be confused as to what your point is while you are arguing it. A mediocre presentation makes the points clear but muddles or bores people with arguments. A truly bad presentation never clarifies what the points are.

This reminds me of pretty much every single fiqh debate/discussion I have ever heard random people in the masjid engaging in.

Make Objective Decisions

Before I continue, I need to put something out there. I detest the fact that people want to kill the sunnah of moonsighting and replace it with an unfounded calculation system. There, I said it.

My biggest problem with regards to this issue is masjid boards who establish policies about which opinion to follow - and it all comes down to communication.

Know the likely counterarguments from an intelligent, expert audience. If you do not know the intelligent counterarguments to each of your points, your points cannot be good. For example, if your presentation is about why people should eat more cheese, you should at a minimum know why the Anti-Cheese Foundation of America says people should eat less cheese.

Let's keep our masajid and communities intellectually honest. If you have a position of responsibility, then the onus is on you to make sure you've investigated all sides of every issue. If you are going to speak to an audience, and advocate something, then know it inside and out. If you are going to establish a moonsighting policy for your local masjid, then make sure you have objectively read all the arguments both against and in favor of it. I'm not advocating that average masjid board members give fatwas, but we need to be realistic. When you are in that position, you have an amaanah. Choosing things based on convenience or because its the latest fad is not acceptable. The more people are educated about their own contentions, the better off we will be. I'm fairly certain the vast majority of fights in Muslim communities are a result of people simply not thinking things through. So there's the answer, properly evaluate things before saying something.

Specific Tips for A Khateeb

Practice, practice, practice.

If you're too lazy to practice, expect your audience to be too lazy to follow.

Have a title for your khutbah (in other words, focus),

If you had only one single point, what would it be?

Make good notes. For what it's worth, I don't buy the theory that the top echelon of giving a khutbah is not having notes. I feel that the key is learning to make effective notes.

Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt all used a short outline of five or six points - often with just a few words per point - to help them recall their hour-long speeches while giving them. If you do enough thinking in advance, all your brain needs is a little list, and most of the speaking will take care of itself.

Public Speaking is Story-Telling

Concern the audience with stories. Communication needs to be a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. Berkun gives a great example,

It's one thing to say, "Here's line 5 of the new tax code." That's just a boring fact ... It's quite another to say, "80% of you in the audience confused line 5 with line 6 on your last tax return, which cost you $500. Here's how not to make that mistake." Even a topic as mind-numbingly dull as tax forms becomes interesting if the speaker cares both about the problem and the people affected by it. When an audience is curious about the story you're telling, they'll follow your lead almost anywhere.

Ever wonder why two speakers can talk about the same topic, use the exact same reference materials, but one is amazing and the other one not so much? This is a big reason why.

The Broken Feedback Loop

Feedback is critical, and it's especially difficult to get good feedback in the Muslim community. Most people, even when asked, will simply give curt responses like "It was fine."

As a result, there are thousands of bad public speakers running around under the impression that they're doing OK. The feedback loop for speakers is broken, and they have simple never been told they did not perform well, much less how they can improve. Like singers in the early rounds of American Idol who sincerely can't believe they're not the next Whitney Houston or Frank Sinatra, many people live inside a bubble of denial. They've heard enough polite compliments to safely ignore any painful truths that slip through. They may even jab back, decreasing the odds that people will offer any future critiques.

I'm 100% positive that every single Muslim (at least in America) has met that guy. Please, don't be that guy.

Always get feedback from people. Berkun gives a great set of quick questions you can use,

  • How did my presentation compare to others?
  • What one change would have most improved my presentation?
  • What questions did you expect me to answer that went unanswered?
  • What annoyances did I let get in the way of giving you what you needed?

Even when someone compliments you, take it to the next level. Ask them what specifically they learned, and what you could do to make it better. Ask them to email you a critique of your speech.

If we all encourage one another, and humble ourselves just a bit, we can raise the bar for the entire community.

Inside the Mind of a First Time 'Eid Khateeb

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Originally posted at MuslimMatters.org. Somehow, this year I found myself in the position of leading Eid prayer for the first time in my life. Actually, 'somehow' is a vague description. A more accurate description would be,

Due to the inability of even having city-wide unity on Eid, and losing our backup Imam to the 'other day' with the 'other half' of the city, I was forced at the last minute to prepare myself to lead one of the Eid prayers in our masjid.

The good news is, since our masjid was doing it on Wednesday, I at least had the 30th of Ramadan to prepare. Also, alhamdulillah, since we do not follow calculations, I had taken 2 days off work, so that also worked to my advantage (and some people call that a hardship?).

Imagine, preparing yourself for a nice Eid with the family. Relaxing on the last couple of nights, catching up on random things at the end of Ramadan. Then imagine, being told you have to not only attend Eid prayer at a different time you had made plans for, but that you had to now lead it.  It is unbelievable how many questions and concerns started swirling in my head at that moment.

Me?? Seriously? Can't we find someone else to do it?

How do you even pray Salatul-Eid again?? How many takbeers? How do you keep count?

What should the khutbah be on?

Will this create fitnah in the community, especially for our desi uncles who don't like to see "kids" involved in regular affairs, much less leading Eid prayer of all prayers?

I even remembered a story of one shaykh (I think I heard it at Texas Dawah) telling us the story of how the first time he gave khutbah, he lost his wudu. For anyone that didn't understand that, think of a common involuntary bodily reaction that occurs when someone suddenly gets super-nervous. As if I didn't have enough to worry about already, this story all of a sudden comes to me?

Once I settled down though, I reassessed the situation. I took quick stock of my friends and realized outside of "imam" types, I don't know anyone who has ever led Eid prayer. I realized that Allah (swt) has presented me with this opportunity for some specific reason.  Even though it was a smaller salah, at a local masjid, it was still a significant opportunity, and an important experience that could insha'Allah really help me in my Islamic development. What follows below is some of the thought process that went into the preparation, and how it turned out.

The Fiqh of Eid

This subject wasn't completely new to me. I have read small booklets here and there on the Fiqh of Eid and Muslim holidays. But the one who reads for information is not like the one who reads to immediately implement. How many people know details of the fiqh of Hajj until they're actually about to go on Hajj? Exactly.

I did what any enterprising student of knowledge would do in my situation. I googled it. I'm not gonna lie and say I embarked on some kind of academic research of the issue, or that I even went to my bookshelf to revisit those books I read many years ago. I simply Googled it and checked Islam-QA.com. I should add a note here, that I did not do this to actually teach myself how to do the salah, but rather to familiarize myself with the common issues that arise in relation to the Fiqh of Eid Salah, and perhaps find what (if any) 'controversial' points there are. I found a few, but I realized they were 'controversial' only because the sources I studied from some years ago actually represented only a small minority view on some issues, although they painted as if that was the only opinion and everyone else was wrong (but that's a different story).

I sat down with our Imam and brought up the issues I had questions on - for example how many takbeerat to say in each rak'ah. Timing did not dictate any allowance for academic research on the issue, or even more than a cursory glance. I personally felt from my minimal (Islam-QA) research that  the stronger opinion was 7 takbeers in the first, and 5 in the second. The community I am in though, has a long-standing precedent of praying Eid according to the Hanafi style (3 takbeers in each rak'ah). Taking into account the history and orientation of our community, in addition to keeping the entire event as "drama-free" as possible [it is EID after all!], I also recalled an advice of Shaykh Salah al-Sawi (and he's not the first to say it obviously): The madhab of the layman is the madhab of his Imam. So in this particular situation, I found myself to very much be a layman in all senses of the word regarding Salatul-'Eid. 3 takbeers it is, though I don't think I ever imagined myself making absoloute taqleed of the Hanafi madhab :)

Settling that stuff was the easy part. The hard part was actually sitting down with the Imam and going through the procedure, and learning how to explain it to the people.

One of the most important things to keep in mind is that at Eid time, you're not dealing with a regular crowd, or even a once a week crowd like at Jumu'ah - you are dealing with a lot of the once a year crowd. That changes everything.

I had to remember to tell people that there is no adhan and iqamah. Explain the takbeers. That there is in fact a khutbah, where I will be speaking, following the salah. That they are to be quiet during the khutbah. That there are 2 khutbahs, so don't start hugging everyone as soon as I sit down. My notes for this were actually longer than the notes I made for my actual khutbah (says something about our condition as an ummah). You can't take anything for granted at this point, every minute instruction must be laid out.

The Khutbah

What to talk about? I received many suggestions on what to talk about. I tried to find Eid khutbahs given by others (such as Shaykh Google) for inspiration. I received suggestions to talk about almost everything. Some brothers gave me suggestions that even for a Jumu'ah khutbah would require at least 1-2 weeks worth of research and preparation to do properly. I even found a couple of fire and brimstone type Eid khutbahs. Ok well, thats an exaggeration, but they weren't exactly the "positive" and "uplifting" type of khutbahs you would expect for such an occasion. One brother even told me that one time Siraj Wahaj spoke about the sad state of our ummah that we pray Eid and miss fajr, and that he said if you didn't pray fajr that he was going to turn around and to make your qadha! I couldn't stop laughing at that one. I'm not sure that I know anyone who can pull that off other than him though.

Alhamdulillah though, my wife gave me the topic idea I ended up using (hey, we do listen..somtimes): How to make this the best Eid for your children. This made the khutbah easy, especially since I have given a more formal khutbah on youth a couple of times before.  The keys with the khutbah were for it to be positive, and more importantly, short.

This process though, did make me realize why "imams talk so much" at this time. It is the only opportunity to address a crowd of this magnitude, and a crowd that you would otherwise never reach. A jum'uah crowd is fairly static, but the Eid crowd - you feel not only the desire to inspire and motivate them, but you feel a responsibility to make up for a whole year's worth of dawah in one speech. I think that's why we find so many Eid khutbahs that are trying to make us better Muslims, end hunger, create world peace, abolish Israel, and save the whales all in 30 minutes.

What to Wear?

This is not something I took lightly, and not just because of my unhealthy interest in Men's fashion. Sh. Yaser Birjas dedicated a part of his Ilm Summit session on Jumu'ah to this issue, and even the Imam asked me about it as we were finalizing plans for me to lead. Should I cement my status as the community weirdo and wear a suit? Maybe next time, not at my first salah though. Should I wear a shalwar kamees/kurta like my mom prefers, and alienate the Arab crowd? Should I wear a thobe and just go traditional? If I wear a thobe, should I wear jeans under it (my personal preference), or pants, or the actual white thobe pants which are useless since they have no pockets? Also what color thobe? If I'm the imam, I can't just walk in with a plain old thobe can I?  Do I wear a kufi so that people don't write me off as some kind of openly 'disobedient' imam, even though I can't find a kufi that looks normal on my big head and I never wear one anyways? Should I wear a sportcoat or blazer over my thobe (my wife vetoed that one before I even finished suggesting it)?

I finally decided to wear the plain white thobe, with the white thobe pants, and a black/white ghutrah (shimagh) on my shoulders. I should add though, that even socks came into play, and I had to make sure not to wear anything that had too much color or 'untraditional' lest I give someone the 'wrong' impression.

Eid Day

My family was more concerned about me waking up on time then they were about me leading the prayers since I have a reputation for, well, never waking up on time for pretty much anything. True to form, I woke up with barely enough time to pray fajr and then start getting ready, beginning the day in rush mode.  I had no appetite whatsoever, partially due to being used to fasting, and partially due to stress. I had a sip of water for no other reason then the fact that it was sunnah to have something before salah to show you aren't fasting. After salah though, I made up for it with almost a half-dozen Krispy Kreme dounts.

As salah time approached (and I started on the dot on the announced time alhamdulillah, no delays), I emerged from my hiding spot (aka mingling near the shoe-rack and entrance) and went to the front, taking on inquisitive and surprised stares as I grabbed the microphone. Many people had this complete look of devastation on their faces, since the expected Imam was not there, and now some guy who definitely shouldn't be at the microphone at this moment in time is about to take the mic. I'd like to say I took the mic and then confidently lead salah, and we all lived happily ever after. The reality is, the second I took the microphone I started stumbling over my words trying to explain the procedure of Eid salah. I ignored my notes and tried to do it from memory until I got stuck, had to look at my paper to find where I was and continue. Finally, I got everyone lined up, and turned around to start salah when I realized I forgot to turn on my recorder (I record every khutbah or anything I do). I'm used to doing that for Jumu'ah while I'm sitting on the minbar and adhan is being called, but I completely forgot to plan for this small tactical detail. I'm not sure what came over me, but I suddenly said into the mic, "I will wait an extra minute for the women to line up" and quickly turned on my recorder and put it next to me.

With that out of the way, I realized I now had to lead salah. All I could think about was the extra takbeers. Don't forget to do them. No matter what, don't lose count (alhamdulillah for the Hanafi way, I think I would have seriously 'lost my wudu' trying to count 7 and 5). I did the extra takbeers, and started reciting. Normally, you focus on what you're reading and not messing up. Not this time. My recitation was flowing straight out of subconscious memory - kind of like how you drive home without thinking about where you're actually going or paying attention to where to turn.  The only thing on my mind? Praying like it's my last, reflecting on the meanings of what I'm reciting, imagining the akhirah? I wish. All I could think about was "don't forget the extra takbeers in the second rakah" over and over and over again in my head.

I made tasleem, and I realized I was now at a point where I didn't know what to do. Am I supposed to pause for a moment? Do I make adkhaar like after salah? Do I just immediately get up and start the khutbah? It was a minor detail we forgot to cover while preparing.  I just got up and climbed the minbar and started talking. It must be the shortest khutbah I ever gave in my life. I am not even sure if it hit a full 15 minutes total, much closer to 10.

Once I finished the khutbah, I got down, thinking I was prepared for the hugathon. I had even been warned that I would face an onslaught.  I figured though, that I would be immune to it. No one is used to seeing me give the Eid khutbah. I'm not even the one who led taraweeh. What ensued though totally took me off guard. Old men, young guys, and even little kids led by their parents had all formed roughly 3 lines around me in all directions, cornering me at the minbar. I was not moving until I hugged at least a couple of hundred people, and not only that, but when you factor in the triple hugging for each person, you are really stuck. Now normally at 'Eid, you are hugging people you already know, or are familiar with. You do hug a few strangers, sure, but not like this. You can usually figure out some kind of hugging protocol, but not only was I hugging a majority of total strangers, they all had different protocols. Sometimes I was going to shake a hand only to be grabbed and my hand ends up in someone's stomach (but alhamdulillah, with the kind of iftars we eat, the blow was cushioned signifcantly). I'd start looking to one person, only to be grabbed by another. I got so numb to it after a few minutes that I did not even realize when my own dad was hugging me until I was in phase 2 of the triple hug!

All in all, it ended well alhamdulillah. There were no complaints, the khutbah was well received. I wasn't sure what to expect afterwards. Alhamdulillah though, it ended normally. Once it was done, I just relaxed knowing it was done, and I slept a little better that night knowing that I could, in fact, properly count to 3 in pressure situations.

Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

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I wanted to make some comments on the book Made To Stick, as it contains many lessons that Muslims can apply to their da'wah work. The book is built on the SUCCESs checklist for evaluating ideas,

  • Simplicity
  • Unexpectedness
  • Concreteness
  • Credibility
  • Emotion
  • Stories

Before beginning, it's important to make a distinction: The purpose of this point is not to use this book to somehow validate or prove what we know from Islam. Rather, it is quite the opposite. I would like to show how the principles this book has proven to be reliable and successful actually draw their roots from Islam. It's a beneficial book because it is hard to see these ideals extracted and presented in an organized manner. It will insha'Allah increase our imaan by showing us another side of our universal deen, and give us some tips on how to better improve our daw'ah efforts and community organizations. They are also extremely useful as teaching and communication methods - something essential for all of us.

The book offers some examples of 'sticky' ideas, such as urban legends, or the golden rule (do unto others as you want others to do unto you). These are ideas that are simple, profound, and most importantly, they have staying power with their audience. Put it this way, think of the last 10 khutbah's you heard, and how many of the things communicated have actually stuck with you, compared to everything that didn't. Or compare it to a succinct piece of advice you received at some point in your life. I think you get the picture now.

Simplicity

In Islam we have narrations from the Sahabah saying basically to "speak to your audience at their level." The height of eloquence is attained when a message can be delivered such that it is understood by all without ambiguity. People, often 'experts' or advanced academics, are often misled by their own knowledge and lose the ability to communicate with people at a basic level. In the book, this is referred to by the authors as the "curse of knowledge" (I don't agree with that terminology but as I am reviewing the book I will refer to it as they did for now).

Simple often carries the connotation of dumbing things down, or making things too easy. This is not the case, simple means elegance and prioritization. Take Southwest Airlines for example, their company motto is to be THE lowest-fare airline. Period. It is not dumb, but it is simple. It is a philosophy by which the entire company can be governed, and business decisions made based on that principle. A simple message is core and compact.

What's a simple message in Islam? Worship Allah alone without any partner. It is simple. It is profound. It is a principle that governs your entire life. It is eloquent. It sticks with you.

Unexpected

Part of the problem of communication is getting people's attention. Sometimes it takes something unexpected to make people perk up. The most common way of getting attention is to break a pattern people are used to.

In the book they give a story of a Journalism teacher who tested his students by reeling off a list of facts: "Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the entire high school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloqium in new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be..."

He then asked them to write a lead for this story. All the students came up with the general leads that you can expect. Think in your own head for a minute, how would you approach presenting this topic?

After reading the leads from the students, the teacher set them aside, paused, and announced, "The lead to the story is, 'There will be no school next Thursday.'"

The reason that this worked was because he made the students commit to their schema of understanding Journalism first, then yanked the rug out from under their feet. Unexpected. Sticky.

Some other ways of accomplishing this are to start with a mystery, or create a 'gap' of knowledge and then answer it. Think about all the cliffhangers you see in TV News promos, or SportsCenter intros. Highlight something specific people don't know. One of my teachers did this to me by confronting me with a question, "What does the 'al' in alhamdu lillahi Rabb il-'Alameen" stand for? So by creating a specific gap in my knowledge, he had my attention. I thought I knew what Fatihah meant, but he confronted me with something specific I did not know. He broke my schema of understanding. Then when he explained the different interpretations of it, he had my attention, and now alhamdulillah I remember what he said. This is an especially pertinent example because I know for a fact that I have read or listened to discussions on this very issue before, but it was not something I could recall as easily as I can from what I learned in this encounter.

Concrete

An example of something concrete would be things along the lines of Aesop's Fables. Think, the boy who cried wolf, or 'sour grapes.' If you have something you can imagine with your senses, it is concrete. A V8 engine is concrete, but"high-performance" is not. An example of this is the hadith,

“The example of a scholar ('aalim) who teaches the people good and forgets himself is the of a lantern that provides light to people while burning itself out.”

It is visual, appealing to the senses, and it strikes an analogy that sticks. We find the use of many vivid parables in the Qur'an as well.

Concrete ideas have a direct correlation with being workable. When Boeing prepared to launch the 727 in the 60's, they set a concrete goal: it must seat 131 passengers, and fly non stop from Miami to NYC and land on the Runway 4-22 at La Guardia (chosen because at the time it was too short for existing passenger jets). Contrast this with if they had simply said, "build the best passenger plane in the world."

We have to utilize this in our approach to da'wah. We can't just "make dawah" or hope to "spread knowledge." These are just empty phrases that in reality don't mean much. How do you go about recruiting volunteers to spread knowledge? What if you came up with an idea like, distributing 500 CD's with a lecture on the blessings of seeking knowledge? Wouldn't it be easier to accomplish because it is concrete, and easier to get people to help you out with? It is well defined and has a purpose that is visual. I am thoroughly convinced that its these types of empty slogans that have led to the failure of many organizations (both Islamic and otherwise). There is no solid goal in mind for people to achieve.

AlMaghrib classes are another good example. The goal is not to just get a bunch of people to sign up for a seminar, but you have a goal. We will not stop working until 200 people are signed up for our seminar. That's a concrete goal.

Credible

What makes people believe ideas? First it is usually because or parents or friends believe something, or because of our personal experiences. For Muslims it is often our certainty in faith in Allah and what He has revealed. For others, it may be their religious beliefs as well. The point being, when you try to sell a new idea to someone, those are the forces one is up against.

Authorities are another obvious source of credibility. If the FDA approves a new medication, usually we somehow feel safer that it's ok to take it. If Oprah likes a book, millions of people will go buy that book because they consider her to be a credible source. We trust their recommendations.

Details are a very powerful form of adding credibility. In 1986 Jonathan Shedler and Melvin Manis created an experiment to simulate a trial. Two sets of subjects playing the jurors were given a fictitious script of a trial to read regarding a Mrs. Johnson and her fitness as a mother. The two scripts had the same arguments, 8 for and 8 against, and were very balanced. The only difference in the two scripts was the level of detail. In one group, the 8 arguments in favor were given vivid details, and the arguments against were not. For the other group it was the opposite. An example being in one argument it said in her favor, "Mrs. Johnson sees to it that her child washes and brushes his teeth before bedtime." In the 'vivid' one, it added, "He uses a Star Wars toothbrush that looks like Darth Vader."

After testing the arguments with and without the details to make sure they had the same perceived importance. The details were designed to be irrelevant to the judgment of Mrs. Johnson's worthiness. They found that the details with the vivid arguments more directly impacted the judgment of the jurors.

The details boosted the credibility of the argument even though they should not have mattered. If I can mentally see the Darth Vader toothbrush, its easier to picture the boy diligently brushing his teeth in his bedroom, thus reinforcing that Mrs. Johnson is a good mother.

Emotional

It is important to make a personal appeal to a person's emotions. They must be given a reason to care. If the reaons are statistical or analytical, people tend to become less reactive because now they are thinking analytically rather than emotionally. It makes people care.

Stories

Benefits, stimulation, and inspiration are geared to generating action. Credible ideas make people believe, and emotional ideas make people care. Stories, make people act.

Stories are powerful because they provide the context missing from abstract prose. The velcro theory says that the more 'hooks' something has, the more it will stick. Stories can build emotion, historical background, and many other elements to give an idea context. This makes it stickier.

Is it any surprise then that 1/3 of the Quran is stories of the other civilizations and Prophets? Think about the story of Yusuf (as).

We relate unto you (Muhammad SAW) the best of stories through Our Revelations unto you, of this Quran. And before this (i.e. before the coming of Divine Inspiration to you), you were among those who knew nothing about it (the Quran). (12:3)

And,

Indeed in their stories, there is a lesson for men of understanding. It (the Quran) is not a forged statement but a confirmation of the Allah's existing Books [the Taurat (Torah), the Injeel (Gospel) and other Scriptures of Allah] and a detailed explanation of everything and a guide and a Mercy for the people who believe. (12:111)

Take another example of a successful story in our times. Jared, the Subway guy. The ad campaign featuring him losing weight by eating at Subway was significantly more successful than their previous "7 subs under 6 grams of fat" campaign. The story is concrete. It is credible (he took upon the diet on his own). It is unexpected - losing weight by actually eating fast food?

Conclusion

Some of this may seem really obvious. The SUCCESs checklist isn't something that after reading it you are like oh wow I didn't know that. We do know these things, but we haven't brought them together in our heads. Take the story of Jared, it contained many elements of the checklist, but was still rejected initially by corporate marketing 'experts' at Subway.

I hope that you enjoyed reading this post. The book is really enjoyable to read, and it contains many valuable lessons, especially for those involved in dawah work.