Posted by: Dawud Israel | March 9, 2011

Anthropology of the Khutbah

One thing during the previous weeks with the revolutions in the Middle East has been what sort of khutba to expect on Friday prayers. So I thought it might be a good time to talk about the anthropology of the khutbah- the behaviors, interactions and just the nature of that setting. I’m sure many of us have thought about this, so here we go in no particular order…

Awkward Analogies

Regarding the revolution, I didn’t encounter any khutbas that talked about the Middle East specifically, but more of what I saw was the speaker giving it as an example for justice or saying the waves of protestors remind them of the day of judgment. And though I found this kind of insensitive and a little patronizing since it ignores a very important reality of suffering and pain, but I realized there is only so much that can be said on a pulpit when everybody in the audience already feels the same way the speaker does.

Anyways, there are other examples of bad analogies like when people compare women to a piece of meat, which although may be appropriate in another society and another time, its easy to misconstrue it. Everybody can sense when it is awkward and you can tell the speaker feels awkward as well and this makes it even more awkward.

Khutba should be therapy for the Audience, not the Speaker

How much of the khutba is a brain-dump or therapy for the speaker? How therapeutic is the khutba for the audience? How much of the khutba is dedicated to talking about the “Others” and how much is dedicated to talking about us and our issues? How much is just venting frustrations and anger? Its embarrassing when the khutba becomes a platform for complaining and listing problems- it becomes a place of highlighting problems and making them seem bigger and worse than they are.

The khutbah becomes a place of alarmism- when it should be a place of highlighting solutions: a place of rescue.  In that way, the khutba being a place of venting becomes a place not of action, but of catharsis- effectively weakening the transformational power of the khutba.

Question: Does Gaddafi imitate khatibs or do khatibs imitate Gaddafi?

Religious talks as Appeasement

Sometimes speakers have to put some spice into their speeches, especially when they are trying to appease a certain demographic. In many ways giving a speech is like running for political office because you need donations, there is fundraising and there is a platform for some saying what you believe about the community and its direction, and yet there is also the difference between what you say and what you do.

Talking about the Talk while giving the Talk

Another funny situation is that the speaker may not know about the topic or what they are expected to talk about. There is really no title to their talk, or the talk starts of, “I am supposed to talk about…” and “When we think of this…” and more or less the speaker will talk about the talk he is giving. This is a sign that he really is just making it all up on the spot or that the speaker is weak in this area. Rather than speaking about the topic sometimes they may tip-toe around the precise topic. So you buy a CD about a talk on explaining Islam to non-Muslims and instead the entire talk is about how awful America is…isn’t this almost lying? Its almost a way of cheating people out of knowledge (remember, the Quran speaks about merchants that cheat customers). This annoys me a great deal and I respect the scholars who are direct, detailed and specific in their religious talks much more than I do those who just kind of pose or make it look like they are talking about something substantial when they are just putting in filler.

Post-Khutbah discussions

Me and my friends discuss jumma khutbahs after jumma. We try to mention the gems and what it made us think of. I try and steer clear of critiquing a khutba but try to make the most of it since even if I am listening to a weak khutba, the least benefit is that it becomes a time for contemplation and to help me think about certain things, so if I don’t find a gem in the talk, it helps me generate a gem of my own.


One technique that was discussed heavily after the American Presidential elections were Obama’s speaking skills and strategies. One emotion that his speeches tap into is “Elevation.” Like it says, it is all about a heightening or a rising that occurs to us while we hear someone speak but I have rarely found this in an Islamic talk or any khutba. It’s a sign of great oratory skill and you can feel it in the speeches of Malcolm X. Here is an article that goes more in-depth into elevation.

Precise topics

A topic says a great deal about the persons knowledge of Islam. I think its important to be clear and precise, and in deciding a topic to think about the pros and cons of a certain topic, the consequences of it, how successful that speech is likely to be. So for example, I would rather do a talk on loving Rasulullah salallahu alayhi wasalam rather than talking about loving the Sunnah- why? Because loving Rasulullah salallahu alayhi is a topic that is bound to be more interesting, emotionally powerful and will automatically push people to love the Sunnah and more than that to love the Prophet salallahu alayhi wasalam and everything associated with him- his Family, Sahabas, and the Quran.

Don’t nod to talks

Shaykh Yaqoubi mentioned in a talk once that there was a scholar who was speaking and there was a student who kept nodding and the scholar took offense to this, as if the student was approving the scholar. I never thought about it, but even the slightest body language says a lot about how a person perceives a religious speech. So its important not to stand out but to keep your ears open.

Measuring the Eman of a Jamat

There are a few ways to judge the eman of a jamaat. One way that I do is I look at how readily and how many people say “salallahu alayhi wasalam” or the like loudly, whenever the Imam or speaker, mentions the name of Muhammad (salallahu alayhi wasalam). This basically looks at the jamaat as a mawlid sort of gathering in a way.

Also when you hear the communal “Ameen” in the end of the Fatiha prayer, I feel what I hear is a reflection or the effect of the speaker on their eman- the speech, the duas, and the qirat. Now that is just a theory but I think on some level its true.

Jummah Khutba as Khushu enhancer

One way to think of it is that the jummah khutbah should increase the khushu of the listeners in the prayer that will follow the khutba. I find the best way for that to happen is the more Quran or Hadith is recited and explained, the more khushu my Jumma prayer has.

Comprehension and Smooth Digestion

As a listener, its key if you are taking notes that you grab everything important the speaker says in the first go. You can’t ‘stutter’ in your notes, there has to be a ‘flow’ to their words. Even if the speech is bit by bit, piecing together many different pieces, it should come altogether. As a speaker: Having bits of information here and there makes it hard to comprehend- its easier if things can be said in one breath. In many ways this is like the “expansion” and “compression” in your speech, it should be able to do both, but in order to do this, it has to be all connected and whole.

As a listener, its important to engage with thought process of the speaker, and asking yourself what had to happen in his heart to say what he said, not focusing on what is he saying, or the mistakes he makes, but on what he is trying to say because everybody slips up in speech.

In order to improve your speaking style take a read of the writings of Sharaffuddin Maneri (rahimullah) and Shaykh Abdul Qadir al-Jilani (rahimullah) and notice with how much conviction, power and spirit they convey their words. All their writing is amazing but its really interesting to read just for style and think back to a time when Muslims had more truth and experience behind their words.

Taking notes on your Cellphone

Sometimes its hard to take notes during a talk either because you forgot your notepad or don’t have a pen on you. What I started doing is using my cellphone to take notes as memos. Its easier if you have a mini-keyboard on your cellphone rather than typing on the screen like with the iPhone.

Personality” of the English language

There is something about the English language and the terms that are used, the grammar and the way the sentences are structured that at times can obstruct and make it difficult to convey what we want to convey in a speech. To make up for this, its important to broaden our vocabulary and at times, to quote poetry since poetry overlooks grammar in order to do due justice to the message it wishes to convey.

Also sometimes speakers that are strong in English, will repeat what a scholar that is weak in English, has said and that may be because they don’t want to do injustice to the quotation but it sometimes kills the message since its being conveyed second-hand. Being able to re-word and restate another person’s idea in your own words is a sign of understanding and allows room for more reflection and to be able to add your own thoughts. And obviously things from one speech don’t fit into every situation, they have to be remolded and re-worked or tweaked and contemplated on for them to take fruit.

Floppy sentence-starters

Phrases like “I’m sure you’ve read or heard of…” or “I’m sure we all have recited…” really irritate me. They sound insecure and unconfident and hint to me that there really isn’t much the speaker has to say that I don’t already know. On the other hand you have statements like, “As for such-and-such or so-and-so” are quite literally pontificating pompously. I also dislike it because its conclusive and not open-ended, it bespeaks to saying, “Hey you don’t need to think about this anymore,” which is rarely the case (the exception being when a really, really, knowledgeable scholar is speaker)

Hearing an Echo in People’s voices

When I listen to any speaker, I can sometimes make out and hear the voice of that speakers mother in their voice. Lately, I can hear it clearly in some of Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad’s CD set “Prophetic Character” but in some of his other lectures I don’t hear it. Its hard to describe this but you can hear something of others voices, presumably those that have influenced the speaker, mixing in the voice of the speaker. Its a lot like when one actor imitates another actor and what tendencies that speaking style carries with it, the effectiveness and the shortcomings in it.

Those are just a few thoughts, I’m sure there are many more, so feel free to share your thoughts!

Subhana kallahumma wa bihamdika ash-haduana la illaha illa ant astaghfiruka wa atubu ilayk, ameen.


  1. How can we bring this to the attention of khateebs without offending them?

  2. Salam Dawud,

    I came across this website by chance and was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the content – especially this post. I was wondering if you would be able to critique a khutbah of mine. I haven’t yet recorded any but will try to so that you can give me your honest feedback.

    I live in the DC-metropolitan area where many khutabaa are needed due to the sheer amount of Muslims in this region. I happen to be one of the unqualified khutabaa that got pushed into the system 🙂

    JazakAllahu khayran

    • I’m probably not the best person to evaluate your khutba. Try getting someone in your community, the average brother, and get them to judge it.

      I would say you should be honest in your khutba and abide by the fiqh of making a khutba, even if its just narrating lots of hadith and Quranic verses. And talk slow.

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