Posted by: Dawud Israel | January 10, 2013

Bayaanomics: The Art of Delivering an Optimal Islamic Talk

Bayaanomics: The Art of Delivering an Optimal Islamic Talk
by Dawud Israel, the Cynic and Pedantic but also the Humanist 🙂

I wrote the following after listening to many Islamic talks online and in person. There is a world of difference between the two, but I wanted to share my reflections based on the delivery of these Islamic talks. I am no expert, these are just my 2 cents. 🙂

Before one reads this, one must keep in mind that their are a variety of types of Islamic speeches one gives. From a reminder, to an academic style talk, to a rant, to an open-ended interactive discussion. This is not intended to downplay the place and importance of those speeches, but to highlight some key strategies and patterns as well as provide perspective to speakers as to what audience members may be thinking.

There are pitfalls in this document…namely that the listener is suggesting things out of his own intellectual pride and fickle attitude, and may lead to listeners having a low tolerance to various speakers. This elitism can be a problem with those who listen to lofty, metaphysical, subtle and obscure spiritual topics. Content is not of primary concern in this document, rather thought process, presentation, and delivery are. It will become clear some of the criteria outlined are not realistic, especially for those whom lecture frequently, but nonetheless may prove useful.

Primary Observations for Speech improvement:

Focusing/Missing the Intention: Some speakers just would do better writing than speaking. But often the best speakers are those that write a great deal. They have given what they are saying a great deal of thought, will not run out of material and complete the points they are trying to convey. One of the key problems writers encounter in revising their draft copies is realizing they completely missed the key idea they wanted to get across. It is in the back of their mind while they write but it never is expressed. “Yeah I already mentioned that…oh wait now that I have re-read it, I forgot to mention it.” And its that proofreading scrupulousness that also applies to lectures, where the speaker is about to convey a key point and thinks they have, but actually had not and missed it completely or didn’t reach it when they were building up to it. Related to this is when you sense the speaker is

Amplifying the Content: The best 3 qualities in the content of a religious talk are:
1) completeness- that they explain things fully, with lots of context, which shows true ilm and proper presentation
2) coherence- like an essay that brings ideas and lessons together and all the ideas mentioned are proportional to each other and not out of place
3) insight- it all lead to a deeper insight or realization than one could find in any religious book
The best off-hand example of this is this talk by Shaykh Husain Abdul Sattar: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bzR9314Yz0Y

Avaaz: Voice is to the Khutba what the Buraq is to the Miraj.

Pace: The most effective speakers will modulate the pace of their talk allowing for adequate comprehension by the listeners. Much like driving a car, if one drives at the same speed, it is easy to doze off but modulating speed keeps one alert and moving. I don’t know if this is intentional but speakers will speed up, which makes the listener pay closer attention, and then they will slow down well below their normal pace so that the listeners listen closely. This can be connected to evoking the emotions of pity and fear, as Aristotle suggest in his Poetics but can build intimacy. If one rushes through a talk then it distances the audience, but if one is slower then it can make the listeners feel like they are having a special moment. Hamza Yusuf does this with great effect. Watching or listening to a talk at 1.5-2x the normal speed can show one where pace may need to improve pace.

Perfecting Clutch Ideas/References: The speaker often has “clutch” ideas/hadith or Quranic reference that they will repeat off-hand in most of their talks through sheer force of habit. These will form their ‘spiritual signature’ to the audience and tell them what their ethos is. What they may not realize is how they came to be expressing those clutch references with people. What one reads is not necessarily what one can easily cite off unless it was personal or you were very deeply attached to it.

Memorizing quotes: What one writes out by hand, memorizes actively and mentions in conversations with individuals is what one can easily mention off-hand in a bayaan. Mentioning a hadith for the first time in a bayaan is not as easy as mentioning it in a third or fourth or 20th talk. A good way to be successful at this is to keep a small “common-place book” one can carry easily, in which one records quotations, memorizes them in their spare time and use them in conversation. Often what is most personal is what manifests most clearly in public speeches.

Intimacy: When a speaker says, ‘I’ll share a personal story’ that brings a lot of closeness to the speaker and the topic they are discussing, it feels special and one to one. If the story is told in a slanted way, this can however, discredit the speaker to the listeners, though it some subjectivity is understandable and appreciable. What is key here is teaching Islam from a first-person perspective, first-hand and not from a third-person, externalized perspective divorced from real-world experience.

Flow: Interruptions and pauses can hiccup the digestion and absorption of a speech. The smoothness and clarity of a speech can make a great effect on comprehension. Again, watching or listening to a talk at 1.5-2x the normal speed can provide some perspective on this.

Secondary Observations:

Problematizing: A key pattern one notices in many speeches is the tendency of speakers to problematize and list problems like a laundry list at length. This makes one feel powerless and it dis-empowers one. It makes for great talking points, but it can be a waste when you realize the speaker has the solution to these problems, a very practical solution, and yet doesn’t get around to sharing it. Problematizing also has negative effects on the mental health of Muslims causing paranoia and feelings of helplessness, and I have seen mentally sick brothers whose speech mimics those of many ulema and one can tell how these issues have bore heavily on their minds until they cracked.

Internet and Memory: Reading on the Internet can stretch the mind too far. Most reading online is shallow, it is broad in its diversity but superficial it is not as deep as one would find in a book. One recalls they read something about this or that, but never the details. Our memory falters and the mind is stretched so far that we find it hard to remember things; it feels like everything is falling out. Not only that, but things we could easily recall before become harder to recall in the moment. This is a common experience and I think perhaps in the future someone will coin the term ‘cognitive metabolism’ to understand this. Learning about a topic deeply, rather than just on the Internet, will make a big difference in memory recall about that subject.

Tashaduq/Qatwil: Many of these patterns in speech-making have been noted before. Tashadduq is an overblown elocution where words are over-enunciated by the speaker. This is connected to a later point in over-simplifying speeches mentioned below. Qatwil is when speeches lack any substance and are full of fluff or mere rhetoric and empty speech. You may sense this when you feel like the speaker just wants to get to the end of the speech or is talking at length about the talk he is about to give, but ironically never gets to. We ask Allah to protect us from both of these, ameen.

Duas used: You can tell a great deal about the speaker/shaykh just by the duas they use in the start, like their tariqa or place of training for example, and its the sincerity and honour given to the duas in the start of the khutba that will reflect on the wisdom of that speaker and how practical they are.

Adab in the speech is also overlooked. Abdallah Adhami always mentions before citing a hadith, “We are honoured by His Grace subhana wa ta’ala to read in the Musnad of…” and this elevates whatever he is speaking about.

Simplicity and Over-simplifying: Simplicity is good for the average Muslim. Too much simplicity is however demeaning and patronizing. After a while, one feels like they are watching Sesame Street or Treehouse TV (a kids TV channel). Complexity and detail especially in discussing a contemporary issue will make a Muslim proud of their religion and provide them with a tool in dealing with our information-based society. This requires discretion: a general khutba can be simple, but with some details but when it comes to a class there should be no hesitation in giving details and complexity especially if students are putting in their time and effort to learn. Too much simplicity to students of knowledge can negatively affect their motivation.

Tangents: Too many tangents can get confusing and make you wonder why you are wasting your time listening to these weird tangents. Tangents can be good depending on the speaker. The more educated and learned the speaker, then their tangents will provide valuable context. But even then, if you have a great topic and instead spend it on tangents, that can really be annoying. There is an amana in giving a talk and if I buy an Islamic lecture and instead get a lecture full of jokes then that can be argued to be fraud.

Personal favorite topics: The best topics for a religious talk are seerah and contemporary issues and problems. Seerah contains fiqh, tafsir, biographies, history, hadith and wisdoms that listeners can quickly apply. Contemporary issues are the best because they are pertinent, will grab everyone’s attention.

Repetition: Repetition is a blessing but can be a trap. It is a blessing because you come to memorize a hadith, it is a blessing because then it become routine, but it may lose its effect if one doesn’t remain in contemplation. Repetition can be a trap because it can lead to a limiting of the discourse, a drawing of boundaries and limits that no one can pass.

Q&A: Question and Answers are the test of a real scholar. It requires a lot of courage to face questions on the spot. If scholars dodge questions or go around them, or simply aren’t ready to answer them on the spot, this is understandable since early Muslims would often simply say “I don’t know,” but it goes without saying that this can also negatively affect credibility. Nonetheless, sometimes a simple response is better than one that can confuse people. Often with questions, the speaker will introduce new material causing many questions to arise to help clarify or solidify an understanding; in this case, the answers precede the questions and merely require re-stating.

Teacher/Student Psychology: If a teacher rants on what they are angry about, then they tacitly teach students to rant on what they are annoyed about. This can lead to a complete intolerance of all Muslims and Islam and a picky and pretentious snobbery. This is complicated when the angry teachers become angry that their  students are angry…they get offended, like, “How dare you? Who are you to rant? Only I may rant!” This is what I suspect shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller speaks about teachers transmitting their haal (for better or worse) to their students and is why it is sometimes better to simply stick to simple talks.

Styles can vary largely, however in the West Muslims have taken a very cool-guy, almost fraternizing attitude towards Islamic speeches. This is a relaxed talk that helps listeners be comfortable with whom they are listening to. The downside can be it downplays the significance of lofty and precious lessons. The style of bayaan that is disappearing is the dramatic style that one finds in the writings of Imam al-Ghazali or the speeches of Abdul Qadir al-Jilani (rahimullah). These are full of exclamation points and points of dramatic emphasis, perhaps better suited to the Arabic language than the English language. These should not be confused with angry speeches. The benefit of these types of speeches are they are magnificent, raise the esteem of the speaker and the one listening and give izzah to the religion. The best modern day example of this is Habib Umar’s lectures and their usage of poetic meter and a hybrid of this dramatic style and the cool-guy style can be found in Ibrahim Osi-Efa’s speeches.

Closing considerations:

These points are not for ones cerebral intellectual stimulation. Reading the above points, one may prefer a secular speaker or a philosopher or a good book. But these are just patterns and tendencies that highlight some room for improvement. The goal is not to make one feel special for hearing a very sophisticated discourse, often I find many feel proud that they only listen to Abdal Hakim Murad which is sad since many other messages are worth listening too and absorbing.  The goal of Islamic speeches is for religious tarbiya, spiritual transformation and the alchemy of the soul.

For the teacher and the seeker: How is someone with knowledge? How is someone by knowledge? How is someone around knowledge? How does someone realize knowledge? How does someone use knowledge? Ma’iya with knowledge – is there awe around books, preparation, an exploring mindset, and how are they with knowledge, is there with-ness with knowledge to one’s experience? And is that with-ness lofty? How do they interact and experience knowledge and make others experience knowledge? Is there ilm and amal? 

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


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