Khaled Abou El Fadl, Chapter 24: "Attending Jum'a" from The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books

All stories end in the same redundant way. All stories end with the death of all those concerned. Between the wonder of birth and the stupor of death exists the chance for enlightenment. There are those who wish to believe that there is nothing beyond the bridge, but we all cross it anyway. Enlightenment is to know the Creator and created, and to realize that the Conference of the Books is the gateway.

It is Jum'a and the Imam rambles on and on. The topic is as unclear as the grammar. A boundless web of familiar terms and phrases are woven, but they all dissipate the second they leave the Khatib's mouth. The endless rhetoric stupefies the intellect and puts one in a trance-like state. The numbed brain yearns for signs of life but like a drug, rhetoric is addictive. It induces a state of intellectual paralysis that is as ugly and comfortable as death. Once one is accustomed to this state of dullness, any vibrant or critical thought is bound to cause a profound state of disturbance.

Weeks ago, a young man gave a simple but beautiful Khutba. Someone in town had issued a fatwa that it is more important to memorize and learn to recite the Quran than it is to understand it. The young man wondered, how is it possible to search the Divine Will and to obey God if one does not understand God's speech? The most surprising aspect, and a rare quality in the culture of sermons, was that he spoke meticulous English and Arabic.

And now you find yourself in this town again. You ask about the young man and you are told that "There are issues, brother." What issues? you inquire. "He does not fulfill the qualifications, brother; his appearance is not Islamic." How so? you ask. "He does not wear a beard, he tucks his shirt in, and, in addition, he is not married."

In all the years of studying fiqh you were not aware that these were pre-requisites for leading prayer. A beard, an untucked shirt and marriage. You remember years ago when every imam declared war against the Polo shirt horse and the Lacoste alligator. You wonder, is intelligence a pre-requisite too? Well, at least these qualifications are novel and original, and after all, we have been calling for the rekindling of ijtihad!

The imam giving the khutba blows his nose and you awaken for a moment. You notice his watch and you wonder if that is part of a proper Islamic appearance? Absurdity begets absurdity and you find yourself wondering: how about buttons on a shirt or socks on feet? How about eyeglasses, underwear, zippers, velcro, tennis shoes, sneakers, jeans, pantyhose, brassieres, ties, raincoats, gloves or earmuffs? Which of these, if any, are consistent with a proper Islamic appearance? How do we generate a systematic way of distinguishing between an untucked shirt and other items? Well, at least in the case of the brassiere, Shaykh Bin Baz issued a fatwa saying a woman may not wear it if the purpose is to commit fraud. Fraud is never a good thing. But what if a man wears a shirt larger than his size to conceal the fact that he is overweight? Yet the illal (legal operative causes) of fraud are very different than those that pertain to an Islamic appearance. The analysis must be consistent, systematic and coherent. I suddenly remembered that a month ago an imam in the same mosque led Jum'a with his shirt tucked in. But he was married. Perhaps married imams may tuck their shirts in and unmarried imams may not. Perhaps the distinction is that ...

I felt the intellectual rigor mortis that follows insanity setting in; I felt the Conference distant and fading away. I was dying before reaching the end of the bridge. Blissfully, the call to prayer started, and a breath of life seeped in again.

They got their married imam with his beard and untucked shirt. They got their imam with the numbing rhetoric and incomprehensible broken English. But what they perpetuated is intellectual death.

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