As I wander in and out of Muslims spaces, one thing bothers me: our eternal obsession with personalities, at the expense of a true relationship with our Lord, the Creator of all things. I don’t deny it: some people are great, and some truly extraordinary people deserve our attention and time. Still, however great some men and women are, they should never become the object of our devotion, around whom everything we do revolves. We embraced this path in the pursuit of the Oneness of God. Sometimes, I feel, we seem to have forgotten this.
On Friday, I was in a different town for work and so, between appointments, I headed for the central mosque for Jummah prayer. Thinking that the prayer was at 1.00pm, I arrived much too early, finding the car park nearly empty, the wudu area quiet and in the prayer hall itself, only a few rows of old men seated on the carpet. No matter; I settled down near the front to listen to a speech just started.
At first, I was encouraged by the address. Here was a learned, educated and inspiring young imam — multilingual too — speaking to his audience with authority. Mashallah, I thought, amazed at how articulate he was, delivering a speech prepared with care, switching seamlessly between Arabic and his northern — perhaps Bradfordian — English. So used to sermons delivered either in poetic Urdu I will never understand or in repetitive, broken English, with no care or passion, this speech was a revelation; nay, a revolution. Mashallah, I thought to myself: here was a dignified community, investing in knowledge, deserving of guidance.
So for half an hour I listened intently — very rarely do you get to listen intently at Jummah — to tales about the great men and women around the Messenger, peace be upon him; to stories about his descendants, to the virtues of his grandchildren and the evils which befell them; to the biography of his beloved daughter; to praise of his closest companions, of those that fought at Badr, of the Khulafa’ur-Rashidun. Impressed by elucidation of events long ago, concerning great men and women, and their love and devotion to the family of the Prophet, peace be upon him, I found myself in awe of this young imam, who had taken the time to prepare his speech, to inform and remind. Usually, the English sermon sounds as if it was prepared on the back of an envelope five minutes before the prayer. Mashallah, I thought, a man of learning and insight.
But as the clock ticked past one o’clock, then ten past, a thought suddenly occurred to me: not once in this eloquent lecture had there been any reference to God — Allah, the Creator, Lord of all things. Indeed, in all that had been related about these amazing men and women — and for sure, they were amazing men and women — he had forgotten to relate why it mattered. No, of course he mentioned that their love of the Messenger and his family was unmatched, but why that was important? What were they working for? What were they striving towards? What was it all for? I listened now for the conclusion, but that conclusion never came.
As I stood for the prayer, I was now perturbed. I thought back to most of the sermons I had listened to over the past year: how often had the object of our devotion ever been mentioned? Instead, just stories. Stories about great men and women, to be sure, but stories none the less. Rarely are we reminded why we are here and what we are working for. We are more likely to learn of a sage that wandered the deserts of Mesopotamia 800 years ago to preach and guide, than about the One we are called to worship and serve. Forever, we must trawl the biographies of men — but never to contemplate why they matter.
But here another truth dawns on me. These people do not call to faith; count the converts amongst the vast congregation. Five, or so… and still none of them came here via the mosque or its community. They were Christians who innately knew that a man was not God, who searched by themselves for a way which spoke of His Oneness. Or they were Hindus who innately knew that a piece of carved wood or stone was no deity worthy of worship, who searched by themselves for a way which led to the Creator of all things.
If in the tales of great men and women, our wise men could relate what made them so great, perhaps they could be forgiven for perpetually drawing our attention to personalities, on and on without end. But what are we really here for? Why does it really matter? What are we called to? How are we to live our lives? What does our Creator ask of us? Perhaps, after all, this was the sermon I really needed. For a few minutes I was awestruck, bedazzled by learning in the place of careless speech, or preparation in the place of lethargic apathy. For a moment I was beguiled by erudition, but then a voice within asked: “Who is the object of your devotion?”