Recently, I was approached by a “'ālim” who attended a Friday Khutbah I delivered. He wanted five minutes of my time to discuss my speech. He started talking about the importance of having the Khutbah in Arabic. Now, I knew where this was going. See, this is not the first time I have been approached by someone who wanted to convince me that the Khutbah is meant to be in Arabic. Usually, I thank the brother for the advice and I don't enter into what I think is a vain argument. However, this time seemed to be different. The man was very humble in his approach and flexible in his argument. What you're about to see is somewhat of a reenactment of our conversation, though not verbatim. Some of us may have seen some scholarly debates over certain Fiqhi issues. Sometimes it's hard to keep up with the arguments and counter-arguments when they are narrated by a third person. So I thought I'd use an innovative approach of presenting this argument in a conversation style. In order to make it less personal however, I'm representing both sides of the conversations as Opinion1 (representing him) and Opinion2 (representing me). Here we go:
Opinion1: What do you think about having the Khutbah in Arabic?
Opinion2: I don't think it's feasible in the conditions we're in.
Opinion1: But there is an agreement among schools that it should be in Arabic.
Opinion2: I'm not aware of that. What I have seen in this country is that some followers of the Hanafi School apply this ruling.
Opinion1: In fact, the Hanafis are the most lenient when it comes to this issue. The Malikis are the most strict. That is, if you can't find someone to do the Khutbah in Arabic, then the Friday prayer is not even obligatory!
Opinion2: I'll check on that. But what I know is that there is a difference of opinion on this matter. The reason for the difference is due to how the Khutbah is viewed. Is it viewed as analogous to prayer or is it viewed as an admonition?
Opinion1: I think it's more like a prayer. This is because of a statement by Omar ibn al-Khattab, which explains that the other two rakah of Dhuhr were replaced by the Khutbah. [Later I checked this Athar by Omar and discovered that Sheikh M. N. D. al-Albani had weakened this Athar. See al-Irwaa, hadith #605].
Opinon2: Agreed but we can't consider the Khutbah to be exactly like prayer. Scholars mention that the imām can drink water during Khutbah, can give Khutbah without wuḍūʼ, can speak of unrelated subjects during the Khutbah, at least briefly; all of which is not allowed during prayer.
Opinion1: Can you please look into this matter and see what the Imams have said about this issue?
Opinion2: Of course I will. But let us also keep in mind the purpose of the Khutbah. The goal of the Khutbah is to remind and educate the people. We also have to understand the context of the statements by the Imams or their schools. They lived at a time where Arabic was the language of the day (just like English is today), where Islam was the superpower. This is totally different from today where even Arabic speaking Muslims cannot guarantee that their children will speak Arabic, and where learning the language is not readily accessible to many.
Later, I looked at the opinions of the four schools and here is what I found (courtesy of al-Fiqh alaa al-Madhaahib al-Arba'ah by al-Jazeeree):
It's permissible for the Khutbah to not be in Arabic, even if the Khateeb is capable of speaking Arabic, and whether the audience speaks Arabic or not.
It's a condition for the Khutbah to be in Arabic, even if the audience does not understand Arabic. If they don't have a Khateeb that is good in Arabic, then Friday prayer is not obligatory on them!!!
The pillars of the Khutbah (e.g. recitation of an āyah or a Hadith) has to be in Arabic. Non-Arabic is not sufficient if the imām is able to learn Arabic. If not, then he can use a different language. That is if the audience is Arabic-speaking. If not, then even the pillars of Khutbah don't have to be in Arabic. Anything other than the pillars of the Khutbah can be delivered in any language but Arabic is recommended.
The Khutbah is not acceptable in a language other than Arabic, if the imām is able to speak it. If not, then he can use any language he masters. This is whether the audience is Arabic-speaking or not. However, the [recitation of an] āyah that is a pillar of the Khutbah must be uttered in Arabic. If he cannot, then he utters any dhikr in Arabic. If he's not able to even do that, then he stays silent for the duration of reciting such an āyah!!
In order to get around all this, some Masjids in the U.S. have implemented what I call a workaround. They added a so-called “talk” in English before the adhān to fulfill the admonition goal of the Khutbah. After the adhān, they have the actual Khutbah in Arabic. Although this seems to solve all problems mentioned above, it does introduce another set of problems. This supposed workaround may go against a prohibition from the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) not to conduct any halaqa or lecture before the Friday Khutbah.
عن عبد الله بن عمرو بن العاص أن النبي صلّى الله عليه وسلّم نهى عن التحلّق قبل الصلاة يوم الجمعة
صحيح أبي داود 991، صحيح الجامع 6885
From Abdullah bin Amr bin al-Aas that the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) forbade making circles [for knowledge or remembrance] before prayer on Friday. (Saheeh Abu Dawud #991, Saheeh al-Jami' #6885)
Imām ibn al-Jawzi (d. 597) briefly commented on this hadith in his celebrated work “Talbees Iblees”
He [the Prophet] disliked that people gather before the Friday prayer for the purpose of seeking knowledge and studying. Rather, he ordered us to busy ourselves with voluntary prayer and to listen to the Khutbah (The Chapter of the Play of Iblis with the People of Hadith)
In other words, the time before the Khutbah should be utilized in preparation for the Khutbah, not in something that will take the glory away from the Khutbah. In fact, there are authentic hadith that tell us to spend this important time in voluntary prayer. This is the one action that will make us ready to absorb the most from the Khutbah. The proposed pre-Khutbah “talk” on the other hand will deprive the actual Khutbah from its meaning, exhaust the attention of the worshippers, and disturb the whole structure of the Friday prayer.
By the way, the “'ālim” above had for me another proposal that I had not heard before. He said, you can have the first Khutbah in Arabic and the second in English. But, I said this still doesn't meet the requirements of the Imams/Schools who say that both Khutbah should be in Arabic. Moreover, what do you think will happen to the people who don't speak Arabic who have to withstand for about 15 to 20 minutes a speech they don't understand? Their minds will wander and their hearts will not benefit.
Finally, I don't claim to have the final words on this issue. However, I don't even see the famous followers of the schools (e.g. Hamza Yusuf, a follower of the strictist school on this subject, the Maliki School) deliver Arabic Khutbah in this country at this time. What I do know is that this is one issue where we have to look more at the Maqasid [goals] of Shariah and less at the words of a scholar or the opinion of a school, which may have been formulated for a different time or context. After all, this is not a case where one is violating a clear ruling of the Qurʾān or the Sunnah!! Allāh knows best!