The Friday Prayer Joke
I read a joke online of a father who, quizzing his sons on the etiquettes of jumu’ah, asks, “Why must you remain silent during the khutbah?” to which they reply, “So we don’t disturb people in their sleep.”
I can count on my hand the number of times a khateeb of outstanding oratory capability and Islamic knowledge visited our local minbar. Most encounters are a type of attention-span jihad either due to the mental effort exerted in not returning in spirit to my cubicle to juggle pending work issues, or due to an aurally-administered (over)dose of spiritual Ambien. Occasionally the latter drives the former.
Compromised audience attention-span is a problem. One proposed solution towards re-capturing their mental bandwidth is khateeb training. Programs exist to teach khateebs the fundamentals of effective communication, the fiqh of Friday prayers, topic selection, content research and construction methods, and more.
This is an important step forward, but I believe it misses a more fundamental problem – that Friday jumu’ah congregants have different needs and expectations with respect to their time commitments, and this in turn has an effect not just on attention-span, but also attendance, and even the perception of the khateeb and masjid.
Lengthier khutbahs are better suited for lands (e.g. Muslim countries) where Fridays are off and the luxury of time exists. If the people praying post-salah block your way, there’s no worry about playing the salah maze game where you try to weave between musallihs. Why? It’s a holiday, so there’s no rush. Did someone run off with your shoes, double-park, or block you? Are you stuck in Friday prayer traffic? No problem, it’s Friday, and you can chillax.
In a context in which Fridays are not a holiday, a 5-minute khutbah is needed not only because of any advantage it may hold as a matter of restricting minbar filibusters (although this is important too), but because congregants must face a slew of logistical considerations with respect to the masjid as well as their work commitments.
I believe the more optimal sermon duration to be closer to 5 minutes (plus or minus 1 – 2 minutes), with consideration for varying attendee schedules, attention spans, khateeb Islamic knowledge and communication skill levels, and masjid logistics. To be clear, what is meant by a five minute khutbah is the sermon part of the khutbah, not including the opening and closing du’aas, and not including the time the khateeb sits. It also doesn’t include jumu’ah salah.
The 5-Minute Advantage
A five minute khutbah sounds like a slacker’s dream come true, but the upside of its implementation would be tremendous. We’ll look at current problems that exist for the audience and the khateeb, and how the 5-Minute khutbah can be of benefit for both of them.
The Uncaptivated Audience
Ambition as ‘Ibadah
Before we speak about the khutbah itself, it’s instructive to consider the situation of audience members. Contrary to the spiritual blackmail going around, working your 9 – 5 job isn’t just a pathway to a hedonistic “I love this dunya” lifestyle (though it’s possible). It’s potentially a type of ‘ibadah, particularly if the intention is to meet the obligation of family support. If permissible material gains are harming a person’s faith, then that person has to fix himself, as a number of the Companions were successful business owners (e.g. Khadijah, Abu Bakr, Uthman).
Additionally, professionalism via Ihsan (excellence) in one’s work efforts, a solid Islamic ethical base for principled decision-making, and a positive, teamwork-oriented attitude dressed in Islamic character and manners are not only obligations in many senses, they are also an indirect form of daw’ah.
With this in mind, it’s important to respect rather than denigrate career success, and to put aside the “either/or” mentality of “either you’re religious or you’re materially successful”. Instead, we should replace that with an “and” mentality of “you’re both religious and materially successful”. If we think of the implication of this statement, we see it in action where the Prophet was successful because he was honest and upright in his business dealings when he worked for Khadijah .
The Time-Out Dilemna
Part of bringing excellence to one’s job is adhering to the expected standards of conduct. Within that will be the preferences of management. Each person who makes arrangements to attend jumu’ah will have a different situation.
I’ve worked with a person in the tech industry who absolutely had to be in and out on time for a Friday jumu’ah taking place in the building itself. If time ran over by even a minute, his fardh was compromised – the time requirements on him were so tight he had no choice but to leave. I knew that person personally, and he was in no way someone irreligious.
On the other end of the spectrum are people who work out deals with management, allowing them the luxury of arriving early and leaving late. I had this type of arrangement with a manager who told me after my weekly Friday morning report (given to him from home via teleconferencing), I could attend Friday prayers and take the rest of the day off to spend it with my family (and for the record, he was not Muslim).
Between these two ends is a spectrum of what is and isn’t allowed for each person – the amount of time they can take off, what time they can take off and return, and the consequences for falling out of that window.
In addition to this, special circumstances may limit the amount of time taken even for those with flexible arrangements – a person may find they have to return to a class, a critical business need, a life and death situation (doctors), or a high-pressure project.
If we can respect these as important, then we can begin having a more thoughtful discussion about attention-span and time commitments, one which doesn’t degenerate into the default judgmental “you don’t have enough iman” response.
The 5-Minute Audience
A 5-Minute khutbah provides three distinct advantages.
Time Advantage: Overcoming Unreliable Time Factors
Because each person’s scheduling flexibility varies, a 5-Minute khutbah guarantees everyone attending will hear the beginning, middle, and end of the khutbah. Many congregants often leave the office late due to their own scheduling priorities and arrive in the middle or end of jumu’ah, using the lengthy khutbah as a time buffer for the prayer itself. By hearing the entire message, the congregant has the greatest chance to benefit from the reminder.
Besides their own schedule, congregants will have to deal with a variety of unreliable variables related to the khateeb and the masjid. If the khateeb decides to run over his allotted time, the audience has to endure this. In one masjid I attend there is traffic light system set up on a pillar that faces the khateeb. It lights up yellow to let him know time is running out, and red when he’s running over. Even with this setup, certain khateebs seem to think it’s ok for everyone to blow off work and violate any time commitments that were made. A 5-Minute khutbah severely curtails the damage from self-righteous overruns.
With respect to the masjid, if parking is limited then congregants will have to park and walk further out to come to the masjid and then walk the same distance to return. He may need to find his shoes if they’re buried in a pile, weave through musallihs praying their sunnah, walk through a crowd that moves slowly, and fight Friday prayer traffic once he gets to his car. A 5-Minute khutbah gives the congregant breathing room to handle all of these logistical obstacles.
Attention-Span Advantage: Maximum Benefit in Minimal Time
Attention-span is critical. Studies demonstrate the average person’s attention-span is actually 5 minutes. Studies also show a person’s daily willpower is finite and can be exhausted. A person who has been working all morning and into early afternoon, potentially with no lunch break to attend Friday jumu’ah, will find themselves with decreasing amounts of mental endurance to withstand a 25 – 40 minute speech. The first 5 minutes of a talk is when the audience is giving the speaker maximum attention, and the time when the khateeb can provide the most benefit.
For those who understand the 80/20 rule (80% of your results are driven by 20% of your efforts), those first five minutes, if used properly, will be your 20.
Baraka Advantage: Following the Sunnah of the Prophet
Finally, and most importantly, the Prophet gave short khutbahs. He recommended shortening the khutbah and lengthening the prayers. My teachers taught that to understand relative terms, check the examples of the Prophet and the Companions to properly qualify and quantify those statements. Many of the khutbahs of the Prophet that I read (one is provided at the end of this post), if read in a measured tone, would not cross the 5 minute mark.
That doesn’t mean it’s wrong to give a 30 – 40 minute khutbah, as other scholars have opined length varies according to ‘urf. What it does mean, however, is that a 5-minute khutbah isn’t some type of low-iman shortcutting via fiqh technicalities. It’s in the range of the practice of the Prophet .
The Friday Khateeb
The Challenged Khateeb
My first khutbah was a fiery delivery of Shaykh Jamal Zarabozo’s “Steps of Shaytan” khutbah. I took out his examples and replaced them with my own. I delivered it, not in my voice, but as an impersonation of another popular speaker (or my version of it, anyway). It was an epic rant, and by the time I was done, the earth had been completely seared with fire and brimstone.
After the prayers concluded, two things happened. First, people came to thank me and tell me that was the best khutbah they had ever heard (wow!). My head swelled because indeed I had delivered the haqq like a Mack truck, and I had delivered it in style.
But a second, more important event occurred. One of our Saudi brothers doing his PhD in English linguistics offered to teach me proper tajweed in Qur’an recitation. Upon further discussion, he discovered that in fact I couldn’t read the Qur’an itself.
How does a guy who can’t read the Qur’an or even recite al-fatihah properly get to stand on the minbar and advise people on right and wrong? As it turns out, a large beard goes a long way in imbuing one with authority they may not deserve. So too does being a little more articulate, rehearsed, and passionate compared to others. Oftentimes the khateeb is an unqualifed individual there to fill the gap because no one else will do it.
It may be the case that my side of the story represents one side of an extreme, but ignorance isn’t binary – where you either are or are not – it lies on a spectrum with respect to Islamic knowledge, community awareness, and communication strength. The number of khateebs having a qualified mentor (eg the local imam) who can review and correct them on a regular basis are relatively tiny in number.
The 5-Minute Khateeb Solution
A 5-minute khutbah is significantly easier to prepare than a 30 – 40 minute speech. Communication aficionados will no doubt cite the statement “shorter speeches are much more difficult to prepare than longer speeches.” The reason for this difficulty is because the person stating this is often an expert and vastly more knowledgeable in his domain of expertise than others and has to sort through which information is most critical and succinctly tie up or run past subtleties which add to the discussion. That can be frustrating and unsatisfying.
For the majority of khateebs, the paralysis analysis of the expert is wiped out. It’s enough to find a beneficial 5 minute khatirah on a set of topics appropriate for jumu’ah, massage the material into khutbah format, and then rehearse it a few times.
Consider the benefits. In one scenario, the khateeb spends time away from family and other pursuits to research, rehearse, and deliver a 30 minute khutbah on a topic he’s knows somewhat, but with little in the way of depth. In another scenario, the khateeb waits until the last minute and puts together a half-hearted speech and rambles on for 30 minutes come jumu’ah. In either scenario, the khateeb delivers to an audience who, for the most part, came to fulfill the Friday prayer requirement and likely tuned out after 5 minutes.
A khateeb who starts and finishes in 5 minutes will have more of the jam’ah in the masjid (because the time is so short), will be able to deliver 100% of his message to this majority, and the likelihood they pay attention and process the takeaway message significantly increases because it happens within the time interval of their attention-span. Shorter prep time will mean less taken away from family and other commitments for the khateeb, which means it will be easier to commit to delivering more khutbahs as needed and easing masjid/MSA scheduling difficulties.
Objections to the 5-Minute Khutbah
People are More Ignorant/Jahil/Non-practicing and This is the Only Opportunity to Educate
This may be true, but increasing the length of time of the khutbah doesn’t necessarily correspond with better religious guidance or impact. Less is more, and more is actually less. A shorter khutbah enables education – short reminders are more powerful because they remain within the attention span of the audience, they force the khateeb to be concise and precise and to focus on takeaway points. The joke of, “What was Friday prayer about?” with the answer of, “I don’t know” will drop significantly, insha’Allah.
People Don’t Even Make Friday Prayer on Time, They’ll Miss a 5-Minute Khutbah
During my MSA days we had a problem with shoes on the floor – people were too lazy to pick up their shoes and put it on the shoe racks. I told the MSA we should have a straightforward policy – shoes that are not placed in the racks will be tossed out of the masjid. The MSA agreed and I was the enforcer. I placed a sign up in the shoe racks warning everyone of the new policy and then started throwing shoes out. Miraculously, a problem that had existed for many years solved itself within a week.
Despite our reputation for unprofessionalism, once people are aware of a new standard, they’ll adjust. Any group in charge of Friday prayer logistics and timing should make the congregation aware of the new policy, and once implemented stay strict on the timings for purposes of ease of predictability.
As a side note, this objection is actually a rebuttal to the first objection above about needing to educate the community – many people come in the middle or end of the khutbah because of its duration, so how are these people benefiting from the education again?
What About When We Have a Qualified Imam or an Effective Speaker?
Implementing a 5-minute khutbah need not completely eradicate the practice of holding longer khutbahs. It can be incorporated as part of a system. Many masjids hold multiple jumu’ahs, so khutbah one can be the longer khutbah while khutbah two can be the 5 minute khutbah. Another scenario would be to have only 5-minute khutbahs with the exception being the visit of a qualified or effective speaker. Rather than seeing it as a replacement, I would prefer we see it an option to what is already out there, particularly in corporate environments with a significant number of Muslim employees, MSAs, high schools, and masjids without a full-time qualified imam. Masjids with the full-time imam can also implement it if they find it useful for their needs.
The Prophet advised Lengthening the Prayer and Shortening the Khutbah, so the Prayer Should be Really Long
I received this statement in response a few times, which is based on the recommendation of the Prophet to shorten the khutbah and lengthen the salah. The Prophet was known to recite Surat Al Jumu’ah and Surat Al Munafiqoon during the first and second rakahs respectively, and also Surat Al A’la and Surat Al Ghashiyah in the first and second rakahs respectively. In the former case, that amounts to approximately 3 pages of Qur’an which, relatively speaking, is much more than what I see right now after many 30 – 40 minute length khutbahs where half a page from the end of Juz ‘Amma are recited within 2 rakaat.
It would be interesting to take a survey and find out how many Friday jumu’ahs have the khateeb reciting 3 pages of Qur’an in the prayer. My guess (and this is a pure guess based on experience) is virtually none. A five minute khutbah, plus opening and closing du’aas, plus sitting, along with 3 pages of Qur’an recited will end the total experience within 15 – 20 minutes.
Friday Jumu’ah is the One Time Everyone Gathers and It Builds Community
While this is true, the Friday khutbah is a time when the audience must remain silent. There is no community building component during the khutbah (or at least, there shouldn’t be). Having a 5 minute khutbah will allow community-building to more easily occur because the pressure of time to returning to office will significantly reduce.
However, for those who have no such flexibility and cannot give the time for socializing can return to school or work promptly. The 5 minute khutbah has built into it flexibility so that audience members can decide if they can stay, and if they do, for how long they can stay. For some, they must always return promptly while for others, they may or may not have to return to their work quickly depending on their situation that week.
We Need Longer Khutbahs Because We’re Not as Good or as Knowledgeable as the Companions
The latter statement is true – we’re not as good as the Companions on the whole because the Prophet has stated they are the best generation. However, the idea that, “We’re not as good, therefore we must do more,” is poor reasoning. There were men who came to the Prophet stating they would perform more acts of worship than him with respect to fasting, praying all night, and not marrying because they were not as good as him, and they were rebuked for their reasoning.
The other side of this is the “knowledgeable” side of the discussion – the Companions knew more. The question is, which Companions? Among the Companions you had scholars such as Ibn Abbas, Ibn Mas’ud, Ibn ‘Umar, Aisha, Abu Hurayrah, and others. On the flip side of the spectrum, you had Companions who came to the Prophet stating they would do the five pillars, nothing more and nothing less. You had people who lived in the city and people who were bedouins in the desert. Within the Companions was a spectrum of knowledge and even availability and accessability to the Prophet , and the Prophet addressed all of them during jumu’ah.
The real problem is that we put cause and effect in the wrong place. We say, “The Companions did not need longer khutbahs because they were so knowledgeable of the language already, and the Prophet was among them.” What I’m saying is you should flip that around – one of the contributing factors and lessons we should take from the Prophet is that shorter communication, especially with respect to jumu’ah, is the more effective means to communicate and why his impact was more significant on his society as a whole. His audience and their situations were diverse.
If Shorter is Better, Why is This Post so Long?
In this medium, the audience is here by choice, not by force. You can read at your leisure, skim as many do, or ignore it altogether. Reading it is not an act of worship, and not everyone has to be here. You also don’t have to fight through parking, shoe lines, or announcements to read this post. Long form communication has its benefits, and education in specific topics can’t happen in 5 minutes.
This raises an interesting question – is the jumu’ah khutbah the place for “education”? While I agree on the whole our community needs far more Islamic education, I don’t believe the Friday khutbah is the place to do it, specifically for the reasons mentioned above (lack of audience attention, audience time flexibility, shortage of qualified speakers, and pre- and post-masjid logistics). I believe the audience is better benefited by a 5-Minute reminder than a long-form speech.
Sample 5-Minute Khutbah from the Prophet
“Acquire knowledge, for surely it leads to fear of Allah. Seeking it is an act of worship (‘ibadah); studying it is praising Allah; seeking it is jihad; teaching it to the ignorant is an act of charity (sadaqah); and giving it to its people draws one closer to them. Knowledge points to the permissible (Halaal) and the forbidden (haraam), and it is a shining light pointing the way to paradise. It comforts the lonely, befriends the estranged, and talks to you in seclusion. It is a guide through prosperity and adversity; it is a weapon against enemies; and it is the best of friends.
With knowledge, Alláh raises people to high stations, making them leaders in goodness, whose steps are traced. Their example is emulated, their opinion followed. The angels like to sit with the people of knowledge, surrounding their wings; and everything dry or wet, the fish of the sea and animals on land, – will ask Allah to forgive them. Knowledge gives life to the heart in the midst of ignorance, and illumines vision in the darkness.
With knowledge, God’s servants become the elite and reach the highest degrees in this life and in the hereafter. Contemplation with knowledge is equivalent to fasting (sawm); spending time to study it is equivalent to standing at night in prayer (qiyam); duties to relatives are fulfilled by it; and through it the halaal and haraam are known. Knowledge precedes action (‘amal) and action always follows it. The fortunate ones attain it and the miserable ones are deprived of it.”
Much of what I’ve shared is based on my own experiences as a khateeb, a congregant, and feedback I’ve received from others. What are your thoughts and experiences? Should we standardize a 5-minute khutbah? Why or why not?