One of my earliest memories from boyhood is being taken to the mosque by my father to attend Friday prayers and hear the sermon. Friday to the Islamic faith is of great importance for it's symbolic significance - the first mosque was built on Friday - and for the Quranic injunction that instructs Muslims to attend the mosque and heed their prayers:
"O ye who believe! When the call is proclaimed to prayer on Friday (the Day of Assembly), hasten earnestly to the Remembrance of Allah, and leave off business (and traffic): That is best for you if ye but knew," - Holy Quran 62:9The Friday sermons, so I was taught in my Islamic studies classes at school, should be a kind of forum where an informed Muslim can enlighten the people from the pulpit about the concerns of life and the afterlife. The issues that the sermons address could be religious, political, social, economic or personal if need be. And they should follow the Prophet's example and last from 15 to 20 minutes.
That's what we were taught at school, certainly. But what I remember from attending those mosque sermons with my father was very different. The sermons we used to listen to then almost always dealt with political issues, and only very rarely with others matters such as religious rites, or moral issues. I suppose it is true that all the political sermons we heard led children like myself to begin thinking about political affairs early on in life - which in itself is no bad thing. No, the problem was not the subject matter but the tone that the imams invariably used: they were always angry.
The usual style of delivery would be for the imam to begin quietly and then progress, getting louder and louder until he was screaming into the microphone. The blaring voice of the imam would shake not just the foundations of the mosque but the foundations of all the listeners, too. At the very top of his voice, he would invariably threaten fire and brimstone, impending punishment and distant reward for all the worshippers. Finally, his voice hoarse from the shouting, the imam would conclude by cursing the enemies of Islam - as defined by his own personal criteria. It was impossible for anyone, young or old, not to be deeply affected by such a performance.
For the first 20 or so years of my life, sermons of this type were my weekly religious staple, until I left Abu Dhabi to study abroad. My first stop was Kalamazoo, a small town in the state of Michigan in the United States, where I went to study at Western Michigan University. My subjects were comparative politics and comparative religions - which gave me the opportunity to understand my own religion and the religions of the world in a more academic manner.
I began visiting churches and other religious centres, and went to services to learn about the different faiths at first hand. In none of them, regardless of denomination, did I hear the preacher cursing others and praying for their destruction. In none of them did I hear the preacher shouting at the top of his voice into a heavily-amplified microphone. The religious ceremonies that I attended were quiet and peaceful, the priests and preachers serious but calm in their demeanour - and all were most welcoming.
I did find, however, that the mosque in Kalamazoo was just like those I had left behind in Abu Dhabi. The imam would curse and scream and promise punishment and impending doom. My most embarrassing experience was when some American students wanted to come with me to listen to the sermon at Friday prayers. The imam, in his usual manner, cursed them roundly in Arabic and I had to translate what was being said to my fellow students.
After completing the introductory courses on the major religions of the world, such as Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism, I began an intensive study of the Islamic faith in all its subdivisions so that I could begin to understand my own religion more fully. Eight years have passed since then and my studies continue, but I now believe that the manner in which the sermons were made when I was a boy and in America does not conform to what the Islamic faith preaches.
Ever since the September 11 attacks of 2001, the mosques in the United Arab Emirates have been brought under the direct supervision of the Ministry of Islamic Endowments and Religious Affairs and under the direction of enlightened religious leaders. Now the sermons are considerably more humane and deal with issues that are of immediate concern to the worshippers. Where in the past, politics took precedence in the mosque, today religious, social, and humanitarian matters have a significantly greater importance. Political issues are still discussed, but only if there is religious clarification needed on them. The end of the sermons today are also vastly different. Now they always finish with prayers for the well-being of all mankind and to ease the hardships of all.
I am happy that my sons and the sons of my sisters and brothers living in the more enlightened UAE of today will not be exposed to the angry, vengeful face of the imams I remember from my childhood. Instead, they will discover the humane and tender face of the Islamic ideal that was lost but has now found its place again.
Dr Khalid Salem Al-Yabhouni is a political analyst and researcher