07/17/2014 03:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ramadan Reflection Day #19: When Bad Things Happen to Good People -- Dealing With Terrible Sermons in the Muslim Community

Mohammad Reza Domiri Ganji

Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan for the fourth year in a row, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author email alert above, visit his Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.

As the month of Ramadan starts to wind down, preparations are being made all over the world for the holiday that takes place after Ramadan, Eid ul-Fitr. I've already started to get announcements in my email from cities that I've never visited letting me know that their Eid prayers will be held potentially on one of many days, but regardless of the day it will definitely be extremely early in the morning. Being at the Islamic Center at NYU, I am blessed to be in a community that really celebrates the holiday with warmth and good vibes. By extension, our Friday prayers and other religious/holiday services tend to be quite uplifting and celebratory for the most part and a key part to this is the sermon that goes along with the gathering. Growing up, the experience was a little different to say the least.

I wasn't the most religious person growing up. The few times I attended religious services, I usually left wondering what I had just experienced and if it really happened the way that it did. From weddings to Jummah to Eid holidays, it seemed like the majority of khatibs, the person delivering the sermon, really didn't know what was happening. The problem with this was my entire understanding of Islam was being shaped by these moments, and they weren't really helping me feel connected to my faith.

I had attended a Friday Prayer service once where the khatib had decided to speak for a good hour and a half. At one point, someone in the back of the room wailed out loud and another used the opportunity to speak up and say, "Please just finish now." The khatib responded with silence, then said "I've lost my place" and proceeded to start from the beginning again.

Another time I had been attending a pretty long sermon and the service was being held in a hotel the local community rented space in while it's mosque was being constructed. Because of the large number of attendees, multiple halls were opened up, one of which had a pool in it. Seemingly no one thought it would be a good idea to cover up the pool and as the khatib slowly started to lose his audience, many started to doze off including one woman who eventually fell backwards into the pool.

There was an Eid Prayer I attended once that started around 6am for some reason and began with a man getting on the microphone and greeting the congregation with well wishes for the holiday. I thought this was nice and sat up to listen. The man said that we are all so lucky to be together on this holiday with friends and loved ones. I started to feel a little fuzzy inside. He then pointed to a man in the front row and said, "All of us are lucky but this man here." And here we go again. "This man here, his daughter has a boyfriend and if they have a child it will be a bastard." I turned to my dad and said, "Abu, did that guy just call someone a bastard?" My father, a little annoyed that I had woken him up, was about to say no until he was interrupted by the man saying the word, "bastard, bastard, bastard" over and over. Eid Mubarak indeed.

Then there was one of the first times I gave an Eid sermon. It was taking place at a roller skating rink/fitness arena (like with most faiths, the congregation tends to be much larger for our holiday services and requires most space so communities will rent out venues that can accommodate.) As I delivered the sermon, I started to look around the room and something caught my attention out of the corner of my eye. Above the rink was a running track and there were hundreds of people running laps above us. I am sure that makes sense somehow logistically and it was entirely my fault for finding it distracting.

Weddings have had to be the most interesting. For most of us who grow up disconnected from our faith, weddings are really the only time we are engaging religion and they, more often than not, affirm for us why we are distant from our faith. I remember when I was younger attending a wedding sermon that was about the Gulf War. Pornography tended to be a common theme for many for some reason. Some I don't remember too well but I have vivid images of the bride crying and her mother whispering to the khatib to stop talking and hurry up. And of course there are the always awkward moments where allusions are made to the wedding night itself. I don't really need to hear all that.

Joking aside, it's important for us to be better and have higher standards because for many people, Muslims included, these are the only moments that they will be exposed to anything that has to do with Islam. What are people really learning from all of the hours they spend over the course of their lives attending Jummah prayers? Why are people anything but happy when they are leaving from their Eid prayers? How come couples are crying tears of frustration on their wedding days? The opportunity for uplifting and empowering individuals while simultaneously inculcating a much needed literacy in our Tradition is passing us by.

If you are privileged to ascend the pulpit, then honor the legacy of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, and speak to the people rather than speaking at them. Put forth a message that is coherent, thought-out, and takes into the consideration the moment and all of the people who are present in it. If people only come out once a year for Eid, then really understand what that means and what would make the most sense to preach to them about.

On the wedding end in specific, my friends and I have started a Muslim Wedding Service that helps to plan ceremonies, provide quality officiants who can speak in a variety of languages to conduct the ceremony, and certified counselors to provide pre- and post-marital counseling should the couple want to pursue it. We've gotten requests from throughout the United States and different parts of the world and are doing our best to keep up with the demands. If you'd like to apply to be an officiant for it, you can as well through our website here - we're always looking for more people to join the team. I see this as a much needed social service and am reaffirmed in that every time a couple or individual calls because they are worried by the alternative. Families coming from different cultural backgrounds, different faith backgrounds, different levels of observance, etc. all add up to a lot of stress. The hope isn't to provide a service that keeps something bad from happening. Rather it's to provide a service in hopes that the day will be as good as possible.

Suggest to your local mosques/communities that they require khatibs to be trained until they have a proven track record, whether they are conducting an Eid Prayer, a Friday Prayer, or a wedding. There are numerous places that offer training workshops and public speaking programs, both within and outside of the Muslim community. Most religious groups require classes in oration as part of their course of study. I don't see why we should be any different. It's a responsibility that we have to uphold for the overall benefit of our community-at-large.

This is one of my favorite Eid Khutbahs, delivered by Wisam Sharieff a few years ago in California.


Khalid Latif's Ramadan Reflections