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The Voices of Islam: What Muslims Hear at Friday Prayers

Is there really a clash of the cultures between Islam and the West? SPIEGEL documents Friday sermons from mosques around the world. As imams guide their congregations, they praise the delights of paradise, sow the seeds of doubt in government authority -- and sometimes preach hatred.

Thousands of Indonesian Muslims assemble at the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta.
AFP

Thousands of Indonesian Muslims assemble at the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta.

Last Monday, the 12th of Rabi al-Awwal 1427, traffic stood still in most Islamic countries, government employees had the day off and children stayed home from school. On the 12th of Rabi, the world's Muslims observe the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.

Egyptians celebrate Maulid al-Nabi, as a sort of Islamic Christmas. In cities across the Nile delta, thousands take to the streets playing drums and trumpets. Little girls receive dolls and little boys are given horses made of sugar. It's Egypt's biggest religious festival.

In Pakistan, the faithful place a young boy, dressed as a Bedouin, on a horse and parade him through the streets, representing the return of the Prophet in the form of a child -- apparently not a violation of the prohibition on displaying images of the Prophet the Muslim world often defended so vehemently. But this year the return of Muhammad ended in a blood bath, when a suicide bomber blew up himself and 57 others during prayers in the southern Pakistani city Karachi.

Islam has many faces, and on the Friday before the Prophet's birthday, SPIEGEL correspondents visited mosques from Nigeria to Indonesia to listen to the sermons of the imams. They were there in part to look into a suspicion that has taken hold in the West, especially since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Have the mosques been transformed from a place of prayer into a hotbed of extremism and center of Islamist indoctrination? Is there truly a dangerous clash of cultures underway, as so many people in Europe and America fear?

Radical preachers have actively contributed to this impression. In a Berlin mosque, a television crew secretly recorded the sermon of a Turkish imam who described the Germans as godless and railed against their alleged stench. In London, hate preacher Abu Hamza al-Masri called upon the faithful to murder female tourists in his native Egypt, saying: "If a woman, even a Muslim woman, is naked and you have no way of covering her up, it is legitimate to kill her."

Other agents of the Koran speak moderately when addressing Western audiences, but their words turn decidedly more radical when directed towards Muslims. In an interview with SPIEGEL, television imam Yusuf al-Qaradawi, perhaps currently one of the most influential Islamic scholars around, magnanimously conceded that there is also room in heaven for devout Christians and Jews. But on his Arab-language website a short time later, he made it clear that he believes that Christians and Jews are ultimately nothing more than infidels.

Geopolitics and prayer

But surely such examples of narrow-mindedness can be found in any major religion or creed. Are these words of hatred and discrimination really representative of the thousands upon thousands of Friday prayers that millions of Muslims around the world attend each week? And what about those who occasionally oversleep and miss morning prayers or those whose lives do not revolve exclusively around their religion? The answers to these questions are highly varied, but generally speaking the more devout Muslims see themselves threatened by the secular West, the more zealous the region's imams are in calling the faithful to fight in the name of Allah.

Whereas imams in places like Istanbul and Jakarta tended to devote their sermons to theological exegesis, Friday prayers in Pakistan, Iran and the Gaza Strip were markedly more political. In these places, religious scholars whipped their listeners into a holy frenzy and drew a sharp line between the Dar al-Islam, or House of Islam, and the Dar al-Harb, or House of War -- the two spheres into which schools of Islamic legal thought have divided the world.

But at the same time, often in the same sermon, imams ask God for help in confronting everyday woes, issue moral appeals to their own political leaders and constantly return to the Islamic world's greatest lament: a comparison between the gloomy present and the glorious past.

The news on the Friday before last contained all the key ingredients for a dramatic political sermon. The Israeli army had just launched an attack on two offices of the al-Aksa Brigades in the Gaza Strip, and both the United States and the European Union had announced their intention to halt financial aid to the Palestinians' Hamas-led government. Ten people were killed that Thursday when a bomb went off in the Iraqi city of Najaf, and another 70 died in Baghdad while leaving the mosque after Friday prayers. Government officials in Washington also made it clear that they were opposed to interim Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's ambitions to stay in office.

The nuclear dispute between Iran and the West escalated further when Iranian religious leaders denounced as unacceptable United Nations' demands that the country put an end to its uranium enrichment program. On that weekend, The New Yorker then revealed that the White House has developing plans for a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promptly upped the ante by announcing that his mullah-led theocracy had successfully enriched uranium and now counts itself a member of the world's nuclear club.

But Didin Hafiduddin, the imam at Istiqlal Mosque in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, made no mention of the precarious geopolitical situation in his sermon, given in one of the world's largest houses of prayer. Titled "Professionalism and Honest Trusteeship," it sounded more like a presentation at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland than fiery religious rhetoric. Hafiduddin told the faithful in the most populous Islamic country about Joseph the Israelite, the man charged with running the Egyptian pharaoh's economy. He drew parallels between the story -- which is also mentioned in the bible -- and modern-day Indonesia's struggles with corruption.

Pakistani Muslims rally against the Danish cartoons of Muhammad in Feb. 2006.
DPA

Pakistani Muslims rally against the Danish cartoons of Muhammad in Feb. 2006.

"Place me in charge of the granaries of the land, and you will see that I am a clever custodian," Joseph advises the pharaoh in the Koran sura that bears his name. No one has ever been a more efficient manager than Joseph, at least according to the imam from Jakarta. Today's leaders ought to take a page from Joseph's book, he said, adding that "corruption, laziness and fraud bring about destruction." By contrast, said the Indonesian imam, God rewards professionalism and a "strict work ethic" with happiness and fulfillment.

Governments criticized

The moral appeal to one's own political leadership is a leitmotif in the sermons of Muslim preachers -- but also a natural response to strict autocratic conditions in many Islamic countries. It was almost an understatement when Sheikh Ibrahim Abu Bakr Ramadan, an imam in the Nigerian city of Kano, said that the "injustice emanating from our leadership is the worst part of our society," in reference to President Olusegun Obasanjo's efforts to amend the constitution so that he can be reelected when his current term expires in 2007.

In Peshawar, Pakistan, Maulana Khalil Ahmad compared the world's monotheistic religions and -- perhaps not surprisingly -- praised Islam as being the most complete of them all: "Contradictions prevail, especially in Christianity and Judaism, as well as in Communism." But that was mild compared with the sermon his fellow local imam Abd al-Akbar Chitrali gave in the same spot a week earlier, when he derided Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's claim to have given Pakistan true democracy. Musharraf, the imam complained, is trying to introduce the "Western secularism" of his idol, Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The founder of the modern Turkey, said Chitrali, was a man who "turned mosques into churches and had religious scholars murdered. Listen to me, Muslims! Kemal Atatürk is not our ideal. Musharraf is not just attempting to placate the West and the USA, but also to remain permanently in power."

An Egyptian youth walks inside al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo.
REUTERS

An Egyptian youth walks inside al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo.

Many imams in Egypt and Turkey harbor similar reservations about their countries' leaders, but little of that surfaced in their sermons. The security forces in both countries keep a close watch on mosques. In Egypt, the grand sheikh of al-Azhar University, traditionally the highest-ranking authority in Sunni religious teaching, is appointed directly by the president, essentially making him the administration's mouthpiece.

This explains the tranquil nature of the sermon at al-Azhar University on the evening before the Prophet's birthday. The speaker, Sheikh Id Abd al-Hamid Yusuf, praised Muhammad as the most complete of all prophets, saying: "We will never succeed in doing justice to his memory."

To ensure that religious speech doesn't suddenly turn into political invective, hundreds of police officers are stationed in the streets around the al-Azhar mosque in Cairo every Friday during prayers. The faithful have rarely staged demonstrations after prayers in recent years, and when they have, many of the "demonstrators" were undercover police officers. But such precautions are unnecessary on the Friday before the Prophet's birthday. Indeed, Imam Yusuf warned his audience against the excesses of religious fervor, saying that "the extremist doesn't plow the earth, nor does he allow any flowers to grow."

Emrullah Hatipoglu, the imam of Istanbul's Blue Mosque, does his best to take advantage of the latitude he is given by the government's Office for Religious Affairs. In his sermons, Hatipoglu argues against the view of the country's secular elite that Islam is a backward-looking religion that is opposed to science. The Koran begins with the words "Read, in the name of your Lord, who has created," and modern Islam, says Hatipoglu, should obey this exhortation to educate oneself. "Physics, chemistry, mathematics, astronomy … read that!" he says. But he also believes that the faithful should read the Koran with the same enthusiasm. "There is no excuse. No one can claim that he cannot read the Koran. Don't you have computers and CDs?"

This is followed by a catechism that sounds like a campaign speech by current Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan during the 1990s, when he was still mayor of Istanbul and crusaded against the serving of alcohol, prostitution and Turkey's inexorable Westernization. Today, with his sights set on EU membership, Erdogan has largely abandoned his Islamist rhetoric, but the conflict between government-controlled Islam and Turkey's secular establishment, especially the military, continues to simmer.

The fronts are much more clear-cut in Palestine, even more so than in Iran. In the Gaza Strip, Imam Talal al-Majdalawi spends 25 minutes talking about the upcoming Prophet's birthday and the need to constantly reflect on God and the holy Koran. He saves the last five minutes of his sermon for his political message: "Two hundred bullets were fired at us yesterday," says the imam. "What prevents us from thinking about God each time one of those bullets strikes its target?"

His logic is the sort that has long determined the discourse of radical Islamists: The harder the enemy strikes us, the more clearly tries to present us with his supposed superiority, the more united and determined to oppose him we shall become. Everything, including nightly bombardment by the Israeli air force, follows a great, divine wisdom. "Do not hate evil, because it could be God's gift to you," he says. Such is the Islamist answer to the question of theodicy. If God is omnipotent, why is there so much evil in the world?

Hojjatolislam Ahmed Khatami, speaking to thousands of Iranian Muslims in the courtyard of the University of Tehran, is dealing with a similar problem. He begins the political portion of his sermon with a mention of the devastating earthquake in Iran's Lorestan province, praising the "diligent Islamic regime for overcoming these difficulties." But the congregation also wants to hear something else. When Khatami took to the podium, the faithful chanted: "Death to America! Death to England and its treachery! Nuclear energy is our natural right!" And Khatami doesn't disappoint them. He mentions the controversy over Danish cartoon's of Muhammad and calls upon Sunnis and Shiites to unite in the face of "this insult to the Prophet." Quoting the Koran, he defends the right of resistance. "Our resistance is what triggers respect for our 27-year-old revolution. They have prepared many crises for our great nation, but we have left them behind with our heads held high." Then he turns his attention to Iran's nuclear conflict with the West.

"They have given us one month to discontinue our research," he says, referring to the UN Security Council. "One month or one year -- you can give us as many ultimatums as you wish." Iran insists on its right and that, says the imam, means "that we will stand up for our right with our blood and until we breathe our last breath."

These words are reminiscent of Iran's revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini's speeches. Khatami mentions Iran's recent navy maneuvers "in the blue waters of the Persian Gulf," and then issues this threat: "If you so much as dare to show even a sign of aggression against the Islamic regime, we will strike your mouth with our fists." His sermon ends with an appeal to God to protect his beloved Iran, grant its worthy leader success and accept all Iranians as soldiers of the Wali-e-Asr -- the twelfth, or hidden, imam. "Expedite his resurrection," he beseeches the Almighty.

Throughout the world, Friday prayers are the high point of the week in the life of a devout Muslim. It was a Friday when Adam entered the Garden of Eden, and it was a Friday when he left it again. The faithful believe that Muhammad said that the day of resurrection would also be a Friday. Muhammad supposedly also said that "God commanded both the Jews and the Christians to celebrate Friday as a day of worship but they ignored His command." Muslims see the Koran as God's last and complete revelation, and every Friday sermon serves as a reminder of that belief.

Reported by Daniel Steinvorth and Bernhard Zand and translated from German by Christopher Sultan.

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© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2006
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Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH




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