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Agnieszka Tennant

The Prophet's Pulpit

A conversation with Patrick Gaffney illumines the world of Muslim believers—what they have in common; what divides them—and the varieties of Islamic preaching

In theory, Islam is a religion without a clergy. On the ground, things look different. Before Patrick Gaffney decided to pay attention to Islamic sermons in the late 1970s, no comprehensive study of contemporary Islamic preachers existed. He spent hundreds of hours in mosques in Egypt, recording and analyzing what he heard. His curiosity was ahead of the curve. A couple of years into his study, Islamic preachers ceased to be viewed as irrelevant. Today, Gaffney is your man if you want to make sense of what's being said at mosques worldwide.

A polyglot, Catholic priest, and chair of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, Gaffney found that modern Islamic preaching represents variations on three ideal types, based on the kind of knowledge from which the preacher derives his authority—hence preacher as saint, preacher as scholar, and preacher as warrior. This typology structures Gaffney's book, The Prophet's Pulpit: Islamic Preaching in Contemporary Egypt (Univ. of California Press, 1994), which includes a sample sermon of each type. He is also coauthor of Breaking Cycles of Violence: Conflict Prevention in Interstate Crises (Kumarian, 1999).

In November, the animated and witty redhead described to Agnieszka Tennant—with abundant hand gestures and with words—the power that resides in the Islamic preacher's pulpit.

What sparked your interest in Islamic preachers?

The center of my interest was authority. I wanted to study why some religious traditions and social institutions carry weight and some don't. With the help of a professor at the University of Chicago who had studied Arab politics in Jordan, I came to realize that authority in the Islamic world was a topic virtually invisible in the literature. Before I went to Egypt to study it, I read virtually everything I could find, and it was much easier to find information about preaching in the twelfth century than preaching in the twentieth century. I thought, What's going on here? Preaching is being heard in mosques all over the Middle East, and I'm trying to find out about it by reading what scholars and reporters have written, and there's virtually nothing there.

If you talk with Muslims, they'll tell you that Islam rejects the whole notion of clergy. Their self-understanding doesn't allow them to think that way. But institutionally they give people titles and cell phones, and those people function like clergy. To some extent we have this in the Christian tradition, too. Many Christian groups are very suspicious of clerical authority. The Presbyterians rejected bishops and so on. Yet to an outsider, it might appear that the groups which have rejected clerical authority have simply reinvented it in other forms. Obviously the analogy is not perfect, but it may help to understand how Muslims can claim that they have no clergy.

What kind of authority do Islamic preachers hold?

To some degree that depends on the source of their authority. Is it spiritual power, wonder-working power of the kind associated with saints? Is it ethical teaching based on a mastery of the texts of Islamic tradition? Or is it the calling of a holy warrior? These are ideal types, and they may overlap. And all of them trace their authority to the time of the Prophet and his immediate successors. Muhammad was the civil leader, the political leader, and of course the one who spoke for God. So in the Islamic world, political and religious authority are ideally embodied in the same person.

Over the centuries, as the Islamic imperium began to fragment, political and religious authority were frequently divided. Religious authority was assumed by the community of preacher-scholars. They established networks to train their own people. Mosque universities arose to prepare religious scholars, who became officials in a widespread quasi-bureaucracy where their common training in Islamic law enabled them to speak for the tradition.

Classic Islamic law is highly idealized, unlike American and European law, which is very practical. Certainly these Islamic scholars were capable of being very practical in issues of contracts and marriage, for example, but their orientation toward public order was somewhat removed from the messy exigencies of politics. Nevertheless, while there was a gap between religious authority and political authority, the ideal of their inseparability was maintained, because that's the way it was in the early formative period of Islam. And it's this ideal that the Islamist movement has sought to restore to reality.

I should add that Islamic preaching has a linguistic code. In traditional understanding, the clerics are supposed to preach in formal Arabic. The difference between written Arabic and spoken Arabic is much greater than the difference between written English and spoken English, for example. Common people in the Arabic world don't speak the written language; they speak one of the many dialects. Preachers have customarily employed high, formal Arabic, even though the uneducated people don't understand such language very well. This kind of preaching, which is still common among the scholars, derives authority from the tradition.

In the last 30 years, however, the Islamist movement and its mujahid preachers (the warrior type) have introduced the language of the street into preaching. This informal language, which used to be taboo, evokes a more immediate response from ordinary people. It rings in the ear. Because of its capacity to arouse emotion, it would compare to formal Arabic as heavy metal compares to classical music.

There's art to both kinds of preaching. When you preach in dialect, you're sacrificing your association with tradition. You might lose some prestige, so you have to do it very well. Still, one result of this move toward preaching in common language is that individuals who had never thought of preaching as an option can take the pulpit and preach.

So there are competing sources or forms of authority for Islamic preaching?

Yes, very much so. If you ask Muslims what gives this preacher more authority than that one, the stock answer is, We obey the preacher who knows more. But how do you determine who knows more? What are the relevant credentials, and who gives them? In the Islamic world, all of these questions are being asked when it comes to preaching. Perhaps most fundamentally, Muslims are asking what kind of knowledge makes you a better leader and therefore a more credible preacher.

Is there a consensus?

No. This is one of the deep tensions within the Islamic world. Pious Muslims in Egypt or Palestine or the United States hear one preacher saying one thing and another preacher saying another. Take, for instance, Osama bin Laden. What is the source of his authority? He gives his little sermons that are broadcast on al-Jazeera, and various people listen and obey. Then you have another preacher, say the Grand Mufti of Egypt, who is a state-appointed sheik. He says, Osama bin Laden doesn't speak for Islam, and violence is not the way to respond to injustice.

These alternatives represent different kinds of knowledge. The Mufti has studied the Islamic tradition for decades; he's a great scholar of the classical legal texts. Osama bin Laden does not have a classical Islamic education. He studied engineering, became a businessman, and decided to support the mujahideen.

There's this great divorce between ways of knowing. One group says that those who study the texts, who can recite the Qur'an letter-perfect, are the ones who speak with the authority of the tradition and thus are the leaders whom good Muslims should obey. Another group says, Those guys are stuck in medieval mode; they study ancient texts that describe a world which no longer exists. Knowledge proves itself in action. Those who can accomplish their goals obviously possess knowledge; their success certifies them. So there are leaders, like Osama, whose claim to authority rests on their mastery of the practical tools of political power.

What makes Osama special is not the way he thinks. He's the head of an organization that is like an international corporation or an international mafia. Because he has so much money and has the, you might say, bureaucratic competence to create an output from his motive, he becomes capable of implementing an agenda which is murderous and suicidal.

In your book you mention a third category of knowledge.

Yes. A Sufi priest would claim to have knowledge that cannot be questioned by human inquiry—esoteric knowledge.

Would this knowledge correspond with the word of wisdom or the leading of the Holy Spirit in the Christian tradition?

That's not a bad comparison. Sufis, who tend to be less visible in the pulpit, are not accessible to interrogation. They don't sit there and argue with you. They speak an oracle, and "those who know" are thankful that they've heard the voice and behave accordingly. Those who question such revelations—well, they simply aren't part of God's plan. Still, Sufis, too, ultimately have to prove their credibility. One of the Sufi gifts is to see the inner self. So a Sufi confirms his claim to authority by knowing your inner secrets.

An anthropologist who wrote a study of Lebanese religious specialists in the 1970s and '80s describes a Sufi sheik who came to a village and was trying to win disciples. Some of the people in the village were suspicious. They arranged a test: a man who was really a thief and liar pretended to become a disciple of the visitor. The Sufi sheik took him on. The skeptics in the village concluded that the sheik was obviously a phony; otherwise he would have seen through the deception. Real Sufi sheiks are supposed to know the difference between liars and genuine followers.

Of the three categories of preachers you describe—the saints, the scholars, and the warriors—which one holds the most sway in Islamic society?

The scholars by far are the grand tradition. They're the main current of Islamic preaching. They have their own story and they have a left and right wing. These scholar-preachers tend to be seen as apolitical. Or if they are seen as political, they're seen as supporting the establishment. And it's specifically against the scholar preacher that the preacher as warrior speaks in the polemic within Islam.

In 1977, when you went to Egypt, specialists in Middle East Studies generally saw your interest in local Islamic preachers as eccentric. Only two years later, everybody was fascinated with Islamic clerics. What changed?

Most American and European Islamic specialists had a view—some still have a view—of Islamic civilization as having enjoyed a golden age, having prospered and produced great works of theology and literature in the medieval period, and then having declined. With the rise of the Ottoman empire, the great Islamic language became Turkish—not Persian and Arabic.

Before I went to the field I was reading all these books on Middle Eastern anthropology, history, and politics. At that time, most specialists in the field regarded preaching as formalistic, shallow, irrelevant behavior that happens in mosques—and of course, serious, politically strong people only go to mosques when they have to. People with political power instrumentalize religion; they use religious people to support their policies, or they suppress them when they don't support their policies. From this scholarly perspective, religious people were not seen as actors in political terms. Preaching didn't have to do with real life or real political interests or real social values.

So scholars who wanted to know what Islam is like, who wanted to understand what's going on in the Islamic world, didn't go to mosques. Preachers, in their mind, were just babbling things that the government told them to say or reciting old formulas—called sermons—based on medieval books. In short, the prevailing opinion was that preaching wasn't really worth studying.

Well, when I got back to Egypt in 1979, the big thing that had changed people's minds was the Islamic revolution in Iran—the overthrowing in December of 1978 of Mohammad Shah Pahlavi, whom the United States brought into power in 1952, and Ayatollah Khomeini's arrival in Tehran (he'd been in France) in February of 1979. This stunned the American public, especially the defense establishment, because the United States had enormous investments, both political and military, in Iran. There had been tens of thousands of American personnel, many of them military, in Iran, which was the most important American ally in the Islamic world. And to have the Shah overthrown, overnight, was very shocking.

And the revolution in Iran demonstrated the power of preaching?

Yes, very much so. Khomeini had brought his ideological cause to the populace largely through preaching. While he was in exile, first in Iraq and then later in France, his recorded messages had been brought back to Iran. Through his tape-recorded sermons he had created a groundswell of ideological excitement that contributed to people's willingness to face conflict, to march in the streets when they were being challenged by soldiers. A new enthusiasm that became intensely political had its origins in preaching. Khomeini had been in exile for years before the revolution happened; he wasn't present as a leader, but his words were in the air.

So part of the influence of Islamic sermons lies in their function as propaganda?

That's right. Before the revolution in Iran, most Middle East specialists had ignored popular movements and focused their attention on state-centered factors, on armies and poitical leaders. When someone asked in 1975, What's going on in __? (fill in the blank with a Middle Eastern country), the answer, typically, from an American observer would be about the government. What's going on in Egypt? Well, Sadat said this. A lot of other things going on in these countries were invisible to international observers, who were focusing almost exclusively on the state and politics narrowly construed. The revolution in Iran, and then the assassination of Sadat in October of 1981, upset those assumptions.

Suddenly it became very clear that there was a widespread dissatisfaction throughout the Islamic world with conventional, state-sponsored solutions. For a long time people had been asking, "How can we develop our country better?" or "How can we get rid of corruption?" or "How can we have more opportunity for our children to have better jobs?" And the conventional answers were, well, you need socialism or better education or heavy industry. With the failure of these solutions, a movement grew up arguing that religion offered the answers to chronic economic and political and social problems. By the mid-1970s this movement had begun to enter the political forum in the Middle Eastern countries. And many leaders of these countries began to respond to it. One response was to try to manipulate it.

This was done in Egypt, where Sadat attempted to encourage these Islamic movements because he saw them as countering socialist or communist movements. He began to give the Islamists the right to march in public, the right to publish books; he began to coordinate political activity with their leaders. But the movement got out of hand. And when Sadat tried to suppress it, others said, Well, you can't tell them to shut up, they speak for Islam. Ultimately this led to his assassination in 1981. A similar thing happened in Syria and other places, notably Algeria. The Islamic revival became a political movement and started threatening the security of those states. And of course, the United States began to worry, too, because U.S. policy centers on relations with state actors that are American allies, like Iran before the revolution.

That's why many of the post-September 11 reflections are really quite old now for those who have been following developments in the Middle East and elsewhere. I was shocked but not surprised by what happened. I didn't expect it; I don't want to imagine such things can ever happen. But they've happened in many other places, including Israel, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. And so that they happened in America, too, is shocking but not at all out of character with what's been going on for many years now in many parts of the world.

How do Islamic preachers compare to Christian preachers in America?

Islamic preaching in its historical evolution is different from Christian preaching in one major aspect. Islamic preaching was defined classically as being the voice not only of the prophet but of the legitimate political establishment. So an Islamic preacher, in the classic sense, is really preaching in the name of the government as well as in the name of God, because God and the government in Islamic political theory have the same source.

In modern times the establishment of a secular nation state created a dilemma. If a leader of a state is not recognized as legitimate in religious terms, then the preacher has to ask himself, Am I preaching in the name of the state and of God as understood in Islamic terms? Or am I preaching only on behalf of God or the state? That becomes a problem.

In the Islamic world, some mosques are, in fact, state institutions: They're funded by the state; the mosque preacher is appointed and salaried by the state. Other mosque preachers refuse to accept government instruction. They preach in mosques that are independent of the government, where they see themselves as preaching in the name of the tradition, in the name of Islam, and therefore they may or may not approve of what the government says, depending on Islamic teaching.

Are there also differences related to job description?

In the Christian tradition, the preacher is not only the one who proclaims the Word but also the one responsible for the care of souls. Pastoral care and preaching are closely integrated, and the sermon is a vehicle for both of these. Christian congregations, for the most part, are self-selecting, volunteeristic communities.

In the Islamic world it works differently. Mosques don't normally have congregations of the sort that represents a fixed community. Muslims will tell you that the obligation to attend the Friday ritual prayer is the occasion for hearing a sermon. They'll tell you, I have to go to pray in a mosque, but it doesn't matter which one I go to. And it doesn't really matter who is preaching; any preacher fulfills my obligation.

There are many reasons for this. In the cities, any sense of a close connection between a preacher and his congregation is often undermined by the bureaucratic reality that preachers are assigned to mosques by the government. In the village mosques, which the government largely ignores, they are likely to have a local man who is poorly trained, whose full-time job is something else altogether. His preaching may consist of nothing more than a recitation of certain pious poetry. And he may in effect say a version of the same thing every Friday. But here again there is little to encourage a strong sense of personal connection between preacher and congregation.

Having said that, however, it's important to add that in the last 20 years of Islamic revival, preachers have emerged who have a strong appeal to local congregations. These preachers have become the magnets around whom communities of committed believers gather.

Is this new dynamic introducing an element of pastoral care in the relationship between the congregants and the preachers?

I still wouldn't call it pastoral care in the Christian sense because that implies spiritual direction. The Islamist movement has more to do with political and social indoctrination than spiritual training. You would find spiritual training most present in the Sufi tradition, in which the preacher functions as a saint or a holy man. But the Sufis are much less political, and the Islamic revival we've been describing is very hostile to the Sufi tradition.

And again, the worshipping community is defined differently in Islam. For instance, you'd never find lists of members in mosques as you do routinely for Christian churches. The size of a congregation depends on how many people come to pray. The individual Muslim's sense of affiliation with a specific congregation is very informal.

In a village or a neighborhood, people tend to pray together, and they feel a responsibility to one another as neighbors, as members of the community. So an informal sense of belonging emerges—especially in a village, where people not only go to the same mosque but also go to the same market and to each other's weddings. But that's not really a mosque congregation, that's a social community of which the mosque is simply one part.

Let's talk about the Islamic sermon. What is its function and what values does it promote?

The classic sermon is fairly short, probably eight to ten minutes, and it's highly formulaic. It starts with an introduction, which is really a sort of prayer. The sermon proper is based on a theme that is introduced with a reference to a Qur'anic text, after which the preacher proceeds to interpret that text, in language that is quite abstract and moralistic. Typically the sermon also includes references both to other Qur'anic texts that shed light on the central text and to sayings not found in the Qur'an but traditionally attributed to the Prophet, called hadith. The preacher will often refer to events in Islamic history, and he may work in anecdotes of Islamic sages as well.

The second part of the sermon is much shorter and traditionally more practical. In Christian terms it has some of the functions of the announcements that the pastor gives each Sunday sometime before the sermon. One of the features of that second part of the sermon, classically, was that the preacher was to cite, by name, the legitimate ruler under whose authority he preaches. Thus, in the Islamic tradition, that second part of the sermon turned out to be very important, because the preacher was really authenticating or authorizing the leader. If the preacher wanted to condemn the leader, or offer a milder correction, he had a perfect venue for doing so—but his criticism would be expressed indirectly, by allusion and implication.

The very end of the sermon is a kind of litany in which the preacher calls on God for forgiveness and the congregation joins in response. The call to prayer immediately follows the end of the sermon.

Is it fair to say that the sermon is primarily exegesis, with little application?

Well, the application is by allegory. To the educated listener, the application will often be clear from the theme selected and the way the examples from the tradition are chosen and explained. For the most part, Islamic sermons avoid what Christians would see as direct application. In that sense they leave more to be understood.

What are some of the blind spots in our conventional understanding of Islam?

I don't think it's widely understood that Muslims worship the same God that Christians and Jews worship. Allah in the Islamic tradition is the same spiritual being as Yahweh, the Lord. Muslims worship the God of Abraham. And Muhammad understood his calling as a prophet to be in full continuity with the God of Abraham.

Now of course Muhammad claimed to be directly inspired by God. In fact, Muslims claim—and this is an important doctrinal point for them—that Muhammad was illiterate, so that even if by some historical accident the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament had fallen into his hands, he couldn't have read them. A number of scholars suggest that there is a lot of evidence in the Qur'an that Muhammad knew these texts. Muslims strongly reject this view and insist that the Qur'an is the inspired word of God.

In any case, for Christians and Jews the encounter with Islam is an encounter with a sibling. And while the history of that encounter has often been marked by bitter hostility, there have also been places and times where Christians, Muslims, and Jews worked together in relative harmony. Islamic Spain in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries saw all kinds of interesting thinkers engaged in the great medieval intellectual synthesis. And there are a few other examples—twelfth-century Baghdad, for instance. Now there are lots of jagged edges to these stories, but we haven't given them sufficient attention. We tend to focus on confrontation rather than cooperation.

What would you say to Christians for whom Jesus himself will be the great stumbling block to embracing Muslims as siblings?

Great question. I was giving you the public relations answer. Jesus is a stumbling block, and genuine Muslim-Christian dialogue is difficult. Jesus is central for us as Christians in a way that Muslims simply cannot accept. They have their own Jesus, but it's a Jesus we hardly recognize.

You may know the work of the late Kenneth Cragg, the longtime Anglican bishop in Cairo, who wrote a good deal along these lines. Others like him include the great French scholar Louis Massignon and the late George Anawati, a Dominican priest who devoted his life to Islamic thought. What they propose is a platform of co-operation that will require deep thoughfulness on the part of both Christians and Muslims—and not papering over, you might say, the roots of our specific traditions.

Agnieszka Tennant is an associate editor of Christianity Today magazine.

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