- The state needs to reclaim it
What do Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Shafii, Imam Malik and Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal have in common? It’s well known that all of them were men of great learning: between them they founded the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence: each named after one of them. But there’s more: not one of them ever led a Friday prayer. Because the Friday prayer (along with the twice-yearly Eid prayer) features two sermons. Which brings the mosque pulpit into the equation – something that belongs to the state (or the government), and not to any scholar, however learned – not to mention the run-of-the-mill cleric.
It’s the duty of the Muslim state to provide infrastructure for and organise the Friday prayer. Moreover, it’s the representatives of the state (or government) that are required to lead it. This is different from the daily prayers (which can be held anywhere, and which anybody can lead) because of the sermons involved. It’s a historical fact that while Muslims were regularly performing prayers (including congregational prayers) from the very start of the Meccan era; it was only in Medina (after the establishment of the Muslim state) that the institution of the Friday prayer was inaugurated. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) led it in his capacity as the head of the state (and the head of the government). Very soon however, as the state’s frontiers expanded, it became impossible for all to reach the Prophet’s mosque, and many others got access to the pulpit. But they were all – to a man – representatives of the state. The mosque pulpit is meant to be a political platform, not a religious one. And it remained so, for a long time. After which many Muslim states progressively relinquished the pulpit in favour of a professional class of clerics. Until matters came to the point (in Pakistan, for instance) where anybody with a loud voice (or later, a loudspeaker) was permitted to say pretty much anything he wanted to say from the mosque pulpit, leaving the hapless congregations at the mercy of a wide variety of clerics.
The trouble with this arrangement came to the fore again recently (as it does every now and then) when the pulpit was used to incite religious sentiments in order to exhort the Friday prayer congregation to take to the streets against a Supreme Court ruling. The problem, however, is much more serious than ordinary encouragement to lawlessness. For anything heard from the mosque pulpit is unconsciously taken by many as some sort of a religious ruling that must be obeyed – and deserving of a guilty conscience in case it is not. There’s room for a lot of crazy propaganda right there. Much of the militancy and fundamentalism in the society can be traced back to this factor.
There’s no denying the importance of religious scholars: we need them as much as we need scholars in any other domain. As for professional clerics, whether the society would be better off without them is a rather lengthy debate for another day. It can be safely said however that whether seen in principle or in the historical perspective, the mosque pulpit doesn’t belong to clerics – and for very good reasons. Whatever these clerics do in their private capacities, they cannot be allowed to broadcast innumerable varieties of unregulated content from the platform of a mosque – of all places! For, it’s never a good idea to have the mosque pulpit completely out of the control of men who have been elected to manage the affairs of the state; and are therefore ultimately responsible for the results.
There’s no denying the importance of religious scholars: we need them as much as we need scholars in any other domain. As for professional clerics, whether the society would be better off without them is a rather lengthy debate for another day
Many enthusiastic Muslims might have a problem in the state reclaiming for itself the mosque pulpit. Most of them would probably nod in agreement if it is suggested that the state should do the same with the church pulpit. What’s good for the goose ought to be good for the gander. There’s another counterargument however that merits a little more discussion. Namely, a repressive state/government can misuse the state-controlled-mosque. That, at the very least, if state representatives lead the Friday prayers, their sermons would most probably reflect the leanings of the state/government. These concerns are very real. But an extensive network of ‘independent’ mosques poses a greater threat, in the presence of which no state can be expected to function properly. Indeed, the state can (often does) misuse its institutions, and its leanings are always reflected in their policies. So, while it’s a legitimate question, is it any less legitimate in other spheres of life? That is, don’t the views and inclinations of those in power get reflected in lawmaking and running of the state in general? Provided the leaders are elected democratically, this then would amount more to a criticism of democracy itself than to the state reclaiming for itself the mosque pulpit that it rather unwisely relinquished.