A Critical Analysis of Religious Discourse Today: Rescuing Our Youth

Translated by Muhammad Jaffer and edited by Sayyid Burair Abbas

Religious adherents of Islām today struggle to maintain a strong sense of traditionalism while living amidst an ever-evolving modernity that may challenge their values. Unfortunately, religious discourse in the current era has arguably seen a decline in popularity, as evidenced by the new generation’s dwindling attendance of traditional majālis gatherings and lectures in the mosque.

The following is a translation of two crucial questions from Shaykh Ḥaydar Ḥubbullāh’s work “Al-Iḍā’āt fī al-Fikr wa al-Dīn wa al-Ijtimā’” (Illuminations: On Thought, Religion, and Society) analyzing the causes for this religious climate and the ways in which it may be remedied.[1] We hope that the reader will find the analysis that the Shaykh offers very poignant and salient.

The Reasons Underlying the Decline of Participation in Religious Lessons and Majālis[2]

Q: I have noticed that after the public has already acquired a significant amount of religious knowledge and instruction, a sense of aversion and indifference has begun to plague their attendance of majālis and religious lessons. What is the cause of this phenomenon?

A: If the intent of the question here is this phenomenon in general, then it should be said that this is quite a natural occurrence. The receptivity towards religious instruction and didactics varies in accordance with the social circumstances; for instance, in the era of 1970-1980, Islāmic expansionism played a major role in drawing audiences towards mosques, religious gatherings, and religious seminaries in an altogether unprecedented manner. It was only natural then to witness an ebb in the tide of receptivity to religious teachings once this wave of religious expansionism finally settled. Therefore, there is no need for us to torment ourselves with this conception that the current climate will persist; rather, there is a natural oscillation to its waves. This also varies from city to city, where you’ll find that many of the Gulf countries for example continue to have a large audience during religious commemorations while other countries might not enjoy such a significant conscientiousness towards the creed. In the Islāmic world in general, we may similarly observe that the reception for religious discourse continues to be relatively higher compared to other parts of the world.

Nonetheless, there is a network of factors that accounts for the relative decline in religious reception, and I would like to point out some of these elements upon which it is necessary for us to endeavor towards their correction:

A. The phenomenon of redundancy in the religious content offered in jumu’ah khuṭbahs, pulpits, gatherings and conversations in the mosque, and religious television programs.

B. The weakness and lack of intellectual ability among those who take the pedestal to deliver high-quality religious discourse.

These two factors, namely banality and intellectual mediocrity are the two major plagues affecting the general religious atmosphere; unfortunately, it has become quite commonplace that feeble means are employed to convey religious teachings to the people.

In my book “Fiqh al-Amr bi al-Ma’rūf wa Nahy ‘an al-Munkar” (The Jurisprudence of Enjoining Good and Forbidding Evil), I mentioned the observation that some religious speakers and muballighs suffer from a pitiful lack of intellectualism in their discourse to the extent that even the truly prodigious and hard-working ‘ulamā are maligned by association. These speakers and muballighs don’t possess save a trifle of religious knowledge that they unceasingly parrot in an unproductive manner; it is therefore necessary to create training seminars and comprehensive instruction programs that can evolve the level of religious discourse in this vein. Indeed, perpetuation of this intellectually decrepit atmosphere will give way to a superficial religious tradition based on mere superstition and fallacious thinking; in turn, others will be enabled to achieve ascendancy in the narrative about Islām and we shall witness our youth gradually gravitating towards these more effective and contemporarily relevant currents of thought.

C. Many religious presenters and interlocutors are blissfully unaware to the contemporary issues of the youth.

Rather further: even if these muballighs are aware, they do not desist from presenting cliched and unconvincing answers; therefore, you find a youth who raises a philosophical objection and is answered with a ṣaḥīḥ riwāyah instead! You find that someone who raises an epistemological objection about the Qur’ān and contrived obstruse answers are presented that would only make sense to someone who accepts the very epistemic presumptions in question![3] It is very difficult to find personalities that honestly endeavor to address the questions of the youth; although such personalities may exist, their numbers are unfortunately entirely disproportionate to how direly our communities need them. Furthermore, it is not possible for such a limited group of activists to cover all the intellectual consternations plaguing the youth today. Many of these issues are extremely complicated and require several days to even formulate a single well-rationalized and unbiased response.

D. Many religious activists and muballighs have no cognizance of systemizing priorities.

There is a dearth of comprehension about the exigencies of this era and what is salient to narrate or investigate. Therefore, you find religious interlocutors occupy the public consciousness with excessively detailed and technical minutiae, inundating them with secondary issues (al-furū’) that are far removed from the precepts of prime importance (al-uṣūl).  The rendering of particularities as though they are core elements of unquestionable belief and their subsequent aggrandization in the religious sphere is due to narrow-mindedness on the one hand and a lack of prioritization on the other. Unfortunately, this has led a sizeable number of youths feeling as though the religious sphere is unoriginal and futile, as though it only caters to platitudinous historical and polemical issues. Therefore, instead of attending lectures and khuṭbahs that only narrate what transpired in bygones past without regard for contemporary relevance, they instead pursue projects that seek to reform the current social climate. It is in this vein that we observe some television programs—enacted by religiously conscious Sunnī media personalities and activists—have enjoyed a monumental reception and successfully reared thousands of youths over the past two decades. Even though these programs may lack intellectual depth, they tackle contemporary issues with a principled religious demeanor that has sometimes superseded the influence of even the greatest religious authorities and institutions in the Muslim world. I do not desire to mention names here, but these are major personalities from whom it behooves us to examine and study to extract a more salient mode of religious discourse.

Some religious scholars and muballighs have not yet come to deeply appreciate how dramatically the number of learned individuals has expanded in the Muslim world. During the last fifty years, the population has increased exponentially while the information explosion era has completely revolutionized the game; naturally, this has had significant practical and epistemological consequences. Dr. Mohammed Arkoun famously stated in one of his publications that the rapid global population growth coupled with the Information Revolution has allowed Islāmic knowledge to spread to remote rural areas whereas it had been limited to a privileged few in years prior. Within merely a few decades after this statement of Dr. Arkoun,[4] we are witnessing a major competition between competing strains of thought to seize the public eye. The power dynamic has been completely overturned: your opponent now has access to the same audience that you do; rather, he may not only seize your entourage but can even change their mode of thought entirely. Just consider for a moment how television broadcasts, serials, and music/art programs have created a new social atmosphere that has influenced even the most staunchly religious folks.

E. The transformation of many religious programs and didactics into a profession rather than an embodiment of religious activism and conscientiousness.

The professionalization of being a muballigh—although not necessarily problematic in itself—has had an unfortunate repercussion: the interlocutor is disenfranchised from making decisions on his own about what material to cover. We find today that the speaker must instead yield to what such-and-such country or religious institution/mosque dictates he should say to secure a living for himself and his family.

It is necessary for this profession not to fall into the hands of political powers, such that the affairs of religious guidance lose their independent significance in the social sphere. Islāmic countries and movements must pay special attention to this issue so as to not render the religious clergy stagnant mouthpieces of a political leader or faction. We are not against religious scholars joining a specific humanitarian or political group per se; we only condemn their disenfranchisement from taking an independent stance against evil simply because of perceived occupational besiegement. This besiegement, wrought by an unhealthy relationship with a government or institution, will in turn transform the muballigh into a biased party incapable of serving in any objective capacity outside of his political affiliation or professional duty. Consequently, people assume that the muballigh states only what is dictated to him and not what ought to be said.

F. The occurrence of deconstructive competition between members of the religious clergy and muballighs.

Of course, competition in a positive context is not a problem, however we observe that some have adopted a negative outlook to the extent that it has led to personal conflicts that become scandalous among the laity.  In turn, there is further disintegration in the overall perception of the religious institution and it loses its social significance  as an ethic and spiritual locus. As such, we advocate for the revival of ethics within our psychology and not contenting oneself with the status quo in the merely jurisprudential (fiqhī) issues of today.

G. The sequestration of religious discourse for securing political interests.

It is the right of a religious scholar to have a political role and being a scholar should not disqualify him from his social rights of political activism and freedom of expression. We therefore oppose the voices that renege this right, even though we do agree with them that serious reform is in order regarding the political and social presence of the clergy. Social and political presence should not completely eclipse the religious and moral prerogative of a scholar. Unfortunately, we witness this trend in certain circles where some are primarily politicians in religious garb rather than being clergymen who are politically aware and conscientious. It is quite usual for those who live in such positions of power to gain some adherents while losing others; people often cannot differentiate between politics and religion and may feel that the religious scholar or initiative has become a political project more than one imbued by a spiritual or ethical prerogative. As a consequence, in lieu of our shortcomings, many end up seeking out sociological and psychological schools of thought that ostensibly meet their spiritual and motivational needs (consider the influence of the law of attraction and the writings of Stephen Covey in the Islāmic world for example).

H. The appearance of aggressive and combative religious discourse.

This style of address does attract some Muslim youth in the wake of widespread depression, the failure of political reform in the Arab world, worsening unemployment and poverty, pessimism in major urban cities, suppression of liberties, the failure in securing Palestinian rights, etc. However, this discourse also alienates swaths of youths as well, not allowing them the space to critique and truly express their perspectives. Indeed, this has emerged as a major sociological crisis among the Muslim youth because these youngsters require someone who is genuinely sympathetic towards them, understands their situation, appreciates their suffering, and can drive them towards self-confidence. If we constantly utilize an aggressive style that merely emphasizes responsibilities, restrictions, and injunctions, these youth will recoil from us just as they recoil from other perceived causes of fear and anguish. This style of repression, censorship, and admonishment employed by some of the clergy is over-defensive and resists any form of critique; in turn this leads to youths fleeing from our atmosphere to other atmospheres that are relatively more permissive, respectful to their viewpoints, and tolerant of criticism. We observe that yet still, some religious interlocutors reprimand the youth for their questions and even castigate them for raising critical objections. When you practice this style of dialogue with a teenager, his apprehension will persist even after he matures past his adolescence; while he may outwardly demonstrate deference, he will seethe in animosity against the religious institution on the inside. Indeed, it is paramount to pay heed as to how we communicate with the nascent generation that will soon take the future of our society by the horns.

In this context, presenting Islām as though it consists only of aggression, compulsion, and dogma will cause general apprehension against the religion even if some may be attracted to such Islamist tactics wrought out by certain extremist groups – an Islām that seemingly possesses nothing but violence, suppression, hostility, and savagery. I do not want to expound on this discussion here, however it should be said that liberalist and secular movements in the Arab world today are elated and delighted by the current state of Islāmic activism. I have recently read an article by one of the figureheads of Arab liberalism ‘Alī Ḥarb where he excitedly proclaims in rebuke: “We had already told everyone that this traditional, historical, and jurisprudential Islām along with its Sharī’ah will lead to the sorry state that we are in today.” He stubbornly insists that there is no moderate Islām and emphasizes that the true face of the religion—if we seek to apply it in the modern-day context—is exactly what we are witnessing in Iraq and Syria. Since the acknowledgment of moderate Islām presents an alternative amidst liberalist and secularist ideologies in the Arab world, this author seeks to invalidate it and legitimize fundamentalist Islām given the utter social failure of the latter.

Perhaps I will be able to speak on another occasion about liberalism in the Islāmic context and to critique this statement of ‘Alī Ḥarb (although there are admittedly some elements of truth in it). The opportunity to do so does not present itself now, however I only seek to state here that had it not been for the gridlock of sectarian strife, I believe we could well witness a resurgence in the tide of Islāmic expansionism.

By paying careful attention to these issues and attempting to reforming them, perhaps we may stand a chance at increasing the general reception of religious teachings in our countries; there is certainly more that could be said, but we will suffice here.

Effective Religious Discourse for the Academic Youth of Today[5]

Q: In your respectful opinion, what is the appropriate and effective form of religious dialogue for the well-educated youth of Iraq, especially amidst the globalized diffusion of cultural and religious knowledge in the world today?

A: I believe that it is necessary for us to address the youth of today in our religious dialogue on several frontiers, some of which I will summarize as below:

1. Shedding light on rights more than responsibilities in order to assure the younger generation that they will find their rights in the shade of religious values, after which they will naturally feel an impetus  towards fulfilling their responsibilities. If we instead focus on obligations and neglect rights, we will create a psychological barrier that may lead them to think they will only find the securing of their rights in Western thought.

2. Disseminating a spirit of tolerance, forgiveness, assuming the best of others, and avoiding excessive haste in supporting or rebutting alternative viewpoints.

3. Relying upon a peaceful style of dialogue and eschewing hostility as much as possible in our discourse.

4. Granting the youth real opportunities to ask questions, raise objections, and critique without being cavalier, suppressive, or aggressive against them. This is crucial especially when we are unable to answer their inquiries, for the usual strategy we resort to  today seems to be scare tactics when we are unable to adequately convince them.

5. Honest admission about our elements of weakness and deficiency in a manner that portrays our open-mindedness without deprecating the value of our discourse. Indeed, this will allow for our  religious dialogue to enjoy a greater degree of impartiality and our statements will become more believable to others. By mentioning the points of strength of our opposition and admitting our own points of weakness, we effectively portray that we are not afraid of these realities. In turn, others will not suspect us of lying in favor of spurious ideological interests.

6. Endeavoring to eliminate every form of extremism and sectarianism that nourishes itself on historical rancor and the resurrection of dormant tensions. It is important to establish a culture of communication and dialogue in place of alienation and reactionism.

7. Creating a conscientiousness among the youth in advancing the interests of their nations and communities instead of engrossing themselves in historical insularism.

8. It is important to utilize history as a tool to construct our present and our future (as an example, religious ceremonies may be transformed into opportunities for social activism rather than being simply insular gatherings).

9. Attempting to lessen the stronghold of redundant topics that aim to keep us in the quagmires of the past. Instead, we may replace these with salient contemporary topics such as understanding the importance of knowledge, self-advancement, tolerance for others, time management, cleanliness, social etiquette, work and social participation, legal issues, love, social rights, aesthetics, the psychology of optimism, combat and self-defense, and reflecting on illustrious historical exemplars. Similarly, it is necessary to disseminate religious texts that strengthen such themes within our lives in both the public and private spheres.

10. Presenting religion as a preserver of social well-being, moral rigor, and integrity in our society. We should not allow any intrinsic or extrinsic elements to direct the narrative instead of us and portray our religion as though it goes against national interests or disintegrates the social infrastructure on a cultural, religious, or linguistic level.

11. Investing more towards building social institutions and civil organizations that endorse religious values; one may consider for example schools, universities, institutes, orphanages, and humanitarian organizations. Instead of getting involved in environments that flout religious values, the youth will therefore be able to take recourse to these religious institutions and build their future amid their cradles. In this context, we call towards participation in religious commemorations, for even if they may be ritualistic, they will establish a deeper connection with the religious tradition and render resilience against the disintegration of one’s identity.

12. Presenting religion as a solution for the psychological and spiritual crises in which our youth find themselves, especially in this age of materialism in which we live. The crystallization of a religious discourse that addresses these issues seriously will allow our dialogue to become more spiritually influential and effective.

Finally, it should be said that since the 1950s we have witnessed three separate stages among the youth:

i. The stage of welcoming religious discourse

ii. The stage of ignoring religion

iii. The stage of combating and opposing religion

It is necessary for us to adopt a discourse that dismantles the opposition against religion that some youths possess such that we are firstly able to bring them back to the second stage of ignoring religion. Then we may focus on dismantling the neglect of religion so that we may advance them towards the stage of accepting religion. This should all be accomplished through maintaining our religious principles and allowing our actions to speak louder than our words in influencing our youth and society. As is stated in the ṣaḥīḥ narration from Abu Usāmah:

قال: سمعت أبا عبد الله عليه السلام يقول: (عليك بتقوى الله والورع والاجتهاد وصدق الحديث وأداء الأمانة وحسن الخلق وحسن الجوار، وكونوا دعاةً إلى أنفسكم بغير ألسنتكم، وكونوا زيناً ولا تكونوا شيناً، وعليكم بطول الركوع والسجود، فإنّ أحدكم إذا طال الركوع والسجود هتف إبليس من خلفه وقال: يا ويله أطاع وعصيت وسجد وأبيت

He said: “I heard Abū ‘Abdillāh say: “Observe God-consciousness, piety, striving in His way, honesty, trustworthiness, moral integrity, and neighborliness; call others towards your example without using your tongues. Be adornments [for us] and do not be a disgrace [to us]. Lengthen your genuflections and prostrations, for when any of you lengthens them the Devil shrieks from behind him, “Woe be to me! He has obeyed while I disobeyed, and he has prostrated while I refused!”””[6]

Similarly we find a ṣaḥīh narration of ibn Abī Ya’fūr as follows:

قال: قال أبو عبد الله عليه السلام: (كونوا دعاةً للناس بغير ألسنتكم، ليروا منكم الورع والاجتهاد والصلاة والخير، فإنّ ذلك داعية)

He said: “Abū ‘Abdillāh said: “Be summoners for the people [to righteousness]  without using your tongues; let them behold from you piety, striving in God’s way, prayers, and good deeds. Indeed, such is the true missionary.”[7]


[1] This book is a 5-volume encyclopedia of relevant religious questions and answers that the esteemed Shaykh compiled and published in Arabic.

[2] Please see volume 4 page 447 for the original Arabic excerpt. The question can also be found on Shaykh Ḥubbullāh’s website here: https://tinyurl.com/ym8rfz59

[3] In logic, this is termed a tautological or circular reasoning (i.e. you try to convince someone of something that is already granted); it is considered a major logical fallacy.

[4] He reportedly stated this in the late 1980s, therefore it would now be around three decades since.

[5] Please see volume 2 page 270 for the original Arabic excerpt. The question and answer can also be found here: https://tinyurl.com/3n6udhm2

[6] Al-Kāfī volume 2 page 77 and al-Maḥāsin volume 1 page 18

[7] Al-Kāfī volume 2 pages 78 and 105