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The Revolution Within: Islamic Televangelists and the Politics of Ethics in Egypt

Yasmin Moll
Anthropology, New York University

On the eve of the first anniversary of the January 25th revolution, I queued with hundreds of other Egyptians to attend a seminar on "The Revolution: Past, Present and Future" at Al-Sawy Cultural Wheel in Cairo. People chatted excitedly about the advertised speakers as they waited in the long line: three newly-elected parliamentary representatives, a few Tahrir activists, a political talk-show host, a poet, a musician, a film star, a Christian priest, and the Islamic da'iya (caller, activist) Moez Masoud. A young woman standing in front of me holds a copy of a news-sheet advertising the event, and tries to guess the order of the speakers. "I came just to see Moez," she tells the woman on her left, who is now also peering anxiously at the news-sheet. "I hope he speaks first."

Masoud doesn't speak first, but when he finally appears on the stage there is much applause and whistling. "I love this revolution," he begins. "I am thankful for this revolution, but I want to thank God foremost because He made it possible." Masoud talks for twenty minutes about many things: Coptic-Muslim relations, Qur'anic precepts of love and justice, state media attempts to tarnish the image of the revolutionaries, military violence against peaceful protestors and the need for a speedy transfer to civilian rule. He tells the crowd that the first anniversary of revolution is an occasion to "revive the revolution within ourselves" (i'aadit ihyaa' al-thawra guwaana). He ends this way: "Say it whichever way you want: Down, down with military rule!" The audience immediately picks up the chant, almost drowning out Cairo's noisy street traffic.

Most commentators on the recent parliamentary elections in Egypt have framed the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand, and increasingly politicized Salafi religious actors on the other , as metonyms for the projected role of Islam in a (post)revolutionary public sphere. However, the religious discourse put forward by al-duah al-gudud—as the three Islamic televangelists Moez Masoud, Amr Khaled, and Mustafa Hosni are known in Arabic—is also refashioning politics and the practices of citizenship. Indeed, for the millions of Egyptian youth who choose to watch their programs, follow them on Facebook and Twitter, attend their gatherings, and make sense of their teachings within their everyday lives, these Islamic televangelists are providing a compelling religo-ethical framework for how to build a "New Egypt" in increasingly uncertain times.

New Media, New Dawa

Al-duah al-gudud, or "the new preachers," are arguably the most well-known Islamic public figures today in Egypt and beyond. Together, they represent a novel style of dawa (calling Muslims to greater piety) that has been called "Islamic televangelism" in English.1 Islamic preachers have appeared on television since its introduction into Egypt in the 1960s; indeed re-runs of the televised Friday sermons of Sheikh Shaarawi continue to enjoy widespread popularity. There are two traits, however, that distinguish the televisual dawa of the new preachers from the standard Islamic fare on state television under Mubarak's regime. First, the advent of Islamic televangelists like Amr Khaled marked the first time that the very fact of being on television, the materiality of the medium itself with all its technological capabilities, was made an integral part of the performance. The glitzy studio, the lighting, the panning between the televangelist and his rapt addressees, the music montage introducing the show, the computer-generated title images—these elements were as integral to the homiletic message as the Qur'anic parables and prophetic stories retold on the show.

Second, even more novel was the format of the religious program—it consciously located itself halfway between an American televangelist show and an American therapeutic talk-show, inviting participation from a live studio audience and viewers at home through call-ins. While continuing to draw upon traditional forms of performances—such as story-telling about the Prophet's time, as well as exhortatory and exegetical modes of address—these narrative modes where combined with the confessional modes of storytelling that animate the secular human dramas of daytime talk-shows.

A particularly illustrative example is Amr Khaled's first program Kalam min al-Qalb (Words from the Heart). This show, which aired on satellite television in 2001 after initially coming out on video, defined Islamic televangelism for a whole generation of Muslim viewers. Words from the Heart featured former actresses as well as ordinary people who have realized the error of their past ways and repented after various life-changing encounters with a Qur'anic message, a pious Muslim, or a personal crisis. As the title itself implies, this show can be construed as much as an avenue for self-expression as for religious education. Indeed, the two cannot be easily separated, with an important part of the persuasive apparatus of the televangelist's performance being not only a retelling of prophetic and Qur'anic stories, but also how these stories affect ordinary Muslims to change their lives for the better—that story then becomes part of the technologies of ethical self-improvement being presented.

Thus, Islamic televangelists are called "the new preachers" precisely because their performative modes and narrative styles were unprecedented within the Islamic piety movement in Egypt. These innovations have garnered Islamic televangelists much media attention in Western countries. But while this international media coverage has largely been supportive and welcoming of the "sheikhs-in-suits" and their perceived project of "reconciling" Islam with modernity,2 the reception of the new preachers has been fraught with controversy within Egypt itself. Indeed, their legitimacy to speak on Islam is contested by the Egyptian state (under Mubarak's regime), Al-Azhar, secular intellectuals, ordinary Muslims as well as other media preachers. These contestations revolve around larger debates about what constitutes legitimate religious authority and knowledge, and who is properly qualified to partake in both.

"Just Like Us"

Prior to the revolution the Islamic televangelists Amr Khaled, Moez Masoud and Mustafa Hosni were characterized as offering Muslim youth a "post-Islamist" religious discourse that was apolitical, with one academic observer calling it as an "air-conditioned Islam" far from the everyday realities of the vast majority of Egyptians struggling with poverty, social injustice and political disenfranchisement.3 On a national level, political Islamists as well as secular intellectuals—both leery of what they saw as the "commodification" of religion and the celebrity status these popular religious figures enjoy among Muslim youth—also leveled this critique against the new preachers.4

This characterization of Islamic televangelism as a "passing trend" with little lasting significance was always tenuous, but it has become even harder to sustain in revolutionary Egypt. In fact, while the official religious establishment of Al-Azhar shied away from supporting protesters in Tahrir and elsewhere on the eve of the January 25th Revolution, many of Egypt's most prominent televangelists were vocal in their support of thawrat al-shabab (the youth revolution). In Mubarak's Egypt, these televangelists' credibility with their primarily youthful publics derived not from a mastery of the authoritative textual canon of the Islamic tradition a la Azharite scholars, but rather from their projected status as "ordinary Muslims" struggling to lead an Islamically-correct life in a world where it is manifestly difficult to do so. They had legitimacy not because they were different from the youth they preached to, but because they were, in a sense, just like them. This is a common refrain in the interviews I have conducted with viewers of Islamic televangelism; many of these viewers tell me they are attracted to the new preachers because they share similar backgrounds, lifestyles, sensibilities and concerns as them.

Islamic televangelists capitalized on this perceived affinity in the weeks leading up to the crumbling of Mubarak's regime to reach out and lend their support to revolutionary youth. Indeed, many Islamic televangelists were eager to publicize their physical presence in Tahrir Square (the main locus of the demonstrations in Cairo) alongside protestors, a presence which was amplified a thousand-fold through its mediation on a variety of platforms—interviews on news channels, appearances on talk-shows, videos on YouTube, Facebook posts and press conferences. For example, appearing on state television after the fall of Mubarak for the first time in his career, Amr Khaled told the program host that he had seen God in Tahrir. "I saw God in Tahrir," he said. "When you entered Tahrir Square you immediately noticed a different spirit. It is as if God was with all the people there—Muslim and Christian, young and old, men and women, the people and the army."

The Ethical Revolution

For Islamic televangelists, the January 25th Revolution is first and foremost an ethical revolution. They frame Tahrir Square as an exemplar of a "New Egypt": a utopian space where free expression, social equality, gender parity, religious harmony, and an overall sense of order and organization reigned for eighteen days. In the months following Mubarak's resignation, Islamic televangelists have made it their job to ensure that the "ethics of the Square" (akhlaaq al-midan) remain alive.

This continuing stress on individual ethics is not apolitical as critics of the new preachers have suggested. Rather, televangelist discourses about ethics carry with them certain assumptions not only about religion, but also about politics, citizenship, and national belonging that are reshaping the role of Islam in Egypt's public sphere. Ethics emerges here as a key site for constructing normative notions of citizenship and civic participation as essential to the constitution of the New Egypt. Within this discourse, the formation of a proper religious interiority becomes central to the project of national systemic reform.

Since the fall of Mubarak, televangelists in Egypt have subsumed the revolutionary ethics signified by Tahrir within a broader religious narrative of personal redemption. For example, Moez Masoud's first television show after the revolution—airing during Ramadan in 2011—is called "Thawra ala al-Nafs" (A Revolution Within). The premise of his show is that while Egyptians were successful in overthrowing a corrupt system (nizam fasid khareegi), what is needed now is a revolution to change min gowa (from the inside). For Masoud, such self-change is mandated by a correct reading of Islam as deen al-tahawul (a religion of transformation).

In the first episode, Masoud argues that ultimately Egyptians were not responsible for the success of the revolution. Rather, it was God who made them victorious over oppression, and that to live up to this divine intervention, they now need to focus on overcoming their base selves. As evidence, Masoud cites the Qur'anic verse (13:11) "God does not change the condition of a people until they change it themselves." This self-revolution focuses on cultivating certain khuluq (ethical dispositions) among Muslim Egyptians as a way of fulfilling the promises of January 25th. For the televangelists these ethics spring from a specifically Islamic referent, with the Prophet Muhammed and his Companions hailed as timeless moral exemplars. At the same time, being a good Muslim subject for televangelists goes beyond fulfilling the ritual obligations of the faith to encompass being a good citizen.

Crucially, the cultivation of this ethical disposition is tied to notions of what constitutes sincere inner belief and how to evaluate it. As Amr Khaled put it in an interview: "If you have faith in your heart but no ethics, that means your faith is not stable; faith without ethics is not real faith."5 This understanding of "real faith" as ethical in nature was echoed in my conversations and interviews with followers of the new preachers, who would frequently cite the Prophetic saying "inama bu'uthit li-atamuma makaram al-akhlaq" (I have only been sent to perfect noble ethics) as evidence. Mona, a freshman at the American University in Cairo who regularly attends televangelical seminars, put it to me this way:

"Ethics are paramount. You can find someone who prays all night but then gossips all day about her neighbor. What do her prayers mean then? Also, women who wear the scarf but are not religious give Islam a bad name. Women who do not wear the veil but have good ethics are better than them. I see religion as really tied to ethics."

Followers of the new preachers among my interlocutors place great emphasis on "religion as ethics" (el-din akhlaaq). This emphasis distinguishes them, in their view, from followers of the Salafi trend that they say privileges ibada (ritual worship) over sulooq (ethical conduct). In their view, Salafis elide the constitutive relationship between ritual worship and ethical conduct, an elision that calls into question the sincerity (and socio-political utility) of Salafi faith.

One of my interlocutors, Hania, shows how this is so. Hania grew up in Shubra, a working-class neighborhood where Salafi preachers like Mohamed Hasaan enjoy a near monopoly on religious authority. Like Mona, Hania sees Salafism as inexorably leading to what she called a "superficial religiosity" (taddayun sat-hi) where what matters most is that one appears to be devout, regardless of whether or not one's actual conduct is "truly" Islamic. For Hania, Salafism is a veritable obstacle to the ethical awakening necessary for national reform. As she put it:

"Mubarak's regime used the Salafis because they were serving their interests, although in a direct way because the Salafi shuyukh (leaders) bihabtoo min el-'azeema (destroy morale). They do this through saying 'forget this world, it is just temporary.' Yes it is but the Prophet said work for this world as if you will live forever and for the next, as if you will die tomorrow. The Salafis just depress youth. . .They do not give solutions for problems like the new preachers."

The new preachers also frame ritual-focused piety as potentially morally and politically dangerous. Since the revolution, they have characterized Egypt's difficult transitional period as an "azma akhlaaqia," or an ethical crisis. The solution, as Amr Khaled continually admonishes viewers on his post-revolutionary show "Bokra Ahla" (A Better Tomorrow), lies in correcting the ethics of the individual and harnessing such ethics for national reform. He argues that "faith for faith leads to extremism." Sincere faith, he contends, can be defined as faith in the service of "national development": "Faith that gives energy and hope to build in my opinion is the meaning of faith. But faith to pray, to wear the hijab, and to read the Quran, and then to come to a full stop, can lead after ten years to extremism."6

Amr Khaled has become tightly associated with the call to "build Egypt" (yalla nibny masr), building on his pre-revolutionary Life-makers initiative of "development through faith" (al-tanmiya bi al-iman). Within these and other initiatives launched by the new preachers, human and national development acquire their saliency within an ethical-religious frame. Televangelists call on youth to "build Egypt" as a way to reclaim a lost Islamic cultural ethos of social responsibility, personal initiative and productive efficiency. In his television program Tomorrow is Better, Amr Khaled frames the will to work as a religious obligation, continually admonishing his viewers: "Lazim nishtaghil (we have to work) . . .You have to produce something, so when you meet God, you can say that when my country needed me, I did something." Far from being new, this call articulates with the televangelical stress over the past decade on Muslim youth as agents of societal change (taghyeer igtimia'ii) and positive energy (taqaa mugeeba), characteristics enjoined, according to Islamic televangelists, by an Islam "correctly understood."

Such an understanding of Islam is by no means the only one in Egypt. Indeed, the new preachers have been attacked by their Salafi counterparts for allegedly prioritizing ethics over creed (aqeeda). For their part, Islamic televangelists counter that sound ethics spring from sound belief. In an interview before the revolution, I asked one of the new preachers for his thoughts on the label "multazim" (Islamically-committed, pious) often attached to the youth who follow him. He said that he actually doesn't like this label because it is divisive and judgmental. "It has become applied to outward appearances of religiosity, ignoring the inner dimension of ethics. The definition of multazim should be a person who loves God and tries," he said.

The sincerity of intentions highlighted here as key to being a "good Muslim" has become an important cornerstone of "akhlaaq al-thawra" (the ethics of the revolution) as articulated by Islamic televangelists. While the mode of dawa performed by these preachers is merely one element in Egypt's diverse religious media-scape, it is an influential one. And with millions of viewers, such mediated interventions will likely play an increasingly significant role in shaping the place of Islam in the Egyptian public sphere in the years to come.

Yasmin Moll is a PhD candidate in cultural anthropology at New York University. She conducted two years of ethnographic fieldwork among Islamic televangelists and their viewers in Egypt with funding from the Fulbright-Hays, SSRC, NSF and the Wenner-Gren Foundation. Her dissertation examines the intersections of new media technologies, visual culture, and religious belief and practice, asking what does it mean to "produce Islam" (both as a media form and in the broader social sense) in a transnational, neo-liberal context. Yasmin holds an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from SOAS and a BSc in International Politics from Georgetown University. Her other research interests include ethnographic film, directing in 2009 the short documentary "Fashioning Faith."

Notes

1I insist on calling al-duah al-gudud "televangelists" in English because I view televangelism as a performative mode that is taken up by diverse religious actors from within different religious traditions, including non-Christian ones. Indeed, Ahmed Abu-Haibah – who produced and directed Amr Khaled's first series and whose media production career took off with the success of this genre – was impressed by Christian televangelism, telling an interviewer that he "believ[ed] that if we did this with Islam it would be a new experience for Islam." Wise, Lindsay. 2004. "Amr Khaled: Broadcasting the Nahda" in Transnational Broadcasting Studies Journal, Fall 13.
2See for example Kovach, Bretel. 2002. "Moderate Muslim Voice Falls Silent: Charismatic Young Leader Leaves Egypt as His Popular Sermons Come under Government Scrutiny" Christian Science Monitor, 26 November; Shapiro, Samantha. 2006. "Ministering to the Upwardly Mobile Muslim" New York Times Magazine, April 30; Lindsey, Ursula. 2006. "The New Muslim TV: media-savvy, modern, and moderate" Christian Science Monitor, May 2; Sullivan, Keith. 2007. "Younger Muslims Tune in to Upbeat Religious Message" Washington Post, Dec. 2; Sachs, Susan. 2001. "Muslim Televangelist Delivers a Winning Message," New York Times, Dec. 24.
3Haenni, Partrick. 2006. L'Islam de Marche. Paris, Le Seuil.
4Wael Lutfi, Wael. 2005. Dhahirat al-Duah Al-Gudud, Cairo: Al-Ayn Publishing House.
5In Wasserman, Ingrid 2011. "We haven't moved yet" Al-Ahram Weekly Online, July 7-13
6Wasserman, Ingrid 2011.

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