Muslim preachers take to TV

Imams rebranding lessons for modern audience

A new breed of media-savvy Muslim preachers is taking to the stage and beaming messages to millions across the Middle East on a series of dedicated pan-Arab TV shows and channels.

Such figures as Amr Khaled, Moez Masoud, Tareq Al-Sweidan, Jasem Al-Mutawee and Mostafa Hosni are rebranding lessons from the Quran in an easily digestible, contemporary fashion, replete with references to pop culture and garnering growing audiences as a result.

They’re appearing on dedicated Muslim lifestyle satcasters such as Al-Iqraa and Al-Resalah as well as crossing over into the mainstream with their own shows on channels such as the leading pan-Arab channel MBC and Egyptian satcaster Al-Mehwar.

They’re a far cry from the rote images of Muslim imams preaching fiery sermons from a mosque pulpit propagated by some media outlets or even the over-the-top shouters that can be seen communicating their religious views in the U.S.

The likes of Khaled, Masoud and Hosni are soft-spoken, clean-shaven and dressed in Western attire, and their audiences are often well-educated, middle-class Muslims from across the Arab world.

Just don’t call them televangelists.

“Televangelists in the States are all about making money in the name of Christianity,” says Masoud, who also shudders at being lumped in with the likes of Khaled and other Muslim presenters. “I like to think of myself as a Muslim thinker. My message is to reintroduce the concepts of orthodox, classical Islam with a deep understanding of its spiritual core and allow people to merge modern life with traditional teachings. It’s not an easy task.”

The 29-year-old Egyptian stands in marked contrast to the older Islamic preachers whose dry, stuffy shows have failed to connect with younger auds. For example, he liberally sprinkles his preaching with references to Iron Maiden, Pink Floyd and even Mr. Miyagi out of “The Karate Kid.”

He also sings.

One self-penned tune was No. 1 on the streets of Cairo last Ramadan. Another, written in the wake of the controversy over British schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons’ arrest in Sudan last year for allowing the class teddy bear to be named Mohammed, included the lyrics “Here comes the story of the world today, a world in which religion has learned to hate, a world in which justice has become cliche.”

Masoud’s popularity is growing, as is that of fellow Egyptians Hosni, also only 29, and Khaled, 40, who remains the biggest draw on the circuit.

Few of these figures have come through the traditional religious schools normally associated with Muslim scholars. Khaled, for example, graduated with a degree in accounting from Cairo U., Hosni undertook a degree in commerce, and Masoud studied economics at the American U. of Cairo.

That remains one source of criticism from religious scholars who argue that these TV personalities do not have the levels of learning needed to speak about religion. For others, however, that common touch is proving key to their popularity.

“We’re talking in a very easy language,” Hosni says. “Subjects I speak about concern how can we live a good life as a Muslim in the 21st century with all these changes in technology.”

“There’s a big difference between these guys and the real religious channels where you have the sheiks issuing fatwas,” says Hadeel Kamel, managing director of Arab Media Distribution, a subsidiary of Saudi paybox ART, which in 1993 launched religious channel Al-Iqraa, the first of its kind. “People like Amr Khaled are very charismatic. They’re delivering their message in a well-structured way with a specific target audience in mind. They’re targeting the masses and are very successful doing it.”

Some people in the region think they’re a little too successful at it. One of the accusations leveled against Khaled is that he has been responsible for the increase in young Egyptian women choosing to wear the hijab, an Islamic headdress. While there are many who would argue there is nothing wrong with that — the hair-covering hijab is an entirely different proposition to the face-covering niqab or burqa that Khaled is not in favor of — some have voiced discomfort with the level of influence these TV preachers have with young Muslims.

“It is a phenomenon, and they’re changing societies in the name of religion,” says one Arab TV exec who insists on anonymity. “In the name of God you can do what you want, including making a lot of money.”

What you can also make is a lot of headlines.

Khaled came to international prominence when he decided to organize a conference in Denmark in 2006 to foster East-West dialogue in the wake of controversy over the publication of Danish cartoons portraying the Prophet Mohammed. That move prompted a widely publicized rebuke from the 79-year-old Egyptian sheik Youssef Al-Qaradawi, a controversial cleric who regularly appears on a popular religious program for Al-Jazeera.

“Amr Khaled does not hold any qualifications to preach,” Al-Qaradawi said at the time. “He is a business school graduate who acquired what he knows from reading and who got his start by way of conversations with friends about things that do not really involve any particular thought or judgment.”

The spat only helped to underline Khaled’s difference from the older generation of Muslim figures.

It’s also worth noting that while Al-Qaradawi’s visit to the U.K. to take part in a 2004 conference hosted by London Mayor Ken Livingstone unleashed a storm of angry headlines from the British press — “The Evil Has Landed” and “It’s Time to Nick This Ranting Maniac” were just two choice examples — for his previous comments allegedly supporting suicide attacks, among other things, new-generation leaders like Khaled have so far avoided saying anything that could be deemed inflammatory.

“They are preaching a feel-good message which focuses on the individual rather than the collective,” says one former U.S. State Dept. official. “They are putting down a challenge to the established clergy, and from that point of view it’s a positive thing. But it also shows the dearth politically of what’s in the region right now. A lot of the people attracted to them would previously have been oriented towards a secular, liberal approach.”

Their appeal is also going global. Execs at Al-Iqraa, for example, have already launched Albanian and Thai services. Work is also under way on an English-language satcaster, while Al-Mutawee, who is also Al-Iqraa’s topper, was in Hong Kong recently to explore opening up a Chinese version of the channel.

“One of the problems is that the understanding of Islam in the West is not complete,” says Al-Mutawee. “If we have a disagreement, let’s get to know each other, our culture, our history. It’s this type of moderate talk we need in these times.”

Ironically, their success on dedicated satcasters such as Al-Iqraa and Al-Resalah — which was launched by Saudi Prince Al Waleed bin Talal in 2006 — has somewhat cannibalized the audience for religious programming on other general entertainment channels. “All our religious programming has been losing ratings recently,” says Dubai TV managing editor Ali Jaber. “I’m surprised to find them slumping in the ratings. Maybe there’s been a change in people’s outlook.”

Regardless, this new generation of preachers is set to stay on Arab TV screens for some time yet.

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