You may be familiar with certain Internet personalities known amongst Muslim audiences for their histrionic content. These figures are often shown reacting to anonymous anecdotes with advice from a (some might say ostensibly) Islamic perspective. While it has, rightfully, been subject to criticism for harping on drama, the modern celebrity preacher phenomenon, and the financial gain made from its underpinning sensationalism, continues to go under-investigated.
In addition to their click-bait titles, social experiments meant to garner views are a notable characteristic of the creators in question. In an article entitled “Ustaz Cool, Ustaz Trendy: Chiselled Islamic Celebrity Preachers,” the authors write, “The increasing interest on socio-religious matters creates a rather energetic and vibrant spiritual market otherwise known as ‘market Islam’ occupying multiple media platforms to reach Muslims.” Celebrity preachers narrow in on hot topics and offer their takes with the intent of guiding their viewers in the right direction which, paired with their commercial strategies, is in line with the premises of market Islam.
Sometimes the topics are less timeless and more bound to the latest talk or craze. While there has been news that makes a temporary buzz but merits a deeper discussion, like Halima Aden leaving the modeling industry or unapologetic Muslim and martial artist Khabib Nurmagomedo becoming a champion, it is clear that some celebrity preachers take advantage of our natural propensity to flock toward unusual stories. Their efforts to remain relevant, through a subtle element of “shock factor” for example, allow them to make careers out of what they do.
Like secular influencers, preachers on Youtube are often monetized through brand sponsorships. Other flows of revenue come from “course bundles” advertised in the description of their videos. These bundles for classes on Islam are sometimes named in catchpenny fashion and led by teachers whose backgrounds are difficult to verify. It goes without saying that the celebrity preacher or neighborhood dawah provider is very different from the earnest instructor or community leader who needs to make a living —selling religious services is a legitimate historical practice. To receive guidance from those who rely solely on social media traffic for their revenue is cause for concern. Not only is becoming a household name in this way inorganic and engineered to allow a sustainable means of profit, it runs perpendicular to how fame is approached in the Islamic tradition. Where spiritual voices in the past avoided seeking public admiration for the sake of it, celebrity preachers use their audience as an ego boost, being perceived as the hero or master Devil’s advocate in non-Muslim spaces.
This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to this new wave of virtual dawah merchants. In the Muslim world, entire television shows are built around people (whose identities are often concealed) calling a shaykh of sometimes ambiguous credentials over the phone. These shuyukh (plural of shaykh) are often distinguished by certain traits – some are funny, some short-tempered, some stoic and blunt. People develop an affinity for different characters and tune into their favorite ones. Religion and entertainment are strangely infused as the shuyukh listen to the stories shared by strangers and give a theatrical response.
Wai-Weng Hew writes a fascinating chapter called “Expressing Chineseness, marketing Islam: The hybrid performance of Chinese Muslim preachers” in a book called Chinese Indonesians Reassessed: History, Religion and Belonging about Chinese Muslim preachers who gained a high profile in post-1998 Indonesia. A man known as the “Preacher with a Million Followers” was not only a preacher but a film star. He starred as the moral protagonist in several Islamic-themed movies during the 1980s and 1990s, like Chaerul Umam’s Nada dan Dakhwah (Tone and Islamic Outreach). Hew writes,
“Tapping into the rising consumer culture, many successful preachers in contemporary Indonesia have become media celebrities, skilled at tailoring their messages and fashioning their appearances to a media audience.”
“Televangelism” across different Islamicate societies has made a huge impact. In Indonesia, “Chinese preachers appear to have a special marketing pull, because of their ethnicity and their status as converts.” Some Muslims in Indonesia are concerned with what they see as the “Christianization” of their country, so they view the conversion and publicity of Chinese Indonesians (a community that is almost 40 percent Christian) as a net positive.
Unfortunately, there’s a side of celebrity preachers that isn’t ideal. On the surface, “The Muslim television preacher symbolizes an idealized blend of Islam, media, and technology that resonates with an aspirational form of piety,” James Bourk Hoesterey writes. As a figure of modernity, however, many of these self-help gurus and pop icons are driven by global capitalism.
As Televangelism in its original Christian context has been studied at length, there is now a growing interest in its Islamic prototype. Nihal Khan defines Islamic televangelism as “promulgating Islam through mass marketing for the primary purpose of amassing wealth, self and brand promotion, and coincidentally benefitting the Muslim community.” Ahmed Deedat is a figure known to have made clear his purpose to provide the Muslim response to Christian televangelists in the 1970s. His strategy was to mimic the infrastructure and rhetorical style of missionary televangelism. By mirroring the ways of the “bible thumpers” as he called them, “speaking as a Muslim in a Christian style, displaying greater biblical erudition than his Christian opponents, and performatively presenting Christianity in both its religious and secular guises, Deedat played with the formal boundaries between religious traditions in order to mock and ridicule his opponents.” While this was a part of his metapragmatic commentary, the rise of real “Salafi televangelists” would soon follow – and the last attribute in Khan’s definition, benefit of the Muslim community, doesn’t always materialize.
Although televangelist preachers often “position themselves as an ordinary person rather than as experts of Islamic knowledge,” the public still sees them as a credible source. The line between a da’i and a jurist is blurred, and not always because the preacher actively tries to pass himself off as an authority. The nature of the medium easily allows the celebrity preacher to become the nucleus of “popular religion.” This may especially be the case for female audiences who take up less seats in real schools of knowledge in Muslim countries and get their daily dose of applied scripture through a talk show host. The use of dialectal Arabic, in countries like Egypt or Algeria for instance, also plays a role. Any issues of diglossia are resolved by the televangelist preacher who can speak directly to the audience in a colloquial vernacular.
Oral tradition, from Quran recitation to sermons, is deeply important in Islam. This is another reason why these preachers find success in what they do. The callous approach in choosing who shapes the minds of thousands and considering scholarly credibility to be a secondary matter raises major red flags and underestimates the responsibility these preachers have. As of now, a platform is afforded based on image and personality, rather than pure wisdom. The transition to Youtube has only further democratized access to becoming a “Muslim influencer.” With less media literacy, people are more susceptible to appearance, the sincerity appeal, and storytelling technique.
Impressive oratorical skills as the only or main qualification to be a preacher could result in undesirable consequences. For one, it promotes lay interpretation and challenges the legitimacy of learned scholars. By representing their opinions or pieces of advice as the status quo, more and more Muslims may find true jurisprudence “less generous,” or they may conflate Islam as an entire theology with the harshness of a celebrity preacher. Samir Hussain writes an excellent piece on how to identify authorities in Islamic knowledge and prefaces it with, “Especially in today’s social media and online landscape where amateurs can barely be distinguished from experts, this has become a priority more than ever before.”  While preachers are still vital, they do not have the same intellectual qualifications as a teacher whose mastery over the Islamic sciences is measured by a multifaceted rubric.
Even with that difference being accepted, the standards for Muslim preachers have plummeted because TV ratings are privileged over traditional benchmarks of mediation and other stylistic guidelines. Thus, celebrity preachers are in part, elevated in rank by their performance, and not in terms of tone, modulation, rhythmic structure, and musicality — elements that have traditionally complemented argumentative soundness — but in terms of humor, sly wit, exaggeration, and reactionary composure alone. Contemporary tele-da’is understand the importance of passionate delivery and use it to augment attraction.
Gary Bunt coined the phrase “digital umma” to describe the modern Islamic public sphere. Let us remember that new communication technologies are, of course, not intrinsically bad. The fact that preachers can transcend the mosque and provide dawah online has many upsides, namely greater accessibility, allowing us to benefit from the Muslim world’s diversity. The “Islamization of modernity,” in this instance, just has to be redirected, because these technologies are here to stay and they can be, as they have shown, a vehicle for positive change. But, with this level of outreach and delocalization comes enormous responsibility. While Islam is at its core a myriad of universal messages, the dawah that is derived from such teachings has been historically designed to reach people who correspond to a particular place and socio-cultural context. Globalization in the internet age has changed the very composition of dawah. We now live at a time where “anyone,” so-to-speak, can become a celebrity preacher.
Noha Mellor and Khallil Rinnawi write in Political Islam and Global Media: The Boundaries of Religious Identity,
“In pointing out the tremendous effects of new media on the new Islamic culture, Charles Hirschkind refers to the typically short video clips circulated on the Internet, that a ‘phenomenological feature of the media’s architecture’ is that it does not support ‘the thread of an unfolding discourse, but the sudden surprise of an effect […] shifts too quick for the unfolding of an argument, but enough to allow for the triggering of a fleeting sensation […] a burst of excitement, terror, fear, silliness, sadness, sentimentality, and so on.’”
Many have applauded the explosion of internet preachers for the freedom it represents. It is impossible for states to fully contain or regulate dawah so long as it exists on the web. On the flip side, we must be careful about the commodification of Islam, and the face of it that dawah merchants represent.
- Abdullah, Rozita, Rosidayu Sabran, Mohd Faizal Kasmani, Noor Adzrah Ramle, M. Y. Mohd Ariffin, and K. Nurdin Marjuni. “Ustaz Cool, Ustazah Trendy: Chiselled Islamic Celebrity Preachers.” AL-ABQARI: Journal of Islamic Social Sciences and Humanities (2018).
- Hew, Wai-Weng. “The hybrid performance of Chinese Muslim preachers.” Chinese Indonesians Reassessed: History, Religion and Belonging 52 (2013): 178.
- Hoesterey, James Bourk. Rebranding Islam: Piety, prosperity, and a Self-Help Guru. Stanford University Press, 2015
5. Larkin, Brian. “Ahmed Deedat and the form of Islamic evangelism.” Social Text 26, no. 3 (96) (2008): 101-121.
6. Hussain, Samir. “How to Identify Authorities in Islamic Knowledge.” The Usūlī, 22 Nov. 2020, theusuli.com/2020/10/01/how-to-identify-authorities-in-islamic-knowledge/.
7. Alazrak, Nermeen, and Alamira Samah Saleh. “The Neo-Liberal Islamic Preachers.” Political Islam and Global Media: The Boundaries of Religious Identity (2016): 219.
Photo via Abhijet Pokhrel
About the Author: Sabrina Amrane is a journalism and political sciences student. Her interests include Maghribi history, literature, and philosophy. You can follow her on Twitter here.