Crosspost from Albalagh.net
By Khalid Baig
When television was introduced in the middle of the 20th century, Muslim scholars nearly unanimously opposed it, just like the film before it. They were concerned about its potential social, cultural, and moral impact on the society. In the decades that followed, their worst fears came true. Television everywhere caused unprecedented upheavals in the society, changing moral norms, corrupting social structures, and ushering an era of unabashed hedonism and materialism. After watching the destruction caused by the glamorous new toy in their societies for decades, and the apparently unstoppable momentum with which it surged forth, many concerned Muslims decided to do something about it; in increasing numbers they want to use it to promote Islamic teachings. After all when nearly everyone who can afford it — and even many who cannot — have a television in their home, how can you ignore it?
As a result today there are hundreds of “Islamic” channels broadcasting through terrestrial, cable, satellite, and Internet connections. Many have been there for a decade and many more keep coming up. To be sure television still remains a controversial subject in the Islamic world with a small and dwindling minority of scholars considering it impermissible. But for increasing numbers it is not only permissible but desirable to harness this medium to serve the cause of Islamic dawa and education. Some may even say it is a sacred duty.
Those who are in the opposing camp have only been concerned with a technical issue of the definition of tasweer (picture). Does it violate Islamic prohibition of making and displaying pictures of living things? Or does the definition not extend to pictures on the screen because unlike the ones on paper they are not permanent? The bigger issues of the nature and built in proclivities of the medium itself have unfortunately not entered the debate. But is it possible that visual communication is not just an extension of the aural communication as assumed but an entirely different animal? That the medium itself may be good for some purposes and entirely unsuitable for others? That a serious message like Islamic teachings may be trivialized and distorted by it?
Words and Pictures
Television reflects the idea that serious discourse can be carried out through pictures instead of words. While pictures can sometimes be used in a written document or in a live presentation, their role there is a subordinate one. On television, the picture is the centerpiece. It dominates and controls the entire communication and everything else is subordinate to it. Now words and pictures do not occupy the same universe of discourse. A piece of writing requires one to go beyond the shape of the letters to read them. It requires thought to understand what is being said. To concentrate on a critical idea we sometimes close our eyes or even when they are open we pay no attention to what is visible. We develop insights by opening our inner eyes, so to speak, and turning away from the sights. But in the presence of television you cannot close eyes or ignore what is in front of them. Before you can begin to think deeply about an idea, there is another eye-catching picture on the screen to distract you. Thus television does not only not require reflection; it does not even permit it. With beautiful imagery and a continuous display of dazzling pictures it shuts off our ability to engage in deep thoughts. That is why little children can spend hours in front of the mini screen but get tired very quickly after looking at a picture-less page of text. The disability to think and process textual information is increased with continued watching. Therefore generations nurtured on television have such a short attention span. Television can titillate, it cannot teach. It appeals to the emotions, not the intellect. It can bring images into our heart, not ideas into our mind (1).
In a live lecture, people look at the speaker from time to time. They do not constantly gaze at him. And even when they are looking it is not the details of his appearance that interest them. The power of a close up shot does not enter the picture, so to speak, when you are addressing a live audience. That is why speakers do not go to makeup artists before their speaking assignments. Neither is there a need to go to great lengths to decorate the stage and podium to engage the audience’s attention. A person who is not telegenic may still be a very successful speaker. His words and not his picture are of interest as they should be in any genuine communication. Not so with television where the basic rules of communication are turned upside down. Here appearances and images are the king. Ideas and arguments are of secondary importance.
It is the purpose of this article to examine the result of these differences in light of actual experience with use of television for religious programs in the Christian and Muslim worlds. The question we ask is how television has influenced the religious discourse in the two communities.
There are two reasons for looking at the Christian experience. First the Christian world, especially in the US, has been much ahead of the Muslim world in its use of television. While Muslims came to it after several decades, Christians were at it from the first day — since the 1950s. Their preoccupation with it gave rise to the term televangelism, which refers to the use of television for evangelism or spreading Christian faith. Second, many Muslim broadcasters are following in the footsteps of the televangelists, whether their audiences realize it or not. It is important to see what the televangelists did and what were the results of doing that. That may tell us what is in store for us if we continue blindly on their trail.
Televangelists like Billy Graham, Oral Roberts (d. 2009), Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jerry Fallwell, Pat Robertson, and Robert Schuller built broadcast empires whose budgets and audiences ran into millions. As early as 1957 the television programs of Oral Roberts were reaching 80% of the possible television audience in the US. Around the same time Billy Graham boasted that in a single telecast he preached to millions more than Christ did in his lifetime.
How did they do it? By carefully studying and implementing marketing strategies and techniques used by successful commercial television programs. They copied formats, set designs, themes, even musical tunes thereby attracting worshippers to a feel-good Christianity that provided great entertainment while demanding little other than donation dollars. As Reverend Johan Tangelder notes, “Christian television ministry exists within the context of North American culture. In this culture even religion has become a recreational pursuit.”
Television was particularly suited for this transformation because of its need for communication through pictures and its inability to handle abstractions, in depth arguments and any thing requiring reflections. You can certainly place a camera in front of a scholar engaged in some serious discourse, but it is highly unlikely for such a program to have mass appeal. To succeed in building and holding a large audience, you need to constantly attract its members through eye-catching visuals and learn to speak in sound bites. This is even more important because of the setting in which television operates since the next really entertaining program is just a tap on the remote or even a flick of the wrist away.
Advertisers know that the most popular programs on television take the form of a movie. That is why even a thirty second commercial is a carefully crafted miniature movie with a problem, a climax and then a resolution that is obtained by using the products being peddled. To compete against this, the televangelists knew they had to have a better ‘movie’. In that movie the preacher became the hero – the object of viewer adoration, the centerpiece of the entire plot. “Like Hollywood or show business generally, televangelism relies extensively on public persona,” writes Quentin J. Schultze in Televangelism and American Culture (2). It was the persona of the preacher whose own image and personality dominated the show. People turned to the show to watch their favorite star in action, rather than to listen to a lecture.
Talk Show Format
The successful televangelists also borrowed formats and styles from the entertainment world. Schultze notes that Robertson, Bakker, and Crouch started their talk-pray-sing formula in imitation of the talk shows of Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin. Schuller incorporated a variety show format in his programs. This included guest stars from Hollywood and sports, airy shots of the interior of his Crystal Cathedral, serene images of the outdoor fountains, and majestic skyward pictures of the glass cathedral. Not to be left behind, Swaggart’s “old fashioned” revivalism (as it was named) bore the marks of contemporary variety shows with the cameras alternating between shots of the excited audience and those of the performers. The net result: “The revivalist or evangelist [became] a talk-show host, a variety-show emcee and above all a performer.”
Health and Wealth Gospel
Further, television’s demand for action and drama found a good match in the old art of the faith-healer and those talking in tongues. Thus quite expectedly many of the most successful televangelists made full use of these practices. This even impacted Christian theology by giving rise to the health and wealth gospel, which held that God wants everyone to be healthy and wealthy and the only thing needed to achieve this was to make an offering to the televangelist. To convince the audiences their programs regularly showcased “miracles” performed by the televangelist. A destitute person becoming wealthy, a terminally sick person becoming healthy, all through the power of the prayer of the host whose favors extend to anyone who believed in his gospel and made contributions to his ministry.
Power of Drama
Television is the ideal medium for drama and televangelists made full use of it. They were true masters of this art. The power of drama — and their mastery of it — can be seen in the repentance of Swaggart who had been caught in a sexual scandal involving a prostitute. This, after he had been exposing the sexual scandals of rival televangelists for some time. Quite naturally it was a big shocker but after a few months of not knowing what to do, he finally came up with a brilliant solution. He recorded a one-hour program in his church admitting unspecified sins and focusing on Christian forgiveness. Shots of a crying Swaggart with tears rolling down his face were alternated with those of heart broken congregants who suffered with him. At the end of the show came the resolution of this carefully orchestrated drama: Swaggart hugging and crying with individual supporters, who clearly had forgiven him.
The Result: Religion in the Entertainment Marketplace
Using the full capabilities of the medium in masterly manner televangelists certainly attracted huge audiences. But what was its impact on those audiences? According to Christian critics it was not the promotion of Christianity as it was known before the advent of television. The audiences were attracted and held though the lure of entertainment, which is the “supra ideology” of television as Neil Postman said. Schultze notes that televangelism promoted a new religion whose pillars were selfishness, individualism, and materialism — not to mention superstition in the form of the health and wealth gospel (3).Some would call it the ultimate blasphemy. In Richard F. Collman’s words “The ultimate blasphemy of a consumerist culture is its desire to consume God”(4). This is what happens when religion is sold in the entertainment marketplace.
The effect was not limited to the television program only. After being conditioned by entertainment in the name of religion, people started expecting it everywhere. There was a demand for the church to be like the television program and the local preacher to ape the performance of the favorite televangelist. Schultze noted that congregations accustomed to TV were more easily bored by routine, less likely to follow a lengthy or complicated sermon, and visually tuned to the preacher. In short, as Neil Postman would say, it was not that religion became the content of television but that television shows were becoming the content of religion (5).
We can now turn to the scene in the Muslim world. Could the same thing happen there? Many Muslims would dismiss this suggestion by arguing that the problems were rooted in Christianity not television. Revivalism was dominated by entertainers before the advent of even radio. The health and wealth gospel had historic roots in Christian theology. Such distortions are unthinkable in Islam, where both the Qur’an and Hadith are well preserved and Shariah limits are well defined. Here we can enjoy the promise of television, with huge audiences, without the perils experienced elsewhere.
While certainly there are differences of day and night between Islam and Christianity in terms of the preservation of the source texts and the historic continuity of its dogma, the propensities of television as a medium are the same. And their impact on those who submit to it cannot be different. This is what Marshal McLuhan told us through his aphorism that has become a cliché, that the medium is the message (6). That television will not just communicate but shape and distort the message it is carrying. It will mold it in its own image. By moving the religious discourse to the world of entertainment, it will make religious authority irrelevant.
A critical look at what has been happening in the world of Islamic television may be sobering.
The Amr Khaled Phenomenon
The person who attained phenomenal success with Islamic programs on television is undisputedly Amr Khaled of Egypt. An accountant turned lay preacher, his official resume is full of large numbers. Thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions. On facebook more than two million “like” him. His television program is seen by millions. He lists the audience size in the gatherings he has addressed during the past decade. 20,000 here, 40,000 there. Like the televangelists he can bask in the glow of an unprecedented popularity. There is no other Islamic television host that comes close.
How did he do it? Exactly the way the televangelists had done.
Amr Khaled rose to stardom in 2001 with the appearance of his show “Kalam min al-Qalb” (Words from the heart) on satellite. His producer Abu-Haibah was very impressed with televangelists saying, “If we did this with Islam, it would be a new experience for Islam.” Their stated goal was to make Islamic media “not just as good, but much, much more interesting than the most interesting programs on other channels.”
They did whatever it takes to become more interesting than the vulgar commercial fare. They chose a set that had no relation to Islam, rather it would be “something that will feel like a top-ten [music] program.” They invited celebrities, many of them former film stars who had gone through the coming-back-to-Islam experience. (It was a carefully calibrated conversion where they started wearing a headscarf without stopping a public display of beauty — makeup and all). Amr Khaled wore expensive European suits and a clean shave. The format was that of a talk show and the level of the talk was the same.
“Not a Shaikh”
Amr Khaled frequently says that he is not a shaikh or a religious scholar. What is left unsaid is even more important: “And you do not need a shaikh. I am much much more entertaining and accommodating.” For otherwise he feels fully qualified to challenge any tenets of Islam or give his personal opinions on any subjects. He stated, for example, that Shaytan was a believer, because of his conversation with Allah as reported in the Qur’an. He justified mixed gatherings of men and women using the incident about Syedna Umar’s acceptance of Islam. He belittled such towering personalities as Imam Malik. In the case of blasphemous cartoons of the Prophet, sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, he stood against a united Muslim stand, taking a position that was childish if not sinister. Under normal circumstance these would be considered sufficiently scandalous to end the career of a preacher, but his audiences still love him. They would find some excuse for the aberrant statements and move on. They do so not because he has made major breakthroughs in Islamic scholarship or statesmanship but because he is so entertaining. His style and his content find perfect resonance with the medium.
“Better” Packaging for Islam
There are others who have copied the Amr Khaled technique — with the same great results. In Saudi Arabia it is Ahmad al-Shugairi, who started as a TV host for Yalla Shabab (Hey Youth) program and moved on to his own Ramadan program called Khawater or stray thoughts. He is very popular with the youth who credit him, just like the fans of Amr Khaled, with bringing them back to Islam. His philosophy is that of a Procter and Gamble marketing manager: “Islam is an excellent product that needs better packaging.” This packaging includes a glitzy studio, lighting, panning between him and his devoted audience, the music montage introducing the show, and soothing sound bites that offer a feel good Islam. In short everything demanded by the entertainment world. In an interview with On the Media he explains his winning strategy of not focusing more than 20-30 seconds on the same frame.
In this marketing-driven preaching, the goal is to give the audiences what they want (It is a minor detail that the entire purpose of dawah is to give people what they need). A fan told the New York Times: “Ahmad helped me see that I can want to be with a girl, and it’s O.K. — I don’t need to feel bad.” According to the report the fan Muhammad Malaikah was able to spend time alone with his girlfriend and still feel he was being true to himself and his culture (7).
Paradise Here and Now
Yet another star in the kingdom of Islamic television is Mostafa Hosni of Egypt. The set for his weekly program looks like that of a pop music show, with the name, Love Story, drawn over a big purple heart in the background. “The time has come to speak to the young in their language, to live in their world,” he says. This is the language of the entertainment media. He opened the first episode of his show ‘Ala bab al-ganna (At the Gates of Paradise) by bringing paradise to a screen near you. Using a studio set that reflected his visualization of paradise in front of a mixed-gender studio audience, he told viewers that tuning into this program would help “transform Paradise from merely an invisible dream to a daily reality.” This is precisely what the entertainment media doctors had ordered. Never mind that Islamic teachings for centuries have praised the believers for believing in an unseen paradise. The Qur’an opens with the statement that it is guidance for those who believe in the unseen. But television cannot deal with the unseen; it cannot communicate without pictures. And so the tenets of the most iconoclastic belief are now to be communicated visually. Although for obvious reasons he cannot present it as a new theology in Islam, his scheme would be the envy of any proponent of the health and wealth gospel.
All about Fun
These are glimpses of some of the most successful “Islamic” television programs — if success is defined by number of viewers. All of them rely heavily on visual stimulation, aim at providing entertainment, avoid serious talk, depend upon the persona of the hosts who are telegenic and charismatic, shun religious authority, and encourage individualism and consumerism. They aim to provide not a break with the profane programs that saturate television everywhere but a seamless connection.
There is another interesting feature to be noted here. All of the hosts mentioned above had led sinful lives and then had a conversion – of sorts. Their fans say that they love them for this reason also that they had not always been pious. This comment — made in interviews with reporters — calls for reflection. Sinful people have always repented and many of them went ahead and became great scholars in Islamic history and became a source of guidance to others. People were attracted to them because of their current knowledge not their past ignorance. This is the first time that the past sinfulness of a preacher is being touted as a qualification. The real reason may be that it makes for an interesting storyline. A person who has no colorful past to repent from would make a dull host. As would be the person who had completely switched to an Islamic life style, which is often referred to as boring by the organizers and fans of these programs. Imagine Amr Khaled sporting a beard, wearing Arabic dress, displaying Islamic mannerism, and deferring to the real scholars, saying ‘I do not know’ or ‘I need to consult a scholar’ regarding questions that are beyond his limited Islamic education. It is a safe guess that such a transformed Amr Khaled would be a flop despite his fabulous communication skills. For that would remove all the fun. And for the mass audiences that we are talking about here Islam on television just like Christianity on television is all about fun.
Other Islamic Television Channels
While not all the Islamic television programs have gone to the extremes outlined above, we can see features of these most successful programs in others as well. Consider QTV, a prominent channel in the Pakistan/India market. Its attractions include female na’t singers in colorful costumes, ignorant and confused youth sorting out their problems themselves, talk shows that center around celebrations, and question and answer sessions where laxity outweighs authenticity. Celebrate, sing, have fun. And remember this great religious entertainment is brought to you by the same company that also brings the openly secular entertainment.
One feature that one can see across the board is the use of music. Through constant exposure we have been so programmed that few people ask why, say, a news program on television opens and closes and is punctuated with music. Postman observed that music is there “for the same reason music is used in the theatre and films — to create a mood and provide a leitmotif for the entertainment” (8). One hoped that at least those who were producing Islamic religious programs would have the sense to see the gravity of the situation where both seriousness and sacredness of the program are under attack by music. One would hope in vain. For, by and large Islamic programs of all persuasions on television have submitted to this commandment of the entertainment world. Music has become such an integral part of all television that most people do not even notice that there is something terribly wrong here. The same people would consider it unthinkable to allow a serious talk in the masjid or even a lecture hall to open with music. But they are perfectly at ease when that enormity is produced on the mini-screen.
In programs which apparently deal with serious topics, the preferred format is to have a debate. As far as television is concerned every topic is debatable. Or else it is not televisable. Controversies and exchanges enliven a program and serious talks drive away viewers. Therefore even the most fundamental and agreed upon principles have to be opened up to debates. It helps if in the debate a scholar is paired with a person who has no religious education but who is a smooth talker and who can air his or her ignorance eloquently and attack the former. This is the way to increased ratings and fatter bottom lines and so it is used regularly in the “Islamic” programs on mainstream commercial channels.
A tendency toward sensationalism also comes with the territory. Zakir Naik’s mention of Yazeed with the words of blessing (i.e. “May Allah be pleased with him”) may have been an inadvertent reflection of the same tendency. While the gaffe occurred in 2007, the hot debates on rival Islamic television channels continued for several years with sparks flying and fatwas of kufr being pronounced with great zeal. No doubt such tendencies have always been there. But their destructive power is magnified manifold on television.
Impact on the larger Islamic Discourse
The Amr Khaled phenomenon is a reflection of the sea-change in our idea of an Islamic discourse caused by our adjustment to television.
Certainly the adjustment started before Amr Khaled came on the scene, although he and others like him may have accelerated it. Its most important aspect is its penchant for entertainment. First television demanded that even the most serious discourse should meet the entertainment test. Then people started demanding the same entertainment in real life as well. This is exactly what happened in the church, where church programs and even church architecture was molded to conform to the requirements of television. And it is now happening in the masjid as well. One can see it in some Friday khutbahs in North America (and probably elsewhere) where the speakers try to tell a joke to enliven the audience. Little do they realize that it is a solemn occasion and the khutbah is an act of worship at the same level as the salat that follows it. Worse, the audiences now expect to be entertained. Many times they burst into laughter during religious sermons because they think the speaker was saying something funny when the poor speaker had no such idea.
There are other signs of change in our entertainment seeking audiences. They like the easy talk that does not emphasize the Hereafter, include admonitions, and mention prohibitions. Their ability to process verbal information — to listen and reflect — is diminishing as they lean toward more visual communication. To accommodate that conferences and mosques now increasingly have large video screens installed. In youth conferences, entertainment and music are considered an indispensable part.
Lights, Cameras, Action
At new popular Islamic conferences, which are huge crowd pullers, the stage setting follows the path of the televangelists. It is a panorama of light and color and stage designs taken straight from any popular television program. Multiple booms carrying video cameras constantly move throughout the speech and alternate between the shots of the speaker from various angels and those of the audience. This is simply in obedience to the dictate of television for action. Since the speaker stands at one place (at least so far) the elaborate camera arrangement has to be made to provide motion and action. Sometimes the talks are good. But they are so out of place with the environment in which they are delivered.
Mixing the Sacred with the Profane
Another indicator of change is in our adjustment to the ads that appear on free Islamic websites and Internet televisions. There are Islamic television programs on the Internet devoted to Qur’anic recitation, Hadith study or other Islamic talks. Suddenly a semi-nude picture of a woman appears on the screen who is selling something. A note from the site owners explains: “The ads make it possible to bring the program free of charge to you. We do not control the content of the ad.” Apparently that satisfies most viewers or the sites would have stopped this practice of mixing the sacred with the profane. It is like distributing free milk after mixing it with urine as a condition for free distribution. The greater tragedy is that no one complains about this contaminated milk. This again shows how our perceptions and attitudes are influenced by the media. For no one would have accepted its equivalent in the older medium of books. (A book containing Qur’an or Hadith lessons distributed free with the help of such ads.)
The Real Promise of the “Televangelists”
These “televangelists” have been cheered by the pundits. Time magazine declared Amr Khaled to be the 13th most influential person in the Arab world. (Readers are not privy to the calculations that lead to these ratings; there may be an underlying hope that reporting it to be so may make it so). Major radio, television, and print media outlets have run laudatory stories about all of them. The hype is not without reason. They see the big promise of these televangelists in “making it increasingly difficult for any single interpretation of Islam to hold sway over others” (9). In other words, in the destruction of scholarly authority as lay preachers with little knowledge of Islam occupy positions of authority through the magic of television. They become celebrities not through knowledge and piety, as had been the case for all these centuries, but through their mastery of the medium. This change in epistemology, in our ways of learning about religion, this is the most catastrophic result of our love with television and our acceptance of the idea that television can be a serious source for learning about Islam. This is more damaging than distortions in particular doctrinal or legal issues introduced so far by the successful televangelists.
This is the problem faced by Christianity and it is exactly the same problem now facing the Muslims. Which should remind us of the following hadith:
Abu Sa’id al-Khudri reported that Allah’s Messenger sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, warned: “You will tread the same path as was trodden by those before you inch by inch and step by step so much so that if they entered into a lizard’s hole, you would follow them in this also. We said, ‘Allah’s Messenger, do you mean the Jews and Christians before us?’ He said, ‘Who else?'” (Sahih Muslim, Chapter 3, Book 34, No 6448)
On the surface the Muslim televangelists are the harbinger of an Islamic revival, especially among the youth. In reality they may be hijacking the Islamic revival that is occurring because of the disenchantment of the masses with all non-Islamic avenues. They appear to be catering to the needs of the wayward; in reality they may be creating a permanent place for acceptable waywardness and making it respectable. They appear to be creating the thirst for Islamic knowledge among people who were far away from it; in reality their popular entertainment programs are quenching that thirst with contaminated beverage labeled as energy drink.
What should be done?
Both the power and the prevalence of television make it very difficult to suggest easy solutions to the problems caused by it.
At the same time we must not underestimate the destructive power of television. Television did not cause all the upheavals in society by being ineffective. Rather the above only highlights its ineffectiveness in carrying a serious discourse. But it is a very effective tool for carrying propaganda. Since television appeals to emotions not intellect, it can be easily used to stir up emotions of, say, hate and anger — something that has been used effectively by the Islamophobes in the Christian world and beyond. Some televangelists have played a major role in the rise in Islamophobia in the US through their media crusade against Islam.These also cannot be ignored in our discussion of television policies.
Obviously simple yes or no answers cannot work. Just ignoring television will not reduce the destruction it is causing in the society. Jumping on to the bandwagon and starting Islamic television programs to reach the large audiences without careful analysis and planning will only perpetuate the problems that have been outlined above. Due to the nature of the medium, if it is given legitimacy as the venue for Islamic teachings, then in time alim and mufti actors will replace the real alims and muftis as is already happening. They will also set the expectations for what the real alims should look like and behave.
There is no ready made solution. The real solution will be the outcome of a rigorous and ongoing discussion involving the scholars, thinkers and the media experts and will require first that we do fully understand the nature of communication in the video world and its peculiar problems.
TV Free Home
The solution they come up with will be a multi-faceted one and will vary with the circumstances of the person. For an individual the prime goal is just to protect him and his family. For this the message should be that the less you watch, the better it is. An atmosphere is to be created in which not watching television and maintaining a TV free home is a perfectly respectable and even desirable option. Grass roots organizations and all means of persuasion should be used to promote this idea. Such an organization exists in the US (10). It is a pity that it does not exist in the Muslim world.
The success of this campaign will not be measured just by how many stop watching but also by what they think about watching it. The objective should be that those who do not have a TV free home should look up to those who do and not the other way around. Declaring Ramadan as a TV free month, where participants pledge to keep television off during Ramadan and use the time so saved to benefit from Ramadan may go a long way towards this objective.
Alternative Channels of Communications
At the same time we need to develop the non-television channels of communication to the best of their potential. In the communication landscape, television is one option. It is not the only one. It is expensive and it is fraught with serious problems in its ability to transmit our message. Even if we cannot avoid it, we do need to put it in its proper place. This means we do need to rethink the older avenues. Friday khutbahs are a case in point. They offer an immense resource for educating the masses. Everywhere Muslims turn in large numbers to them and there are no production or distribution costs like those associated with TV. Unfortunately this priceless opportunity is wasted because the great majority of those speaking have not been prepared for the task. They either do not have an understanding of how to relate Islamic teachings to the problems of today or do not know how to communicate that effectively. As a result, most attendees go without any expectation of enlightenment through the khutbah. Squandering of this tremendous opportunity has no excuse. It is a pity that Islamic religious schools have, by and large, failed to step up to the responsibility to have special training programs for speakers and guiding the khateebs.
The Okaz Market Model
What about using television itself?
We may learn from the Prophetic Example in the souq of Okaz, the largest and the most famous of the annual markets and fairs of the Jahliya period. There pilgrims from all of Arabia gathered for business, poetry competitions, networking and entertainment. When the opposition of the Quraish to the Prophet, sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, increased to a point where continued call to Islam within Makkah was not possible, he sought all avenues outside to continue his mission. This included his visits to Okaz. The purpose of the visits was to meet the people and pull them out. The place of training and education was Dar Arqam.
Using that model as our guide, we may make a case for reaching out to the people who are today in the Okaz market created by television. That is we must not confuse it with the masjid, or school, or Dar Arqam. The purpose should be to pull the people out from there to these places where real worship, education, and training can take place. Recognizing the peculiar problems of this new venue, we must make sure the programs avoid all the pitfalls outlined above. No run for ratings. No entertainment. No music. No celebrity culture. No expectation of a return on investment. No competition with the commercial world. No ads that can dilute or counter the message. In other words no distortion in the message in exchange for a large audience.
The numbers who respond will be small, just as they were in Okaz. But just as the Prophetic example in Okaz showed, delivering the pure unadulterated message to a small number is infinitely superior to delivering a distorted message to the millions.
1. Taken from Understanding Television, http://www.albalagh.net/general/tv.shtml.
4. Richard F. Collman, “The Tyranny of the Familiar: Critical Reflections on the
Church Growth Movement,” The American Organist 19:3 (March 1995), p. 39.
5. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, (New York: Viking, 1985) 124.
6. Marshal McLuhan, Understanding Media, Routledge, (London: Routledge, 1964)
8. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, (New York: Viking, 1985) 102.
9. Dale F. Eickelman and Jon W. Anderson, eds., New Media and the Muslim World: The
Emerging Public Sphere, 2nd ed. (Indiana University Press, 2003)
Fitnah of Our Times: Never Ending Debates and Drama On Muslim Social Media
It is extremely sad that the only excitement and enjoyment many Muslim youth get from the deen – and for some, their only involvement – is by getting embroiled in controversies, polemics, debates, seeing people argue, refutations, etc… I am referring to the general masses and not those that are directly involved in polemical dialogue.
Rather than spend time in worshiping Allah, perfect one’s prayer, fulfill the rights of Allah and the creation and engage in productive activities, so many of us today are hooked on the quarrels and disputes that take place between different groups/sects/religious leaders. We love the drama that takes place, we can’t wait for the next episode of the debate, we get excited when one person challenges another about some matter of religion. Get a few brothers or sisters together, and the only discussion that takes place these days is who won the debate and which scholar refuted which other scholar, and so on and so forth.
Stop being an Audience: Deen is Nasiha Not Entertainment
Anyone who talks or writes about polemics gets a big audience, whilst there is very less interest in listening to someone who avoids such things and teaches you your deen. It’s the same type of enjoyment – in a sense – that people get from football rivalries or boxing matches, but with a religious flavour to it. Social media is amass with such controversies.
One scholar posts something about his dispute with this person or that group on his Facebook page and his followers all comment and even argue amongst themselves in relation to his post. The followers of the refuted group/individual then start attacking the person who refuted and they also argue amongst themselves. This soap opera just continues and never seems to end. Many of us sadly thrive on this. We enjoy all the bickering and argumentation, such that being a Muslim would be boring without it.
When I was growing up, we didn’t have the internet and social media, and Al-hamdulillah it saved us from much fitna. These days, what someone thinks on one side of the world is debated and counter debated several times within a matter of hours. The harms of social media are increasingly outweighing its benefits.
The debates of today are not munadara- these were supposed to be cordial discussions.
My sincere advice to especially young Muslims is that please do not let your precious time be wasted in such matters. Let those that are arguing and debating fight it out amongst themselves; you do not need to get involved. Avoid giving them ammunition or pouring oil on fire. Instead, identify those who you trust and learn your deen from them and then get busy in beneficial things – and avoid the others. We seriously need to reconsider our priorities.
May Allah guide us, Ameen.
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What the Niqab Taught Me About Myself As A Muslim Convert and a Latina
The year 2019 is only few weeks in and already has its very own social media challenge, the “How Hard Did Aging Hit You Challenge,” with its accompanying hashtags, the #10YearChallenge, #2009vs2019, or for the more seasoned veterans, #1999vs2009. The goal? Compare how your appearance has changed over the past decade or two. Have you aged gracefully or are you a hot mess compared to when you were younger? Simply find an old picture of yourself and place side by side with a current picture, post on social media with the appropriate hashtag, and voila! Let your followers comment away and tell you how gorgeous you are, lie about how you haven’t changed a bit, or laugh at the photos of you with no facial hair or loads of acne.
I have only started sharing pictures of myself recently on Facebook as a means of rekindling relationships with distant relatives, but the temptations to cave in to the latest social media trends pop up every now and then. I was thinking of finding a picture from 2009, but then it dawned on me that a lot more than my appearance has changed since that year. In fact, there would be little benefit in trying to compare a picture of me from 2009 with a picture of me now on Facebook, because back then my face was covered. I was wearing the niqab (the Islamic face veil). It has been so long since I stopped wearing it that I had almost forgotten.
In 2009 I was just returning to the US from Egypt, still high off an increase in iman (faith) after being in a Muslim land surrounded by towering minarets, the melody of a dozen adhans, and the sight and smell of the street markets where smiling Muslims sold warm flatbread and falafels. I started reflecting on why I had chosen to wear a face veil, and then later remove it. To me, that has more weight than how many wrinkles I have gained in ten years.
A little background… Prior to moving to Egypt to study Arabic for a year, I had been living in Northern New Jersey with my family. We were attending a predominately African-American mosque in Paterson which strictly adhered to what they described as the “Salafi” methodology, taking guidance mostly from a list of “approved” Saudi scholars. As such, most of the women who attended the mosque dressed in all black and wore niqab. Some of them wore niqab “full time,” while others only wore it to and from the mosque and at Islamic gatherings. The male congregants often complained or inquired (for marital purposes) about the sisters whose faces were uncovered, causing newcomers to often feel awkward and uncomfortable, myself included. Most sisters opted to bring along a niqab to wear to the masjid rather than deal with unwanted attention and unsolicited marriage proposals.
Before you, the reader, make any assumptions about this masjid based on the above, I want to express that I still consider it, at that time, to be one of the most welcoming centers I have attended. There was a warm, family atmosphere that I have only found in few mosques in the years that I have been Muslim. The sisters helped each other in taking care of the children, they never reprimanded anyone for bringing their young children to the mosque, they hosted regular classes for free (up to three or four times a week), the imam was approachable and relatable (a convert, himself), and they were very meticulous about following the Sunnah to the finest detail.
Nevertheless, as the Spanish saying goes and the Prophetic hadith confirms, Dime con quién andas, y te dire quién eres (Tell me who you hang out with, and I will tell you who you are), you are on the religion of your close friend (At-Tirmidhi), so I believe my decision to don a niqab was prompted by this environment. As a convert, I was even more inclined to follow the people around me. I would not say I was completely ignorant; I had converted about seven years prior to attending this masjid, I had read about the reasons why women wear niqab, general ahadith about hijab, and different scholarly opinions. I counted on the fact that my husband and I would be moving overseas, and I thought it would be easier to wear it in a Muslim land. Why not get a head start? What I failed to grasp was the lifetime commitment that it entailed, and how much it would change me.
One thing that I was not willing to do was disclose this choice to my parents. As a Latina, Puerto Rican, and ARMY brat, there was no way that my family would accept such a thing. It had been challenging enough to get them to tolerate the headscarf. Telling them that I would be wearing all black and covering my face would either enrage them or give them a heart attack, or both. Likewise, some of my husband’s family, like his 90-year-old grandmother, would probably not take it well.
Being Latino and Muslim around non-Muslim family is, for a lack of words, crazy hard. Aside from some aspects of our cultural traditions that need to be tweaked to make them halal, we tend to be very affectionate, family-oriented people, and that includes with extended family. Forget navigating the corporate world without shaking hands with a woman as a Muslim man, try not kissing all your 50 male cousins on the cheek at a family gathering! Women from Latin America also tend to be obsessed with taking care of their appearance. Some of the conversations that I have had with my mother, even as an adult, go something like this:
Mom: Why don’t you just wear the scarf with a pair of pants?
Me: Ma, I have to cover my figure.
Mom: But you look like a vieja (old woman). You’re so palida (pale), put some make-up on.
Me: I did… er… put a little bit.
Mom: Don’t listen to your husband, :::closed fist in the air::: you don’t have to be submissive to him! Here’s some lipstick (pulls out red lipstick from purse and begins to smear it on me).
I couldn’t even imagine the telenovela type of drama that would unfold if I tried to cover my face. The compromise was that I would wear the niqab as much as I could, but never around my parents or other family. I stocked up on black abayas and long khimars, along with the Saudi niqabs that tied in the back and had an extra thin veil that flapped over the eyes for extra coverage, should I feel the need. I later realized that wearing this style of all black or even very dark colors was more of a regional thing, than a strict ruling. I could have just as easily, and comfortably, covered my face with one of my colored scarves. But, alas, as the saying goes, we live and learn. When anyone asked me, “Why do you wear all black?” I used to respond, “It makes me look thinner!”
Contrary to popular opinion, the niqab was not restrictive, it was empowering. As an introvert, I welcomed the sense of privacy and complete ownership of my personal space. If I cried, I could do so without displaying my vulnerability to the world. If I smiled, I could do it from ear to ear without being self-conscious about something being stuck in my teeth! It also tamed my Latino non-verbal communication methods of exaggerated body language and hand gestures that I had been told by some “born Muslims” were not compatible with the modesty and manners of a Muslim woman (I stopped believing that after living in Egypt).
But, of course, with this empowerment came great responsibility. If before, with hijab, I was a billboard for Islam, now, with a niqab, I was a billboard for oppression. On the one hand, non-Muslims looked at me with disdain or pity, and on the other, fellow Muslims either saw me as an extremist or looked up to me like I had vast amounts of knowledge, like the niqab and abaya were my cap and gown and I had just graduated with a PhD from Islam University.
There is something about the niqab that brings out other people’s insecurities. Either they feel guilty because they put you, the niqabi, on a high pedestal of understanding and spirituality (even though you do not deserve it), or they are envious for not having the courage to also wear it (giving more importance to a piece of fabric rather than their relationship with Allah), or they hate niqab with a passion, think you are absolutely crazy for wearing it, and they constantly lecture you about how it’s not obligatory. This added stress, ridiculous accusations, and false expectations make wearing niqab a real test of faith, in which one can easily fall prey to arrogance, self-aggrandizement, religious doubt, exhaustion, or even depression. I felt like the best way to avoid these issues was to isolate myself from people.
I wore the niqab for two years mostly on, but sometimes off. I found it easy to wear in New Jersey, especially surrounded by other sisters who wore it, and in Egypt, where it provided the extra benefit of filtering the sand, dust, houka and exhaust fumes. I felt comfortable and well-protected. However, it was when we returned from Egypt that I started noticing the increasingly negative attention I was getting from strangers for the way I dressed.
In one incident, a couple of Latina women began speaking about me in Spanish, not knowing that I could understand their conversation. I was standing behind them in line at a store in the mall with my 2-year-old in a stroller. They were saying, “Poor kid, having to be raised by ‘that’ in that horrible culture.” They shook their heads and looked at me condescendingly. Rather than be confrontational, I simply turned to my son and started speaking to him in Spanish, making sure they overheard. Both women turned away embarrassed. I thanked Allah for the niqab, because my cheeks were burning red out of anger.
Similar incidents occurred to me whenever I would go out, but it was when I moved further south that I felt afraid for my safety and that of my children. At that point, my eldest was 2 and a half years old and my second was a baby. The verbal abuse came more frequently. I was called a terrorist by Walmart employees in front of my children. I was also violently confronted at a gas station, while my children were in the car, by a man who thought I had been staring at his wife, even though I was not even looking her way (I guess he couldn’t tell because my face was covered). A gentleman who worked at a grocery store where my husband and I would frequently do our shopping stopped us and demanded to know why my husband forced me to “dress like that.” Again, in front of our children. These hate-driven incidents grew until I could no longer go outside alone out of fear.
I started to realize the niqab no longer offered me a sense of closeness to Allah or protection, and it became a burden on my own children. Not only was it a physical veil, but it had also begun to obscure who I was as a person. Dawah became more difficult, because people were no longer willing to see beyond the piece of fabric covering my face. My own people, Latin-Americans, did not see in me, as they had in the past, a similarity to the Virgin Mary, which made Islam more familiar and appealing to them. This was the same reason why I knew I would never wear niqab in front of my family, and why it could never be part of me 100%.
I went through a period where I questioned why I was wearing niqab, and I questioned why I was questioning it. I read and reread fatwas, articles, and books about hijab, and made du’a for guidance and strength. I no longer had a community of niqabi sisters around me, and as I read more about niqab, I saw that things were not as black and white as some people make it seem. I realized eventually that I was guilt-shaming myself for something that I had never considered obligatory in the first place. Unfortunately, for convert sisters and some who are raised Muslim and finding their way, learning that there are varying opinions on certain religious matters is a long process. I have known of some newly converted Muslims who rush into the Deen, and overburden themselves with unnecessary practices, only to then abandon Islam altogether. Likewise, there are others who take baby steps and their faith grows gradually over time, like a firmly rooted tree.
Once I resolved to remove the niqab for good, I started worrying about what people would think. At that point, I told myself, if I were to keep it on, it would no longer be for Allah, but for people, and that was scary. Alhamdulillah, I sought advice from a friend about my struggle and surprisingly, she shared with me her own failed niqab story. She (a South Asian “born Muslim”) had also worn it and stopped after years for the same reasons, and although some people in the masjid shunned her for some time, she felt it was the best course of action for her and her family. She reassured me that it was my decision and advised me to seek comfort in the mercy of Allah.
When I removed the niqab, I started to find myself again. Now, ten years later and almost two decades into the Deen, I feel reconnected with my culture and have long accepted that I can be Puerto Rican while being a Muslim, and that I can be modest while maintaining my identity. The process of converting and then really “owning” your faith take time, and we will hit many bumps along our journey. Wearing the niqab was part of my learning curve, and I appreciate both the good and the bad from it. So, for those who want to compare how they looked ten years ago to now, I challenge you to instead reflect on how much you have learned about yourself.
Note: This reflection is by no means a criticism of the niqab. Many sisters, some Latinas, wear niqab with pride, and the beauty of Islam is that we are free to decide what works best for us. May Allah make your personal journeys easy. Ameen.