By Tuve Floden, Georgetown University

*This memo was originally drafted as a part of the Islam, Islamists, and the Media in a Changing Middle East workshop held at George Washington University on October 28, 2016.

Popular preachers like Amr Khaled from Egypt, Ahmad al-Shugairi from Saudi Arabia, and Tariq al-Suwaidan from Kuwait are a prominent force on television in the Middle East, especially during Ramadan. Yet the way Western work approaches these preachers has often been mired in flawed terminology and faulty comparisons. This memo highlights two such problems – the use of the term televangelist and comparisons with Christian preacher Billy Graham – and, in doing so, provides a clearer picture of these Muslim media preachers and their influence on society.

The first point for discussion is that many works refer to these preachers as Muslim televangelists or Islamic televangelists,[1] labels that accurately reflect their prominence on television, yet do not fit them culturally or linguistically. The term televangelist has roots in Christianity. Evangelists are literally preachers of the Gospel and thus the word televangelist refers to teaching the story of Jesus and the Christian revelation. Muslim preachers agree – Egyptian preacher Moez Masoud, whose television work follows in the steps of Amr Khaled, said, “Televangelists in the States are all about making money in the name of Christianity…. 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.”[2]

In addition to these misconstruing links to Christianity and the Gospel, there are other flaws with using the term televangelist when referring to these popular Muslim preachers. First, it minimizes these preachers’ work by ignoring their broad reach outside of television, including their books, articles, public speeches, and considerable online presence. Second, the word televangelist ignores the distinction between, on the one hand, the Muslim preachers who are traditionally educated and part of the religious establishment (the ‘ulamā’) and, on the other hand, those preachers that are outside the traditional system, the popular preachers alluded to above. The broad term televangelist can describe the television work of Muslim preachers of all backgrounds – from traditional Azharī shaykhs and Salafi preachers, to the media-savvy ‘ālim Yusuf al-Qaradawi, to popular preachers like Amr Khaled – so to refer specifically to popular preachers requires a separate term.

Some modern studies have avoided the term televangelist, opting instead for labels like tele-dā‘ī[3] or media preacher.[4] The word dā‘ī, a person who proselytizes or calls people to Islam, is an apt one in this context and is the term used in Arabic to describe these television preachers.[5] The term al-du‘ā al-judud as coined by Wa’il Lutfi to describe popular preachers in Egypt,[6] using the plural form of dā‘ī, is a prominent example. Still, the word dā‘ī by itself does not fully express the characteristics of the preachers whom I study here. In addition to their lack of formal religious degrees and their place outside the religious establishment, they employ a wealth of modern media to deliver their message. The term tele-dā‘ī accurately reflects these preachers’ most prominent medium, television, yet fails to capture the extent of their work. These preachers produce television shows, audiocassettes, CDs, DVDs, and print publications, and are prolific users of social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Thus, I prefer the term media dā‘ī (pl. media du‘ā),[7] which better reflects the diverse output of these popular preachers.

This reflection of how modern preachers deliver information mirrors some previous attempts at new terms, such as calling Yusuf al-Qaradawi a “media sheikh”[8] and Marcia Hermansen’s choice of the term “media preacher.”[9] However, the words preacher and sheikh do not convey the informal nature and delivery of the people studied here. The term media du‘ā is more precise, defining a narrow group of popular preachers, individuals characterized by their educational degrees and their place outside the religious establishment, their informal language and style, and their extensive use of modern media tools. The term media preacher does work well an overarching term, however, encompassing the media du‘ā and their Azharī and Salafi counterparts.

The second point for discussion is how modern newspapers and academic works draw parallels between the media du‘ā and contemporary Christian televangelists. In particular, authors often link Amr Khaled with the work and charismatic appeal of the evangelist Billy Graham.[10] Yet is Graham’s work and history the best comparison for Khaled and other media du‘ā? For sure, Graham and the du‘ā are famous and recognizable names in their own religious communities. They are both renown for their charismatic sermons on television, as well as their work in other media such as radio and books. Graham has no advanced theological degrees, just like the media du‘ā, although he does hold an unaccredited bachelor of theology degree from Florida Bible Institute.

Despite those similarities, Graham is unlike the media du‘ā in many important ways. First, he is a long-standing religious figure who has been preaching since the 1940s, not a new preacher like the du‘ā who started in the 1990s and 2000s. Second, Graham has been connected to the highest levels of political power for a long time, including particularly close relations with U.S. Presidents Johnson and Nixon.[11] In this sense, Graham does not claim to be one of the people, as Khaled and others do.[12] His prominent place in local and national politics is starkly different from how the media du‘ā present themselves and how local politicians treat them.

In addition, a comparison of Graham and the media du‘ā ignores clear differences in the political environments of these preachers. The media du‘ā live and work under repressive authoritarian regimes where elections are not free and fair, and political expression is not protected. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has a political environment that represses local opposition. Police continue to halt demonstrations by the country’s Shi‘a minority and in the early 1990s also quashed the Sunni-led opposition movement al-Ṣaḥwa al-Islāmiyya (the Islamic Awakening). Preachers who spoke out then, like Salman al-‘Awda and Safar al-Hawali, faced travel bans and were incarcerated until they agreed to support the regime. The Saudi government has been quick to stop online dissent as well, arresting prominent blogger Ra’if Badawi, for example, and sentencing him to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes.

Kuwait and Egypt’s political environments are similarly subject to the wills of those in power. In Kuwait, the emir and the constitutional court have the power to dissolve parliament. While opposition groups have more of a voice than in Saudi Arabia, the Kuwaiti parliament has been dissolved six times since 2006[13] and the regime has jailed outspoken activists and parliamentarians on several occasions.[14] In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak ruled for almost thirty years, with the public reelecting him by referendum in 1987, 1993, and 1999. The ballot included no other candidates. Although multicandidate presidential elections took place in 2005, the environment was far from free and fair. Security forces broke up political rallies and protests, arrested demonstrators and activists, and restricted media expression and the establishment of new political parties.[15] After deposing democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, the Egyptian military and the security state under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi continues to repress political opposition.

In the United States, Billy Graham has faced none of these problems. The American system of government is democratic, with a history of free elections and regular turnover from president to president. Since 1950, Graham has met with every sitting president, all twelve of them, and supported presidential hopefuls such as Nixon in 1960 and Romney in 2012. This involvement in politics at the highest level, and the fact that Nixon and Romney both lost, has had no consequences or political repercussions for Graham. He was not jailed, exiled, banned from politics, or fired from his role as a preacher.

Contrast this with the experience of the media du‘ā. As Amr Khaled’s audience grew in the early 2000s, the Egyptian authorities forced him to move his public sermons to the outskirts of Cairo, hoping to stifle the young preacher’s success. Khaled’s popularity continued to grow however and when he left Egypt in exile in 2002, blame fell on the government as well.[16] In another case, Tariq al-Suwaidan openly supported Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, criticizing the military government who had deposed him. This culminated in a 2013 speech in Yemen where al-Suwaidan described himself as one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. Within days, the preacher had lost his job as General Director of the television channel al-Risala, a station funded by Saudi businessman Prince Al-Walid Bin Ṭalal. As the prince explained, the Brotherhood was a terrorist movement and he had repeatedly warned al-Suwaidan not to declare his political affiliations.[17] In both al-Suwaidan and Khaled’s cases, their public discourse and overt action brought immediate repercussions.

Still, these experiences do not mean that the media du‘ā have become apolitical or afraid to make political statements. The du‘ā frequently comment on social and political issues inside and outside their respective nations. Take, for instance, Ahmad al-Shugairi’s remarks about public infrastructure. One of his television episodes focuses entirely on London’s sewers, a system that was built 150 years ago, yet employed extra large pipes to accommodate future usage.[18] Al-Shugairi did not choose this topic at random. In 2009, the Saudi city of Jeddah witnessed devastating floods. A day’s worth of rain inundated streets and homes, resulting in over one hundred people dead, and many more homeless. Much of this could have been avoided if the city had had better sewer and drainage systems.

This lack of public services highlights a lack of political responsibility. Who is thinking of the future? While al-Shugairi does not call out any Arab leaders in particular, he does point out the importance of long-term planning. Today’s leaders are not responsible for the current drainage problems, he says. Those fall on the shoulders of previous administrations. Yet the sewer system for 2020 is the responsibility of leaders today. They need to think of future generations.[19]

Khaled’s television series Life Makers presents a similar message, pushing his audience to work on health education, literacy, and the environment, implying that the government is not doing enough on these issues or, at least, that it cannot handle them alone. Khaled’s programming resulted in independent Life Makers organizations springing up across the Arab world and beyond, each pursuing a range of projects including anti-drug campaigns, food distribution to the poor, urban agriculture, recycling, and courses on first aid, history, and Qur’anic recitation.[20]

In terms of more explicit political issues, we have already discussed al-Suwaidan’s vocal support of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt and his opposition to the subsequent military regime. Amr Khaled has also been active in politics, although he demonstrates a vacillating approach that shifts with the changing realities on the ground. Khaled originally shunned overt politics, as President Mubarak and the Egyptian state tightly controlled the political sphere. After the Egyptian Revolution, the preacher jumped into the political arena though and founded his own party.[21] He reversed himself a mere ten months later, however, stepping down as head of the party and explaining how “his messages of reform and preaching [did] not fit with the requirements of political life.”[22] The timing was not coincidental. Khaled resigned just two weeks after the army removed President Mohamed Morsi from office. And one month later, the preacher was part of a video supporting the army, telling soldiers that they have a religious duty to obey orders, even if it means using deadly force against protestors.[23] In the end, Khaled thus chose to stay in the political realm, yet presented views in line with those of the regime, perhaps fearing another crackdown on his preaching.

The media du‘ā also comment on regional conflicts. On Twitter, al-Shugairi mourned those killed in Syria[24] and called on his audience to donate money for Syrian refugees.[25] For his part, al-Suwaidan blamed increased sectarianism not on Shiites as a whole, but rather on Iran and Hezbollah, who he said have supported the Houthi coup in Yemen and the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad, leading to the death of many innocent people.[26] The du‘ā are in stark contrast to some Saudi preachers who spread anti-Shia rhetoric and encourage support for militant action,[27] an important group studied by Alexandra Siegel in this volume.

In many ways, the media du‘ā’s political commentary mimics the definition that I established earlier – as du‘ā or callers to Islam, they are also calling people to take action. They promote social projects and community development, and ask people to be engaged in both local and international affairs. Al-Suwaidan urges his audience not to settle for an average life, but to leave a lasting legacy that others will remember.[28] As Khaled explains, God gave everyone a particular talent or skill. It is your duty to discover that talent, develop it, and then use it to benefit yourself and your community.[29]

Tuve Floden recently received his PhD in Islamic Studies from Georgetown University.


[1] Donna Abu-Nasr, “Chic Islamic Televangelist Attracts Hordes of Admirers,” Associated Press International, May 11, 2002, http://web.lexis-nexis.com/universe/ (accessed May 31, 2016); Mona Atia, “‘A Way to Paradise’: Pious Neoliberalism, Islam, and Faith-Based Development,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 102:4 (2012): 808-827; “Islamic Televangelists: Holy Smoke,” The Economist, November 9, 2011, http://www.economist.com/node/21534763 (accessed November 7, 2016); Yasmin Moll, “Islamic Televangelism: Religion, Media and Visuality in Contemporary Egypt,” Arab Media and Society 10 (Spring 2010), http://www.arabmediasociety.com/?article=732 (accessed November 7, 2016); Aaron Rock, “Amr Khaled: From Da‘wa to Political and Religious Leadership,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 37:1 (2010): 15-37; and Samantha M. Shapiro, “Ministering to the Upwardly Mobile Muslim,” New York Times Magazine, April 30, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/30/magazine/30televangelist.html (accessed November 7, 2016).

[2] Ali Jafaar, “Medium Gets the Message,” Variety, April 7-13, 2008, http://web.lexis-nexis.com/universe/ (accessed June 2, 2016).

[3] Marwan M. Kraidy and Joe F. Khalil, Arab Television Industries (London: Palgrave Macmillan, published on behalf of the British Film Institute, 2009), 73; and James B. Hoesterey, “Marketing Morality: The Rise, Fall, and Rebranding of Aa Gym,” in Expressing Islam: Religious Life and Politics in Indonesia, eds. Greg Fealy and Sally White (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008), 97.

[4] Marcia Hermansen, “The Emergence of Media Preachers: Yusuf al-Qaradawi,” in Islam in the Modern World, eds. Jeffrey T. Kenney and Ebrahim Moosa (London: Routledge, 2014), 301-318; and Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen, “In Defense of Muhammad, ‘Ulama’, Da‘iya and the New Islamic Internationalism,” in Guardians of Faith in Modern Times: ‘Ulama’ in the Middle East, ed. Meir Hatina (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 291.

[5] See, for example: “Al-Īmān wa-l-‘Asr: Ṭarīq li-l-Ḥayāh – ‘Amr Khālid,” MBC.net, May 11, 2016, http://www.mbc.net/ar/programs/al-eman-w-alaser/articles/عمرو-خالد.html (accessed November 7, 2016); and “Dr. Ṭāriq al-Sūwaydān li-[Jarīdat] Al-Waṭan: Ad‘ū al-Ikhwān wa-l-Islāmiyīn ilā Ḥall Aḥzābihim wa-l-Ibti‘ād ‘An al-Siyāsa wa-l-Tafarrugh li-l-Da‘wā wa-l-Tarbiya al-Islāmiyya,” Al-Waṭan (Kuwait), June 26, 2013, http://www.kuwait.tt/articledetails.aspx?Id=286088 (accessed November 7, 2016).

[6] Wā’il Luṭfī, Ẓāhirat al-Du‘ā al-Judud: Taḥlīl Ijtimā‘ī: al-Da‘wa, al-Tharwa, al-Shahra (Cairo, Egypt: Al-Hayʼa al-Miṣrīya al-ʻĀmma li-l-Kitāb, 2005).

[7] Nabil Echchaibi also used this term, with the spelling media da’ias (sic) in his article “From Audio Tapes to Video Blogs: the Delocalisation of Authority in Islam,” Nations and Nationalism 17, no. 1 (2011): 36.

[8] Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen, “The Global Mufti,” in Globalization and the Muslim World: Culture, Religion, and Modernity, eds. Birgit Schaebler and Leif Stenberg (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2004), 154.

[9] Hermansen, “The Emergence of Media Preachers.”

[10] Asef Bayat, “Piety, Privelege and Egyptian Youth,” ISIM Newsletter 10 (July 2002): 23; and David Hardaker, “Amr Khaled: Islam’s Billy Graham,” The Independent (London), January 4, 2006, Wednesday, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/amr-khaled-islams-billy-graham-6112733.html (accessed November 7, 2016). Lindsay Wise’s M.A. thesis makes this point as well, citing Bayat and adding that many articles from Egypt and abroad compare Khaled to Billy Graham (Lindsay Wise, “‘Words from the Heart’: New Forms of Islamic Preaching in Egypt” (M.Phil. thesis, St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, 2003), 5, footnote 2).

[11] Grant Wacker, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), 210-214.

[12] Aḥmad al-Shuqayrī, Khawāṭir Shābb, 7th ed. (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Al-‘Ubaykān li-l-Nashr, 2011), 8; “Preaching With A Passion,” Al-Ahram Weekly, November 28 – December 4, 2002, originally at http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2002/614/fe2.htm, and now available through the Internet Archive Wayback Machine at https://web.archive.org/web/20121111152159/http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2002/614/fe2.htm (accessed November 7, 2016).

[13] The total of six dissolutions includes the five instances listed in “Kuwait Emir al-Sabah Dissolves Parliament,” BBC News, October 7, 2012, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-19861587 (accessed November 7, 2016); and the additional dissolution in 2013 as detailed in Sylvia Westhall and Mahmoud Harby, “Kuwait Court Orders Dissolution of Parliament, New Elections,” Reuters, June 16, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/16/us-kuwait-court-ruling-idUSBRE95F04320130616 (accessed November 7, 2016).

[14] Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 2014/2015: The State of the World’s Human Rights, (London, UK: Amnesty International, 2015), 220-221.

[15] Human Rights Watch, Elections in Egypt: State of Permanent Emergency Incompatible with Free and Fair Vote (New York, NY: Human Rights Watch, 2010).

[16] Lindsay Wise, “‘Words from the Heart’: New Forms of Islamic Preaching in Egypt” (M.Phil. thesis, St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, 2003), 81-86.

[17] “Saudi Prince Sacks TV Chief for Muslim Brotherhood Ties,” BBC News, August 18, 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-23747381 (accessed November 7, 2016).

[18] Khawāṭir 9, Episode no. 14, directed by Jāsim al-Sa‘adī and presented by Aḥmad al-Shuqayrī, first broadcast in 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-y4AsfEDFQ (accessed November 7, 2016).

[19] Ibid.

[20] Samuel Lee Harris, “Development through Faith: The Ma’adi Life Makers and the Islamic Entrepreneurial Subject” (M.A. thesis, Georgetown University, 2008), 18-29.

[21] “Popular Islamic Preacher Amr Khaled Launches Party for Youth,” Ahram Online, Saturday, September 22, 2012, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/53526/Egypt/Politics-/Popular-Islamic-preacher-Amr-Khaled-launches-party.aspx (accessed November 7, 2016).

[22] “Preacher Amr Khaled Steps Down From Leading Egypt Party,” Ahram Online, Wednesday, July 17, 2013, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/76745/Egypt/Politics-/Preacher-Amr-Khaled-steps-down-from-leading-Egypt-.aspx (accessed November 7, 2016).

[23] David D. Kirkpatrick and Mayy El Sheikh, Egypt Military Enlists Religion to Quell Ranks,” New York Times, August 25, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/26/world/middleeast/egypt.html (accessed November 7, 2016).

[24] Aḥmad al-Shuqayrī [@shugairi], “‘Adad shuhadā’ sūriyā waṣala al-mi’a alf…,” [Tweet], June 24, 2013, retrieved from https://twitter.com/shugairi/status/349262933957677056 (accessed November 7, 2016).

[25] Aḥmad al-Shuqayrī [@shugairi], “Arqām al-tawāṣul ma‘a al-nadwa al-‘ālamīya…,” [Tweet], March 10, 2012, retrieved from https://twitter.com/shugairi/status/178429744549863424 (accessed November 7, 2016).

[26] Ṭāriq al-Suwaydān [Dr. Tareq AlSuwaidan], “Īrān wa Ḥizb Allāh ash‘alā al-ṭā’ifīya fī-l-minṭaqa…,” [Facebook status update], June 28, 2015, retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/Dr.TareqAlSuwaidan/ (accessed November 7, 2016).

[27] See, for example, Frederic Wehrey, “Saudi Arabia Reins in Its Clerics on Syria,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 14, 2012, http://carnegieendowment.org/2012/06/14/saudi-arabia-reins-in-its-clerics-on-syria-pub-48503 (accessed November 8, 2016); and Angus McDowall, “Saudi Opposition Clerics Make Sectarian Call to Jihad in Syria,” Reuters, October 5, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-saudi-clerics-idUSKCN0RZ1IW20151005 (accessed November 8, 2016).

[28] Ṭāriq al-Suwaydān, Mahārāt al-Ta’thīr, vol. 4 of ‘Allamatnī al-Ḥayāh, (Kuwait: Sharikat al-Ibdā‘ al-Fikrī, 2011), 23.

[29] ‘Amr Khālid, Binā’ Insān al-Nahḍa (Beirut: Arab Scientific Publishers Inc., 2013), 234-235.

Defining the Media Du‘ā and Their Call to Action