On a cool November evening in 2010, at Saqiat al-Sawy, a cultural center in an upscale Cairo neighborhood, the Egyptian Islamic television preacher Mustafa Hosny convened a religious seminar titled “Technology and Godliness.” Al-Sawy hosts many events, from jazz concerts to smoking cessation clinics to, for a brief time after the 2011 revolution, political debates. Dressed in dark jeans and a Nehru-collared shirt, Hosny spoke in a seemingly improvisational manner as young men and women in their late teens and early twenties sat watching his image on large screens. Everything about this seminar—from the venue to the mixed-gender seating to Hosny’s stylish clothing—was calculated to subvert stereotypes held by both secularists and religious revivalists about what participating in the Islamic da‘wa, or pious outreach, movement entails.
On the stage, Hosny announced his collaboration with a famous pop singer and actor, Khalid Selim, to record an album with the same title as Hosny’s most recent Islamic television program. The musical incarnation of the da‘wa program consisted of ten songs by Selim, intercut with pious exhortations by Hosny on godliness, rububiya. Selim, with his chiseled physique, chart-topping tunes, and heartthrob celebrity made for an unlikely da‘wa partner. And that was precisely what made him attractive for pious outreach. Working with him laid down yet another stone on the ambitious road television preachers like Hosny were paving: changing what Islamic media looks and sounds like.
Hosny is one of Egypt’s al-du‘ah al-gudud, or New Preachers, so named because their television preaching styles are unprecedented within the country’s forty-year Islamic Revival. Between 2010 and 2013, I conducted fieldwork with Hosny and his media team in the Cairo studios and offices of Iqraa, a transnational Islamic satellite channel. Established in 1998 by a Saudi media mogul, Iqraa promotes a “centrist Islam” (islam wasati) as a bulwark against both secular Westernization and religious dogmatism. For Iqraa producers, the channel’s moderation is evidenced by its broadcast of preachers from different, at times mutually antagonistic, Islamic trends, whether Sufism, Salafism, or political Islamism. Despite this on-screen diversity, within Egypt Iqraa is best known for launching the careers of the country’s most prominent New Preachers, the trio of Amr Khaled, Moez Masoud, and Mustafa Hosny, all of whom attract youth who would not normally tune into an Islamic program.
As their Cairo viewers explained to me, these preachers matter to them both because of what and how they preach. The New Preachers appropriate genres from dramatic serials to music videos to American televangelism to create novel forms of religious media at once edifying and entertaining. In doing so, the New Preachers and their producers straddle distinct standards of moral probity, commercial success, and sensuous pleasure as their programs expand what counts as “Islamic media” and why.1 It is precisely this innovation in da‘wa—and its underlying theological claims and associated moral sensibilities—that has earned the New Preachers much criticism from their equally popular Salafi-Wahabi counterparts in the piety movement.
Salafi-Wahabism is a heterogeneous orientation bringing together individuals and groups that each lay claim to the true Salafi way (al-Rasheed 2006; Lauzière 2016). In Egypt, the most admired Salafi television preachers claim authority as students of the influential sheikh Nasir al-Din al-Albani.2 These preachers achieved renown in the 1990s for their cassette sermons (Hirschkind 2006). The New Preachers disagree with Salafi teachings on theological grounds. They consider Salafi teachings un-Islamic in the most fundamental sense: they do not reflect God’s will. Such an evaluation differs from that of some Egyptians outside the piety movement, who view Salafi norms as aspirational even while bemoaning their own incapacity to fulfill them (Schielke 2009). It also diverges from the critiques of both secular nationalists and political Islamists in Egypt, who disparage the piety movement’s focus on ritual practice (Mahmood 2005). Like their Salafi counterparts, the New Preachers understand ritual worship as an ineluctable component of creating the capacity for virtue. They consider the popular Egyptian refrain that “religion is in the heart” (al-din fi al-qalb)—a matter of interiorized feelings or inherited identity—a misapprehension of the embodied discipline that religion demands.3 Questioned here is not Salafis’ emphasis on ritual practice but their ostensible failure to grasp what the virtues cultivated by such practice entail in terms of social interaction and individual transformation. This failure comes from an incorrect understanding of what forms of life are pleasing to God.
New Preachers like Hosny envisage their media as prophylactics against Salafi revivalism, whose sermonizers now have their own satellite television platforms (Field and Hamam 2009) and a significant online presence (Hirschkind 2012). The problem, however, is that Salafism’s pious promoters and secular critics alike conflate its erroneous norms and lifeworlds with Islamic piety itself. Consequently, what the da‘wa movement needed was nothing less than a “reconstruction of what piety looks like” (‘iyadat siyaghat shakl al-tadayyun), as Hosny likes to put it. The New Preachers’ desire to “reconstruct” religiosity involves the very forms of its mediation. The discursive and aesthetic possibilities afforded by televisual broadcast technologies prove key to this project.
This article examines how media claiming a pious mandate are objects of both on- and off-screen contention within the Islamic television sector, offering an important window onto Islam’s competing theologies and the internal struggles they engender among revivalists. In what follows, I trace how the New Preachers celebrate and champion what they call “innovation” (ibda’) in television preaching, while their Salafi rivals condemn and censure these same practices. As with the Islamic tradition generally, the different currents of Egypt’s piety movement are typically analyzed as part of a singular moral project defined by its opposition to secular publics and subjects. In contrast, I argue that rival forms of televisual da‘wa within this movement proceed from conceptions of piety that differently configure the religious and the secular through both competing doctrinal discourses and media practices. I show how the New Preachers work through the Qur’anic notions of ta‘aruf, mutual human knowing, and fitra, divinely created human nature, to promote as Islamic da‘wa appropriations of Western media forms, while Salafi revivalists appeal to precepts barring bid‘a, religious innovation, to proscribe such da‘wa as un-Islamic.