"Words from the Heart": New Forms of Islamic Preaching in Egypt

M.Phil Thesis in Modern Middle Eastern Studies
By Lindsay Wise
St Antony’s College, University of Oxford
May 2003

Full Thesis (PDF format—324 k)
Thesis without Images (PDF format—192k)


  I. Introduction  
  II. Preaching and Sociolical Authority in Islam  
  III. Mass Media, Modernity and Islam  
  IV. The Nature of Amr Khaled's Appeal  
  V. Is Amr Khaled Subversive? Risks of Boundary-Straddling  
  VI. Conclusion  



The terrorist attacks of September 11 reinvigorated fears about “Islamic Fundamentalism,” a term used in the media to conjure images of bearded and turbaned zealots spoiling for holy war against the West. Throughout the search for answers and preparations for war in the tragedy’s aftermath, such images have continued to obscure the true nuance and complexity of Islam and its practice across the modern world. After all, the “most fashionable face of the faith” in Cairo today is a young accountant who wears sharp suits and a trim moustache, speaks in an elegant but easy-to-follow blend of colloquial slang and Classical Arabic, and moves listeners to tears and laughter with his retellings of Qu‘ranic stories and promises of God’s redeeming love. Amr Khaled, a soft-spoken 36-year-old lay preacher, works the crowds with a charismatic style that combines the trendiness of Egyptian pop singer Amr Diab with the down-home missionary appeal of Western televangelist Billy Graham, and the self-help wisdom of popular American TV psychologist Dr. Phil. Ever since he began giving inspirational talks on Islam in private homes and clubs in the late 1990s, Khaled’s fame has grown to the degree that observers hail him as the most popular television preacher in Egypt since the beloved Sheikh Sha‘rawi, who died in 1998.
Significantly, Khaled declines to discuss domestic politics or issue fatwas, prefering to emphasize emotion, God’s love, and issues of personal piety, such as dating, family relationships, veiling, hygiene, manners, Internet use, and leisure. In one of his most popular taped sermons, The Youth and the Summer (A-shubab wa a-sayf), Khaled addressed the question of whether it is a sin to go on a vacation to trendy beach resorts on the Red Sea coast, laying out step-by-step guide of how to enjoy the break constructively while avoiding Satan. But it is his style of preaching on TV—in a talk show format featuring audience participation and testimonials from both ordinary and famous people—that sets Khaled apart and makes him such a favorite with privileged youth and women. They say he looks like them, speaks their language and makes their religion relevant to their lives without shouting at them about fire and brimstone in incomprehensible Classical Arabic. His tapes, videos and CDs reportedly outsell Cairo’s top music stars, while his lectures in mosques and clubs around the city have attracted thousands, many of whom reportedly stand listening in the streets, moved to public displays of emotion by his oratory skills. His numerous television shows on cable and satellite channels are among the most eagerly watched and talked-about programs during Ramadan. In the words of one 24-year-old Egyptian friend, “During Ramadan, it’s nothing but Amr Khaled, Amr Khaled, Amr Khaled.”

I first heard Khaled’s name when visiting an Egyptian family I met in Cairo in the summer of 2002. An Egyptian-American classmate had invited me to her family’s holiday apartment at the private Agamy beach resort outside Alexandria. In the course of conversation, she mentioned her aunt had only recently decided to wear higab, or Islamic dress in the form of a headscarf and modest clothes. My friend said a popular new television preacher had inspired greater religious observance in scores of other women like her aunt, an upper-middle class professional who long resisted the social pressure to wear higab, even as it became an increasingly obvious presence on the streets of Cairo over the last few decades. I began asking questions, and soon discovered a fierce debate in the Arab press and on the streets of Cairo over Khaled’s meteoric rise to fame and fortune as an “Islamic televangelist.” The following week, the rumor went out that the Egyptian government had banned Khaled from preaching at a mosque in an affluent suburb of Cairo, having already banned him from speaking publicly inside the city. By November 2002, Khaled had been ordered to halt all preaching activities and forced to leave the country.
Everyone I spoke to about Khaled seemed to find it both amusing and fascinating that an American graduate student was studying him. Consequently, I stumbled into useful conversations about him when I least expected it, like the time I found myself in an hour-long discussion with the man who was Xeroxing articles about Khaled for me at a copy center. Some people, however, seemed to think it disconcerting that if I wanted to learn about Islam, I would choose to focus on Khaled and not a “real” sheikh, properly trained in Azhar University. Such comments reflect the way in which Khaled straddles spheres of popular culture and religious tradition, refusing to fit neatly into conventional categories. The fluid ambiguity of his image enables Khaled to articulate a position betwixt and between normative images of sacred authority, marking him as potentially subversive, but also making him powerful.

This thesis investigates Khaled’s controversial new form of preaching and its implications for the evolving role of religion in everyday modern life in Egypt. Analysis focuses on video and audio tapes of Khaled’s sermons, articles from the Egyptian and English press, and interviews with Egyptians who have been following the trend. I gathered materials and conducted interviews during two trips to Egypt: for three months in summer 2002 and a return trip for eight days in December. The interviews with professors, journalists and officials were conducted quite formally, while most of the discussions I had with ordinary Egyptians were couched in the course of normal conversations and carried out in the context of personal relationships and interactions. In particular, my relationship with my Arabic teacher, Abeer Heieder, and her extended family proved instrumental, as she not only helped me translate the four tapes I am using as the focus of my main analysis, but she and her family also became quite engaged with my research and with the tapes themselves, responding strongly to Khaled’s presentations and explaining their reactions when asked. An interesting side-effect was that I inadvertently “converted” my teacher’s husband to become a dedicated Khaled fan because I left the tapes with Abeer between translation sessions in the couple’s home. One day when I arrived for a lesson, Abeer informed me that her normally reserved husband had watched all the tapes and had been so affected by them, he had wept. Usually a very shy and laconic man, he gushed to me that evening about how much he admired Khaled.

The public debate that has arisen around Khaled and other “new wave” preachers like him resounds not only in Egypt, but across the Muslim world. In an age of rapidly advancing technology and mass communications, how will traditional religious structures and discourses adapt to the diffusion and fragmentation of both authority and information, and who will lead the way? Some analysts, like sociologist Asef Bayat, argue that the emergence of popular lay preachers like Khaled—who uses a variant of Western-style televangelism to promote a non-political message of personal piety and salvation—may signal an important shift in the tone and character of Islamism. Egyptian newspaper columnist Fahmy Howeidy sees Khaled as a key figure who can woo troubled young people away from both the vices of religious disengagement and the dangers of extremism and violence. Others, like Dr. Hala Mustafa of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, say Khaled offers modernism without substance, manipulating people into embracing his socially conservative Islamic discourse by giving it a “modern” face.

In the summers of 2001 and 2002, the secularist Egyptian tabloid Rose al-Youssef launched a bitter campaign against Khaled, accusing him of being elitist, dangerous, and “in it for the money.” As for Azhar, it has remained officially silent, though some individual sheikhs and professors from the institution are quoted in both the Arabic and English press deriding Khaled as a dangerous, unlicensed and untrained imposter: a Muslim Brother, false prophet, or extremist in disguise. They know they are vying with him for the attention of Egypt’s middle- and upper-class women and youth and worry they may be losing the battle. Even after Khaled had left Egypt, the media circus continued. The latest uproar arose when a Coptic television producer was quoted on the Internet calling Khaled the “Rasputin” of Egypt, a comment he denies having made, but which was repeated and criticized ad nauseum over the airwaves and in tabloids for the entire week I was in Cairo in December.
None of the speculation about Khaled’s motives described above offer a satisfactory answer to the pressing question of why this seemingly moderate and apolitical preacher is so controversial, and moreover, why the government felt compelled to ban him from speaking, eventually driving him from the country. If he did not give fatwas, preach violence, present an extremist version of Islam, or discuss his opinions about government policy in public, what was so threatening about his discourse? Why did the government not encourage Khaled’s da‘wa to counteract the political Islamists and radicals as a powerful voice for moderate Islam, instead of attempting to silence and discredit him? The answer lies in his successful presentation of an alternative Islamic discourse that not only threatens to be more popular and better marketed than the Azhar’s official version, but also wrecks havoc with the state’s attempt to categorize Islamists as poor, uncouth, fringe extremists. According to the state’s construction of “official” Islam versus “unofficial” Islamism, a fundamentalist does not look and talk like modernized, westernized “us”; he is a backward, dangerous “other.” Khaled’s genius is to style himself as an Islamist who is one of “us.” The phenomenon of Khaled’s rise to popularity and his subsequent banishment can only be understood by examining the implications as well as the pitfalls of this dichotomy in the context of Egypt’s ongoing Islamic Revival.

Understanding the Revival’s impact on Egyptian society means appreciating how religion can affect political discourse and institutions both formally and informally. James Piscatori and Dale Eickleman argue that “politics have as much if not more to do with bargaining among several forces or contending groups as with compulsion.” Thus, a full appreciation for the politicization of Islam and its influence in the contemporary Middle East should not be limited to a measure of formal participation or the actions of revolutionary militants challenging the state. To do so runs the risk of ignoring how political interests are shaped by “socially defined values [that] play an important part in formulating the identities and goals of individuals and collectivities.” These values often are understood and expressed symbolically, through words and images that help define social relations. A range of both state and sub-state forces seek to manipulate this symbolic language through what Eickelman and Piscatori refer to as “boundary setting,” defined as a political process to determine the dividing line between public and private, modern and traditional, religious and secular, “high” and “low” culture, moral and immoral. While the centralized state tries to delineate these boundaries using a roadmap of shared Islamic symbols, its authoritative interpretations are becoming increasingly contested as access to mass education and mass media technologies enable more people to produce their own interpretations. More and more, “new” Islamic thinkers, writers and lay preachers like Khaled are questioning or disputing the “boundary setting” language employed by the state and others, including traditional religious authority figures.
As Khaled’s popularity grows, both the Egyptian government and established Islamist groups find themselves competing with Khaled’s innovatively packaged “marketing” of Islam. When Khaled left Egypt for the Britain, the most prevalent rumor was that his influence had gotten too close to the top when President Hosni Mubarak’s daughter-in-law decided to veil after listening to his tapes, embarrassing the secular regime and particularly the conspicuously un-veiled First Lady Suzanne Mubarak. Although specific reasons for Khaled’s recent “exile” may be impossible to discover, the persistence of this particular rumor speaks to perhaps the government’s most significant anxiety about Khaled: that he has become too widely popular to control and that his decision to target elite youth and women has been so successful that his influence has even infiltrated the ranks that wield real power in Egypt.

Despite being banned in his homeland, Khaled continues preaching from abroad, using Satellite broadcasting and Internet resources to transverse boundaries, both literal and imaginary, as his fame across the region grows. Over 10,000 people, including the king and queen of Jordan, attended four days of lectures during his recent trip there in January. Lebanese Christian satellite channel LBC picked up his shows to add to the two already being broadcast on Saudi-owned Iqraa and ART, and a recent visitor to Syria confirmed to me that the stores and street stalls of Damascus are stuffed with his merchandise. A Web search reveals an active online community dedicated to his teachings, centered around his own website, which features regular live online “dialogues” with the preacher himself as well as MP3 recordings of his sermons. Khaled’s mastery of new media technologies and techniques enables him to evade the ban against his preaching and create an innovative atmosphere in which to couch his message of personal salvation and ethical social reform as both compatible with and essential for finding a “culturally authentic” path to modernization.

Constructing an understanding of this accountant-turned-preacher’s growing appeal, as well as probing the rumors and debate provoked by his popularity, should shed light on the direction of the modern Islamic revival in Egypt and the dynamic role of mass media in both reflecting and shaping discourses and authority structures in society, religion and politics. The significance of Khaled’s new form of preaching resounds not only within Egypt, but across the Middle East to Europe and beyond as it illustrates the universal themes of identity politics in the age of globalized markets and communications. Intriguingly, Khaled’s most recent programs have all appeared with English subtitles and his next project is reportedly a TV show aimed at Muslims living in the West.