This month 4Shbab TV, a Cairo-based 24-hour music and variety channel dubbed the “Islamic MTV” by the international press, celebrates its first anniversary. 4Shbab (For Youth) is one of the newest entrants into the rapidly expanding Islamic satellite sector, where there are currently 30 channels broadcasting, most of them established within the last five years. While the entire gamut of Muslim theological and socio-political orientations are represented on air—from the Hizbollah-backed al-Manar to the ultra-conservative Salafi al-Nas—channels such as 4Shbab have been garnering an increasing amount of attention both locally and abroad for being at the forefront of a new breed of Islamic television that seeks to entertain as much as edify.
To do this, 4Shbab has been broadening the definition of what counts as Islamic programming, taking a page out of established Western entertainment genres—such as music videos, chat-shows, and reality TV—and adding a pious twist. An example is the program “Sawtak wasil” (Your Voice is Heard), the channel’s alternative to popular Arab spin-offs of U.S.-based singing competition “American Idol.”
Secularists and Islamists alike in Egypt have been quick to dismiss the brand of Islam presented by Islamic satellite channels such as 4Shbab as “Islam-lite”—a trivialized, commercialized, and, in one labelling, “air-conditioned” Islam. This dismissal not only betrays a simplistic view of real religiosity as inherently antagonistic to entertainment, art, and leisure, but also fails to see how within Islamic frames of reasoning, entertainment, art, and leisure can be ethical terrains.
Indeed, for many Muslims tuning into an Islamic channel is considered a virtuous act, a deliberate choice to improve the self through a shunning of non-Islamic media that might be morally corrupting in what they project on the screen (scantily-clad women, sex-scenes, glorified violence, and so on). It is necessary to take this choice—and the Islamic satellite channels that make it possible—seriously in order to understand the cultural politics animating the Islamic revival in Egypt since the millennium.
Through on-air offerings of “ethical entertainment,” channels such as 4Shbab aim to attract Muslim youth who might not necessarily be drawn to religious discourse and might accept as unproblematic Westernized imaginings of what it means to be modern in today’s world. More established Islamic satellite channels such as Iqraa and al-Resalah (both, like 4Shbab, Gulf-funded) also aim to capture such viewers. Al-Resalah’s website, for example, says that only 10 percent of its programming is geared towards “devoted religious people,” with “youth” the target audience of 40 percent. While these channels purport to offer their audiences Islamically-correct entertainment, their programming, however, still mainly revolves around da’wa-based (evangelical) formats that speak to an intense interest in, and desire for, religious knowledge on the part of Muslim viewers concerned with leading a more pious life.
There is still a close relationship, nevertheless, between this older generation of Islamic satellite programming and newer trends represented by 4Shbab. Indeed, much of the ground-work for the concept of Islamic entertainment was laid by a new cohort of Egyptian Islamic televangelists appearing on satellite TV in the early 2000s, their widely-watched shows fueling the popularity of the Islamic satellite channels themselves. By speaking in colloquial Arabic—and especially in its youthful, slangy register—tele-preachers such as Amr Khaled and others re-situated religious belief and practice as a rich site for creativity, play, and pleasure. More directly, televangelists have been spearheading the call for an Islamically-correct art and entertainment, tackling the subject on air and in cyberspace and endorsing the work of Muslim singing sensations such as Sami Yusuf.
At the same time, the success of the televangelists’ own shows increasingly relies on their ability to navigate between, and capitalize on, different genres and forms of media that go beyond any conventional boundaries of the “religious” or even the specifically “Islamic.” For example, not only are the opening sequences of many televangelist shows shot to look like music videos, they actually are music videos in their own right. A particularly illustrative example of this was the opening trailer for televangelist Mustafa Hosni’s series “al-Kenz al-mafqud” (The Hidden Treasure), which aired on Iqraa in 2008. It featured the voice of the successful Egyptian popstar Mohamed Fouad, whose music video-clips enjoy broad circulation in mainstream satellite Arab music channels such as Mazzika and Melody. Here, song and sermon do not compete for the sensory attention of believers, but conjoin to amplify it.
For appropriating such Western cultural forms—albeit to new moral ends—Islamic media producers have been attacked by an older generation of Islamists highly suspicious of televised entertainment and prone to issuing blanket condemnations of music, drama, and dance. By contrast, far from exhibiting anxieties about the “corrupting” influence of mass entertainment media, new Islamic media producers do not see entertainment as an object of prohibition, but rather as an object of regulation.
The new Islamic media project does not ask if art and entertainment are permissible, but rather what kind of art and entertainment should be allowed, and what evaluative criteria should be marshalled in making these decisions. In the process, channels such as 4Shbab and others are redefining what counts as Islamic television —not just overt preaching, but also good music and compelling drama, it seems—and why. Firmly rooted in popular culture, such efforts will likely play an increasingly significant role in shaping the place of Islam in the Egyptian public sphere and beyond in the years to come.
Yasmin Moll is a PhD candidate in anthropology at New York University.