This article originally appeared in Al Jazeera on my birthday in August 2012:
“In the name of God, Merciful to All Compassionate to each,” he begins. “Ha Mim * The revelation of the Book is from Allah the Exalted in power, Full of Wisdom. * Verily in the heavens and the earth, are Signs for those who believe. * And in the creation of yourselves and the fact that animals are scattered (through the earth), are Signs for those of assured Faith,”he continues reading from the small navy blue gold-embellished Quran in his hand.
“And in the alternation of Night and Day, and the fact that Allah sends down Sustenance from the sky, and revives therewith the earth after its death, and the change of the winds – are Signs for those that are wise*,” he concludes, sets the book on a table next to him and sits up straight on a black leather chair.
In the centre of what looks like a living room adorned with the bohemian flourishes of a Brooklyn loft sits a young goatee-clad Egyptian man with kind eyes and a smile on his face. His name is Moez Masoud and he has come to help you exhale.
The holy month of Ramadan is notorious for its wide assortment of television viewing. Broadcasting tycoons and media moguls of the pan-Arab television industry spend the better half of the year carefully preparing the brain stuffing that they would peddle to Arab audiences from Mauritania to Jordan via free-to-air television networks over 500 plus channels come the holy month. The Super Bowl of pan-Arab television beaming to 22 Arabic-speaking countries, Ramadan marks the most important season in Arab television viewing and by far the most lucrative.
A typical Ramadan television buffet with varying selections year on year includes your hyper-dramatic 30-part series brimming with taboo-tackling attempts delivered by heavily botoxed, nipped and tucked actors and actresses from across the Arab world - with a special taste for the Kuwaiti, Egyptian and Syrian persuasion
Further down the Ramadan table is a smorgasbord of Egyptian melodrama, hair-raising classical Arabic epics and comedy shows from Saudi to Lebanon. Guaranteed to rack up millions of cross-generational Arab eyeballs, courtesy of the post-iftar TV watching tradition, Ramadan becomes the jackpot for free-to-air pan-Arab TV stations comprising a big chunk of their annual revenues.
To disguise the extravagant commercialisation of the average Arab-Muslim’s television screen in a hat-tipping superficial show of respect to the purpose of the holy month, Islamic shows are sprinkled across every programming grid and Ramadan television offering. Masquerading as the spiritually illuminating aspect of this TV carnival, the religious shows pale in creativity, content and entertainment value when compared with their sexually charged, taboo-laden dramatic counterparts.
These afterthoughts of Ramadan television programming include an age-old tradition of tacky sets, bright lights, kitschy call-in graphics and many a bearded talking head. For variation, a presenter will be thrown in to the mix for a little something.
There’s your celebrity Quran-readers who make an appearance every year, usually an hour or so before iftar followed by your staple live Q&A Fatwa Sheikh Show with list of questions that seems to have been dropped down as a recycled standardised list of Ramadan concerns for the past decade. “Does toothpaste nullify my fast?” “Can I taste my cooking while fasting if I don’t swallow it?” “What’s the best time to pray and perform dua’a (prayer)?” and so on.
For the soul-searching, information-rife, questioning Muslim youth, there is little consolation in such superficial attempts at spiritual pacification. Outside the grasp of the television screens, Ramadan is the season for those seeking to use the annual routine-shuffle and disruption of the quotidian to grapple with the tough questions of the spirit and matters of the heart.
Riddled with questions about their place in the world, an increasing number of Muslim youth in the Arab world are becoming impatient with this regimen; and they want answers. It’s a scary world out there. Rohingya Muslims are being massacred in Myanmar, Syria is a battlefield of warring ideologies spilling blood, girls are being married off to their rapists and Pamela Geller is on yet another anti-Muslim mission across the US transportation systems. It is not easy being Muslim.
In an era of hyphenated Muslim identities: Secular, Islamist, Reformer and Progressives, of epidemic sectarianism and of mushrooming Islamite governments across the region, the medieval methods of zealous televangelism simply won’t cut it. And they don’t.
In responding to this mess with hardline religious austerity, mainstream Islamic discourse has rendered itself irrelevant to a Muslim youth seeking to find its place in the world. Fearing the blasphemy tags of an older generation of preachers, an increasing number of Muslims, especially the young among them, have turned elsewhere to deal with their theological dubiety, spiritual wanderlust and varying forms of identity crises.
Exasperated by the images and descriptions of earth-bound apocalyptic destruction awaiting the “ummah” delivered in high-pitched sermons by antiqued religious doomsayers beseeching their people to repent, the curious senses of one too many an Arabic-speaking Muslim youth have, this Ramadan, turned away from the oversaturated television sets and radio stations to YouTube, to get their “daily dose of Moez Masoud”.
Flicking their laptops open to his YouTube channel, Masoud’s parched audiences are greeted with a reassuring smile that tells them from inside a buffering screen that it’s all going to be alright. Quenching their theological thirst, his audiences find in Masoud a voice of reason that speaks their language, understands their problems and quite simply “just gets it”.
A PhD candidate at Cambridge University and graduate of AUC’s Business programme, the 34-year-old is one among a new Muslim televangelist generation, much like Amr Khaled, Mustafa Hosny and the charismatic Jamie Oliver-meets-Anderson Cooper Ahmad Al Shugairi. But what seems to set Masoud apart is his emphasis on the soul, belief and not so much on the practice.
He sets aside the sternness with which Islamic clerics have in recent years grown accustomed to speaking of the faith and focuses instead on the true meanings of Islam and the beauty he says it has been stripped of. In the place of punishment, he speaks of compassion, instead of anger, he speaks of peace, in a world of of haram, he speaks of halal – the Islam of mercy, the Islam of beauty, the Islam of love.
Be it his most recent Rihlat Al Yaqeen ["The Journey of Certainty"] and Thawra Ala Al Nafs ["Revolution against the Self"], or his older English-language beginnings such as “Parables of the Quran” and “So Close No Matter How Far”, Masoud’s high-quality productions and sophisticated concepts set him apart. Philosophy and psychology foci comprise his modus operandi – and it’s resonating far and wide.
Wrath of the zealots
Braving the wrath of the zealots, Moez Masoud is an anomaly in his choice to tackle the rudimentary of Islamic spirituality. Considered by The Economist “as one of the world’s five most influential Muslim preachers”, Masoud seeks to revive the Islamic tradition of spiritual musing.
Soothing the troubled onlooker, he contrasts the habitual chastising somewhere on a screen nearby and encourages questioning and doubt, zeroing in on what he calls “The Big Questions: Who has created me? What am I doing here? Where am I going after I die?” After being told time and time again that such utterance of doubt should not be broached, audiences flock to Moez for a welcome perspective that tells them otherwise. It’s okay to ask questions, it’s normal to wonder, to be conflicted. You’re okay.
Armed with a reading list of the most relevant variety, Masoud speaks a new language that sounds approachable, updated and most importantly, real. The World Economic Forum speaker has spent the past two Ramadan seasons speaking to a Muslim audience rife with questions about Islamic topics ranging from faith, hope, belief, fear, self, anger and doubt.
Comparative religion, snippets from non-Abrahamic faiths, Neo-Atheism, mythology, Socrates, Nietzsche – even Darwin made it into his show. His guest list alone strikes a unique sounding cord by tallying up commentary from the likes of Cambridge University’s TJ Winter, aka Abdal Hakim Murad, and celebrity talk show host Imadeddine Adeeb – juxtaposed with sheikhs from The Noble Azhar University of Islamic Studies and famous Egyptian actors.
Maestro of consciousness, Masoud speaks to the sensory faculties, the realties and then some. “Like a massage to my soul,” describes an avid viewer. Clean editing, elegant graphics and sophisticated set design gives the show an upmarket feel complete with welcome production TLC.
With great cinematography and tasteful art direction, Masoud’s aphorisms are delivered to the audience from a variety of locations, including his trendy living space, walking the streets of London, cross-legged in an Istanbul mosque and riding a train somewhere in the UK. Echoing back to the likes of singer Sami Yusuf, Moez Masoud is sight, a sound and a thought for sore souls.
Call it hipster Islam, call it Sufism, call it a spiritual revolution, Masoud is ushering in a new discourse in Islam rapidly gaining an audience that seldom finds solace elsewhere. Until mainstream television channels decide to play catch up and reinvigorate the rhetorical stalemate clouding their screens, toss out the dinosaurs and deal with the realpolitik of the times, refugees of spiritual content will continue to flock to YouTube. They will patiently await the videos as they buffer to be in better company; the company of the smiling suit-clad harbinger of therapeutic Islamic discourse waiting for them inside their screens, reminding them “it’s all going to be alright”.