Concerns have loomed over how Islamic teachings reach audiences on TV. Controversies, too, have shrouded the credibility and lifestyle of the ustadz (Islamic teacher).
A few weeks ago, for example, a young ustadz told his predominantly older female audience, and many more outside the TV studio, that the biggest pleasure Muslims would receive in paradise is a sex party. The fact that this sermon was delivered on a TV show titled “Islam itu Indah” (Islam is Beautiful) must have been an awkward moment.
Things like this are not new. Controversies surrounding “ustadz celebs” have been around for the last few years. We once heard a celebrity-turned preacher say that the Quranic verses read for the dead will not reach them.
There have been celebrity ustadz who have had a second wife or practiced siri (unregistered marriage). They have become rich from their profession as TV preachers, setting their fee at millions or tens of millions of rupiah for an hour of preaching. Sometimes they show off their fancy houses and luxury cars.
This may not be surprising as TV shows are mostly dictated by ratings. The celebrity ustadz gain from this. The popular audience has its own logic too. Both the media and the masses influence each other. The law of supply and demand works in this “free market” of (religious) ideas.
In compliance with the market rule, the most important qualities of ustadz in selling themselves are being young and good looking, eloquent in citing a Quranic verse or a hadith, having a good Quran-reciting voice, being humorous and attractive and possessing a unique trademark sermon delivery style. The term “da’wahtainment” may summarize them.
The ability to present an entertaining style of da’wah (propagation) is imperative. Intellectual qualities, such as mastering Arabic and holding degrees in Islamic studies, run second, if not third.
Most audiences prefer simple and practical topics over critical, sophisticated issues, which is why an ustadz who delivers a heavy intellectual Islamic topic will certainly not sell. The simpler and more practical the topic, the better.
Being simple means offering a clear yes or no point of view, such as one that is haram or halal, over an issue, instead of saying that there are different opinions among the ulema on a given matter and letting the audience think for themselves.
In this free market, I am sorry to say, moderate Muslim intellectuals mostly lose in the battle for shaping the popular Muslim discourse. Besides TV shows, they are less dominant on the internet, which in part also shapes the TV audiences’ tastes and preferences.
According to Alexa rating, the top-five Indonesian Islamic websites (excluding news portals such as Republika) are mostly Salafi-leaning websites, some of which glorify holy war in the Middle East. It is only recently that the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU)’s official website reached the top five.
On YouTube, Islamic channels with the highest number of subscribers — and consequently views — are also affiliated with Salafi/Wahhabi groups. YouTube videos of Islamic talk shows by Salafi preachers are well edited and displayed and are attractive to the popular audience. One Twitter user, a young preacher and caliphate propagator, has more than 2 million followers, the highest among ustadz.
What is problematic about all this? The problem lies in the quality of Indonesian Muslims’ popular discourse. Muslim celebrities get used to simple answers to complex issues. This results in Muslims’ understanding of Islam as if it is all about rulings, with the citing of one or two Quranic verses or hadiths, often interpreted literally and dogmatically.
This makes discussing controversial but necessary topics such as inter- and intra-faith tolerance and how Muslims should live in a modern nation state a difficult task, especially on TV.
So how can this status quo be changed? There are at least two choices, each of which depends on someone’s ethical preference, i.e. between keeping order and maintaining freedom.
For those who prefer order, certification of ustadz is needed, either from the Religious Affairs Ministry or from the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI). Some have actually proposed this and some Muslim-majority countries, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have practiced it.
This solution includes not only TV shows but also Friday sermons — the latter was full of political propagation during the highly polarizing Jakarta election.
This solution transfers the authority from the TV shows’ managers (dictated by the market) to the state. The quality of topics preached can change but they must first adhere to the state’s censorship rules and they cannot be critical of the state’s policies.
For those who prefer freedom and fair competition, it is Muslim civil society organizations that must take the initiative. We rarely watch young, good looking and eloquent preachers representing NU or Muhammadiyah on religious TV shows. It is time for two of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organizations, each with its own da’wah division, to show how powerful they truly are.
In the end, it is a free market of da’wah. To gain potential customers, one needs to have a shop in the first place. And opportunities are still there.
Popular Muslim audiences, after all, are living in the modern world. Their mindset is mostly shaped by the modern discourse. Sermons that are not in line with the modern environment will most likely be reacted to negatively.
Public negative reactions toward ustadz sermons about a sex party in paradise, however hard he tried to back it up with Quranic verses or hadiths, which indeed exist, exemplify this. Public disapproval of ustadz who practice polygamy is another example.
This shows that TV Muslim audiences, especially those of the millennial generation, are not as dogmatic as we may think, which means they can be encouraged to think and be critical toward their ustadz.