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Interview with Ahmad al-Farrag

20 November 2004, Cairo

Ahmad al-Farrag is one of the pioneers of religious television broadcasting in the Arab world. His long-running program Nur ala Nur, or "Light Upon Light" was the first of its kind in Egypt and a model for future religious talk shows. It also was the first to present star preacher Sheikh al-Shaarawi on television. TBS Deputy Managing Editor Lindsay Wise caught up with him at his offices in Cairo to ask him about his legacy, the history of Islamic broadcasting, and his perspective on today's religious programming and preachers on satellite TV.

TBS: You were a radio presenter before you became the moderator on an Islamic television show. How did you become involved in religious broadcasting?

AF: The truth is I belong to the generation of journalists who joined the Radio in 1954--that's to say, very early on--and that generation was distinguished by the fact that outstanding members of the generations before were at our side right through. We weren't working in a vacuum. On the contrary, we had senior members of the programming staff following up on our work and assessing the potential of every one of us. By monitoring us, such a senior staff member would find out that such and such a broadcaster had a talent for sports, or for variety, or for culture, since each of us had his particular bent according to the way he'd been trained. What we got the benefit of was the fact the people of the generation before ours at the Radio were very alert and monitored us continuously and saw what the gifts and talents of each of us were. Witness is the fact that the director general of programs, for example, would listen to the outside broadcasts that we took part in and note how each of us spoke and what his strengths were. I remember that that program director would listen to the dawn program at four in the morning so as to see what someone was like and whether he was any good. I remember too that after working five months at the Radio, I was nominated to travel to Saudi Arabia with President Abdel Nasser to perform the pilgrimage, even though it was taken for granted at that time that a young broadcaster with only five months experience couldn't possibly accompany the head of state. However, the fact was that the monitoring by our older colleagues had convinced (the director) that this broadcaster--which is to say myself--would be very good at religious material. He could cover the Pilgrimage and any important occasion in which the head of state might participate such as the pilgrimage and so on. This is just a simple example showing that they knew our potential and would help to direct us towards this or that branch of the profession.

Very soon after we entered the Radio there was a program called Round Table Discussion. The same phenomenon was clearly demonstrated when they nominated me to take that over. It was weekly program and I hadn't been in the radio for more than a year. They had started to feel that I had cultural sides too. So I used to do that program once a week. It dealt with intellectual, cultural, economic, and political issues, by virtue of the fact that I was a graduate of the Faculty of Commerce with a political science major. I used to do the program with all its cultural, economic, and social sides, and I would do objective coverage of the conferences that were held, for example, in Egypt-Arab conferences, ministers of trade, tourism ministers, any area whatsoever. This was when one first started to feel that he was being directed or was directing himself towards cultural programs that were in keeping with his gifts, his potential, his aptitudes, his leanings, and his desires.

When the television started in 1960, the then deputy prime minister and minister of national guidance Dr. Abd al-Qadir Hatim contacted me and asked me to work on a religious program on the television. Naturally, it was obvious that this was one of my strong sides--I had a leaning for Islamic culture, but what was the program going to be like, what would I do, how were we to present religion on television? On radio, we could present religion through talk, through dialogue, but how were we to present religion on television? There was even talk of our implementing some ideas that had been mooted that I felt wouldn't have suited me. What suited me in the end was the format that was actually used for Nur ala Nur (Light upon Light), the format of a discussion group in which a number of scholars of religion, who were under no circumstances to exceed two or three, would participate and talk about an issue or topic put to them on the program. We would discuss this topic and then a part of the program would be devoted to the audience in the studio, who would present questions that were unprepared, unorganized, and very natural.

TBS: Your Islamic discussion program Nur ala Nur was the first of its kind broadcast on terrestrial television in Egypt. What is the history of that program? What went into creating it, and what were your goals for it?

AF: This may have been the first real "talk show" on television, in 1960, before talk shows became common, historically speaking of course. Through the years from 1960 up to 1977--about seventeen or eighteen years--the program presented a very large number of scholars, thinkers, and university professors; that's number one. Number two is that these scholars and thinkers didn't all have to be men of religion, Azhari scholars. On the contrary, there were thinkers from the universities and various public figures who were able to participate in the discussion of issues in Islamic thought. Number three is that during the conferences that Egypt witnessed under the aegis of al-Azhar and the Academy for Islamic Research, and the visits to Cairo that were undertaken every now and then by a number of Muslim scholars, I would invite a number of such personalities from different countries. The program hosted, among others, scholars not only from the Islamic world, but Muslims from Europe who represented the Muslim communities present in this or that area. There were also some non-Muslim orientalists, whom I'd meet at some conference or other, and host on the program, in addition to other Western scholars involved with Islamic culture, thought, and civilization. Women were represented, of course, among the personalities who participated, and there were some Christians--even Egyptian Christians, and not just foreign orientalists--when the topic required their participation. This wasn't the basis, however; the basis was that Muslim scholars and thinkers should participate in the examination of the different issues that the program presented.

What were these issues? The issues that the program was careful to present were linked to Islam in all its aspects. The program's basic concern was to set out Islam with all its problems; to set forth Islam as a creed and to attempt to correct some of the confused beliefs that sully this creed or these beliefs in the minds of certain people, whether Muslims or non-Muslims. This required that we allude to Islamic devotional practices. In other words, the first thing was the creed--not in terms of the actual order in which things were dealt with but that was the general concept of the issues that we dealt with. We would present the creed free of any taint of corruption or distortion. Then we would present the devotional practices as we practiced them--the prayer, alms-giving, and pilgrimage--but not just referring to the term as such but trying to operationalize these practices in terms of raising the level of conduct of every Muslim individual and Muslim citizen. Thus, if prayer is the worship of the Lord by his human slave, the effect of this worship must manifest itself in the individual's behavior. It's not natural that a person should pray, and then steal and cheat and betray and treat others badly. Men must be careful that their worship bears fruit in the conduct of the society that has received the divine message.

Topics other than creed with which we used to concern ourselves were pages from the life of the Messenger, peace and blessings be upon him, and the major events through which the Islamic mission passed, whether in Mecca or Medina or on the various occasions that reflect the career and life of the Prophet, peace and blessing be upon him. This was from the perspective that the Prophetic career was a faithful transposition of the principles of Islam. The Messenger, peace and blessing be upon him, did not come to leave us a manifesto on Islamic principles and then depart. Rather, his life was a practical application of all the Islamic rules, of all the things that he commanded us to do or forbade us to do. This is why we also used to concern ourselves with the Prophetic career from the perspective that the facts of the Prophetic career offer the listener a perfect model, a model in which he can find solace in his own life.

So that was how we dealt with the Prophetic career, and the events and occurrences that it contains. Next we would move to Islamic law side so as to demonstrate with the utmost concision--and this is the track we are still following today--that Islam law comprises two sorts of rules. A sort that came in the form of universal, general principles, indivisible, such as, for example, justice, equality, and consultation. These are universal principles and general rules, such as … proper performance of your responsibilities, the honoring of contracts. When a rule or a text of the Law comes in a general form or as general principle, that means implicitly that we are expected to apply this general principle at all times and in all places in a way appropriate to that time and that place. The general principle permits us to make our own deductions because it doesn't come with detailed provisions that are bound to social change. . . .

There are other aspects of the law that Islam deals with in detail, and when principles or rules are received in a detailed form there can be no free application of them. Examples are matters affecting the family such as inheritance issues or marriage issues. This means that we can't have it that in the days of the Messenger marriage was thus and so and then fifty years later say that we're going to change marriage, so that, say, a woman can marry five men, for example. It's not possible. There are other secondary detailed principles on matters that don't change over time or in space. These things Islam has regulated in detail. As for other things, it seems to us that things are the opposite, because how can you imagine that Islam would come up with a general principle for politics. There is the principle of consultation, that the people should govern themselves by themselves, and choose their representatives by themselves. That's to say, Islam sets a general principle or general principles for political issues, which would seem to be more important. And for the family, it specifies every detail, because these are matters that don't change with time and space, whilst the political system is left up to the Muslims to put in place. There are general Islamic principles for the economic system-the Islamic view of assets, the Islamic view of wealth, how wealth is to be acquired, how it is to be spent, what are the requirements relevant to ownership of property, is property public or private-all these details Islam has brought general principles for and it leaves the area of application and decision-making to us. I believe that what we've aimed to talk about in the program from the beginning up to now is everything that concerns the condition of Islam as a rule for the conduct of individuals, and the life of individuals and of society-that is to say the creed, the specific doctrines, their interpretation and the correction of our understanding of those doctrines, how to put those doctrines to work in the service of society's conduct so that they raise level of the quality of life and are not merely performing prayer, so that our conduct is not inappropriate to the relationship between man and Lord because there should be no contradiction there. Man must stand before God in reverence, decorum, and piety. After that, (to then say) "Farewell" and charge into life with all its negative aspects doesn't work.

Law, as I said, consists of two sorts of rules, some of which Islam establishes as general principles and others as detailed principles. All this can be summed up in one maxim--what changes is general and what does not change is specific; this is the essence of what the Law lays down. ... This, in the smallest of nutshells, is the mission of the program.

In the course of its life, the program has presented hundreds of Egyptian, Arab, Muslim, and foreign personalities and scholars. We felt that we were the first program to go beyond the studio, to go out to the mosques, to the colleges, to the clubs, to the front during the War of Attrition. We held seminars on the battles lines, and this was something that had never happened before. The program traveled beyond the borders of the country and presented programs at the Kaaba. Indeed, it was my honor that this should be the first program broadcast from the mosque of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, with special permission from the Saudi Arabian authorities, even before the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia permitted Saudi television itself to enter the sanctuary of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. This is a point of interest for history. The program also went abroad to observe Islamic intellectual conferences in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and a number of other countries. It did episodes from Sudan and it did a number of episodes from other Arab countries. Via these encounters, as I mentioned, many personalities were presented, possibly more than a thousand. I have an archive for the program, with the people who appeared in order of their appearance--I don't believe there's another archive like it for any other program in Egypt, or even perhaps for any program outside. That's to say, from the first episode in 1960-the people who were on the first episode were so and so, on the second so and so, up until I went abroad. . . .

TBS: Do you feel like a pioneer? In what sense? Do you think the work you did opened doors for others?

AF: I believe this was the first religious program on Egyptian television. The Islamic television stations in Arabic came afterwards; they were encouraged to offer religious programs. I remember in fact I was at a conference held in the Algerian city of Tizi-Ouzou and an African scholar got up; I didn't know who he was, of course, and he didn't know I was at the conference, part of which was devoted to "The Role of the Media in Serving Islamic Thought and Culture." So this Muslim scholar from Africa got up and demanded that the recommendations of the conference include a call to Islamic governments to become involved in establishing religious program on the model of the Light upon Light program presented by Egyptian television. He didn't know anything about me or that I was present. This shows that the program and its reputation had reached a very large number of the countries of the world, and I believe that the scholars who participated with me belong to many continents. Another thing: Some of these used to use the word "light" in the program names--for example, Light and Guidance. I mean, it's quite noticeable that these programs included "light" in one way or another--Light and Guidance, Light on the Path--things of that sort. This too shows that the program was able to provide an outstanding model to the exposition of enlightened Islamic culture to the citizens of all Arab and Islamic countries.

TBS:You witnessed first-hand the ability of television to make superstars out of religious figures when Sheikh al-Shaarawi leapt to fame after appearing on Light upon Light for the first time at the age of 59. Can you talk about your relationship with al-Shaarawi?

AF: I can practically say that 90 percent, or even 95 percent, of the personalities that appeared on Light upon Light were making their first appearance before the general public or the media. As for Sheikh al-Shaarawi, God rest his soul, there's a story about that. I was visiting the Sheikh of al-Azhar, Sheikh Hasan Ma'mun, the chief imam, to invite him to appear on the program and participate. His office director received me and apologized because there was an interview that had gone a bit over time and gone past the time of my appointment. Then he sat down and apologized to me for the delay. So I talked with him and we conversed and while we were talking, I started to feel that this man was a very profound thinker and had something that could make a contribution to television and to the program. Then he invited me to go in and see the Sheikh of al-Azhar. I met the Sheikh of al-Azhar and as I was leaving, instead of leaving the building, I went back to the office of this gentleman who was the director of the Sheikh al-Azhar's office to continue our conversation. I felt that he was a very outstanding person, so I invited him to attend the Light upon Light program. This gentleman was Sheikh Muhammad Mutawalli al-Shaarawi, God rest his soul, and this was the very beginning of my acquaintance with him.

TBS: What made Sheikh al-Shaarawi such a broadcasting success, in your opinion?

By the nature of the program, when I present a new personality who has his own technique for the first time, I have to choose an easy topic; i.e., one that doesn't need 100 percent accuracy but might be among the contents of the guest's general knowledge or specialization. Number two, I have to take care that he's not on his own and that there's someone else with him. Three, this other person has to be of a certain caliber so that he can share with me in supporting this new guest. In other words, he has to be careful not to upstage this new guest or impose his presence on him.

I invited with al-Shaarawi Dr. Abd al-Aziz Kamil, God rest his soul, who later became minister of religious endowments. He was a great man, very distinguished, and of a high enough level in religious scholarship, competence, and values to be able to help the person who appeared alongside him, knowing that this was his first time. After that, Sheikh al-Shaarawi was launched on his own. We wouldn't present anyone else with him on the program. His great starting point came when we showed the topic of "The Night Journey and the Ascension" and this launched him like a rocket. He exceeded all expectations, God rest his soul.

Success is not just a matter of religious learning or a person's educational baggage, because the scholars whom we invite on the program are supposed to be specialists in the subject that I'm presenting. In other words, if I choose a certain topic, I have to be careful that I present the person who is qualified by his specialization and interests to go into it. But there must also be the ability to get through to people. It's not enough to be learned. If this person whom I putting a question to is the author of a book on the topic, I'm not asking him to present the book, but I may ask him to summarize the book or a chapter of the book in five minutes or so. This is where the importance of being able to get your message across comes in. Sheikh al-Shaarawi, God rest his soul, was blessed with an extraordinary capacity in this area. He had an unprecedented appreciation for the Arabic language, in which the Qur'an was revealed. It followed that his unusual capacity to appreciate the language allowed him to explore the Islamic, values-related, faith-based significations of the language, and his explorations opened up very wide horizons, revelatory of the givens of Islamic thought and Qur'anic and modern culture.

TBS: In your opinion, how has the explosion of Arab satellite channels over the last decade changed the landscape of religious broadcasting?

AF: It's normal that the satellites should be as interested in religious as in other programs, though I do think that the Arab satellites don't in fact give enough attention to religious programs. There are satellites that deal with the religious side of things concisely but very well, such as the program The Sharia and Life that Sheikh al-Qaradawi presents on Al Jazeera TV. The issue, however, isn't how much, but how. The speaker must be capable of expounding Islam to the listener in a form which, as I said earlier, is free of distortion, prejudice, injustice, unjustified attacks, ignorance, and extremism. Indeed, he needs to have the capacity to present the true Islam in a simplified form that reaches both people's hearts and minds. The other point is that, when the satellites succeed in presenting Islamic culture, as he hope and pray that they will, they should do so in a way that does not result in people being put into two camps-a camp that is besotted with the past and can see nothing good in the present at all and pays no attention to anything after the period of the prophetic mission, the era of the great Companions, and a small part of the following periods, and attaches no importance to anything else. This is a sort of conflict with the future that we do not want. And there are others on the opposite side who talk of contemporaneity and so on, what we might call modernization, people who want to "contemporize" Islam, and this is unwise. Islam deals with the present and the future through the immutable and the mutable, as I have explained….We have to improve the way we present these things and not lead the Muslims into a conflict with the past or a conflict with the future. Islam can transcend time to the extent that we present it in its correct tolerant and noble form that presents the most elevated example of justice, of equality among people. This realizes the intent of the real Islam. And there are many examples.

TBS: What do you think about today's new-style television preachers like Amr Khaled, Khaled Al-Guindi, and others? Is there anyone who stands out?

I can only give my opinion on those whom I have seen. I can't say anything about anyone I haven't seen. I've seen Amr Khaled. Amr Khaled is a very fine young man and he puts his gifts and capabilities and talents to extremely good use. He talks about the prophetic career, about the spiritual life, about the examples and morals to be found in the life of the Prophet, and about the many stands taken by the Companions that form the truest expression of the Companions' understanding of the correct Islam. At the same time, I have never seen Amr Khaled forcing himself into the field of making legal edicts (fatwas). All I find is that he presents Islam in its tolerance and its simplicity and its values and its perspective on the ethical and behavioral values that reflect the true principles of Islam, free of falsehood and unfounded speculation. This is a very great quality. Of course, I don't watch him all the time, and when a lot of people, such as yourself, insisted on asking me, "What do you think of Amr Khaled, what do you think of Amr Khaled?" I said I can't give an opinion. At most I had heard five minutes. So I decided I'd look out for him and I heard him in two or three or four episodes and I came to the conclusion that I have expressed.

Sheikh Khaled (al-Guindi) also I've heard in just a few episodes and I think he's a fine man and he also presents Islam in an excellent way. I haven't seen anyone else. Yusuf al-Qaradawi is, of course, the acme. Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi is the acme and don't think that this outstanding sheikh has any equal in this age of ours, unless of course there's someone I haven't seen or heard. Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi--God prolong his life--when you listen to him you see the Islam of the modern age, an open-minded Islam, the true, clear Islam standing proud, because our problem, as I told you, is that there's a group of people who are at war with the past, they want to relaunch the first life of Islam by making everything contemporary, so they contemporize everything; they want to contemporize everything so that they can extract Islam starting from its essence. And there are others who are locked into the past and look at everything in the present negatively. All that is wrong. The present has advantages and we have the principle in the sharia that "wisdom is the sought for treasure of the believer."

What do we mean by "the sought-for treasure of the believer"? We mean the thing that he lacks, and which, if he finds it, is his before any other's. Given that wisdom is so highly valued, I, as a Muslim, have the best right to it, even if its source is not Islam. These are some general concepts. Opinions differ over the different "schools" in Islam, and we believe that the schools of Islam should be considered "parties" in jurisprudence, just as the parties should be considered schools in politics. Pluralism is a part of Islam, meaning plurality in intellectual opinions and in jurisprudential schools, which indicates to us that pluralism is a fact, a given, and good and accepted in Islam. This is why we have a convention among Muslim scholars, that when one of them has an opinion he says, "Our opinion is correct but may be wrong, and the opinion of others is incorrect, but may be right." If I were to say that my opinion is correct and everyone else is wrong we will never some to an understanding, but when I say, "My opinion is correct"-and I must be convinced of this opinion of mine based on study and knowledge. Yet at the same time, I must bear in mind the possibility that I'm wrong, and that, though I'm convinced that your opinion is wrong ... we can find common ground in between these two possibilities and the two opinions can interact with one another and we can exchange arguments; then I may move over to your opinion or you may move over to mine, or the two of us may move to a third opinion that is more mature, and so on.

TBS: Do you think television as a medium for religious discussion is purely a good thing, or does it have negative aspects? What might those be?

AF: The use of television to convey the truth of religion is a wonderful thing. The misuse of this means, however, meaning the use of television for spreading confusion or conveying distorted opinions about religion, is very dangerous. This is why I believe that the television and the media in general have a very precise responsibility in terms of choosing those who will occupy themselves with fatwas and judging, and with expounding Islam. Without intending any comparison, it's not for the radio or the TV to present someone as a singer when he has an ugly voice. This would be abnormal. In my job in the media I'm not a charitable society. The media is not a charitable society, such as might present amateurs in the field of singing for example. The media presents the cream of this or that profession ... It's the same for religion, though religion is more important and has graver consequences. I can't present someone who's a quarter of a scholar or half a scholar or insecure in his scholarship, for this is the most dangerous thing for the thought of future generations. It can even get the older people muddled in their thinking. This is why it's up to the television especially to choose the scholars they deal with for talking about Islam carefully. They have to choose well and carefully and make absolutely no compromises because it's a matter of the utmost gravity, and any deformation or shortcoming in the thinking he presents will be reflected among millions of people. A good word, a kindly, honest, well studied, accurate, correct word, can bring a people to life; but likewise, a bad word can kill a people. This is the grave significance for television: that we have to choose.

And then I notice that some of the satellites host people and then they presentfatwasdirectly on air, and this sort of program is very dangerous. I've listened to some of the them and they contain mistakes, and unfortunately many of those I've listened to don't have a careful, correct training in Islamic jurisprudence. We have people who say, "I don't know, so I'll make a fatwa." If you ask me a question and I don't know the answer, I'll say I don't know and that'll be my fatwa. … Most unfortunately, I've never, not even once, seen a scholar, man or woman, say, "I don't know." That any question that is asked can be answered is impossible, without thought and as though it was shameful or disgraceful for me to say that I don't know. Let me draw an example. I did a program on Dream TV for about a year or so, and they asked me to do an open on-air seminar and let people ask questions by telephone. So I invited the chief mufti Dr. Ali Gumaa, the mufti of the republic, and I asked him a question based on one received by telephone, in other words, I asked him something by way of clarification, to throw more light on the answer. He said to me, "the fact is the subject needs more study." I was really delighted with this answer and seized the opportunity to correct the prevailing situation on the satellites. I said to him, "I thank you, your eminence, because the fact is that on some of the satellites the speakers feel ashamed to say that they need to study the matter, and give answers that may not be accurate, or indeed that may be incorrect. So I thank you because you have presented a model to scholars to the effect that if they are not sure, they should say, 'I need to study the matter.'" That is how it's supposed to be, so I seized the opportunity to address the problem that I personally get upset about, when I hear scholars speaking and some of them have no shame about answering without thinking and without taking care, and this is very dangerous. … Naturally, if the answer's correct, that's fine, but there are answers that I wish, if they aren't clear in the guest speaker's mind, he'd say, 'Really, I'd prefer to get back to you on that one."

TBS: What are your current projects?

AF: Concerning television, when I was asked to return to presentingLight upon Light, I asked the authorities to make the program once every two weeks instead of once a week, so that I could read and study, so now I present Light upon Light every two weeks and not weekly, except during the month of Ramadan, when I did it every week. It's just a month, and can be accommodated. At the same time, it's my honor to work as a consultant to the head of the Lower House of parliament on Arab affairs. However, I'm now retired. There are lectures I'm invited to give from time to time.

TBS: Thank you very much for taking the time to meet with us today.

Translated by Humphrey Davies, TBS Managing Editor

About Lindsay Wise

Lindsay Wise is former managing editor of Transnational Broadcasting Studies (TBS). She has a B.A. in English and Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia and an M.Phil. in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from St. Antony's College, University of Oxford, where she earned distinction for her thesis on popular Egyptian da'iya Amr Khaled. Titled "Words from the Heart: New Forms of Islamic Preaching in Egypt," the thesis explored the recent rise of “tele-Islamists” through satellite television and the Internet. In addition to her work with TBS, she also is a freelance journalist in Cairo.

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