Moez Masoud is a 27-year-old Egyptian who hosts his own English-language Islamic talk shows, Parables from the Quran and Stairway to Paradise, on the Saudi-owned ART satellite network. With several new TV contracts in the works, including the possibility of a show on an American channel, the handsome young economics graduate from American University in Cairo is a rising star in the world of televised Islamic da’wa. After a near-death experience in 1996, Masaud made an oath with God that he would change his life—give up alcohol and dating, start praying regularly and respecting his parents—or God could end it. TBS managing editor Lindsay Wise met Masaud in Cairo to talk to him about his work, his new style of Islamic da’wa on TV, and his own spiritual journey, which has taken him from Cairo to cities all over the world, including America and Europe. He hopes to raise Muslims’ consciousness about their own religion as well as deconstruct myths about Islam prevalent in the West.
TBS: So how did you start getting into preaching?
MM: Bismallah, in the name of God, the most gracious, the most compassionate. Well, it’s interesting you use that term, because I’m actually adverse to that. Though I don’t mind you saying that…
TBS: You prefer da’wa?
MM: Yeah, I like the word da’wa more because it’s more accurate. Da’wa means to call and to invite, as you know, and it’s more accurate in terms of describing what I attempt to do, and I hope that Allah, the Lord, the Maker accepts that. But it’s also because the word preaching has a lot of baggage that comes with it, particularly in the West. But as far as da’wa goes, I think it’s a very natural thing for me. I was on a very different path from this one and you can almost say I was on the other side completely, if there is such a thing.
TBS: So you changed your life?
(Masoud describes losing friends to a car accident, overdose and cancer, only to face his own life-threatening surgery during his freshman year at AUC. After recovering, he breaks a vow he made with God to stop drinking and lead a better life by going to a New Year’s party. Afterwards he almost crashes his car, and decides this is his final chance. He writes a personal contract with God, starts over, and this time makes it stick.)
MM: You know, 1996 was a really tough year in fighting little tequila bottles, big vodka bottles, all these different things, because I would go out with my friends to the bars, but I simply wouldn’t drink. It was very, very rough, and I really understood what it meant to spend from what you love for the sake of Allah. True change is when you take out something you love that is wrong and you say, ‘I love You more, and the proof of it is here. I’m dying to do this, but you know what, I ain’t going to do it.’ So I spent from what I loved at the time and I held true to everything I had already said. Everything was good. I was praying. For about a year and a half, so up until about February 1997, I was doing my five prayers, because that was part of the oath, but usually I was doing all five at night, because that’s when I would remember. It was easy on me and I liked what I did. And had anyone approached me with this firm, holier-than-thou technique, I would have been repelled completely. That’s why I’m against the word preacher. You know, ‘Repent now!’ That kind of approach is just not Islamic or Christian or anything.
(But Masoud still had further to go on his own spiritual journey. He goes on to describe meeting a blind man his own age at the mosque at AUC. The meeting once again changed Masaud’s life.)
MM: What really struck me what that he was completely unconcerned with his blindness and talking to me about how beautiful Allah is, how short life in the world is, how you should use it to get closer to Allah, how true vision is seen with your heart, and how thankful he was to Allah. Now that was just a paradox. I was looking and thinking he has less than I do and he’s thanking more than I do. Something’s wrong with this picture. He’s lying, let me test him. I was just like, ‘You’re insane!’ And at that moment I began to realize (and I can say maybe that was one of the best days of my life) I began to realize what inward vision, known as basira in the Quran, what that was all about. I realized that as human beings we can see with our hearts and that this man was certainly one who saw with his heart. … I would get just in a spell as soon as he read (the Quran) and I couldn’t leave him when he had to go, so we exchanged numbers and I was overcome by this incredible feeling of love towards the divine. The divine always existed as far as I was concerned, but I had no personal understanding of the divine. It wasn’t intimate. He didn’t love us and we didn’t love Him. It was heaven-hell. Business deal. You know what I mean? ‘You be good or else!’ ‘You be bad and you’re punished!’
That moment (when I had this realization) was so timeless. I remember running downstairs to the main (AUC) campus, to the garden area and to the basketball court where all my friends are, shouting, ‘We don’t thank Allah! We don’t thank Allah!” Everybody thought I was insane. I kept saying, ‘We don’t thank Allah enough!’ And people were just like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ or ‘Oh he’s just sick.’ And I just realized that was the state I was in before I met that guy, so I couldn’t blame them. And immediately I didn’t have a holier-than-thou attitude. This is one of the greatest blessings. I’ve never felt that because I know something that they don’t, that I’m any better than them. If anything, I’m more accountable. So I didn’t hate anybody. I knew I had to distance myself for a while, just because of the weakness, but I knew that now was the beginning of my inward path. I realized that it wasn’t simply about not drinking or not not praying. It wasn’t about not doing things. It was about loving Allah. Those outward actions were sanctions to nurture an inward love. You know what I mean? Allah says, (now I’m looking back at what I’ve learned) ‘Establish prayer’—that’s the outward form—‘to remember me’—that’s the inward reality. And I started to pray more on time because I wanted to now, not because it was obligatory. I started to pray with love. I wanted to go to the mosque. I felt something different when I went there. I enjoyed that.
TBS: Something inside you had changed?
MM: Something inside me had changed. I saw with my heart. I’d be sitting with you and knowing that Allah sees me and enjoying that. Instead of feeling guilty or repressing it, which is what we’re all doing, even as religious people.
TBS: Did you lose some friends over this?
MM: Fortunately, hardly any. I can’t take the credit for it. It was a God-given thing. But again I didn’t patronize anybody. I didn’t tell anybody they had to change. I just talked to them about what I saw, if at all.
TBS: Did your appearance change? Did you grow a beard?
MM: Nothing changed about me physically at all. Nothing at all. I’m very fortunate because Allah introduced me to moderate people right away. For example, I know Islamically its differed upon, but for men for the most part it is a very favorable thing and yes, according to some of the schools of thought it’s slightly reprehensible to shave it for no reason because it’s part of what Allah uses to distinguish a man from a woman. And all prophets have beards. But I was introduced to people who said that if your mother doesn’t want it, your obedience to your mother takes precedence for now. My mother was insane about me: ‘He’s gonna be a terrorist! Oh my God, oh my God! I didn’t put him in American schools for this! I could have sent him to some mediocre Islamic school! I can’t believe this!’ She went crazy. And I don’t blame her.
TBS: There wasn’t much precedent at the time for people who were becoming more religious but not extremist. Now it seems like there’s more of that.
MM: That is beautiful. You’ve been studying Cairo’s religious history very well, apparently. I actually agree with you. No, that’s a really good observation, Lindsay. There were no precedents. Now people can look back and say, well, so-and-so’s like that, but there wasn’t any of that. And this was the Abdul Nasser geel. The generation of Abdul Nasser, who just have some serious dogma about religion they’ll never be able to let go of. And again I don’t blame them. But of course I wasn’t half as diplomatic as I am right now with her so for a while I entered that struggle of getting angry with her, but then I remembered the oath and so I realized I needed to spiritually grow. So a lot of my growth came from taming my nafs, my soul, from being angry at my mother despite my seeing her as wrong: ‘She’s wrong, she’s not even wearing hijab!’
TBS: What does she think of you now?
MM: Oh, she loves me! Thanks be to God. It’s such a blessing how things have changed. She adores me.
TBS: She’s proud of your work, then?
MM: She’s proud of my work and she realizes that that was potentially unjustified worry, but at the time, she wouldn’t have known. So none of us regret what happened. She disallowed me from going to the mosque. Many times I’d have to lie to say, ‘Oh I’m going by the club,’ and then go by the club and then go to the mosque.
TBS: Most people would lie about going to bars or something.
MM: I know! It’s hilarious. What the heck’s wrong with this picture? Abdul Nasser, what did you do to these people?
TBS: So how did you go from this inward journey to da’wa, something that is more outward?
MM: Well, I’m glad we’ve found that outline to work with—outward then inward—because that’s important. Eventually, the more I fell in love with Allah, with the divine, the more I did those things that are outward actions with complete spirit, completely energized, loving everybody, loving everything. It was a really interesting high. It wasn’t corny at all either because you’d be wise, you’d select what to say, but at the same time, you were on a high. It was higher than any high I have tried physically, you know? It is the real high. Getting high on ecstasy or on drugs is a cheap physical imitation of what true religion can offer. So I’m still getting high at this point, you know? I’m gettin’ high, gettin’ high, gettin’ high, I’m praying, I’m doing better at school. Things are cool, you know what I mean? And at that point, I was attending a lot of the lecturers that were out there, some superficial, some not, some more rigid than others. I didn’t mind because that’s what I wanted. I was just being nurtured.
And what happened was—now this was still only in the month since I met my (blind) friend, right? So in that month so much was happening. And then came along the fitna, the temptation, the test that Allah puts for those who attempt sincere iman, sincere faith into immediately. Allah says in Surat Al Ankaboot (The Spider), ‘Do people think that they will be left to say, ‘We belive,’ and then they will not be tested?’ So you have to go through that. My very clear one—I won’t get into detail—but I obviously was still struggling with my sexual desire, especially that now I was abstaining from even holding handsWhat happened to me was that at one point there was this girl and she was a study-abroad student and the blond, blue-eyed, green-eyed thing is exotic over here. And usually a guy likes a girl who everyone else likes as well because that’s a challenge, and she was agreed upon to be the hottest chick in the student hostel.
(Masaud describes how he had a crush on this girl, and after she expressed interest, he took her on a date.)
MM: So I remember the struggle was inside me and I remember at one point I thought, ‘You know what, if she is not going to be on the same path, I’ll have to spend her. If she is, I’ll marry her. Easy! It’s very easy! I’ll engage her and then I’ll marry her.’ And I look at her and I’m like, ‘Do you believe in God?’ I think I started off saying, ‘What happens after we die?’ And she just goes, ‘I guess we just go into a deep, deep sleep forever. And suddenly—you ever seen (the movie) Devil’s Advocate? Did you see the end, the bit where that supposedly beautiful woman turns into ashes? That happened to her, as far as I was concerned, in my eyes. I looked at her and suddenly I understood. I’m just like, ‘You don’t even believe in a Maker? Like there’s no afterlife? I mean you could have problems and we could talk about that, but zero?’ She says yeah. And suddenly you know that struggle in my heart? My iman(faith) won. It really won. And I wasn’t angry at her. I can’t do anything. I can’t force her. I’m like, ‘Okay, whatever,’ and I kind of get numbed and after a while I just take her home and it’s gone, it’s over.
As soon as that happens, Ramadan is just two or three nights away in ’97 and all of a sudden, I’m waking up in Ramadan—I had already picked up this really great habit from my friend of listening to this one reciter, a very poetic musical voice, you know, and I was already listening to about a juz a day, which is about 1/30th of the Quran a day and just hearing it without understanding a single word. So that same guy who barely spoke any Arabic was suddenly in that month and after having spent that girl for the sake of Allah, reading a juz a day, not understanding, but following through. Within a month or two, actually after Ramadan ended, I started knowing parts of the Quran by heart. And probably a year later, I knew the entire book by heart. Thanks be to God, now I know the Quran by heart. I need to review, and I do, but I didn’t try to, Lindsay. I didn’t try to memorize it. I’m against that.
TBS: So how did you do it?
MM: By loving it. You know, I was very passionate about it. When I knew all the NBA statistics, I never sat there and memorized them. There was no sheikh who taught me that. But I knew everything about Michael Jordan’s average every year. I just loved the game. Well, I loved the Quran. And so at that point, that was my education. One hour with God a day, no matter what happened I would sit about 45 minutes to one hour staring at the Quran, listening to that beautiful voice and then coming back to the world. And obviously if I didn’t understand I would push pause a lot, and read the English translation because that’s my language. About a year after that, not only did I know the book by heart, but I pretty much knew the English translation by heart! Just to show you what was happening. And I was still attending lectures from time to time, learning more, but again it was more inward learning, divine grace, really.
TBS: Can you tell me what lecturers you went to?
MM: For example, there was Amr Khaled, just since he was the most prominent one. I will tell you that I did attend a few of his lectures at the time. I actually got to know him personally because he was fascinated by one of the comments I made at one of his lectures in ’98. Back then, he wasn’t very well-known, so we were only 20 people. He’d say something and I’d say something and he’d say, ‘I like the way you think.’ It’s amazing that later on in life we’re on a similar path. I’m not saying it’s identical, not because I have anything against what he’s doing, but I do know I’m doing something different. I definitely know that. But within the same greater umbrella, inshallah. And other people. There was a sheikh called Mohammad Saad. There was another one Sheikh Ragab Zaki. But Amr Khaled was definitely one of the most prominent ones. He got to be more known the next year and his lectures became very passionate and very powerful and I can say I benefited a lot from Mr. Amr Khaled’s lectures at the time. But then also what happened later—so now we’re about ’99—and naturally what was happening in those years as I was learning those things was that I was sharing them in an unintimidating manner to people.
TBS: Just personal?
MM: Just personal. Like I’m talking this story to you right now. I’m just told you a story. I would just say that story. Not because I wanted to convert anybody, but just if they felt interested to ask. Because they would ask, ‘What happened to you?’ They knew me, and so we would talk, and a lot of people would change. So when you asked about my friends, actually a lot of them eventually took that path as well because they saw it as the more sensible decision.
TBS: Kind of like peer pressure?
MM: It’s a different kind of peer pressure. It is a double edged sword. It works both ways, and that’s why one of the greatest ways to bring people back to the true way of God is to look at people who were on the other path who’ve changed. You know, you look at Omar Ibn Khattab, the second caliph and the companion of the Prophet. What was he like? They used to say Omar is alcohol and alcohol is Omar. When someone like him changed, a lot of people changed. The Prophet himself prayed for the change of Omar because he knew that would bring a lot of people back to their senses.
TBS: Did you learn these kinds of stories from listening to lectures? Do you also read histories? The Sunna?
MM: Later on—so now we’re looking at early 2000— it developed into more sophisticated readings. I was exposed to many of the doubts out there, misperceptions about Islam, the mistreatment of religion, which is, if at all, a followers problem, not a religious problem. Jihad, all these different things. And also at that point, I’d also been introduced to real scholars as well. When I say real scholars, I mean scholars of the outward and the inward. The ’ulama (scholars), who are fukaha (religious judges), but also mutazakun, who have purification of the heart. Because Islam is three dimensions, if I can even use this term. There’s Islam, iman, ihsan. Islam, which is the outward forms, iman, which is what we believe in that conviction, ihsan, which is the life of all this excellence of worship and the science of Islam, the outward, is fiqh. So you need to get your fiqh from fukaha.
The science of iman is aqeeda. You need to know what to believe in, how many angels there are out there. That there are two angels on each of your side respectively, taking down what you’re doing. That God is one, that God is indivisible, that He’s outside of the realm of space and time. That’s aqeeda. But the one that has been neglected is the ihsan, the science of purification of the heart. How to become a saint, how to become someone who is so close to God that God says about those people, ‘I am the eyes with which they see.’ Not just for the prophets. This is attainable by anybody in the world now. ‘I am the eyes by which they see, the ears by which they hear, the hands and feet that they use.’ These people are very close to Allah. What is it about them that’s so godly? How do I become that person who God moves? That is the science of ihsan, and it’s been marginalized, even neglected completely.
TBS: And you’re bringing in back, in a way?
MM: I would love to be a fraction of an iota of trying to bring that back. If only I can embody it. This is where you walk the talk. This is where you embody all these theories of Islam and iman, it’s ihsan. And so I had begun to meet scholars of ihsan, who were also fukaha, who had outward knowledge but also had inward. So I began learning from them physically and spiritually from observing them. I had slowly started to become famous. Well, actually, the fame only started when later on. The end of the year 2000 I graduated, was working in the States, came back for a while and was going to go back there and I got an invitation to speak at one of the Muslim communities in America, in upstate New York.
TBS: This is before September 11?
MM: A year before September 11. I go there, I accept that invitation. I was very reluctant. I didn’t feel like I could handle that burden of speaking, but people insisted, and they wanted me to lead the prayer because I knew the whole Quran by heart. Speaking wasn’t the main thing, it was the leading. And I love the prayer, but naturally again, I’m here, you’re here, let’s share. We started sharing; it went haywire. People, alhamdulelah, alhamdulelah, people were attending from everyplace, people drove down from Canada. People liked the approach. They called it a breath of fresh air. ‘You’re not patronizing us,’ you know? ‘You’re sharing.’ That’s why I’m insistent upon the fact that I’m not a preacher, you know what I mean? I want to maintain that. And it was an amazing month. I changed drastically. I know people who call me to this very day—literally to this very day—and say, ‘I changed drastically in that month, please visit us again.’ I just knew that Allah was doing it. I wasn’t doing it. All I had to do was be sincere, love the divine, talk about Islam lovingly, and not be defensive, not be intimidated, and share.
TBS: Did you realize at that point that you might have more of a path to take along those lines?
MM: Absolutely. I mean, at the end of that month it was like, ‘What’s going on? What’s happening in my life?’ And I knew that I needed to get married at that point. Obviously as a guy who had already had a past, I was struggling with this desire inside of me and I didn’t want to commit anything wrong and alhamdulelah I already made a deal with Allah five years before that not to fornicate, but we’re even talking about the look now, we’re at the point where Jesus Christ says, ‘Don’t even look. Don’t let your eye sin, and if it does, get it out, because it’s better for part of your body to go to hell than your entire body.’ This isihsan, because you know that blackens a part of your heart and you want to keep a pure heart to maintain and enjoy the divine presence in it at all times. And so I was worried. And I remember that’s actually when I got to know my fiancé, now my wife, and alhamdulelah, God actually responded to my du’a—I made a prayer for me to marry her in that month, and about three years later we did get married.
TBS: What’s her name?
TBS: And is she Egyptian?
MM: She is. It’s almost like a miracle the way we met. It was in a play. Somewhere along the line I was going through a rough time and I wasn’t dating because I wasn’t allowed to in my philosophy anymore, but I went to a play and in the play was my future wife. This really pretty girl who was really innocent, spoke really good English, who I looked at and then looked away because she was really pretty and I just said, you know, if eventually she’d, out of being convinced, of course, because I didn’t try to change people, she’d actually also wear hijab and be fully Islamic both outwardly and inwardly, then I’d marry her. When we got engaged she didn’t wear hijab and then she later on wore it out of her own conviction.
TBS: So you think that veiling is fard (requirement under Islam), but still has to be a personal choice?
MM: I think that it’s a fard, and that a woman will choose to obey that fard or not. And I also think that doesn’t diminish from it being a fard, just like my prayer. Prayer is a fard, but you can’t force me to pray. Particularly in times like these. I mean, we can look at Islamic theory and look at what it was like when there was (an Islamic) state and how there’s the peer pressure and how well the ruler can actually speak to those who don’t pray. That’s another lifetime right now. May Allah bring it back. It is for the good of humanity, but right now people are very far from being pressured into these very holy, noble things. So I think that yes, if you give her space and show her the profundity, inwardly, of spending from what you love, of being like the Virgin Mary, of having your value not be based upon your outward appearance, she’ll do it. Heck, she’ll do it. And my wife did it, and she said, ‘I’m liberated!’
TBS: But back to your talk in New York.
MM: The talks (in Rochester) were video taped, but not at my request. I didn’t care, I didn’t even ask for the tapes. I said, ‘Do whatever you want.’ I wasn’t bothered by that. ‘Let’s do real here and now, loving, fearing and hoping Allah’s mercy, his wrath, fearing losing the love of Allah within us, let’s do da’wa, let’s all get close to God.’ I come back. First I go to work in the Emirates for a month or two and I realize I’m not an employee, I’m just not.
TBS: Because you’re a leader?
MM: Well, alhamdulelah, may I be one for the sake of Allah only, may I never be one if I’m a liar, but yes, I did have that quality. Could not be employed. So I come back to Egypt and start my own company and it does really well. My friend and I make this incredible project where we’re actually interviewed by Business Today, we make 100,000 LE in a very stagnant time in the economy in Egypt. We really go with innovations. It’s beautiful. Things are going great, my (future) father in law now thinks I’m doing well professionally so there’s hope, I’m struggling, like I said, my fiancée and I we’re not trying to go anywhere near that red line. It’s difficult. But at the same time I’m beginning to get introduced to more and more scholars of the inward, so I’m beginning to be exposed more and more to the profundity of Islamic philosophy. It’s not empty slogans, it’s not about do’s and don’t do’s. It’s about love. It’s about the ends, for which the means, which are the outward forms, were sanctioned. It’s about that experience I had in ’97. Now I know there’s a curriculum for actually purifying the heart. So I’m more and more firm upon religion now because I see it, I’ve actually been exposed to misperceptions, I’m not threatened by them.
So I begin to study with those scholars, and late 2002 my friend and I decided to discontinue the company because it had caused personal problems between us. It was at the peak of its success but we chose our friendship over that. And Subhan Allah I guess Allah was doing that for another reason because about a week or two later I got a phone call: ‘We saw a video tape of you in America and you’re going to host one of our shows on ART.’
TBS: Was it Iqraa?
MM: No, it was ART specifically. Basically because Iqraa is co-owned by ART I happen to be on it. I don’t work with Iqraa at all, period. I have nothing against it either, but I like to reach out to people who aren’t religious. And Iqraa is already catering to a religious audience, right? I actually was on as a guest on a few episodes as well before that, so they probably saw me on those as well, but whatever it was, they said, ‘Let’s have a show. What are you going to call it?’ I’m going to call it Parables in the Quran. I don’t know why, that’s just what came to me.
TBS: So this program aired when?
MM: It aired in Ramadan 2002. That’s it. And then we do the show and then Subhan Allah, people are listening, people are watching.
TBS: It was in Arabic?
MM: It was in English. I don’t do anything in Arabic. I figure there’s so many people doing Arabic and not enough people doing English. If I’m going to be useful anywhere, may it be where the need or the niche is.
TBS: What is your niche? Who’s your audience? Are you reaching out to people like yourself, who are Western-educated Arabs or Muslims? Or are you reaching out to Arabs and Muslims living in the West?
MM: I pray to Allah that I reach out, just out of love for my fellow humans, and when I say that I include all of humanity, not just my fellow Muslims. I pray that I can reach out to—not in order of priority—people who are like me who were brought up in the East and the Middle East, definitely second and third generation English-speaking Muslims abroad. Now I am in the middle of a negotiation with an American channel as well to reach out to people who are American, in other words not necessarily Muslim.
TBS: To educate them about Islam?
MM: Yes because I feel that there’s too much garbage out there by some people and garbage out there misrepresenting Islam by some people in the media as well that there needs to be no defensiveness but there needs to be a real representation, a representation. We need to represent Islam, and again, with no defensiveness. So that (first) show started and most of the calls and emails we got were from that second group we mentioned, which is the second and third generation English speakers abroad.
TBS: Mostly young?
MM: Mostly young, but definitely a lot of older ones too who were just interested because of their children as well. But yeah, definitely the youth. Just a day or two into the first episode being aired, I’m getting invitations to speak everywhere. In the Muslim centers in California, Malaysia, Egypt.
TBS: So there’s a real desire for this.
MM: There’s a real desire for it. Absolutely.
TBS: What do you think it is? Is it that there has been in the past so few people who have been able to have an attractive style of speaking about religion that was modern and entertaining and compelling? Do you think people are looking for a moderate voice?
MM: I think there’s a few things. One, definitely there’s a pursuit of moderation. Absolutely. Two, there’s definitely been fewer before and more now. The trend has definitely been started. People who know people, who know their problems, who are not on a holier-than-thou pedestal, you know what I mean. Three, one of the main reasons that people have been repelled earlier—was a fear of extremism. So you need moderation, you need sincerity, you need to know your audience, you need to know their problems, you need to be of them.
TBS: You need to be able to speak their language?
MM: You need to be able to speak their language in all meanings of that word language. ‘A messenger from among your own selves has come to you.’ That’s the idea. You’re going to be messengers of the messengers of God and that’s the way it is.
TBS: Do you think part of that’s your image? That you’re young, contemporary, speak colloquial and that people can identify with you?
MM: I’m sure that’s a great part of it. That can’t be denied. If you look like people, if you sound like them and you speak their own colloquial language, you’ve broken a lot of barriers that are usually put up. I mean, I’ve spoken fusha (Classical Arabic) with people and I’ve seen immediately where they go, they tune out. So yeah, I think so. I think that charisma on its own is never enough because I’ve seen some charismatic people without sincerity, who you can tell have ulterior motives and they just drive people away. But if charisma is coupled with the more important element of sincerity, moderation and knowing the people, then yes, absolutely, definitely, you have a success.
TBS: What is it that you’re doing now? I know that after that program you did Stairway to Paradise, right?
MM: That’s my second program.
TBS: I noticed in that program that you had a group of young people in the studio with you, discussing. It wasn’t a lecture.
MM: Absolutely. At the very onset, my first appearance on the show was me with eight people. Four guys and four girls.
TBS: How did you choose the people?
MM: Well, I’ll reiterate that I actually chose the idea of having people period. That was rough for people at first to accept. I said, ‘I don’t want to talk to an audience. Other people do, but it’s not the role I want to play. And I don’t want to be alone. I want to have a discussion.’ Because that’s the way it was. That’s why I was thinking about the word preaching early, just to rub that point in.
TBS: So you’re a talk-show host?
MM: In a way. It’s not a typical talk show, but absolutely. And so how I chose them was that I screened people, and I had people help me screen people. They had to speak the language, first. If they didn’t have the language it was difficult. At first we had some issues because of availability, and the time restraints as well. We had to do 30 episodes in ten days. So for me it was like whoa, we have to do three a day? I don’t have any experience. But Allah made it easy. So there’s language and there’s also the level of religiosity, I mean outward and inward. People had to be moderate. They had to love others. I mean, they could have been simple. For me, if it was a choice between a rigid, outwardly religious person with no inward truth, or an inward, loving person who is still standing on the limbs, I’d chose the person who drank and still had love in him. And I had a lot of people like that, you know, who drank and still did those other things but were on their way at their own pace.
TBS: You were interested in the interaction, rather than just the lecture.
MM: Absolutely. And I didn’t even want it for engaging television, although it was. Interestingly enough, this is one of the things Allah does with people. You want something for another reason, he gives you the beneficial side-product. I just wanted it because that’s how I thought the information and the knowledge should be shared. It should be real. It was all about being real.
So later on, I stuck to that model, except once when there was no time we had to do 25 episodes in five days. it was horrible. But those days, we couldn’t get people and viewers were already commenting about repeating appearances. So I said, you know what, I’ll do what I hate doing, just to see, just to test it, I’ll just speak to people alone. So I had one show in which I was in a very comfortable setting—it was a Stairway to Paradise special series—I mean to me, I wish that wouldn’t even air, not because of its content, but because of its format. But people said they benefited, people said I took it to a higher level. I thought I naturally did because of the fact that I was growing, but also because of the fact that I was alone. When you’re with people, you’re grounded. They might not get you, so you’re bound to speak at that level. Again, not to claim that I am at any higher level inwardly, but outwardly I may be talking about things they haven’t studied yet. That’s absolutely a possibility. So that’s what’s been happening. I’ve begun to formally study Islam in the past maybe year, year and a half.
TBS: How are you learning?
MM: I’m doing it the old fashioned way. I’m studying with shayukh and getting their ijaza, their license to teach, once they see you are at the right place.
TBS: Are they sheikhs at Azhar?
MM: Some of them are sheikhs at Azhar. Some of them are sheikhs in Syria some of them are in other parts of the world. Some of them in England who are converts but themselves sheikhs in their own rights.
TBS: Do you think that you need a degree to do what you’re doing? To do da’wa?
MM: If I do Arabic, I’m going to need that, I’m sure. I wouldn’t want people to doubt my credibility. As far as English is going, I was probably speaking to the most knowledgeable English-speaking followers in the world anyway, so what better people could I be learning from? But I’m doing it the old-fashioned way. I’m studying texts with people because knowledge is in the breasts of people not in the lines of books and so I’m studying it with people, with their filter, not from my filter. One of the greatest things that I’ve been introduced to in the past couple of years and I’ve been trying to hold onto, is an unbroken chain of transmission,known as sila, where you get your knowledge from the person who got it from the person who got it from the Prophet, and you know you’re getting both inward and outward.
TBS: Have you ever been criticized about how you have the right to tell people about religion, that you’re so young, so inexperienced?
MM: You know what’s interesting, Lindsay? I haven’t heard that once. Alhamduallah. Not one time. I’ve gotten a little of other types of criticisms, but not that one. I remember once that because I had women on the show, even though men were seated definitely apart—you know, there were the women, there were the men—still I got people who were a little too extreme who said, ‘You shouldn’t have women, period.’ But they were very few. Because I think most of the people appreciated that I had a Western audience and so even if those things are forbidden in their view, it was still not in the context. I’ve been spoken to a very few number of times about things like about when I talked about the inward in that last show a lot, I was labeled as a Sufi by one of two people, which again I said, if to be a Sufi means to purify your heart then the Prophet was a Sufi. Heck yeah, I’m a Sufi! It’s semantics.
TBS: Do you ever talk about politics?
MM: I’m very apolitical by nature and I’m very proud of that as well. Many Muslims are too busy to remember God. Like Sheikh Sharaawi said, ‘Those who want to rule by Islam should say instead they want to be ruled over by Islam.'