The growing popularity of media savvy celebrity preachers – not all of whom are theologically well-trained – could erode the quality of Islamic discourse in the longer term.
Recently, the mufti of Perak, Harussani Zakaria, passed on at the age of 82. He had been an influential voice in Malaysia’s Islamic landscape, having served as the state’s chief jurist from 1985 until his death. As state mufti, he wielded significant power and authority, as muftis in Malaysia serve as ex-officio members of their respective Islamic religious councils; possess the authority to issue fatwas (or religious opinion) that can be legally enforced; and perform ceremonial roles, such as leading prayers during royal ceremonies and official state events.
Many considered him to be pro-establishment. For example, when the Barisan Nasional (BN) was in power, he criticised the opposition-led Bersih rallies, which sought to reform Malaysia’s electoral process. However, Harussani had an independent streak and courted several controversies throughout his stint as Perak mufti. There were instances in which his comments caused political problems for the government. In 2006, he made an unsubstantiated claim that 100,000 Muslims had converted out of Islam to other religions. The comment weakened then-Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s efforts to bridge the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims, raising suspicions from Muslims of strong evangelical and Western-inspired liberal movements in the country. Race and religious relations eventually spiralled downwards to the extent that it contributed to Abdullah’s poor performance in the 2008 general election, which saw BN losing in five states: Kelantan, Kedah, Terengganu, Penang, and Selangor.
… With the passing of giants like Harussani and the prevalence of social media platforms, the influence of Malaysian muftis has been steadily weakening… their public presence is now being challenged by popular celebrity preachers, several of whom have not received adequate training in the religious sciences.
Despite his controversies, Harussani’s stature and influence had been unassailable since, according to the Federal Constitution, muftis are not appointed by the government but the Sultan who has authority over Islam in his state. Despite making numerous controversial remarks, he continued to have the trust of the Perak Sultan to remain as mufti. Moreover, Harussani, along with the other Malaysian muftis, had a dominant presence in the religious sphere. They had considerable airtime on national television and mainstream media. They were also actively sought by the public for their views on issues beyond the scope of their training in theology, such as on elections, party politics, and geopolitics.
However, with the passing of giants like Harussani and the prevalence of social media platforms, the influence of Malaysian muftis has been steadily weakening. The muftis are by no means irrelevant. Institutional powers to issue fatwas continue to reside in them, and they can decide which Islamic teachings are “deviant” and should be banned. But their public presence is now being challenged by popular celebrity preachers, several of whom have not received adequate training in the religious sciences.
Today, the former participants of Pencetus Ummah (PU), a reality television competition seeking capable and versatile preachers, attract significant followings. These “celebrity preachers” were not only assessed based on the contents of their dakwah (preaching) but also their oratorical skills. The use of social media as the main mode of preaching made them attractive to young Malaysian Muslims, even though the depth of their religious training pales in comparison with the muftis. PU Amir, for instance, was a special needs education teacher and did not receive any formal religious education. Another celebrity preacher, PU Azman, has not been granted a license to preach religion, which is a requirement in Malaysia, but netizens have deemed him authoritative to speak on religious matters. Azman has 2.5 million followers on Instagram.
Some of the celebrity preachers carry the title “Imam Muda” (Young Imam) and “Da’i” (preacher). Unlike traditional ulama (scholars) in Malaysia, these celebrity preachers seek to answer people’s questions on religious matters through social media platforms but do not publish serious books or issue fatwas. However, doubts are beginning to be cast on the credibility of these celebrity preachers after some courted controversies. For instance, PU Abu sparked an uproar when he divorced his first wife during her pregnancy after she had refused to be in a polygamous marriage. The controversy continued with news of him marrying a second wife in Thailand – whom he has now divorced. Another celebrity preacher, Imam Muda Syed Faris, was involved in a similar controversy relating to divorce. More recently, PU Riz and his celebrity wife, Neelofa, sparked public outrage after getting caught violating the Covid-19 safety protocols in several instances.
But it is unlikely that these controversies will alter Malaysian Muslims’ attitude towards religious authority and diminish the salience of social media platforms in shaping religious attitudes. This does not bode well for the future of Malaysian Islamic scholarship and development. The quality of preaching among social media preachers falls far short of the benchmark set by classical Islamic scholars who not only receive formal training in religious studies but have also sought to engage and expand the religious discourse through rigorous scholarly research and publications. The challenge for these scholars is how to be savvy enough to ride the digital wave and retain their relevance among the public.