LAWRENCE — In America, Protestant preacher Billy Graham has used the television and radio airwaves to reach to millions of people.
His influence as a Christian evangelist over decades has extended to his role as a spiritual adviser, or "preacher to the presidents," in his lifetime.
If Islam has a parallel to Graham, said Jacquelene Brinton, University of Kansas assistant professor of religious studies, it's likely Muhammad Mitwalli Sha‘rawi, who became the first television preacher in Egypt around 1980. And 17 years after his death, his shows are still popular on satellite TV and the Internet.
"Shaykh Sha‘rawi was hired on state-run television to give a more moderate picture of Muslim practice," Brinton said. "He didn't really talk a lot about law. He just interpreted the Quran in a way that was relevant to people."
In her new book, "Preaching Islamic Renewal: Religious Authority and Media in Contemporary Egypt," Brinton argues that as a well-trained Sunni scholar, Sha-rawi's message was not innovative itself — even though it helped restore a more classical view of the Islamic religion — but his use of media transformed access to the message.
"That point of view was under threat from some Islamist groups who attacked traditional religious scholars and said they had always capitulated to the government," Brinton said. "By using TV to bring back the very well-established Sunni beliefs about God and ethics, he was trying to make his religious point of view dominant in the society."
Like Graham with the American presidents, Sha'rawi was an adviser to Egyptian rulers — Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak — though he had run-ins with Nasser, for the president's friendliness to communism and the Soviet Union, and some with Mubarak.
Before his assassination in 1981 Sadat tried to reintroduce Islamic principles into Egyptian society, which was why he established strong ties with Sha'rawi and gave him his own weekly show. Through the celebrity Sha‘rawi gained as a television preacher, he did have autonomy from the state and was able to criticize political leaders, although he rarely spoke out against the government.
In 1995, he was invited on stage with Mubarak after an attempted assassination attempt against the leader. The government had brought together religious leaders trying to show Mubarak was a godly and legitimate ruler, Brinton said.
"Shaykh Sha'rawi basically admonished Mubarak, saying that he was unjust and ungodly," she said, "but he did it in a very subtle way, and he did it by interpreting the Quran."
That video became popular on YouTube during Mubarak's overthrow in 2011.
"Sha'rawi was telling Mubarak that eventually his injustice is going to get the better of him, so after 2011 people began to see the speech as a premonition of what was going to happen," she said.
After his death, Sha'rawi has largely been considered a saint in Egypt, and other groups have repurposed his videos and words years later. In 2013 just days before the coup that overthrew Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood as leaders of Egypt, a Christian TV station replayed Sha'rawi clips from around the time of Sadat's assassination that stressed "true Egyptians" care about Egypt.
"It was pretty obvious that the video was made at a time when Sheikh Sha'rawi was talking about the people who assassinated Sadat, but then it was repurposed at this time to make people think the Muslim Brotherhood was the enemy of Egypt," Brinton said. "I think it's probably because a lot of the factions in society are still the same as they were during his time."
Despite his political connections and all that happened in the country during his lifetime, Sha'rawi did not agree with forcing religion on individuals, especially through the government. Many Islamic preachers have sought to follow his path, though his work still remains popular, through social media and Internet apps, she said, which could be key as other Islamic factions seek to use new media as well.
"A lot of people have argued that traditional religious scholars have no place in society anymore, that the people who really are out there and speaking are people like the Islamic State, who are using social media," she said.
This makes it more likely that followers and supporters of traditional Sunni Muslim beliefs will continue to keep Sha'rawi's message and work alive, Brinton said.
"If you think as I do that the future of religion is going to happen in many ways through mass media, then he was ensuring the survival of that message," she said. "Even if it wasn't necessarily a new message, it was one that was coming under threat."
Photo by Jacquelene Brinton.