No One Wins: Celebrity Shaykhs vs. Online Da’wah Bros

Both ‘Celebrity Shaykhs’ and ‘Online Da’wah Bros’ have been a hot topic of debate for a while now. The former are accused of charging exorbitant speaker fees, traveling in luxury and making Islamic learning into shallow edutainment. The latter have been accused of being uncouth and aggressive, destroying Muslim unity & their attachment to people of knowledge, and using controversial, clickbait content to keep their subscribers happy & pockets full.

Both ‘sides’ seem outwardly to be ‘at war’, but no one wins in this war, as it divides Muslims while Islamophobes and malicious governments maneuver take advantage.

However, are they so different? I don’t think so. There is a lot in common. Both ‘sides’ also have similar benefits and problems they bring to the public. If we do not take advantage of the benefits and fix the problems, it is all of us who will suffer.

I ask Allah that he make this article useful, and that it creates healthy & constructive reflection & discussion instead of angry disagreement & debates.

What do they share in common?

  • Both primarily utilize charisma, oratory skills & marketing techniques to build their fame and appeal. Whether its public speaking classes, $10,000 cameras, graphic design teams, algorithm-manipulating content strategies etc, the repute of both Celebrity Shaykhs & Da’wah Bros is often not built on substance, rather on their prowess at riding the waves of controversy and/or popular discourse.
  • Both are celebrities, even the Da’wah Bros, whether they like the label or not they fit under that descriptor. As a result they are subject to the effects of the celebrity culture (or more specifically, influencer culture) that already envelops much of the modern world and all the issues that come prepackaged with it.
  • Both are often lacking in scholarly credentials. Celebrity Shaykhs either emerge as motivational speakers in their community, or they have studied properly but lose their technical knowledge over time as they spend more time preaching and less time in teaching and research. Ghostwriters for Celebrity Shaykhs are not uncommon anymore. Da’wah Bros are usually worse in this regard and often self-studied individuals who lack structured & comprehensive Islamic learning with teachers. Even for them the constant drag of having to produce high-quality, clickbait content online and focusing their research and reading on the videos/refutations they want to produce can negatively affect any formal Islamic learning they possess.
  • Despite both criticizing each other for doing so, they both use language strategically to indulge their target audiences. Celebrity Shaykhs often have to cater to the restrictions set on them by the institutions they visit and speak at, which due to current Western culture and politics often end up being more ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’. The added problem of political correctness & the threat of cancel culture in da’wah means not just losing one’s repute, but also livelihood. Da’wah bros are not restricted by institutions, but instead cater to those Muslims who find this culture and politics reprehensible, or are simply conservative Muslims (which is fine in itself) who find themselves ostracized by public discourse. They also have to indulge the audience they have built for themselves and if they become famous, raise the financial & reputational stakes further by developing ever more costly & edgy content.

So both are more similar to each other than they first appear. But this is not a problem or positive point in itself. Rather lets look at the benefits their strategies bring:

Benefits to Muslims:

  • Both Celebrity Shaykhs and Da’wah Bros are able to reach audiences that the expert but technical, academic & bookworm scholar are not able to. Most Muslims will simply not find their way into an Islamic Studies classroom or seminary – even if we want them to. Most Muslims don’t read modern academic texts or classical works by the great scholars of the past.
  • They present information in a way that is palatable & exciting to the public. The Tiktok & Hollywood generations are attracted to bite-size facts and enjoyable, glitzy ways of learning. While true knowledge & understanding may not be attainable except after years of study and research, there is still a massive amount of Muslims who are simply unable to appreciate that, even if they should.
  • They make Islamic Learning and the Islamic Sciences attractive and enticing to those who previously had little to no exposure to them.
  • They provide quick answers to difficult questions that young people ask. Young Muslims online & offline are fed an exorbitant & repeated amount of content harmful to their minds & hearts, and both Celebrity Shaykhs & Da’wah Bros are able to provide quick, accessible and appealing responses to them.
  • They provide informative Islamic content on the internet. Most content online is either downright haram, or a waste of time and energy for most Muslims. Given that the online world has become an extension of our physical one for many of us, it is critical that we be able to retreat into a more ‘Islamic’ environment online too.

These benefits should not be glossed over. They are needed, those who have the charisma and skills to speak to a broad range of audiences instead of a few dozen students in a classroom are vital to the community. However, there are significant problems with this approach and resulting costs to Muslim communities.

Both Celebrity Shaykhs and Da’wah Bros cause significant problems:

  • Both often result in young Muslims becoming disconnected from true Islamic scholarship & intellectuals. Many, if not most Muslims who follow Celebrity Shaykhs & Da’wah bros are unaware of what real scholarship is and who they are. As a result they develop unhealthy generalizations of what a scholar is and what their role in society is, such as for example believing that scholars are corrupt by default, or that the views of scholars are affected by culture rather than technical expertise. This may be true for some famous Celebrity Shaykhs, but not for true scholars as a whole, most of whom are unknown by the masses and dedicated to teaching, research and fatwa. Unfortunately this message is then reinforced by Da’wah bros, who detach authority from Celebrity Shaykhs, but then unfortunately attach it to themselves instead of scholars.
  • Both often result in young Muslims becoming disconnected from local resources in their community. As Muslims become primarily attached to personalities and online content, they become detached from important resources in their local community. This is dangerous as suhbah (companionship with the righteous) is a key component of both Islamic learning and spiritual growth.
  • Both contribute to epistemic dysfunction. Due to their content, Muslims increasingly become exposed to a chaotic vortex of disconnected Islamic information without being grounded in structured foundations & understandings of their religion. This is already a problem that is rampant on the internet, but in context of Islamic knowledge it is worse as epistemic dysfunction results in confusion, extremism, division and eventually apathy & nihilism.
  • Both contribute to creating a polarized Muslim world. Both have a specific target audience created by restrictions mentioned above, and their audience will often only listen to them at the expense of the other. Also, as a result of the combined effect of modern celebrity culture and the celebrity status of both Celebrity Shaykhs AND Da’wah Bros, many Muslims are drawn to venerate these celebrities, place them on unrealistic pedestals, and affirm their teachings uncritically.
  • Due to their lack of scholarly credentials and lack of time for deeper study and research, many of these Celebrity Shaykhs & Da’wah Bros end up being reductive or mistaken in their discourse, resulting in misunderstandings among the masses on important topics. For example a Celebrity Shaykh may speak in a way that is ‘relatable’ to the masses on Islamic spirituality, but miss out on critical topics that might rub their audience the wrong way. The Da’wah Bros may rush to address a misconception youth are facing, but due to haphazard research and weak knowledge of the subject offer solutions that are incorrect and fall apart when subject to scholarly or academic scrutiny.
  • Both are creating a ‘da’wah industry’ which is heavily monetized & increasingly not in line with the culture of learning and da’wah of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, where he preached with authoritative knowledge, love and kindness, emphasized suhbah and community-based structured learning, all the while still being firm on the book of Allah and being open about the law of Allah even if it angered the polytheists and hypocrites, but not to the point of being edgy and controversial for its own sake.

So there are benefits and problems to this culture. How can we then, maintain the benefits while addressing the problems? Let’s explore some solutions to end off.

Solutions to these problems and how to bring everyone together

  • Firstly, both sides need to defer to current authorities and scholarship whenever possible, reference them in their content, and direct their audiences to them, whether it affects their reputation or not. Humility is key here, be more afraid of disconnecting Muslims from true experts than your own fame and wealth. Audiences should also be convinced to pursue structured learning by qualified teachers to ensure that the words of Celebrity Shaykhs & Da’wah Bros are not taken as gospel. They can continue to speak, but they must connect the public to real authorities instead of themselves. Being humble is not sufficient, you need to expose Muslims to their real authorities.
  • Secondly, true scholars need to be a bit more vocal about this problem instead of giving unconditional support to either side. Additionally, Celebrity Shaykhs and Da’wah Bros have to be willing to listen and implement that advice too. If the scholars don’t give advice, and if Celebrity Shaykhs & Da’wah Bros are not willing to be subject to the scrutiny of the ulema, then no positive change will occur. We have to work together. We all bring positive benefits to the table, and we all have problems we need to fix in ourselves.
  • Thirdly, both Celebrity Shaykhs & Da’wah Bros need to maintain respect for ikhtilaf and disagreement on either the positions they hold or the way they are conducting their preaching. As long as the positions either ‘side’ holds is vetted by scholars higher than them, then the views should be respected, and it should be left to true scholars & experts to debate these issues between themselves. They also should not only listen to scholars who agree with their point of view, rather try to understand different points of view among scholars and take them into consideration. Celebrity Shaykhs should acknowledge that there is a sizable amount of the community that is going to take a more ‘conservative’ approach – and they are still part of the ummah and should be heard, and Da’wah Bros need to understand that there is room for more ‘liberal’ approaches that are valid within the Shariah.
  • Lastly, both should reflect carefully & sincerely on the culture they are creating, instead of concerning themselves with the next da’wah gig or the next video. Both should be careful to realize how they are playing into the plans of those who want to manipulate inter-Muslim discourse for their own ends. The blame game also needs to stop. Although it is tempting to blame the Da’wah Bros for many of our current problems, it is also the fault of Celebrity Scholars for creating the culture that allowed Da’wah Bros to exist in the first place.

May Allah unite the ummah, rectify our problems, grant us the tawfiq to reflect and fix the issues within ourselves, allow us to look past each other’s faults, and return us to a culture of scholarship and learning instead of chaotic ignorance.

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