Preaching with a passion
In an exclusive interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Amr Khaled speaks of how he became a star preacher, and explains his own perspective of da'wa
Amr Khaled is a man with a message: "My mission in life is that of many intellectuals, media people, artists and preachers; to pump new blood into the spirit of the nation," Khaled told Al- Ahram Weekly
I met Khaled only a fortnight before he was banned. He was in high spirits, expecting to have his sermons, which were suspended in June, broadcast during Ramadan. He was very busy preparing for his Ramadan-tent programme Konouz (treasures) to be aired every night on the Iqra' satellite channel.
Which is perhaps why Khaled shrugged off all questions regarding his previous ban. "I don't know why I was banned," Khaled snapped. "All I can say is that my country has been very respectful to me and that the lessons will be resumed very soon, God willing," he added in a confident tone.
Khaled's office at the satellite channel headquarters, where he heads a new department for programme development, was buzzing with activity. Khaled's staff are young men and women in their 20s. "We work together, pray together and play together," one employee told the Weekly adding "Khaled is very modest and honest."
"I love people passionately and want what's best for them," Khaled pointed out with a smile. "A good preacher should be more compassionate than disciplinary. My main concern is to make young people love religion instead of fearing it."
But Khaled also has an important asset, namely direct contact with his audience. "I'm one of you," he has often said, "I'm the same age, have the same background and education as my audience. I know what they think and how they feel. I'm very familiar with the problems of society."
Young people are the focus of Khaled's sermons. He discusses relationships between genders and promotes family ideals and the importance of romance within the institution of marriage. "There is no greater romance than that to be found in Islam," Khaled once said in a sermon.
"I did not intend to become a preacher for the elite. [It happened by chance]; the mosques where I preached were in middle and upper class districts. But, of course, it is noticeable that affluent youths are paying more attention to religion. I think they are attracted mostly by the fact that the sermons are easy to understand."
Khaled himself belongs to the upper middle class. He was born in Alexandria in 1967 and brought up in the fashionable Cairo district of Mohandessin, where he was a member of the Shooting Club football team. His father is a physician and his maternal grandfather, Ibrahim Abdel-Hadi Pasha, was prime minister under King Farouk.
"My parents were not religious but they taught us moral values," Khaled said. Khaled's only sister, a graduate of a French school, has also "become religious, very recently".
It was in Ramadan 1981 that Khaled had a "sudden passion".
"I had a strong feeling that I wanted to get closer to God," Khaled reminisced, "but I didn't know what exactly to do."
He was still in his first year of secondary school, and he started to pray regularly at the mosque, read many books on religion and memorised the Qur'an.
Not that he was thinking of taking up da'wa as a profession.
"It never ever crossed my mind that I would be a preacher one day," Khaled said. "I was just active among my friends; I used to encourage my friends to be religious, talk to children about Islam, and offer advice during my time at the mosque. People liked what I said, they listened, and then I started giving lessons at private homes."
The Shooting Club turned out to be more than just the place where Khaled indulged his early passion for football. Khaled's debut as a preacher was in the club's mosque, and his talent as orator was unveiled there a mere seven years ago.
"It all happened by chance," Khaled told the Weekly. "There was no one in the mosque to preach during Ramadan taraweeh (prayers) and I was asked to fill in."
Khaled drew a large audience and his name started to become widely known. His subsequent dismissal by the club's management was, ironically, the start of his rise to preacher stardom.
Retired singer Yasmine El-Khayyam, daughter of renowned Qur'an reciter Sheikh El-Hossari, chose Khaled as head preacher of her father's mosque. El-Khayyam had previously promoted Khaled before audiences through meetings held in private homes, dubbed "Islamic salons", which she organised in the district of Mohandessin.
"El-Khayyam is like a second mother to me," Khaled smiled. "It was in her house that I spent the best days of my life."
Khaled's popularity skyrocketed in only two years.
Meanwhile, as a graduate of Cairo University's Faculty of Commerce, Khaled started a career in accounting, first working in a big international corporation and then establishing his own accounting firm. He holds a diploma from the Al-Azhar Institute for Islamic Studies and a Masters Degree in Islamic economics. But Khaled admits he is not a scholar.
"I do not give fatwa (legal opinion)," he said, "only scholars with an in-depth understanding of law are allowed to do that."
In the face of criticism, however, Khaled appears confident and calm. "For more than eight years, many great scholars have been hearing my sermons and nobody ever objected to anything I said," he pointed out. "I'm looking for a nation that is close to God, to other communities, and which is involved in social development. We are still lagging behind in these respects and I think religion is the greatest solution for these problems."
By religion, however, Khaled means "a balanced and modern religion. I don't want people to be 'anesthetised by religion'," he insisted, "but rather for there to be a balance between worship and morals; between physical and spiritual requirements."
Khaled says he drives home his message in a practical way. He cancels his sermons during exam time and, unlike many preachers, keeps his sermons short if his sermon happens to coincide with a football match. "I allow young people to watch the match because we are part of society and should not be alienated from it," Khaled explained.
His lesson on "youth and summer" is a further manifestation of that message. "Young people should entertain themselves, but bear in mind that worship is also important," Khaled told the Weekly. "I made it clear that it is totally unacceptable for young people to spend their summer vacation pursuing only leisure, that they must have a constructive role in society and should spend their time reading, learning about computers or even working."
Women constitute a majority of Khaled's audience -- and are among of the main subjects of his sermons. "He addresses men and women as equals," said one female fan. "He respects women. I don't feel like a second-class citizen when listening to his sermons."
"If people understood the true status of women in Islam, society would never treat women as second-class citizens," Khaled told the Weekly. "Women, in my view, are even more than half the population. They represent the entire nation because they are the ones who raise the other half of the nation, i.e. the male citizens."
His two-hour sermon on the 'status of women in Islam' broadcast on Orbit TV has boosted Khaled's popularity among women audiences in the Arab world. In the taped recording, Khaled explained that women were the first to adopt the Islamic religion and that the first martyr to die in jihad (struggle) was also a woman.
But why do many girls don the veil once they attend Khaled's sermons? Khaled laughs at the question. "First and foremost, the veil is an order from God to all Muslim women," Khaled said, "and I would be honoured to spread virtues throughout society. But still, only one of my dozens of tapes is dedicated to hijab, which means I have given the issue only its due attention."
Khaled, however, conceded that he frequently mentions the veil as an example when discussing other issues. "By that, however, I meant to show that religion should be regarded as one whole, a Muslim woman should be successful in life, have good morals and also remain veiled," Khaled explained.
"I also made it clear in my sermons that women should build their inner faith before taking the veil, but some critics thought that I was encouraging girls to delay donning the hijab. But I'm very confident of the point I am making."
Unlike many preachers, Khaled says he has never given a single sermon to actresses or tried to convince any of them to retire and take the veil. He has also refuted press claims that he took up da'wa for the sake of profit, saying these accusations are totally unfounded.
"I am already well-off and my private accounting business is doing very well. Everybody knows I gave hundreds of sermons for free and I've dedicated the revenue of my tapes to build El- Hossari mosque in the Sixth of October satellite city. The only money I earn for myself is from the satellite channels."