Religious TV channels: The Shirazi family’s path to influence

In my previous article, I had discussed the religious television channels that support the reference of Ayatollah Sayyid Sadiq Al-Shirazi. Competition over the launching of such channels has increased due to the power and influence they provide or the godly rewards they may bring!

This race among followers has attracted the attention of Saudi researcher Dr. Tawfiq Al-Saif and who on May 20, 2014 wrote on his Facebook page about a local cleric who tried to launch a satellite television channel called Imam Hussein.

“Is there a need for a new version that (clones) is similar to available versions? Isn’t this like building a hussainia (a Shiite congregation hall) next to another hussainia? Will he spend on this channel through legal rights? If so, shouldn’t this spending be used for more urgent matters, such as extreme poverty which exists in the city of the channel’s owner,” Al-Saif inquired.

The points Al-Saif has raised are actually discussed by many other Shiite intellectuals, especially who think money is being squandered and that these satellite television channels are actually producing quite the opposite results and draw for Shiites a bleak stereotype that’s contrary to their reality and to the future which the new generation aspire for.

Funding and income sources

The large number of channels for one reference has raised plenty of questions about funding and income sources.

The opponents of the Shirazi Movement accuse these channels of receiving money from foreign and Arab intelligence apparatuses and voice surprise that channels like Fadak continue to broadcast from the UK without any disciplinary measures taken against them by Ofcom, the UK's communications regulator, despite its content that incites sectarianism, hatred and intolerance.

Sheikh Mohsen Araki, Secretary-General of the World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought, told the Iranian Mehr news agency that the “Shirazi Movement is an organized group and a political party that pursues special political aims and is completely supported by foreigners,” adding: “I have irrefutable documents (to back) what I am saying.”

Sources at Imam Shirazi Center for Studies and Research denied there is foreign funding and told Al that “most Shiite channels which were founded upon the encouragement of religious references originally rely on donors and subscriptions,” adding that “this reference paid hefty prices because it maintained its independence and refused dependency on others.”

Sources familiar with the establishment of religious satellite television channels note that these channels do not cost operators much and rely on the money received by legal rights and from Khums funds received from the reference. This is in addition to donations by Shiite businessmen in the Gulf, Iraq and Pakistan.

These channels’ viewers notice that now and then there are advertisements which urge people to donate saying that making donations contributes to spreading the idea of Shiism around the world. Funds thus flow into the channel thanks to the faithful’s donations. The amount of money however is not huge, and it does not meet all of the channel’s needs. This is why some channels have stopped broadcasting and have shut down.

The points Al-Saif has raised are actually discussed by many other Shiite intellectuals, especially who think money is being squandered and that these satellite television channels are actually producing quite the opposite results and draw for Shiites a bleak stereotype that’s contrary to their reality and to the future which the new generation aspire for

Hassan Al Mustafa

What these channels have in common are the employees’ humble wages, volunteers, cheap production and reliance on airing recorded lectures from mosques and hussainiat. This can be seen in their humble technical capabilities which reflect the limited budget and which rely on the owners’ and supervisors’ personal efforts and their capability to attain new sources of income. What can be noted too are the few commercial advertisements and their weak earnings.

The channel of the one family!

Al-Shirazi has an esteemed status within the programs aired by the channels affiliated with it. Lectures of current reference Ayatollah Sayyid Sadiq Al-Shirazi and of his sons Hussein and Ahmad are aired on these channels. This is in addition to airing the lectures of Sayyids Mohammed Reza, Morteza, Jaafar, Mahdi and Mohammed Ali, the sons of late Sayyid Mohammed al-Shirazi.

The dominant presence of Al-Shirazi family and promoting it via these channels turned its figures into an advertising material for a specific reference and family, as if it’s exclusive to a specific political and intellectual movement. Researcher Bassem al-Zaydi denies this by saying: “These channels are not limited to Shiites and the muqallideen (those who conform to the teaching of another) of Sayyid Shirazi but they are general channels that aim to convey the tolerant message of Islam to the entirety of humanity.”

The viewers of these channels can also see how the religious lecturers and scholars who are hosted mostly belong to the Shirazi Movement. This is except for few channels like CH 4 Teen which broadcasts lectures for Saudi religious figures that do not belong to the Shirazi Movement like Sayyid Monir al-Khabbaz and Sayyid Hassan al-Nimr. This is perhaps due to the fact that some of those who supervise these channels belong to the Shirazi Movement in Saudi Arabia and enjoy “relative moderation” compared with the rest of the channels.

Confirming eligibility

It is no coincidence that the Shirazi Movement established the channel Alhawza Alilmiyya TV as its jurisprudential eligibility has been doubted since the 1960s when many of the seminary scholars in Iraq opposed the reference of Sayyid Mohammed al-Shirazi and doubted his capability to issue fatwas (religious edicts).

Sayyid Shirazi continued to attract the new generation of the then-faithful youth. Despite its expansion and influence, this reference was still described as “religiously shallow” and accused of lacking jurisprudential depth. This pushed its followers to establish the television channel Alhawza Alilmiyya TV. It’s as if they want to prove that they are legitimate sons of the ‘hawza’ and that they are part of it and that they deliver lectures and sermons.

The aim of this move is to prepare the second generation of Al-Shirazi to assume the post of religious reference following Sayyid Sadiq, especially the late Sayyid Mohammed Reza Al-Shirazi, the son of Sayyid Mohammed, was the most likely to succeed his uncle but he died in 2008.

Strange discourse

What also distinguishes these channels is the absence of music and any woman who does not wear the ‘hijab’. This is in addition to women’s limited presence and complete absence of any other secular or liberal thought. These channels also focus on ritualistic rhetoric that relies on lamentation and broadcasting the processions of the Husseini funeral in its bloodiest images: tatbir (striking oneself with a sword on the head), flagellation and walking on coal. These practises are rejected by many Shiite religious references and they’ve actually issued fatwas (religious edicts) saying these are “religiously prohibited.” However, the Shirazi satellite television channels brag about broadcasting them live.

The strange discourse which depends on dreams and the sectarian rhetoric as seen in the lectures of Sayyid Mohammed Baqir Al-Fally, Sheikh Abdulhamid Al-Mohager and others also dominate these channels. This contributed to creating a “shabby populistic culture that did not exist within the Shiite intellect that’s based on ijtihad (independent reasoning) and knowledge. It also distorted the biography and history of Imam Hussein and deviated from the bigger aim represented in justice.”

Commenting on this “superstitious” rhetoric which the Shirazi channels are accused of promoting, Zaydi said: “It’s enough to review Imam Shirazi’s researches which addressed law, politics and economics and to look at the cultural institutions and studies and researches centers” to know his opinion about the reference’s approach which confirms “the importance of work and ijtihad and doing the best to spread a peaceful culture and free thought and establish developmental institutions.”

Zaydi denied any relation between the reference of Sayyid Sadiq Shirazi and the sectarian rhetoric of some of his followers and said: “Throughout its history, this reference has dissociated itself from any sectarian, political or religious conflict, and it actually had a great role in strengthening social peace.”

Editor-in-chief of ‘Al-Sahel’ magazine Sheikh Habib al-Jumayaa thinks Zaydi’s statements are important but they apply to the Shirazi Movement in its previous “renaissance” version and not on the version currently depicted by satellite television channels. He said: “Sayyid Mohammed Al-Shirazi was really concerned in developing Islamic culture and adopted a rhetoric which believes in pluralism, tolerance and distance from whatever incites strife among Muslims. However, these channels adopted a different rhetoric where reasoning is absent and which relies on dreams. There is a state of stillness within the Movement as they do not criticize these channels and do not review their negative impact on people. What’s required is to develop the Islamic rhetoric and be open to others and to be able to endeavor into the future and not live with superstitions and in the past!”

Researcher Sheikh Ahmed al-Katib thinks this strange rhetoric is the product of shallow thinking. “The absence of a deep intellect and the Shirazi Movement’s lack of a substantial cause and focusing on shallow and ritualistic issues are what produced these channels’ current discourse.”

Limits of influence

The reference of Sayyid Sadiq Al-Shirazi is not the most spread among Shiites in the world. There are more influential references like Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani. However the Shirazi Movement’s media activity had influence on a wide category of the public, specifically the religious ones or those who feel marginalized and persecuted based on their sect!

There are more moderate satellite television channels like AlIman TV which follows the reference of late Sayyid Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah or AlMaaref TV which is supervised by Habeeb Al-Kazemi. However since these channels did not resort to a “populist” rhetoric as is the case is with the Shirazi channels, they failed to garner a wide audience which thinks it’s watching a duel with sectarian Salafist channels like Wesal TV and Safa TV! Therefore, Shiite channels that adopt a moderate rhetoric do not appeal to their sentiment. The channels which do are those which they think have the bravery, power and capability to defeats rivals!

“These channels incite strife between Sunnis and Shiites,” said a reader who commented on the previous article. This opinion may represent the point of view of a large number of Shiites in the Gulf and who live in diverse societies where the Shiite spectrum varies between Islamic, civil, liberal and leftist movements and which adopt an intellect that is different than these channels.

Sheikh Habib al-Jumayaa said: “There is a vital discussion and wide critique of these channels whose discourse cannot keep up with the questions of the new generation which does not acknowledge red lines or prohibitions. This generation thus questions everything and seeks evidence, while these channels’ approach is based on indoctrination.” 

Intellectual crisis 

The shallow intellect seen in most of the programs aired by Shirazi television channels is only a part of the knowledge crisis that Sunni and Shiite religious channels suffer from. It’s a reflection of the inability of Islamic movements to understand the changes of the modern era, to use thought more bravely while practicing ijtihad and to develop an enlightening rhetoric that meets believers’ current needs.

This intellectual decline pushed many of the first Shirazi pioneers to defect from the movement. This is what the next article of Al’s series on Al-Shirazis will discuss.

This article is also available in Arabic.

Hassan AlMustafa is Saudi journalist with interest in middle east and Gulf politics. His writing focuses on social media, Arab youth affairs and Middle Eastern societal matters. His twitter handle is @halmustafa.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:53 - GMT 06:53
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