The Egyptian Islamic preacher Amr Khaled recently excused himself off the air during an interview with Al Arabiya. Khaled seemed cornered by questions that were directed to him regarding a chicken commercial that he starred in where he claimed that this chicken will allow one’s soul to ascend comfortably to the Divine during prayer and regarding his connection to the Muslim Brotherhood.
After several failed attempts to divert the conversation towards what he called “spiritual matters”, he opted to withdraw in protest to what he claimed were questions “fishing for errors”. Amr Khaled’s latest fiasco interview should serve as a warning for the emotive form of preaching that appeals to the sentiments without a firm grounding in logical discourse.
Amr Khaled should be reflected upon as a phenomenon. A preacher who was shot to superstar status in the early 2000s. Khaled’s lectures would pack mosques with young women and men who were eager to feel addressed by a religion that they felt belonged to the elders and was divorced from their reality. Then a modern sheikh emerged who started preaching out of an elite sporting club populated by young people. As the numbers of attendees increased, Khaled took his following to larger mosques, started taping his lectures and landed his TV show.
During this period, Khaled’s presence and distinctive emotional voice was everywhere, appealing to young men and women to follow his path of faith. Large numbers of girls wore the veil, or at least contemplated wearing it, because of Amr Khaled. He was becoming a force to be reckoned with, a top influencer even prior to the invention of the term. In 2007, he was chosen as one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine.
Then, he disappeared. The events surrounding the reasons for his disappearance have never been addressed, although theories persist that his influence had begun to upset some people in power.
None of the theories have been confirmed by Khaled himself and, after his chosen or enforced banishment, he returned to Egypt. Once again, this time not merely as a preacher speaking of eschatological details that brought tears to the eyes of forgetful youth, but as a preacher/life coach who isn’t primarily concerned with the tales of the afterlife but one who was firmly centered on the betterment of this life.
His organization has launched a number of initiatives focused on social impact embedded in a quasi-religious discourse and targeted at youth. But he had already lost his fan base among the elite, who have found younger and more hip sheikhs to follow. Instead, Khaled targeted the middle class with his efforts.
Khaled’s metamorphosis from a soft-spoken televangelist whose voice can shake your core, to a social activist, to briefly becoming a political figure, tells of his continuously evolving ambition, his resilience and his reach. It also tells a tale of progression of a certain brand of faith that is peddled to young Muslims. A brand that was never anchored in the ancient Muslim tradition of Ibn Rushd, al Farabi or Ibn Sina and founded upon logic. Rather, this brand whimsically flies from one tale about the caliphs to our modern age, paying no heed to the passing of time or the lack of comparability between both eras.
It is a consumerist type of Islam that has sold us the idea that if a woman wears the veil, she will surely enter heaven, and, as the market changed, it sold us the idea that if you eat a certain chicken your prayers will be sweeter. Amr Khaled isn’t merely a sheikh who was led astray. He is a symbol of how Islam could be led astray.
And in all honesty Khaled could have done the commercial and said he enjoyed eating the chicken. He is a chicken man, I am more of a fish person myself, but I understand. Celebrity endorsements are the bread and butter of the business. But to claim that a particular brand of chicken can improve your religious experience and union with God, then it must be one spiritual chicken.