The popularity of Muslim preachers on social media is threatening a powerful tool long used by Malaysia’s religious authorities to ensure a certain uniformity in Islamic understanding, according to a new study on the rising trend of online preaching published by a Singapore institute.
In a paper published by ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a government-linked research body focusing on developments in Southeast Asia, academic Faizal Musa said many preachers have not only successfully bypassed the authorities’ requirement for a tauliah (teaching licence) to speak on Islamic fundamentals, they have also built up millions of followers who look to them for daily religious guidance.
Faizal, better known by his pen-name Faisal Tehrani, said the use of online tools by preachers has made the tauliah irrelevant, with Islamic authorities finding it increasingly difficult to monitor and regulate them as they would in a physical setting.
“With social media, the preaching licence becomes increasingly irrelevant; these preachers’ content is unregulated whereas in public spaces, they have to adhere to a list of criteria,” wrote Faisal, who is attached to Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute of the Malay World and Civilization.
The “tauliah” is a form of teaching credentials issued by the religious department, with the objective of ensuring only those vetted by the authorities give public lectures on Islam, while prohibiting those who do not adhere to the strand of Islam officially sanctioned by the state.
“With social media, the preaching licence becomes increasingly irrelevant.”
Over the years, authorities have revoked tauliah issued to speakers for breaching conditions such as by touching on political subjects or making remarks that cause the displeasure of the Malay rulers.
Critics of Malaysia’s Islamic bureaucracy have however said the tauliah is frequently used to dictate the Islamic narrative by keeping out those who question long-held conservative practices in the Muslim community.
Islamic authorities have arrested individuals for speaking in public without tauliah, including prominent local and foreign Muslim scholars.
In 2017, authorities in Kuala Lumpur arrested US-based Turkish intellectual Mustafa Akyol, for the offence of “teaching Islam without credentials” during a lecture tour on the theme of freedom of speech and Islam.
Faisal said Perlis mufti Mohd Asri Zainal Abidin, Terengganu preacher Azhar Idrus, charity activist Ebit Liew and reality show celebrity Azman Syah Elias (PU Azman), each representing diverse and sometimes rival Islamic schools of thought, have all successfully made use of social media tools such as YouTube, reaching a nationwide audience which the state-bound tauliah cannot.
“In tandem with the influence these preachers have on millions of followers, the various orientations and associations of these preachers are causing anxiety among the religious authorities,” said Faisal, who himself has had a thorny relationship with religious authorities whose influence on the government caused a ban on several of his books.
In a survey carried out among fans of Ebit Liew and PU Azman, two personalities whom Faisal said represent almost opposite understandings of Islamic texts, a majority admitted to having changed the way they look at Islam after following these preachers.
Faisal said while PU Azman is inclined to Wahhabism, a strand of Islam that is seen as restrictive and has influenced public life in Saudi Arabia for decades, Liew on the other hand represents a more traditional and softer version of Islam influenced by the Indian-based Tablighi Jamaat missionary movement.
In some states, any inclination to Wahhabism and Tabligh would mean a preacher being denied the tauliah.
But with the internet, that is no longer the case, as shown by the millions following Liew and Azman.
“As such, one has to ask if a licence to preach is still relevant now that a religious preacher no longer needs physical space to give sermons and can instead use his personal YouTube account,” wrote Faisal.
“Social media channels such as Facebook and Instagram have built-in functions that allow preachers to interact with their followers on live stream.”