In a 21st century world, the average anglophone Muslim is sure to eventually encounter the contemporary surge in Islamic ‘religious entertainment.’ Such novel expressions of Western Muslim identity are quite interesting: a sprinkle of virtuous inquiry for knowledge intertwined with a load of attention-grabbing entertainment and generic self-help instruction. This Western Muslim yearning for some sense of connection to the Islamic tradition has facilitated the growth and proliferation of a variety of “educational” institutes with seemingly successful business models.

Though some good has definitely come from such endeavors, this Western Muslim cultural expression embodies many grave challenges and downfalls of potentially dangerous aftermaths that should perhaps push us to question and challenge this trend. Surely, such a pervasive phenomenon within the Muslim community would be worthy of further reflection and introspection. What better way to evaluate this phenomenon than to examine a live example in a contemporary context?

The man of the day is Azhar Nasser, a self-proclaimed “American Muslim scholar and community activist”. The rise of Azhar is a very interesting phenomenon that, if anything, would be an ideal case to further dissect upon addressing this phenomenon. On his Twitter account, Mr. Nasser has successfully amassed a modest following by virtue of his social media prowess.

Within less than five years on Twitter, Azhar was able to amass a modest following of over 130,000 people. The question that would immediately come to the minds of many is: how has he consolidated such a following while many counterparts of his have failed to do so? The answer to that question perhaps is an embodiment of everything wrong with the surge of  this edutainment culture within our communities.

Azhar Nasser is every destitute Western Muslim’s wet dream: a seemingly knowledgeable religious authority with a well-groomed appearance, charming humor, and a personability that characterizes his social media presence. Upon joining Twitter, the average Muslim is bound to encounter some of his mass-shared content, which usually consists of humor and/or generic feelgood content that is unsurprisingly bound to go viral on the platform. That is, perhaps, how the average Western Muslim is most likely to first encounter Azhar’s Twitter account.

Azhar’s jokes are quite interesting and telling of his online persona. Initially, Mr. Nasser seemed fond of copy-pasting jokes from other accounts and sharing them on his own account disregarding the fact that a “retweet” button exists. His humorous tweets evidently gave him great exposure and publicity to a wide array of audiences. Upon receiving public criticism for this plagiarist behavior, Azhar seems to have become more cautious with his jokes and their sources.

Perhaps the Twitter-sphere was a bit too harsh with Mr. Nasser and his never-ending joke theft, as the supply-chain of jokes surely is bound to experience some hiccups in such an entertainment-based growth model. Nevertheless, such an incident alone may allude to the problems at hand with this model and the type of of people it attracts and promotes.

Unfortunately, however, many speakers involved in this edutainment shtick eventually run out of authentic content, lectures and even jokes. We thus see a surge in plagiarism in many of these circles. Though many Western Muslim speakers are smart enough to plagiarize from Arabic speakers that are, for the most part, inaccessible to their Western audiences (more to come on this 😊), Mr. Nasser was unwise enough to plagiarize an entire lecture from a much more popular and successful American public speaker, Nouman Ali Khan.

The Sunni Defense channel eventually released a video exposing this instance of intellectual disingenuity by Azhar Nasser, which seemed quite grim. However, it does not seem as though Azhar was significantly impacted by this damning blunder, as his account experienced continuous growth following this incident.

What is further impressive about Azhar’s online persona is the fact that he is a Shi’ite figure who, unlike many contemporary Shi’ite speakers, has successfully penetrated many Sunni circles. Mr. Nasser has successfully carried this out through two main means: (1) sharing generic non-denominational content to his audience and (2) refraining from explicitly sharing his true extreme and distasteful beliefs, which are bound to offend his Sunni audience.

He thus exhibits a decent degree of success among several arrays of the Sunni Twitter-sphere. Azhar, however, is not always a benign non-denominational social media commentator. Rather, he seems to occasionally sprinkle some of his malicious beliefs to his audience while carefully staying within a threshold of appropriate controversy that would protect him from getting cancelled. Similarly, a preliminary skim of his account prior to his rise to fame is sufficient to demonstrate Mr. Nasser’s maliciously offensive beliefs, narratives and comments.

Azhar gives us a glimpse into his malicious ahistorical beliefs that slander ‘Umar b. al-Khaṭṭāb and portray him as the murderer of Fāṭimah, the Prophet’s daughter. Going through his account, one will notice that Azhar tends to be very discrete with some of his more malicious beliefs. In fact, his more recent tweets pertaining to this topic are much more carefully worded than his past tweets.

Then, Mr. Nasser (perhaps ironically) wags his hands at his Sunni followership, “Don’t sugar coat what happened after the death of the Holy Prophet…!” Nevertheless, Azhar often presents himself as a bastion of Sunni-Shia unity. He has, on several occasions, awkwardly addressed a few popular Sunni Muslim figures attempting to coordinate some sort of Sunni-Shi’ite interfaith dialogue. It seems like his attempts, however, were generally ignored.

Perhaps one of the few good qualities in many bad faith actors is the fact that they are often not too competent at masking their true beliefs, and our friend, Azhar, does not seem to be an exception. These calls for Sunni-Shia unity simply seem to be bastardized attempts at publicity, especially considering the fact that Azhar does not seem to take issue with the murderers and slaughterers of Sunnis Syria and Iraq. In a tweet of his, Azhar lamented the assassination of Iranian terrorist and general, Qasem Soleimani, who was responsible for the slaughter of thousands upon thousands of Syrian Sunnis as Iran’s right-hand man in the region.

Throughout his account, it is apparent that Azhar has gladly criticized a variety of Sunni governments, mostly Gulf-states (perhaps rightly so). However, there is not a single instance where he has criticized Iranian leadership, which has destabilized the region through its expansionists policies. Ironically, he will then wag his fingers at public speakers for not criticizing Sunni governments in this context.

Though this article was not intended to be a political discussion, it is evident that Azhar’s political commentary on social media is shaped by his blind sectarian disposition. His sectarianism, in reality, embodies the precursors to religious extremism, such as the aforementioned instance where he condemns the Saudi royal family to the Hellfire as is the case with extremists who carelessly make takfīr of other people today.

The rise of Azhar Nasser (and his likes) is a testimony to the downfall of the “religious entertainment” and “celebrity sheikh” culture.Though Azhar may seem like an extreme case to dissect in light of this debate, he is, in reality, nothing but an embodiment of everything wrong with this status quo. If a man characterized by intellectual theft, malicious theological predispositions and vile religious sectarianism was able to experience such colossal growth on social media by virtue of his religious appearance combined with his witty humor and political correctness, then what other kinds of people could this system later attract and promote? Indeed, the keen observer may rightfully ask: how would such a phenomenon not eventually lead to the amplification of previously marginalized extremist voices of various malicious goals and agendas within our communities?

This “Azhar Nasser Effect” is a byproduct of a variety of intertwined socio-religious factors that have led to the situation at hand today. Nevertheless, it is within our ability to recognize the symptoms of an illness that shall imminently wreak havoc upon our communities. I do not possess a solution to this complex challenge; however, what I can do is assist in identifying the problem and laying the foundations for any mature dialogue that is to take place on this topic.

This problem is not confined to the Sunni-Shia schism, which some may wrongfully assume is the core of this article. Rather, it is an issue we seem to face across all fronts. As an example, a popular Sunni social media figure I know, who lectures at a popular educational institute and is currently establishing another one, has been recorded to make inappropriate comments about a critic’s wife following a heated private discussion. In another case, we find a Muslim institution of bearded sheikhs participating in quite shady and seemingly fraudulent financial pursuits, yet it has been able to withstand all criticism in this context as part of the religious entertainment industry.

The status quo I am describing is a system that platforms scum and enables their popularity, fame and relevance within the Muslim community by virtue of their involvement in religious entertainment. 

In every social media platform and community, there is a little Azhar Nasser of meager knowledge, wisdom, and integrity actively pursuing a rise to fame and publicity. An approval of this status quo with regards to religious entertainment and education is what will enable the rise of such Azhars from every camp, school and ideology. Such an outcome is inevitably bound to devastate our already tattered community, which has continuously suffered throughout the years.

Alas, perhaps this article may be the stepping stone for a much needed mature discussion that is yet to take place about this dire socio-religious phenomenon.

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