Tuning In to God

Technology helps spread the divine word; but it can also serve as metaphor for it. “As we remind you always of the website of our radio station,” the preacher Muhammad Nouh declared in one of his programmes on Radio Hala last December, “so we should remind ourselves always of the site from which God, Glorified and Sublime (الله عزّ وجلّ), looks upon us.”

Unless his listeners, Nouh claimed, tuned their radios precisely to 102.1 (FM), they wouldn’t be able to listen to Radio Hala. “And so,” the metaphor continued, “you cannot communicate with God unless you tune your heart to the proper wavelength.” A wavelength which, in this case, involves “love, compassion, and sympathy,” rather than a particular FM frequency. Left implied here is that, by tuning in to Radio Hala – or rather, Nouh’s own programme, as it is transmitted through its airwaves – pious listeners might be able to “tune their hearts” to such emotions as well.

Every weekday afternoon, Hala sets aside an hour for an Islamic scholar to expound to listeners on various Islamic virtues, and answer callers’ questions on a range of issues related to religion – from ritual details, to compatibility of social practices with Islamic belief, to rules of inheritance and the proper way to conduct financial transactions. The call-ins, especially, show how the technological capabilities of radio can be creatively and flexibly adapted to serve an audience segment presumably craving religious content. Callers are given quick and authoritative answers, by someone known and recognized as an expert of the subject – often with a doctorate in Islamic law or fiqh; or, at the very least, are given reassurance by hearing the expert’s voice directly, and receiving a blessing. It doesn’t stop with phone-calls either: in a context where other kinds of electronic media are readily available, hosts such as Nouh can take additional questions via (for example) text messages and Facebook comments, allowing even more people to benefit from the wisdom of a public Islamic intellectual.

In the following I look a little more closely at the genre that Nouh’s (former) programme on Hala can be put into: what I call Islamic advice programmes, where religious scholars speak on air, take calls from listeners, and give authoritative statements on religious, social, and personal matters. This, I would argue, is the primary way in which Jordanian radio makes space for Islam; an inescapable part of everyday life, but also (and probably, equally important) an officially verified aspect of the social fabric of the Kingdom.

The Genre

Like other shows on Jordanian radio, Islamic advice programmes have their own generic rules and structural features. They begin with a short religious address from the host read out in impeccable Classical Arabic, and tend to be followed by a few minutes of comment or explanations – on a current affairs issue that might have caught the host’s ear, or a scriptural or ethical question (in the vein of Nouh’s comment on “tuning your heart to God” I’ve mentioned above).

After this, the phone lines are opened, and usually stay open until the end of the programme – or at least until the point that the presenter can still answer all the questions posed on-air within the time set aside for it. In the time between calls, the presenters might expound further on Islamic ethics, law, or current affairs; or read out questions from messages they’d received either through mobile texts or online means (usually left as comments on the status announcing the day’s programme on the radio station’s Facebook page).

(Recording of Hayat FM’s “Fatwas” programme (فتاوى، fataawa), from 15 March 2015. Example of an Islamic advice programme on a religious format radio station. Though broadcast on a station in a fundamentally different format than Nouh’s programme, all the basic generic features are there – including the introductory address, the call-taking, and readings of text and online messages and responses to them.)

But in order for the answers to count – for listeners to consider what’s being said as a valid, significant legal opinion; if not formally a fatwa – the presenters need to have some claim to religious authority. They are, after all, the source of the answers; their animators, at the very least, when conveying legal opinions framed by some other scholar or jurist before them – but often also engaging with callers on a more immediate personal level, for example when people call in with problems they’re facing in life more generally or disputes where judgments of legality aren’t exactly clear.

It helps, then, for a presenter to have some reputation as an Islamic scholar outside of the immediate radio field. Take for example Shaykh Ibrahim al-Jarmi, host of the Islamic station Hayat FM‘s “Fatwas” programme (see video above for a sample recording). Behind his media activity al-Jarmi boasts a doctorate in Arabic and degrees in Islamic legal interpretation gained by studying with several notable scholars (listed in meticulous detail in his CV; LINK). He’s also authored a number of studies on Islamic legal and ethical issues, has taught in shari’a colleges, and is a recognized reciter of the Qur’an (and naturally a hafiz).

ibrahim al-jarmi islamway

(Shaykh Ibrahim al-Jarmi at Hayat FM’s studios. Image via Islamway.net)

The story is similar for al-Jarmi’s genre counterparts on Radio Hala: Zaid al-Masri, the current host of the army station’s daily Islamic advice programme, but even more so Muhammad Nouh – who is, without a doubt, a star in the field of popular Islam and Islamic scholarship in Jordan. In January this year, Nouh has moved on from Hala in order to found and run his own Islamic format station, Yaqeen. (Its Facebook page boasts more than 200,000 likes after only a couple of months of operation.) Nouh also hosts television shows, is a former government minister (twice over), and chairs the Shaykh Nouh Charitable Society (named in honor of Nouh’s father, Nouh al-Qudah, a former mufti of Jordan). All this in addition to his scholarly credentials, which include a number of published studies and a doctorate in fiqh from the University of Jordan.

To speak on air, a pleasant voice isn’t enough. Anyone can read out religious texts and legal judgments; but in order for listeners to respect you, to take heed of you as a proper authority on religious matters, there needs to be something more. A background that proves your experience; links to sources of authority via texts and named scholar-instructors. And, finally, a knowledge that is broad and deep enough that you can answer even the more obscure legal or customary questions with spontaneity and confidence.

The Questions

The kinds of questions that make it on air tell us much about the preoccupations of those Jordanians trying to lead a pious Islamic life. Many involve particular social practices or situations that listeners have encountered (or been involved in), and what Islamic jurisprudence – for most callers and hosts in Jordan, that of the Shafi’i school – has to say about their admissibility. Popular also are inquiries about ritual details – in particular, details of prayer and ritual purification / ablution – as well as scriptural questions: interpretations of Qur’an verses and aHaadiith, correct readings of holy texts, and other doctrine-related information (such as details of early Islamic history, the external appearance of the Prophet Mohammad, and so on). Other calls are of a more personal nature: they might involve participants asking the hosts for blessings, interpret their dreams or visions, or offer them reassurances about difficult personal situations.

The programmes are reasonably popular, and the amount of questions shooting in from all sides – phones, texts, Facebook – is at times overwhelming. A frequent practice is to take several questions in succession and then offer responses in a ‘lump’ later on, though if the answer is short or straightforward (such as a simple pronouncement of whether a practice is ‘allowed’ or ‘forbidden’) hosts prefer to reply directly. Many callers use their turn on the air to pose several questions, which may be related – or not: a question on Islamic finance might be followed by one on a completely unrelated verse from the Qur’an, or the details of what kinds of aberrations precisely invalidate a prayer (which can get quite complicated).

ZaM in studio 16 March 2015

(Radio Hala’s in-house daa3iya, Zaid al-Masri, in his studio element. Source: Radio Hala’s Twitter page, 16 March 2015 – LINK)

As with other call-in genres, gender inequalities are palpable. Needless to say the scholar-presenters are all male; so are, for the most part, the callers, though curiously enough Radio Hala’s Islamic programme is one of the few pockets on Jordanian airwaves more generally where the rate of female participation at least begins to approach 50 percent. (It’s still a standard 10-20% for al-Jarmi’s programme on Hayat.)

Statistically, the kinds of questions asked by male versus female callers don’t vary significantly, and the proportion of question types across presenters is also fairly constant. The table below gathers some of the numbers for 10 advice programme sessions I recorded between December 2014 and February 2015:

Question Types

1. Ritual

2. Social

3. Scripture

4. Host Favor

5. Family

6. Finance

7. Personal

TOTAL

NOUH (Hala; 3 shows) 10.0% (6) 30.0% (18) 16.7% (10) 20.0% (12) 3.3% (2) 10.0% (6) 10.0% (6) 60
AL-MASRI (Hala; 3 shows) 21.7% (13) 26.7% (16) 18.3% (11) 5.0% (3) 18.3% (11) 5.0% (3) 5.0% (3) 60
AL-JARMI (Hayat; 4 shows) 18.9% (14) 37.8% (28) 14.9% (11) 5.4% (4) 4.1% (3) 16.2% (12) 4.1% (3) 74
TOTAL 17.0% (33) 32.0% (62) 16.5% (32) 9.8% (19) 8.2% (16) 10.8% (21) 6.2% (12) 194

The categories in the table are rough: often it’s difficult to classify a question into any one particular category – they might apply to more than one, such as questions on family relationships that also relate to finance / property, or subjective experiences of God (category 7 in the table) that are linked to familial or social experiences of the callers. (They do, though, appear to have some validity for the hosts: different types of questions are answered in different ways – quick authoritative statements for ritual questions, for example, or ‘sincere advice’ for personal problems – and the hosts also sometimes classify (especially text / Internet) questions as “Qur’anic” or “social” or “fiqhi,” etc.) The total number of programmes I’ve looked at (so far) is low, and the recordings weren’t motivated by any kind of consideration of statistical significance that would make them representative. Still, the tally provides a quick overview of some of the relevant trends  – at least by showing what kind of classification of questions makes sense across the programmes.

A final note on some of the ‘outliers’ in the table. Some of the hosts appear to have significantly higher (or lower) proportions of certain kinds of questions than in the total tally. My impression is that these are mostly aberrations – a higher sample would likely level out – with one exception: the high number of ‘Host Favor’ (category 4) questions for Muhammad Nouh.

Mohammad Nouh (Wikipedia)(Muhammad Nouh al-Qudah. Image by Majd Makki; via Wikimedia Commons)

Outside the media field, Nouh is – as I’ve mentioned – by far the best-known of the three presenters. Compared with al-Masri and al-Jarmi, many more callers just contact him to thank him, ask him for a blessing, or request a sermon at a local mosque. The religious, charitable, and political activities that have brought him public recognition have a clear effect on his media authority as well.


Decades ago, Brinkley Messick observed in his study of “media muftis” on Yemeni national radio that the public context of radio broadcasts ends up giving legal pronouncements a much more personalized, ‘informal’ flavor than the traditional method of providing written legal opinions. This is all the more evident in Jordanian Islamic advice programmes today. The communicative context of the live broadcast, where presenters have to come up with answers quickly and in a manner their listeners will understand immediately, makes it pretty much a necessity.

The advice given by “media shaykhs” such as Nouh and al-Jarmi does not have the binding force of a legal fatwa (like one issued by Jordan’s official seat of Islamic jurisprudential authority, Dar al-Ifta; indeed the radio hosts themselves sometimes refer their callers to the institution if they sense their issue might benefit from a formal legal ruling). Still, it is a way for people to link up directly with personalities that claim considerable knowledge of the subject, and are recognized authorities in the field. Even in a modern, impersonal, bureaucratic nation-state, authority issuing from particular people still has a role to play.

As I see it, this involves not as much a “fragmentation of authority” as its functioning within the confines of specific media – in this case, radio, which allows sound to be broadcast and transmitted, both from the studio to the audience and vice versa (through phone-ins). Though again, that’s only half the story. For Messick, in the 1980s, it may have been enough to claim that (national) radio broadcasts of fatwas involve their transmission to a (national) Yemeni audience. But times have changed. No longer do “media muftis” sift through mail and sit in their libraries for days to prepare carefully considered legal opinions. Direct call-ins and instant messaging provide a very close simulation of spontaneous communication; one in which the line between “on-air” and “off-air” authority – or the way holders of such authority present themselves in different kinds of personal interactions – is never entirely clear.

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Tuning In to God

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