Mediating Belief: Dawat-e-Islami's Emerging Madina of Visuality

Noman Baig

9/11 brought the US government and the Western media’s sharp focus on Pakistan’s religious organizations, operated relatively free from interference or control by the Pakistani state. The militant Islamist networks of the region were allegedly using this religious space to promote their projects against the West. Thus, tropes of Islam, violence, and tribalism became strongly associated with both Pakistan and the forms in which its people conduct religious practices. Yet, this image is far from the lived realities and experiences in the Sunni religious organization, Dawat-e-Islami (Invitation to Islam), based in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi. Founded in 1981, by a perfume vendor, Ilyas Qadri, Dawat-e-Islami’s religious activities hum with ritual practices that are far from representations of “Islam” that dominate global airwaves. For example, Dawat-e-Islami (DI) uses its website to offer instructions for the Islamic practice of receiving God's guidance known as Istekhara (divination), for making important business and marriage decisions. Also, for becoming Ilyas Qadri’s disciple (mureed) one simply needs to fill out an online form.1  Moreover, Dawat-e-Islami is the first and only religious organization that broadcasts its TV channel, Madani, in Pakistan and to several continents. Thus DI is an apt starting point for a discussion on how emerging forms of media are deployed to propagate religious beliefs.

The sudden proliferation of television channels under the rule of military dictator, Pervez Musharraf (1999 – 2008), introduced a new visual landscape in Pakistan. Fueled by the rising tide of anti-Americanism, and the US war in Iraq and Afghanistan, news channels broadcasting politically and emotionally charged talk shows gained rapid popularity. Television networks such as Geo, owned by the largest media group, Jang, and ARY Digital, named after Pakistani-Gujarati gold merchants, Abdul Razzak Yaqoob, from Dubai, were the first two privately-run channels to emerge in post-9-11 Pakistan. As a result of a relaxation in media law, a number of new channels hosted live shows on domestic and international issues ranging from everyday life problems such as marriage and divorce to the US' war on terror. Public broadcasting of hitherto private matters transformed the country’s media industry. For instance, a live religious talk show, Aalim Online, on Geo TV, became popular because it was a service that provided solutions, in line with ‘Islamic principles,’ to people's daily domestic concerns. It was soon after that exclusively religious channels began to enter the predominantly news and entertainment related media industry. Islamic channel such as Quran TV (QTV) was launched exclusively to air the devotional genres of qawwali and naat, and religious sermons.

Fig. 01

Within this context, DI launched its first television channel, Madani, in 2008. The opening of a TV channel surprised people because DI had historically been a vehement critic of the television. It had adhered to the belief that visual imagery spread evil and was, thus, a source of moral degradation in society. Figure 1 is the cover page of the organization’s pamphlet titled,  Destructive Effects of T.V., depicting fire on a flat screen TV, indicating that watching television would result in the burning in hell. The seven chapters presented in the book indeed emphasize bodily punishments for TV viewers. Some of the titles are: Venomous Lizards, Terrifying Centipedes, Corpse in Pain because of (watching) TV, God's curse on one who buys TV for their children. These chapters provide a detail description of the corporeal punishments endowed upon people who commit the sin of watching television. “These titles are catchy”, informed one of DI’s students, Munawwar Attari, at the organization’s mosque, “they trick people reading them into thinking that it is some kind of a story but they soon discover that a book presents lessons about punishments for sinners.” “Hazrat sahib [Ilyas Qadri, founder of DI] understands people’s sensibility that is why he chooses these titles to grab people’s attention” the student added smiling.

Fig. 02

However, as I elaborate further below, DI is gradually transforming its views against TV and visual images by embracing modern visual technologies, making themselves and their services available to a global audience. Its Madani channel broadcasts live religious shows, devotional singing in praise of Prophet Mohammad or naats, and sermons from the organization’s headquarters, Faizan-e-Madina, in Karachi. Never seen on TV before, the organization's leader, Ilyas Qadri, appeared on air for the first time with the launch of Madani channel in 2008. DI also produces multimedia CDs, religious software, and mobile phone applications for a variety of users searching for new ways of experiencing religion. DI's user-friendly website offers many services from the live TV channel, to online chat rooms/forums, and wallpaper downloads. In addition to Madani channel, the organization also maintains interactive website, Facebook and Twitter pages connecting them to followers across the world.

Through an ethnographic study of the organization in Karachi, the research analyzes Dawat-e-Islami’s visual media; pamphlets, stickers, and emerging audio-visual materials. I argue that the popular medium of booklets and stickers are slowly receding giving way to emerging ephemeral and visceral forms of communication such as mobile SMS and videos. The organization has shifted its focus towards media technology to advance organization’s values, and has opened up new ways of interaction between religious belief and visual media in Pakistan. Despite the surge in the use of multimedia technology to disperse religious values, little effort has been made to understand this growing relationship in Pakistan.2 The question then I raised is how media and religion are entangled with each other, and how it is reconfiguring the shape of human experiences. For the current research I have focused primarily on the ways in which religious organizations like Dawat-e-Islami deploy media technology. To understand its impact on the human experience requires different sets of methodology and detailed ethnographic research which is beyond the scope of the present study.

1  I am thankful to Mariam Sabri and Zehra Sabri for proofreading the draft and for offering useful Urdu translation.
2  In recent years, religious phenomena especially the extremist currents in the country have attracted scholarly interest among the academic community. See Ahmad, Sadaf. Transforming Faith: The Story of Al-Huda and Islamic Revivalism Among Urban Pakistani Women. Syracuse University Press. Iqtidar, Humeira. (2011). Secularizing Islamists?: Jama’at-e-Islami and Jama'at-ud-Da'wa in Urban Pakistan. University of Chicago Press. Toor, Sadia. . The State of Islam: Culture And Cold War Politics In Pakistan. Pluto Press.

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