Muslim social media influencers intensifying religious individualism in Islamic societies?

The influence of social media in the Islamic world is producing a new kind of Muslim social influencer who is encouraging greater religious individualism among young Muslims, according to an article in the open-access journal Religions (April 8). Social media platforms have become popular among Muslim millennials in the Gulf countries, the Arab world, and beyond. Hybrid forms combining religious teaching with entertainment are nothing new in the Islamic world, as seen in the Muslim televangelism of Amr Khaled, for example. But the new generation of social media influencers—largely urban and Western-educated, specializing in non-religious subjects such as management or business, and tending to be “spiritual but not religious”—is far less engaged in teaching Islamic dogma. Rather, these influencers are “storytellers” who focus on human relationships and civil life. In the article, Bouziane Zaid of the University of Sharjah and his colleagues profile the prominent social media influencers Salama Mohamed and Khalid Al Ameri from the United Arab Emirates, Ahmad Al Shugairi from Saudia Arabia, and Omar Farooq from Bahrain, finding that they all “abide by the social marketing principles of soft sales and values-based selling. They do not pitch their religious message too early. They first entertain their followers with a well-articulated story that the followers can relate to, and then they pitch their message, which is usually a form of moral lesson.”

For instance, Farooq, a young Bahraini filmmaker and content creator, uses stories where he showcases various social experiences, professions, and situations. His popular videos include a series with episodes like “I am pregnant” (13 million views) and “I am disabled” (9 million views), and another series where he visits Muslim societies, such as Iraq, that are seen as off-limits to others. Mohamed and Al Ameri portray their life as a couple as that of a modern family living an Islamic life that is enjoyable and fulfilling. They also address social ills, such as obesity and excessive use of technology, while also stressing peace and diversity, also themes advocated in the UAE. The researchers conclude that these social media influencers challenge well-established notions of institutional religious authority, promoting a shift from “orthodoxy to orthopraxy,” especially as they give young believers access to religious content while the pandemic removes millions of Muslims from institutional religious life. “The emergence of the orthopraxy is likely to enhance individuality, authentic selfhood, and personal expressions, rather than a collective tradition.”