Azhar on the Airwaves: Digital Branding for an Ancient Institution
July 22, 2009
The communications revolution has long challenged the authority of religious institutions like Egypt’s millennium-old al-Azhar Mosque. For centuries, al-Azhar was a dominant voice on mainstream Sunni law and practice, and its influence reached from North Africa into Asia. Now, the Cairene institution struggles to be heard over the cacophony of Web sites, television programs, CDs, and DVDs that are freely available to Muslims around the globe.
According to some, al-Azhar needs better branding. In recent months, plans have been made to launch Azhari TV, a 24-hour religious satellite television station emphasizing teachings that pass muster with al-Azhar-trained scholars. The station, which is scheduled to begin airing in August, states on its Web site that it seeks to emulate al-Azhar’s blend of “scientific originality” and “moderation.” While it doesn’t explicitly state the competition, most existing religious channels in the Arab world have ties to Saudi Arabia.
Al-Azhar’s administration seems cool to the idea. Al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Academy issued an urgent statement last month saying the institution cooperates with all channels, not just ones using its name, and that it has neither influence, control, nor a financial interest in the new venture.
Importantly, though, they haven’t stood in the way, and there is more to come. The channel’s creators plan to launch an affiliated newspaper, radio station, a suite of blogs, and a cell phone service. Success will require establishing what the brand really means in all these new contexts, giving alAzhar’s scholars something to chew on for the next thousand years.
This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.