Points of View

'Communications Media' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

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This article describes uses of mass communication technology in Muslim countries as background for Kamila Shamsie's Broken Verses, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, and Hisham Matar's In the Country of Men. The article by Hamid Mowlana and Joseph A. Kéchichian is reprinted from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


Communication has been an instrumental and integral part of Islam since its inception as a religio-political movement. Over the centuries, Islamic culture and civilization have been influential in the development of three major pillars of human communication: first, a high level of oral communication and culture in which information was produced and transmitted from person to person; second, an unprecedented degree of reproduced books and manuscripts marking an intellectual era of rich scientific, literary, artistic, and linguistic interaction in all branches of knowledge; and, third, the first attempt in history to bring oral and written cultures into a unified framework, laying the ground for the scientific revolution that followed in Europe.

The art of oral culture and communication in Islamic societies found its best expression in the Qurʿān (the holy book), the sunnah (tradition), and the hadīth (a record of the acts and sayings of the Prophet and his companions, the ahl al-bayt). The Qurʿān is the main source from which Islamic communication practices and precepts are drawn and explained. The sunnah of the Prophet, taken from his deeds and judgments and written down, is the standard of conduct alongside the Qurʿān; the hādīths are the authoritative record of the Prophetʾs sayings. A hādīth is credible only when its isnād or documentation offers an unbroken series of reliable authorities in oral and written communication. The hādīth became fundamental to the organization of information and intellectual discourse in Islamic society. Investigation and study of this whole body of communication is called ʿilm al-hādīth.

Inherent in the Islamic teachings are basic rights of communication, including the rights to know, to read, to write, and to speak. The notion of ʿilm, or knowledge, prevails throughout the Qurʿān as the basic tenet of all communication in Islam. The word iqrāʿ (reading) is also important in the Qurʿān. Iqrāʿ implicitly conveys the idea of communicating consciously within the Muslim community. At the request of the Prophet, his companions wrote down the Qurʿān in various media of the time to ensure the longevity of its teachings.

The memorization of the Qurʿān is a common act of information and communication that has a long history in Islamic societies; it is still practiced widely in all Muslim countries, serving as an inextricable link between the oral and written modes. The fact that Arabic became the primary language of Islam aided the efficient transmission of ideas throughout the vast Islamic world. With a single religion and a single language, communication became an instrument for the integration of the larger Islamic community, the ummah.

Before the modern era, the primary centers of communication in the Islamic world were the mosques, especially during the daily and Friday congregations, and the marketplaces and public squares, as well as the religious schools. The mosque served not only for daily prayers but also for spreading news and opinion and as a forum for political decision making. This form of communication, called the formal address or sermon (khutbah), was largely based on the Islamic tradition of combining political and religious discourse. For example, during Ramadan, theological students and members of the ʿulamāʿ customarily held meetings to present current topics and issues.

Another important concept in the realm of Islamic communication is tablīgh, the notion of the propagation, and dissemination of Islamic beliefs and practices. Tablīgh, rooted in the oral and social traditions of the greater Islamic community, established a framework of ethics related to communications and social interactions.

During the later centuries of Islamic history, when the arts of bookmaking and reproduction of manuscripts were widely developed, the oral mode did not lose its significance but remained an inseparable part of culture and communication. The expansion of Islamic states in Asia, Africa, and the Iberian Peninsula, coupled with the introduction of new means of communication, accelerated the process of scientific, commercial, and artistic communication.

Medieval Islamic culture with its scholarly interest in the entire universe provided an intellectual environment that advanced studies in such fields as astronomy, chemistry, geography, history, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy. These studies in turn stimulated a respect for information and knowledge that directed both the domestic and international relations of the Islamic community. Moreover, the interconnected Islamic civilization took advantage of its pivotal geopolitical position by developing navigation science and communication not only for commerce and trade but also for distributing scholarly and practical knowledge. Written manuscripts and books permeated Islamic society and inspired profound cultural developments.

A group of efficient and intellectual scribes, the warrāqīn, served the Islamic community by commenting on and copying manuscripts, often completing more than a hundred pages a day. Under the supervision of the warrāqīn, writers and their publishers established an effective system of cooperation within the publication industry. The high demand for books led to the building of numerous private and public libraries.

Between the thirteenth century and the modern era, however, the Islamic world fell short in adopting new communication technologies because of political, economic, and social factors both internal and external. The European invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century heralded the birth of the print culture and a tremendous quantitative jump in the output of information. In the Islamic societies, however, one mode of communication did not supersede another; rather, oral and written communication both continued to develop and came to complement technological forms of communication in the modern era. Hence, the growth of communication in the Islamic world was characterized by qualitative progress rather than quantitative jumps.

From the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century, when more or less formalized councils of ministers came into being in Islamic countries such as Iran and Turkey, the official government news writer occupied an important place. Occasionally, the government news was also read to the public from the stairs of mosques. The official governmental report functioned as a successful medium for disseminating news until the introduction of modern journalism.

Printing presses were introduced into Islamic countries such as Egypt, India, Iran, and Turkey as early as the seventeenth century. During the late eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth, the printing press facilitated the establishment of newspapers throughout the Islamic world. This early period of the press was responsible for the importation of modern nationalism and secularism from Europe; it also played an important role in the spread of the nineteenth-century Islamic reform movement as well as the campaign against European colonialism.

The early growth of the modern mass media in the Islamic world was associated, first, with state intervention in the production and distribution of the press, and, second, with the influence of both secular and religious leaders who sought to use the press for sociopolitical reforms. Thus, during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, two types of publications emerged in the Islamic world: one journalistic establishment led mainly by the Western-trained and educated elites who were promoting European ideas of secularism, liberalism, and modern nationalism, and another pioneered by religious leaders and Islamic reformists such as Sayyid Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī, who was campaigning for a unified Islamic community throughout the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa. Al-Afghānīʾs influence was strong in most Islamic countries, especially Iran and Egypt; he and his followers published a number of newspapers, including the famous Al-ʿurwah al-wuthqā (The Firmest Bond), which was circulated in many countries. By the turn of the century, the new tool of journalism was in widespread use in the Islamic world from Indonesia to North Africa.

With the revolt of the Young Turks against the sultan in 1908, there came a sudden upsurge in the number of newspapers being published in the Arabic-speaking provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Of the three great media of propaganda in the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1911—the omnipresent political pamphlets, the secret and revolutionary societies, and the press—it was the last that made the greatest gains. Anti-colonial movements and the struggle for independence in India, Indonesia, Morocco, and Algeria led to the growth of the press, political parties, and a number of ideological movements ranging from Islamic radicalism to communist socialism.

The twentieth century thus marked the rise of modern mass communication in the Islamic world. The process of decolonization in a number of Islamic countries in Asia and Africa, coupled with the delineation of economic classes and the recognition of the nation-state system, elevated the communications media to new prominence in which the state played a major role. In the Central Asian republics where Soviet models of media became dominant, Islamic institutions of communication such as mosques and madrasahs remained under the control and supervision of the state. In North and West Africa, the communications media of the newly established independent states were developed along the lines of French and English models.

A characteristic of the mass media in the contemporary Islamic world has been the multiplicity of press agencies as well as broadcasting, telecommunications, and cultural industries, which has largely reflected the diversity of ethnic, linguistic, and geographical groups. As a whole, the media in the Islamic world, particularly television, have been strongly influenced by their counterparts in the West. In contrast to the press, which has had a fairly independent, private status, radio and television typically have been operated by centralized, government-supervised institutions.

Among the mass communication media in the Islamic world, the film industry has had the shortest history. The limited development of film and cinema has both technical and cultural roots. In many Islamic societies, films in general and foreign films in particular have been opposed as corrupt and immoral because they promote alien values and their contents conflict with local cultural and religious norms. There is no objection in principle, however, to the technology of film and the legitimate use of it. The barriers have been broken down to a large extent as national and cultural policies have become more selective in the importation of foreign films and as local authorities have encouraged the production of historical, cultural, and educational films.

Until the last decade of the twentieth century, because of the lack of production facilities in some Muslim countries and the generally low level of the economy, the media had to import much of their equipment. At the same time, the lack of sufficient telecommunications and transportation infrastructure made distribution both costly and haphazard. For these reasons, the media often relied heavily on outside sources for news and programming. Frequent charges that the media were influenced and even controlled by international agencies, post-colonial ties, and government organizations stemmed largely from this imbalance in the financing of indigenous news agencies and news gathering sources, as well as from a lack of comprehensive national communications policies.

The contemporary Islamic media contain ingredients endemic to their regional settings and characteristics that mark them as special products of their social milieu. Certain traits are peculiar to each Islamic regionʾs social and cultural structure. The Middle East and South Asia have the most developed mass communication systems, whereas the regions of Africa and Central and East Asia require more investment in their systems. However, most Islamic countries fall short in the average number of modern media outlets when compared to the industrialized countries of Europe and North America.

Although population and literacy rates have been increasing in the Islamic world, a comparative study in a number of countries shows that readership numbers have not kept pace. The shortage of paper and machinery has been one reason, and internal political changes in a number of regions has been another. However, the growth of electronic media has been relatively dramatic as a result of the spread of modern communication technologies and the use of communication satellites.

One of the most interesting contemporary phenomena in the Islamic world has been the integration of modern communication technologies with the traditional media, a process that has contributed to the legitimation of the centers of power and the acceleration of political and social change. In the 1978–1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his followers used modern means of communication such as telephones and cassette tapes along with traditional channels to disseminate their messages throughout the country. In such countries as Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Egypt, the use of personal computers and facsimile machines for the diffusion of Islamic ideas has become widespread. Information about Islam has become more accessible to the layperson through databases on the Qurʿān and hādīth.

In the closing decades of the twentieth century and at the dawn of the twenty-first, four important developments have had the most profound impact on the nature and content of information in the Islamic world. First, the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and subsequent political movements in other Islamic countries set the tone for the Islamization of the media and created a new ecology of communication in a number of regions. Second, the 1991 disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of newly independent states in Islamic regions such as Central Asia contributed to the potential expansion of a greater Islamic communications network. Third, the growth of national and international telecommunications through satellites demonstrated a potential to affect the integration of the Islamic regions and political and economic developments there. Finally, the tragic attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, ushered in a period of antagonism between Western and Muslim societies that was chiefly manifested through the media. These developments, coupled with the phenomenal progress of communication technology, accelerated interest in, and suspicion of, the Islamic world. Starting in 2001, Western communications media focused with vengeance on the Muslim world, including on the value of a monotheistic religion. Conversely, a rapid growth in Muslim perspectives, both toward the West as well as within the Islamic realm, altered the tone with which Muslims communicated.

After the late 1990s, and especially with the rapid transformation of satellite television pioneered by Al Jazeeraʾs phenomenal growth, Arab media sources distinguished themselves from their international counterparts. While mimicking the latterʾs technical and professional capabilities, Arab television programs presented genuine alternatives, often to articulate what was taboo in the West. For example, coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the 2006 Israel-Hizbullāh war in Lebanon, the post-9/11 “war on terrorism,” the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after 2001 and 2003, respectively, and various religious questions—human rights, morality, the role of women, clerical interpretations—were all presented with far less bias than before the 1990s when Western news outlets enjoyed a near monopoly. This phenomenon was duplicated throughout Asia, where coverage of domestic concerns in Indonesia and Malaysia in particular, received preferential coverage on the BBC and CNN. In fact, several new satellite networks, including Al-Arabiya, Al-Hurra, MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Corporation), and LBC (Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation), among others, all increased their own reporting to present the Arab and Muslim points of view. Sophisticated religious programs, which brought pulpits into living rooms, proved contagious. In turn, the television coverage fed into a print frenzy, especially in London or Dubaiʾs relatively free “ Media City,” which escaped centralized, government-supervised institutions that heretofore had dictated substance.

In 2006, Al Jazeera launched a sister network in English, which focused on the Muslim world in eclectic ways. It provided unique reportage of Africa and Asia, two continents that fell outside Eurocentric Western media outlets, and was not shy about questioning Western policies toward the Arab and Muslim worlds.

The other remarkable development of the past few decades was the epochal growth of the Internet as a unique communication medium. Muslim leaders, as well as state religious institutions, Islamist groups, and violent groups took to the Internet with ease. Thousands of new sites emerged within a very short period of time, often characterized by extraordinary adaptability to change, and even to the utility of the medium as a communication channel—both for good and malevolence. The Internet helped Islam to grow and gave millions of Muslims unfettered access to primary texts and new perspectives, nurturing healthy online debates on arcane religious topics. It allowed believers to interact with religious scholars, to seek advice and solicit fatwās as needed. It even provided a mechanism to express views that could only be protected by the mediumʾs anonymity. But to suggest that the Internet has been inevitably democratizing and liberal would be technological determinism. Indeed, the most troubling feature of its egalitarianism is that it has allowed extremist groups access to believers without any hindrance. Beheadings were posted without any compunction to the damage that such a display might have on Muslim interests.

Even if traditional media outlets lost their monopolies, what also was sacrificed in this rush was the measured reflections made by well-read authors who relied on their own, as well as their institutional, memories. Cyber muftīs issued fatwas that were not always popular or within traditional norms. Often, charismatic and media savvy clerics such as Shaykh Hamza Yusuf—whose sermons on Jannah.com were among the most popular—gained a significant following. Thus, the Web created confusion, stirring a volatile mix of competing opinions—including serious divisions over who speaks for Islam—that sidelined local imams. Those who lacked charisma and speaking skills lost attendance at their mosques. Young and more educated Muslims flocked to the Internet for a variety of sermons by Muslim authorities living in faraway lands, but who appealed to the tech savvy through modernizing additions. Consequently, while some competence standards improved, local leaders lost much of their authority. Given inherent community values within Islam, this loss was significant, even if its consequences were not entirely apparent. Islam was certainly evolving intellectually but this evolution was largely occurring in an era of globalization and instant communication with, perhaps, unforeseen ramifications.


  • Eickelman, Dale F., and Jon W. Anderson. New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2003. Covers aspects of modern media that, in common, challenge notions of gender, authority, justice, and politics.
  • Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research. Arab Media in the Information Age. Abu Dhabi: ECSSR, 2006. First comprehensive assessment of Arab satellite stations, Web sites, and transnational newspapers and magazines.
  • Kamalipour, Yahya, and Hamid Mowlana, eds. Mass Media in the Middle East: A Comprehensive Handbook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1994.
  • Miles, Hugh. Al-Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel that is Challenging the West. New York: Grove Press, 2006.
  • El-Nawawy, Mohammed and Adel Iskandar. Al-Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East. Cambridge, Mass., 2002.
  • Poole, Elizabeth, and John E. Richardson. Muslims and the News Media. London: I.B. Tauris, 2006. A comprehensive examination of the links between context, content, production, and audiences of news about Islam and Muslims for both Muslim and non-Muslim consumers.
  • Rugh, William A. Arab Mass Media: Newspapers, Radio, and Television in Arab Politics. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004. An outstanding resource by a former American diplomat with rare insights.
  • Said, Edward W. Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World. New York: Vintage, 1997. A classic academic effort that depicts stereotypes and prejudices in the reporting about Muslims.
  • Zayani, Mohammed. The Al Jazeera Phenomenon: Critical Perspectives on New Arab Media. New York: Paradigm, 2005.


Mowlana, Hamid and Joseph A. Kéchichian. "Communications Media." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t236/e0157

How to Cite This Page

"Muslim Journeys | Item #234: 'Communications Media' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", June 20, 2024 http://bridgingcultures-muslimjourneys.org/items/show/234.


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