Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
Zayn Malik of the band One Direction performs at the Beacon Theatre in New York City on May 26 during a U.S. concert tour.
As the British-Irish boy band One Direction soared in the pop charts, making teen and tween girls around the world swoon and scream, band member Zayn Malik tweeted a message that would perplex a large segment of his fans, while being immediately recognizable to millions of others.
"La ila ha ill lalla ho muhammed door rasoolalah." The 47-character tweet is a common declaration of faith among Muslims: "There is no god but God and Mohammad is the prophet of God."
It was one signal from Malik that as part of his public persona he would embrace a religion that is often feared and reviled in the West, while otherwise acting the traditional teen idol alongside his four floppy-haired band mates in One Direction.
The phenomenon of Malik as global pop star and Muslim — the religion of his Pakistan-born father — is likely to alienate some conservative Muslims and has already sparked the wrath of at least one well known anti-Muslim conservative in the U.S., where the band is currently touring.
But to Wajahat Ali, a San Francisco-based screen writer who is a practicing Muslim, Malik represents progress.
"It is empowering for Muslims worldwide to see the success of a pop star who also happens to be Muslim. It sends that message that a person can be respected for their talent, and their "Musliminess" will not exclude them from the public arena and culture," said Ali. "It’s also good business. You have a Muslim in a five-person boy band… and you have captured an audience of Muslim girls worldwide."
$50 million business
One Direction is a creation of Simon Cowell, TV producer and famously blunt judge on "X-Factor" and "American Idol." to In 2010 Cowell pulled together the five boys — then 16 to 18 years old — to compete as a band on "X-Factor" after each had auditioned as soloists on the show. He later signed them on his Syco Records label.
In a blinding rise to global stardom, One Direction’s first album, "Up All Night,” became wildly popular in the UK in 2011, and debuted at No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200 in 2012, launching the top 10 singles "What Makes You Beautiful," "Gotta Be You," and "One Thing."
As of June, the album had sold 2.3 million copies worldwide, and the band has become a $50 million business, CEO of Sony Music UK Nick Gatfield told MusicWeek.com, a British record industry publication.
TODAY's Jenna Bush Hager talks with heartthrob boy band One Direction, who reveal what it's like being a pop sensation and how they deal with fame and giggling girls.
One Direction is the latest in a well-established tradition of boy bands that goes back to Ricky Nelson, and the Everly Brothers in the 1950s, and continued through the Osmond Brothers, the Jackson Five, through the Backstreet boys, Spice Girls (same idea, different gender) and N’Sync.
"The whole movement… was created and geared to selling records to teenagers," said John Covach, a music historian and professor of music theory at the University of Rochester in New York. He said even the Beatles started out as a boy band. "They were good looking and funny. And they were marketed at first as teen idols."
Covach compares the One Direction video of "What makes you Beautiful" — depicting a zany seaside frolick — to the 1964 film based on the Beatle's "A Hard Day's Night."
Zealous fans — who call themselves "Directioners" — home in on their favorite band members who in turn cultivate their fan base minute by minute via social media, especially Twitter.
Valuable toast and glorious eyelashes
Louis Tomlinson is the funny one.
Liam Payne is seen the father figure on the band, and sometimes referred to as "Daddy Directioner."
Harry Styles, 18, with a head of curly brown hair and dimples is generally regarded as "cutest" — and known for allegedly dating a couple of much older women.
Niall Horan, a blond 19-year-old from Ireland, got worldwide coverage when, after tasting vegemite spread during an appearance on Australian TV, the uneaten portion of the toast was auctioned on eBay to raise money for charity — reportedly fetching $100,000. He tweeted to his 2.5 million followers that vegemite was not to his liking.
For Malik, being Muslim is not his only distinction. In chat rooms he is adored for his long dark eyelashes, and his rhythm-and-blues style.
But his occasional references to Islam is something new for a teen idol in the West and fans have taken note — though the band has barely hit the radar of most of their elders.
"You are amazing, and you act so normal, you don't fake anything and you speak what's on your mind. You are a guy that most girls want,” swooned fan Hana Fifaii, posting to Twitlonger on March 30. "I loved your tweet ‘Translation la ila ha ill lalla ho muhammed door rasoolalah’ ... It shows you're connected to your religion. You are a wonderful person and you are so God damn hot! My friend made fun of you & i practically killed her :$."
Fans watch One Direction perform live on stage at St James Theatre on April 22 in Wellington, New Zealand.
In chat rooms, Muslim and non-Muslims engaged in spirited debates about Malik’s beliefs.
Karina Alifa: Can somebody tell me, is that true that Zayn Malik is Muslim?
xavellene : Yeah he's Muslim.
Angel x: Why everyone wants to know what his religion is? This is just so weird. Whatever he believes in, just let him be. Knowing his religion does not make any difference. The same goes with the question if he is gay. Please stop asking stupid questions.
Sabby: it matters to muslim girls cuz we r muslim.. n we cant marry a non-muslim guy.. so am so proud he is muslim n he is keeping it up even thoh he grew up in UK! so am so proud and excited! … i guess u wont understand cuz ur not muslim.. so its like big thing for us!
Out in the twittersphere, kids in countries with large Muslim populations, including Egypt, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, repeatedly urge Malik to visit during the Muslim celebration of Ramadan.
Boy band jihad
Not all the responses were as positive.
As One Direction tours the United States, packing concert halls from San Francisco to Atlanta, one well-known American anti-Islam commentator warned readers to “keep your daughters away from Zayn Malik’s enticing jihad."
"He’s no dummy," wrote Debbie Schlussel in her blog on June 7. "(Malik) knows the power he has over these mindless girls and is using that influence to preach the Islamic faith to them and try to convert them. It’s dangerous."
Schlussel did not respond to the reporter’s request to discuss these comments further.
But Zudhi Jasser, an American Muslim who frequently warns of Islamic radicalization, didn’t agree that Malik was proselytizing or dangerous.
"I would say all the power to him to be respectful to his faith and be proud of it," said Jasser. He said the American Muslim culture needs more cultural icons who are American and Muslim, but not Islamist – like athletes Karim Abdul Jabbar and Mohammad Ali.
But he also notes that conservative Islamists would likely frown on many aspects of Malik’s behavior—his smoking, his tattoos (albeit written in Arabic), ear piercing, and song lyrics that — while saccharine — probably would not be seen to glorify God.
There are conservative Islamic countries where One Direction would not be allowed to perform -- and Malik might be the target of conservative clerics for his style of faith.
Ali, the screenwriter, said that even if more conservative Muslims don’t agree with Malik’s behavior, he could help expand the artistic boundaries for young Muslims.
"What we have seen in the last 10 years is that you can be an artist who is Muslim and can be practicing and doing art that is inspired by your beliefs, but does not have to be overtly Islamic or using religious language," he said. "A guy like Zayn Malik can really help open those minds and convey that as a generation we are moving ahead."
More world news from msnbc.com and NBC News:
- Pro-bailout party prevails in Greek election
- In Egypt, little enthusiasm for presidential finalists
- 14 missing off Indonesia after 10-foot wave hits boat
- Questions swirl as Saudi Arabia buries crown prince
- Video: Obama, Putin meeting looms large for Syria
Follow us on Twitter: @msnbc_world