Random Muslim Person sees inspirational Islamic video on YouTube. Random brother or sister now feels speaker in said YouTube video is the solution to all of their life problems. Random Muslim Person finds the Facebook fan page of said speaker. They now feel compelled to comment on every single one of their statuses. For example:
Popular Islamic speaker Facebook update: "Alhamdulillah Allah (swt) has blessed our family with a new baby, please keep us in your duas." Random Muslim Person commenting on this status: "OMG SHEIKH CAN YOU PLEEEEEZ VISIT ME IN ANTARCTICA ITS MY DREAM TO MEET YOUUUUUU!!!" The only way this quote could be any more accurate is if it had an Emoji after every third word.
Love it or hate it, celebrity speaker culture is here. I wrote about this topic previously from the perspective of seeking fame. Now it is time to write from the perspective of how we view and approach Islamic speakers. Social media has created a world where people become quickly popular - but also where approaching them is easier than ever. You may hear a talk that changes your life, and you can now just fire off a tweet at that person to thank them.
I recently read a book that outlined "fanboy/fangirl traps to avoid" when meeting a mentor (specifically an entrepreneurial mentor). I have adapted these traps for our context.
Before continuing, it is important to understand what is happening beneath the surface. It is easy to sit around and make fun of people for acting like wild pre-teens at a concert around imams, but it's missing the underlying point of why this happens. When someone influences you, particularly in helping you come closer to Allah (swt), there is a natural inclination to want to connect with them. There is an inclination to build a relationship with them, seek advice from them, and even take mentorship from them.
I experienced this myself at the past AMJA conference when I *finally* got to meet Shaykh Jamaal Zarabozo after being a student of his books and lectures for over 10 years. Yes, I got giddy when I finally got to meet him, but it is important to understand the boundaries so that we can create healthy and productive interactions - whether online or offline.
With that, there are legitimate ways to connect with someone and build a relationship with them - no matter how busy and famous they are. On the other hand, there are ways to be completely creepy and weird.
1. OMG YOU ARE THE BEST
This is not the wisest way to begin corresponding with someone. There is nothing wrong with thanking someone for how they have impacted you, but don't keep gushing. Thank them for how they impacted you, don't thank them for being awesome.
If you keep emailing someone, and start each email with something like "Subhanallah shaykh you are so gifted...", it will get awkward and uncomfortable. A better approach if reaching out to someone is saying something like, "jazakallahu khayr for your video about XYZ, I never thought about the revelation of Surah Iqra' in this manner and it has really changed the way I approach..."
2. False Humility
This is one of my biggest pet peeves.
"Mashallah shaykh I was not even sure if I should write this email, I am so sinful and lowly, I do not know how you could even spend your precious time even wasting 5 seconds on my email, I really wanted to ask you something, but if you don't reply it is ok, I know you are busy and I am nobody, and I am meaningless, and even opening this email will probably prevent you from hundreds of hasanat of dhikr so I apologize but I wanted to ask you..."
Seriously, get a grip.
They're humans too. Act like it. Don't be needy. This doesn't mean you need to be arrogant and talk down to them - just be normal. Unfortunately being normal is a challenge.
Be respectful of a person's time, but also have some dignity. An easy way to do this is to try to anticipate their answers and be succinct with something only they can answer. For example-
"Shaykh I really enjoyed your video on Uhud. I had some questions regarding the ayah you quoted. I tried checking a couple of tafseer books and asked my local imam about what you mentioned but I was unable to locate anything. I understand you are busy, but if you have time I would really appreciate if you can let me know how scholars arrived at the conclusion that..."
3. Solve all my problems!
Just because someone gives a great talk on repentance does not mean they can give you marital counseling. Or career advice. Or tell you what to major in. Or talk to your kids for 3 minutes and turn them into angels.
A huge downside of this celebrity persona is this assumption that just because someone is famous, or is able to garner 50k hits on a YouTube video, that they're suddenly able to solve all problems. People will come up to an imam and ask something like, "A person in our community just got arrested, can you represent him in court?"
The imam will say something like "umm.. you need a lawyer" and they will say, "but no, we want you to do it, you are so amazing - we saw you on YouTube you know so much about Islam!"
The status of celebrity makes people infatuated with seeking solace only in that. It's like your kid asks you to play catch with the football in the yard, and you say you refuse to learn how to throw a football unless Payton Manning comes and teaches you himself.
Don't let your love of someone more well-known cause you to undervalue those near you. I contend that the greatest casualty in the YouTube age is the local imam.
4. Can I study with you?? Please?? I'll be your best student ever!
This quote from Pamela Slim sums it up:
Think about the current mentors in your life. Did you like and trust them immediately? Or did your relationship grow with time and work and mutual support? Sometimes in your desire to learn as much as you can from people you admire, you ask them for specific support and guidance without having any consideration for their time . A favorite is “You are an expert in my field, would you mind reviewing my twenty-page business plan?”
Alternative: Respect your own time and that of busy people. Mentors grow naturally, they are not manufactured.
Social networking enables us to connect quickly, but that can easily fool us into thinking we are building a relationship. Can you imagine someone going up to Qari Abdul Basit after he does a recitation and saying, "I loved your recitation! Do you have a few minutes? I'd like to recite the entire Qur'an to you so you can correct my tajweed and beautify my voice."
Ridiculous, but people do exactly this via email, Twitter, and Facebook comments to Islamic speakers on a daily basis.
5. Can I get a retweet?
This is a bad case of entitlement. "Shaykh you have 50,000 Twitter followers, can you retweet us?"
This is extremely annoying and puts Islamic speakers in an awkward position. They want to be helpful, but the reason that they have huge followings is because they add value to their audiences. If they retweeted everyone who wanted a shout out (because they're too lazy to build their own followings, or worse - too lazy to do work meaningful enough to attract a following) then their timeline would turn into the never ending Juma announcements from hell and they would lose all their followers.
It's like going to someone's house, knocking on their door, interrupting dinner with their family and saying - "Assalamu Alaikum! You don't know me, we've never met, I looked up your address on Google. My name is IslAm4LyfeMuslimmDude75 and I'm currently crowd funding $100,000 to help create Ebola proof prayer beads. I'd really appreciate it, since I don't know anyone and no one will support my project, if you could take out your phone, call all your friends, and ask them to donate. JAZAKS!"
A better way to do this is simply share a project without expecting anything in return. You can tweet at someone and say "Salam shaykh, wanted to share our new Ebola proof prayer beads - check it out" and leave it at that. The best communication is one that doesn't require a response.
6. The Dark Side
Watch out for the day that the celebrity imam does or says something that Random Muslim Person doesn't agree with. They will become the most hated pariah faster than you can break your wudu. People swing wildly from loving someone to hating them, and then loving them again, and then hating them again. This is easiest way to be perceived as unstable and crazy.
If someone does something you don't agree with, you don't need to crucify them online. Let them know with a little bit of manners why you're upset and how what they said may have affected you. Everyone makes mistakes.
How to Build Real Relationships
Change your mindset from thinking someone is awesome, and therefore wanting to be affiliated with them. You'll never find a mentor by tweeting at someone and saying "mentor me please! please by my shaykh!"
The way to truly connect with people is by adding value to them. If you notice someone is teaching a course on a particular topic - be the person who sends them helpful research. Send them the cool quote or anecdote that they might find useful.
Focus on the impact of their work, not them. You won't connect with someone by flattering them. Show them how their work impacted you. Show how you took something they taught and implemented it, and what the outcome of it was.
Find a way to help them accomplish something, or solve a problem for them without them asking.
The more you're able to do this, the more that you put yourself in a position of becoming a trusted advisor, or a valuable contributor - not a weirdo on the internet. The beauty of social media is that it's easier than ever before to be in a position of adding value to others and building relationships with them. Once you do this, they will naturally become mentors, teachers, and people you can go to for advice.
A big theme for this entire social media project is understanding that social media is a tool, a magnifying lens. You can use it to drive people away, or you can use it to create invaluable connections. The latter just takes a little more work and thought, but the end result is incredible.