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Inspirational Posts on Instagram Are Ruining Your Life Without You Realizing It #FiqhOfSocialMedia

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It's Sunday night after a great weekend. You got your halal meat shopping done, took the kids to the park, had dinner at a friend's house, watched some football, and even folded and put away the laundry. As you get ready for bed, you prepare yourself for the upcoming week. You have meetings for an annoying project at work. Things are awkward between two of your co-workers because of an argument they had a few days ago and you're caught in the middle. Your manager doesn't have time to look at something important that you keep emailing her about. And on a larger level, you're simply not happy about the prospect of going back to sit in your cubicle for another week and repeating the same charade over and over. So as you lie down to go to sleep, you take out your phone. And you start seeing stuff like this (and it's always on a sunset).

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Then the thoughts start to drift. Am I as happy as I should be? What are my unfulfilled dreams? How do I achieve greatness?

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This post will explore the impact of the constant influx of unabashed follow your dreams and unrealistic positivity. It is not simply about envy from seeing others' success and combating it with gratitude. It's a level deeper than that. It's how the current hybrid of success as displayed on social media, modern self-help literature, and a culture of entitlement affects us at a deep spiritual level without us realizing it.

The Secret is Visualizing Your Way to Success

The internet has filled our lives with unrealistic positive expectations. It says we can all be happier, healthier, smarter, faster, more popular, have more friends, live your dreams, and so on. To do this, you only need to follow the advice being dispensed everywhere on how to improve.

What starts with a noble intent of helping us achieve more by being positive actually creates a downward cycle. It really focuses on what we lack.The only alternative to being optimized and maximized and happy 24/7 is failure. This is why exercises like visualization and chanting mantras have become so popular. They say if you just keep imagining something positive to you, it will happen (Dave Chappelle mocked this in a brilliant bit you can watch here [warning: vulgar language]).

They make us hone in on what is wrong, and then try to offer a shortcut to fix it. To top it off, every time we get online, we are bombarded with images of people who are succeeding, having seemingly overcome all the shortcomings that hold us back (see: Jealousy, Attention, and the Social Media Highlight Reel).

This creates not only envy, but stress. In the following Ted Talk, Alain De Botton expounds on this concept in detail (I have put the text of a couple of important excerpts below the video).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtSE4rglxbY

Never before have expectations been so high about what human beings can achieve with their lifespan. We're told, from many sources, that anyone can achieve anything. ... we are now in a system where anyone can rise to any position they please. And it's a beautiful idea. ... There is one really big problem with this, and that problem is envy. Envy, it's a real taboo to mention envy, but if there's one dominant emotion in modern society, that is envy. And it's linked to the spirit of equality. ...

The closer two people are -- in age, in background, in the process of identification -- the more there's a danger of envy ... So there's a spirit of equality combined with deep inequality, which can make for a very stressful situation. It's probably as unlikely that you would nowadays become as rich and famous as Bill Gates, as it was unlikely in the 17th century that you would accede to the ranks of the French aristocracy. But the point is, it doesn't feel that way. It's made to feel, by magazines and other media outlets, that if you've got energy, a few bright ideas about technology, a garage -- you, too, could start a major thing.

The consequences of this problem make themselves felt in bookshops. When you go to a large bookshop and look at the self-help sections ... there are basically two kinds. The first kind tells you, "You can do it! You can make it! Anything's possible!" The other kind tells you how to cope with what we politely call "low self-esteem," or impolitely call, "feeling very bad about yourself."

...There is another reason why we might be feeling more anxious -- about our careers, about our status in the world today, than ever before. And it's, again, linked to something nice .... A meritocratic society is one in which, if you've got talent and energy and skill, you will get to the top, nothing should hold you back. It's a beautiful idea. The problem is, if you really believe in a society where those who merit to get to the top, get to the top, you'll also, by implication, and in a far more nasty way, believe in a society where those who deserve to get to the bottom also get to the bottom and stay there. In other words, your position in life comes to seem not accidental, but merited and deserved. And that makes failure seem much more crushing.

Mark Manson refers to this as 'The Feedback Loop from Hell" in his book (which is one of the best I've ever read on self-development). He says we feel sad or guilty about our situation, and then feel guilty about how we feel. Because everything is so perfect (or 'can be' perfect) on social media, we start to think it is not okay to feel any type of sadness, fear, or anxiety.

We get made fun of a lot for having first world problems. Alhamdulillah, we enjoy a large degree of material success relative to others. The problems we have now are more spiritual in nature - and they're exacerbated by what we consume online, often without us realizing it. We live in an age where we can have or know an infinite number of things. Paradoxically, we have an infinite number of ways we feel we don't measure up.

The relationship between material over-abundance and spiritual crisis should come as no surprise. At one end of the spectrum, more and more "successful" people are turning to mindfulness and meditation as a form of, essentially, spiritual heroin to escape savage capitalism. At the other end is entitlement and envy. The commonality on both ends is an obsession with the nafs (self). There is a deep unhappiness underpinning our success, or lack thereof, and it manifests itself as a spiritual crisis.

Alain De Botton explains this in the above Ted Talk:

The other thing about modern society and why it causes this anxiety, is that we have nothing at its center that is non-human. We are the first society to be living in a world where we don't worship anything other than ourselves. We think very highly of ourselves, and so we should; we've put people on the Moon, done all sorts of extraordinary things. And so we tend to worship ourselves. Our heroes are human heroes. That's a very new situation. Most other societies have had, right at their center, the worship of something transcendent.

Manson puts it more bluntly saying that most "life problems" are actually "side effects of not having anything more important to worry about."

We stop deriving our happiness from our values, and instead chase what is fed to us. It becomes almost formulaic. We consume all this material online and conclude that we need to fix certain shortcomings. And then once we fix them, we will be happy. So to fix them, we need a magic bullet - a LifeHacker article, another top 10 list from a blog, an expensive course, a book, a YouTube video, a podcast. We are looking for something, anything, that will 'fix' our problem so we can attain that level of greatness we are destined for. A life where everything is sunsets and rainbows and unicorns (in other words, Instagram).

 

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American Idol Syndrome

The first episodes of American Idol would always be the best because you got to see Simon ripping on a terrible contestant. They would take a contestant, and before the audition, do a bio of them. You would see footage from their hometown and everyone there would talk about how this person was in the school choir and how talented they are. Then they'll talk to friends from the neighborhood also testifying to how amazing of a singer this person is. There's no doubt they were created for this contest and will win. This is their dream, and they've been working every day nonstop to attain it.

Then they get on stage and start singing. The judges cut them off with Simon saying something snarky like, 'do humanity a favor and never sing again.' The person is then emotionally devastated. They can't believe what they're hearing. They legitimately thought they were going to win the entire competition.  They start crying, yelling, screaming. They say the judges don't know what they're talking about, and vow to show everyone that they're the best.

Sitting on the outside, we know they're foolish.

On the other hand, they are following self-help advice to the T. They believe in themselves. They're following their passions. They are working on their dream. They will not accept rejection. They vow to be resilient and bounce back in the face of crisis.

They go back to their friends who will no doubt tell them that the stupid judges on American Idol simply "can't handle how amazing they are."

We can see they're delusional.

Yet, if you were to ask anyone who has achieved fame in that industry how they got there, they would no doubt repeat those same cliches. Never give up, believe in yourself, follow your dreams, live your passions, ignore the haters, and persevere.

The delusion and foolishness is actually a result of an entitlement mentality. The underlying theme here is that this person somehow deserves success, or deserves to feel good. So even when they're not actually doing anything, they keep feeling like they are accomplishing something and are on the pathway to their dreams (sound familiar?). They are confident they will become a multi-platinum star despite what the judges and millions of viewers think. Hence the rise of how-to gurus and, as Manson says, "life coaches [who] charge money to help others, even though they're only twenty-five years old and haven't actually accomplished anything substantial in their lives."

We usually think of entitlement in regards to attaining a certain position or some material gain. The entitlement about needing to feel good all the time is a step beyond that. And by needing to feel good all the time, a person ends up in a cycle of narcissism and selfishness (the consequences of which I wrote about in detail here). They're constantly thinking about themselves and how they feel. When something awesome happens, it is because of their awesomeness, and when something bad happens its because people can't handle their awesomeness.

[The nature of] man is that, when his Lord tries him through honour and blessings, he says, ‘My Lord has honoured me,’ but when He tries him through the restriction of his provision, he says, ‘My Lord has humiliated me’ (89:15-16).

This comes about not because people really truly believe they are that amazing (although some do). It is, as Manson says, "because they feel that they need to be great to be accepted in a world that broadcasts only the extraordinary."

We are only shown the extraordinary because Instagram and other social media outlets bombard us with only those stories. They appear immediately achievable. We only need to do what they did and we can have it too. This is also known as Survivorship Bias.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1k7jeQQdqPA

People who succeed tend to look at the past with blinders and ignore many important factors that got there (see: Why Bad Leaders Rise to the Top, and Why We Keep Following Them).

Then when we try and don't succeed in the same way we develop envy. We become insecure. When we combine that with entitlement, we believe it is ok to transgress certain boundaries to get what we deserve.

Manson lays out two types of entitlement that play out in a person:

  1. I'm awesome and the rest of you all suck, so I deserve special treatment.
  2. I suck and the rest of you all are awesome, so I deserve special treatment.

To constantly make yourself the victim requires the same level of selfishness. We want everyone to know about our problems, and how we are uniquely afflicted with these problems, how they make us feel bad, and how we need everyone around us to stop doing the things that are making us feel bad. Cue Shaykh AbdulNasir Jangda saying 'Nobody Cares.' 

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It's strange that in an age when we are more connected than ever, entitlement seems to be at an all-time high. Something about recent technology seems to allow our insecurities to run amok like never before. The more freedom we're given to express ourselves, the more we want to be free of having to deal with anyone who may disagree with us or upset us. The more exposed we are to opposing viewpoints, the more we seem to get upset that those viewpoints exist. The easier and more problem-free our lives become, the more we seem to feel entitled for them to get even better. -Mark Manson

In short, we've lost the middle ground. We go to the extremes in our opinions and refuse to see the other side.We see only the success stories. We see only the top most upvoted posts on Reddit. We watch only the most viewed YouTube videos. Read only the most highly reviewed books on Amazon. Our Netflix queue is full of only 4 or 5 star shows. The craziest photos, memes, news. We start to believe that being extraordinary is being normal. This, by the way, is why the greatest casualty of YouTube is the local Imam.

We don't realize most of life is actually lived in the middle of the extremes, and so we feel bad and put ourselves through the feedback loop of hell (especially when all the gurus say being average is mediocre). You can either be super successful, or super miserable. We de-incentivize ourselves to live a life of moderation. We need to be super successful (not realizing that if everyone was extraordinary, it would by definition become the new 'ordinary'). And if we can't be successful at that level, then it's better to show how miserable we are, because at least then we can get attention for how terrible our life is.

Inspiration Junkies

The misery, insecurity, envy, and entitlement creates an addiction to motivation. I haven't gotten my life together like the guy driving a Lamborghini on Instagram, therefore, I must not be motivated enough. So in response, I am going to follow 10 more inspirational quote accounts on Instagram to make sure I keep up my positive energy and vibes.

The khutbah below by Hasib Noor lays out the issue in detail. We keep crying over the same problems over and over again, using spirituality as a way to feed the inspiration junkie addiction. We go from conference to conference without making any tangible change in our lives. We share articles without reading them to look woke even though we don't give that much attention to the actual issues.

Don't misconstrue this to throwing the baby out with the bath water. Pay attention to whose advice you follow via their social media, books, podcasts, videos, and so on. If you're still following the same people and discussing the same issues you were 2 years ago, then it's a sign you aren't progressing. You should be in a state of 'graduating' and inching forward.

We let our worries overcome us without taking any action to create meaningful change. Part of the problem is by seeing so much inspiration, we think inspiration is the answer. So you hear people saying things like, "I'm not spiritually ready to make hajj yet" or "I can't concentrate in my prayer, so I don't want to pray because then I will be a hypocrite." There is a faulty assumption that motivation → action. The reality is action creates its own motivation and inspiration. This is why consistently doing good deeds is so vital, as the khutbah here explains.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5izY3xnolc0

 

 

We learn that our focus really should be about the process. What are your daily habits and routines? What do you do each day to actually close the gap between where you are and where you want to be? Many of us are infatuated with the end outcome, but don't want to put in the daily work to get there.

Inspiration to follow your passions is about trying to eliminate pain. "Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life" is complete nonsense. When you do what you love, you trade in one set of problems for a different one (just one that you'd rather work on). The real test of what you love is not about the end result, it is about the daily process to get there. The goal is not to eliminate your problems, but rather to upgrade them to a different set of problems.

How many of us want to be Huffaz, but can't put in the work daily? One level of problems is not being able to read every day. Then not memorizing every day. Then it's not revising enough every day. The further you progress, the more you are exchanging one set of obstacles and issues for another. If you can't find satisfaction, happiness, and fulfillment in simply reading every day, you will never attain the end result of memorizing no matter how much you visualize it, put it on a vision board, chant mantras, or make a motivational sunset quote your desktop wallpaper.

How many people want to be known as students of knowledge or become famous Islamic speakers, but haven't dedicated the time to actually study for years and years? How many of us want to be entrepreneurs but are more obsessed with having a 4-hour-workweek than actually building a legitimate business? If you don't love the process, you will always fail at achieving that desired result. We want perfect marriages with the exotic vacation photos to prove it, but don't want the daily process of doing laundry, changing diapers, and buying dishwashing detergent in bulk from Costco. It is much easier to say things like, "well I could have done that if I wanted to" than it is to actually dedicate yourself to something.

Who you are is defined by what you're willing to struggle for: People who enjoy the struggles of a gym are the ones who run triathlons and have chiseled abs and can benchpress a small house. People who enjoy long workweeks and the politics of the corporate ladder are the ones who fly to the top of it. People who enjoy the stresses and uncertainties of the starving artist lifestyle are ultimately the ones who live it and make it. -Mark Manson

The inspiration trap is not a problem of positive thinking - it is substituting hard work for positive thinking. It is not about eliminating problems, but understanding for what purpose you are working through them.

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Trust The Process

*Shout out to Sam Hinkie

The process begins with identifying why you want to do something. That should be no surprise, everything ultimately boils down to intention. Take whatever it is that you're seeking inspiration for and ask why. Why do you want to lose weight? Why do you want to start a business?

The career aspect of life is an interesting one in this regard. Many people are made to feel bad for having a career because they don't have the same lifestyle as an entrepreneur. Conversations around this topic will be about being 'stuck' in a cubicle your whole life, building someone else's dream instead of your own, being a slave to 'the man', moving up the corporate ladder to buy a bigger house, and so on. And so we feel guilty for being stuck with a 9-5 job and try to become an entrepreneur. Then come the thousand dollar courses, hours spent building a business, time away from the family to sacrifice for the dream, and after a couple of years not succeeding and going back to the 9-5 gig. Cue the feedback loop from hell. You feel guilty for your job, you feel bad about not living your dreams, and then you feel bad because you feel like your life is over.

This is what happens when a person doesn't have a strong why. What is the ultimate goal? Which problems do you want to solve? Do you want to solve the problems that come with a cubicle life but include a steady paycheck, health insurance, and open weekends? Or do you prefer the problems of making payroll, dealing with vendors, and working on your business all the time?

See it's not that one is better than the other. It depends on what you value and then acting accordingly. One person might hate the idea of a desk job and want to be an entrepreneur, and for someone else it is the opposite. The problem arises only when you project your value system onto someone else's life and judge them based on it.

What we value is determined by our faith tradition. Take the debate between career and entrepreneurship. Ultimately, it doesn't matter. The more accurate guiding principle would be this hadith:

The Prophet (saw) said about a man, "If he is striving to provide for his young children then he has gone out for the sake of Allah. If he is striving to provide for his aged parents then he has gone out for the sake of Allah. And if he is striving to provide for himself to avoid being dependent on others then he has gone out for the sake of Allah" [Tabarani].

Once that value is established, then the actions follow in whatever way is best suited for you.

The underlying theme with happiness in this regard is the ability to choose our problems. Many people become entrepreneurs and feel shackled and want to go back to a corporate job - and vice versa. We get down most often when the problems we have are things we feel we can't control. When we choose our problems, we feel empowered. The internet, however, makes you think you can just escape the problems altogether. If we feel that we are stuck in a job against our will, then we feel victimized and miserable.

Strong iman (faith) helps significantly in this regard. There are certain things we know are the decree of Allah and we cannot control. For example, when we are born, who our parents are, when we are going to die, and even how much money we make. Our faith demands that we take responsibility for our actions and our response. That is fully within our control. Manson points out that people hesitate to take responsibility for their problems because it would mean admitting that they are at fault for those problems.

You don't get to pick everything that happens to you, but you are responsible for it.

Fault is past tense. Responsibility is present tense. -Mark Manson

One way to take responsibility is focusing on the actions you do every day. The reason we avoid doing that is because it seems insignificant. Or we have more important things to do.

The Prophet (saw) said, "If a Muslim man persists in two actions, he will enter the Garden. They are easy, but those who do them are few.' He was asked, 'What are they, may Allah bless him and grant him peace?' He said, 'That you say "Allahu akbar" ten times, "al-hamdu lillah" ten times, and "Subhana'llah" ten times after every prayer. That is 150 on the tongue and 1500 in the balance.' I saw the Prophet (saw) counting them with his hand. Then he said, 'When you go to bed, you should say, "Subhana'llah", "al-hamdu lillah", and "Allahu akbar". That is 100 on the tongue and 1000 in the balance. Who among you can do 2500 bad actions morning and night?' He was asked, 'Messenger of Allah, how is it that they are not counted?' He said, 'Shaytan comes to one of you while he is praying and reminds him of something he has to do such-and-such and such-and-such, so he does not remember to do it.'" (Tirmidhi)

We're focused on the end result, we ignore the incremental change that goes into each day. Social media makes this worse because it gives us more and more things to be busy with (see: Dua - The Greatest Casualty in a Socially Networked Life).

Death

There are literally a million things we could be working on to improve ourselves. How do we decide what values will dictate our lives? Faith is an easy answer, but there are a million options even under that umbrella.

Once we become comfortable with the fact of our own death - the root terror, the underlying anxiety motivating all of life's frivolous ambitions - we can choose our values more freely...-Mark Manson

In a strange way, reflecting on death is liberating. The Prophet (s) commanded us to reflect on it. It allows us to focus our efforts on what truly matters - not what the internet says we need to care about.

The famous hadith of leaving a legacy, or sadaqah jariyah, talks about a Muslim's goal to live a life that attains good after their death.

When a man dies, his action discontinues from him except three things, namely, perpetual sadaqah (charity), or the knowledge by which benefit is acquired, or a pious child who prays for him (Abu Dawud).

If you look closely at those three examples, all of them are intrinsically linked to your daily process. A child who prays for you must grow up believing, having the consciousness to make dua to Allah, and having positive memories of you such that they remember you. That doesn't come by automatically having kids, it is a daily process to build toward something meaningful.

What People Don't Realize About Publicizing Their Sins Online

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"The internet is a reflection of our society and that mirror is going to be reflecting what we see. If we do not like what we see in that mirror the problem is not to fix the mirror, we have to fix society." Vint Cerf, one of the 'fathers of the internet'

It's happened to pretty much everyone. You come across the online profile of an old friend or acquaintance and start clicking through the photos. And that's when you see it. Until now, you had no idea, but there's your old Sunday School buddy chugging a beer.

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But what's the big deal really? Everyone "does stuff", everyone knows about it, now there is a photo. Big deal. Actually, it is a big deal. This is another one of those things where the demarcation of being born before or after 1985 becomes significant. Before social networking became mainstream, this type of behavior was rare. Yes, people committed all the same sins, but there was a level of shame. Those sins were not publicized. Even if they weren't hidden from friends, they were at the least hidden from parents and community members. This has changed completely. Now people post whatever they want and happily get 'likes' from their friends (and even family).

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Islamically, there are two hadith of the Prophet (s) that govern the publicizing of sins.

Principle 1: Don't Publicize Your Own Sins

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Principle 2: Don't Publicize the Sins of Others

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So beyond the obvious "don't post pictures of yourself doing stupid things online," how do we really implement these advices?

Privacy Settings Are Not a Veil

A big misconception about things posted online is that they are somehow hidden if you manage your privacy properly. Maybe you have a secret Facebook profile accessible only to a few friends. Perhaps you feel safe using Snapchat because the image or video will self-destruct once viewed.

The Internet is Forever.

The problem here is that the underlying action still includes the broadcasting of sinful behavior. This in and of itself, regardless of the sin, is in direct contradiction to our faith. The reason that publicizing the sin is so much more grave than the sin itself is because it implicitly carries with it a level of arrogance and promotion of illicit behavior. Instead of remorse over committing the sin, we are often more caught up in trying to figure out how to show off what we did to our network.

The real solution is to avoid these things to begin with. Remember, social media is a magnifying lens. It will multiply whatever is there. Even if you do not post something online, others will post about it - and tag you.

This makes it even more important to avoid sins in general because the magnifying effect of social media actually increases the propensity of your sins being exposed. Click here to Tweet that.

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There is a profound story narrated by Anas ibn Malik (ra) about a thief at the time of Umar (ra). The thief said, "By Allah, I have never stolen before this." Umar said, "You have lied, by the Lord of Umar. Allah does not take a slave at the first sin.” Then ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib said, "O Leader of the Believers, Allah is more forbearing than to take a slave for his first sin." Umar then gave the order and the man’s hand was cut off. Then ‘Ali asked him to speak the truth - how many times before had he stolen? He said, "21 times."

The extra step required here is making sure you never put yourself in a situation where your sins can be exposed.

Who Do You Follow?

It's really awkward when you meet a brother at the masjid who is married with kids, follow him on Instagram, and then see that while he posts normal pictures, he is following 200 swimsuit models on Instagram.

It's just weird.

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We also may have a tendency to try and overlook things people post. For example, what about following your favorite sports star online even though he regularly posts pictures of himself making it rain at the club? Or someone famous who posts pictures promoting drug use? It is easy to say you are following them for one purpose, but constantly seeing the stream of other things affects the heart as well.

This isn't limited to famous accounts, but our friends as well. There will come times where you need to mute, unfollow, unfriend, or even block people you know.

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Your true friends should not be a vehicle of committing more sins. Take the basics. Maintaining family ties is one of those foundational principles in our faith. What about a friend who is constantly publicizing conflicts with their family? Or posting #FML updates about their parents? What about hitting 'like' on one of those updates?

Unseen Consequences

In the book It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, the author makes a point about how teens consider their public spaces private. In other words, if they're posting goofy photos with their friends and leaving comments, they can't fathom why a random adult who has nothing to do with them would view it. While logically that may be true, it's just not the case. The internet is forever.

People are denied college admissions and fired from work all the time because of what is found on their profiles.

A few months back, I was helping a female relative get married. When potential proposals came through, the first thing I did was search their social profiles. It's surprising how many people leave "shady" photos and check-ins at hookah bars public. In many cases, marriage proposals were rejected without the person ever knowing why.

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Your profile is not limited to just a Facebook page. Your profile encompasses the sum of what you post, people you follow, and pages you've liked. Two questions that are great points of introspection:

  1. Would I be ok with how my social profiles look if I were to suddenly pass away?
  2. Would I be comfortable with my profile if I was "friends" with the Prophet (saw) online? Or if he was to see my Snapchat story history?

Because social media is such a magnifier, we actually have to go one step beyond simply avoiding the publicizing of the prohibited. We have to take that extra level of caution and avoid the questionable as well.

Safiyya bint Huyyay reported that while Allah's Messenger (saw) had been observing I'tikaf, I came to visit him one night and talked with him for some time. Then I stood up to go back and he also stood up with me in order to bid me good-bye. She was at that time residing in the house of Usama b. Zaid. The two persons from the Ansar happened to pass by him. When they saw Allah's Apostle, they began to walk swiftly, thereupon Allah's Messenger (saw) said to them:

Walk calmy, she is Safiyya daughter of Huyyay [my wife]... Both of them said: Messenger, subhanAllah, (we cannot conceive of anything doubtful even in the remotest corners of our minds), whereupon he said, 'Satan circulates in the body of man like the circulation of blood and I was afraid lest it should instill any evil in your heart or anything.' [Muslim]

The example being set here is to go out of your way to cut off even the smallest of doubts about your behavior.

Societal Pressure

The above 2 points help understand one of the larger societal and environmental factors at play. Society rewards (and therefore encourages) illicit behavior. Never forget, we are the generation that made the Kardashians famous.

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The currency of social media is attention. This is tangibly measured in likes, views, retweets, comments, repins, reblogs, and shares. Take the Kardashians for example. They've been rewarded with an empire - reality TV show, clothing line, fragrance line, A-list status, and all the fame and riches anyone could hope to achieve. How did they "achieve" this success? What contribution did they make to society that makes them so successful? Google doesn't even make you click any links to find out, it answers the question for you very clearly.

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Paris Hilton, by the way, became famous the exact same way. Implicitly, society is telling millions of teenagers - if you want fame and success, this is how to get it. To gain currency online, you have to be shameless. You have to publicize your sins and break your moral compass.

Tweet: Never forget, we are the generation that made Kim Kardashian famous. #FiqhOfSocialMedia http://ctt.ec/6th5B+

Lest you think this is an exaggeration, Reply All did an entire podcast episode telling the story of a man who was tasked with creating a server set up to make sure their site didn't go down when they were getting ready to publish never seen before NSFW pictures of Kim Kardashian. Meaning, not only is this kind of stuff that spreads and gets rewarded - but it does so at unprecedented levels.

Embarrassing Others

The next trap after publicizing your own sins is spreading those of others. The attention economy is at play here as well. Posting something painting another person in a negative light is an easy way to get lots of likes and comments and lulz.

Click this picture to learn the story behind it.

It doesn't just stop at sharing the sins of others. It is more important not to seek out the sins of others online. In other words, don't click around on someone's profile waiting to find a smoking gun picture of them doing something wrong.

Indeed, those who like that immorality should be spread [or publicized] among those who have believed will have a painful punishment in this world and the Hereafter. And Allah knows and you do not know (24:19).

We have a natural curiosity to find out what others are up to, but it is part our faith to leave this alone.

There is a story about the Prophet Musa (as). During a drought, he went out to the desert with 70,000 people and supplicated for rain. Nothing happened. Musa was expecting the supplication to be answered, and then Allah (swt) revealed to him that among them is a person who has been challenging Allah with sins for the past 40 years, and to call out on that person to repent because the rain is withheld due to him. So Musa called out to the people for this sinner to repent.

The sinner looked around and saw no one coming forward, and he realized this was about him. He did not want to go forward and expose himself. So he put his head down and said, "My Lord I have disobeyed You for 40 years and You have always given me respite. I come to you in obedience so accept it from me."

He had barely finished this supplication when a cloud appeared overhead and rain started pouring down.

Musa then called out to Allah confused - no one came forward, yet the rain was sent down. Allah (swt) told him, "O Musa, I did not expose him when he was disobeying Me, then do you expect Me to expose him while he is obedient to Me?"

Ultimately this boils down to one of the fundamental concepts of social media - treat others the way you want to be treated.

A Muslim is a Muslim’s brother: he does not wrong him or abandon him. If anyone cares for his brother’s need, Allah will care for his need; if anyone removes a Muslim’s anxiety, Allah will remove from him, on account of it, one of the anxieties of the Day of resurrection; and if anyone conceals a Muslim’s fault, Allah will conceal his fault on the Day of resurrection (Abu Dawud).

There is a fascinating hadith that brings this full circle.

“Oh you who have believed with their tongues yet faith has not entered their hearts! Do not back-bite the Muslims, and do not seek to discover their faults, for whoever seeks after their faults, Allah will seek his faults. And if Allah seeks after someone’s faults, He will expose him even (what he committed) in his home.”

If you seek out the mistakes of others, Allah will expose your mistakes to everyone else. Click here to Tweet that.

Deeper Spiritual Ramifications

There is some added context to the publicizing of sins given by the Prophet (saw).

Every one of my followers will be forgiven except those who expose (openly) their wrongdoings. An example of this is that of a man who commits a sin at night which Allah has covered for him, and in the morning, he would say (to people): "I committed such and such sin last night,' while Allah had kept it a secret. During the night Allah has covered it up but in the morning he tears up the cover (sitr) provided by Allah Himself (Bukhari and Muslim).

The word sitr here is important. One of Allah's beautiful names is Al-Sitteer.

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The meaning of this Name is that Allah (swt) is aware of our sins, and yet He covers them up. He does not allow our embarrassing actions to become known to others. He protects us by keeping our faults from becoming public. He keeps even our largest sins hidden from those closest to us.

This brings practicality to coming closer to Allah. Remember that He is Al-Sitteer, and He covers your sins, asks you to repent, and He loves that you cover the sins of others.

We close with the supplication of the Prophet (saw) himself,

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O Allah, I ask You for pardon and well being in this life and the next. O Allah, I ask You for pardon and well-being in my religious and worldly affairs, and my family and my wealth. O Allah, veil [sitr] my weaknesses and set at ease my dismay. O Allah, preserve me from the front and from behind and on my right and on my left and from above, and I take refuge with You lest I be swallowed up by the earth.

Be sure to leave a comment with your thoughts. 

Five Dysfunctions of an Islamic Organization

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*For more information on this book, I have also compiled a MASSIVE deep dive on resources around the concepts in this book at UsmanConsulting.com This information should benefit anyone involved in Islamic organizations, but it really needs extra attention from those in leadership positions in their communities to start to effect the type of change needed to prevent dysfunction.

The Five Dysfunctions Are

  1. Absence of Trust
  2. Fear of Conflict
  3. Lack of Commitment
  4. Avoidance of Accountability
  5. Inattention to Results

These are laid out by Patrick Lencioni in his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. While the pertinence to a professional or corporate environment is obvious, these are at the core of the problems faced by masājid and Islamic organizations across the country.

1. Absence of Trust

The fear of being vulnerable with team members prevents the building of trust within the team.

Understanding trust means refining our notions of the term. Trust means knowing the others around you have good intentions, and that you don't need to shield yourself around them. It is distinct from reliance, which is “trusting” that a peer will perform a given task reliably. Trust is being able to open up, and show vulnerability while knowing that those vulnerabilities won't be used against you.

What we find with many Islamic organizations is that people's actions are dictated by what others will think about them. Think about the person elected to be the masjid treasurer with no accounting or financial experience whatsoever. This person continues to do this job day in and day out, despite not being able to do it well. Instead, this person is focusing on holding this position for strategic reasons vis-a-vis others within the organization. He is constantly trying to protect himself. If trust existed within the organization, he would be able to display that vulnerability and instead be 100% focused on performing the treasurer duties to the best of his ability.

It is commonplace that the higher ranking members in these organizations are usually the “well-educated” ones (e.g. the “doctor uncle”). One thing we often fail to realize is that these people have been trained their entire lives to be competitive with their peers and constantly outperform them. Personal reputations are at stake. If these instincts cannot be 'turned off' for the betterment of the organization, then a lot of time is invested into managing the fallout. Examples of this include having constant meetings to manage people's behaviors, and seeing a decrease in the willingness of organization members to help one another.

Organizationally, another factor that contributes to a loss of trust is not identifying and utilizing people's skills. How can trust exist in a masjid construction project when a Muslim contractor who has been managing construction projects for a living for over 20 years is sitting around while the organization turns over the masjid construction plans to a pediatrician?

This is the fundamental building block to freeing Islamic organizations of dysfunction, and it is perhaps the hardest because it requires the greatest overhaul in attitude and environment.

Once established however, it can foster constructive conflict.

2. Fear of Conflict

The desire to preserve artificial harmony stifles the occurrence of productive, ideological conflict.

-Important concept to understand: Ideological conflict vs. Personal conflict-

Have you ever met a husband and wife who never had an argument with one another? Have you ever met a parent that never had a disagreement with his or her children? Didn't think so.

Why do we expect that Islamic organizations should operate under some kind of happy-go-lucky utopia? To preserve this naive notion of how things should be, we avoid engaging in any kind of conflict. What ends up happening then is that direct conflict is avoided within the organization, but it is replaced with back-stabbing, personal conflicts, and politics.

You have seen the organization where there may be a body of 7 people. 3 of them meet separately, and 4 of them meet separately. Then they concoct conspiracy theories about how the opposing camp really feels about an issue, and why they are pushing a particular position over another. Then they get riled up, and go out to the community seeking more support for their own side. Next thing you know, it's an all out community conflict with name-calling, people not talking to each other, and the conflict finally erupting at a dinner party at some innocent person's house while the innocent bystanders try to enjoy some chicken biryani.

Muslim organizations simply seem to want to avoid having any healthy conflict (discussion). This is why they all dread meetings that are boring, and where nothing gets done. When organization members trust each other, they can talk freely with one another and debate themerits of different ideas. Sit down and completely hash it out. A certain level of maturity is of course required, so that the debate does not turn personal. The element of trust is what allows people to freely credit or discredit ideas without worrying about hurting someone's feelings (and then later making personal attacks behind their back).

Meetings should be lively and focus on the concepts and ideas being discussed – even if they become emotional. Let people be passionate about why they feel that a certain project is a waste of money, or that the dome of the masjid should be 25 feet in diameter instead of 30 feet, and so on.

This is important because once the merits of an idea have been thoroughly discussed, everyone has had a chance to air their objections or concerns, and people can respond to them. So let the best ideas win. Once that is done, even the people who initially opposed the idea, can support it from an organizational perspective. Contrast this with a board member who unwillingly votes in favor of a certain project, waiting for it to fail, then running around telling the community, “I told you so!”

3. Lack of Commitment

The lack of clarity or buy-in prevents team members from making decisions to which they will commit.

Commitment only comes from the step above – once everyone's perspectives and opinions have been heard, they can all buy into the concept knowing that all ideas have been considered. And of course, that discussion cannot take place without step 1 – establishing trust.

According to Lencioni, the two biggest factors hindering commitment are:

  1. Desire for consensus
  2. Need for certainty

It seems many Islamic organizations refuse to move forward even one step without both of those being in place. Finding consensus is a nearly impossible task, and consensus is usually sought out of fear of backlash. It seems leaders are unwilling to make decisions without 100% support in case something goes wrong, they can defend themselves. This is unhealthy for the growth of any organization.

People do not need to agree with a decision in order to support it. As long as their ideas have been properly heard (explained in the step above), then they can rally around the decision – even if they disagree with it.

The need for certainty is closely related to the phenomenon of analysis paralysis. Organizations are unwilling to make a decision until a certain amount of data is available to them – at which point it might be too late. They have an innate need to feel like they have made the correct decision. Often times, a decision will need to be made quickly, and without the benefit of having all of the relevant information available. It is important to decide, and move on. Better to go down swinging then not show up at all. We are blessed with istikhārah and shura. Utilize them. Constantly delaying a decision, or flip-flopping back and forth will not help you make the correct choice, instead it will just kill your credibility.

Symptoms of lack of commitment include: ambiguity about direction and priorities, lack of confidence, fear of failure, and revisiting issues over and over for discussion. Islamic organizations need to clearly define their goals, rally around those common objectives, create an environment of learning from mistakes, and moving forward without regret.

The Prophet (sal-Allahu 'alayhi was-Sallam) said the believer is not bitten from the same holetwice. We cannot demand perfection, but we demand the best effort.

4. Avoidance of Accountability

The need to avoid interpersonal discomfort prevents team members from holding one another accountable.

Lack of clarity and direction (as explained in the step above) makes it impossible to hold anyone accountable. How can someone be accountable if they do not know what is expected in the first place?

Successful organizations must have an environment in place where people are able to call each other out for not living up to their standards. This should be the case whether positions are paid or unpaid. People are uncomfortable letting others know that their performance may not be up to the expected standards because they fear losing a volunteer, or perhaps even a friendship. Letting these feelings fester though, will only cause those relationships to deteriorate. It is time for Islamic organizations to stop settling, and demand the best – even if it requires some personal discomfort along the way. Doing this will actually develop mutual respect amongst the people working within the organization because they know they are equally being held to the same high standards by one another.

If this accountability is not there, then people begin to simply look out for their own self-interests over and above the interests of the organization.

5. Inattention to Results

The pursuit of individual goals and personal status erodes the focus on collective success.

Once an organization has clearly defined its goals and objectives, it must focus on meeting them. When an organization loses sight of those results, their attention shifts elsewhere. Lencioni says 'elsewhere' in this case would be team and individual status:

Team Status: For [some], merely being part of the group is enough to keep them satisfied. For them, the achievement of specific results might be desirable, but not necessarily worthy of great sacrifice or inconvenience. As ridiculous and dangerous as this might seem, plenty of teams fall prey to the lure of status. These often include altruistic nonprofit organizations that come to believe that the nobility of their mission is enough to justify their satisfaction … as they often see success in merely being associated with their special organizations.

Individual Status: This refers … [to people focusing] on enhancing their own positions … at the expense of the team.

The collective results must be more important than individual aims and objectives. One important note is the relationship of this dysfunction to the issue of trust (step 1). Individuals getting involved must also cleanse their hearts of any ill intentions such as seeking fame and credit in the community. The eventual breakdown of an entire organization can start from the simplest of individual wants or intentions.

Concluding Thoughts

Lencioni summarized it best:

And so, like a chain with just one link broken, teamwork deteriorates if even a single dysfunction is allowed to flourish.

Another way to understand this model is to take the opposite approach – a positive one – and imagine how members of a truly cohesive team behave:

  1. They trust one another.
  2. They engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas.
  3. They commit to decisions and plans of action.
  4. They hold one another accountable for delivering against those plans.
  5. They focus on the achievement of collective results.

Please also see: The 90/10 Rule for Masjids

Bill Clinton: Put the Integrity in Your Effort

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In 1993, Michigan played UNC for the NCAA basketball championship. The famous Fab Five of Michigan was led by Chris Webber, who went on to become the #1 overall pick in the NBA draft. Michigan lost the championship game due, in part, to Chris Webber calling a time-out in the final seconds when his team did not have one, resulting in a technical foul.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-QPB9NBUG2g

This incident has followed him throughout his career. Immediately after it happened, Bill Clinton (the president at the time) wrote Chris Webber a letter:

I have been thinking of you a lot since I sat glued to the TV during the championship game. I know that there may be nothing I or anyone else can say to ease the pain and disappointment of what happened. Still, for whatever it's worth, you, and your team, were terrific. And part of playing for high stakes under great pressure is the constant risk of mental error. I know. I have lost two political races and made countless mistakes over the last twenty years. What matters is the intensity, integrity, and courage you bring to the effort. That is certainly what you have done. You can always regret what occurred but don't let it get you down or take away the satisfaction of what you have accomplished. You have a great future. Hang in there.

Sincerely, Bill Clinton

(taken from Grantland)

No matter what line of work you're in, particularly when it comes to Islamic organizations, you will have failures. Some will be more spectacular than others. What differentiates those who bounce back and have spectacular success is that they bring the intensity, integrity, and courage to every aspect of their work. Or in another word, ihsaan [excellence]. 

 

Leadership Lessons from Surah Al-Ḥujurāt

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Shaykh AbdulNasir Jangda shares a couple of essential leadership characteristics for all Muslims in this short 6 minute clip. Video and some essential lessons follow. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CSZ3ZDDWpzQ

  • Leaders are at the service of their people, not the other way around. True leadership does not come from giving orders out to others, but it comes from serving them. A leader has an open-door policy, and is constantly making himself or herself available.
  • Leadership requires being patient and forgiving with people and not taking things personally. The prophetic example shows us that no matter the inconvenience, a leader is always forbearing and available.
  • Everyone is a leader in some capacity of life. These leadership characteristics can be implemented by all.