"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.
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).
Islamically, there are two hadith of the Prophet (s) that govern the publicizing of sins.
Principle 1: Don't Publicize Your Own Sins
Principle 2: Don't Publicize the Sins of Others
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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:
- Would I be ok with how my social profiles look if I were to suddenly pass away?
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.