Islam

What People Don't Realize About Publicizing Their Sins Online

funny-social-media-man-jail.jpg

"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.

Father i have sinned facebook confession

 

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).

Will+smith+on+jaden+smith+will+realizes+his+son+is_868946_5408655

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

Principle 1: Don't Publicize Your Own Sins

hadith_publicizing_sins

Principle 2: Don't Publicize the Sins of Others

STRICTLY

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.

IMG_0577

 

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.

giphy

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.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 8.51.08 AM

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.

BvBXggECIAAb2MW

 

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.

IMG_9576

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.

kardashian famous tape

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.

shareasimage

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,

027-83

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. 

Engineering Patience In An Age of Instant Gratification

FiqhOfSocialMedia.png

Growing up in Texas, summers as a kid were unbelievably hot. One of my kids recently asked me, "Why did Allah make Texas so hot?" I told them not even the greatest country in the world can be completely perfect. I remember reading a book, and the kids in there were arguing over who got to sit near the window. I was confused. Why would they want to sit next to the window? I was accustomed to wanting to sit in the middle because that was directly in front of the vents blasting cold air from the AC. This was especially important if the car had been parked outside and had become an oven when you went to sit inside.

My dad used to do something that would drive me crazy. He would start the car and not turn on the AC. He would let the fan run, and tell us we could roll down the windows (which doesn't do much when its 95 degrees). I would plead with him to turn on the AC on max, and he would just sit there and tell me to relax. Once, with the creativity only a kid could muster, I told him "Allah blessed us with AC, so turn it on." He explained that he was trying to teach us to relax, and to be patient.

This is how parents are. They see the ease with which we enjoy the world, and we lose sight of hardships others went through. In many places in the world, especially 20 years ago, air conditioning in a car was a major luxury item instead of a standard part of life.

Now when someone complains about a YouTube video buffering too slow (or not fast enough for HD), I feel like yelling at them to try using a 28.8kbps dial-up connection - the kind I had to grow up with. In fact, a study of the viewing habits of 6.7 million people showed that people abandoned watching a video if it buffered for longer than two seconds. TWO SECONDS. One Mississippi, Two Mississippi... click.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uEY58fiSK8E

Social media has made everything quicker. What used to be a 24 hour news cycle is now barely 30 minutes. The half-life of a tweet is less than 3 hours. With this quickening of pace, our expectations have changed as well. If someone doesn't reply to an email within a few hours we get upset. If they don't respond to a text message within an hour, we get impatient. There is a manufactured hurry to each of these interactions.

Patience and gratitude go hand in hand. Patience, as we famously know from the hadith, is at the moment calamity strikes. To have patience in that moment requires a gratitude mindset. It comes down to being cognizant and intentional about each situation - Am I exercising patience? Am I being grateful to Allah?

One way to reclaim this is to engineer moments of patience in our lives. Sit at a red light without touching your phone. It's only 30 seconds, but we are at the point now where the mere thought of that is agonizing for some. Sit down with your kids and just be bored for a little while. Reflect on what is around you and enjoy the quiet moments.

The fast pace of technology is now the norm. That's not necessarily a bad thing. But it does mean that sometimes we just need to sit in the car for a few minutes before turning on the AC - to give ourselves a small reminder and lesson.

Dua - The Greatest Casualty In A Socially Networked Life

FOR-ALL-AGES.png

"Just as every technology is an invitation to enhance some part of our lives, it's also, necessarily, an invitation to be drawn away from something else." - Michael Harris, The End of Absence.

A Typical Day

It's 30 minutes before fajr time ends. The alarm on your smartphone starts blaring. You reach over and try to swipe the screen but end up smacking your phone and hope it went into snooze mode. A few minutes later it goes off again. You're slightly aware that prayer time is ending soon and grab your phone. With one eye barely opened, and the other eye unable to open, you unlock the phone. The bright screen smacks you in the face.

Ding. 27 new emails. You quickly go through them to see if there's anything important. Even though hardly a single email out of the past 5,000 you've received has hardly qualified as such an emergency.

Blurry-eyed or not, your fingers instinctively go to where the Facebook icon is. 3 new notifications. Did anyone like the photo I posted last night? Who left comments and what do they say?

Then Twitter. Instagram. Email again just in case something new popped in. No text messages. Oh yeah... that whole fajr thing.

Work is the same. Sit down. Gmail, Facebook, ESPN, CNN, Reddit, YouTube, Texts, work email, IM conversations .. repeat. How many web browser tabs do you have open at the same time on average? Exactly.

0525SRWliteracy-articleLarge

The red light on the drive home - same thing. Waiting in line at the grocery store - same thing.

We are busy being busy giving everything continuous partial attention without a break.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wC8PzhNuh7w

At night, we repeat the same cycle, only putting the phone down after we're no longer afraid of having enough energy to stay awake - that is, being at the point of completely passing out.

A Unique Time

I've always felt that I had a unique perspective on the social media life. After all, I signed up for Facebook back when you had to have a college .edu email address. What I didn't realize, until reading Harris' book, was that I am an endangered species.

We have in this brief historical moment, this moment in between two modes of being, a very rare opportunity. For those of us who have lived both with and without vast, crowded connectivity the Internet provides, these are the few days when we can still notice the difference between Before and After. .... [T]here's a single difference that we feel most keenly ... that is the end of absence ... The daydreaming silences in our lives are filled; the burning solitudes extinguished ....

If you were born before 1985, then you know what life is like both with the Internet and without ... Any younger and you haven't lived as an adult in a pre-Internet landscape ... If we're the last people in history to know life before the Internet, we are also the only ones who will ever speak, as it were, both languages ... Some inventions are more than discreet gadgets; they dissolve into the very atmosphere of our lives. And who can notice air?

Technological progress will not be undone. Social media is a tool just like television before it, and the printing press before that. The tool is not inherently good or evil, it's how we use it. That point is fairly obvious though.

The deeper question we need to ask is what trade-offs come as a result of using this technology?

Every revolution in communication technology - from papyrus to the printing press to Twitter - is as much an opportunity to be drawn away from something as it is to be drawn toward something ....

As we embrace a technology's gifts, we usually fail to consider what they ask from us in return - the subtle, hardly noticeable payments we make in exchange for their marvelous service. We don't notice, for example, that the gaps in our schedules have disappeared because we're too busy delighting in the amusements that fill them. We forget the games that childhood boredom forged because boredom itself has been outlawed [Harris].

Simply put, we have given up our free time. We've given up our cognitive energy. We don't recite the Prophetic supplications for waking up and sleeping. This is not out of laziness or apathy, but because we haven't allowed ourselves the mental energy to do so because something else tugs at our attention.

What Are We Giving Up?

Every interruption is rationalized. There are people we need to connect with. Inquiries that demand our replies. Photos that need to be liked. Our expendable hours are given up for simply momentary concessions.

In our rush toward the promise of Google and Facebook - toward the promise of reduced ignorance and reduced loneliness - we feel certain we are rushing toward a better life. We forget the myriad accommodations we made along the way [Harris].

What we fear, as Louis CK observed, is loneliness.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HbYScltf1c

It is an inability to be alone with your own thoughts and emotions. In essence, this is the trade-off. We have lost the ability to reflect.

[This is] a blessed Book which We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], that they might reflect upon its verses and that those of understanding would be reminded (38:29).

We want the easy solution for how to enrich our salah. We want the magic pill that will bring us closer to Allah (swt). In fact, if this post was titled "3 Ways to Increase Your Khushoo' in Salah. Reason #2 is So Easy Your Mind Will be Blown" it would probably get 20 times the traffic. The reality is, those huge parts of our faith and spirituality are predicated on our ability to focus, to give cognitive attention, and to reflect. This requires quiet moments.

More than the quiet moments, it demands of us to make a choice. We have to decide what is most important.

I am so irrevocably, damnably, utterly wired to the promise of connection that I have to constantly, every hour of every day, choose which connections matter in a given moment. ..., How very exhausting. Yet how very worth it [Harris].

There are no easy action items or easy solutions. We have to take up the exhausting task of being conscious about what we pay attention to. The default, if we do not, is unconsciousness. It is ghaflah.

Indeed, those who do not expect the meeting with Us and are satisfied with the life of this world and feel secure therein and those who are heedless [ghaafiloon] of Our signs (10:7).

Those of us born before 1985 have seen how technology has slowly made trade-offs that others may not see. We see the choices that have been made, that to others look like the default way of living.

https://vimeo.com/68855377

Awareness is critical. If we can't naturally find the moments to remember Allah, we have to engineer them. We have to create moments of solitude and reflection. Dua is not an item we can multi-task. We have to create moments where we can pour our heart out to Allah with full attention - not partial attention.

Instead of squeezing in dhikr and dua when we find time, we should make those devotional acts self-made prerequisites to touching our phones.

We have to reclaim our expendable hours, and make them hours essential to our connection with Allah.

What trade-offs have you made for social media? Have you noticed a direct impact on your relationship with Allah (swt)?  

The Fiqh of Foodstagramming

shutterstock_210629686-1.jpg

Once, while in college, I was hanging out with some friends in the Masjid lobby. An uncle sat down and started talking to us. After a brief moment of silence, he dropped something on me that has stuck with me for life. And that's hard to do by the way, figuring out what makes an idea stick is a holy grail that everyone is after. He sat next to me and said, "Let me explain you something." Just kidding - although it would be much cooler if it started out that way. Here's what he really said, "Let me tell you something, everything in Islam orients around food." I started laughing, indulging him politely. But this made him upset.

"This is not a joking matter, I'm serious." I perked up, taken aback a bit. He then decided to wax philosophical on me by expounding his theory. Ramadan is a great example. We begin and end our fasts together - with food. When we want to increase the bonds of brotherhood, we can't go out partying or hanging out at bars - so we eat. When we need the community to pitch in and support the masjid, we have a fundraising dinner. When we want the community to come and socialize at the masjid, or even learn, we provide dinner or have a potluck. Some Muslims can't be bothered to pray Dhuhr on a weekday, but they'll drive 3 hours to get halal meat on the weekend. Food is the way in which diverse Muslim cultures show each other up. Eating is what we are most passionate about, and halal meat is what we fight about most passionately [Click here to tweet that].

Foodie culture in general has been on an uptick in past years. It's no surprise that the internet has been a major facilitator of that. We have access to millions of recipes from around the world along with accompanying photographs. We have online review sites where we can discuss food quality at various restaurants - or even provide amateur investigative journalism on where a halal restaurant really gets its meat. We share what we're eating with everyone. In fact, the oldest joke in the book about social media is, "Why do I need Twitter, no one cares what I ate for breakfast! ha ha ha!"

Food culture is clearly here to stay - and by extension networking around food. As the conversation takes place on social media, the medium will dictate the form of communication. Currency online is in likes, shares, retweets, and comments [please go ahead and share this article on Facebook].

A number of critical questions come up though. These are a few that I have had, and although I don't have answers, please leave your thoughts in the comments section:

  • Is food for sustenance only, or is it meant to be enjoyed? Are there any Islamic proofs giving credence to one side over the other?
  • What is the line between being thankful for the food and showing off?
  • Are there any limits to appreciating the artistic nature of food?
  • Are pictures of food really about food - or something else altogether?

As with all things social media, it boils down to intention. It doesn't seem like we will ever reach a codified answer of right and wrong. Rather, what is important is to understand why we are sharing a particular photo. I'll do this with my own Instagram feed. These are actually photos of food I have shared with my friends. Underneath each photo I will highlight a number of different intentions that one could have in posting such a photo. These are not necessarily my intentions, but instead of picking on someone else's photos, I'm using my own to prove how the same photo can be perceived in different ways.

http://instagram.com/p/ib8PR/?modal=true

This picture can show:

  • I'm such an amazing cook - everyone look at me
  • Hey I'm learning how to cook, here's a try, I want to connect with other friends who are doing the same
  • I'm an awesome husband

http://instagram.com/p/MO9DOqJVOp/?modal=true

  • I'm such a hipster, I'm having something you've probably never tried before
  • If you're ever in Atlanta, this is a cool place to try
  • Forget the milkshake, I want the world to know my fiqh opinion on marshmallows

http://instagram.com/p/M9fCu7JVMF/?modal=true

  • Everyone's been waiting to try this, I have, so ask me for my feedback
  • I'm more cultured than you because I tried this zabihah burger before you did

http://instagram.com/p/NSMD9rpVFW/?modal=true

  • Attempt at humor
  • Cry for help, wife not home and hoping someone [my mom] sees this and brings food to my house
  • Please hit the like button to give me validation

http://instagram.com/p/PS_LxMJVHh/?modal=true

This one is a little easier. Nothing is ever wrong with some Texas pride. http://instagram.com/p/TrlLQ-pVKV/?modal=true

  • I'm adding cooking to my array of awesome skills
  • I read a book and am using the hashtag to share my experience and connect with other readers of the book
  • Maybe this is a dish you'll enjoy so I'm just putting it out on the internets

http://instagram.com/p/aT9vqdpVAA/?modal=true

  • Appreciating the artistry of the restaurant
  • Doing a public service by geo-tagging the photo so others considering this venue can see real photos
  • I'm a foodie and know all the cool places to eat at in Dallas

http://instagram.com/p/kZjID0pVOm/?modal=true

Again - Texas pride is practically fard.

http://instagram.com/p/nB2PBypVKA/?modal=true

  • Look at me, I like Pakola (i.e. I really am Desi).
  • I found a really cool local Muslim business everyone should support.
  • If you don't think a Pakola snow cone sounds appealing, then you're not a good person inside.

http://instagram.com/p/rphwwepVNy/?modal=true

  • I want to show off who I was eating with
  • My friends think I talk about important things
  • Maybe I didn't want to post this, but because my friend did, I wanted to acknowledge it by re-sharing it
  • I appreciate well done latte art, but just don't want to be too in your face about it

http://instagram.com/p/vwSU7gJVIN/?modal=true

  • I'm courageous enough to try foods you've never heard of
  • I'm cooler than you because I eat food like this
  • Step up to my instagram food photography skills

http://instagram.com/p/yXlNcEpVCx/?modal=true

  • Look at me, I'm in California
  • Look at me, I'm so cool because I'm eating with Imran
  • I'm sophisticated because I can find cool foodie places that aren't touristy
  • Had a good time eating with a friend and wanted to document the experience

--

The hadith, "Actions are judged by their intention," forms the foundation of how we view social media. Sharing photos of food can be an expression of yourself or part of your personality. It can be a service to others. It can be purely entertainment. It can be artistic appreciation. It might be a way of connecting with others around a common interest or shared experience.

When posting a photo, ask yourself what you're trying to get across. This doesn't mean that everything has to have some unique value to make the world a better place. Maybe it's just pure entertainment - that's ok, and there is room for that.

Food can also be a way of connecting with family - sharing photos from family dinners or parties, or reminiscing on something specific from a particular family member.

But food photos can also be self-serving, a sign of ingratitude, or for those who constantly post everything they eat - a sign of some serious issues. For some it can be a means of hoarding and attention - craving likes and shares at all costs.

Before you post that next food photo online, just slow down and ask why. Be comfortable with your answer and go from there. Just have limits - like standing on a chair at a restaurant to get a better shot. In that case, you're better off not documenting it and just enjoying the meal instead.

How Much Spirituality Do I Get Online, And Is That OK?

autumn-forest2.jpg

In the late 90's and early 2000's the internet shrank the world - and Islam was no exception. Before that, your exposure to Islam was through your local masjid and local imam. Occasionally some guest speakers would come through. Every now and then there would be a table set up after Juma with books and cassettes. Many households received Islamic magazines monthly in their homes. It was not uncommon for people to "grow up with an Imam." From the time that I was 7 until I was in elementary school until the middle of high school I had one imam. This was a true community leader and resource. In college, I got to know the imam at the masjid near campus well and he was my primary resource.

These were the imams who you listened to on a regular basis. Almost every Friday. At Sunday School. Learning Quran. Classes during the week. It was a real relationship.

The relationship with the community was much the same way. You were forced to interact with whoever your local community was - the good, great, bad, and ugly. If you went to the same masjid and were the same age, then you were almost forced to hang out. The benefit of this was that a true community was built. No one was able to isolate themselves. Everyone dealt with everyone else.

As the internet became more popular, things slowly started shifting. All of a sudden people had access to a multitude of websites - many of them espousing different ideologies of Islam that a person may have never even heard of before. Message boards, discussion forums, and email lists started popping up everywhere. These became a new hangout place for everyone to congregate and talk.

This enabled everyone to find like-minded individuals (or in other words, their own special tribe). Now you no longer had to mix with the other people in your community if you didn't want to. If you wanted to explore the finer details of refuting the varying opinions on how to move your finger in tashahhud, you could now take part in a message board conversation on it with 75 other passionate brothers and sisters, and maybe even follow that up with an online chatroom discussion lasting late into the night.

Instead of listening to your local Imam, you could get on Napster and download bootleg recordings of Imam Siraj Wahhaj. You could go on various websites (Islamway anyone?) and grab real audio format lectures and talks. As ecommerce slowly started to shape up, it became easier to order cassettes of any speaker you liked - usually someone you'd never heard of but was recommended by an internet friend.

Fast forward to now, and things are different, but they're still the same. Now you have the social networking age, YouTube, and unprecedented access to almost anyone in the world. It's what lets a guy like me write something like this that gets read by someone like you.

So to the question at hand: How Much Spirituality Do I Get Online, And Is That OK?

There are a number of avenues to getting a spiritual lift online-

  • Connecting with people you can forge friendships with, i.e. "good company"
  • Following scholars on Facebook/Twitter and getting inspirational messages from them
  • Reading Islamic articles, ebooks, and blogs
  • Following Islamic podcasts
  • Watching Islamic talks and classes on YouTube
  • Participating in online Islamic classes
  • Attending Islamic events via livestream

Inherently, I don't think any of these activities are necessarily at odds with traditional masjid programming. Masjids still have the gamut of: weekly classes, Arabic/Quran, Tafseer, workshops, seminars, family nights, and so on. Ideally, all these activities complement each other. It should be a system where what you learn in one place helps enrich your learning in the other.

But realistically, I am starting to sense that the two are increasingly at odds, and there are a number of reasons for this.

Fortune Cookie Spirituality Guy - You know the guy who follows 25 shaykhs on Twitter, and retweets all their inspirational nuggets of wisdom? The problem with this is that reading so many quotes and nuggets becomes taxing. It sometimes gets to the point where a person has consumed 30 of these updates in a day and feel that they've fulfilled their needed dose of spirituality.

This is a general problem of the internet - depth and nuance get lost as we continually strive to get our thoughts into <140 characters and 15 second Instagram videos. Mental energy is a muscle. If our twitter feed replaces our capacity to read an Islamic book cover to cover - there's a problem.

The I Know It's Not Important But It's Important Guy - This is almost on the other end of the spectrum. A person may develop an appreciation for a certain subject and become obsessed with it to the exclusion of something else. 495 out of 500 people who pray Juma with you might not have ever heard of "Maturidi Aqeedah" but this guy spends 10 hours a day online arguing with other people about it. He becomes disenchanted with his local community because no one shares his interests - partly because the internet enabled him to go super deep into this one topic.

As an aside, there are a number of well-respected scholars who do deep dive on these issues - it's part of their studies or masters or PhD thesis work. This is not directed at them. This is directed at the person who has no formal study in the basics of Islam, just an unhealthy obsession about one or two issues that they bring up with everyone (like meat and mortgages).

The Heart Wants What the Heart Wants Guy - This is the one that frightens me the most. This is where a person has access to 500 speakers online, and they simply pick whoever they like. With more and more masjids livestreaming and uploading khutbahs weekly on YouTube, it creates infinite options. My worry is what happens when a person decides to bypass the local Imam and simply watch videos from the handful of speakers they enjoy most?

This sounds good in theory, but what about if a person decides they don't like the local khateeb, so they now show up 2 minute before iqamah every Friday, and then go home and watch their favorite khateeb on YouTube? [Insert shameless plug for Khateeb Workshop here.]

Sisters are not required to attend Juma, so what if they bypass altogether and just watch their favorite Juma live every Friday?

--

There are numerous benefits to the information we have available to us online. I have found videos, articles, and other content that has had a transformative impact on me - in how I think, how I act, and spiritually as well. But no matter how good things are online, the heart still yearns to gain the nourishment from the masjid. I attended a family night halaqah at a local masjid recently, and it was invigorating to be able to just sit in the front, all uncomfortable on the floor, and take notes.

I'm not discounting that some communities may have a serious lack of resources, and many people have no option but to turn to gaining spiritual nourishment online.

It seems like there is a line, or should be a line, but I'm not quite sure what it is.

How do you get your spiritual nourishment? How much do you get online, and how comfortable are you with that? What should be the ideal balance between merging the online and offline activities in this regards? 

*This is one of the few posts that comments are open on, usually they're only given by replying to the email when it goes out on our list - please make sure to sign up.

How To Stop Being a Celebrity Shaykh Fanboy or Fangirl and Build Real Relationships With Them

comments-body.jpg

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.

Ramadan Guide to Social Media Fasting - How to Practically Do it, and What You Can Gain From It

6088751332_7da4134066_b-1024x6711.jpg

Every Ramadan we make goals oriented around improving ourselves and getting to the next level. There are two ways we go about this - either through increase or through decrease. We work to develop habits by increasing how much we pray, attend the masjid, read Qur’an, make dua, spend time with our families, and even working out. Similarly, we try to up our game through decrease as well. This means cutting down how much we watch TV, gossiping, playing video games, eating unhealthy, and essentially anything else that we feel guilty about and want to remedy.

The reason Ramadan becomes the focal point of all these habits is that it is a 30 day period where our normal routine is completely shot. The momentum of this month makes it easier to make other changes as well (and of course it helps that Shaytān is locked up).

Some people feel that social media is inherently evil and therefore must be cut out. For others its an acknowledgment that too much time is wasted on it, and they need to focus for these 30 days. The important thing is to not project some kind of a spiritual superiority one way or another. It’s easy to see people doing a social media fast for ‘religious’ reasons and then feel guilty for not taking part.

Do I Really Need to Fast from Social Media?

The short answer to this question is yes. How much and in what capacity will differ from person to person.

Some people are opposed to a social media fast because they feel like they’ll miss out on something important. In places where the local community might not be that strong, social media provides a way to enjoy the month with an online community. It’s not uncommon for people to form groups and go through a tafsīr series or something like that together. There’s also a constant stream of reminders, encouragement - and of course Facebook events announcing good programs.

Giving up social media for Ramadan isn’t something unique to our faith community. It is reported that an increasing number of Christians are opting to give up social media/technology in observation of Lent.

I'm a proponent of doing some form of fast from social media (not necessarily a full 30 days). This is not because I consider social media to be evil, but rather as a mental reboot. Ramadan provides an opportunity for a physical and spiritual reboot - social media for many people is the biggest barrier to a mental one.

A lot of people have a mindless routine that they don't even realize. A few months ago, while waiting in line at the grocery store, I took out my phone. I checked Twitter, Facebook, email, and texts. I looked up, realized the line was still long, and then did the same thing. Then I did it again, and again. The sad thing is I didn't even realize what I was doing. What was possibly going to there that wasn't there when I checked 45 seconds earlier?

Some people might call it addiction, but in a more general sense we fill our free time. It's part of our routine. A typical day in corporate America for many people starts out with some iteration of: Work email, personal email, Facebook, ESPN, CNN, Reddit, personal email, Facebook, get breakfast, start working, check Reddit again...

We underestimate the cognitive toll that this takes on us. It's difficult to make the dua for waking up and sleeping when we wake up and sleep with that same iteration: wake up half asleep, turn off the alarm, check email, Facebook, Twitter, get out of bed... Email, Facebook, Twitter, set the alarm, go to sleep while pulling to refresh our newsfeed until we pass out...

Doing a fast or detox of some sort is a good way to reconnect with the world around you. We don't allow ourselves time to think anymore (we're so afraid of being lonely that we put our lives at risk by texting and driving just to say hi to someone). Embrace the feeling of loneliness. In fact, it's a great way to reinforce your relationship with Allah by remembering Him in those times.

Our mental focus plays a direct role in our spiritual health as well. The empty time we have can be used to reflect, to ponder on our relationship with Allah, and to simply make dua.

There's a deeper aspect as it relates to our own nafs (soul). Taking a break from social media is an excellent way to bring your own ego down. It's a reminder that the world will continue to move on without you. It's a great way to have some introspection - why do I post what I post? Who is it targeted toward? What do I hope to achieve? Personal priorities in this context cannot be reassessed if you're constantly in the cycle of mindlessly cycling through your social media dozens of times a day.

The greatest fear that many people have is FOMO. Fear Of Missing Out. If I don't go on Facebook, suddenly I'm not going to know what's going on, what cool events there are, who got engaged, who had a kid, who ate dinner where, etc. You might feel like a fool when everyone at isha is talking about that cool photo your friend instagrammed of a paper cup with milk and Rooh Afza and you're the only one who didn't see it. That's ok. Miss out. Let it happen, and after a while you will realize you're probably not missing out on much.

This is not to say all of social media is drivel, but the goal is to bring balance in your life. If the vast majority of the year is spent overindulging, then it's healthy to take a break the other way for a little while

Try to replace that time with something fruitful. Some of my greatest memories of the masjid in Ramadan is making iftar with friends and hanging out and having fun. Even if you don't know anyone, try to strike up a conversation and create an experience for yourself at the masjid. Just don't be glued to your phone at iftar time while surrounded by other people.

 

Practical Tips

 

  1. Try unplugging for a couple of days. Deactivate Facebook for 72 hours and see what happens. I sometimes try to force myself to not tweet for 24-48 hours (even if I'm checking it). If you follow me on Twitter you might find it hard to believe, but it's true.
  2. Delete the apps off your phone. If you can't commit to a full detox, try to detox your phone. Delete Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, or whatever it is you feel like you spend the most time on. Use them on your computer all you want, but just delete them off your phone. This alone could get you huge results.
  3. Turn off notifications. If you feel the other options are too adventurous, just turn off your notifications. Disable all the push notifications, vibrate alerts, turn off those red numbers on your icons - do whatever you can to not let your device dictate when you check it.


They key with the recommendations above is to focus on having a system in place. Don't rely on your willpower to "not check" it. Personally, I have almost no willpower whatsoever. If it's not systematic it won't happen.

If I try to force myself to not check Twitter, after a while, I will give in, and get back to the same old habits. The same laziness can be used in your favor as well. Once I deleted the Facebook app on my phone, when I felt like re-installing it, I would think about how annoying it would be to go download it again, and input my password that I just didn't feel like doing it anymore. Yes, this sounds trivial and kind of stupid, but it actually works. Understand how your mind works, and then create a system to use it to your advantage.  

Try to replace the time you freed up with simply making dua. 

Not everyone is in need of a digital detox. Some people are responsible with their usage. But if you feel like this area needs improvement, Ramadan is as good a time as any to give yourself a little push.

What You Can Gain

There are two buzz-words (or phrases) I feel are appropriate here (both are terms I got from Michael Hyatt)-

  1. Being intentional
  2. Creating margin

Being intentional means taking control of your time. The problem is not with the tool itself (whether it be your phone or the social networks themselves) - rather, the problem is when we let those tools unintentionally fill our time. If you've ever closed Facebook, then immediately opened it again out of habit without realizing you just closed it - then you know what I'm talking about. To break this habit, or cycle, your mind has to regain focus and become intentional about how and when social media is consumed.

Creating margin can be defined as "the space between our load and our limits... Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating." 

In 2012, the average American consumed 13.6 hours of media each day. By 2015, that number is expected to rise to 15.5. These figures include media multitasking, e.g., listening to music while checking your email, so that it’s possible to consume more than one hour of media within a 60-minute period. Shockingly, those 13.6 hours don’t include any media consumed at work. Basically, most of us are daily consuming a torrent of media equivalent to the number of our waking hours. If we’re up, we’re plugged in (Art of Manliness).

We've lost the true value of things like silence. We need to rediscover the mental energy needed to simply reflect. Ramadan is a great time to reflect and give ourselves some margin in life. We all go through days where we feel busy, we come home exhausted, and we hit the bed mentally fatigued. But if we're honest with ourselves, we probably didn't actually do anything busy during the day. It's just the cumulation of constantly indulging our email, txt, and social networks.

Use the practical steps above to figure out how to detox. Set a small attainable goal. It might be 24 hours, it might be a week, and for some it might be 30 days. See what you can fill the extra time with. It might be silence. It can be spending time with the family. It can be reading Quran, making dhikr, or making dua. Whatever you choose, see how it affects you.

Long term - try to create regular social media breaks and reset. This is not a one time thing, but Ramadan is a good excuse to give it a shot.

Keeping it Real: Student of Knowledge Superstars

shutterstock_145107598.jpg

Who ever thought that glitz and glamour would be associated with being a "talib al-'ilm"? Did anyone ever imagine that being a "student of knowledge" would become a glorified dream for many Muslims? Is it acceptable to say that becoming a "da'ee" is the new way of 'being the man'? Is it fair to equate aspiring to be a 'baller' in jahiliyyah to aspiring to be a "student of knowledge" in Islam? A big disclaimer before continuing: This is not a critique of seeking knowledge, of students of knowledge, or anything of that sort. Rather, what follows is an examination of the culture found in our communities of aspiring students, their motivations in seeking knowledge, and the method employed in doing so.

When you grow up in the West without Islam - even if you are a Muslim - you will have certain people you still look up to, some who have nothing to do with who you really are. For example, young desi kids dressed like gangsters and thugs, listening to rap music [See related post on Hip Hop and Islam.], meeting with their friends to mack on girls, then going home to eat biryani and study for those extra chemistry classes they are taking in preparation for med school. Aren't we all to some extent products of our own environment?

The bottom line is, though, to some extent - in jahiliyyah (not necessarily exclusive to people who converted) - people aspire to be like those celebrities, famous and adored. I don't think it's even necessarily the appeal of the money as it is the adoration of the people. Everyone craves having the respect and attention of people. Muslims who start learning see examples of people who are famous in the Muslim ummah. They have CD's, DVD's, they travel around giving talks and classes, and are to a large extent adored by the Muslim masses. I remember going to a convention once where the crowd of people waiting to get in to hear one particular speaker talk resembled the crowd outside an arena waiting to get into a rock concert.

When Muslims give up some of the aspirations they may have had before, they try to replace them with more 'halal' ones. Unfortunately, while our actions reform quickly, the intentions are often lagging behind. The virtues associated with seeking knowledge are motivation enough to study. However, with studying comes the pitfalls of seeking attention, fame, debating with people, being 'known' as 'knowledgeable,' and studying things which do not benefit. It becomes easy to cast aside scholars who speak about "the same things" and become infatuated with people who are always engaged in novel things you have never heard before, or authoritatively assert themselves in controversial issues.

Just the virtue of having a reputation as knowledgeable or academic is often enough to mess with the intention of a seeker of knowledge.

Even women are a huge fitnah for the aspiring student of knowledge. The respected males in western culture are the ones who get all the girls. For many of such aspiring 'students' the girl factor is definitely a big plus in the path of seeking knowledge. It doesn't help, of course, to go to a conference, and have sisters sending up questions like "are you looking for a second wife?" in the Q/A portion of the talk to the Shaykh. Many think that by becoming a 'student,' marriage prospects will flow forth without end and they will somehow be forced to struggle to narrow themselves down to only 4 lucky women.

That status as a "student of knowledge" becomes the goal by which to attain respect, admiration, women, and even to some respect, money. Is this just a zabihah version of the 'baller' lifestyle?

Surely the picture is not as bad as it has been painted above is it? Many people (especially youth) are confused oftentimes as to their own intentions. While the pursuit of studying the Sacred Knowledge is no doubt noble and virtuous, that pursuit does not come without tests - chief amongst them is the test of our intentions. We are all familiar with the hadith of the first 3 people to be thrown into the Hellfire - amongst them a scholar and reciter of Quran (may Allah protect us all from Hellfire). We have to assess our goals in learning the deen, set realistic expectations, and study the proper way.

What are the warning signs we can look for to see if we're headed down the wrong path in seeking knowledge?

The Prophet (saw) was commanded in the Qur'an to ask for an increase in knowledge. In some hadith, it is narrated that he would ask Allah for the beneficial knowledge, and in even other narrations we find he (saw) sought refuge in Allah from knowledge that did not benefit.

So, for the aspiring student, is there a focus on knowledge that benefits?

Islam is in some respects a religion of priorities. Aisha (ra) said for example, that had the prohibition of alcohol been the first commandment in Islam, no one would have accepted it. They had to go through a process to reach the stage of giving it up. Similarly, when learning the deen, as with any other subject, you have to master the basics and essentials first before moving on to more complex subjects. The important underlying factor with Islamic knowledge is using this litmus test: Is what you are learning bringing you closer to Allah (swt) or not?

Is it proper for an aspiring student of knowledge then, to -

Engage in debate and criticism of real students of knowledge on issues of aqeedah, bid'ah, and advanced issues of 'ilm and ijtihaad while they themselves have not even studied Islam to the extent of reading Quran with proper tajweed or memorizing more than Juz 'Amma?

What about people who cannot even name the arkaan of salaah authoritatively telling others about the fiqh of how to move the finger in salah?

How about those who are always engaged with defending hotly contested issues like Mawlid and Tawassul, while almost ignoring and never calling to acts of ibaadah that are undisputed?

What about someone engaging themselves for days and weeks on end 'researching' whether to go into sujood on your hands or knees first, while they have not even properly studied fiqh to know what types of water can be used to make wudu?

How about passing judgment on other Muslims, calling them innovators, or having corrupted aqeedah/manhaj while not even knowing the technical differences between shirk and kufr?

Similarly, what about people who make walaa and baraa over Fiqh issues, like refusing to pray behind someone who wipes over their socks, or boycotting people who eat "outside meat"?

The "student of knowledge culture" for some people has spurred strange affiliations. You meet people at the masjid sitting and discussing the virtues of ashaabul-hadeeth (the People of Hadith), and calling themselves students of hadith, even studying relatively advanced issues of sciences pertaining to its narrators - yet, they have not even read any of the 6 books of hadith from cover to cover - much less read them with a teacher! Some affiliate themselves to traditional Islam while not even having studied the basic usool and dalaa'il for the "traditions" they claim to follow - yet they feel pious and knowledgeable enough to look down upon others not on the same path as them.

For many, being a "student of knowledge" has resulted in a disregard for the basics, a focus on advanced issues of ikhtilaaf, and adherence to a strict dress code. Dress code? You know the types. People in tailored thobes, Saudi style kufis, izaar hemmed exactly halfway between the knee and ankle, discussing and debating rulings and verdicts and scholars of whom they have never even read an original writing from. Or groups of people, all discussing the wird and adhkaar given to them by their teacher, ignoring the adhkaar found in the Sunnah, and all dressed like they were hired to endorse the spring 2008 line for Shukr clothing.

There is a huge element of people plateauing in the first stage of knowledge - when you think you know everything. This is also known as "a little bit of knowledge is dangerous." The intention to reach the advanced stages is noble. People obviously have a thirst to learn the upper levels of Islamic sciences, especially the issues that are in vogue in the communities. Everyone wants to argue about halal meat and Doritos but no one wants to actually study the usool and evidences that go into it. Everyone wants to offer up tafseer of the Quran, but no one wants to take the time to memorize it, or even read it every day.

That's another amazing thing, the number of people running around as "students" who ignore even the most basic aspect of our deen and have no daily relationship with the Quran, or even a solid plan in place to finish memorizing it.

There is definitely a certain level of arrogance that comes with studying the deen in this way - going for the "sexier" issues and ignoring the basics - because you start looking down on others for their stances on a handful of particular issues. I myself cannot remember how many times I was told something was bid'ah, would get angry with people for engaging in it, and then upon studying the issue more with a teacher would find that in fact there are other evidences, opinions, and explanations showing that it was either not bid'ah - or at the least not something to get your blood boiling over. How many people in our communities fight with and boycott each other over these types of issues? It's definitely a disease we have to combat. One telling sign is that people going down this path, as they "progress" in seeking knowledge, they become more and more disenchanted with the community. They withdraw. They start looking down on the rest of the community, they begin to disregard things like social work as beneath them - even if they do not explicitly say it, then it's shown through their actions. This is when the knowledge of the deen goes from an encompassing life practice to an almost strictly academic pursuit.

One sign of this is the rapid rise in IOD. What's IOD? Internet-Only-Dawah. We have so many people in our communities who shun the masjid and the community, and instead engage themselves with only internet dawah. This is not to say that there's no dawah online or anything of that sort (obviously, this article itself is on a blog of all things), but it's more about people who get caught up in the culture described above spending all their time debating in chatrooms and PalTalk and forums. The incessant back and forth, name-calling, boycotting, and email lists rehashing these debates have become widespread. People withdraw from their communities and abandon dawah there, opting instead to just label others and label scholars with different names and bicker in the name of dawah. This is a deception of Shaytaan and something that hardens the hearts. There is definitely a huge market for making dawah online, but it must be done correctly, and I would personally venture to make the argument that it will not be successful if a person is not also actively engaged in dawah in their own community IRL (in real life).

It's time to be real with regards to how we learn our deen. There are entire books on how to seek knowledge, its methods, and its virtues. This article is not the place to reinvent the wheel, but to draw focus on two of the biggest problems we all face in our quest to learn the religion,

  1. Intention
  2. Patience

For those of us aspiring to become real students of knowledge, we have to seriously check our intentions. What is the goal of learning? Is it to debate with people? Is it to gain admiration of people? Is it to write books or give talks and impress others?

Or is it seriously about coming closer to Allah, and bringing benefit to others? If this is the case, we have to act like it. We must focus on learning that which will bring us closest to Allah. The example of Quran has been mentioned in this article a few times, let's look at how this example applies.

Some people caught up in the allure of just "seeking knowledge" for the sake of knowledge will always exert themselves in finding loopholes to justify whatever they are doing. If, for example, you try to bring them back to the basics like focusing on the Quran, they will research and research until they find an example of one scholar who couldn't correctly read with tajweed, or one scholar out of thousand upon thousands who didn't actually finish memorizing Quran. We have to be willing to step back and assess ourselves, and see if we are willing to put in the hard work into the basics - which may be boring - in order to get to the stage of being able to properly study the subjects we may be more interested in.

To do the basics takes patience, and we have to be very real with ourselves regarding our goals. Are we going to become scholars? Do we have the skill set for it? Put it this way, if you are faltering in regards to your secular education, and you cannot keep up with your classes or make good grades - why would it all of a sudden change at an Islamic university? That's a very tough truth we have to face. Do you have the time and ability to actually set aside 6-8 years (at the minimum) to actually study full time?

It is nearly impossible to be a full time secular student, or a full time employee, and a full time student at the same time. If you are going to be studying part time, are you ready to face the fact that most likely you will not become a scholar or big student of knowledge? If that is the case, are you ready to focus yourself on becoming a productive community member, maybe a good khateeb, teach good halaqahs, make the avenues available for others to learn, do community work, and fulfill the other roles our ummah needs? We definitely need more scholars, no doubt. But what we do not need is people who fool themselves into thinking they will be scholars, and not only miss that goal, but have missed out on helping the ummah in other ways as well.

Are you willing to focus on learning that which is most essential to you (and not necessarily what you are most interested in learning)? Let me give an example of something that some of us 'part time' students fall into. Someone may not have the ability to study full time, but wants to learn Arabic. This is a good goal. They will dedicate 2-3 years of their life spending all their free time studying sarf, nahw, balaghah, and other grammatical sciences in extremely great detail. But after 2-3 years they are only now at the level of reading basic Islamic texts that could have been covered in English already.

It's important to realistically identify what stage you want to reach. There is nothing wrong with becoming a knowledgeable, practicing Muslim - not everyone is cut out to be a scholar. How many people spend 5-6 years of their life 'chasing the dream' and not doing anything else with their time, only to be now hitting their 30's without any true Islamic education or even secular education to show for it? Many people are just "waiting to go overseas" or "go study" and they bide their time not doing anything - not memorizing Quran, not studying with the Imams in their communities, and not even going to college and at least getting a solid secular degree! People like this after 5 years are still studying, discussing, and debating the exact same things they were 5 years prior without any progress.

The path of seeking knowledge does not have to culminate in being a scholar or da'ee only as many people assume. If people in the ummah were dedicated to learning, and becoming practicing Muslims, imagine how our communities would be. Imagine that all the doctors, lawyers, teachers, and businessmen were all practicing Muslims - having taqwa of Allah in raising their families, in teaching their kids, in spending their wealth, in volunteering their time, and dealing with each other. What kind of a community would that be? How would it be to go to that masjid where these people are? The entire knowledge level and practice of the whole community would shoot through the roof, and you would have dedicated members of the ummah helping each other out.

Once we identify a tangible goal to reach, we have to work to get there, and supplicate to Allah (swt) to not only allow us to be carriers of the knowledge, but those who act on what we learn. Looking at what this takes should humble us in regards to embarking upon what we want to achieve. It should increase our respect for those students of knowledge who have dedicated years of their lives studying, and are now active in teaching the deen. We should grow in our respect for our local imams who are often neglected and overlooked. What we learn should nourish our hearts. If we are questioned later about what we learned and why, we should be able to answer appropriately. Before reading a book, before listening to a lecture, we should ask ourselves why we are doing it. After we finish, we should ask ourselves what we learned from it that will benefit us in the akhirah, what we gained from it that we can pass on to others, and benefit the people with.

We all want to become more knowledgeable of our deen, but we have to be true to ourselves, and our sincerity to Allah(swt) in what we're trying to get out of what we learn if we want to be successful.

As a final note, one important narration must be mentioned from Sufyaan ath-Thawree,

"We began seeking knowledge for other than the sake of Allah, but knowledge refused to be sought for other than Allah's sake"

Even though many of us may start out with mixed intentions, or our intentions may change as time goes on, as long as we keep working, then insha'Allah Allah(swt) will give us the tawfeeq to correct our intentions and become true carriers of what we are learning.

I hope that this article is not misconstrued, and I hope that it doesn't discourage anyone from seeking knowledge - that is definitely not the goal. The goal is rather to serve as a reminder of our approach to seeking knowledge, and making sure we are doing it in the proper manner, and with the proper intentions. No matter what stage of life we are in, we can begin seeking knowledge, even in old age - but we have to do our utmost to do it with the proper etiquettes.

Alhamdulillah, many avenues have opened up for us to learn Islam. We can take online programs, distance education programs, weekend seminars, summer intensives, halaqahs, and even short intensives overseas that last for a few weeks. The opportunities are all there for us to learn, but we have to seize them, and make the best use of them that we possibly can so that we can learn more and more of what brings us closer to Allah(swt).

In closing I wish to direct everyone to this book in pdf format, The Pitfalls in the Quest for Knowledge by Salmaan al-'Awdah which says a lot of what I wanted to in a far more eloquent manner - I just wish I had found this book before writing this article and not after :)

Some related resources,