Untrapping immorality on the web: al-adab al-internet

Blog Pol­i­cy: This arti­cle is being shared from anoth­er site. The top hyper­link directs read­ers to the orig­i­nal source. It is being shared to stim­u­late dis­cus­sion on the top­ic and Wifaqul Ula­ma nei­ther endors­es the site nor nec­es­sar­i­ly agrees with the views expressed nor takes respon­si­bil­i­ty for the con­tent of exter­nal Inter­net sites. In some cas­es, read­ers send us emails to share their thoughts (anony­mous­ly) and in respect to their wish­es, con­tact details or Author infor­ma­tion will not be provided.

Today 7th Feb marks Safer Inter­net Day 1. It’s a cam­paign by a num­ber of char­i­ties sup­port­ed by many organ­i­sa­tions, includ­ing Inter­net Mat­ters 2, Inter­net Watch Foun­da­tion 3 and the UK Gov­ern­ment to make the inter­net a bet­ter place for chil­dren and young peo­ple. While it’s not just young peo­ple who need pro­tect­ing from inap­pro­pri­ate con­tent like vio­lence, pornog­ra­phy, sites pro­mot­ing alco­hol, ran­somware, iden­ti­ty theft, child groom­ing, cyber-bul­ly­ing, bad lan­guage etc. etc., it’s chil­dren who are cer­tain­ly most vul­ner­a­ble. For Mus­lims, the nature of inap­pro­pri­ate­ness should extend to wider man­ners and morals in the way we inter­act online and the impli­ca­tions it has for our spir­i­tu­al, men­tal and phys­i­cal well-being, which is rel­e­vant to both young and old alike.

Accord­ing to a study in 2015 by the Inter­net Adver­tis­ing Bureau UK, we spend on aver­age 2 hours and 51 min­utes online every day 4 . That’s approx­i­mate­ly 12% of the day or 18% of the 16 or so hours that the aver­age per­son is awake. And, over a life­time it poten­tial­ly amounts to 11 years of an aver­age 74 years of life expectan­cy give or take.

Face­book is a very good exam­ple where all kinds of inap­pro­pri­ate and immoral activ­i­ties take place. It’s true that with so many updates you could eas­i­ly drown in sta­tus­es. So, Face­book uses sophis­ti­cat­ed tech­niques like algo­rithms that assume we want to see more of the feeds from peo­ple whom we’ve most fre­quent­ly ‘liked’ or ‘com­ment­ed’ on. It’s an assump­tion yet to be researched prop­er­ly for the psy­cho­log­i­cal impli­ca­tions on the indi­vid­ual. In turn, ‘pub­lic pages’ are con­tin­u­ous­ly scour­ing for new con­tent and ever-more inge­nious ways to get peo­ple to ‘like’ and ‘share’; vol­ume is cru­cial to any good busi­ness mod­el of course. While some con­tent is def­i­nite­ly ben­e­fi­cial, there’s plen­ty of time wast­ing, use­less­ness, idle gawk­ing, enter­tain­ment and friv­o­li­ty, too.

For some indi­vid­u­als, the num­ber of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ are a stamp of approval of their own exis­ten­tial val­ue and self-esteem. After all, an online pro­file implic­it­ly demands recog­ni­tion. But, unlike in con­ven­tion­al adver­tis­ing where we have inde­pen­dent reg­u­la­tors with teeth (like the Adver­tis­ing Stan­dards Agency and Ofcom in the UK), there isn’t any­thing like it for social media. Cue the scourge of ‘fake news.’ The click bait cul­ture, that fuels online pop­ulism is a well orches­trat­ed mon­ey-mak­ing scheme.

Oth­ers care­ful­ly curate an online per­sona of them­selves, which can often turn out to be any­thing but a mirage out­side of the online world. For whom, a chance to remake iden­ti­ty of sorts can help escape from an oth­er­wise mun­dane grind of dai­ly life. For oth­ers, still, social media is a bat­tle­field to defend ideas and beliefs from being ridiculed and hijacked, think­ing that doing so is always nec­es­sary and pro­duc­tive, that it doesn’t require much effort beyond typ­ing some words. No doubt these things can lead to good out­comes, but too often they don’t.

You can’t help but notice just how obses­sive, com­pul­sive or neu­rot­ic these behav­iours can be. Some of which is engi­neered by the way com­ments and shares are brought into view across peo­ple to pro­voke an opin­ion. The writ­ing on the wall, as it were, can often be a cesspit. It also under­lies the feel­ing of need­ing to con­nect to oth­ers; and sati­at­ing the feel­ing of self-impor­tance can often be hard to resist, too. Par­tic­u­lar­ly, if you’ve amassed a respectable fol­low­ing, there’s an implic­it weight of respon­si­bil­i­ty to say some­thing wor­thy of being fol­lowed, trap­ping you into the very bub­ble of your own making.

Like Face­book, Snapchat and Insta­gram are sure fast ways of blur­ring pri­vate and pub­lic life. The need to show your­self in full tech­ni­colour with var­i­ous fil­ters make it even more irre­sistible to show off your pho­tos (an esti­mat­ed 2.5 tril­lion images were shared in 2016) 5 , but what real val­ue it adds is questionable.

Then there is the vit­ri­ol, back­bit­ing, bul­ly­ing, name-call­ing, trolling and ad homi­um attacks that you encounter on Face­book, What­sApp, Twit­ter and com­ments sec­tion of online opin­ion arti­cles. Of course, sit­ting behind a screen by its very nature invites us to express our half-baked, unedit­ed thoughts which we wouldn’t have oth­er­wise uttered, espe­cial­ly to some­one we’ve prob­a­bly nev­er met nor aware of his or her qual­i­ties. Yet this loss of man­ners and morals is often seen as okay by many Mus­lims online 6.

Sad­ly, though admit­ted­ly unsur­pris­ing­ly, few Mus­lim schol­ars have been clued-up enough to meet the great need of our time, to expound the fin­er details and teach the knowl­edge of online man­ners and morals (‘al-adab al-inter­net’ if you like). In the mean­time, here’s some basic advice.

1) Have cor­rect inten­tion (niyyah) 7. If you haven’t even thought about ‘why you’re doing some­thing,’ chances are you’re act­ing out of auto­mat­ed impulse. Where­as, the point of niyyah is to get us to focus on God so that we do things in a man­ner that seeks to sub­mit to Him.

2) Fact check news or images for authen­tic­i­ty before shar­ing 8. Pass the words (or con­tent) through four ‘gates of speech’ before shar­ing: ‘is it true?’ ‘is it nec­es­sary?’ ‘is it kind?’ ‘is it the right time? 9

3) Even if infor­ma­tion is fac­tu­al­ly cor­rect, think crit­i­cal­ly about whether it’ll be of any ben­e­fit to oth­ers – if not, don’t share or spend time on it. Often things need explain­ing or inter­pret­ing by experts, oth­er­wise peo­ple switch off or form their own incor­rect or con­fused conclusions.

4) Don’t con­cern your­self with some­thing that doesn’t real­ly con­cern you 10 – it could be a con­ver­sa­tion between oth­ers, or some­thing you don’t have exper­tise in or agency to influ­ence. If so, leave it!

5) Avoid shar­ing bad news sto­ries from far places that have no rel­e­vance to peo­ple you’re shar­ing with. This includes, for exam­ple, sto­ries of shoot­ings or car chas­es in Amer­i­ca which have a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent con­text to the gun laws in the UK.

6) Avoid shar­ing news that vil­i­fies peo­ple or touts pes­simism and cyn­i­cism, as this is not the way of the believ­er 11.

7) Show mer­cy by not say­ing things that might be hurt­ful, sly, deroga­to­ry or unfair. Try putting your­self in their shoes first. Where there is a need to call things out, be like an eru­dite schol­ar who thinks deep about the mat­ter, takes time, forms his rea­son­ing and con­veys them prop­er­ly with due respect and adab. It’s always bet­ter to say some­thing good or ben­e­fi­cial and to remain silent if otherwise.

8) Final­ly, find ways to dis­con­nect from online to con­nect with God, peo­ple you love, your neigh­bours etc.; which also means putting your phones and con­nect­ed devices away to give peo­ple your full atten­tion when speak­ing to them 12.

Admit­ted­ly, none of this stuff is easy. But our job is to strive against our own inner demons (nafs lawwa­ma) and immoral­i­ty. We must realise that online expe­ri­ences play a big part in our lives and we don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly pos­sess the skills and train­ing to nav­i­gate its inher­ent trap­pings. And like reli­gious texts – if we’re not trained with the pre­req­ui­site skills and com­pe­tence we’re in dan­ger of being trapped by it. The web is no different.

  1. https://www.saferinternet.org.uk/safer-internet-day/2017
  2. https://www.internetmatters.org/
  3. https://www.iwf.org.uk/
  4. https://iabuk.net/about/press/archive/definitive-time-people-spend-online-2hrs-51-mins-a-day
  5. https://www2.deloitte.com/global/en/pages/technology-media-and-telecommunications/articles/tmt-pred16-telecomm-photo-sharing-trillions-and-rising.html
  6. http://islamicate.co.uk/maturation/
  7. https://sunnah.com/bukhari/1
  8. https://quran.com/49/6
  9. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lodro-rinzler/four-gates-of-speech-and-buddhist-relationship-advice_b_1339413.html
  10. https://sunnah.com/urn/676220
  11. https://sunnah.com/urn/271380
  12. https://sunnah.com/urn/1803330