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

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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