Hasnet Lais is an educator and journalist who writes on contemporary Muslim affairs. You can follow him on Twitter @haznet1.
The obligation to command good and forbid evil ranks among the most noblest of deeds. The Qur’an confirms that our venerable status as the exemplary people raised for mankind is conditional upon the fulfilment of this duty.
When I first started commentating on contemporary Muslims affairs, the reason underlying my desire to address cutting edge realities of the ummah was the honour which Allah bestowed to those performing this duty. Therefore, writing could never be a fad or something to simply keep my sanity in check. It had to be a sincere devotion purely for the sake of Allah.
The implications of discharging this obligation for any other purpose except to attain Allah’s pleasure linger heavily on my mind. Along the way, I’ve grappled with my conscience and interrogated my motives whenever my intentions were slightly misplaced. I believe such an appraisal is a means for our self purification and one we must earnestly pursue before the ultimate reckoning on the Day of Judgement.
I’ve bit my tongue on this sensitive subject long enough but having dabbled in journalism over the years, I can smell the inherent egotism in believing one’s voice matters from a mile away. Humility is a gift beyond measure but regrettably, the antics of some prominent Muslim personalities in the dawah scene prove it is hard to come by.
I am not in the business of publicly accounting my fellow Muslim. My personal experiences have taught me to honour the ties of brotherhood and salvage any modicum of decency which seems a tough ask nowadays. Hence, I will omit any mention of specific individuals or organisations.
But you don’t have to look far to catch my drift. Harsh as it may sound, it appears some brothers are trivialising their Islamic outreach by converting their online platforms into a vanity project in the name of connection and engagement.
In the past few years, I’ve witnessed the detrimental effects of such undignified behaviour in Speakers’ Corner, Hyde Park. Historically a beacon for free speech and tolerance, this national treasure has changed beyond recognition, often due to an embarrassing lack of sense and judgement on the part of those conveying Islam.
Compared to other public spaces, Speakers’ Corner has a reputation for relaxing informal restrictions on free speech. It invites contrarians of all stripes and has a tradition for sparing no sacred cow.
In our current climate where Islam is the foremost target of state-sponsored propaganda, a certain amount of faith bashing is inevitable.
However, it ill behoves Muslim polemicists to fuel the provocations of Islamophobic trolls by playing to the crowd, creating a ruckus and disturbing the public peace in the name of defending Islam.
Equally demeaning is the online behaviour of some callers to Islam. Sadly, it’s not uncommon to see brothers stoop to coarse levels to expose their opposing interlocutors. Posting insulting memes and insolent caricatures to goad Islamophobes into debates or censure the Salafi movement are just some examples of the intemperate and unsightly online conduct I have the misfortune of observing online.
If I was to narrow the deplorable etiquettes of the dawah scene to a single factor, it would be social media. In recent decades, I doubt there has been a single development that has shaped mass culture more than social media. It’s undoubtedly a powerful means of communication and connection, but at worst, it distorts reality and enables an unhealthy preoccupation with the self. Unfortunately, there is much about the contemporary dawah that has succumbed to this tendency as the boundaries between humility and egotism are becoming increasingly blurred.
The feedback loop that social media encompasses and the ubiquity of interactive networking has generated an unhealthy obsession to colour our daily feed in a manner which reeks of self-importance. This has turned many of us into celebrity craving image mongers. Often, the public profiles of some dawah carriers are stuck in the prism of ‘me’ and contain too much clickbait content to be taken seriously.
Though it is unbecoming of someone committed to the propagation of the divine message to saturate their platform with material that screams self-promotion, there isn’t anything intrinsically wrong about curating online personas for specifically religious ends. Yet some brothers are too wrapped up in the image of their own making and dare I say, symptomatic of a narcissistic personality disorder.
The temptation to create a scripted, puffed-up version of ourselves is so pervasive in the age of braggadocio and some of us are feeding the beast by unseemly ways of playing to the gallery, contributing to what I would call the memification of Islamic discourse.
Unlike face-to-face interactions, online exchanges pose challenges as they are devoid of nonverbal cues, lack a personal context and therefore, more susceptible to impropriety.
In the absence of body language and tone, some of us pay little regard for tempering our asinine behaviour and are oblivious to how those on the receiving end of our impulsive exchanges will process our communications.
John Suler describes this tendency in The Online Disinhibition Effect, where he states how social media immunises us to the inhibitions which we usually experience in everyday interactions. The etiquette and protocols which another’s presence would naturally impose on us is absent and comments easily devolve into anti-social behaviour from those who are otherwise courteous.
It is important that we recognise that such platforms are public forums, and our assumption of solitude when utilising these far from private spaces is illusory. Thus, anyone utilising content sharing platforms for faith based purposes must tread carefully.
The crass showmanship and futile argumentation which is rife amongst daees could not be further from the Quranic injunction of debating with decorum and speaking with modesty.
Yes, there are situations which call for sternness, especially when warding off a pervasive harm and condemning a clear and present danger.
However, one of the primary conditions of dawah as outlined by our pious predecessors is the intention to make Allah’s word supreme and gentleness must be cultivated for discharging this duty.
Snarky retorts, sarcasm and mockery implies that one is not genuinely invested in the guidance of others. The easiest way to sabotage our message is to get sucked into the whirlpool of negativity and harbour an inflated sense of self.
As Muslims, we must be increasingly sensitive to how social media can bloat our capacity for self-obsession to embarrassing extremes. Instead of competing for good deeds, it is tempting to exude a winning disposition by competing for followers, likes, retweets and any other metrics of virtual approval.
Whether we’re public speakers, writers or anyone whose Islamic outreach depends on a social media presence, please remember that the deen is naseeha, not theatrics. There are more dignified ways of measuring self-worth without reducing ourselves to vapid, reality-distorting caricatures. Unless we can tame the urge to utilise the digital space as an ego boosting echo chamber, our platforms will not only impede our spiritual growth but also disengage sincere listeners who can see through the bluster.
Reflecting on the universe should inspire modesty. After all, the cosmos is an expanding ocean of humility despite its indescribable grandeur, so what justifies such self-aggrandizement?