Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Fiqh of Facebook



Online pursuits are consuming an increasing amount of time of young people, and no less the Muslims. Those among the 500 million global users of Facebook (FB) know how it functions as a platform for many of these activities (such as news, entertainment, correspondence, campaigning, da`wah), going far beyond its description of a social networking site.

As an avid Facebook user of a few years, I have tasted its fruits but also experienced the sickness of excess and felt the danger of getting lost among the trees. Whenever Muslims are faced with a new environment, they enter it carrying their principles with them. We also need a sound understanding (fiqh) of the realities of this environment and how to handle some of its specifics.

If I dwell here on the potential and actual problems with Muslims’ use of Facebook, that is not to de-emphasize the great things that can be done with it. I say this just a week after a dictator fell from power in Egypt, with social media playing its role.

Fittingly, the genesis of this article was a series of short FB statuses I posted over 2010, each of which generated interesting discussion from friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances and contacts (all of whom are designated by FB as “Friends”). Here, I shall address a few of the most crucial aspects for the conscious user to consider, with a few quotes from the original “Facebook Fiqh” series.

A Question of Time

If time is life, then Facebook is many people’s favorite weapon of suicide. We struggle to find time to seek beneficial knowledge, yet trivial comments about trivial matters get more than their fair share. Someone remarked on Imam Suhaib Webb’s FB “wall” that we check out people’s latest FB updates more frequently than we check our Qur’an to take benefits from its verses. That remark inspired the following status update:
Sohaib Saeed wants a “Like” button in his mus-haf (written text of the Qu’ran) next to each ayah. “Like OMG that’s so true!” ;)
In a recent discussion with some students of Islamic sciences, we wondered aloud how the great scholars of the past managed to be so prolific in their writings, and how they managed to utilize every moment of their – often quite short – lives. Someone raised the point that nowadays we do indeed manage to write a lot, but it is mostly spent on trivial discussions and debates. The angels are writing down all the useless things we say in our days and nights. What do you think if you gathered all the comments (other than social niceties) that you have left on Facebook and other such forums? For many of us, it would add up to at least a small book.

The technological aspects of Facebook, particularly with its ever-updating interface, can have an intoxicating effect. It is built upon the principle of maximal stimulation of the eyes and brain; it is not far from the imagination to compare it with hypnosis. All this has a long-term effect on the mind and on the spiritual heart. This is why our attitude to such time-consuming activities is to use them for a purpose (even if that purpose be recreation), and not allowing it to eat into time better spent on other things. For some, this may mean taking conscious note of how often they open the page, and how long is spent on each visit.

What are the signs of excess? Specialists in addiction can list a few, but let me point out one thing that I believe is frighteningly common. I noticed once that when Twitter went down for a few hours then resumed, someone commented on the experience, writing: “When Twitter went down, all I wanted to do was tweet about it!” Ridiculous, yet I would suggest that it is quite representative of a common urge to use these media as a natural outlet for all our thoughts, desires and emotions. As I once wrote:
“We express our thoughts in the form of a status update instead of turning to Allah with our fears and joys. The day of a believer should be a constant conversation with God.”
Is this constant babble not a blatant distraction from the remembrance of Allah? Yes, even when we are reading and forwarding religious content, if we do so with hearts unaware. To quote from Shaykh Abdallah Adhami’s FB comment: “By all means: share, post, sms, blog, im, email, tweet… (though most importantly, internalize)”. This is the point! If you read a supplication with your eyes, it is no use if your tongue remains dry and your heart remains silent. Is reading a du`a’(supplication) anything like making du`a’? Many times, we write such things robotically in the same way we type “LOL” with a completely straight face. I won’t go so far as to call it lying, but it certainly is bizarre when you ponder on it!
Clicking “Like” is not a sign of commitment any more than saying “I love Allah.” The Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) was commanded to say, “If you should love Allah, then follow me, [so] Allah will love you and forgive you your sins. And Allah is Forgiving and Merciful” (Qur’an 3:31). Our Islam is built on actions, not mere declarations.

Public and Private

Let’s be in no doubt that FB is a public space, though certain aspects (messaging) allow one-to-one communication. Even things you post on your own wall will come up on your friends’ homepages. Therefore, rather than merely decorating your home awaiting their arrival, you are actually dropping in on them every time you post something.
“If Facebook is like a public street, doesn’t it have rights? The first is lowering the gaze: not just from unseemly images, but from everything that doesn’t concern you. Think about it as hundreds of conversations are presented before you.”
The above FB Fiqh advice was based on a hadith (report concerning the Prophet ﷺ) reported in Sahih Muslim, in which Allah’s Messenger ﷺ questioned some people sitting in the road and instructed them to avoid doing so.  When these Companions explained their purpose, the Prophet ﷺ said: “If you must sit, then fulfill the rights of the road: lower your gaze, respond to greetings and talk in a good manner.”

Not only does Facebook make it all too easy to look at pictures of members of the opposite sex and personal details we have no business knowing, but it makes it tempting to pore through threads of comments that at best, are a complete waste our time, and at worst, involve a level of prying. Just as we take responsibility for what we post, we should also be ethical in what we access. Ask yourself: if that group of friends were chatting amongst themselves, would I feel right standing nearby and listening in?

Many of the problems with people’s Facebook usage stem from the confusion between public and private spaces. Consider a few such cases:

1. Saying aloud what ought to have been silent, or sharing with everyone what belongs to a certain group.

Such a public forum is not the ideal place for potentially confusing ideas – such as controversial questions of theology – to be shared, as people without the relevant background knowledge may get the wrong idea.

Moreover, Facebook is not the place to develop your thoughts, wondering aloud with things that could cause others to doubt. If you have a question, direct it to someone who knows. If you’re working on an idea, try keeping a private journal.

Most importantly, beware of spreading unsubstantiated rumors. If in doubt, clarify and make certain of the reality, as the Qur’an (49:6) instructs. The following is also a thinking point:
The Prophet ﷺ said: “It is enough of a lie for a person to narrate everything he hears.” (Sahih Muslim) So how about one who narrates every fleeting thought he hears from his self?
In short: before posting anything, ask yourself “Why?” – is it something that will be of interest or benefit to those who will read it?

2. Doing things shamelessly in front of respected people and near-strangers.

Examples of this include using bad language, or writing flirtatious things in plain sight of people who could make hasty – possibly unfair – judgments. Perhaps someone would suggest that writing on the FB wall of someone of the opposite gender is more appropriate than a private message, but that is only true if the public nature of the communication does not become an excuse for a lack of etiquette.
People are clicking “Like” for the craziest things, associating themselves sometimes with immoral and unethical people and ideas, and promoting this on the newsfeeds of all their friends. It would be wise to slow down and think, if only for the following reason:
Be careful whom you love and “Like” – do you want them by your side on Judgment Day? The Prophet ﷺ said: “You are with whomever you love.” (Bukhari & Muslim)
Another common sight is photos of sinful activities, with Muslim friends pictured in compromising positions. Rather than uploading and tagging photos of these lapses, the right course of action is immediate repentance, as in the hadith: “All my nation are safe except those who publicise their sins. A servant does an evil deed by night, and wakes up having Allah’s cover upon him. Then he tells someone, ‘I did such-and-such last night!’ – He went to bed with Allah providing him cover, and woke up to throw off Allah’s cover.” (Bukhari & Muslim)

Privacy in general is a major and widely discussed issue of concern regarding Facebook, so a Muslim should be even more aware of the issue. Both sisters and brothers need to beware of broadcasting details that could be misused, and especially pictures in which they are more exposed than they ought to be in public. Even a “private” FB album is never truly private, when you think about it.
These few thoughts on Facebook Fiqh are by no means exhaustive, but I hope they provide a starting point to a greater consciousness and care when using new technology and emerging media.

By Sohaib Saeed