By Sharhidd Booley
When, in 1936, Alan Turing first mooted the idea of practical, universal computing machines1, little did he realise that it would spawn the creation of a cybernetic world in which paper-thin, plastic and glassy, handheld devices, alongside their less popular desktop predecessors, would universally allow for split-second communication between users2, albeit that this miniaturisation in e-communication flouts the virtues of real-time interrelations. Exchanges of our voices, pictures, and written messages in the form of digital data and information, are today done with dazzling speed and precision3. Without the aid of superbly computerised satellites above the stratosphere, this exchange of a myriad of multi-million data bytes at any one moment would not have been possible. Today’s social media is tailor-made for those exchanges. I believe that it is these capabilities of our technical mediums that society finds so hard to resist, at times with dire consequences4.
Predatorily, humans as social beings need to communicate and share5. Electronic social media allows for this with anyone, anywhere, at any time, for any length of time, for any reason, without controls6. The problem is that the aloofness, separation, distancing, remoteness, and indirectness between the exchanges intensifies the importance of their having to decide with whom, what, where, how long, and reasons to communicate7. This could present a quandary especially to younger users unfamiliar with the rights and wrongs of this web-based form of communication on the ‘Internet’8.
Whether users interact with each other on any of the more than 190 social websites, or through the most popular Applications available, or use the peculiar phrases created to identify themselves as devotees of the e-media, or visits one of the billion static websites, the risk remains of making the wrong site, Application, and content choices9. On the one hand, users of all ages could, for example, innocently discourse and converse as virtual friends on world issues, or matters of a professional, scientific, conceptual, religious, scholastic, academic, social, personal, and emotional nature. They could use ordinary, everyday language familiarly found in their respective social and formal communities, without the interference of any boundaries or the tarnish of meaningless tattle-tailing, amateur prattle, hurtful gossip, and meandering inanities. In these interactions, they would, however, make room for joyous banter when topics become too tense or take them on the wrong trajectories10.
On the other hand, there are users who flaunt the noble cause and gravitas of social media. With the exception of those who are merely mischievous with no real malice in using it, there are some who act irresponsibly. Often armed with pretzels on a lazy couch or grimy desktop, they use it as: a means to demean others; a prod to incur distress and disarray; a tool to shatter relationships; a lure to lewdness and depravity; a door to unethical business; a portal of clandestine, murky engagements; a vehicle for malicious misinformation on life issues; or simply a cache for tawdry tales, unedifying jokes, and trivial material of meagre universal worth11.
Sadly, the most vulnerable of us – like children, older persons, or the mentally challenged – are often misled, like headless chickens, into the dark recesses of e-sites where these activities are left unbridled. Swipes, taps, portmanteaus, and typing into dubious sites on glazed devices replace hugs, handshakes, and real ‘hello’s’; conniving huddles around high-octane devices are preferred to home visits; schools and the rooms of the young in their homes, are made prime catchment areas: these are, bon gré mal gré, the unsavoury tentacles of bad social media that cannot be allowed to retain its sway with society.
Caring observers of abusive, and of the abuse of, social media, often show only tokenistic concern in the odd raised eyebrow, a batting eyelid, the occasional parental shrug or tightening grip on the family rudder, an admonishing finger to a deviant child, or other media coverage lamely lambasting the service providers. Much more is needed. Transgressors need surgical reconstruction of their mindsets and belief system, a procedure that Western civilisation seems incapable of or reluctant to do under the umbrella of freedom of speech or ‘human rights’. If social media can be prevented from deceiving users while leaving them to their own devices12, how might this be achieved? Islam, it seems, has the answer.
Just like buildings shape us after we have shaped them13, so do the good and bad of social media. Conscientious users and creators of sites benefit, but faltering ones do not. They fall victim to or are responsible for invidious shaping, and any hope of a sustainable reversal of their misguided mindsets, spiritual impoverishment, and erring ways would require the inspired guidance of a faultless Islam.
Islam stands proudly grounded on the premise that, as for all creation, the single, most fundamental purpose of life for all humans is to serve their Creator14; that whatever humans do on this earth should be driven by the intention to do just that. If this is as plain to see as it is true, then the wayward users of social media do not have a leg to stand on. They go online without realising that they are really out of line. Theirs is a cry for outreach and calling by those more attuned to service to the Creator. Is there any source more divine and undiluted than the outreach and calling of the Qur’an?
From beginning to end, the Qur’an’s appeal to mankind to keep their communication habits in check denotes one clear message: that it should be for the pleasure of their Creator. The Qur’an calls believers to talk kindly, decently, with probity15 and to use the speech that He taught them16 in the best of ways17, applies to all forums of their verbal exchanges. These calls are most apt for users of social media who communicate without God-consciousness18.
The following Quranic verse encapsulates the required decorum for a Muslim when receiving or transmitting information.
“After this we have placed you on a straight path (of ethics), follow it and do not follow the desires of those unknown to you”. Al-Jathiyah, 45:18
Those whose ways are wanting would find admonishment in the Qur’an’s compassionate caution that backbiting19, spying20, believe in propaganda or misinformation21, secret counsels22, envy23, the audience to the whispering of evil24, and verbal bullying, oppression, and abuse25 are paths that stunt faithful service and sacrifice for Allāh’s sake26. This is a sign of Allāh’s Omniscience27, Awareness28 of all humankind’s business and deeds29, respite to transgressors30, direction to the right path31, and an invitation to rehearse His Book for the attainment of His rewards32. But, His Mercy and Compassion does not end there. His Word resonates in the archetypical life of His beloved Muhammad ﷺ from which all users of social media could learn and be inspired33.
Muhammad’s appeals to his audiences to avoid evil34 and evil doings35, to be just and righteous36, to have good relations with each other37, to avoid harshness38 and obscenities39, to regard the Qur’an as the best way of speaking40, and to eschew the making of or looking at pictures41, have as much currency in this electronic age as it had for his fledging seekers of truth.
My suit is that while the good of social media should be celebrated, perpetuated, and preserved, the insidious, unseen spread of the rot that bad social media, and bad usage of it, is causing some segments of society, needs to be taken on and its reign should be staved off. Responsible adults, and those responsible for the care of dependents42, could do their bit by rising up from their slumber and speak up rather than simply putting up with the current state; realise that it is a bane to society; put a steady hand on the family tiller43; act out their role as emotional paragons44; and, if needs must, be vigilant about how their charges use social media. Better still, to venture into the portals of Islamic guidance, and thereby internalise how to un-blur the boundaries between the good and bad of social relations and knowledge seeking45, learn how to enfeeble the force of negative social media, and help to tip the scale in favour of non-virtual, real communication.
The question is: what should the point of entry be? I believe it should be no farther than right here – ourselves.
Professor Sharhidd Booley has a PhD in (Social Science); MEd (Adult Education); MSc (Social Research); Certificate in Spoken Arabic (UWC); International Consultant for Postgraduate Research; former lecturer of social science, psychology, social work; author of several academic and professional pieces; former Director of SANZAF and Project Designer for IDM; 20 years experience in Family and Child Care (South Africa and United Kingdom). Professor Booley’s Red Kufi Books column ‘AS I SEE IT’ will be featured monthly at redkufi.com
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