Digital Social Media
“A cardinal principle of the tariqa is zuhd or nonattachment to other than Allah. One should always leave what does not concern one in this life or the next. Our sheikh used to repeat two verses of poetry by Imam al-Humaydi:
The meeting of people will never give you
anything but gibberish of useless gossip.
So diminish your meeting of people,
save to take knowledge or improve your condition.
Masters say, “Increase in the physical, and you will decrease in the spiritual,” and this pertains to everything but what genuinely benefits one. This is why the salik or traveller shuns the din of hucksters, prefers clothing devoid of writing and trademarks, and avoids mind pollution with things that are mere ghafla or heedlessness of the Divine. As Sheikh Yunus used to note of love of this world (dunya), “When it dominates, it takes captive.”
This applies with special force to things such as advertising, entertainment, and especially theInternet. Someone serious about the tariqa unplugs from the computer except for work, research, buying and selling, instruction, or correspondence that benefits himself or other Muslims. One should print out the articles one reads. The computer is a tool, not a life, and even for compelling reasons, the salik should spend no more than five hours a day on it total, less than two of which should be online, and no hours at all after nightfall. Exceptions may be made for work, but one should ask Allah for a job that permits one to observe these limits. In a word, suluk or spiritual progress means finding in the Absolute what suffices from the limitary.
Abul Hasan al-Shadhili related from his sheikh Ibn Mashish:
The best of spiritual works are four things after four other things: love of Allah, satisfaction with what Allah has destined, nonattachment to the world, and trust in Allah, [after] performing what Allah has made obligatory, avoiding what Allah has forbidden, patience in leaving what does not concern one, and scrupulousness in shunning mere amusement (Durrat al-asrar (c00), 88).
Social media, chat networks, motion pictures, computer games, and so forth reduce life to the size of a small screen. They directly reverse the effect of the remembrance of Allah, which is to expand the soul’s horizons to the Divine. The less one has to do with them, the stronger one’s dhikr will be. As ‘Arif al-Yamani said, “Allah’s turning away from a servant includes occupying him with what does not benefit him.”
Yet media remain a two-edged sword. Communication may conduce to some good end, such as organizing others around a worthy common purpose – or it may simply be an opportunity for show and tell about one’s nafs. The former is permitted in the spiritual path, though its benefit to the soul is often slender; while the latter should be shunned because it merely inflates the ego. As Sufis say, “Whatever is for Allah is connected, whatever is for other than Allah is dissevered.” The following are for everyone who aspires to be connected:
(1) As an absolute rule, shun the offensive or unlawful: it pours acid on the roots of one’s suluk.(2) Realize that wasting time on anything without a real this-worldly or next-worldly benefit ismakruh or offensive, not merely permissible. (3) Use digital social media only for some real benefit that is unattainable without them. (4) Engage in them and other internet activities no more than two hours a day. (5) Have as little to do as possible with pictures, meaning recorded images of animate life, by one’s own choice. Only use them when others want one to if there is no alternative. As a legal dispensation, when a shari’a-countenanced interest such as keeping up family ties from a remote country, or live instruction, cannot be comparably met by some picture-free alternative, one may consider live, instantaneously transmitted, unrecorded images, like those of a webcam, to be legally closer to a mirror (which is halal) than to a recorded picture (which is haram). (6) Live online discussions by any means should follow these same guidelines, and be used when needed, not for useless gossip, which is makruh. (7) Online videos conveying lectures, necessary teaching demonstrations of complex manual skills or similar otherwise-difficult techniques to master, or information that requires showing, not just telling, should only be used to the extent that is needed and genuinely facilitates one’s work, study, or life. (8) Do not let others record oneself lecturing and so forth on such media except when one’s message is of considerable importance, and to use audio or printed media would distract the audience from it.
Being a parent makes it obligatory to protect one’s family as well, necessitating some further guidelines. At this writing, some 90 percent of eight- to sixteen-year-olds in Western countries view pornography online. Not to mention gaming addiction, cyber-dating, and endless music downloads. This is not “part of growing up.” Part of growing up means a black eye on the school playground, not a brain-crippling, lifelong addiction. (9) In general, families should treat the computer like a household appliance, not a source of entertainment, and should use it only when they need it. Aimless surfing, chatting, and video-watching are among the many addictive online activities that waste one’s life. Unfortunately, unlike television, which can be removed from the house, the computer is more like the telephone, an indispensable communication tool, and in many circles a person without an email address is a person who barely exists. (10) Disconnect as much as possible. Some parents believe that if children do not become computer-literate at an early age, they fall behind. The truth is the opposite: children who learn from books, people, and the physical and spiritual worlds do far better later in life. And because everything the average user knows about computers can be learned in a day or two, most children do not need a computer until school assignments necessitate it, usually in high school. (11) Be there. Pictures, music, videos, and gaming are the major sources of haram activity on the Internet. The best preventative measure is to keep the computer in a central location with the screen in full view and a parent nearby. Replace headphones with speakers and do not buy children external storage devices like MP3 players, iPods, Game Boys, and the like. (12) Make it boring. An older computer with a slower connection is good enough for email, but not good enough for streamable and downloadable content. (13) Use parental control software and filters to eliminate objectionable material. (14) Have a computer hour. If one’s children are old enough to be emailing and doing research for school projects, fix one hour of the day when children use the computer. (15) Buy an encyclopedia set and read books. Keep anEncyclopedia Britannica in the house for adults and a Compton’s Britannica for children. Have a good collection of books, or borrow from a public library, and read together aloud as a family for entertainment for a few minutes after supper. People in general are spellbound by a live presentation of new stories and topics.
These are minimal rules to keep the toxic waste of the makruh and haram in digital social media from sickening one’s heart and life. As for the main idea, it is to remember Allah, and free oneself from what detracts from His remembrance.”