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5 Take-Aways for Muslim Fans of Breaking Bad

5 Take-Aways for Muslim Fans of Breaking Bad

 *This post contains major spoilers. If you don't want the ending or major plot points ruined, don't read this post. 

**The videos linked to in this post may contain objectionable material. Follow them at your own risk. 

***To read an extended version of this post with embedded videos from Breaking Bad, please see the post on my personal blog at ibnabeeomar.com

 

Breaking Bad is a story of transformation.

It is a story of evolution. A man spends his entire life living one way, and then suddenly goes in the opposite direction.

“Verily the creation of each one of you is brought together in his mother's womb for forty days in the form of a nutfah (a drop), then he becomes an alaqah (clot of blood) for a like period, then a mudghah (morsel of flesh) for a like period, then there is sent to him the angel who blows his soul into him and who is commanded with four matters: to write down his rizq (sustenance), his life span, his actions, and whether he will be happy or unhappy (i.e., whether or not he will enter Paradise). By the One, other than Whom there is no deity, verily one of you performs the actions of the people of Paradise until there is but an arms length between him and it, and that which has been written overtakes him, and so he acts with the actions of the people of the Hellfire and thus enters it; and verily one of you performs the actions of the people of the Hellfire, until there is but an arms length between him and it, and that which has been written overtakes him and so he acts with the actions of the people of Paradise and thus he enters it.” [Bukhāri]

Chuck Klosterman sums it up as,

Breaking Bad is not a situation in which the characters' morality is static or contradictory or colored by the time frame; instead, it suggests that morality is continually a personal choice. When the show began, that didn't seem to be the case: It seemed like this was going to be the story of a man (Walter White, portrayed by Bryan Cranston) forced to become a criminal because he was dying of cancer. That's the elevator pitch. But that's completely unrelated to what the show has become. The central question on Breaking Bad is this: What makes a man “bad” — his actions, his motives, or his conscious decision to be a bad person? Judging from the trajectory of its first three seasons, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan believes the answer is option No. 3. So what we see in Breaking Bad is a person who started as one type of human and decides to become something different. … what's interesting is that this transformation involves the fundamental core of who he supposedly is, and that this (wholly constructed) core is an extension of his own free will. The difference between White in the middle of Season 1 and White in the debut of Season 4 is not the product of his era or his upbringing or his social environment. It's a product of his own consciousness. He changed himself. At some point, he decided to become bad, and that's what matters.

Whereas shows like The Wire, or The Sopranos may have showcased the decisions of people born into darkness, here we see someone willingly abandon the light for darkness. It's a core lesson for many of us – to have īmān and then consciously choose to take another path. Our ultimate fate is the cumulative effect of our decisions and deeds – and even if we don't see the consequences immediately (as happens in the show), we will eventually.

 1. Intentions and Self-Justification

The story of Walter White begins with cooking meth as a means of supporting his family and paying for his cancer treatments. But intention is a complicated thing, and often gets mixed up with other motives. What's interesting in the show is how Walt continually considers himself to be doing the right thing. Even when things go wrong, he has an uncanny ability to hit the 'reset' button and pretend he's starting from scratch – as if his previous actions no longer matter. He always hatches a new plan as if to say, “If we just do this, we'll be ok.”

This is an incredible trick of Shaytan, that we struggle with ourselves when we self-rationalize behavior, that we otherwise know is incorrect.

As the story progresses, Walt does more and more “bad” things. It's readily apparent that he is seeking fame and recognition. This becomes clear when he talks about Gray Matter, a company he helped found but was bought out before it went big. Here we see how it affected him and stuck with him throughout his life – and in fact became a huge motivator for his actions.

Walt's self-justification is always that he is doing this for the betterment of his family. It becomes confusing throughout the show where you begin to wonder if he truly believes that, or if he just thinks everyone around him is too stupid to realize it's a lie. Finally in the last episode, he comes clean about his real intent when he finally tells Skylar (his wife),

“I did it for myself, I liked it. I was good at it. It made me feel alive.”

We don't always get what we intend for, and that is why consequences matter. People may intend good, and end up with evil actions as a result. One cannot, out of good intention, try to prevent an evil or command a good if a greater evil will result from it.

2. Sin is a Slow Burn

Stole this phrase from imām Suhaib Webb. It's an accurate description of how Walt 'broke bad.' He didn't begin by killing anyone or poisoning a kid, but he slowly crept in that direction. Once he made the decision to get involved, he had to continue down that path. Similarly, we see how his wife also 'broke bad.' She was at first a model of morality, then she overlooked his activities, then she laundered money, and by the end she asked Walt to murder Jesse and was ready to frame her own brother-in-law. Once she made the initial decision, she became entrapped by her sins and there was no way out.

The story of Barsisa comes to mind,

Walt's story shares a lot of similarities. The initial decision he makes to cook meth eventually results in him poisoning a child, killing people, and destroying his own family. The show highlights the consequences of his sins.

The creator of the show intentionally highlights this,

Do we live in a world where terrible people go unpunished for their misdeeds? Or do the wicked ultimately suffer for their sins?….If religion is a reaction of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished. I hate the idea of Idi āmīn living in Saudi Arabia for the last 25 years of his life. That galls me to no end. I feel some sort of need for Biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen. My girlfriend says this great thing that's become my philosophy as well. 'I want to believe there's a heaven. But I can't not believe there's a hell.'  [New York Times]

We of course believe that there is an ultimate justice in the next life.

Actions do have consequences. What's interesting is the decision making paradigm we go through when faced with difficulty. In this case, Walt is tested with cancer. He chooses to start cooking meth. Once he's done that, other decisions follow from that.

One lesson we can learn is what our reaction to a test truly is. It's part of our understanding of qadr. When something happens that is not truly in our control, what is our attitude toward it? Do we humble ourselves? Are we grateful? Are we patient? Dissatisfaction with qadr is at the root of sin. It was this dissatisfaction on the part of Shaytan when Adam was created that manifest itself in the form of arrogance.

In the case of one who does not understand this (such as Walt), they have a desire to control everything around them. There are elements of both entitlement and arrogance at play. For us we learn a lesson about tawakkul as well. We do what's in our control, but ultimately leave everything else to Allāh subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). We know that we can't control what is around us, and the need to do so is not just a sign of arrogance, but a huge deficiency in faith.

This is further driven by his own ego and pride. It further blinds him to the consequences of his actions. The root of evil is that he always assumes he is right, if everyone just follows his plan, then everything will be okay.

This is compounded with other motivating factors – such as seeking power (as covered above), and also fear. Fear of not providing for his family, a fear of what will happen because he's not in control. Making a decision based on fear is a characteristic of Shaytan-

Satan threatens you with poverty and orders you to immorality, while Allāh promises you forgiveness from Him and bounty. And Allāh is all-Encompassing and Knowing. [2:268]

In the moment of sin, in the heat of that decision, we cast aside the long term consequences. A sin is not something isolated. It only takes one stupid decision to destroy your life and legacy.

The last point to be made here in terms of the consequences of sin, is that they affect everyone around a person as well. The entire show is an accumulation of decisions.

No one becomes Fir'awn overnight – it's an evolution.

3. The Rise and Fall of the King

This is an incredible motif in the show. We see the slow rise of Heisenberg into being a king, and then his humiliating fall from grace.

This fall is an inevitable consequence of the arrogance of someone who considers themselves to be of such high authority.

Allāh's Messenger ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “The most awful name in Allāh's sight on the Day of Resurrection, will be (that of) a man calling himself Malik Al-Amlak (the king of kings) [Bukhāri].

And,

I heard Allāh's Messenger (S) saying, “Allāh will hold the whole earth, and roll all the heavens up in His Rig ht Hand, and then He will say, 'I am the King; where are the kings of the earth?”' [Bukhāri]

These are no doubt characteristics reminiscent of Fir'aun,

And [Fir'aun] said, “I am your most exalted lord” [79:24]

We see the rise of Heisenberg slowly as he gains a reputation and further builds his empire. It is a rise at all costs for nothing more than sheer power.

Imām Suhaib Webb commented that the Fir'awnic mentality of Water White is how the bad broke him.

Here's a quick look at the progression.

After this rise though, comes the fall.

One of the last episodes of the show is entitled Ozymandias. This is referencing a poem by the same title about the inevitable decline of leaders.

This is a direct reference to the rise and fall of Heisenberg. Despite his reaching the top, there was a humiliating fall from grace- one in which his entire world is shattered around him. This is a universal theme we have seen throughout the course of history. In this show, this fall is the consequence of his actions. This is the justice he receives for his decisions. Because of seeking this kingdom, he loses his family, his wealth, and his reputation. In the end he is a broken man with nothing left, killed by his own stray bullet. It destroyed not only him, but left everyone around him in ruins.

And Walt is a man transformed. If his cackling meltdown in the crawlspace near the end of Season Four marked his transition from Walt to Heisenberg, the slow dolly zoom on his face when Jack shoots Hank was the moment when even Heisenberg disappeared, replaced by something worse. Heisenberg wanted Jesse dead, but quickly and painlessly; this new thing wanted him physically and emotionally destroyed first. Heisenberg was deadly but methodical, vengeful but careful; the creature now taking Heisenberg's place lashed out wildly, inflicted suffering gratuitously. Most importantly, Heisenberg still wanted to be seen as a family man; whatever Walt is now, he gave up on having a family the moment he saw in their eyes that he'd finally gone too far. (Rolling Stone)

The exact scene showing his ultimate fall.

4. Critical Examination of Wealth as a Blessing or a Curse

The pursuit of wealth, fame, and power is universal. They are motives nearly everyone can identify with. Wealth is an allure that causes man to break his own morality in pursuit of it. Wealth was sought as a symbol of security. A way to provide for his family long after his death. Wealth was also a scorecard by which to measure success. The more he made, the more successful he was – the more he was winning.

Wealth is also commonly seen as a solution to every problem. It is a way to ransom one's self out of any situation.

Seeking wealth in this manner is an endless pit.

“If the son of Adam had two valleys of wealth, he would love to have a third along with them. Nothing could satisfy him except dust. And Allāh accepts the repentance of the one who repents.” [Ibn Majah]

Of course, once obtained, it becomes a burden. First, quite literally in the sense that he can't even physically move it,

This can be considered symbolism to the story of Sisyphus as well. Rolling the barrel seems almost futile, because there is no way for him to do anything with the wealth (and he ultimately loses the vast majority of it). Throughout the show, the wealth is his security, though he doesn't realize he has lost all his dignity in trying to hold on to it. This is highlighted in the end when Walt pathetically asks the extractor (Ed) if he would deliver his money to his children after his death, to which Ed replies coldly, “If I said yes, would you believe me?”

The concept of using wealth for ransom was intriguing to me. In the end it seems Walt finally broke one of his own cardinal rules by bringing Hank to the brink of his death – despite their adversarial relationship. In the heat of the moment he offers up everything he has worked so hard for – all $80 million in exchange for Hank's life, and it is refused.

It's a stark reminder about the true value of what we accumulate.

Indeed, those who disbelieve and die while they are disbelievers – never would the [whole] capacity of the earth in gold be accepted from one of them if he would [seek to] ransom himself with it. For those there will be a painful punishment, and they will have no helpers [3:91].

And leave those who take their religion as amusement and diversion and whom the worldly life has deluded. But remind with the Qur'an, lest a soul be given up to destruction for what it earned; it will have other than Allāh no protector and no intercessor. And if it should offer every compensation, it would not be taken from it. Those are the ones who are given to destruction for what they have earned. For them will be a drink of scalding water and a painful punishment because they used to disbelieve [6:70].

Secondly, it can actually be a curse in that it brings you further away from the very thing you were trying to obtain. Even his own family did not want anything to do with his money. Despite it being a large sum, because of what was attached to how the wealth was earned, they couldn't bear to even think about it.

After all of Walt's self-justification about making meth to provide for his family, his family didn't even want it because of what he did.

No amount of wealth will never purchase what you truly treasure.

5. The Theology of Breaking Bad by imām Suhaib Webb

This isn't a singular issue like the previous 4, but this khutbah by imām Suhaib does a good job of breaking down some major themes with more developed lessons Muslims can draw from them.

allah amin bukhari imam iman

About ibnabeeomar

Omar Usman is a founding member of MuslimMatters, Qalam Institute, Muslim Strategic Initiative, and Debt Free Muslims. He is a regular khateeb and has served in different administrative capacities in various national and local Islamic organizations. You can follow him on Google+ or on Twitter @ibnabeeomar.

24 comments

  1. Masha Allah and Bravo excellent analysis. It was also interesting to see the character Jesse humble himself at the end. I’m sure there’s a lesson there too.

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  2. Asak
    What does this article do? I wanted an article giving good advice to the Muslim Fans of Breaking Bad to stop seeing this show and the reasons they must stop seeing it.

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    • What’s stopping you from writing one yourself?

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    • @Muddasir Breaking Bad Muslim fans aren’t seeing this show anymore because it’s over. :)

      Joking aside, this was a great and relevant blog. I contemplated writing a post about Breaking Bad and tying it to Islam myself on my own blog but I guess brother @ibnabeeomar beat me to it. Excellent points.

      There is a lot we can learn from TV shows and such as these that’ll make us appreciate our deen even more. Brilliantly writing shows like Breaking Bad indirectly remind us of the beauty and wisdom of Islam if we approach it from such a perspective.

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      • I personally feel that you can do that with any literary work (approaching a work from an Islamic point of view). However, just because one can approach a piece of literature (television shows, movies, and for the younger ones, anime, etc can in a sense be seen for its literary merit, just like novels) from an islamic perspective, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s okay to delve into such a work.

        For example, take a look at 50 Shades of Grey. This literary work has, well, literary merit in it; one could learn things from it, and even approach it from an Islamic perspective in that learning-from-it. However, that doesn’t change the fact that such a novel is of a genre (akin to) of pornography. Reading such a thing is bad for one’s spiritual state and has much haram elements in the plot itself.

        So, with the above example, we realize that one could approach a work on its own literary merit from an Islamic point of view, but that doesn’t necessarily negate the haram-esque elements in its plot or telling, if it has these. So the dilemma posed then is; should a laymen/person read into a literary work to gain knowledge from it in pertinence to Islam despite it having much ill-natured elements of telling/story-sharing? This is, admittingly, a personal dilemma of mine too. And I personally chose the safe path; to leave shows like Breaking Bad, (for a writer/habitual reader, possibly) to leave novels like 50 Shades of Grey, and (for an anime-lover, possibly) to leave lewd-intensive anime. (I gave examples of a variety of things to illustrate both that it isn’t necessarily just writing that can pose as literature, and the plain pertinence of these examples.) These things are doubtful, so to my understanding, isn’t the safe, more ihsan-related path to leave such things, if they have such a potential to impact one’s own spiritual state?

        Digression; generally speaking, I, though finding it questionable, do see a bit of allowance in people reading into literary works that have very minor, non-explicit haram-esque elements (for lack of a better word). For example, Orwell’s 1984 technically has elements of adultery in it, but this is non-explicit and helps drive the plot, which helps make the reality within the novel more “real.” Something like 50 Shades of Grey, or Game of Thrones (never actually interacted with these, but from what I hear) are too ridiculously lewd and bring detriment to the viewer/reader within their spiritual state through desensitization. (And after all, it’s always desensitization of evil that leads people to believe that the evil is actually neutral or good.) There are different degrees of transgressions in literary works, and though all the degrees technically help drive the plot to make it “real” in their own universe/realities, it’s the explicit degrees that bring actual detriment to oneself; this is known when it stings at first, but then the poison gets used to. (Some have made metaphor that this is God’s fitra-related gift, that one’s own heart/soul is crying out from the sting/pain, and so listening to it and getting rid of the sting is the real message, while some just ignore it (in a sense).) From what I hear, Breaking Bad is extremely violent, and some have even praised that it is the fact that it’s so discomforting that it’s greater as a work of art. That’s the same excuse though, IMO (in my opinion), for every spirit-threatening violence/lewd-intensive work. So why is it allowed to some people for Breaking Bad but not as so for other literary works? This is a spiritual self-hypocrisy, some could even say.

        To sum, just because a literary work can be approached by its own literary merit from an Islamic paradigm/point of view, does not negate the haram-esque detrimental elements in it, if it does have these. Secondly, from my digression, literary works in general do approach transgression and the idea of transgression to make them more “real” (in their own sub-reality), but generally it is the explicit transgressions that actually sting one’s spirit and desensitize. Implicitly, as well, I am looking for nasiha on these issues.

        I hope what I said is clear, and if anything needs clarifying, you can ask. Any mistake is my fault only.

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        • I will remember you in my duas :) Well said!

          I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking away lessons from whatever it may, whether these are islamic teachings or anything else in life.

          But I don’t understand why we need to look into TV series and analyse it, yeah sure, many people can relate to it more closely, but maybe that’s where the problem is.

          Perhaps the audience that the author wanted to address is probably not the same audience who will be looking for spiritual guidance on Muslim Matters, because the audience at Muslim Matters might already be looking for life lessons outside of TV series :)

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          • Haha, well that’s the thing right, MuslimMatters has a very diverse audience – some people here might be looking for life lessons from TV serials.

            I agree with both of you that, depending on the specific piece of literature the depiction or description of graphic haraam content can outweigh any benefits or lessons contained therein. Generally speaking, the medium of portrayal has a big bearing on how the content can be structured. Something like a TV serial, and for that matter most modern films, are limited by their medium in that their main aim is entertainment.

            So, people watching these, start inventing all sorts of justifications for how these are “good” series/films, and may even believe it themselves. The reality is that, like most people today, they’re just looking for a bit of escapism, and so they choose a form which is “deeper” than the majority of the mindless entertainment on offer, and try to spin it into some grand work of art from which various life lessons can be learnt. A likely story…

            I think those things called ‘books’ (“you mean e-book, or online novella, right uncle?”), due to their wider scope, can be more successfully used to draw lessons from. So while you might have tripe like 50 Shades being written, because the potential of the book/literature format is so great, you can have a myriad of novels, books on philosophy, ethics, theology etc which can be, overall, a more rewarding and positive experience. Why bother with trying to extract little nuggets of information from amongst the mind-numbing entertainment and glorification of sin, from TV series when you can get the same, nay better, thing from literature without the “bad” (no pun intended)? Or at least, the “bad” will not be so gratuitous that it muddies the meaning of the entire thing.

            It comes down to whether you’re capable of learning something without being entertained at the same time. People find books ‘boring’ because they’re so used to being overstimulated by visual and aural stimuli from TV/film, that they feel like they’re not deriving any benefit if they don’t experience those kind of sensations.

            PS: Huxley’s Brave New World is a far more accurate portrayal of the dangers of utopian ideas than 1984. If you haven’t already read it, I recommend it just for comparison’s sake.

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  3. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  4. My daughter pointed out to me if Walter had gotten Cancer in Canada this show would not have happened because of free health care etc..

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  5. I’ll be frank, after seeing this article I wanted to watch this show, asked my friend, and he told me there were a lot of ‘haram’ parts in the beginning. So I don’t know if this new direction with this article is a good thing. If I watched that show and ended up at those ‘haram’ parts would you also have to take part of the sin by tempting me to watch it, like you are promoting this. Of course, now that I did my research I’d rather not watch it.

    I honestly think muslims need to get into the arts, lets make our own tv shows, novels and other forms of arts. Otherwise this is going to happen often.

    But if I watched the show I would perhaps appreciate this more. I always thought if I should take anything ‘Islamic’ out of entertainment, and maybe this is giving me the message that i should

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  6. Ugh, I’m completely stupid when it comes to movies (I just don’t find a good reason to watch or follow them LOL). I don’t care about the movie being mentioned, but every points written here are spot on.

    Especially the “Sin is a slow burn”. Reminds me of story of a frog which jump into the water, if the water is hot it’ll immediately jump from it. But if the water is cool and someone slowly heated the water gradually, the frog will not feel the temperature shift and in the end, it will be too late for the frog to escape the hot water.

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    • Salaam Fatima,

      That story is apparently based on some experiments scientists did before animal cruelty was taken seriously. Some have tried to disprove it’s possibility, based on recent studies that certain species of frogs are very sensitive to temperature/smell changes in their environment.

      But if it did happen, poor froggies eh! The things we humans sometimes get up to…

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  7. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  8. Has anyone learnt that we must stop seeing haram shows after seeing this show.

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    • Someone voted you down. Hence it has two possibilities:

      1. Watching Breaking Bad is encouraged in Islam.

      2. Or it is still haram, but who cares

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  9. Abu Hurayrah said: I heard the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) say: “All of my ummah will be forgiven except those who sin openly. It is a part of sinning openly when a man does something at night, then the following morning when Allaah has concealed his sin, he says, ‘O So and so, I did such and such last night,’ when all night his Lord has concealed him and the next morning he uncovers what Allaah had concealed.” (Narrated by al-Bukhaari, 5721; Muslim, 2990).

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    • I tried to watch this show because a couple of my Muslim friends were talking about it……I could not get past the pilot episode due to nudity. The first scene shows a man in his underwear and we have to watch him escape from somewhere in this attire.

      Needless to say I did not watch the rest of this show. I’m shocked that anyone can openly admit to watching it since EVEN if we are watching it, it is better to hide your sins, rather than make them public and potentially influence others to watch the show out of curiosity, and as a result, bear some of the bad deeds for being a bad influence..

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  10. The former mufti of Saudi Arabia, the late Shaykh Ibn Baaz (may Allaah have mercy on him) said in al-Fataawa 3/227: [Source http://www.islam-qa.com/en/3633

    “With regard to television, it is a dangerous device and its harmful effects are very great, like those of the cinema, or even worse. We know from the research that has been written about it and from the words of experts in Arab countries and elsewhere enough to indicate that it is dangerous and very harmful to Islamic beliefs (‘aqeedah), morals and the state of society. This is because it includes the presentation of bad morals, tempting scenes, immoral pictures, semi-nakedness, destructive speech, and Kufr. It encourages imitation of their conduct and ways of dressing, respect for their leaders, neglect of Islamic conduct and ways of dressing, and looking down on the scholars and heroes of Islam. It damages their image by portraying them in an off-putting manner that makes people despise them and ignore them. It shows people how to cheat, steal, hatch plots and commit acts of violence against others. Undoubtedly anything that produces so many bad results should be stopped and shunned, and we have to close all the doors that could lead to it. If some of our brothers denounce it and speak out against it, we cannot blame them, because this is a part of sincerity towards Allaah and towards other people.

    Whoever thinks that this device (TV) can be free of these evils and can be used only for good purposes if it is censored properly is exaggerating and is making a big mistake, because the censor may miss things and most people nowadays want to imitate the foreigners. It is very rare to find censors who are doing their job properly, especially nowadays when most people are only interested in time-wasting entertainment and things that turn people away from true guidance. Reality bears witness to that.”

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  11. If there was one piece on muslim matters worthy of critcism levelled against it, this piece would be at the forefront. Have no idea what breaking bad is, but the “benefit” which is being brought out is miniscule compared to the harm. Have we lost all sense on what benefits us and what harms us. Watching tv shows/movies/pornography is bad when done in secret, worse when publicised. I ask you, o author, how did the hadith of the one who publicise his sins not cross your mind? And i know this is too much to ask but please remove this post and may Allah forgive you. If i come across as harsh, i’m sorry sincerely and its only because you as a senior member of this blog needs to show better judgement as to what needs to be published and what doesn’t.

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    • There is a misunderstanding of the concept of Maslaha or greater good which many Muslims, including myself can commit errors. We may perceive many actions to be praiseworthy instead of blameworthy if we perceive the benefit to exceed the harm and whilst doing so the Satan may deceive us in this. May Allaah reward the writer for his efforts and grant him goodness. I dont think criticizing our Muslim brother (the writer) personally is a good thing. We may differ from him in his opinion without blaming and labelling him.

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