By Danish Qasim
By mercy from Allah, you were gentle with them. Had you been coarse and harsh-hearted, they would have dispersed from you.
The Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ is to be gentle. He always spoke the truth, was the most forbearing and gentle of people and was also the most courageous. Being gentle is not cowardly and speaking the truth does not require harshness. Allah tells us to speak to people kindly, compares a good word to a fruit-bearing tree, and even in debate tells us to “argue with them in a way that is best” (Quran 16:25). However, in an age of polarization, we frequently fail to apply these Quranic injunctions and the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ to our online conversations, even in conversations with Muslims. Given that this verse is referring to arguing with non-Muslims, it is even more incumbent to engage fellow Muslims with respect and good character. Why then, do we often engage one another online with rudeness, mean-spiritedness, and pointless argumentation?
Online communications pose challenges to conducting ourselves with gentleness and dignity that do not exist in face-to-face conversations, but the need to be mindful and avoid argumentation is urgent, and the reward is great. The Prophet ﷺ said: “I guarantee a house in heaven for a man who avoids argumentation, even if he were in the right” (Abu Dawud, 4800). Some of the additional challenges posed in online communication include: the illusion of solitude, lack of personal context, lack of nonverbal cues, and the public and permanent nature of online discussions.
Like with road rage, in online arguments we experience and respond to actions while distanced from an audience. This creates the illusion of solitude resulting in us not observing the decorum that the presence of others would naturally impose on us. We have been socialized to not be vile, yell, or threaten others and identify these behaviors as anti-social. Yet it is very common for otherwise polite and level headed individuals to be virulent online in ways they would not be in person. I do not believe, nor does evidence suggest that the internet reveals true character- rather it often brings out the worst in one’s temperament due to this illusion of solitude. Some intentionally take to the internet to vent their frustrations, but there are many more individuals who conduct themselves with dignity, engage well in conversations and debates, but are quickly angered in online exchanges. This has to do with what John Suler has termed The Online Disinhibition Effect, where individuals do not experience the same inhibitions on social media as they would in an actual encounter.
We also don’t process comments in the same way on social media as we would in real interactions. For example, a comment from an elderly person would be met by most with a soft response in an actual encounter. Likewise, a man would try to be kinder in his response to a woman. When all comments are coming from identical bots, we don’t have a chance to adjust our reactions to our audience. It’s like when someone cuts you off on the road or honks for no reason, you may respond emotionally right away, but then if you see it’s an elderly person it’s easy to overlook it or calm down.
Additionally, when debates and discussions lose body language, tone, and physical reactions, it’s easy for the conversation to devolve into name-calling, insults, and harshness. You cannot see if you have hurt someone. The fact that there is no clear end-point of a social media discussion also contributes to anxiety. You may respond to someone, and receive rebuttals throughout the night. Not only is this bad for the individual, but when people are regularly checking their phones for updates, it disrupts accomplishing more meaningful tasks or spending quality time with family. Digital exchanges bring out our impulsive nature and we give our statements less deliberation, but the accountability is equal. As we are reminded in the Quran: “He does not utter any word except that with him is a watcher prepared [to record]” (Quran 50:18)
Another issue of online discussions is that they are public and permanent. Even embarrassing tweets people have deleted resurface via saved screenshots. Most of us would overlook the immature banter of teenagers in person, but what may be intended as inside jokes has no walls once it’s on the internet. We live in an age where employers look up names of applicants online, people look up those they are interested in for marriage, or speakers they want to benefit from. It’s shameful that good candidates may be dismissed due to slanderous posts and open-letters, careless mistakes, or impulsive responses.
Surely the hearing and the sight and the heart, all of those shall be questioned (Quran 17:36).
You will find people online who will enjoy taking contrarian positions for the sake of it, arguing for enjoyment, and who relish in insulting you. These people are termed trolls, and as the adage goes, ‘don’t feed the trolls.’ As we are reminded in the Quran: “And the servants of the Most-Merciful tread on earth with humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say ‘peace’” (Quran 25:63). We are also told to “turn away from the ignorant” (Quran 17:199). It is best to ignore such people and not give them the attention they are seeking.
Given all of the above challenges, you may find yourself wanting to delete your account altogether. If you find yourself wasting time on social media, getting into pointless conversations and arguments, and looking for faults of other people, then you probably are better off just deleting your account. There are enough impediments for our religious development in the world, we don’t need to invite more opportunities to sin in solitude in ways that were only possible in the company of others. However, there are beneficial uses of social media as well. It is important to apply the correct intentions and manners to your social media use including spreading beneficial knowledge and giving advice, which are not free from dangers online.
Posting beneficial lectures, lighthearted content, life updates, or inspirational quotes can all be positive uses of social media. Often, we begin with such positive intentions, but we must regularly renew these intentions and take a hard look at our own online activity and see if the good is really outweighing the harm. In a hadith, the Prophet ﷺ described a believer as kind and not harsh, stating that “the believer does not insult, he does not curse, he is not profane, and he is not crude” (Tirmidhi, 1977). Otherwise, kind level-headed people often degenerate into taking on the above-mentioned qualities online. Even if one is spreading benefit online, in Islam, priority is given to warding off harm over bringing about a benefit. This includes protecting others from harm you may cause, and saving yourself from harm in the Hereafter. The consequences are serious. The Prophet (ﷺ), said: “Indeed a servant will utter a word thoughtlessly, and by it will he will fall into the fire deeper than the distance between the east and the west.” [Al-Bukhari and Muslim]; and “Are people dragged to hell on their faces on account of other than their tongues?” (Tirmidhi).
Giving advice is one potential beneficial use of social media, but we must follow the Sunnah of giving advice online as we would in person. This Sunnah is to not belittle or embarrass the one being advised. For most people, this requires being indirect and not singling out the individual. The Prophet (ﷺ) would often use the phrase ما بال أقوام , meaning what is wrong with the people, and then explicate the mistake while not exposing the one who made the mistake. By being general, we invite others to accept advice and to change rather than feeling attacked and hence defend themselves. There are others with whom you will have more rapport and are open to more blunt advice. The Prophet (ﷺ) was also direct with those he knew would be receptive to direct advice.
Remember that the people you are engaging with online have families who will also see and may be hurt by asinine comments. Try to imagine you are sitting with the person you are engaging online in a friendly setting and having a discussion, rather than an adversarial debate. While it is easy to get sucked into the whirlpool of negativity and snarky retorts, this ultimately sabotages the point being made. Resist the temptation to mock, bully, or be sarcastic. It’s not ‘commanding to good’ if you are only playing to your crowd- they already agree with you. It’s very pleasing to the nafs to be the person who doesn’t tolerate nonsense, but you have to ask what this approach will accomplish, and how likely people are to change their mind as a result of your attitude. Given that we know such approaches are futile, we cannot label this behavior ‘commanding to good.’ The manner in which the truth is conveyed does not alter the truth, but it impacts receptiveness to it. Observing good manners, decorum, and kindness, is ultimately more about you than the person on the other side. You are accountable for what you type, and all speech is part of action. You are typing a passage in your own book of deeds.
One of the tricks of shaytan is to disguise good actions as bad actions and bad actions as good actions. This is called talbees. For example, he may lead one to think that being arrogant is just having izzah (a healthy sense of pride), or that debasing oneself, which is haram, is good and just one being humble. When it comes to debating points of religion, it’s very easy for a person to feel they are defending Islam and exercising healthy pride while in fact they are being haughty and exhibiting self-righteousness. It is equally easy for a person to have cowardice or blameworthy modesty and not speak out against wrong and think they are exercising wisdom or patience. In a hadith, we are told to not disgrace ourselves by staying silent out of fear of people when something false is said about Allah (Sunan Ibn Majah 4008).
There are scenarios where harshness is good. This includes defending oneself, implementing a penal punishment, or protecting others. Furthermore, when a person is harming people or leading them astray, harshness and being explicit may be justified, as the goal now is not primarily the guidance or repentance of the perpetrator, but the safety and religious well-being of others. However, we need to be careful and have wisdom in deciding when to act harshly or gently. For example, when commanding the good and forbidding the evil, Khaleel Ibn Abdullah Al-Shaybani Al-Nahlawi, writes that being harsh is acceptable, but only if gentleness proves ineffective (Al-Durar al Mubahat Fi Al-Hazr wa al-Ibaha, 207). He goes on to mention some conditions of the one taking up the task of commanding to good and prohibiting the wrong, which I have translated below. All of these are applicable to online conversations.
Conditions in Commanding to Good
There are three conditions for commanding to good:
- An intention and that is one want for the word of Allah to reign supreme;
- Knowledge of religious proofs, that he know the proofs for what he is commanding to and prohibiting from; and
- Patience with what will afflict him from unpleasant repercussions.
After fulfilling these three conditions, it is necessary that he possesses three traits:
- Gentleness while commanding and prohibiting;
- Clemency, in that he be forbearing internally and not feel constricted nor irritated by what is said to him in response;
- Understanding and complete insight regarding the intricacies of evidences so that his commanding to good and prohibiting the wrong don’t itself become sins due to him falling into harshness and ignorance.
There is a major peril that one must be on guard from, and that is for the person of knowledge while commanding to good, to see oneself as elevated due to knowledge, and others as debased due to ignorance. If this is the motivation, then it is an evil itself that is much uglier than the one he is repelling. No one is safe from the plot of the devil except the one who Allah has shown the faults in his own self, and has opened his inner sight by the light of His guidance.
Anyone who takes up this obligation must know the different schools of thought so to command to good and prohibit the wrong be in matters agreed upon by consensus. He must also not breach the legal limits of speech and action, for indeed many of the watchmen make mistakes, such that they are excessive in their admonishments, so the good that they do does not outweigh the evil” (Al-Durar al Mubahat Fi Al-Hazr wa al-Ibaha).
Even someone of deep learning can slip into arrogance and the subtle tricks of shaytan and the nafs. One must consistently rectify his intention, and separate his ego from his actions. Bemoaning negative feedback or making fun of people who disagree is an indication one does not fit the above conditions.
In the Quran, we see that Luqman the Wise advises his son to command to good and forbid evil. He follows that up with reminders to be patient and humble:
“O my son, establish prayer, enjoin what is right, forbid what is wrong, and patiently bear what afflicts you. Indeed, that is from the greatest of matters. And do not turn your cheek away from people, and do not walk on the pridefully. Indeed, Allah does not love every arrogant braggart. And be moderate in your pace and lower your voice, verily the most repulsive of sounds is the braying of donkeys”
(Quran 31: 17-19).
Exceptional instances of the Prophet’s harsh rebuke or publicly mentioning someone’s faults should not become standard behavior. These are all acts which require serious deliberation. The general sunnah is to be gentle and kind, while upholding courage and truthfulness. This applies equally, and perhaps more so, to online communications. In cyberspace, we communicate very impersonally. It is easy to misunderstand and to be misunderstood. That alone renders digital media a bad medium for giving advice or correcting others. If we do choose to correct behavior online, then it would be best to make it as personal as possible, and privately message. This will minimize the misconstruing of the message. We should not use excuses such as ‘her statement was public, so my response will be public,’ because this is likely to instigate a pointless debate and eradicate the possibility of a fruitful discussion.
Our intention and general outlook ought to be that the person we are talking to is doing their best to find the truth, and if we want to point out inconsistencies in each other’s thought or voice our concerns then we do it while upholding our highest ethics and following our example, the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. This is for the sake of our own souls. There will be no shortage of disagreements or disagreeable personalities. The last thing we want to do is forsake our standard while correcting others. If we have a true investment in the well-being of others, we won’t have to be harsh and demand that people correct their actions right now. Often times our desire to be harsh comes from our natural zealotry that demands high impact as soon as possible. Being gentle yet consistent with a long-term outlook is not only morally praiseworthy, it is also strategically superior and will help our own mission for good.
Prayer was mentioned in the advice of Luqman the Wise to his son for good reason. We need to first work on our own hearts before we can do the work of correcting others. Among the actions which will help soften our hearts are tahajjud, salawaat, reflecting upon death, speaking less, and eating less. A man complained to the Prophet (ﷺ) about the hardness of his heart. The Prophet ﷺ told him to touch the head of an orphan and to feed the poor (Ahmad).
Never send a message or make a post when you are angry. If you are angry, say ‘أعوذ بالله من الشيطان الرجيم’ and make wudu. If you are standing, sit down, and if you are sitting lay down. Drinking cold water also helps. Lastly, we should pray that Allah gives us both gentleness and courage. A prophetic dua for courage is للَّهُمَّ إِنِّي أَعُوذُ بِكَ مِنَ الْهَمِّ وَالْحَزَنِ، وَالْعَجْزِ وَالْكَسَلِ، وَالْجُبْنِ وَالْبُخْلِ، وَضَلَعِ الدَّيْنِ، وَغَلَبَةِ الرِّجَالِ
Gentleness is a highly praiseworthy quality in Islam
Below are a few hadith that further attest to this:
“Indeed Allah loves gentleness in all of your affairs” (Bukhari, 6395).
“Whosoever has been his portion of gentleness has been given his portion of goodness. And whosoever has been deprived of his portion of gentleness has been deprived of his portion of goodness” (Tirmidhi, 2013).
“Indeed Allah is gentle and he loves gentleness. He gives with gentleness what he does not give with sternness and that which he does not give with other than it” (Muslim, 2593).
“Truly gentleness won’t be included in a thing except that it beautifies it. And it won’t be removed from a thing except that it makes it ugly” (Muslim, 2594).
 Quran 2:83
 Quran 14:24
 The Arabic term is muhtasib.
 It is not a condition of prohibiting the wrong that one be free of the wrong action. Purifying the heart is a life-long pursuit that should accompany every endeavor.