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Naseehah: The Art Of Giving Islamic Advice And Dawah Online #FiqhOfSocialMedia

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The following is an excerpt from the book Fiqh of Social Media: Timeless Islamic Principles for Navigating the Digital Age by Omar Usman. Click here to purchase the book.

Giving Islamic advice online and doing da’wah on platforms that are often breeding grounds for misunderstanding can be tough – but there is a way to do it right.

The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “The religion is sincerity (naseehah)” [Muslim].

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Every time we open our phones we see opportunities to advise. We see people posting misinformation, forwarding chain-letter types of messages to group chats, proclaiming religious opinions that may be incorrect, or simply acting in a way online that is inappropriate.

Having a conversation with someone about any of these actions is difficult. It is further complicated depending on who it is. What if that person is a family member? Employee? Superior? Community leader? Friend? Total stranger?

In some cases, we have a more direct responsibility to advise than others. When done correctly, naseehah can be a beautiful action that leads to someone rectifying a mistake.

Done incorrectly, and you can tear apart family relationships, business relationships, and destroy friendships – all because you alienated someone by how you corrected them.

Delivering feedback

The art of delivering feedback has been lost in our community. We see less of a balanced approach and more of people moving to one of two extremes – rude and in-your-face bluntness, or complete apathy.

Applying the golden rule here would dictate that we give advice the same way we want to receive it. This is a good way to guide our discussion, but it needs more context for the online world.

Receiving critical feedback is uncomfortable. No matter how much we try to rise above our own ego, it still stings when someone calls us out for doing something wrong.

Effectively delivering feedback means creating an environment in which the recipient can take feedback, reflect on it, and learn from it.

The intention behind correcting someone is crucial. Do you sincerely want the other person to become better as a result of this advice? That shapes what you say, how you say it, how you prepare, and how you follow up on it. For example, did you stop and actually make dua’ for the betterment of the person before giving them advice? Did you make dua’ for them to be able to implement it after delivering it?

Too often, in the age of social media, delivering advice has become a type of performance art to display “righteous outrage” at some transgression. “Advice” is delivered in public forums not for the betterment of the individual, but for virtue-signaling or pandering.

Delivering advice effectively is built upon a relationship of trust.

“How well you take criticism depends less on the message and more on your relationship with the messenger. It’s surprisingly easy to hear a hard truth when it comes from someone who believes in your potential and cares about your success.” -Adam Grant

The manner with which a parent can correct their own child is drastically different from how we would correct a stranger at the masjid. What is your relationship and level of trust with a person?

When we misread that relationship, it creates negative consequences. Calling someone out online, especially if you don’t have a personal relationship, will most likely result in them getting defensive and doubling down. In this case, “advising” a person has created a greater evil than the one it was trying to stop.

They have, as the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) warned, “helped the devil against their brother” [Bukhari].

Once a relationship of trust exists, the actual art of delivering feedback will vary based on circumstance. Sometimes it may be candid and immediate. Sometimes it will require patience and gentleness.

Sometimes your advice may take a long time to have any effect, and sometimes it won’t have any at all.

Social media vs. Long-term relationship building

The question you have to ask yourself is whether your presence in someone’s life is decreasing or increasing their motivation to change?

If it is the latter, then it means you have to keep your eye on the long term. Social media fosters a “cancel culture” where corrective action must be both immediate and public. When someone messes up, there is immense pressure to not only apologize, but do so in the exact manner being demanded.

Unfortunately, due to the attention driven metrics of social media, the patience required of long-term relationship-building is not incentivized. Instead of advice, we get continuous cycles of outrage. Instead of reaching out to people directly, we get reaction videos to ridicule them instead.

Instead of advice being about rectification or betterment, it devolves into a type of point-scoring with people competing to outdo one another in displaying their moral righteousness.

The internet can make us forget we are dealing with real people. The potential of our messages reaching hundreds of thousands of people imbues a false sense of self-importance into our actions.

This shifts the discourse away from a default of kindness to one of cruelty. Wisdom and gentleness are replaced with harshness and a reckless abandon for telling the truth like it is.

The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “Verily, gentleness is not found in anything but that it beautifies it, and it is not removed from anything but that it disgraces it[Muslim].

Social media does not incentivize kindness in the same way it does notoriety. When people immerse themselves online, they come across a lot of things. It is not uncommon to see Muslims spreading misinformation or engaging in openly haram behavior. The more a person consumes this content, the more it looks like everyone is like this. It feels like a bad case of the emperor with no clothes.

So they overreact and go to the other extreme.

They see others watering down the religion, or treating it carelessly, so they feel it is their obligation to do the opposite. Others who feel the same way give them instant validation on social media by liking and re-sharing these comments. This reaction is perceived to be defending the truth, and being authentic. Thus, the echo chamber thus gets louder and louder.

Ali raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) said, “There are three types of people: (1) the Godly scholar who acts upon what he knows, (2) the seeker of knowledge upon the path of salvation, and (3) the chaotic mobs that follow everyone who calls out and are carried like the wind – they did not enlighten themselves with the light of [true] knowledge, nor did they refer back to a reliable source” [Hilyatu’l-Awliya].

The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “There shall come upon people years of deceit in which the liar will be believed, the truthful one disbelieved, the treacherous will be trusted, the trustworthy one considered treacherous, and the Ruwaybidah shall speak out.’ It was said: Who are the Ruwaybidah? The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said: ‘The lowly, contemptible one who will speak out about public affairs’” [Ibn Majah].

When this happens, proving yourself correct on an issue takes priority over actually rectifying the belief or action of the other person. This is a subtle but consequential shift. It removes sincerity from the equation and puts the ego at the forefront. The discussion is done under a façade of dawah, but results in attention that can only be described as self-serving. The only people who celebrate it are ones that already agree with it. It builds a following instead of relationships, and is therefore unable to accomplish the ultimate task of winning hearts and minds or changing someone’s viewpoint.

In fact, it can do the opposite. While such a person may find much fanfare online, their interactions in real life may be drastically different. Someone who constantly calls out others belligerently at the masjid or a social gathering would be insufferable.

The work of building a relationship that fosters an environment for advice to be accepted and for people to willingly change their behavior or views requires long-term relationship building.

We rarely, if ever, change something based on reading an anonymous comment online. We only change after conversations with trusted friends or exploring an issue in-depth.

If we truly want to help people better themselves, then we must take on the difficult task of community building. It can be done online, but it requires a shift in approach. Where social media incentivizes the short-game, meaningful change requires looking at the long-game.

When the young man walked into the masjid of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) and asked permission to commit zina (adultery), the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) spoke to him patiently and kindly [Musnad Ahmad]. He could have easily reminded him about the jurisprudential rulings about adultery, and the prescribed punishment – no doubt, that would be unapologetically speaking the truth. But it would not have achieved the intended outcome, so the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) had to take the approach that would produce the desired result for the betterment of the young man.

What about all the times in the life of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) when harshness was used? Didn’t he speak the truth clearly? Yes. There are always going to be situations where this is called for strategically as a tool intended for a specific result. The problem we see online is not of speaking the truth clearly, but one of expressing it in a harsh way such that people are turned off. And worse, people who respond to the harshness with cheerleading and zealousness, instead of genuine care and concern for the one who is wrong to gain some sense of rectification.

Social media, as a tool, serves to provide validation for the one commenting more than anything else. This is why discussions devolve into debates instead of productive discussion. Aside from the more obvious negative consequences, there is a spiritual cost as well. Imam Malik said, “Quarreling and disputing with regard to knowledge causes the light of knowledge to go away” [Siyar A’lam al-Nubala’].

Short-term focus causes people to worry about saving face, or what their reputation will be with their followers. Debates sometimes continue endlessly until people forget what they were trying to prove in the first place.

The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “I guarantee a house in Paradise for one who gives up arguing, even if he is correct. I guarantee a house in the middle of Paradise for one who abandons lying even while joking. I guarantee a house in the highest part of Paradise for one who has good manners” [Abu Dawud].

Giving Dawah

Winning an argument online is like when people say, “the operation was a success, but the patient died.” New controversies pop up on a daily basis online, particularly in Muslim social media circles. Sometimes they relate to classical scholarly debates that have not been settled for over 1,000 years, and sometimes they are about issues like modern social or political topics. These controversies flood our feeds and group chats.

Underneath all of this is a sincere intention. Dawah.

There is a drive to spread the truth, correct misinformation, and prevent people from being misled.  They produce a short-term coupled with a long-term loss. Second-order effects are the consequences of the consequences of your actions. If you eat a big bowl of ice cream, the first-order effect is enjoyment and a full stomach. The second-order effect is weight gain or bad health. Second-order effects are often the opposite of first-order effects.

True success comes when the second-order effects are positive. That means the immediate consequences of an action may not be entirely positive. We understand this approach when it comes to things like education. Study hard now, so you can establish a good career later.

What about dawah? The first-order effects of dawah come mostly in the form of social media validation such as likes, retweets, shares, comments, notoriety, and platform. Platform is the key one here because it is the one that has the facade of benefit. The more people I can reach, the more dawah I can make. Follower counts translate into credibility, and from this comes invites, honorariums, and online courses. The increase in platform is a first-order effect. When someone is focused on it, they are incentivized to accumulate more “wins” to increase this platform. And in the social media age, the old adage of “if it bleeds, it leads” has never been truer.

The most efficient way to increase your platform (and thus, the ability to do dawah in a person’s mind) is to do things that get attention. This comes by way of refutations, debates, hot takes, personal attacks, tabloid-style personal discussions, and saying things purely for shock value. One second-order effect of this type of dawah is that it burns people out. I remember seeing people in the early 2000s engaging in exactly this same type of culture – refutations, debates, and airing of scholarly issues in public forums. Many of these people lost their drive for learning and dawah work. In some cases, sadly, they stopped regularly practicing the religion altogether.

Another second-order effect is that it will undermine a person’s credibility. Remember that first and second-order consequences are often opposites. A person can build credibility and a platform in the short-term with the very same type of dawah that will undermine it in the long-term. As people mature in their understanding of religion, they will realize what type of knowledge truly benefits. And they will see that those caught up in the “issue of the day” were not providing knowledge that truly benefits a person in their relationship with Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). That will cause them to look at these Islamic personalities with a deep sense of regret, and even anger at having wasted time consuming so much of their content.  In extreme cases, this type of dawah will be looked back as being performative – increasing a person’s social capital as opposed to actually furthering a cause. Much of the discourse around arguing various types of “isms” falls into this category. This breeds a deep level of resentment.

What does dawah look like when it is focused on second-order effects instead? It’s the slow brick-by-brick building of communities that does not appear to have an immediate pay-off. It’s spending time in a classroom teaching for years and cultivating students. It looks like effective khutbahs that bring incremental change on a weekly basis compounding into bigger results years down the road. Da’wah is the drip by drip effect of giving a khatirah (short reminder) after ‘isha to your community every night knowing that it may take years to see the effect. It means investing in people – sacrificing your own time and effort – in order to help and serve.

Long-term dawah means doing the unglamorous things you’re supposed to do – visiting someone when they are sick, comforting a family on the loss of a loved one, and dropping off a meal when you know someone is having a tough day. These are the things that will not get immediate gratification in the form of follower counts and other vanity metrics that short-term focus causes us to become infatuated with. Perhaps most difficult, it means eschewing the Muslim social media scene in favor of reading a book or spending time in contemplation to better formulate and refine thoughts before they are presented in public. The first-order effect is that this will not increase your platform, or even get you any type of immediate reward.

The second-order effect, however, is that you may actually fulfill the purpose of meaningfully making dawah, adding true value to the lives of others, and being a light by which others come closer to Allah.

The responsibility of this falls not only on the one making dawah, but those of us on the other side as well. We will not change this until we better incentivize and reward the right type of dawah. Stop liking, sharing, and commenting on the things that only impact the short-term. Seek out and amplify the dawah and education that is beneficial for the long-term.

 

Action Items

1) When you find yourself engaging in a debate online, hit the pause button. Assess why you are getting involved, and what type of outcome you hope to achieve

2) What is your ratio of online to offline dawah? How many offline conversations do you engage in? What is your level of effort in volunteering for your local community?

3) If you have broken off a relationship with someone because of an online argument, reach out and attempt to sincerely reconcile.

 

See Also

Keep supporting MuslimMatters for the sake of Allah

Alhamdulillah, we're at over 850 supporters. Help us get to 900 supporters this month. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Omar Usman is a founding member of MuslimMatters and Qalam Institute. He teaches Islamic seminars across the US including Khateeb Workshop and Fiqh of Social Media. He has served in varying administrative capacities for multiple national and local Islamic organizations. You can follow his work at ibnabeeomar.com.

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