Muslims in Cyberspace

Vol 7 - Issue 1 Muslims in CyberspaceBy Zainub Razvi, Sumaira Dada and Hafsa Ahsan

Cyberspace, like this world at large, is a delicate testing ground for the practicing Muslim. On the one hand, there are enormous benefits that can be gained from the wealth of knowledge at one’s disposal via the information superhighway, but on the other hand, one is exposed to a murky world of temptations and addictions, which has few parallels in the real world.

When Muslims go on the Internet, they either tend to ignore certain aspects of the Deen, or they feel that Islamic teachings do not apply to cyberspace at all. This mindset then leads them to do things which they would never do in real life – after all, it is all virtual isn’t it?

Following are some of the common uses of the Internet, along with how the Islamic teachings apply to each of them.

Chatting

Chatting today is not just text-based – there is voice chat, video conferencing, etc. which takes chatting to a whole new level. Fahad Iqbal has coined a new term for chatting with non-Mahrams – cyber-Khalwa. “When two people chat, they’re in Khalwa” (i.e., there’s no third person between them that knows what is going on). “As Muslims we’re required to not be in Khalwa with non-Mahrams, and if we have to be, for some reason, then there are strict guidelines that ought to be followed.”

Online, the hesitation of chatting with the opposite sex is overcome to a large extent. What is the Islamic guidance in this regard? Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, former President of the Islamic Society of North America, states that Internet chatting is very similar to writing letters or talking to someone on the phone. Hence, Muslims have to observe the same rules whilst chatting. Intimate conversations are not allowed. In fact, it is forbidden for a non-Mahram Muslim male and female to indulge in long conversations with each other, unless it is necessary for education or for business.

Chatting is also very addictive. Time simply whiles away, especially when discussing any unsuitable topic or wasting too much time in casual chit-chat. Time for a Muslim, like everything else, is a blessing from Allah (swt) that he/she will be questioned about on the Day of Judgement, so it ought to be used wisely.

Sheikh M. S. Al-Munajjid, a prominent Saudi Muslim lecturer, says that in chat rooms a Muslim must be on guard, as he is dealing with a large number of unknown people. He should boycott the sites of Biddats and not engage in any discussions on these websites. He also says that the enthusiastic youth must not engage in matters of which they have little knowledge. In this regard, Allah’s (swt) words need to be remembered: “And on the Day of Resurrection, you will see those who lied against Allah (i.e., attributed to Him sons, partners), their faces will be black.” (Az-Zumar 39:60)

Blogging

A blog is an online diary. In chat rooms, you have a considerable degree of control over who can interact with you and how. It is much more complicated if you maintain a blog, which may be regularly read and commented on by virtually anyone in the world, which includes non-Mahrams. Hence, writing very personal entries on those blogs must be avoided, and if possible, blogs must be made private, accessible only to the blogger’s chosen audience.

Muslim bloggers also ought to make sure that they do not post unverified Islamic information, and they should especially think twice before making any remarks about anyone’s personal attributes or character traits in their posts.

Those who leave comments on the blog must be wary of committing grave sins, such as slander, backbiting and fighting. Muslims should be careful, because every word they utter will be recorded, even if typed in cyberspace. As a general rule, we ought to tell ourselves that if we wouldn’t say something to someone in real life, we ought not to on the Internet as well.

Social and Professional Networking

Social networking websites work by asking you to register and set up a profile page, then allowing you to add people you know, join groups, play games, take quizzes, put up photos, share links and do a host of other activities.

Because these websites ask you to put sensitive information online, it is very important to know how to use their privacy settings. Failure to use the right settings can seriously compromise your online privacy, disclosing your private information to complete strangers and third party companies without your knowledge. Avoid altogether putting up any private data that is prone to exploitation, such as your work history, your phone numbers or residential address. Once again, determine early on where to draw the line, because social networking is very prone to addiction.

Also, while there’s certainly no harm in keeping up with friends, it’s important to define not only who are our ‘friends,’ but also just how much time we ought to devote to ‘keeping up’ with them, and what actually constitutes the exercise of this ‘keeping up.’ Indulging too much into the private lives of others, even if they have put it up for everyone to see, violates Islamic teachings, which require us to refrain from spying and being over-curious.

Online Islamic Guidance

While there is no denying that the Internet is an extremely easy way to access Islamic literature, it is not the best place to go for ‘Fatwah hunting’. There are a lot of bogus ‘Islamic’ websites out there, which do not have authentic scholars and rely on casual Internet users to compile information they have heard, read or gathered from other online sources. We must be especially careful not to mistake genuine Islamic websites run by Dawah organisations with casual Internet message boards set up by ordinary Muslims, where one may find numerous contentious Fatwahs and Wazaif, which are often completely without proper references. Even when using websites claimed to be run by scholars or genuine organizations, we should do a background check on the particular school of thought the scholars and/or organization ascribe to and make sure that they come from a reliable background.

The Youth Trap

Today, children as young as 4-5 years old can be seen using the Internet on their own. Quite a few children have their own email accounts, an instant messenger ID and social networking account by the time they are in school. Peer pressure can drive children to all sorts of dangerous activities online, from the relatively innocuous Internet overuse to such more serious tendencies as viewing pornographic and other sexually explicit content.

“Sending your children on the Internet alone is like sending your kid on the highway alone,” warns Tasneem Ahmed, a mom of four. Her husband Anwer Ahmed, a university professor, nicely sums up the needs of online supervision. “Parents should do their best to be aware of what sites their kids are visiting and whom they are communicating with. It is very important for them to have open and frank communication with their children, without threat of retribution.”

Completely prohibiting the Internet can backfire, as children can then be more tempted to taste the forbidden fruit. Sheikh Abdul-Majeed Subh states that one must teach children the sense of differentiating right from wrong, instead of enforcing exclusive prohibition. He quotes a Hadeeth regarding the principle of Ihsan (Perfection) in worship: “To worship Allah (swt) as if you see Him, and if you cannot achieve this state of devotion, then you must consider that He (swt) is looking at you.” (Bukhari) Parents also need to educate their children about the fact that Allah (swt) is looking at them, while they are surfing the net.

Chat rooms should be strictly off-limits, and parents ought to supervise or monitor other chatting routines, even if they are sure their kids do not have any non-Mahrams on their contact lists.

Finding a spouse online

The use of match-making websites has increased. Are these services permissible? Dr. Salah Al-Sawy, the Secretary General for the Assembly of Muslim Jurists in America (AMJA), says that if correspondence takes place with a faithful and honest mediator running the service and Shariah regulations are observed, then he hopes that it will be permissible (after all, Allah (swt) knows best).

Direct correspondence, however, requires a lot of precautions. Nevertheless, if it is necessary, interaction should be normal, and a trustworthy third party should be present. Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi states that while looking for a spouse online, elders or responsible friends should be involved in investigating or negotiating on one’s behalf.

The Final Word

Ultimately, whatever the medium, be it blogs, social networking websites, instant messengers, email, Muslim merchandise websites or Islamic information portals, whether their harms outweigh their benefits depends on how we use them. So like in all our other daily activities, the reward or sin for our actions online too will be judged based on our intentions for engaging in those activities.

Quick Reminder # 1 – Every click is recorded!

While one is sitting on the Internet, it is very easy to get lost in the numerous activities. There are simply too many websites to visit, too many emails to read and too many friends to keep up with on social networking websites. At times like these, it is imperative for Muslims to remember that every click of the mouse is being recorded and will have to be accounted for on the Day of Judgement. Hence, wastage of time in useless activities must be avoided, and each click must serve some constructive purpose.

Quick Reminder # 2 – The Constructive Clicks

What can one do to serve their Deen in cyberspace? Here are some quick suggestions:

1)      Make your status messages on social networking websites meaningful – you can write a short Ayah or Hadeeth, or simply something informative.

2)      Provide links to Islamic websites, which have authentic information.

3)      Pledge to send a daily or weekly email to all your contacts – again, with some meaningful information pertaining to how Deen can be practiced in daily life.

4)      Stay away from all controversial arguments on non-issues – they waste your time as well as that of others.

5)      If you maintain your own blog, use it to propagate the true face of Islam. Write meaningful posts.

6)      Educate yourself – visit authentic Islamic websites and learn more about Islam.

7)      Join websites as a link manager, and add quality Islamic website to search engine directories.

Quick Reminder # 3 – The Useless Clicks

What activities do NOT serve the Deen in cyberspace, though they seem to do so? Here are a few:

1)      Useless arguments on controversial issues, which do not have any purpose.

2)      Hacking anti-Islamic websites – it is always best to promote Islamic websites than to hack the opposing ones.

3)      Chatting with the opposite sex on the pretext of preaching Deen to them.

4)      Being careless while posting Islamic information – even the slightest slip can cause a widespread Fitnah.

Quick Fact # 1 – What is Cyberspace?

The Internet has aptly defined “cyberspace” as “a computer network consisting of a worldwide network of computer networks” and “a world of information through the Internet.” In layman terms, when you are on the Internet, connected to the world through your computer, laptop, cell phone or any other gadget, you are in cyberspace.

Digital Photography – The Latent Issues

By Zainub RazviVol 7 - Issue 1 Digital Photography

The issue of photography is a contentious one in Islam, with there being a difference of opinion among the contemporary scholars about its permissibility. However, as Shaykh Faraz Rabbani summarizes, “the scholars who hold photography of humans and animals impermissible generally make exception of situations of need – such as documentation and educational purposes” and “the scholars, who permit photography of humans and animals, condition this with the images being within Shariah limits (such as no nudity or vice).”

The provision of ‘Shariah limits’ encompasses not just the content of photography, but also the people who are allowed to see these photographs. With the advent and widespread popularity of digital cameras, it has become much easier to share photographs than it was previously possible with traditional film photographs. Unaware of or unconcerned about the dangers of the unrestricted access to private photographs, people happily post pictures of virtually every aspect of their lives on the Internet.

Although Facebook and similar websites have privacy settings, many people don’t use them – be it genuine ignorance or callous indifference. Sidrah Ahmad says: “It is important to have a look at your privacy settings and be aware of who can search for you and what they can find. For example, I posted an album that had photos of my cousin’s children, and her cousin (who I was not friends with on Facebook) was able to see this album. Though she was no stranger to the children, I understand the harm in having photos on display for public view. [After this] I restricted all my albums to be viewable for ‘Just Friends’, which I recommend to everyone posting photos on Facebook.” Sidrah believes that major breaches can be prevented by making use of the settings available.

However, other people disagree. Amina Ahmed contends that “digital pictures can be very dangerous,” not simply because they open the floodgates for non-Mahrams to see the photographs, but also because digital pictures can be easily manipulated with. “People who can access your account may be able to copy/paste and then change the pictures. No matter how private the settings are, there are still risks that the pictures can be seen by strangers.”

This is a valid concern. We may be sure that our friends are trustworthy and will not misuse our photographs, but what if they do not observe the same levels of Hijab? Will they then show the necessary discretion if they are viewing the photos, especially when their brothers or father are around the PC? Also, once you agree to the terms and conditions of most of these websites, you give them the license to share your photos with third party businesses and customers. Even if that does not happen, the fact remains that the webmasters of any website can access all the user accounts, and this includes the uploaded photographs. That is why some people are completely against the idea of uploading pictures on any website, even if those photos are with Hijab.

So what can be done? The safest option is to never have yourself photographed without Hijab, especially from someone else’s digital camera. Try and use email when sharing photographs, and even then, remind people that you are very particular about who can view those pictures. Steer clear of uploading photographs on social networking websites, whether they are of yourself or your friends.

A similar policy needs to be adopted while organizing or attending segregated events during which otherwise Hijab-observing women will take off their Hijab. As an organizer, it is your responsibility to ensure that no pictures are taken by random guests.

If you are planning your own wedding and know that it will be impossible to discourage people from taking your photographs as a bride, go one step ahead in the planning phases and have a “no cameras allowed in ladies section” rule printed on the invitation card, so that people know beforehand not to bring their cameras. I personally know two families who printed such a caution on the wedding card. Even then, it can sometimes become necessary to ask a family member to make sure that no one is taking any pictures.

This is not to advocate that no pictures should be taken at all, but only to emphasize that there are dangers in being lax about who can take your pictures and who can see them. That seems to be the bottom line regarding digital pictures, no matter when they are taken, or how they are shared.

Passive Reception or Active Participation?

Vol 6 - Issue 3 Passive receptionBy Zainub Razvi

Almost without any real effort on their part, ordinary individuals of the information age are exposed daily to a sheer wealth of information. It is a huge task to separate valid facts from speculative or downright false information. The Internet, around-the-clock cable television, newspapers and mobile communications combined offer so many avenues for disseminating of information that often news is spread wide and across, before it has even been properly verified.

Although journalists are expected to ensure a higher standard of authenticity than an over-avid SMS user, who forwards any rumours he/she comes across as potential health and security warnings, even the news media often sidesteps important journalistic protocols to cash in on sensational angles or breaking news value. Not only do such practices compromise important journalistic ethics but, more crucially, in a country like Pakistan, where the majority of the viewers and readers comprise less educated, gullible audiences, they mislead people and start a vicious cycle of utterly baseless rumours and gossip mongering, which ultimately becomes so pervasive that it is nearly impossible to separate the facts from the fiction.

A brilliant recent example was the mobile virus hoax propagated in 2007. The mystery virus could allegedly do anything from simply messing up your phone device to downright killing you! What started off as a relatively harmless chain email and SMS message, which originated out of a practical joke, eventually ended up as breaking news health warning on certain news channels. It was only days later, after a full blown education campaign by the telecom regulators, that all needless hysteria finally subsided. Thus, ordinary news watchers cannot trust the news providers to give them the correct information.

A fair deal of the responsibility lies on us to confirm any news we hear or read. It is not only a common sense practice but also a religious obligation, as described in Surah Hujurat: “O you who believe! If a rebellious evil person comes to you with a news, verify it, lest you harm people in ignorance, and afterwards you become regretful to what you have done.” (49:6) Although this verse refers specifically to news brought by a rebellious and evil person, scholars suggest that believers should verify any news brought to them by any source, before believing it and passing it on to others. Here are the top three questions to ask ourselves, whenever we read or hear a news story:

Source: Where is this news coming from? It is vital to determine the authenticity of the source of any news. We shouldn’t just assume that because a certain report is appearing on TV or in a newspaper it will necessarily be correct. We should further check to see, if it’s an original report or news syndicated from another source. If it is an original report, do a background check on the reporter or correspondent breaking the story. In case of a syndicated story, check if it comes from well known news agency. Some newspapers and channels do have a reputation of being more sensationalist than others, and almost every news source has certain inherent predispositions (a liberal or conservative slant, for instance), which should also be kept in mind, when ascertaining the credibility of any source.

Balance: Is the news too one-sided? Every news story has two sides, and any news story that gives you just one side is not balanced. So if you’re tuning in to watch election coverage, and the state television is showing you one government official after another testifying to the fairness and transparency of the balloting process, but does not include any opposition members, let alone their views, you know something’s fishy. Balance is particularly important in news stories about crime and politics. View with suspicion a report, which logs only one aggrieved party’s grievances. Watch out for the bias that editors and producers sometimes deliberately create via selecting and emphasizing some facts and figures over others, strategically placing certain news in headline or front pages and by using specific tones or names to refer to certain incidents or people (for instance, a new report that describes a staunch scholar as a ‘radical cleric’).

Accuracy: Are the facts in this report logically consistent? Make use of your common sense to read and watch between and beyond the lines and tapes. If a news channels is broadcasting something it claims was shot in the Northern Areas, but appears like it could easily have been taped elsewhere in the country, view it with skepticism. A good way to determine the credibility of a report is the amount of citations it has – the more experts or other credible sources it quotes, the higher is the likelihood of accuracy.

By following this simple guide, we can ensure that we are not misled ourselves and prevent the propagation of false or speculative news to others.