Posted by: Dawud Israel | January 13, 2010

Digitizing Islam: A Detailed Analysis of Sunniforum

If you are into the Internet, you will enjoy this read.

The following was an opportunity I had to study Islam in the digital world and apply some of what I have learned about Sociology and combining it with certain concepts and exhortations in Islam. I did an analysis of Sunniforum and shared the following piece with the Admin of Sunniforum.

Its really fun because I’m combining spiritual concepts with social science concepts. I detailed why arguments are so common online and why the way we interact with and on the Internet makes it hard for Islam to spread and actually makes it easier to hurt Islam and ourselves. Don’t worry, I mentioned some ways of overcoming this- and intend to launch some more online projects that will hopefully tip the scale and make things more “deen-friendly.”


Introduction

Bismillah, alhamdulillah, wa salat wa salam ala rasulullah

To begin, in the wake of the digital age, the ummah of Rasulullah salallahu alayhi wasalam has connected many believers from across the world. In countries where Muslims are a minority they have provided channels of discussion and a sense of community among the ummah. No doubt, it is difficult to imagine feelings of solidarity with the Muslim ummah would have been as strongly enriched and hardwired, were it not for the digital Muslim community. Web forums in particular have become meeting places of great utility to Muslims, where Muslims have successfully spread new-born religious ideologies (salafiya, extremism) and at its best many have found these forums as communities of mutual ‘islamisization,’ where non-practincing Muslims have become more involved in their religious beliefs. Some have even modeled and monitored the progression of trends in the Muslim Ummah using online forums.

The goal or niyah, as it were, of these forums varies greatly. Some are intended for Muslim socializing, be it more for a sense of community, (islamica forums) or for introducing people to Islam or even as a space to convert non-Muslims (maniacmuslim) or for educational-institutional usage (AlMaghrib). Forums vary starkly on many levels, some of the most important which we will mentioned here, and how they affect the quality of discussion on the forum, the solidarity, the sense of community-

-location of membership, ideological and similarity of values among members, how well connected they are, whether they have met before,
-moderators
-categories of discussion and how distinct and how active these are; idealistically these depend on how people think (people comment: “I think in Facebook status format, Twitter format, forum format”)
-time spent on forum; how long a member puts into a single post, reflecting the quality of the discussion

The forum we are presently concerned here with is Sunniforum. Principally, this forums virtue lies in its sole dedication to Islamic values, the spread of Islamic knowledge and spirituality the intersection of many different Muslim religious ideologies. In my own experience, many brothers have used Sunniforum, above all other forums to learn about Islam, to assist their religious development, and as a “religious retreat or escape” from the present social realities of living in the West. Characteristically, many members are students and there are a number of ulema present on the forum. Reputationally, being the “most Islamic” forum, it carries the stigma of being an argumentative and on certain ideological discussion, intolerant.

Presently, we will analyze this forum, from the perspective of social psychology, anthropological and sociological with a particular eye for the Sunnah and classical Islamic attitudes. This represents an attempt to understand the vulnerabilities of the Muslim community (against shaytan) and to further Islamicize the internet and make “Sunnah-friendly.” At times there may be some generalizations in order to look at the ‘ideal type’ of this forum.

Analysis

In order to emerge successful in this discussion, it is important at the onset to connect oneself to the history of Islam. Rather than comparing this forum with other Muslim forums, which although useful, should be compared to the social realities of the Sahabas. It may be suggested this is too difficult a comparison, but this is merely a point for improvement-to steadily work towards bit by bit. We will analyze the attitudes an behavior of this forum, as in the words of Imam Ali, “Take yourself to account before you are accounted for (on the Day of Judgment).”

“…the internet is a very fragmented place…we are robbed of knowing each other as brothers in Islam…but as brothers in passing by, visiting a web-page or not. I see a post on this topic and I speak about it, but would I really comment on it in reality today had I not read it here? Maybe if I considered it. The internet imparts more importance on certain issues and therefore, distorts the reality of their place. It become inevitable for words to be misconstrued. When people actually tell you their thoughts, their words take on the ‘unrealistic’ qualities of being more vivid, literal and absolute then they intended them to be. The internet then, projects our words back onto us, after amplifying or distorting them and so any criticism, is felt more acutely and we become further entrenched in ideas we would have initially rejected, but through a gradual process of distortion, amplification and defense, we come to accept it. Shaytan maybe the one quoting our words, but we’ll still believe it since its our own words. The development of ‘digital akhlaaq’ is needed…but has been limited because the internet is a fluid place, so non-Muslims play just as big a part in our akhlaaq as do Muslims.”
A sense of solidarity is essential to community. The more alike members are on their views, values and understanding of Islam the more harmonious their interactions will be. However, the forum is difficult as it is similar to  being in a classroom of people one has just recently just met with the chance one won’t get to know for a long time. This creates a gap, where members are unfamiliar to each other, and may disappear overnight, thus every conversation or discussion, can be left in limbo- and unless they know each other outside the forum, the forum maintains a feeling of incompletion, a lack of fruits. In this scenario, the forum takes on the role of a place where this Muslim community, grows together, a place of “religious childhood” until they reach “religious puberty or maturation” and “outgrow the forum.” Some may never reach this point, others will reach this point but intend to stay online for the tutorship and helping of other enthusiastic, but inexperienced Muslims.

It should be made a point that it is far too difficult to replicate the madrassa system of religious learning or seminars, or shaykh-student system. There are a number of reasons for this we will dive into, but they take the role of obstacles that limit any sort of Islamic education from taking fruit. It may be in the future, Muslims will find a way around this (and we will try to discuss that here) but by and large these obstacles are vulnerabilities from which shaytan can distract members from nobler goals.

At the most obvious level, one must realize the Internet is a place of ‘literalization,’ by this we refer to the fact everything laid out on the computer screen, it is difficult for the computer user, not to judge or make base assumptions based on what he/she sees, in a very real way. In other words, there is little room for giving others the benefit of the doubt (husn udh-dhan). Yet what is on the screen is given the full authority of a face-to-face interaction despite the notable absense of nonverbal communication, gestures, intonations in voice, and most importantly the social sanction of being impolite to a person’s face, i.e. backbiting or gheebah. The online setting is biased towards ‘unjust interactions’ therefore- rather than being face to face, and carrying the social-religious sanctions against gheebah, the internet makes it easier for a person to speak rudely online, a “half-gheebah,” speaking to each other online but with the base judgments one has in a backbiting situation. For this reason, the structure and interaction humans have with the digital world, arguments happen more often in online settings, most notably on Youtube, more so than face to face human behavior allows.

This leads to childish behavior online, often the most crass and crude and as time passes, “juvenilization” occurs bringing out the worst in people, most especially in those who are heavy users of the Internet. At times, one may even see this attitude cross over into their non-internet interactions. Something in the design of the Internet, and how we interface with technology devolves us. In observing the behavior of users who argue on Muslim forums, over certain topics, they often think endlessly about the topic at hand, (“think in web forum format”). By and large, we should visit the Islamic sanctions against argumentation and namimah (tale-bearing):

[ثُمَّ إِنَّكُمْ يَوْمَ الْقِيَـمَةِ عِندَ رَبِّكُمْ تَخْتَصِمُونَ ]

(Then, on the Day of Resurrection, you will be disputing before your Lord.) was revealed, Az-Zubayr, may Allah be pleased with him, said, `O Messenger of Allah, will we repeat our disputes’ He said,

«نَعَم»

(Yes.) He (Az-Zubayr) said, `This is a very serious matter.”’ Ahmad recorded from Az-Zubayr bin Al-`Awwam, may Allah be pleased with him, that when this Surah was revealed to the Messenger of Allah :

[إِنَّكَ مَيِّتٌ وَإِنَّهُمْ مَّيِّتُونَ – ثُمَّ إِنَّكُمْ يَوْمَ الْقِيَـمَةِ عِندَ رَبِّكُمْ تَخْتَصِمُونَ ]

(Verily, you will die, and verily, they (too) will die. Then, on the Day of Resurrection, you will be disputing before your Lord.) Az-Zubayr, may Allah be pleased with him, said, “O Messenger of Allah, will the sins that we committed against others in this world be repeated for us” He said,

«نَعَمْ، لَيُكَرَّرَنَّ عَلَيْكُمْ حَتْى يُؤَدَّى إِلَى كُلِّ ذِي حَقَ حَقُّه»

(Yes, they will be repeated until everyone who is entitled will have his rights restored to him. ) Az-Zubayr, may Allah be pleased with him, said, “By Allah, it is a very serious matter.” It was also recorded by At-Tirmidhi, who said “Hasan Sahih.” `Ali bin Abi Talhah reported that Ibn `Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him, said:

[ثُمَّ إِنَّكُمْ يَوْمَ الْقِيَـمَةِ عِندَ رَبِّكُمْ تَخْتَصِمُونَ ]

(Then, on the Day of Resurrection, you will be disputing before your Lord.) means, the truthful one will dispute with the liar, the oppressed will dispute with the oppressor, the one who is guided will dispute with the one who is misguided and the weak will dispute with the arrogant. Ibn Mandah recorded in Kitab Ar-Ruh that Ibn `Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him, said, “The people will dispute on the Day of Resurrection, to the extent that the soul will dispute with the body. The soul will say to the body, `You did such and such,’ and the body will say to the soul, `You told me to do it and you tempted me.’ Then Allah will send an angel to judge between them, and he will say, `You two are like a man who cannot walk but can see, and a man who cannot see but can walk.’ They went into a garden and the one who could not walk said to the one who was blind, `I see fruit there, but I cannot reach it.’ The blind man said, `Climb on me and get it.’ So he climbed on him and got it. So which of them is the wrongdoer They will say, `Both of them.’ The angel will say to them, `You have passed judgement against yourselves.’ The body was a means of transportation for the soul.” Ibn Abi Hatim recorded that Sa`id bin Jubayr said that Ibn `Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, said, “This Ayah was revealed and we did not know what it was revealed about:

[ثُمَّ إِنَّكُمْ يَوْمَ الْقِيَـمَةِ عِندَ رَبِّكُمْ تَخْتَصِمُونَ ]

(Then, on the Day of Resurrection, you will be disputing before your Lord.)” He said, “We said, what will we dispute about There is no dispute between us and the People of the Book, so what will we dispute about Until the Fitnah occurred.” Then Ibn `Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, said, “This is what our Lord promised us we would dispute about.” This was recorded by An-Nasa’i.

http://tafsir.com/default.asp?sid=39&tid=45277

Imam Nawawi says:

Having summarily mentioned that talebearing (namima) is unlawful, with the evidence for this and a description of its nature, we now want to add a fuller explanation of it. Imam Abu Hamid Ghazali says, “Talebearing is a term that is usually applied only to someone who conveys to a person what another has said about him, such as by saying, ‘So-and-so says such and such about you.’ In fact, talebearing is not limited to that, but rather consists of revealing anything whose disclosure is resented, whether resented by the person who originally said it, the person to whom it is disclosed, or by a third party. It makes no difference whether the disclosure is in word, writing, a sign, nodding, or other; whether it concerns word or deed; or whether it concerns something bad or otherwise. The reality of talebearing lies in divulging a secret, in revealing something confidential whose disclosure is resented. A person should not speak of anything he notices about people besides that which benefits a Muslim to relate or prevents disobedience. Anyone approached with a story, who is told, ‘So-and-so says such and such about you,’ must do six things:

(1) disbelieve it, for talebearers are corrupt, and their information is unacceptable,

(2) tell the talebearer to stop, admonish him about it, and condemn the shamefulness of what he has done;

(3) hate him for the sake of Allah Most High, for he is detestable in Allah’s sight, and hating for the sake of Allah Most High is obligatory;

(4) not think badly of the person whom the words are supposedly from, for Allah Most High says, ‘Shun much of surmise’ (Koran 49:12);

(5) not let what has been said prompt him to spy or investigate whether it is true, for Allah Most High says ‘Do not spy’ (Koran 49:12);

(6) and not to do himself what he has forbidden the talebearer to do, by relating it to others.”

(ibid 471-72)

[Taken from “The Reliance of the Traveler”]

There is nothing that impairs one’s religion, diminishes one’s respectability, ends one’s happiness, or preoccupies one’s heart like arguing

”When an erstwhile guided people go astray, they are given contentiousness.”
(Related by Ibn Hanbal, Al-Tirmidhi and Ibn Mājja, on the authority of Abī Umāma)

The famous Sufi shaykh of India, Nizamuddin Awliya once said regarding argumentation about Islam, “If they put thorns on the ground and you also put thorns on the ground, then there will be thorns everywhere.” Where will one go for safety? This is true now, at Muslim conferences- we restrict which events we go to and in the end, we go nowhere in our Islamic development, because the thorns are everywhere.

“I guarantee a house in Jannah (Paradise) for one who gives up arguing, even if he is in the right; and I guarantee a house in the middle of Jannah for one who abandons lying even when joking / for the sake of fun; and I guarantee a house in the highest part of Jannah for one who has good manners.” [Prophet Muhammad (صلي الله عليه وسلم) – reported by Imam Abu Dawud]

Sa’eed bin Musayyeb says: Once the Prophet was sitting with his Companions, and one person used insulting words against Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him), causing him pain. But Abu Bakr remained silent. The person again used bitter words against Abu Bakr, and still Abu Bakr did not respond. The third time when this ignorant person hurt Abu Bakr with his tongue, Abu Bakr tried answering back.
At this point the Prophet got up. Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) asked him, “Are you displeased with me, O Messenger of Allah?” The Prophet replied, “No, but (when you remained silent) an angel came down from the heaven responding to this man’s talk. But the moment you started replying to that man, the angel went away and the devil sat down. And I cannot sit where the devil is sitting.” Abu Dawood 041 4878
More broadly speaking, Shaykh Husain Abdul Sattar of Sacredlearning.org (Audio talk: Seeking expanse in our lives) makes the point of using the principle of tawseer- expansion- in our lives and that its roots are found in the Sunnah and Shariah. When one falls into argumentation, riba, debt this wasa’a vanishes and it is as if there is constriction in one’s life. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine there may be some blood pressure problems develop because of the level of involvement argumentation on forums requires for heavy users. As a principle, it would be extremely useful to utilize and frame interactions on web forums through an understanding of tawseer- as a bridge between the seemingly simplistic prohibitions in Islam and the sociological consequences.

wa dakat alayhimul ardhu bima’u rahbat
-the Earth constricted upon them besides its vastness
(Quran)

There are two points worth mentioning here. What is posted on the forum does not solely belong to the person anymore, it becomes open to interpretation by the collective conscience of the online community. You have a situation where their is a “group soul” which is a lumping together of everything good and bad on the forums– and it is this which is the real judge on what is happening online. The words don’t belong to the readers, rather what ever is interpreted is accorded to how healthy or unhealthy the atmosphere of the web forum is, or how tolerant, patient and understanding it is, or how well the community can relate to what has been posted.

The second point worthy of note is on any online space, there is a sense of ownership and ‘personal space.’ When new comers enter the Sunniforum space their is a protective nature of veteran users. They do not want new comers to infringe on there online hangout. The problem comes about when veteran users covet this space, and respect it, but newcomers do not, and as a result tensions can rise very quickly. This seems to happen often on Sunniforum. It is important to understand the territorial shells users have and at the same time not to alienate newcomers.

In my own personal experience with forum users, the attitude and hope they carry with them is to come on the forum in search of some sort of miracle, whether it be inspirational or real. Sunniforum especially, with its strong following of mureeds and discussions of tasawwuf, seems to carry this very strongly. Something amazing, profound, and obvious are what people are looking for on their radar.

Yet what this means is many people in reality read posts as if they are reading…nothing. This attitude is also common today among students studying the Quran and its translation- one could mistake them for reading a blank piece of paper, with the level of interest and considering how much they get out of it. Rather, instead, some users read posts as if they are reading things into them- they read little of what is actually being said, so one could do an experiment and write up a post with a few key controversial buzz words and trigger one of the many ongoing useless religious debates, wasting time and sapping barakah. The behavior then of users is to think endlessly on certain topics, about rebuttals or replies to give on certain topics, distracting them in their worship and realistically producing little. The threads are fruitless because posts are directed and geared at other users, more often than they are at the topic at hand. When users build up “history” with each other, its not hard to see how easily shaytan goes about sowing discord!

Its not hard to see the limitations of online discussion. Most discussions cannot become detailed, nuanced and as thorough, as they would in real life. Rather there is a ‘landscape’ that each discussion must cover (as if it were an obligation) in its respective sphere (i.e. any discussion of sufism must warn against exaggerations, and thereby limit new fruitful discussion) This serve to limit discussion, progress and real fruitful conversations—rather it is often just “the same old discusison, over and over again.” After the limitation of exploring new idas there is also a tendency for discussions to be broad, but very rarely can they become detailed or minute enough. This is problematic because Islam has very minute and detailed qualities to it, hence, this will be an obstacle with discussions on Islam. When this continues there is a permanent intellectual segregation, a lowering of the intellectual Muslim imagination on many forums, not just this one. I would contend, this also shows great promise for change- if people are in their shells repeating the same things they did a year ago…then in principle, it means, it would not take much, to really move things and introduce new tarbiya or create more fruitful discussions.  Bottom line is forum users work on what is on the surface and not what is in the deeper level of discussion, so the key is to encourage good wholesome thoughts, not mere conversation or wasteful speech.

Nabi salallahu alayhi wasalam said: “Al muminu al-mira’tu al-mumini; the believer is a mirror to a believer,” (Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi, Bukhari, al-Adab al-Mufrad) and the wisdom of this hadith suggests we need to find ways of reflecting good (khayr) into others, rather than reflecting the rancour shaytan directs towards us. From this hadith we should also understand, negative behavior is an invasion of personal identity, of individuality, because internet interaction is a mirror and what this behavior does is everytime you see yourself,  you will see more of what other people think of you, what they project into you, as your reflection. It is as if one is looking into a mirror and believing the misshapen image in the mirror is his true reflection and then acting according to its ugliness.

Suggestions

Here briefly I wish to make the following suggestions. These measures go beyond having a “Sticky” thread which often go unread and ignored.

-If possible, require mandatory reading for forum users so they can become like-minded and think similarly or at least on the same page in some cases. Perhaps a magazine or blog to refresh weekly (the QAFILA blog?) and that they can’t use the site without completing the reading and filling in a  small quiz. The blog section of the forum reflects this idea, but could use some major expansion. This may sound a little drastic but it will ensure all users are constantly getting something out of the forum- and ensure they come back, rather than gambling on whether they benefit or not. Additionally something small like this would be a first and it is hard to imagine any protest to this since all users have a thirst for understanding the deen.

-Placing a timer in between posting would ensure a slowing down in the scenario of an argument. Most forums have timers set at 5 seconds, but expanding this to 1 minute or 2 minutes could do significant amount of good in making people think carefully and stopping them from saying anything brash.

اَلأَنَاةُ مِنَ اللهِ وَ الْعُجْلَةُ مِنَ الشَّيْطَانِ
Calmness and patient deliberation is from Allāh and haste is from Satan (Tirmidhī).

-Encourage cooperation and the helping of newcomers- for common questions. Having prepared FAQs on key topics, balanced and clear, that specifically discourage argumentation, could also help: Man naffa-sa an akhihi qurbatun min qurba ad-dunya, naffa-sa Allahu anhu qurbatun min qurbal akhira.
“Whoever relieves someone of an anxiety in this world, Allah will relieve him of an anxiety in the next world.” -Hadith

-Moderating carefully is also important, as this hadith illustrates:
Verily another person’s belongings are unlawful to take except with his heart’s content. (Bayhaq, Shu’ab al Iman, Daraqutni)
i.e. taking away a person’s words when they dislike it.

-Yet at the same time, moderating the forum tightly (much more harsh) would help in curbing argumentation. Exercising discretion is very important and it is ultimately the atmosphere of the forum that will dictate the types of discussions. There may be an outcry on severe moderation, editing, censoring on the forums, but it is likely it will shape people’s thinking patterns so they search for what is most beneficial over more temporary discussions. The key here would be to moderate so the forum represents the spirit of Islam and reflects the better aspects of our nature than the negative aspects.

-Closing threads that are long overdue would also help…threads that are left open for discussion are often very lengthy and most users don’t read through all the pages. This would help in giving Sunniforum a better feeling of organization and make it easier for users to recall the truly beneficial threads.

-Launching key sections, as ongoing forum projects would be beneficial, ex: Fasting Club for support in doing optional fasts, Tahajjud Club on tips with prayers, etc. Creativity is key here!

-Having Forum awards for most beneficial users to encourage users to follow their examples and help build a sense of community and brotherhood/sisterhood.

-Above all, taking responsibility for the forum and shaping it so it bears fruit. It would not be a stretch to say it will be taken to hisab on Yawmul Qiyamah.
al halal hisab wa’l haram iqab (the halal will be accounted for, and the haram punished) -Imam Ali (radiallahu anhu)

Jazaka Allahu khayran and may Allah bless you and reward you with much much good in this life and the next!  Ameen!


Responses

  1. Hello! just wanted to say Hi!!

  2. Salam Alaikum,
    May Allah reward you abundantly for this blog.

  3. In all your post, you didnt mention that Sunni Forum has no way of categorising information, even though it exists within the vbulletin structure.

    You concentrate on the behaviour of the users, which is fair, but not the format of the behaviour mechanism?

    Sunni forum levels the information, so that untruths are often clique based (most regular users), and this is a gross distortion. There is no reputation for any user, so the worst opinion can ovverride the best opinion on many threads. Sanctified by the self reinforcing clique back patting, the worst opinion can be seen as the concensus?

    No accountability on spreading the truth? Just on behaviour?

    Youve addressed this key point very briefly,but you overconcentrate on behaviour? The whole point of format, is that adjusting the vbulletin modifications would alter behaviour as a result. This EXISTS, its just a matter of looking into Niyyah

    Afterall Sunni Forum is not a behaviour regulation engine, but a propagation of authentic information? Why isnt the truth the ultimate criteria, rather than a desire to increase numbers to the forum?

    But the desire for authentic information, the intention behind the forum, is not fully addressed, rather the sympotamic behaviours of the original intention?

    10 years on, and Sunni forum learnt nothing about the levelling of incorrect information? I dont think so.


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