Technology, in particular, digital technology – which includes the explosion of the Internet of Things (IoT), is ubiquitous. Writers such as Neil Postman (Technopoly) and Nicholas Carr (The Shallows), along with many others, have written extensively on the effects and impact of technology on our lives. I agree with them. One aspect of the confluence between this technology and ourselves which doesn’t get as much attention is how technology also re-wires our perspectives on religion. Some of this reconfiguration is direct (such as affecting our attention span) while others are more subtle and indirect. It is the latter that I wish to discuss here.
Much of modern technology, especially as a medium of corporate and capitalist interests as well as voyeuristic social media, induces us with anxiety. In contrast, religion, and Islam in particular, seeks to reduce anxiety while heightening fear; specifically, fear of God. Examples of this dichotomy can be seen in such Qur’anic verses such as,
وَإِن كُنتُم في رَيبٍ مِمّا نَزَّلنا عَلىٰ عَبدِنا فَأتوا بِسورَةٍ مِن مِثلِهِ وَادعوا شُهَداءَكُم مِن دونِ اللَّهِ إِن كُنتُم صادِقينَ
فَإِن لَم تَفعَلوا وَلَن تَفعَلوا فَاتَّقُوا النّارَ الَّتي وَقودُهَا النّاسُ وَالحِجارَةُ ۖ أُعِدَّت لِلكافِرينَ
“If you have any doubts about the authenticity of what We’re revealing to Our servant, then compose a chapter similar to this and call upon your witnesses – besides God! – if you’re so certain. However, if in fact you find it impossible – and it is indeed impossible!, then fear the Fire whose fuel is people and stones: a blaze that’s been prepared for those who reject the Truth.” — Qur’an 2: 23-24
يا بَني إِسرائيلَ اذكُروا نِعمَتِيَ الَّتي أَنعَمتُ عَلَيكُم وَأَوفوا بِعَهدي أوفِ بِعَهدِكُم وَإِيّايَ فَارهَبونِ
“Tribe of Israel! remember the blessing I conferred on you. Honor My contract and I will honor your contract. Have dread of Me alone!” — Qur’an 2: 40
In contrast to such verses detailing the need, or even mandate, to be fearful of God, the Qur’an however cautions and even consoles its reader to not be affected by the vicissitudes of life,
قالَ إِنَّما أَشكو بَثّي وَحُزني إِلَى اللَّهِ وَأَعلَمُ مِنَ اللَّهِ ما لا تَعلَمونَ
يا بَنِيَّ اذهَبوا فَتَحَسَّسوا مِن يوسُفَ وَأَخيهِ وَلا تَيأَسوا مِن رَوحِ اللَّهِ ۖ إِنَّهُ لا يَيأَسُ مِن رَوحِ اللَّهِ إِلَّا القَومُ الكافِرونَ
“[Yusuf’s father] said, ‘I make complaint of my grief and sorrow to God alone because I know things from God you do not know. My sons! Seek news of Yusuf (Joseph) and his brother. Do not despair of solace from God. No one despairs of solace from God except for people who are of no faith.” — Qur’an 12: 86-87
هٰذا بَيانٌ لِلنّاسِ وَهُدًى وَمَوعِظَةٌ لِلمُتَّقينَ
وَلا تَهِنوا وَلا تَحزَنوا وَأَنتُمُ الأَعلَونَ إِن كُنتُم مُؤمِنينَ
“This is a clear explanation for all mankind, and guidance and admonition for those who have piety. Do not give up and do not be downhearted. You shall be uppermost if you are people of faith.” — Qur’an 3: 138-139
The statements of the Prophet ﷺ concur with these verses as we can see in the following narration,
الْمُسْلِمُ أَخُو الْمُسْلِمِ لاَ يَظْلِمُهُ وَلاَ يُسْلِمُهُ مَنْ كَانَ فِي حَاجَةِ أَخِيهِ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ فِي حَاجَتِهِ وَمَنْ فَرَّجَ عَنْ مُسْلِمٍ كُرْبَةً فَرَّجَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُ بِهَا كُرْبَةً مِنْ كُرَبِ يَوْمِ الْقِيَامَةِ وَمَنْ سَتَرَ مُسْلِمًا سَتَرَهُ اللَّهُ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ
“A Muslim is another Muslim’s brother in that he does not wrong him or abandon him. If anyone cares for his brother’s need, God will care for his need ; if anyone removes a Muslim’s anxiety, God will remove from him, on account of it, one of the anxieties of the Day of resurrection; and if anyone conceals a Muslim’s fault, God will conceal his fault on the Day of resurrection.” — Sunan Abi Dawud #4893
What is even more insightful is that the Prophet ﷺ specifically sought God’s protection and relief from anxiety and grief (hazn and hamm) as it related by Anas bin Malik in the following narration,
اللَّهُمَّ إِنِّي أَعُوذُ بِكَ مِنَ الْهَمِّ وَالْحَزَنِ، وَالْعَجْزِ وَالْكَسَلِ، وَالْجُبْنِ وَالْبُخْلِ، وَضَلَعِ الدَّيْنِ، وَغَلَبَةِ الرِّجَالِ
“The Prophet ﷺ used to say, “O Allah! I seek refuge with You from worry and grief, from incapacity and laziness, from cowardice and miserliness, from being heavily in debt and from being overpowered by (other) men” — Sahih al-Bukhari #6369
In essence, an important difference between fear and anxiety according to the Qur’an is that anxiety is rooted either in illusion (if God is your only true guardian and protector, then why be anxious at what others can do to you?) or in distraction from the remembrance of God. Fear, however, can be positively employed at curbing or even inhibiting certain behaviors that will lead to God’s displeasure, even having dire consequences in the Here-after.
So what is to be our relationship with technology? Are we to eschew technology? This seems to be not only unnecessary but perhaps wholely unrealistic given that almost every aspect of modern life is not only connected to technology but is mediated by it as well. The trick is to not simply use Islam to manage one’s technology consumption but, like food, or sex, or anything else we have a relationship with, is to determine how is technology viewed by our religious sensibilities. In other words, is technology a means or an end? This may seem an unnecessary distinction but for a generation more weened on iPhones, tablets, and streaming services than mothers milk, it may be more necessary than initially believed. Food, or sex, while being good and necessary for us, have to be viewed from a certain point of view that enables us to see it for what it is (nutrition, sustenance, companionship, healthy fulfillment of desires) so that the point of life isn’t misconstrued to such a point that we spend our lives overeating or taking our sexual desires to such an extent that we worship them. Similarly, we must bring technology under the gaze of Islam, or the heart of the believer, so that technology not only is reduced to its proper place, a means, but like food and sex above, there’s a time, frequency, and place for it.
If the above task can be accomplished then Muslims today, especially in the technology-laden West, can begin to manage what Scott Caplan labels “Problematic Internet Use (PIU)”, a “multidimensional syndrome consisting of cognitive and behavioral symptoms that result in negative social, academic, and professional consequences”1. Technology must be seen, religiously, as having the same potential for degrading mental health as eating disorders are to food or as pornography is to sex. And perhaps even more importantly, Islam can demonstrate, just as with food and sex, how one can enjoy the pleasure of a good meal or spousal relations, accentuating the positive, one can enjoy technology so long as it has defined boundaries and can be brought under the dictates of a believing mind and heart. And perhaps like all three, food, sex, and technology, they’re best enjoyed with someone else, food having more blessing when it’s gathered over, sex more enjoyable between spouses where there is safety and commitment, and technology is made secondary to face-to-face contact, where a growing body of research highlights a crucial difference between online and in-person social reactions: “FtF (face-to-face) interaction and synchronous computer-mediated communication (CMC) differ from one another in important ways that may be especially appealing to those with interpersonal difficulties”2. And this latter part, “interpersonal difficulties” is one of the specific remedies that Islam brings the human being. We are meant to be social and technology, as it’s currently being implemented and designed, fosters precisely the opposite.
It is my sincere hope that religious leaders and scholars will lend their considerable powers of imagination and insight into tackling the challenge of technology today so as to bring the kind of benefit to mankind as described by our beloved Prophet Muhammad, may God bless him eternally.
المُؤْمِنُ يَأْلَفُ ويُؤْلَفُ، ولا خيرَ فيمَن لا يَأْلَفُ ولا يُؤْلَفُ، وخيرُ النَّاسِ أَنفَعُهُم للنَّاسِ
“The believer is likable and hospitable. There is no good in one who is unsociable and uncongenial. The best of people are those who are most beneficial to others.” — al-Silsalah al-Sahihah #426
1. Caplan, Scott E. “Relations Among Loneliness, Social Anxiety, and Problematic Internet Use.” CyberPsychology & Behavior, vol. 10, no. 2, 2007, pp. 234–242.