This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.
I continue to be highly interested in the influence that digital technology nowadays has on religion in general and Islam in particular. I’ve recently written posts on “The Future of Islam in the Age of New Media” (reviewing an online conference on the subject), “Ramadan Apps, High-Tech Islam”, and “Hajj 2.0”, all here on Irtiqa, and “New Media and Islam” a month ago on The Huffington Post.
Last week, I wrote another piece on The Huffington Post, this time looking more specifically at the impact that Facebook and Twitter could have (or maybe are already having) on Islam. It seems to have resonated quite a bit with readers, judging by the numbers of Facebook “shares”, re-tweets, comments, and direct emails it generated.
Here are a few excerpts from it:
During a recent Friday sermon, a young Muslim sitting next to me took out his Blackberry and started to check his messages (while the Imam was giving his speech). I was quite stunned. The young man then put away his smartphone, but ten minutes later took it out again and typed a few things. That gave me a good indication of both his (short) attention span and the addiction to cyberspace that youngsters have fallen victim to these days.
I could not shake off this little scene from my mind, so I later googled “Twitter and religious services”, and lo and behold, I found pages titled “Tweeting during church services gets blessing of pastors” (an article in the Houston Chronicle two years ago) and “Does God Tweet?”, an online forum organized by the Washington Post two years ago, where 16 contributors presented their thoughts on whether a relationship with God can be established through Twitter. Can prayer be reduced to a 140-character statement? Can we no longer free our minds, quiet our inner selves, focus on our spiritual dimension, and establish a meaningful religious state of being?
I thus wondered how Twitter, Facebook, and current and future social networking and micro-blogging tools will affect religions in general and Islam in particular. My worries were heightened when I found an article titled “25 Reasons Why Twitter Is Spiritual”, but none of the reasons were remotely convincing.
Facebook poses another set of challenges and concerns for Muslims. First and foremost is the freedom of speech that either can be much greater than many Muslims are accustomed to (in their countries) or can be abused to the point of becoming hate speech. There have already been a number of instances where a page was set up to publicly and crudely “criticize” Islam, and last month an Egyptian was jailed for “insulting Islam” on Facebook.
In reaction to this, some Muslims have either waged Facebook-boycott campaigns or just went ahead and created Muslim social networks, e.g. Muslimsocial.com, Muxlim.com, or Naseeb.com.
Other concerns that many Muslims have with Facebook relate to the loss of “virtual modesty”, of “correct behavior”, and of privacy. The concern over “modesty” refers to images that can be deemed indecent. “Correct behavior” decries the loss of inhibition that people exhibit online, often in stark contrast to their everyday personalities, and the hypocrisy of voicing views online that are quite different from one’s beliefs and practices in “real life”. And the issue of privacy online is well known.
Finally, there is the huge problem of time waste in social-networking activity. Two years ago, a study was conducted among evangelical Christian college students; these were found to spend an average of 18.6 hours a week on social media, half of that on Facebook. Interestingly, 54 % of these religious students reported that “they were neglecting important areas in their life due to spending too much time [on that activity]”. On the other hand, 43 % of the students stated that this helped alleviate stress in their lives, and 35 % reported that their social relationships were improved by that. The authors of the study warned against the negative impact that this time waste will have on the religious activities (prayer, Bible study, attending services, serving others, etc.) of the users of social media.
And indeed, as I mentioned in my last column, an important Iranian cleric recently warned his students of the “dangers and temptations” of the Internet and advised them to “spend more time praying and less time clicking through cyberspace.”
Clearly, the new media and social networks have created a new dynamic within religious communities, including Muslims. Some effects are already being felt, both in the practice and in the formulation and understanding of the religion itself. This is one of the most important developments of our times.