Article Summarized and explained by Dr. Kia Jahed
These days, the possibilities and avenues of public discourse and communication, either over social media, the internet or public gatherings have significantly increased. A persons voice can be heard by thousands and millions of people within a matter of minutes. This makes consciousness of the etiquette behind public discourse and communication all the more important, as there are many ways to go down the wrong path and embrace the wrong intention when engaging an audience in the public setting.
In his book of knowledge, Imam Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali mentions the etiquettes behind public discourse and dialogue, noting eight different points of advice to keep in mind for the one who is in the space of public discourse. As he notes, ‘helping one another (in the public space) in the pursuit of truth is from the religion, but there are conditions for it.’
In the spirit, then, of applying text to context, the following is a brief synopsis of the eight points of self check that Imam Ghazali mentioned to be applied to our current context of social media and public discourse spaces. This, for the purpose of checking our intention and verifying that the nature of our engagement is really the pursuit of truth and not just winning an argument or achieving recognition, validation or affirmation.
- That he not be engaged in a communal obligation, if he/she has not yet fulfilled all of their personal obligations. For whoever is occupied with a communal obligation claiming the pursuit of truth, while still having personal priorities not having been taken care of, then that person is a liar.
Many of us are quick to challenge a religious figure on social media, debate a controversy in the community, or advocate for a particular social cause, claiming the mantle of a social justice warrior or someone who cares about spreading the truth. But how valid can that claim of a social justice warrior be if we have not engaged in a personal war on our own souls deficiencies and short comings? You have to help yourself before you can help others. Imam Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali gives the example of a man who wants to spend his time making clothes, claiming people need clothes to be appropriately covered when they pray. Yet the same person does not take care of his own prayers. His claim then to be concerned about the prayer of others then is not valid, and is only an excuse to either make money or fame. Our excuses today may be more creative and complex but they come from the same cloth of that tailor that Imam Ghazali mentioned. Let everyone then take a second look at their own shortcomings improve their own conditions before trying to improve others.
- That he not be engaged in debates and arguments while there are other more important social/communal obligations that need to be attended to. For the one who sees that which is more important and does what is other than it, has sinned.
Once we have taken care of all our personal obligations and shortcomings, we can attend to communal ones. Ultimately, Islam is concerned with the reality of what is happening now, and how immediate burdens can be lifted and real difficulties removed in the community. We just don’t have time, and the sharia has no role for social media debates or personal criticisms when there is a whole host of bigger realities that more pressingly need our time and attention in the community.
In this section, Imam Ghazali gives the example of a person in a debate or argument over something theoretical and ultimately irrelevant, while in front of him in the very gathering he is arguing in, there may be men wearing silk clothing and no one says anything because they are too caught up in their arguments. He also gives the example of a group of neglected people who are about to die of thirst, and a person is capable of saving them by just giving them some water, yet he busies himself with learning about something that isn’t reflective of the reality on the ground, like the science of hijaama (wet cupping), claiming that it is a communal obligation to learn and if the city didn’t have people who could perform hijaama then people would perish. This is missing the forest for the trees, and in the world of social media, its very easy to go down rabbit holes of debates and theoretical arguments, missing the bigger picture of how one can harness the power and potential of social media to address social and communal needs.
- That the person engaged in debate and discourse be independent in his thinking, not overly dependent on the opinions of Imam Shaafai’ or Abu Hanifa and others.
This is a beautiful point and is meant to shed light on the fact that truth is free of factions, parties or schools of thought. If one is engaged in a debate or exchange over social media, and the truth becomes apparent on the keyboard or screen of the other person, then one has to be independent enough in their thinking to see that as the truth and the acceptance of it as a victory. Otherwise, if one is not independent in their thinking, and can’t leave their political party, jurisprudential school of thought, or personal pride even when the truth is opposite of the faction they represent, then what is the point of argumentation and debate in the first place? The point of debate and discussion is to arrive at the truth, not to establish a point of view.
- That one not argue over any point except what is representative of the reality on the ground or very close to it.
It would make sense to argue about climate change, preventing the next pandemic, or universal healthcare, but what is the point of arguing about rare, theoretical unlikely scenarios, whether they be political or religious, if there can’t be some kind of immediate application. One has to question their own intention if they are engaged in debate over what is only theoretical and not practical. Imam Al-Ghazali gives the example of scholars of his day who would ignore real problems that affect the general masses, and rather seek the more rare and interesting points of debate that could be hotly debated in courts and gathering that people flock to and listen to, confirming and validating this or that position. Much of what happens today on social media is reflective of just that, with scores of people rushing to this page, or retweeting that tweet, liking and disliking, confirming and affirming, subjects that are absolutely irrelevant to todays time and issues.
- That debates and discussions in private be more beloved to him/her than those done in large public gathering, and in the presence of famous people and politicians.
As Imam Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali notes, seclusion is better for understanding, provides more clarity for the mind and perceiving the truth. With large public gatherings, one may be moved to the desire to show off in front of people. Sometimes you find people who may have useful or rectifying advice to give, and may have had opportunities to do so in private, but only unleash these advices when they are in a public space so that everyone can see and hear them. Sometimes in the social media space people may feel the need to criticize or rectify others, but if they were to ask themselves if they would have the same motivation and ambition to do the same thing in private when no one was looking, what would they say?
- In the search for truth, he should be like the one looking for his lost camel.
Imam Al-Ghazali mentions that if you were looking for your lost camel, you wouldn’t be concerned only with where you thought the camel was. You would also accept the viewpoint of your partner or friend or even if a random stranger told you they might have seen it here or there. Conversations, arguments, and debates should be carried out in the same manner. This was the way of the companions in their mutual discussions with one another. They were always looking for truth, and treated it like a lost camel. They cared about finding the truth, not so much where it came from. This made them open to the viewpoints of others.
- That he not prevent the one who is helping him in his view from moving from one point to another.
Sometimes for the purpose of wining the conversation, a person may use stratagems within the debate to keep the other person from fully making their point. This is not the way of the person who seeks the truth, but rather more like lawyer who objects and uses this and that tactic to win the argument. These debate tactics, like what we see sometimes in news debates and likes of which, are only for the point of winning an argument or impressing people. Your tactics may have won you the argument, but did they help you reach the truth?
- That he debate only with those whom he expects to learn from, of the people occupied with learning.
Imam Ghazali mentions that sometimes, people will launch into spaces and debates with people who they know are weak in learning, because they know they will be able to beat them in a debate. They won’t want to debate or converse with people who are more knowledgeable than them. This is a sign of insincerity. The person who seeks truth will busy themselves with finding those who are more knowledgeable than him so as to be in the position of benefit. And God says in the Qur’an “Upon every possessor of knowledge, is a knower.” (12:76)