In the late 90’s and early 2000’s the internet shrank the world – and Islam was no exception. Before that, your exposure to Islam was through your local masjid and local imam. Occasionally some guest speakers would come through. Every now and then there would be a table set up after Juma with books and cassettes. Many households received Islamic magazines monthly in their homes.
It was not uncommon for people to “grow up with an Imam.” From the time that I was 7 until I was in elementary school until the middle of high school I had one imam. This was a true community leader and resource. In college, I got to know the imam at the masjid near campus well and he was my primary resource.
These were the imams who you listened to on a regular basis. Almost every Friday. At Sunday School. Learning Quran. Classes during the week. It was a real relationship.
The relationship with the community was much the same way. You were forced to interact with whoever your local community was – the good, great, bad, and ugly. If you went to the same masjid and were the same age, then you were almost forced to hang out. The benefit of this was that a true community was built. No one was able to isolate themselves. Everyone dealt with everyone else.
As the internet became more popular, things slowly started shifting
All of a sudden people had access to a multitude of websites – many of them espousing different ideologies of Islam that a person may have never even heard of before. Message boards, discussion forums, and email lists started popping up everywhere. These became a new hangout place for everyone to congregate and talk.
This enabled everyone to find like-minded individuals (or in other words, their own special tribe). Now you no longer had to mix with the other people in your community if you didn’t want to. If you wanted to explore the finer details of refuting the varying opinions on how to move your finger in tashahhud, you could now take part in a message board conversation on it with 75 other passionate brothers and sisters, and maybe even follow that up with an online chatroom discussion lasting late into the night.
Instead of listening to your local Imam, you could get on Napster and download bootleg recordings of Imam Siraj Wahhaj. You could go on various websites (Islamway anyone?) and grab real audio format lectures and talks. As ecommerce slowly started to shape up, it became easier to order cassettes of any speaker you liked – usually someone you’d never heard of but was recommended by an internet friend.
Fast forward to now, and things are different, but they’re still the same. Now you have the social networking age, YouTube, and unprecedented access to almost anyone in the world. It’s what lets a guy like me write something like this that gets read by someone like you.
So to the question at hand: How Much Spirituality Do I Get Online, And Is That OK?
There are a number of avenues to getting a spiritual lift online-
- Connecting with people you can forge friendships with, i.e. “good company”
- Following scholars on Facebook/Twitter and getting inspirational messages from them
- Reading Islamic articles, ebooks, and blogs
- Following Islamic podcasts
- Watching Islamic talks and classes on YouTube
- Participating in online Islamic classes
- Attending Islamic events via livestream
Inherently, I don’t think any of these activities are necessarily at odds with traditional masjid programming. Masjids still have the gamut of: weekly classes, Arabic/Quran, Tafseer, workshops, seminars, family nights, and so on. Ideally, all these activities complement each other. It should be a system where what you learn in one place helps enrich your learning in the other.
But realistically, I am starting to sense that the two are increasingly at odds, and there are a number of reasons for this.
Fortune Cookie Spirituality Guy
You know the guy who follows 25 shaykhs on Twitter, and retweets all their inspirational nuggets of wisdom? The problem with this is that reading so many quotes and nuggets becomes taxing. It sometimes gets to the point where a person has consumed 30 of these updates in a day and feel that they’ve fulfilled their needed dose of spirituality.
This is a general problem of the internet – depth and nuance get lost as we continually strive to get our thoughts into < 280 characters and 30 seconds Instagram videos. Mental energy is a muscle. If our twitter feed replaces our capacity to read an Islamic book cover to cover – there’s a problem.
The I Know It’s Not Important But It’s Important Guy
This is almost on the other end of the spectrum. A person may develop an appreciation for a certain subject and become obsessed with it to the exclusion of something else. 495 out of 500 people who perform Jumaat prayer with you might not have ever heard of “Maturidi Aqeedah” but this guy spends 10 hours a day online arguing with other people about it. He becomes disenchanted with his local community because no one shares his interests – partly because the internet enabled him to go super deep into this one topic.
As an aside, there are a number of well-respected scholars who do deep dive on these issues – it’s part of their studies or masters or PhD thesis work. This is not directed at them. This is directed at the person who has no formal study in the basics of Islam, just an unhealthy obsession about one or two issues that they bring up with everyone (like meat and mortgages).
The Heart Wants What the Heart Wants Guy
This is the one that frightens me the most. This is where a person has access to 500 speakers online, and they simply pick whoever they like. With more and more masjids livestreaming and uploading khutbahs weekly on YouTube, it creates infinite options. My worry is what happens when a person decides to bypass the local Imam and simply watch videos from the handful of speakers they enjoy most?
This sounds good in theory, but what about if a person decides they don’t like the local khateeb, so they now show up 2 minute before iqamah every Friday, and then go home and watch their favorite khateeb on YouTube? [Insert shameless plug for Khateeb Workshop here.]
Sisters are not required to attend the Jumaat prayer, so what if they bypass altogether and just watch their favorite Jumaat live every Friday?
There are numerous benefits to the information we have available to us online. I have found videos, articles, and other content that has had a transformative impact on me – in how I think, how I act, and spiritually as well. But no matter how good things are online, the heart still yearns to gain the nourishment from the masjid. I attended a family night halaqah at a local masjid recently, and it was invigorating to be able to just sit in the front, all uncomfortable on the floor, and take notes.
I’m not discounting that some communities may have a serious lack of resources, and many people have no option but to turn to gaining spiritual nourishment online.
It seems like there is a line, or should be a line, but I’m not quite sure what it is.
How do you get your spiritual nourishment? How much do you get online, and how comfortable are you with that? What should be the ideal balance between merging the online and offline activities in this regard?
The original version of this article was first published on Fiqh Of Social Media