Sabahat Ali, USA
As the ground in Palestine trembles from ballistics and bombardment, the hearts of the world tremble along with it.
But how do you know that what you´re about to read is true?
What may actually be an Israeli airstrike on civilians reaches our social media feed as a “terrorist attack” by Hamas instead. Within minutes, Israel fires back, claiming that Hamas was the culprit. Hamas contends that it had nothing to do with it, insisting that these are the same age-old tactics Israel has always used to get away with the wanton murder of innocent Palestinian civilians. By the time we´ve finished our morning coffee, thousands of posts, hundreds of headlines and dozens of news outlets have chosen their version of the story.
And the rest of us are left suspended in speculation.
Misusing social media has the power to stir the pot of war in untellable ways. Most people, it seems, react first and reason later, by which time irreparable damage has already been done.
The power to lay whole cities to ruin by pressing a button was once confined to world leaders. But the days of desolation since October 7th, when the militant group Hamas attacked Southern Israel, have served as a chilling reminder of how each individual on social media possesses a great and terrible power – and an even greater responsibility.
The Battle for The Truth
Between influencers riding the wave of half-truths and triggering rhetoric to grow their platforms at the expense of the blood-soaked conflict and the visible desperation of certain news agencies seeking to win over audiences and become the authority on the latest updates, trying to distinguish truth from falsehood becomes almost impossible.
Not to mention, when both sides of the story post their version of events with the same brazen confidence, who are you supposed to believe?
Beneath the rubble of buried truths and a litany of lies, the race to control the narrative bleeds through our screens like never before.
A war´s greatest casualty is unmistakably the loss of innocent civilian life.
But a war´s greatest crime is the murder of truth.
The truth is the beginning and end of all common ground. It is the last string that ties us to any hope of reconciliation, de-escalation and – alien as the word may seem right now – peace itself.
What Islam Has To Say About It
The Holy Qur´an, the religious scripture of Islam, has enshrined a golden rule about the paramount need for fact-checking information before propelling it onward:
´O ye who believe! if an unrighteous one brings you any news, investigate it fully, lest you harm a people in ignorance, and then be regretful for what you have done.” (49:7)
Commenting on this verse, the Second Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood Ahmad (ra) states,
´The Muslims are told that even when the exigencies of war necessitate prompt action to forestall a military move on the enemy’s part, rumours which are naturally very much rife in time of war should not be given ready credence. They should be tested and their correctness ascertained before action is taken upon them.´ (The Five Volume Commentary, Under 49:7, footnote No. 3845)
Among other connotations, Lane´s lexicon places the word ´Faasiq´ squarely within the realm of `one who departs from the truth.´ (Arabic-English Lexicon, E. W. Lane, London: Willams & Norgate 1863) This means that if a `faasiq´- someone known to forward unverified or false information, presents any data, it needs to be rationally dissected and tested against other sources about the same event.
Another dangerous habit within our own, well-meaning circles, is the gnawing urge to immediately forward reports as soon as they show up on our timelines.
The Holy Founder of Islam, Prophet Muhammad (sa), explained that ´It is enough for a man to prove himself a liar that he goes on narrating whatever he hears (without first verifying it).´ (Sahih Muslim, Riyadhus-Saliheen, Hadith No. 1547)
If the Islamic philosophy of prudence and analyses were adopted, the entire narrative of the current conflict could be rescued from its own seething toxicity. The concocted lies, manufactured images and misleading videos are all dangerous blunders that – with some sensible fact-checking and a few critical moments of restraint – can be avoided.
Many social media users themselves have noticed how the unabated sharing of non-verified information is being used for insidious purposes. One X user tweeted, “Many people don’t know this but they purposely post such things. The goal is simply to reach as many audience as possible in the heat of the moment where they know a maximum number of viewers are trying to figure out what happened…”
To weaponize the paper-thin fragility of the world´s emotional state right now is nothing short of villainous. Yet even some of the biggest proponents of justice and inter-religious, inter-racial harmony have fallen victim to retweeting unverified, unconfirmed claims and even actively posting false reports about Hamas and/or Israel, only to be called out later for propagating falsehood.
There´s a key difference between misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation is false or inaccurate information, while disinformation refers to deliberately malicious content aimed at spreading fear and suspicion among the masses.
When the madness of war meets the elusive powers of Artificial Intelligence, disinformation becomes all the more dangerous. Deepfakes – videos that can impersonate anyone and depict them doing anything – extend the capabilities of propaganda to as far as the imagination will take us.
Disinformation peddlers and paid propaganda artists thrive on the chaos of widespread panic and confusion. If the Islamic safeguards around filtering information are employed, we can save entire generations from making the critical mistakes being made right now.
The Qur’anic Method of Filtering Information
Another form of untruth is looking at information through the lens of our own bias rather than as fact. The Qur’anic verse above speaks of at least three layers through which any information must pass before it is shared with others.
- “If a news reaches you from an unrighteousness source…”
As explained above, the word faasiq conveys a number of things. Where has the information come from? Is it a neutral source, or does it have vested interests? Does it have a history of proliferating half-baked truths or outright lies?
In essence, if the source of information suffers from any doubt or doubtful intent, be very careful with it. This is precisely why the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) famously advised “leave aside that which is doubtful for that which is not.” (Sunan an-Nasa’i 5711, Book 51, Hadith No. 5714)
2. If the fact / video / report passes the first test, then the Holy Qur’an teaches the science of prudent and judicious analysis of the information itself in the words “Fa Tabayyanoo…” (investigate it fully). Lane’s famous lexicon explains that the word bayyana means “he made it apparent, manifest, evident, clear, plain, or perspicuous,” and that “he looked at it, looked into it, considered it, examined it, studied it repeatedly, or deliberately, in order to know its real state by the external signs thereof.” (Arabic-English Lexicon, E. W. Lane, London: Willams & Norgate 1863)
The Holy Qur’an invites us to ask the hard questions: Does the information make sense? How likely is it that the manner in which we’ve received the news is the whole truth? What do other sources say about it?
3. Finally, if our very best effort to distill the information through the first two layers gives us the green light, the Holy Qur’an invites us to consider a profound final point in the words “lest you harm a people in ignorance, and then be regretful for what you have done.”
The number of social media personalities who have proven the accuracy of these words in the last 10 days alone, by posting things they deeply regretted later after the full truth came out, is beyond anyone’s counting. These Qur’anic words convey the empathetic wisdom that sharing what we see and hear requires. Even if a fact checks out as accurate, a final moment of pause and reflection is needed.
Could the way this information is conveyed have a reverse impact on the ones who will receive it? How will it impact vulnerable groups? Is this the right / best time for me to share it? Is there a better platform or authority to send this information to?
Emotions Should be Fuel, Not Anchors
In the midst of high-flying emotions, burning passions can blind us from recognizing that when we forward an unconfirmed source and it’s proven wrong or inaccurate, it injures even the noblest of causes. It casts a shadow of doubt on critical voices trying to help innocent Palestinian civilians.
When a video makes our blood boil and we forward it without taking the necessary steps to verify its authenticity – especially if it’s later exposed as fake or misleading – what started out as a pure intention can actually hurt the cause.
Buying a few critical minutes of prudence and critical thinking to examine content before sharing it will actually bolster the cause for justice, not impede it. The blatant asymmetry of power and resources that the Israeli side enjoys paired with the disproportionate slaughter of innocent Palestinians already stacks the odds against the victims of what many are calling a genocide.
Let’s make haste that is productive, not haste that weakens the case for the oppressed.
Islam is a solution to all of the world’s challenges and a clear path for humankind to grow and develop toward the most beautiful form of humanity. Even in the 7th century Arabian desert, it brilliantly identified and offered real, practical remedies for the societies of all times. The sociological implications of information and the heavy responsibility we each shoulder is no exception.
If we’re really after the truth, then we have an enormous duty to treat each and every piece of information that falls into our lap with great care. Without putting it through the filter of our own common sense and crossing it against other sources, rather than helping the cause, we could easily end up accomplices in fanning the flames of war instead.
About the Author: Sabahat Ali is an imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Silicon Valley, USA. He serves as a member of the editorial board and is also editor of The Existence Project for The Review of Religions.