Preserving the Intellect in the Digital Age: Challenges and Recommendations

The Digital age presents a new era of opportunities and discoveries. However, it also bears its own sets of challenges that have never emerged in human history. Hyperconnectivity, blind validation and pornography; how can we find the solutions amidst these hurdles as a Muslim and a human being. The preservation of the Intellect is central in finding the answer to the question.
by Ustaz Mohamad Farouq 2021-03-03 • 30 min read
Farouq is a graduate in Islamic Thought and Applied Ethics at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, Doha, Qatar. He has received a B.A degree in Comparative Religion and Usuluddin from the International Islamic University of Malaysia with honours. His area of interest involves issues concerning religion, human development and ethics.
2021-03-03 • 30 min read

“The evil in the world comes almost always from ignorance, and goodwill can cause as much damage as ill-will if it is not enlightened. People are more often good than bad, though in fact that is not the question. But they are more or less ignorant and this is what one calls vice or virtue, the most appalling vice being the ignorance that thinks it knows everything and which consequently authorizes itself to kill. The murderer's soul is blind, and there is no true goodness or fine love without the greatest possible degree of clear-sightedness.”

(Albert Camus, The Plague)

Introduction

In his acclaimed article “The Anthropology of Islam”. Asad describes the tradition as an interplay between the past, present and future. He further explains that this dynamic interplay does not regard the tradition as something nostalgic but it conceptually relates to a past (when the practice was instituted and from which knowledge of its point and proper performance has been transmitted); a future (how the point of that practice can be secured in the short or long term, or why it should be modified or abandoned) through a present (how it is linked to other practices, institutions, and social conditions).[1] In other words, tradition represents a mode of civility. Part of civility is to think. 

Thinking allows us to tell right from wrong, the beautiful from ugly, and the human from inhumane. For this reason, the Quran repeatedly invites its readers to think about the signs of God and their position in this universe.

وَقُلِ ٱلْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ سَيُرِيكُمْ ءَايَـٰتِهِۦ فَتَعْرِفُونَهَا ۚ وَمَا رَبُّكَ بِغَـٰفِلٍ عَمَّا تَعْمَلُونَ

And say, “All praise is for Allah! He will show you His signs, and you will recognize them. And your Lord is never unaware of what you do.”

(Surah An-Naml, 27:93)

Another aspect of the Quranic notion of thinking is the emphasis on hikmah (wisdom), 

يُؤْتِى ٱلْحِكْمَةَ مَن يَشَآءُ ۚ وَمَن يُؤْتَ ٱلْحِكْمَةَ فَقَدْ أُوتِىَ خَيْرًا كَثِيرًا ۗ وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلَّآ أُو۟لُوا۟ ٱلْأَلْبَـٰبِ

“Allah grants wisdom to whoever He wills. And whoever is granted wisdom is certainly blessed with a great privilege. But none will be mindful (of this) except people of reason.”

(Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:269)

Hikmah is commonly defined as knowing the nature of things and doing what should be done.[2] It is this intellectual capacity that distinguishes humans from the rest of creations. 

وَعَلَّمَ ءَادَمَ ٱلْأَسْمَآءَ كُلَّهَا ثُمَّ عَرَضَهُمْ عَلَى ٱلْمَلَـٰٓئِكَةِ فَقَالَ أَنۢبِـُٔونِى بِأَسْمَآءِ هَـٰٓؤُلَآءِ إِن كُنتُمْ صَـٰدِقِينَ

He taught Adam the names of all things, then He presented them to the angels and said, “Tell Me the names of these, if what you say is true?”

(Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:31)

Thus, the preservation of the intellect is one of the highest principles of the Shariah as it is foundational in building capabilities and removing barriers to human development.[3] Traditionally, this principle is interpreted to encourage the seeking of knowledge and prevention of intoxicants. However, the digital revolution has confronted longstanding theological ideas such as free will, human nature, and death. This principle is further complicated in a post-truth world where public opinions are driven by emotions and populist narratives rather than searching for objective truths.[4]

This article does not intend to problematize these theological concepts. However, it aims to outline some of the challenges we face in the digital age and recommendations for reclaiming our humanity by preserving the intellect. It serves as a reflective piece to stimulate further conversations on the subject matter.

Challenges:

1) Hyperconnectivity and fluid identity

Modernity has given us unprecedented connectivity to the extent that we can connect families from opposite ends of the world with just a single touch. Unknowingly, modernity has also transformed this connectivity into something fluid where we are constantly connected with the world without focusing on a single emotion. With one scroll, we are reminded of an act of oppression and our follower's breakfast. We have been conditioned to see the world at a fast pace to be up to date and continuously pressured to negotiate between antinomies. We also fear that the lack of information will make us redundant and disenfranchised. 

Historian Yuval Harari offers a bold prediction that the AI revolution will create a new unworking class and argues that it will be dangerous as it will be tempting to throw superfluous individuals overboard in times of crisis. [5]

As much as it is essential for technology to augment the quality of lives, it has also created spaces for the global flood of misinformation and conspiracy theories. Previously the problem was the scarcity of information, and now, the problem is information overload. This has impaired our human capacity to pause, think and focus on a single emotion and find meaning in our actions. 

This idea draws similarities with Albert Camus' concept of "the hour of consciousness" in the myth of Sisyphus - a mythological greek tale often used to describe a long, arduous and pointless labour. According to Camus, it interests him the most as it presents the perfect analogy of the human condition to finding contentment within what we assume as futile tasks.[6] It offers a coping mechanism for us, humans, to deal with our suffering and the struggles of our cyclical routine. Unfortunately, hyperconnectivity prevents us from realizing this. It can be argued that this deprivation has partly created an anxiety epidemic in the digital age.

Moreover, hyperconnectivity has further blurred the lines between the private and public sphere in which the private life of a subject converges with the public domain. As a result, strangers can know one's daily routine even if it is something profane. We often observe individuals struggling with the thought of reaching for their phones whenever there is something that catches the eye, assuming that it would be validated. Why? Perhaps it is a reflection of our offline psychological state that translates into a need for admiration? It brings us to the second point, where validation allows individuals to climb up the social ladder even when it is detrimental to their well-being.

2) Cosmetic Validation

Human beings are interdependent as the core of what we need is meaningful psychosocial communication. According to Hari, we evolved into seeing each other as social animals, feeling and touching each other. It is how we essentially feel validated. In simpler terms, we look for validation from the people we perceive to have authority, just like a child towards his parents.[7] Interestingly, this usually happens within a limited circle. However, the advent of social media has stretched this circle and imparted power on forces that compel one to mimic everything that the mainstream does to be seen as "equal". 

This phenomenon bears a strong resemblance to the idea of mimicry in postcolonial literature when members of a colonized society attempt to attain some power of their colonizers through the adoption of their language, dress, and cultural attitudes.[8] It can only be achieved by intentionally suppressing one's own cultural identity and local moral world. Unfortunately, we still carry this mindset until today as we knowingly or unknowingly define success by whiteness, fame, wealth, and influence. As a result, we have Muslim Kardashians and Bezos setting the standards for success in Islamic garb. Failure to reach these standards will put us in an endless loop, which is arguably another factor for the rise of depression and anxiety in society.

That being said, validation is part of our human nature, and we should not suppress that nature. Instead, we should strive to seek a healthy form of validation with empathy at its heart, a process where one learns about oneself and share it with the people one trusts. More importantly, learning about oneself and the nature of creation would inevitably bring one closer to Him. It is built upon a fundamental premise in tasawwuf, “God was a hidden treasure and loved to be known. Hence He created creation in order to be known”.[9]

3) Ubiquity of Pornography

Pornography is not a novel discovery, however, the digital age has convoluted the systems in place that have turned it into a multibillion-dollar industry. Technological developments have fundamentally changed the landscape of pornography and made it more accessible than ever before. 

Unsurprisingly, there was an increase in online porn use during the COVID-19 pandemic as many were cooped up at home.[10] As a result, we are seeing a moral ambiguity developing towards porn, particularly among youths.[11] However, it is crucial not to moralise this issue and identify underlying factors that make this industry harmful to society.

In order to address this issue, it is essential to understand the economics driving this vicious industry. According to Banyard, profit margins underpin the dynamics of the industry and dictate the trends in the content set by the producers to feed the demands of consumers.[12] According to research, two key forces are shaping the trends in the industry; competition and habituation.[13] The ubiquity of pornography has pushed producers to find a unique selling point (USP) that entails waging a habituation battle. Habituation occurs when there is a severe reduction in a person's response to material due to repetition. In simpler terms, when boredom sets in the mind of consumers, porn profiteers compete to seek out the novel to satiate their desires.[14]

Furthermore, research has also shown that pornography inflicts harm on consumers emotionally and psychologically by completely altering the perception of themselves and the world around them. [15] Banyard further argues that the wider culture in which porn consumers live is riddled with gender inequality, such as feeding off the sexual objectification of women to make male consumers feel like a ‘real man’.[16] As a result, certain stereotypes and trends of the industry, i.e, violence and aggression, will alter expectations in real-time interactions, particularly towards women and children. In short, the desensitization of pornography reflects one's intellectual depravity that is harmful to society as it monetizes dehumanization and fuels rape culture.

Recommendations:

1) Primacy of Functioning Intellectuals.

According to Alatas, an intellectual is an individual who is engaged in thinking about ideas and non-material problems using the faculty of reason. As a collective, a functioning intellectual group is necessary for nation-building. In its absence, society will not be in a position to 1) pose a problem; 2) define the problem; 3) analyze the problem, and; 4) suggest solutions for the problem.[17] Although Alatas's idea emerged from a specific social milieu, this intellectual process remains as relevant today as ever before. In the age of technopoly-the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technology-[18] a functioning intellectual class needs to serve as the voice of critique in the face of hegemony. The frequent invitations in the Quran to use our intellectual senses in search of the truth affirms Alatas's thesis for a functioning intellectual class. Allah s.w.t. mentions in the Quran:

وَسَخَّرَ لَكُم مَّا فِى ٱلسَّمَـٰوَٰتِ وَمَا فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ جَمِيعًا مِّنْهُ ۚ إِنَّ فِى ذَٰلِكَ لَـَٔايَـٰتٍۢ لِّقَوْمٍ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ

“And He has subjected to you whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth - all from Him. Indeed in that are signs for people who give thought.”

(Surah Al-Jathiyah, 45:13)

Against this backdrop, we should avoid celebrating anti-intellectuals. Alatas describes such group as passive mentally, does not exert himself thinking about different problems, and cannot form an opinion beyond what is evident to most people.[19] According to the brilliant yet controversial Jewish scholar, Hannah Arendt, it was sheer ‘thoughtlessness’ that allowed the Nazi soldiers to commit atrocities on a massive scale.[20] Thus the absence of thinking will allow evil to flourish. We must ensure that there will always be a space for functioning intellectuals to build a humane society.

Islam and Cognitive Development of Children

Screen time and social media have become factors for aggravating the tension between parents and children in the digital age.[21] Parents are often conflicted between enforcing low screen-time and ensuring their children are not alienated from the real world. According to a study published in Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, researchers found that excessive screen time harms children's cognitive abilities.[22] Although they cautioned that the study does not demonstrate a direct causative relationship between screen time and poor cognition, there is compelling evidence to suggest that kids might benefit from lesser screen time. However, parents are also concerned that limiting their screen time will make them feel left out among their peers.[23]

American educator Lisa Guernsey introduces the three C's: Content, Context, and the Child to mediate this conflict. She argues that instead of focusing on the quantity of screen time, parents should focus on using it through the three C's. The content can make a significant difference in whether it benefits the child, such as modelling positive social skills and stimulating the imagination. Understanding the context -the extent to which screen-time dominates a child's daily routine- makes a difference too. Finally, every child uses technology according to their own needs and interests that can be nurtured or suppressed depending on how technology is used.[24] In simpler words, parenting control should be done in moderation and grounded in certain principles and values taught by the family.

In his commentary of Imam al-Ramli’s poetry, Shaykh Abdul Aziz Ahmed provides us with a guideline relevant to developing our children's intellectual capacity. This article would only highlight three out of the five pointers that he has provided, which are as follows:[25]

a) Immersing in the Quran:

The Quran is regarded as the ma’daba Allah (banquet of Allah). Parents must instil the Quran in the upbringing of their children. However, it should not be forceful; rather, it should be dialogical to develop a relationship with the Quran. It is with the hope that through this relationship, they develop the love of righteousness to take root in their hearts.

b) Training the mind:

The idea of ‘busy mind’ does not refer to the term popularized by lifestyle gurus or modern yogis. Instead, it refers to avoiding things that 'busy the mind' in a pointless and directionless manner. Scholars such as Imam Al-Ghazali warn us against occupying the mind with materials that lead to a reduction in manners. It is crucial advice considering the impact of pornography on youths' minds that we have discussed earlier.

c) The need for gentleness

It is essential to recognize that in developing our children's intellect, it should not be separated from the quality of al-rifq (gentleness). Allah has reserved a special reward for those who are kind and gentle. The Prophet s.a.w. said: 

إِنَّ اللَّهَ رَفِيقٌ يُحِبُّ الرِّفْقَ وَيُعْطِي عَلَى الرِّفْقِ مَا لَا يُعْطِي عَلَى الْعُنْفِ وَمَا لَا يُعْطِي عَلَى مَا سِوَاهُ

“Allah is gentle, and He loves gentleness. He rewards for gentleness what is not granted for harshness, and He does not reward anything else like it.”

(Sahih Muslim)

Furthermore, gentleness is part of prophetic guidance and is fundamental in building a stable family institution. The Prophet s.a.w. said: 

إِذَا أَرَادَ اللَّهُ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ بِأَهْلِ بَيْتٍ خَيْرًا أَدْخَلَ عَلَيْهِمْ الرِّفْقَ

“If Allah wishes goodness for a household, He places gentleness among them”

(Musnad Ahmad) 

Thus, gentleness is vital to skillfully work out a solution if there is a conflict between parents and children. In this regard, the mediation between screen time and the real world.

Reentering the Human in Education

According to Postman in his book, The End of Education, "without meaning, learning has no purpose. Without a purpose, schools are houses of detention, not attention. This is what my book is about”.[26] Although economic strength is necessary for social mobility and nation-building, it should not be the end goal of our education system. The search for meaning is vital in knowing the purpose of our life as a human being. The capability to discern the ‘whys’ is a trait that separates humans from machines.

The Malaysian philosopher Naquib Al-Attas recognizes this malaise and systematically expanded the concept of adab to the educational system. He defines adab as an all-inclusive concept that encompasses human's spiritual and material life and is conceptually fused with wisdom (hikmah) and justice (‘adl). Thus, education is the instilling and inculcation of Adab in a human being, and this process is known as ta’dib. He further adds that the aim of education is to produce a man of Adab (Insan Adabi); who is sincerely conscious of his responsibilities towards God, who understands and fulfils his obligations to himself and others in his society with justice, and constantly strives to improve every aspect of him.[27] Thus, education should be driven in producing homo ethicus (human with ethics) over homo economicus (economic-centric human)

From conspiratorial paranoia to a theology of imagination

Conspiracy theory is the belief that a number of actors join together in secret agreement in order to achieve a hidden goal that is perceived to be unlawful or malevolent. It can take many forms in many different spheres of life. It is a defensive reaction to feelings of uncertainty and fear, blaming dissimilar outgroups for the distressing circumstances.[28] Though conspiracy theories have existed for the longest time, the digital revolution has congealed the ubiquity of these theories that turns this fear into paranoia.

This thinking is precarious as it is disengaged from objective truths, and more worryingly, its volatility can cause harm to society at large. Conspiratorial paranoia has no place in the Islamic intellectual tradition. As Muslims, our theology is an active response towards God and the realities of the world.

The modern world, increasingly mechanized and digital, necessitates the construction of theology based on the religious imagination. Nguyen explains this conception where scripture, reason, and imagination are brought into harmony.[29] When faithfully organized, the imagination allows us to discover all that would incline us to the Divine, whether it emerges from the expanse of his creations or the depths of revelation.[30] As God introduced himself through the verbal and non-verbal signs thus, it is our duty as His vicegerents to explore and discern these signs. In a tumultuous world shaped by data and post-truth narratives, the religious imagination has much to offer to the conversation in reclaiming humanity.[31]

Conclusion

This article is not an effort to encourage its readers to be anti-technology or modernity. However, it is a humble endeavour as a voice of conscience to question those who regard technology as a false god. According to Postman, "technological change is not additive, it's "ecological", and that in order for us to comprehend, manage, and even embrace the rapid changes brought on by the technological advancement happening all around us, we need to understand that technology doesn't just add to society, it transforms it”.[32] There is no such thing as a bias-free technology. It is embedded in every development in human society an epistemological, political, or social bias. According to Postman, sometimes that bias is to our advantage, sometimes it is not.  Let us assume our roles as the "best of creations" by using our intellect to critically understand what we "consume" and not just be a mere spectator of the ecological change. It is better to be corrected when wrong than perpetually blinded by arrogance and ignorance.  Allahu A’lam

 

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[1] Asad, T. (2009). The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam. Qui Parle, 17(2), 1-30.
http://dx.doi.org/10.5250/quiparle.17.2.1
[2] 2:269
[3] Auda, J. (2010). Maqasid Al-Shariah as Philosophy of Islamic Law, A Systems Approach. Selangor: Islamic Book Trust.
[4] Coughlan, S. (2017). What does post-truth mean for a philosopher?. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/education-38557838.
[5] Harari, Y. (2017). The rise of the useless class. Retrieved 10 February 2021, from https://ideas.ted.com/the-rise-of-the-useless-class/.
[6] Camus, A. (2018). The Myth of Sisyphus (p. 121). New York: Vintage Books.
[7] Hari, J. (2018). Lost connections. Bloomsbury: Bloomsbury Circus.
[8] Bhabha, H. (1984). Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse. October, 28, 125-133. doi:10.2307/778467.
[9] Often mistaken for a hadith. It is popularized in Sufi literature.
[10] Gan, E. (2021). Watching porn, getting addicted: Experts tell of cases they’ve seen and the risks linked to sexual offenders. Retrieved from https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/watching-porn-getting-addicted-experts-tell-cases-theyve-seen-and-risks-linked-sexual
[11] Quadara, A., El-Murr, A., & Latham, J. (2017). The effects of pornography on children and young people. Retrieved from https://aifs.gov.au/publications/effects-pornography-children-and-young-people-snapshot.
[12] Banyard, K. (2016). Pimp state (pp. 35-45). London: Faber & Faber.
[13] Bridges, A. J., Wosnitzer, R., Scharrer, E., Sun, C., & Liberman, R. (2010). Aggression and sexual behavior in best-selling pornography videos: a content analysis update. Violence against women, 16(10), 1065–1085. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077801210382866.
[14] Banyard, K. (p.46)
[15] Suleiman, O. (2020). Fighting back Against Porn: The Idea & The Industry. Retrieved from https://muslimmatters.org/2020/08/22/fighting-back-against-porn-the-idea-the-industry/.
[16] Banyard, K. (pp.48-49)
[17] Alatas, H. (2016). Intellectuals in Developing Societies (p. 15). New York: Routledge.
[18] Postman, N. (1991). Technopoly (p. 52). New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
[19] Alatas, H. (2016). (pp-15-16).
[20] Arendt, H. (2006). Eichmann in Jerusalem A Report on the Banality of Evil (p. 11). New York: Penguin Books.
[21] Teng, A. (2021). Nearly half of parents with young teens fear curbing social media use would affect their relationship: Survey. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/parenting-education/nearly-half-of-parents-with-young-teens-fear-curbing-social-media-use?utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook&utm_campaign=stfb
[22] Walsh, J., Barnes, J., Cameron, J., Goldfield, G., Chaput, J., & Gunnell, K. et al. (2018). Associations between 24 hour movement behaviours and global cognition in US children: a cross-sectional observational study. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, 2(11), 783-791. doi: 10.1016/s2352-4642(18)30278-5
[23] Teng, A. (2021).
[24] Guernsey, L. (2007). Screen time. Philadelphia: Basic Books.
[25] Ahmed, A. (2013). Educating Children, Classical Advice for Modern Times.(pp. 57-75). Western Cape: DTI Publishing House.
[26] Postman, N. (2011). The End of Education (p. 7). New York: Vintage Books.
[27] Al-Attas., N. (2014). Islam and secularism (pp. 148-155). Kuala Lumpur: IBFIM.
[28] Prooijen, J. (2018). The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories (pp. 5-12). New Yorl: Routledge.
[29] Nguyen, M. (2018). A Cartography of Modern Muslim Theology: Mapping the Interventions and Trajectories of an Academic Muslim Theological Discourse. Retrieved from https://themaydan.com/2018/09/cartography-modern-muslim-theology-mapping-interventions-trajectories-academic-muslim-theological-discourse/?fbclid=IwAR2izRpeWozcJWtkVTuGwVW5IjOgEqWPlrtlbeLz5_fdVC_N8vJ6p8rTsdA
[30] Nguyen, M. (2019). Modern Muslim Theology (p. 76). London: Rowman & Littlefield.
[31] Moosa, E. (2006). Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[32] Postman, N. (1998). Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change (p. 4).

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