By Imam Dr. A. Rashied Omar
In this Friday Nasiha I would like to entreat and implore all of us to be very careful about passing on information that has NOT been verified because passing on unverified and incorrect information can imperil people’s lives and cause grave harm to our personal and social well-being.
It might be expedient to begin by reflecting on an important Qur’anic verse that provides us with unequivocal guidance on this topic. Allah, the Lord of Wisdom, proclaims in Surah al-Hujurat (The Inner Apartments) Chapter 49 Verse 6:
O Believers! When an iniquitous person comes to you with any news, ascertain the Truth of it. Lest you harm people unwittingly, and afterwards you become regretful for what you have done.”
In the above verse of the Qur`an, Allah, the Sublime, commands us to be scrupulous in investigating any news that is brought to us, so as to make sure of its authenticity, especially to verify the reliability of the source of the information. The import of the above verse, however, is general: no-one should rush into sharing information or impulsive action on the basis of a piece of information that has not been verified. Such rash sharing or action invariably leads to committing an injustice against an individual or an entire community, and subsequent regret.
A number of Qur’anic commentators, including the famous Isma`il ibn Kathir (d.1373) claim that the specific historical context that this verse speaks to is a situation which took place in Madina in which a companion by the name of Walid ibn Uqbah ibn Mu`ayt had been sent by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to collect zakat alms from the tribe of al-Mustalaq. When he returned Walid reported to the Prophet (pbuh) that the al-Mustalaq tribe was preparing to attack the Muslims with a large force. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was alarmed by this news and sent Khalid ibn Walid to repel the impending attack but wisely advised him to first verify the information before taking action.
Khalid arrived at his destination at night and sent out some of his soldiers to gather information. On their return, they refuted the original report and testified that the al-Mustalaq tribe were in fact not planning any attacks on the Muslims. On the contrary they were conscientious and peace-loving Muslims. Khalid was so astonished that he went to investigate the matter for himself and discovered that the original report had indeed been fabricated. He rushed back to the Prophet (pbuh) to inform him of the matter. It was in this context that the above verse was revealed commending the Prophet’s (pbuh) wise counsel.
One can just imagine the mayhem, injustice and remorse that might have ensued had the Prophet (pbuh) asked Khalid to wage a defensive attack on the basis of the original information without verifying it.
So, what do we learn?
Spreading incorrect information from an Islamic perspective constitutes a spiritual offence and thus incurs the displeasure of Allah. This Qur’an advises us to verify any news before we forward it on to others or take rash action on the basis of it. Moreover, the information peddler is characterized as “iniquitous” (fasiq) in the Qur’an because the act of spreading rumours and unsubstantiated reports can endanger people’s lives and may affect the reputation of people.
Today it is more important than ever to follow this advice. With the advancement of technology and the proliferation of social media platforms fake news, conspiracy theories, unscientific facts or just plain lies can cause deaths, damage, mayhem and can corrupt our societies in a far more diabolical way.
The message I am conveying in this Friday Nasiha should be crystal clear: Be very careful of what you hear and what you pass on. We hear and read so much today. Much of it is gossip, innuendo, insinuations, misconception, exaggerations, misunderstandings and often only a small part of it, is the truth. Be very careful especially when it affects other people’s lives. Spreading incorrect information is extremely harmful and detrimental.
This is even more the case with social media today. It’s not just speech we hear or say but that which we read and forward. Sadly, there are even websites that let you send fake text messages to perpetuate this even further. This is called troll farms, in which lobby groups specialize in using social media to spread their propaganda.
How should we respond to this grave challenge of our times?
1) Verify matters and do not rush to pass on news until you are sure that it is true.
2) After you have verified the information as being true then think about whether sharing the information will benefit the person to whom you are forwarding the information or bring harm?
I conclude with a beautiful prophetic tradition (hadith) which should be the guiding principle of every conscientious Muslim and responsible citizen. In this hadith recorded in the collections of Imam Bukhari and Imam Muslim and reported by the companion Anas ibn Malik (may Allah be pleased with him), the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, exhorted us as follows: “Make things easy and do not make things difficult. Give glad tidings and do not spread panic and alarm.”