Muslim Influencers: Instant Reminders and Reflections

Muslim Influencers: Instant Reminders and Reflections

A hadith on the disappearance of knowledge states that after scholars die, people will take ignorant people as their leaders. They will answer questions when asked, but being misguided themselves, they will misguide others and lead them astray.[1] The wording in this hadith is quite different from literature on evil scholars. The blame here lies with the people for taking ignorant leaders.

We must do our best to not be a sign for the end of times.

A classical charlatan pretends to have substance. He is a wiseacre. He pays homage to the idea of studying, portrays himself as pious, and may be difficult to figure out.

The influencer however is not a real religious figure and does not pretend to be. There is nothing to figure out. The influencer doesn’t need to be a wiseacre. By being an average Muslim, the influencer can give shallow reminders. By not being a scholar, he can minimize his mistakes and not care for decorum. Whether a man talking about being the alpha male or a woman teaching you how to tie your hijab, we must not allot any religious weight to an influencer.

What does it say about us when deception is unnecessary because we do not care for qualifications? What are our standards when we accept enthusiasm, confident utterances, and passionate condemnations as viable substitutes for knowledge?

With an influencer, the questions of how to find a teacher, how do we know someone’s knowledge is sound, etc. do not even apply. They have no qualifications, and do not even pretend they do!

An influencer culture has no concept of intellectual ethos. The quickest people to appropriate a trend become leaders.

They are content creators, so being active and keeping an audience engaged is the goal. Influencers know they are in a trendy and fast paced world so they ‘bite size’ information. They are in a game of likes and shares. Muslim influencers can gain a following through slap stick humor, lip synching, outlandish or provocative takes on marriage, and then appeal to our sentimentality for sages of the past and we fawn over it- oblivious to the aesthetic incongruence of seeing a hikam of Ibn Ata’illah placed between a “Don’t Worry” post and yesterday’s cheeseburger. It’s instant ilm for the button generation.

We do not intentionally go to influencers for Islamic knowledge. Sometimes we turn to them for inspiration or entertainment. Influencers may also be entrepreneurs so we may turn to them for a skill set and the Islamic content is sprinkled on top – usually termed ‘the Islamic perspective of ___.’ Just claiming to have an Islamic epistemology on a given branch of knowledge gives the person credibility to speak on Islam. It’s not attained through teaching Islam. We see this in mental health, activism, masculinity/femininity, and nearly any subject that would make an ‘Islamic perspective’ useful to those anxious about being traditional. Extra points if the influencer is connected to a scholar and most humbly shares what he learned from his teacher.

Another way influencers end up indirectly teaching Islam is through what are dubbed ‘reflections’ and ‘reminders.’ The innocuous terms ‘reflection’ and ‘reminder’ function as ways to circumvent scholarly interpretation. The verse of Quran or hadith must first be understood properly for the reflection or reminder to be acceptable. To expound upon an incorrect understanding spreads ignorance. Although not a commentary proper, faulty presumptions of texts have a similar effect, and perhaps unknowingly, the influencer is giving tafseer bi-al-ray (exegesis from one’s own opinion). Uncritically absorbing such content will shape our understanding of religious texts. Disclaimers such as ‘I’m not a scholar’ do not undo the harm.

More nefariously, influencers may completely make up explanations of Quran and hadith to accord with an ideology. Primary texts are then explained with ‘common sense’ and scholarly exegesis derided as ‘obviously’ wrong. Bending scripture to one’s whims is a sure way to gain followers. Controversy sells. The more comments, the more traction, and for some influencers that’s all that matters.

Being relatable and average sets an influencer up to give simple ‘reminders’ which need not have depth. They are coming from your brother or sister in Islam, and being average is what makes it authentic and valuable. Relatability, however, is the last quality to seek in a teacher. If you base your educational journey off relatability and your established comfort, you will be reinforcing your own personality. You are looking to be coddled, not transformed.

We must recognize that ‘hot takes,’ feel good posts, and reminders are often posted just for the sake of posting. In this context, reminders generally have the profundity of a fact under a Snapple cap. The word ‘reminder’ assumes you already learned the content and your memory is being jogged. If you don’t know something, you can’t be reminded of it. A reminder culture gives us authority we don’t really have in the first place and deceives us by ascribing to us a merit we have not acquired. Traditional knowledge has initiatic stages with an achievement of real value. When information is communicated in a way that implies you already know it, you are acquiring information with no labor, no merit, and no exertion. Such information will do nothing for you and you cannot claim it as knowledge.

While services for Muslims are needed, we must not blur lines between Muslim entrepreneurs and Islamic teachers. Whether someone is running a matrimonial service that “shaykhs trust most!” or an Islamic personality seminar based on traditional humors that quotes Imam al-Ghazali – we must not allot the person any Islamic ethos. We are in an age of content creation so we can expect Muslims to work with religious figures to have a greater market share.  Matrimonial sites, restaurants, and other businesses may benefit greatly from support by prominent or trusted religious figures.

It does not matter how many religious figures find these services useful, support them, or take pictures with the Muslim entrepreneurs –  none of this is religious legitimacy.  Such entrepreneurs do not even meet the criterion for being religious figures.  Likewise, we can expect Islamic leaders to go on platforms that get their messaging out. This business relationship or association however does not even take the form of a religious validation, hence there is nothing to unpack. We interpolate religious validation into the relationship and must catch ourselves. That interpolation can easily be exploited by anyone building a religious influencer brand. Even if content produced is beneficial, it must not be a springboard for religious authority.

We must learn Islam from qualified teachers. Taking knowledge from scholars does not translate into avoiding harm or manipulation. Scholars of the highest degree, with authentic ijazas in tasawuf and Islamic knowledge can be abusive or corrupt. Some scholars may get certification and then go astray and misguide others. However, we can prevent influencers from being a problem by just recognizing it as an invalid religious category ab initio.

We must have high standards for our sources of knowledge. Even if a Muslim content creator makes useful contributions, do not let this useful content indicate any religious qualification.   Furthermore, adding ‘Islamic’ to something does not render it so. Neither does the fact that a Muslim is selling it. As the Muslim market grows, so too will such selling points. Relatability is not a substitute for knowledge. It does not matter how many shaykhs an influencer may take pictures with, how many he hosts on a podcast, or how many retweet him. It is our responsibility to not arbitrarily allot religious authority to an influencer. By simply having some basic standards for knowledge we can bypass the entire phenomenon of influencers speaking on religion.




[1] Sahih Muslim hadith no. 100


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