The Commodification of Worship: How Automation Dilutes the Meaning of Seeking Laylat al-Qadr

The Commodification of Worship: How Automation Dilutes the Meaning of Seeking Laylat al-Qadr

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
That [is so]. And whoever honors the symbols of Allah – indeed, it is from the piety of hearts.
Quran 22:32

Writer and consultant Edward Bernays revolutionized advertising with his deep understanding of human desires. He is called the father of public relations and one of his strategies of selling was to link consumer products to unconscious desires. Bernays did not waste his time with propositional advertising and instead went directly after what emotionally moved consumers. With this understanding, for example, Bernays was able to challenge the taboo of women smoking by framing cigarettes as ‘torches of freedom’ and thus a symbol of feminine power.

Muslims have been no exception in following advertising norms carved out by Bernays.  The worst manifestation of such marketing however comes when it is applied to the religious market, which inevitably leads to commodifying the sacred.  Though underlying intentions may be good, many Muslim organizations are nevertheless reducing our most sacred signs into mere products to meet the spiritual aspirations of Muslims. As displayed in these ads, My Ten Nights—a platform for automating donations in the last 10 nights of Ramadan—commodifies the most precious night of the year with the unique selling proposition of “catching” Laylat al-Qadr.  The ads show Muslims busy with their careers, and My Ten Nights offers the solution of taking care of their last ten nights with an automated donation tool. This ad campaign moves us away from seeking Laylat al-Qadr and actively worshipping Allah in the last 10 nights of Ramadan.

The ads focus on Muslims at work, who with a distracted glance at their phone assure themselves, “I caught Laylat al-Qadr.” An honest ad would show the platform’s ability to help one give sadaqa, but without acting as a guarantor for “catching” the night.  The ads further send the message that Laylat al-Qadr is not worth any extra effort to seek out and can simply be automated with a “set and forget” model of worship while still maintaining the same level of attention to one’s career.  This not only ignores the value of Laylat al-Qadr but warps the meaning of worship.  Simply, worship is an end and not a means.

If the purpose of the tool is to encourage charity only, why not show someone engaged in worship such as someone in itikaaf who cannot leave the masjid to make a donation, or someone who can focus on reading Quran or praying because the charity aspect of worship is made easy?  This would highlight the tool’s benefit of easing the giving of charity while donors persist in other acts of worship. The ads however, focus on the tool’s ability to let people carry on with their career while mindlessly and peripherally demonstrating their devotion.

Worship and worldly duties

As careers and familial obligations dominate many lives, Muslims look for practical religious guidance for their circumstances. To meet this very real need, scholars will help Muslims maintain religious routines, engage in acts of worship while at work or home, and make good intentions that turn worldly matters into acts of worship. Those who have a connection to a spiritual guide or teacher will be given litanies and be helped in structuring their lives in a way most devotional given the circumstances. Sometimes, scholars just need to help Muslims see that their taking care of dependents, supporting their families, or having careers which provide essential services to others are themselves worship and are better for them to continue than to go into retreat. When people are not able to stay up late on the last ten odd nights of Ramadan due to such obligations or health issues, scholars will point them to easier acts of worship such as reciting Surah Ikhlas three times, praying Isha and Fajr in congregation, or just praying two units of prayer before Fajr to fit the broader definition of qiyaam al-layl (standing in the night).

The Mauritanian scholar Muhammad Mawlud writes in his Nazm al-Tafakkur (The Poem of Reflection), “When you are too busy or feeling lazy, then incline towards the easiest and best of actions, such as reflection, repentance, and multiplying intentions.” There are many ways to accommodate the reality of busy lives and obligations placed upon Muslims and maintain true religion.

The MyTenNights series of ads, however, show individuals busy at work attending to worldly needs, but with a quick message on their phone they are assured that their religious life is being taken care of.  With this assurance, they can confidently return to their jobs while barely giving a second thought to worship. A My Ten Nights Facebook post from May 2, 2020 reads [emojis not included]:

“We understand your Ramadan. Family, work, and the regular daily tasks … all on top of your Ramadan to-do list. But that’s why we exist. To help you make the most out of Ramadan even on your busiest days.
#ICaughtLaylatulQadr.”

What is My Ten Nights doing exactly? Picking up the burden of worship from the rest of us and automating it? We have to wonder where the confidence of boldly declaring “I caught Laylat al-Qadr” comes from.

There is one portion in the ad series which shows a woman taking care of her child.  Many women have guilt about the time spent caring for children during Ramadan and not being able to spend as much time in prayer.  Knowing that this feeling of guilt exists, the advertising manipulates that guilt and suggests that they are the solution while ignoring that taking care of one’s young child is inherently an act of worship too. A mother in such a case should not feel the slightest bit guilty, and in addition to her worship of taking care of her child, she can recite Quran, make dhikr, or make duah while walking around with the baby.  The mother is not in a disadvantageous position to begin with, so to portray a mother taking care of her child as such and then offer the donation to catch Laylat al-Qadr is to offer a solution to a non-existent problem.

Ramadan‚ particularly the last ten nights—is a time of retreat. Many Muslims feel anxiety about being able to properly retreat from worldly tasks in the last ten nights, especially the odd ones.  While religious teachers are encouraging people to do their best given other obligations, My Ten Nights is suggesting that they don’t need to worry about it and that it is taken care of. Simple solutions and statements assuring Muslims that they do not need to worry about it are very appealing and exploitative.

Acceptance 

Allah has hidden his qubool (acceptance) of good actions, and as servants we can never be sure if our action has qubool. This should make us humble and move us to ask Allah for qubool and our uncertainty should serve to constantly remind us of our dependence on God. When we give charity, it should be with the realization that Allah does not need our charity, but we are in need of giving.

The Sahaba would supplicate to Allah for six months to reach Ramadan. Then they would supplicate for another six months for Allah to accept their Ramadan. Our pious predecessors would reflect on the verse “Allah only accepts from the people of taqwa” (5:27) and would be worried that their actions were not pure enough despite being sound and great outwardly. Abdullah Ibn Masud (may Allah be pleased with him) would say “For me to know that Allah has accepted an action of mine is more beloved to me than to possess the world full of gold.” The Prophet told us that Allah is pure and only accepts purity. This is all meant to keep us humble and beseeching Allah for acceptance and guidance.

Contrast this with the “I got this!” attitude shown in the ads that suggests we can all stop worrying about our sincerity and purity of action, because that’s just sweating the small stuff. The “My Ten Nights” account tells us, “Don’t worry about missing Laylatul Qadir this year—in 3 easy steps you can easily catch it!” (May 24 Facebook post). Those three steps are to automate donations processed through My Ten Nights of course.

We should be worried about our actions being accepted, and esteeming the last ten nights is one way of being in the proper mindset for humility based actions. We must not turn the most important night of the year for worship into a checklist item which can be automated.

Worshipping Allah is portrayed as an automated act

Worship should be a heartfelt and present act. Worship is the purpose of life, and sincerity and presence bring worship to life. Worship cannot be automated. It is far superior to take the extra few minutes and donate daily with presence than to assume the automated breakup will stand in place of deliberate consistent acts. You can use technology to set a daily alarm for the donation and take the extra minute to make a donation.

Islam gives us the opportunity to gain intimacy with God through sincere acts of devotion out of love for Him and for His sake. Are we willing to give up that opportunity because a quick and easy online worship service saves a few minutes of making a donation?

As fintech tries to take financial services to the next level, it cannot take our worship to the next level. Technology cannot worship for us. We cannot build our intentions into a software service and automate our worship, and robots will not revolutionize our ability to gain acceptance with God.

The attitude of not worrying about worship, not needing to bother with seeking out Allah’s Mercy and devoting the nights to worship to catch Laylat al-Qadr is sacrilegious.  This is hard to detect in a world where reverence for the sacred is mocked.

Actors in the ad campaign are portrayed as “successful.” They are then using their power (money) to “take care of” their worship. This conveys a few messages: (1) they are too busy or important to actually seek out Laylat al-Qadr. (2) This doesn’t matter because they are successful and powerful. Like priests selling indulgences to absolve their congregants of sin, these ads convey that seeking out Laylat al-Qadr does not apply to the ‘successful’ Muslims. There is a materialistic logic used, rather than prescriptions from Allah and His Messenger .

It is worth noting that the wealthy cannot just opt out of hajj by paying someone to perform it on their behalf. Everyone must toil, dress similarly, and fulfill the same rights.   One little pop up on your phone is not indicative of God accepting your donation. Rather, we should have hope in Allah’s mercy to accept our action and count it as one good deed we did. The confident declarations of “I caught Laylat al-Qadr” are not said in hope, nor out of spiritual ecstasy, but as if it was just purchased with the donation, and they are transactionally guaranteed the night. The ads seem to offer more than just an act of worship, but acceptance itself.

Does catching Laylat al-Qadr mean the night comes and we are alive? Then the whole ummah catches it whether one does a good action or not. Doing a good action does not constitute catching the night either.  Giving life to the night and having acceptance in it is the goal.

In such advertisements we see money being used as power as it is in our worldly lives, to purchase what we want.  We do not, however, have purchasing power to dictate God’s contentment. There is a serious line crossed when an advertisement begins to sell the secret of acceptance that only Allah knows.

Quranic transactional language

The purpose of zakat specifically is purifying your wealth. We know from a hadith that sadaqa (general charity) extinguishes sins like water extinguishes fire.  When we give, our intention must be to help the needy, to share what we have been given with gratitude, to recognize that we too are in need, etc.

Allah uses transactional language in the Quran. For example Allah asks “Who is it that would loan Allah a goodly loan so He may multiply it for him many times over? And it is Allah who withholds and grants abundance, and to Him you will be returned” (Quran 2:245). One reason Allah uses the term ‘loan’ is to emphasize the guaranteed return that the lender will receive in the next life.

Similarly, Allah tells us, “Indeed, Allah has purchased from the believers their lives and their properties [in exchange] for that they will have Paradise. They fight in the cause of Allah, so they kill and are killed. [It is] a true promise [binding] upon Him in the Torah and the Gospel and the Quran. And who is truer to his covenant than Allah? So rejoice in your transaction which you have contracted. And it is that which is the great attainment” (Quran, 9:111).  It would be enough for Allah to just say that He will reward them, as He told us “It is the promise of Allah, Allah does not renege on his promises” (30:6). However, the transactional language of a binding contract in verse 9:111 is to emphatically convey a guarantee.

The Quran encourages us to do good deeds so we may enter paradise, and there are varying narrations of prayers and Quranic chapters to read for sustenance.  These examples of Allah or the Prophet are not remotely analogous to suggestions of purchasing God’s acceptance. The rewards promised in the akhira are contingent upon acceptance. Most importantly however, Allah is revealing His own ways of acceptance, as only He has a right to do.

 A better way

It is very easy to dismiss this as not a big deal, or just ‘the nature of marketing,’ but marketing does not have to be like this. As Neil Postman writes:

  “As late as 1890, advertising, still understood to consist of words, was regarded as an essentially serious and rational enterprise whose purpose was to convey information and make claims in propositional form. Advertising was, as Stephen Douglas said in another con- text, intended to appeal to understanding, not to passions. This is not to say that during the period of typographic display, the claims that were put forward were true. Words cannot guarantee their truth content. Rather, they assemble a context in which the question. Is this true or false? is relevant. In the 1890’s that context was shattered, first by the massive intrusion of illustrations and photographs, then by the nonpropositional use of language” (Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death). 

The My Ten Nights ads are problematic because they alter the meaning of seeking Laylat al-Qadr through automation, continuing business as usual, and putting worship on the back burner.  Imagine that a Muslim AI company created a “Beloved” app that helped one schedule religious obligations and gradually add nafal (supererogatory) acts of worship. Using the hadith Qudsi where Allah states that fulfilling obligations and supererogatory actions is how a servant draws close to Him until Allah loves him, the company markets Beloved as a way of becoming a wali. “Become Allah’s beloved- plan your religious routines today!” some ads may state. This advertisement would not be problematic on the surface because it encourages worship. However, it is manipulative and implies that the app itself can fulfill your desires of becoming beloved by Allah. Instead, manipulative and emotional advertising should be avoided altogether and the app should be advertised honestly as a tool to help organize worship and work towards improvements. We can at least use propositional advertising for religious products. False promises, especially false promises of acceptance by Allah, must be avoided.

The aim of this article is not to deny the benefits and convenience of using technology to help others or question the intentions of the tool’s creators or users.  It is perfectly reasonable for charities to advertise and encourage others to goodness—especially in the last ten nights of Ramadan when donors are the most charitable. But we must be careful not to bring a consumer mentality into Islam, and we cannot allow advertisers to make false or emotionally manipulative suggestions about Allah’s acceptance.  A more appropriate ad would assure donors that they can choose to have their donations automated throughout the last ten nights, as these are common requests, but not as a way of opting out of worship.

As the Sufis say, treat every person as if he is Khidr, and treat every night as if it’s Laylat al-Qadr.

 

To contact Danish Qasim directly, email  Danish@inshaykhsclothing.com

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