The Internet, Learning Arabic and Islam – Interview with Ustadh Abdullah Misra
Saad Razi Shaikh interviews Ustadh Abdullah Misra on the internet’s effect on the Umma today, being a student of knowledge, the problems facing reverts, and much more.
Ustadh Abdullah Anik Misra was born and raised in Toronto, Canada, into a Hindu family of North Indian heritage. He became Muslim at the age of 18, graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in Business Administration, worked briefly in marketing, and then went abroad with his wife to seek religious knowledge full-time, first in Tarim, then in the West Indies, and finally in Amman, Jordan, where he has focussed his traditional studies on the sciences of Sacred Law (fiqh), hadith, Islamic belief, tajwid, and sira. In this interview, he speaks about the challenges reverts face today, the experience of teaching the Islamic sciences online, the traits a student should look for in a teacher, and the checklist a student needs to run through before setting out to seek knowledge. Excerpts from the interview:
What is the effect of the internet on the Umma today?
The effect of the Internet on the Umma today can only be seen in the context of the effect of the Internet on humanity in general. The Internet has brought many benefits and good things to human civilization. But there have been many great harms as well to society. So obviously the benefits are the greater and faster communication, it’s easier now to convey ideas from one part of the world to the other. Finding solutions to problems, finding answers to questions, and finding advice is possible through it. Knowledge has become democratized in a sense. Now everyone has a lot more access to knowledge. Certain points of discussions can be had, dialogues are possible now in a way that never existed before. All of these things are general benefits to mankind that the Internet has bought.
But there have been downsides too, for example, the addictions that the Internet has brought, the convenience of horrible ideas like pornography and violence. The spreading of wrong ideas become easier now. Misleading people has become easier now with stuff like fake news. There is also the dumbing down of people, that has become easier on the internet. The level of social interaction has dropped.
In the greater context, we can say that all the benefits and the harms that have happened to society at large have also occurred to the Muslim Umma. There are things that have specifically affected the Umma because there are certain things that Muslims are not supposed to be doing, on or off the Internet. Certain things like pornography are now easier for Muslims to access and fall into, for example. That’s one thing. The Umma specifically has now become more exposed to disobedience than it was before. The other thing that has happened is that corrupt ideas pop up, non-experts speaking to people, you know, everybody kind of saying what they think about an issue. This has also caused a little bit of confusion in many people.
Also, just from a spiritual perspective, the amount of ghiba that a person reads and engages in, for example, backbiting people on the Internet, has actually increased exponentially. So whereas before backbiting used to be something you tell one person, now you put it on a blog and a person’s sins multiply exponentially by everyone who reads it.
Are there good effects of the internet as well? Of course there are, without a doubt, SeekersGuidance itself. Then the Dawa a potential that the Internet has. How many people became Muslim through reading something on the internet or discovered or came back to a worshiping Allah Most High, came back to religiosity, came back to a sense of faith? People who were confused and had questions have found answers to their questions. Learning has become possible. Now there are people, for example, I know one girl, in a remote village somewhere in South America, who through the internet came to learn about Islam, embraced Islam and then began learning about Islam. She doesn’t have much of a support system around her. So now she finds support online. So there have been a lot of opportunities of good as well on the Internet, but its harms need to be pointed out so that we as an Umma can intelligently navigate the ocean of the Internet and take what is good and avoid what is bad.
You have worked for a long time for the SeekersGuidance Answers service in the past. What are some themes, some constant issues you see being asked?
Of the constant themes, number one is OCD; people having waswasa or obsessive compulsive disorder. The teaching of religion online, especially fiqh and aqida tends to be a kind of a honeypot to attract people who are susceptible to obsessive compulsive disorder. The issue is, they are seeing their religion as a source of worry and problems rather than using their religion as a source of solace and guidance to help them in their lives.
And so this is a problem of self study sometimes, having misplaced priorities and inordinate fear over hope when it comes to religion. So part of the thing SeekersGuidance answer service, and SeekersGuidance in general tries to do is help with this. If you notice, all the scholars that are related to it are trying to bring people out from looking at religion as something that is primarily based on fear, threat, haram and halal, and does and don’ts; and bringing them into a more enlightened, more fulfilling and more spiritual way of looking at their religion. This is in terms of bringing them closer to their Maker and using that relationship of love and mercy to walk in the rest of their religious journey, carrying that knowledge of Allah’s mercy with them.
So that’s one of the themes that comes up, that people have been viewing their religion in a negative light all too often. They are actually trapped and burdened by these issues. Our job would then be to encourage people to see their religion in the balanced way that it’s supposed to be. And help them use the religion to come out of their problems in their lives and find greater meaning for themselves.
Other constant issues are, I would say, family issues. These are things that are very common. Intricacies and disputes within the family, questions about adjusting to societal norms, the demands of society when it seems to clash with a one’s religious principles, and so on.
You’ve traveled to Yemen, the Caribbean and finally to Jordan for the study of sacred knowledge. Before setting out to seek knowledge, is there a checklist (of goals and needs) that a student must run through?
This is a very good question and it’s much easier to answer this question in retrospect than when you’re in the situation. Part of what helps a student go abroad is that when they’re young, they’re idealistic and they have fewer responsibilities. I was in my early mid-twenties when I left Canada. I think a part of not having the complete picture of responsibilities and being a bit more adventurous actually helps. It’s a wisdom of Allah to get young people out without considering too many things.
But there is a checklist that one needs to know. First of all, what’s my goal? At the end of the day, what do I want to do? This can actually develop and change as a student matures and grows older, and they begin to realize that their intention itself develops and grows deeper and deeper. So this is something that they should know, that they will change on their journey. In the beginning it’s good to ask yourself, why are you going abroad? What do you want to achieve from this? What do you want to do for yourself in the future? And then there are practical questions: where am I going? Am I likely to achieve my goals? How long do I plan to go for? How do I plan to support myself? Is it safe to be there?
Is it a place where I can adjust? What type of ideas will I come across? Is the environment that I’m going to study in conducive to a balanced learning of mainstream traditional Islam? So these are different questions that one has to ask oneself. They should also ask, have they consulted with the scholars and other students of knowledge who have gone to the same places and come back or still there regarding their advice? And then also, why am I going abroad and what am I leaving behind? Am I leaving things behind in a responsible way, or am I running away? Am I undertaking this to seek Allah’s pleasure or for religious tourism?
So there are different things that people should ask themselves before they go abroad. But sometimes, and most of the time, many people who enter abroad, they didn’t ask themselves these questions, but through the journey Allah taught them what they should be doing and how they should be looking at their purpose in life. So many people would come back from the journey without having achieved their goals, but having matured in different ways and finding their place back in society again. And some would go for a long time and achieve their goals. I think part of that has to do with continuously running through their purposes and their intentions, and developing the idea of what they want to do with the knowledge they gain.
What are some challenges that reverts face today?
Some of the challenges that reverts face today, I think are the fact that there are a lot of voices claiming to represent Islam. It’s not as simple as reading an introductory book on Islam and then start practicing basic religion anymore. Before, you might have found at most two or three groups in the masjid that calling you towards different things. No matter which one you join, you will become religious anyway. That’s how it was in the past, when I became Muslim. Now, I think there is a lot more confusion because certain basic principles on the Internet are challenged and questioned by those who do not have sufficient qualification or understanding and training in religion.
So this becomes very confusing for the reverts. The other thing is that because the Internet is the primary way of interacting with one’s religious search, they come across many things that dissuade them, and untruth as well. So they have to navigate through a lot more false hope to get to the truth. Another challenge that reverts face today is the level of indoctrination that they are coming from, from their own societies, and the paradigms that have to sometimes be shifted in order to settle into their new religious outlook and way of life. That is more challenging today because the world has gotten further and further away from a natural, wholesome, holistic lifestyle that is good for mankind in general from the fitra.
For example, family life is breaking down in many places. Consumerism, materialism is increasing. It’s the age of anger where shouting and insulting becomes a norm over a rational dialogue, discussion, and mutual respect. A lot of people are coming with that baggage into the truth. It takes some time to basically cleanse that out of one’s system, and become wholesome and natural in the way of living life again.
Today via the internet, learning Arabic has become much easier. Is it recommended to study Arabic online, for the purpose of understanding the Qur’an better, or is it necessary that one studies Qur’anic Arabic only in the company of a scholar?
First of all, I think one should study Arabic as a tool and then apply it to one’s understanding of Qur’an, Hadith and whatever else one wants to do with Arabic. You can study Arabic only to understand the Qur’an, but what happens is that the person’s understanding of Arabic becomes shallower than if they understand Arabic as a full-fledged, a beautiful language that it is, and then approach the Qur’an and understand what it’s saying. In our time, I don’t think there’s any one way that a person has to learn Arabic. I think the main thing is that one should take any means possible at all times and continuously apply oneself to try different means.
People often take intensive crash courses. That’s good. But the way to retain that or the way to grow is to gradually a study it over a longer period of time, right? To consolidate. Even if you do something intensive, you have to give some time every week to keep up with it. That’s one thing. The second thing is to be persistent. If one avenue doesn’t work, try another. I found that the biggest obstacle is that people usually try to study Arabic in two or three or more ways before they actually succeed in getting a modicum of Arabic language down just to understand the classical texts. The problem is every time a person tries one way and fails, they usually stop studying Arabic for a while. It could be months or even years. And then go back to it again and revisit it later on.
So many people who I see who are studying Arabic will tell me they tried this and they tried that over the years. The thing to be aware of is that if one thing doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean that you’re bad. It just means that this is not the way that you need to learn it. Just because one way of learning didn’t work for you, you shouldn’t be dissuaded from learning altogether, whether it’s online, or in the company of a scholar.
Arabic is a tool science. It need not be studied in a religious setting necessarily or under an Islamic scholar. Arabic is a tool science, meaning it’s something you need to understand the texts. Some people try to seek their spiritual and religious experience and knowledge experience through the study of language itself. And unless you’re planning to enroll in a madrasah for a number of years, I find that it’s much more effective to just look at which program is most effectively going to teach you the Arabic. Once you have the Arabic, you can then go to get your religious experience after that, once you have the tools to understand classical texts and sit in the company of scholars.
Teaching the Islamic sciences via the internet has seen a rise in the past couple of years. As a teacher at SeekersGuidance Global, what have been some key takeaways from your experiences?
The key takeaway is that teaching via the Internet has made it possible for us to connect with people that we never would’ve been able to connect with or know because they’re just too far apart, and too scattered, too disconnected. Allah has made a way of connecting believers to each other and to Him in a time of disconnectedness. That’s one thing. Number two, because communities have actually broken down, Allah made another way for Muslims to hang on to their tradition and their religion. So it’s a great mercy. The takeaway though is that this should transition at some point into personal, actual, on the ground interactions with teachers and scholars in order to create a healthy exchange from heart to heart.
So I think the introductory phases are okay online. But at some point in time, travelling or finding local scholars must be done. The traditional way is the best way to observe what Islam looks like when it’s actually practiced in a balanced and beautiful way. Otherwise the person runs the risk of not knowing how to balance the theory of what they learned with an actual lived example. To express things like good character, mercy, consideration for others, which are not necessarily always encoded, but that require a spiritual state and a broader understanding in order to display and demonstrate. That aspect should come into play. It shouldn’t remain on the Internet. The Internet should be a tool to connect people to each other and to use to the extent that is necessary.
This becomes possible by the Internet because now scholars can get in touch with different communities and travel to those communities or advertise, for example, when they have retreats. People can travel to that. That’s a way of connecting. Then go back to where you live and continue through the Internet. So it’s a blend. You also learn, you also meet other seekers, fellow seekers whom you can form friendships with, where people can rely on each other for spiritual support.
In seeking guidance, both online and offline, what are some traits a student should look for in a teacher?
This is a very good question. I think the number one thing is that the teacher should have a pedigree to qualified traditional scholars who themselves are a representative of the tradition, in its most balanced and beautiful way.
What does the teacher believe? Where are they coming from? The other thing the student should look for is, do the teacher’s mannerisms and inner state correspond with what they’re saying and what they’re teaching on the outward? A teacher should not just be one who knows a lot of facts or is able to memorize the most. Now that does sometimes impress people. But even if they have a lesser amount of knowledge that they reliably know but carry that with a higher level of character and a deeper spiritual understanding of the beauty of Islam, that’s better for a student in the beginning. And even later on. Someone who has a lot of knowledge, but is devoid of the prophetic example, that’s something that a student should look out for. The other thing is that there should be an understanding of the realities of what the student goes through, the modern world, the society where the student comes from. This is important as well for the student to get answers and guidance relevant to the way that they see things.
Another thing is that the teacher should not be overly polemical or partisan to the extent that their teaching becomes more about debating. Debating people and argumentation takes away the baraka from studying the religion, unless people are at a specialized level. That’s different. But for a beginning student, they should avoid a teachers that try to impose a polemical identity on them, rather than to teach them the basics of how to know, worship, and come closer to their Lord.
In the modern age, many “reformers” insisted on returning to a “pure” form of Islam, by purging it of what they saw as theological, spiritual excesses. Adherents of such an outlook continue today, rallying for it on the internet and other forums. How does such a thinking sit with the centuries-old mainstream consensus?
We have to consider the trauma the Umma went through in the last few centuries, especially in the colonial and postcolonial period. There are reforms from all different types of groups, not just for example, those who are literalist, but also those coming from what you might call the spiritual camps as well. Many different groups that insisted they’re trying to solve the question of how did we get into this situation, and many of them are speculating on the reasons as to why, what deficiency was it, what should we have been focused on and what was everyone doing wrong that got us into this position in the first place? To answer this question, they seem to focus on certain things that they believe are priorities in the religion and picked on things, or highlighted things that they felt were the causes of the problems that the Muslim world is in today.
The centuries old mainstream consensus that you’re asking about was much more balanced. It balanced fiqh, it balanced hadith, it balanced logic, it balanced aqida, it balanced politics and ethics. It balanced a spirituality, a mysticism, teaching, and philosophy.
So the previous age was an age of balance in which the Muslim Umma would balance itself out because it was at the liberty to pursue this knowledge in a safe space, and allow the free flow of knowledge between scholars in the Umma. Now because of the breakdown in the authority structures in the circles of knowledge, the institutions of knowledge, what’s happened is that different people (not just reformers, there are many groups; I don’t think we should pick on any one group necessarily) are trying to figure out what happened. What needs to be done, I believe, is that we need to go back to looking at how the Umma had its balance and how it viewed different forms of worship within Islam, within different subjects, different knowledges and sciences, the different responsibilities and prerogatives of the Umma.
We have to go back to viewing these things in a balance, rather than-a-one-size-fits-all-solution. We need to go back and invest in the things that will stabilize our communities, first at the individual, then the family, then the community level. We have to pay attention to the inward and the outward of religion, to the physical, the mental and the spiritual. We need to try to regain that sense of balance and get on an even keel before we start. What this will help us do is to express things in a balanced way, right? So then when we study, when we teach, when we call people to the religion, and we live life, we will be without theological and spiritual excesses, and deficiencies as well.
Saad Razi Shaikh is a journalist based in Mumbai. He writes on popular culture and community initiatives. He can be reached on Twitter @writweeter