DON’T SHEIKH YOUR GOOGLE!: IT HAS BEEN CRITICIZED AS UNRELIABLE SOURCE OF INFORMATION ABOUT ISLAM
by Syarif Hidayat
Please do not make your Google search engine as your ‘Information Sheikh’ or ‘Cyber Imam’ for information about Islam and Muslims. Experts and Islamic jurists have criticized ‘Sheikh Google’ as an unreliable source of information about Islam. “Religions were never programmed for Google,” they said. The most reliable and authentic sources of information about Islam is of course Al Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad PBUH’s Hadiths.
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful. The God Almighty Allah says in Al Qur’an: “And thus We have sent to you (O Muhammad SAW) Ruh (a Revelation, and a Mercy) of Our Command. You knew not what is the Book, nor what is Faith? But We have made it (this Qur’ân) a light wherewith We guide whosoever of Our slaves We will. And verily, you (O Muhammad SAW) are indeed guiding (mankind) to the Straight Path (i.e. Allâh’s Religion of Islâmic Monotheism). The Path of Allâh, to Whom belongs all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth. Verily, all the matters at the end go to Allâh (for decision).” (Al Qur’an, Surah Ash-Shura, Verses:52-53)
“And (remember) the Day when We shall raise up from every nation a witness against them from amongst themselves. And We shall bring you (O Muhammad SAW) as a witness against these. And We have sent down to you the Book (the Qur’an) as an exposition of everything, a guidance, a mercy, and glad tidings for those who have submitted themselves (to Allâh as Muslims).” (Al Qur’an, Surah An-Nahl, Verse 89)
“And this is a blessed Book (the Qur’ân) which We have sent down, so follow it and fear Allâh (i.e. do not disobey His Orders), that you may receive mercy (i.e. be saved from the torment of Hell).” (Al Qur’an, Surah Al-Anaam, Verse:155)
“The revelation of this Book (the Qur’ân) is from Allâh, the All-Mighty, the All-Wise. (1) Verily, We have sent down the Book to you (O Muhammad SAW) in truth: So worship Allâh (Alone) by doing religious deeds sincerely for Allâh’s sake only.” (Al Qur’an, Surah Az-Zumar, Verses:1-2)
Concerning the purity and authenticity of Al Qur’an, Allah SWT gives a guarantee in Al Qur’an: “Verily We: It is We Who have sent down the Dhikr (i.e. the Qur’ân) and surely, We will guard it (from corruption)”(Al Qur’an, Surah Al-Hijr, Verse:9)
Sunnah or Hadith
The Qur’an is the last divine book, which was revealed from Allah as a declaration and guidance to mankind. It is an explanation of all things and means for men to be rightly guided. In many verses of the Qur’an, it is commanded to obey the prophet of Allah. This is quite a significant point because understanding the Qur’an fully can only be possible with following the Sunnah of the prophet.
The Sunnah or Hadith is the explanation of the Qur’an. It is the creed of ahl-i Sunnah, which has been constituted with collecting true hadiths of the prophet Muhammad (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam), and interpretation of these hadiths by great scholars in later times.
It’s worth dwelling upon a point here. The Sunnah is not a concept that can be dealt with separately from the Qur’an. In the Qur’an, it has been mentioned that the prophet removes heavy burdens, makes rules, teaches the ummah (society) the open and hidden meanings of the Qur’an.
As a matter of fact, when we look at the practices of Sunnah, we see that the prophet of Allah gave His companions a lot of information about numerous subjects. This information was then interpreted by scholars of the time, continued to be practised in daily lives and has passed on to us generations to generations.
The Arabic word Sunnah has come to denote the way Prophet Muhammad (S), the Messenger of Allah, lived his life. The Sunnah is the second source of Islamic jurisprudence, the first being the Qur’an. Both sources are indispensable; one cannot practice Islam without consulting both of them. The Arabic word hadith (pl. ahadith) is very similar to Sunnah, but not identical. A hadith is a narration about the life of the Prophet (S) or what he approved – as opposed to his life itself, which is the Sunnah as already mentioned.
In M. M. Azami’s Studies in Hadith Methodology and Literature, the following precise definition of a hadith is given: According to Muhaddithiin [scholars of hadith -ed.] it stands for ‘what was transmitted on the authority of the Prophet, his deeds, sayings, tacit approval, or description of his sifaat (features) meaning his physical appearance. However, physical appearance of the Prophet is not included in the definition used by the jurists.’
Thus hadith literature means the literature, which consists of the narrations of the life of the Prophet and the things approved by him. However, the term was used sometimes in much broader sense to cover the narrations about the Companions [of the Prophet -ed.] and Successors [to the Companions -ed.] as well. The explosion of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries confronted Islamic scholars with a daunting task: to preserve the knowledge of the Sunnah of the Prophet (S). Hence the science of hadith evaluation was born.
The promise of Allah
The promise made by Allah (SWT) in Qur’an 15:9 is obviously fulfilled in the undisputed purity of the Qur’anic text throughout the fourteen centuries since its revelation. However, what is often forgotten by many Muslims is that the divine promise also includes, by necessity, the Sunnah of the Prophet (PBUH), because the Sunnah is the practical example of the implementation of the Qur’anic guidance, the wisdom taught to the Prophet (PBUH) along with the scripture, and neither the Qur’an nor the Sunnah can be understood correctly without the other.
Allah (SWT) preserved the Sunnah by enabling the companions and those after them to memorize, write down and pass on the statements of the Prophet (PBUH), and the descriptions of his way, as well as to continue the blessings of practicing the Sunnah.
Later, as the purity of the knowledge of the Sunnah became threatened, Allah (SWT) caused the Muslim Ummah to produce individuals with exceptional memory skills and analytical expertise, who travelled tirelessly to collect thousands of narrations and distinguish the true words of prophetic wisdom from those corrupted by weak memories, from forgeries by unscrupulous liars, and from the statements of the large number of Ulama (scholars), the companions and those who followed their way. All of this was achieved through precise attention to the words narrated, and detailed familiarity with the biographies of the thousands of reporters of hadith.
The methodology of the expert scholars of hadith in assessing the narrations and sorting out the genuine from the mistaken and fabricated, for ms the subject matter of the science of hadith. In this article a brief discussion is given of the terminology and classifications of hadith.
Sahih Bukhari and Muslim
The Arabic word sahih translates as authentic or correct.
Saḥīḥ al-Bukhārī (Arabic: صحيحالبخاري), is one of the Kutub al-Sittah (six major hadiths) of Sunni Islam. These prophetic traditions, or hadith, were collected by the Persian Muslim scholar Muhammad al-Bukhari, after being transmitted orally for generations. Sunni Muslims view this as one of the three most trusted collections of hadith along with Sahih Muslim and Muwatta Imam Malik. In some circles, it is considered the most authentic book after the Quran.
Sahih Muslim (Arabic: صحيحمسلم, ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, full title Al-Musnadu Al-Sahihu bi Naklil Adli) is one of the Kutub al-Sittah (six major ahadith) of the hadith in Sunni Islam. It is the second most authentic hadith collection after Sahih al-Bukhari, and is highly acclaimed by Sunni Muslims. It was collected by Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj, also known as Imam Muslim. Sahih translates as authentic or correct.
Don’t Sheikh your Google
Nadia Jamal in her article titled: “Sheikh your Google” published in The Point, an Australian online magazine, writes “as a growing number of young people search for information about Islam online, experts warn that ‘religions were never programmed for Google’. It’s the online phenomenon that is gripping young Muslims thirsty for answers to pressing questions about their faith. But ‘Sheikh Google’- where internet users are turning to the search engine to obtain religious advice ranging from the serious to the mundane – has been criticized as an unreliable source of information about Islam.”
Some of the concerns mirror those raised by the medical profession about users turning to ‘Dr Google’ to self-diagnose. Heightened criticism about Islam in the 9-11 decade prompted Muslims in greater numbers to search for answers about their Islamic identity. This came against a backdrop of growing mistrust of mainstream news sources, say academics.
Dr Gabriele Marranci, who has studied the impact of ‘Sheikh Google’ on young Muslims and non-Muslims in the United Kingdom, Singapore, Malaysia and Australia, said the trend was “a widespread problem” that particularly affected young people.
According to Dr Marranci, the director of the Centre of Study for Contemporary Muslim Lives at Macquarie University, some of the more common Google searches about Islam relate to sexuality (‘Can I have a girlfriend?’), relationships (‘Can I get a divorce?’) and politics (‘Can I take part in a public protest?’). Most of the Google searches about Islam by Australian users so far this year relate to information about the expressions ‘Muslim’, ‘What is Islam’ and ‘Religion’. Reader interest in Australia about Islam peaked between 26 May and 1 June, a search on Google Trends found, which showed most of the searches were about the stabbing murder in a London street of off-duty soldier Lee Rigby by two men who claimed to be acting in the name of Islam. The review also found that most of the interest in the term ‘Islam’ originated in Tasmania, followed by NSW.
Why a quick fix is not always best
A global expert on Muslim affairs, Aftab Malik, who recently conducted a three-month study program for young Muslims in Sydney at the invitation of the Lebanese Muslim Association, said while the world wide web allowed young people to search for answers quickly, the platform ignored “the complexities and nuances of Islamic scholarship”. Mr Malik said that imams (or Muslim religious leaders) trained for many years before they were qualified to speak or rule on matters of faith. This level of understanding could not be matched by an internet search.
However, he said Muslim youth increasingly mistrust mainstream print and television news, leaving most to “exclusively get their information from the internet”. These suspicions are compounded by a growing cultural and linguistic gulf between imams at local mosques, who have a limited grasp of English, and young people, who want immediate answers in English. Mr Malik said that turning to ‘Sheikh Google’ for knowledge about Islam is dangerous because the person at the other end who is answering the question is likely to be “a contradictory ‘sheikh’ who tells you something different on every page”.
“The internet has compounded this problem as ill-informed opinions appear to be fatwas [religious edicts] written by scholarly authorities,” he said. Unlike many imams, he said, those who hold extreme views online can speak fluent English, are culturally savvy and find it easy to build a simplistic narrative of good versus evil, despite a lack of formal Islamic training. Such extremists take advantage of people wanting to know the answer “here and now”, Mr Malik explained, as increasingly faith is something being experienced, not learnt.
But Mr Malik warned that Islam is a “nuanced” religion, and the problem was not necessarily who was speaking on behalf of Islam, but that “everyone is speaking on behalf of Islam”. Mr Malik, a London-based Muslim scholar, is a designated UN Alliance of Civilizations ‘global expert’ on Muslim affairs and the editor of four anthologies that explore Islamic theology, radicalism and the war on terror.
He pointed out that most terrorism-related cases in Australia involved the use of the internet for religious instruction, and there is concern that “virtual jihad can lead to physical jihad”. Since 2001, 22 people have been convicted of terrorism-related offences in Australia. During his time in Sydney, Mr Malik conducted sessions with young people on various topics including ‘Virtual jihad: extremism on the World Wide Web’. “On the internet, everything is on tap …,” he said.
For Dr Marranci, whose centre is a research hub in Macquarie’s Department of Anthropology, the use of the internet to issue fatwas, or Islamic rulings, is a particular concern. “Anybody can become a sheikh on the internet,” he said. “You cannot check the real credentials and this is very problematic because more and more, the material that is posted is political and ideological and tends to forms of radicalization, which depending on the website, is trying to produce conflict.”
The who, how and why of ‘Sheikh Google’
So who are the young Muslims turning to Google for answers? “The people who look at the internet are not the pious Muslims,” said Dr Marranci, who is affiliated with the UK’s Cardiff University. “They don’t go very often to the mosque.” They may also be unnecessarily embarrassed about asking an imam certain questions, especially about sexuality. “One of the main problems my research found is that the Muslims who use Google find pages-and-pages of answers that contradict each other, so the person feels free to pick up what they want,” Dr Marranci said.
“If you are a violent person, you pick up the violent Islam through ‘Sheikh Google’, and if you think it’s right to beat up your wife, which is not right in mainstream Islam, then you will find the answer that it is right. They don’t do any research about who is providing the information, they just get the information, as many of us do with news.” The danger this posed was that if enough people repeated untruths, such statements could become a reality, he said. “This is very different from face-to-face teaching of religion where you can be guided. Religions were never programmed for Google, but for face-to-face teaching.”
Dr Marranci said ‘Sheikh Google’ was responsible for misinforming some young Muslims, particularly on themes such as democratic values and the treatment of women. “A website based in Afghanistan or Pakistan, for example, has nothing to do with Australia,” he said. “And the context – where you live – matters. If you go to an imam, they can say, ‘I know in your village you used to do that, but here you can’t do that’.” Dr Marranci recounted meeting a Sydney imam and a male worshipper, who were discussing whether Islam permitted the man to hit his wife. While the knowledgeable imam disagreed, the man was adamant that he could, based on what he had read on the internet.
“He [the man] had printed this document – ‘is it right to beat my wife?’ He selected the page he liked and the guy insisted it should be right because it came from the internet,” Dr Marranci recounted. “This sounds funny, but some students do the same at university. They print out what is on Wikipedia [and use it as a source]. So, it’s not just ‘Sheikh Google’. People tend to trust more the information from the internet than face-to-face education.” He said this was part of a growing trend where consumers were increasingly turning to the internet as an authority. “This is a process where people believe information they can get themselves from an unknown source is better,” he said.
A call for change
Dr Marranci shared Mr Malik’s concerns about a generational gap in the Muslim community, saying the internet highlighted the widening divide between imams and young people. “Young people use the internet,” Dr Marranci said. “But many of the scholars of Islam are not young, so you have a generational conflict. The imams don’t have any [internet] training to address these young people. If we want to fight ‘Sheikh Google’, we need imams who are trained, to convince these people why it is wrong. It’s not enough to say it’s just wrong. You need to explain why and engage with this material.” While it saved time, a Google search allowed users to select the answer they most liked without personal guidance.
“So more and more people create their own Islam,” Dr Marranci said.
“It’s very scary when religion becomes independent from tradition. I think this is one of the main issues that we face today as far as Islam, because Muslims have less time and Islam needs a lot of time. It’s a difficult religion to study, so what happens is that Google facilitates an easy Islam, a simple solution.” As young people increasingly rely on the internet for news, entertainment and social networking, is there a place in the online world for a ‘cyber imam’ to help address the concerns of the digital generation?
Dr Marranci was not convinced about the potential for answers about Islam in online searches.
“Unfortunately, I’m a bit pessimistic about that because it is submerged by an incredible number of incorrect things and dangerous information,” he said. Dr Marranci cited a university exercise where his students conducted a Google search of Islam. He said the first five pages of results portrayed Islam as evil. “It’s not that ‘Sheikh Google’ is a problem per se; it is that people don’t often have the capacity to select the information, which may have been created for ideological reasons,” Dr Marranci said. Amid growing calls for religious leaders to modernize their communication techniques, including social media, Mr Malik suggested Australia should establish a “virtual network of imams” or “e-imams”.
In a vast country like Australia where groups are spread out, such a network would enable religious leaders who have lost influence in the digital age to share information and knowledge. “Make them [the imams] relevant again by making them approachable to an internet savvy generation of young Muslims,” Mr Malik said.
Grand Mufti concerned with Sheikh Google phenomena
Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt and one of the world’s most respected Islamic jurists, has called for greater dialogue and tolerance over the growing challenges created by the explosive growth of social-networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. In a wide-ranging interview about how the Muslim world should help young people to confront both the dangers and benefits of the internet, the Grand Mufti called for caution and understanding, but rejected calls for a ban on social networking.
The Grand Mufti said the Prophet Mohammed was perceived as the ultimate subject of emulation by 1.5 billion Muslims all over the globe. “Muslims throughout the world are required to venerate the Prophet by expressing their love and devotion to him. Insulting the Prophet is something that should not be taken lightly,” he said. The Grand Mufti cautioned that social-media sites such as Twitter and Facebook presented a bigger challenge for young Muslims and Arabs, who are now “surrounded by a sea of information and misinformation”.
He said: “There is a great worry of them getting lost in the midst of all these waves.” Too often, Sheikh Ali said, internet users trusted the information they were given without checking the facts and the authenticity of sources. However, he said, society had a duty to have “an open dialogue with youth, where we listen and talk to them on an equal footing”. “We need to teach and help them to swim in today’s turbulent waters.” Sheikh Ali referred to the difficulties young people face in dealing with what sometimes seems like an overwhelming amount of information.
‘Sheikh Google’ is confusing young Muslims
Meanwhile Martijn van Tol in his article titled: “‘Sheikh Google’ is confusing young Muslims” , writes “young Muslims in the Netherlands are searching the internet for answers to pressing questions about life. They want to be good Muslims in the non-Islamic Netherlands, but they often lose their bearings in the digital jungle. Could a ‘cyber’ imam help them out? Am I allowed to swim in the sea? Am I allowed to wash elderly people? Is oral sex clean? Questions which might raise eyebrows among some Westerners, but which many Muslims are genuinely worried about.
It can be a real challenge for a good Muslim to combine Islam with living in a secular country like the Netherlands. Muslims cannot take out a mortgage for instance, because they are not allowed to pay or receive interest. Another example: as a Muslim you are expected to give away some of your income to charity. But are you allowed to give it to non-Islamic charities? What is haram (bad) and what is halal (good) for Dutch Muslims? The list of questions goes on forever. Twenty-four-year-old Yasmine El Ksaihi is on the executive committee of the Polder Mosque, an online mosque for young people which treats Islam as part of Dutch society. She sees young Muslims struggling with questions – mainly about their own identity.
“Clearly young people are very much concerned with the search for answers. Nine out of ten young people have a religious background, but they often have little real knowledge of Islam. And it’s because they are confronted with critical questions about Islam that they go looking for answers. The internet is a way for them to find answers.” Criticism of Islam makes young Muslims find out more about their religion according to Ms El Ksaihi. But searching on the internet leads to confusion. Just before the Dutch general election in June this year, Ms El Ksaihi received an e-mail telling her that “good Muslims do not vote”.
The young man who sent it based his opinion on a Saudi Arabian guideline he had found on the internet. One day before the elections she received a correction from the same young man: another interpretation said it was ‘halal’ after all.
Jeans and headscarves
The confusion is caused by the fact that Islamic guidelines come from a different time and culture. These fatwas (religious rulings) do not deal with the issues faced by Dutch Muslims. To fit in with Dutch society, young people have invented their own individual ‘custom-made’ Islam. As a result many Muslim girls wear jeans (haram) but also wear a headscarf (halal).
Many young Muslims in the Netherlands encounter problems that do not exist in Islamic countries. For example: what do you do if you want a job in a supermarket, but Islam forbids you to sell alcohol? Or if you are not given time off by your Dutch employer for Friday afternoon prayers? Should you pack in your job, or find an alternative by praying in the toilets? And if you do, is that halal?
Young people search for certainty on the internet, but political scientist Zakaria Lyousoufi thinks this just creates more problems. “I think many young people have lost their way when it comes to making choices. Those who have questions do not know where to turn. Now there’s the internet, but many young people cannot identify with the answers they get. They are too strict, they are not general enough or they do not relate to reality. Young people joke: ‘Go to Sheikh Google, type something in and all kinds of stuff comes out’.”
Mohammed El Aissati is the founder of Maroc.nl, a popular discussion platform for Dutch-speaking Muslims. Like Mr Lyousoufi, he can see that many young Muslims are none the wiser for surfing the internet. He regards internet forums as just like fish markets, where people are all trying to shout louder than each other and amateur scholars distribute fatwas indiscriminately.
“The fatwas are sometimes ridiculous, like fatwas against You Tube or Facebook, and it is not always clear where they are coming from. After all it is ludicrous for young people in the 21st century, for whom internet has become part of their lifestyle, to be told by Saudi Arabia that certain websites are forbidden.”
But if Sheikh Google spreads more confusion than wisdom, who should bring them that wisdom? That is quite clear, according to El Aissati: an imam who speaks Dutch, understands the questions of young Muslims in the Netherlands and advises them via internet, the digital Mecca of this generation. A cyber-imam who can tell them whether or not Gouda cheese is halal. By the way, it is not. And, in case you were still wondering, neither is oral sex.
(MuslimVillage.com strongly indorses www.Sunnipath.com & www.SeekersGuidance.org as trusted, reliable and authentic online sources for any questions on Islamic issues. You will find links to their sites at the top of each of our pages – MV Media Editor)
Iran blocks popular Google products
Negar Mortazavi and Matthew Hilburn in their article titled: “Iran blocks popular Google products” published in Voice of America website write that Iranian Internet users are reporting many popular Google products, including its email service Gmail, have been blocked. Users in Iran reported Monday that Google Search was still available, but any product that required signing into an account was blocked. This included Gmail, Google Drive, Google Talk and others. “Google is not accessible on https, but it’s open on http,” a Tehran-based computer science graduate told VOA in a Facebook interview. Websites using https are considered secure, while http sites are susceptible to monitoring by virtually anyone, including governments.
“You can search, but any service that requires login, is closed,” the computer science graduate said. “Some people have saved their passwords on their Google accounts, so it redirects them on the https port, and for those people, Google doesn’t work.” Another engineering graduate confirmed this, telling VOA on Facebook that with only http access, “anywhere you go, anything you search, can be controlled.” The curbs on the Google products were announced in a mobile phone text message quoting Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, an adviser to Iran’s public prosecutor’s office and the secretary of an official group tasked with detecting Internet content deemed illegal.
“Due to the repeated demands of the people, Google and Gmail will be filtered nationwide. They will remain filtered until further notice,” the message read. An Iranian group called Islamic Republic Virtual Activists issued a statement Sunday urging Internet users not to use Google services on Monday and Tuesday, following the appearance of the anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims” and a French magazine’s publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed, according to the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency. The statement accused authorities in the United States and other Western countries of blocking Islamic sites on their Internet services and providing cover for Google, Facebook and other social networks supervised by what it called “the Zionists.”
Technology experts are questioning Iran’s official explanation of the blockages. They say the outage may coincide with Iran’s development of its own national intranet, which Tehran says will be free of un-Islamic content and will be easier to monitor. One technology expert in Tehran, who asked to remain anonymous, told VOA the anti-Islam video is “just an excuse.” The video “is on YouTube, and YouTube had already been blocked for a long time. I think this decision was made a long time ago and they just needed an excuse to implement it,” the source said. Criticism of the decision has not been not limited to Web users. The Iranian website Baztab, which has close ties to conservatives yet is critical of the government, published a report titled “Ignorant Friends in Line with Iran’s Sanctioning Enemies: Gmail is Filtered, Will Google Be as Well?”
The filter has not stopped all Internet users from accessing the blocked sites. Some Iranians are using virtual private networks (VPNs), which are commonly used to access Facebook, Twitter and other sites that have been blocked. Iranian authorities temporarily cut access to Google and Gmail in February, ahead of March parliamentary elections. Iran also has censored YouTube, which is owned by Google, since mid-2009, when activists posted videos to the site purported to show violent government crackdowns on Iranians protesting the presidential election results. (HSH)
This article has also been published in Mi’raj News Agency website: DON’T SHEIKH YOUR GOOGLE!: IT HAS BEEN CRITICIZED AS UNRELIABLE