13th Century Scholar Ibn-Taymiyyah's Solution to Online Toxicity

Navigating Islamic thought has always been a minefield. If you’re not well-versed on the intricacies of the way jurisprudence interacts with faith, you’ll end up quickly believing that Allah decreed a punishment of the harshest proportions upon people who did not will it. While His Wrath, unescapable, his Love, unending, He still provided nuggets of truth that prove useful to a large portion of the human population until this very day.

In examining the disparities Islamic thought has with say, more orthodox forms of Christianity and Judaism, one can’t help but notice a pattern that is neither uniform nor monolithic, but nonetheless interesting to deconstruct when Islamic literature is concerned — philosophers and theologians responsible for its bulk hail from an era when the Abbasid Caliphate had asserted absolute civilizational dominance over the rest of the globe. Baghdad was a hub for important translation work of once-forgotten Hellenic poetry and philosophy. That ended up infusing many aspects of stoicism with the then-young prospect of Islamic philosophy — one that marries the utilization of sound thinking processes with the divined wisdom found in the Quran and the Hadith.

One of the most influential figures in Islamic literature has undoubtedly been Ibn-Taymiyyah. His work on faith wasn’t only pivotal for so much of the ideological currents when the Caliphate started to take notice, but his analysis of behavioral animosity between individuals and religious groups alike is still a model for Muslims — especially those of the Sunni variety — and it’s not for nothing that he’s hailed as the “Scholar of Islam”. His insight on the cultural divides between religious and dogmatic factions a many is still valuable in an era where tension can be most attributed to the legacy of colonialism and the endorsement of fundamentalist perspectives by post-colonial powers.

I can’t help but wonder though, if his teachings somehow bear more applicability in our current times more than they ever did. Evil seems to have garnered more popularity than ever, and it is primordial to examine the fundamental incentives to instigate bad behavior and the best course of action to counter their spread and properly evaluate the extent of their damage on the whole fabric of society. This is where Ibn-Taymiyyah’s — often-forgotten — commentary on vengeance, and righteous retribution can be taken as a stern reminder of what it means to be in our current context and how discourse online should be handled.

Often times, when surfing through social media, one can’t help but notice the egregiously large amount of “clapbacks” from notable activists and political pundits on what can often be summed up as a rhetorical disagreement, rather than an issue with content. The design of social media, and especially platforms like Twitter and YouTube, has encouraged malicious actors to exploit their format and further feed into a cycle of sinister social capitalization. Clout has become the new currency to selfishly hoard, and when forgiveness and generosity is of the essence, it is often considered a cardinal sin to stray away from the path of public callouts and perpetual humiliation.

Ibn-Taymiyyah — courtesy of a collection of letters from his time in prison — offers an alternative to that in response to a common misunderstanding of the law of retaliation by Muslim scholars, and their students alike. But first, a little context:

In what is not an unlikely scenario in Islamic jurisprudence, verses are recurrently taken out of context and not put in with the larger picture of what Allah said in the Holy Quran. What ends up happening is, ill-faithed troublemakers cherry-pick whatever (parts of) verses align with their preconceived notions of fellow Muslims, and even non-Muslims to nefarious ends. A verse that is often called into effect when an act of injustice was received, is the 45th of Surah Al-Ma’idah, which says as follows:

“And We prescribed for them therein: The life for the life, and the eye for the eye, and the nose for the nose, and the ear for the ear, and the tooth for the tooth, and for wounds retaliation. But whoso forgoeth it (in the way of charity) it shall be expiation for him. Whoso judgeth not by that which Allah hath revealed: such are wrong-doers.”

It can be tempting to section off the first part of the verse from its second, but it’s very important to keep the context of forgiveness in mind. Allah clearly outlines that a recourse for retaliation is justified, but showing restraint and charity is most-desired and worthy of reward. This is a sentiment we see expanded on in Verse 34 of Surah Fussilat, as a helpful reminder that what can be used to split between two emotionally estranged individuals, should be the common thread to unite them both:

“The good deed and the evil deed are not alike. Repel the evil deed with one which is better, then lo! he, between whom and thee there was enmity (will become) as though he was a bosom friend.”

What is really interesting from a superficial read of this verse, is that at the start, Allah emphasizes that the difference between a good deed and a bad one doesn’t necessarily start with a quantitative epitomical value — it rather is the product of their differing nature. He then goes on to say that a good deed, repels a bad one — a constant reminder that a show of good faith always triumphs above evil.

Another interesting perspective this verse brings is that with whomever we may disagree, there should be always a willingness to offer generosity. In whichever way friendship is perceived from the recipient of contempt, ideological opposites should be able to show one another generosity. In a time where the political discourse on social media has grown into a cesspool of hatred and reciprocal justice, one must wonder if such a state of ongoing discord is tenable for all parties involved. Islamic divine wisdom suggests otherwise, and I think there’s a lesson there for everyone — non-Muslims included — to give each other the space to commit mistakes and still atone for them when shown proper remorse and accountability.

Where Ibn-Taymiyyah comes in, is where the lines get fuzzier if and when the scope of an injustice is otherwise small, and can only be amended with what was previously described as a “bad deed”. Buried deep within the aforementioned collection of prison correspondence, he used the example of a situation between two Muslims where one insults another’s next of kin, and the other decides to issue themselves the right to respond by thinking that insulting back in the same manner would nullify the offense taken — this is a stance that Ibn-Taymiyyah doesn’t take, and he goes into a little bit of detail on why that wouldn’t be all that islamically potent.

The conceit to ricocheting back instances of insidious verbal spout is that since God commanded that an action should be met with an equal of the same nature, it gives ample right to whomever is on the other end to retaliate. But Ibn-Taymiyyah doesn’t think it’s particularly workable to implement that recourse on an individual scale given that it predicates the utterance of a bad deed, to combat another bad deed.

What Ibn-Taymiyyah is basically getting at, is that the expenditure of a “bad point” in the piety scale doesn’t nearly justify its end. If the aim was to right a wrong, you’ve only furthered the end of a wrong by merely rebounding it with another. What that essentially boils down to, is a proclamation that can be summed in one sentence: You could do it, but you wouldn’t realistically want to.

The Islamic faith is littered with realizations from various scholars hailing from different schools of thought on what exactly constitutes the “workability” of a rule of Islamic jurisprudence. In the case of insulting someone back, Ibn-Taymiyyah aptly concludes that the foundational notion upon which sits “law of retaliation” in the macro-scale of verbal insults, and the larger scale of “acts to inflict justice upon another” is inherently erroneous — the suggestion to forgo punishment isn’t only preferred, it most often than not is the most Islamic thing one could do.

Ibn-Taymiyyah and many like him have always dealt with the heavy legacy of a rigid approach to the Quran and Sunnah on how we could retroactively interpret these texts in a way that befits the abstractions and continual change on what once could’ve been, to what currently is. It was clear from the start that people weren’t going to ride camels until the dawn of time. What has become clear since the Prophet Muhammed left this Earth, is that his legacy of compassion and mercy was going to be twisted into a vehicle of hate and repulsion whether he willed it or not, that God’s name will be sullied under the declarations of many wars and conflicts inside the Ummah, and between them and those who do not share their values of spiritual and material holiness.

Managing interpersonal relationships has been the toughest part to reconcile with the modern Muslim identity — how could one possibly retain a fruitful relationship with someone who denounces the doctrine of Allah and his Messenger? The answer to that is seemingly simple, but encompasses complexities I cannot possibly expound upon in a timely manner. What I’ll however settle in on, is that the circumstances surrounding the birth of Islam, are completely different from where they are now.

While it has been an uncontested fact that Muslims were materially a persecuted minority in Mecca, the Prophet Muhammad showed immense restraint when confronting instances of injustice he was faced with when he preached his message for change and reform. Not only a child of rough circumstances and a brutal upbringing he was, but he also relentlessly preached the chant of radical reform in a society where Quraysh and neighboring tribes have set a low-standard to pass.

It is what social media currently feels like — an endless lists of low bars to best. Vile behavior has been rewarded and even encouraged in these circles, and we’re still none the wiser as how to solve it. Many solutions have been brought up, but it hasn’t perhaps been considered that the problem of toxic online communities isn’t a new thing — it is merely but an old problem repackaged for a new age.

Reading through the thoughts of thinkers past on how to handle the stickiest parts of interpersonal relationships has always been interesting to me. Ibn-Taymiyyah in particularly offers something that roots its wisdom in religious texts, but grounds its application in the human circumstances that veils all of our interactions regardless of provenance or background.

Translating the theoretical into the real has been a long struggle for Muslim scholars to cope with. It is not strictly a matter of following God’s word verbatim, it’s also a never-ending quest to pinning down exactly what does it mean to us humans applying the word of God when we know full well its source claims its universal applicability, agnostic of time and place. Religious text however was never subjugated to rigidity, and the Prophet Muhammed was the first one to acknowledge that fluidity — he always referred his closest to observe how his framework for worship applies on the orderings present in the Quran. If one were to pray only like the Quran says, their prayer would be null; if one were to fast only as the Quran says, their fasting would be null; if one would to marry only such as the Quran commands, their marriage would be null — but what works otherwise, is seeing how the Prophet’s actions translate the words of the Lord. There’s an element of passed-down wisdom from divine couture, but also, the acknowledgment that codified Islamic text doesn’t suffice on its own — there has to be potent analysis on those who know the era best to maximize its usefulness and practicality.

I don’t know that the Prophet Muhammad would have ever known that social media would become a thing, and that entire campaigns of hatred would be conducted on it on a magnitude that has far exceeded the vitriol we’ve come to be familiar with in person. However, I’ve no doubt in my mind that if he were to see the things some are saying to each other, he wouldn’t be happy, and he’d certainly not give carte blanche to them for words to fly in equal exchange. What works in the face of contempt, is generosity. A generosity that is not only advised, recommended, and preferred, but one that mimics that of the All-Merciful. For He has decreed mercy and justice upon himself, and wouldn’t settle for anything less, He’d be most acknowledging of an approximate, but faint, manifestation of his divine traits in our day-to-day behavior.

It is the case often that, when Muslims talk about their learned virtues and values, Westerners take an antagonistic approach to them. “It’s naught but a ploy to convert us”, they say. I’m however here neither to convert, nor to convince, but only to present a finding of uttermost truth. Where the social media experiment may have failed due to the callousness of tech executives and their inability to provide ample moderation, one can’t help but think of introducing a radical change to people’s behavior: Deoxygenating the fire of hatred.

If people were more generous to each other, less eager to lounge at each other’s throats with fangs ever-so-sharp, perhaps we wouldn’t be in a bind as fickle as this one. The remedy to human unconformity is often portrayed as shame, or righteous retribution, but what one of the most esteemed scholars in the Islamic faith seems to at least think, is that the means couldn’t possibly justify the outcome.

I can’t say that I perfectly uphold this finding as much as I want to. Sometimes, the devil of revenge takes over my body and wills me to be harsh in return, when no need for it is present. It is only when I’m alone with my thoughts, deeply contemplating their consequences and ramifications, that I’ve come to internalize and try to materialize my profound appreciation for Ibn-Taymiyyah’s ordainments. He was not only an important voice for the Ummah as a scholar presented with ample knowledge of the Holy Word and the tradition of the Prophet, but he also held a solid understanding of what governs disarray between two who might otherwise consider themselves brethren. That’s the core of the idea of forgiveness, and that’s what I wish to see more of in social media, and our interactions as a whole.

The translation used for the Quranic verses is of Marmaduke Pickthall’s.