Wednesday, December 8, 2004

Internet haram!

via a lengthy isnad[1], I've come across an article by Sikander Ziad Hashmi, a Canadian muslim who has is accorded sayyid status on the website. He argues that blogging, and mixed-gender comment sections in particular, are not permissible according to Islamic principles. The key to his argument is:

In essence, blogging about one's personal life is similar to writing a journal entry and then posting it outside one's house or at a street corner for all to read. There isn't anything really wrong with doing that (if one wishes to be so public about one's private life), as long as one doesn't divulge any information that doesn't lead members of the opposite gender to envision and imagine the author, and doesn't let their hearts and minds become impressed and eventually lean towards the author.

Now, that may seem simple, but the fact is that nobody can really ascertain as to what may cause the above in the minds of the opposite gender. It may seem tempting to write-off this whole notion by saying that what goes through the minds of the readers is not the responsibility of the author. While that may hold true for truly objective pieces of work and in matters of true need, the onlookers would not be completely to blame for not "lowering their gaze" if a muscular, handsome man wearing boxers and a t-shirt were to unnecessarily walk through a group of women. The bulk of the blame would fall squarely on the shoulders of the one committing the unnecessary action, though the onlookers would be responsible for continuing to look even after they knew they weren't supposed to.

Similarly, bloggers must be careful about what they write, lest they divulge traits about themselves that they should otherwise not be making known to the opposite gender, while at the same time, leading the readers into sin by hooking them on to reading on and learning more about the things they really don't need to know, and shouldn't know. Some devoted readers even end up forming an affectionate, emotional attachment with the author.

The fact that the above is in fact possible has proven itself time and time again, with bloggers receiving marriage proposals and other suggestive comments through various means such as e-mail, the comments box on their blogs, etc. It is highly unlikely that a stranger would send off a marriage proposal unless he/she was able to get to know the author well enough to feel comfortable in taking such a step.

Now, let me first explicitly state that I have no problem with someone interpreting the faith to mean that something is permissible or not, and obviously he is not seeking to issue a fatwa or try to impose his view on others (though many at the Sunni Forum have already heeded his call to stop blogging entirely). As Ikram mentioned in Zack's (mixed-gender) comment section, you can take the argument on modesty arbitrarily far, to the point of sitting alone in a dark room 24/7 eating (homemade) bread. That's entirely a matter of personal interpretation.

Since I am clearly not imposing gender controls on my comment section nor have I deleted my blog, it will be no surprise to anyone that I disagree with Hashmi's interpretation[2]. Zack has already criticized elements of his logic, but my main critique centers on the religious assumptions above, namely:

  1. revelation of personality or physical details about yourself, even accidentally, is forbidden to members of the opposite sex, because this revelation will inevitably lead to sexual or emotional arousal

  2. a person bears part of the blame for any sexual or emotional arousal they may stir in a member of the opposite sex

Hashmi is careful not to couch the argument solely in sexual terms, which legitimizes his arguments considerably. The key here is that he seeks to prevent the author from compromising their modesty and becoming an object of desire of infatuation. As I have argued in my essay on the Burke and the Bikini, that reduction to object status is something to guard against, regardless of whether it is done with too many or too few clothes. While I don't disagree with the intent behind assumption #1 above, his prescription is simply too broad.

If any contact that could lead to getting to know someone better (which would help in evaluation of marriage prospects) is forbidden, then how will anyone ever get to know anyone well enough to make that evaluation? There's a contradiction here that only resolves itself if you assume that marriage proposals should be the arranged type only and that personality is a secondary concern. Given the emphasis on "Biodata" in south asian matchmaking, this is perhaps not an unreasonable assumption in all cases, but that's a cultural issue, whereas Hashmi is trying to make a religious argument that presumably would apply even to non-biodata-obsessed cultures.

But the far more contentious assumption is that the author bears blame for "leading into sin" their readers of the opposite gender. Hashmi's thesis is that emotional attachments between people of different gender is inherently sinful unless that relationship is a mehram one. The subtext here is that people are ruled by their passions and are emotionally immature, hence not fully responsible for their actions. This is a pernicious concept which is at odds with the concept of individual liberties, because it forces society to adopt the role of protecting you from your own impulses - for your own good, of course. We know where this leads - to repressive regimes like the Taliban or imposition of evangelical Christian social norms into the legal domain.

Consider the classic case of the rape victim. She has a right to dress as she pleases; the rapists' argument that she had it coming because she wore a tight dress is not accepted as a valid defense in our society. At least, not anymore, thanks to the efforts of liberal groups like the ACLU and the entire civil rights struggle. The "blame the victim" mentality is a hallmark of the extremist social conservative who seeks to wield state power against individual liberty in order to force others to conform to their values. A crime like rape is seen as a problem arising from immodest clothing rather than a violation of civil rights and the sovereignity of the self.

Hashmi is correct that by revealing information about yourself, you may cause infatuation amongst a reader. Where he is incorrect is that such infatuation is your fault, for leading them to sin[3]. Since I believe that the gift of reason (al-Aql al-insaan) from Allah is far more powerful (given its source) than the base instincts of our animal natures, it is hard to see what religious justification exists for the assertion that our animal natures can override reason, and hence our responsibility for our actions.

Still, Hashmi (and his followers at SunniForum) are welcome to their interpretation. I hope they do not fall to the easy temptation of judging the iman of those muslims such as myself who do not find their arguments rigorous enough to be binding.

I do have a question, though. Isn't participating in the SunniForum itself a violation of the same principles Hashmi outlines?

UPDATE: Here is a single-issue blog which makes the argument that chatting on MSN, AIM or equivalent is equivalent to zina (adultery). Aside from simply declaring it such, they do not provide any actual theologic references to justify the religious claim. This website is explicitly written as an attempt at dawah (proslytezation). The basic flaw in the argument is the assumption that any and all contact between non-mehram gender is inherently of immodest niyat (intent).

[1] Sister Soljah -> Zack -> Bill -> me. OK, this footnote is a bit gratuitous, I was really looking for an excuse to use the word isnad in a blogging context.

[2] Note that some muslims might interpret Hashmi's opinion as a fatwa and feel obligated to comply. Naturally, he's no authority as far as I am concerned, being a Bohra there is only one source of religious authority whose interpretations I would consider binding.

[3] Whether the infatuation is a sin itself is largely irrelevant to the discussion.


  1. "...rather than a violation of civil rights and the sovereignity of the self."

    I doubt pre-modern (philosophically speaking) traditional religions recognise "sovereignty of the self".

  2. I have to disagree, thabet - doesnt the traditionn of ijtihad demonstrate that Islam has a role for the indovidual's self-determination?

    From my understanding, liberty is couched as an excercise of free will, the freedom to do so (and attendant responsibilities of same). It may not be 100% homologous to the libertarian ethos but it is definitely close cousin.