Omar Usman works professionally as a technology consultant, and is a certified project manager and leadership trainer. He is a founding member of Qalam Institute, and has served in different leadership capacities with numerous Islamic organizations in the USA. He is a khateeb in his local community and teaches regularly around the country on the topics of leadership, social media, and public speaking.
Ibrahim: Thank you so much for writing and publishing Fiqh of Social Media. I think a book that explains the dangers of social media in a rational, usul-based way is just what we need now. We have been booksellers for a little over 20 years and in this time we see how the pervasive adoption of social media has caused literacy to nosedive. And with the fall in literacy, the ‘secondary effects’ - to borrow your term - are intolerance, an inability to process complex, nuanced information, being overly emotive in responses to novel situations, and much more.
How did you come to write this book? Was there a singular event that made you form the intention to write this book? Or did the momentum develop over a long time?
Omar Usman: Jazakallahu khayr for the opportunity to do this interview. I grew up at the tail end of the generation that still remembers what it was like to live as an adult without smartphones or social media. Even with that, I’ve always been an avid user. I built my first website when I was 13, and I had a Facebook account when you were required to have a University affiliated email address. Along the way, Alhamdulillah, I was fortunate to be a founding member of MuslimMatters.org, and also consulted with and developed social media strategy for a number of nonprofit Islamic organizations and also private Muslim businesses.
I kept noticing more and more that we seemed to operate by a different set of rules online than we did in person. This was even more pronounced when looking at the manner in which we discussed Islamic issues online. I delivered a presentation called ‘shame grenades’ that summarized a particular issue I had seen with the way we interacted online, and this talk received a lot of traction and feedback. That provided the initial validation for me that more work was needed in this space, and after discussing with friends and teachers, I decided to try compiling a ‘40 hadith on social media’ booklet that I gave out free on my website.
This booklet gained a lot of traction and was not only downloaded - alhamdulillah - by thousands of people, but it resulted in a demand from masjids and universities to deliver presentations on this topic. I spent almost 5 years traveling across the United States delivering talks on social media to all different types of audiences and learning about the impact it has had on our personal lives, spirituality, families, and communities.
Fiqh of Social Media is a culmination of those many conversations and experiences.
I: My impression with regards the traits one acquires from unchecked use of social media - addiction, virtue signalling, trolling, short-termism - is that these are intractable once they have taken root in someone. The work you put in your seminars, workshops and now this book, imply that you take a more optimistic view, that people who have succumbed to the darker aspects of social media can change.
I am not challenging your optimism, in fact I find it appealing and inspiring. But just so I can see what this change looks like, do you have an example from the course of your own work that demonstrates this change?
O: Firstly, one important principle to keep in mind when discussing social media is that we must understand it is a magnifying lens. It does not change human nature, but it magnifies what is already there. The desire to virtue signal has always been there - social media has put a magnifying lens on it. In this way it has both amplified it, and made it easier to do. To take another example, seeking validation is not a new problem - social media has just given it a new twist. This is the very reason I take an optimistic point of view. We have ways of dealing with these challenges and behaviors. We already know how to tackle these issues. The writings of classical Islamic scholars such as Ghazali or ibn al-Qayyim are full of remedies for these afflictions we deal with. The challenge before us is to connect the dots and implement these solutions in context of the new age we live in.
Social media does not change human nature, but it magnifies what is already there.
Secondly, the change we have observed has happened in a relatively short span of time. The iPhone is not even 15 years old. The very fact that the negative changes we see happened so quickly leaves room for us to hope that things can also change quickly in a more positive direction as well.
Thirdly, the very fact that we are having this conversation is cause for optimism. We have used these technologies long enough to see and feel the negative impacts in our own lives. The hardest part about change is getting started, and Alhamdulillah I have seen many people wanting to get better. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve met proactively taking control of their social media usage from a person or family standpoint. The hardest part about change is getting started, and I believe we are seeing a galvanization of effort from people who sincerely want to be better with their technological interactions.
I: This is a very encouraging view, and yes we need to tap on our own tradition to deal with these perennial problems that spring from the ego. As you rightly say, these issues have always existed.
Coming back to your book, you draw from your own experiences growing up before the age of social media. I too grew up playing with sticks, dirt, and a dollop of imagination. Perhaps there is a window of opportunity for people of our generation to tell our stories because we know that a childhood without being constantly connected is possible and can be very rewarding.
In my short experience selling your book in Singapore I find that most of the readers are indeed people of our generation, mainly concerned parents of digital natives. What has the response been in the US, in terms of demographics?
O: It’s funny you ask this. Most people hear “social media” and automatically assume it’s for a younger crowd, and this is a stereotype I’ve had to push back against. I’ve definitely found the material resonates more with a slightly older crowd - particularly people who have young families or are at the age where they’re past the entry level phase of their careers.
The impact of technology in our homes we see now is unprecedented. It has affected the way parents interact with their kids, the way spouses are with each other, and even how adults are with their own elderly parents. The older we get, and the more life experience we accumulate, the more we notice these impacts and thus our concern about remedying them.
I: No one can claim immunity. We’re all in this together. What do you hope your book can do, or at least set things in motion towards?
O: I hope the book serves as an excuse.
I know, that’s a weird thing to say.
I want the book to be an excuse for families to finally sit down and have that conversation about how they manage screens in the house. This can be a difficult conversation to start, especially because we become accustomed to doing things a certain way. Even if we feel something is wrong, so much inertia has built up that it is hard to take action.
“Hey I read today about families making a plan for managing all our screens in this book today...” is an easy way to bring up this conversation in a non-confrontational manner.
I hope that the book becomes an excuse for people to continually reassess their own presence online, and the interactions they take part in.
Click here to get a copy of Fiqh of Social Media: Timeless Islamic Principles for Navigating the Digital Age