This one needs no intro guys. Let's get right into it!
Actually...I need to do this first:
Ali Dawah: Ali Dawah is a Muslim YouTuber who discusses Islamic topics. Some of his notable content includes critical videos of public figures in the community such as Dina Tokio. He supports the idea of 'dawah' which is Islamic preaching (spreading knowledge about Islam and getting people back on the path). This post is concerned with his approach and not him as an individual.
Phew! Now that we got that out of the way, let's discuss why I'm not a fan of people preaching in similar ways to Ali Dawah and why you should think twice before listening to someone preaching on the internet (although many of these points are applicable to preaching in general).
1- Initial barriers: No one likes preaching
This is always going to be the first challenge facing any preacher. People naturally don’t enjoy being judged, criticized and preached to- especially by people they don’t know on the internet. And no matter how much a person tries, it can be very difficult to preach ‘the truth’ without sounding ‘judgy’ and ‘holier than thou.’ In the context of preachy videos, this is often made worse by certain linguistic and production choices. Like the use of cheesy Islamic songs in the background or overusing the word ‘sister’ for instance.
I know I’m not alone in my distaste for the word ‘sister.’ We all understand the notion of sisterhood and brotherhood in Islam, and understand that many men may use it with pure intentions. That being said, it has been misused and often feels disingenuous. For instance, YouTubers like Ali Dawah like referring to individuals as ‘sister’ and ‘brother,’ but their platforms unintentionally embolden individuals to attack other Muslims. Look at the comments section. It’s not my idea of acceptance and brotherhood.
Now, although no one has control over the comments section, we need to ask ourselves: what is it about the content that attracts so much backbiting and nasty, judgy comments?
For me, I think a huge reason for this is the ‘naming and shaming’ format used on certain videos of his and others. Again, this may not be intentional, but as nice as you try to be in the way that you critique someone’s personal religious choices and spiritual journey, naming them publicly is not kind.
I’m not saying that it's always wrong to discuss certain figures publicly. For instance, if you want to discuss Dina Tokio and Islamic consumerism, as long as it’s respectful, there’s no issue with that. But in the specific context of ‘dawah,’ I don’t see why individuals like Ali Dawah can’t discuss religious topics in isolation and ‘advise’ individuals in private, instead of doing so publicly. Naming individuals just gives ammunition for others to attack them in very mean, personal ways.
If I personally, wanted to advise someone, I’d simply send them a well-researched article from a good source that could perhaps clarify certain issues that the person has. Also, now that we're on the subject, I'd like to reiterate that although this article is not meant as a personal attack on Ali Dawah, I want to 'advise' and urge my readers to stay respectful in the comments section.
2- The legacy of patriarchy
This isn’t anyone’s fault, but Muslim men need to understand that many women who have suffered under patriarchal institutions (which are most I'd imagine) can be easily provoked by just the idea of a man criticizing their religious choices. Muslim women live under a cloud of hyper-scrutiny and there’s an unjust amount of focus on women’s choices and this can make them very reluctant to be receptive to any man ‘advising’ them on their choices.
3- Should we listen to random people on the internet anyway?
In an increasingly connected world, why get Islamic advice from random people on the internet when you have access to books, videos and websites of actual scholars? Does studying Islam for a few years qualify someone to give advice? These are the questions we should ask, especially when we know that many young people are turning towards radical Islam as a result of blindly following unofficial Islamic sources online and random YouTube videos etc. (watched a documentary about this once). I’m not saying Ali Dawah’s platform is problematic in that way. But as a concept, I personally am wary of listening to the advice of someone about religion when I don’t know anything about their ideology, background and moral character. This barrier means that someone like me would rarely be swayed by someone reciting hadiths and verses from the Quran on YouTube. After all, lots of preachers can use Islamic sources to argue for and against different things within Islamic jurisprudence or fiqh. Will discuss this further later on in this post.
4- Distrust of Islamic institutions and the way texts are interpreted
Yes, this is a reality for many Muslims struggling with aspects of their faith. What this means is that you will not be able to persuade them to practice in certain ways by referring to a known scholar, book or certain Quranic interpretations. Why? Because they don’t trust your scholar and don’t trust your interpretation of the Quran and don’t trust the authenticity of the hadiths you pick.
Lost cause? Not at all. You can convince individuals like this (and also non-Muslims) by rationalizing Islamic rulings in a logical and academic manner. Unfortunately, there’s not enough focus on this approach. When someone stops praying because they’re not convinced it’s a big deal, the solution isn’t to shove a hadith down their throat. Muslims who take off their hijabs or stop practicing are not stupid. They are well aware that mainstream Islamic thought views prayer and hijab etc. as compulsory acts of worship. But perhaps they are not fully persuaded even if they understand the consensus on certain topics. So what you need to do is explain to them the importance of the routine of prayer for building spirituality, reminding yourself of God on a regular basis, the symbolic power of each act of worship etc. Basically, you rationalize things WITHOUT referring to Islamic sources because you don’t want to find yourself in this pickle:
Preacher: The Prophet said music is haram.
Person: How do you know he said that?
Preacher: This hadith…
Person: How do you know that hadith is authentic?
Preacher: Well, this renowned scholar uses it.
Person: I don’t know who this scholar is. There are many scholars. They don’t all agree. This scholar ‘x’ believes music isn’t haram.
Preacher: Well, the Quran says...
Person: Maybe you’re not understanding that verse correctly.
And so on and so on. People can debate your understanding of Islamic texts and resources. They can debate a certain interpretation of the Quran even if it’s coming from a known scholar. Scholars are not infallible and as long as there are other scholars who have a different opinion on a topic, you will find it very difficult to convince someone without dismissing their sources; which leads to another rabbit hole. But if you formulate a logically sound argument, back it up with evidence (sometimes even scientific evidence) then you have a better chance of convincing the other person. I believe that this is doable within Islam and there are individuals who are already doing this. This is the reason why I’m purposely omitting any discussion of the role of ‘dawah’ in Islam.
Unfortunately, I’ve yet to watch a ‘dawah-related’ video that has reached this level and so for the most part, they don’t have a real intellectual bite. This also means that they would not be able to compete against other Islamic or non-Islamic ideologies.
For example, in one of Ali Dawah’s videos, there was a discussion of an article about why women should be able to marry non-Muslims. The reaction to this article was to highlight the Islamic sources –Quranic verses etc. that state that Muslim women are not allowed to do this. This is an example of how preachers often misdiagnose a problem. The writer apparently was discussing the ways that the ruling to her didn’t make sense or is unconvincing in her opinion and how Muslim women are/should be able to marry non-Muslims. The task of a smart preacher or scholar or whatever is to now use reason to show her that the ruling is in fact logical and sound. You could even, for instance, highlight gaps in logic or issues with the argument in the article. The point isn’t to repeat again what everyone already knows: that the mainstream Islamic ruling states that women can’t marry non-Muslims but men can. And above all, the task isn’t to be simplistic about things and turn around and say: ‘Well that’s obviously what Islam says and you're sinning by thinking otherwise.’
The fact is: many people have concerns about certain Islamic rulings and their concerns are legitimate and we need to engage with them on an intellectual level, not dismiss them. I haven’t read the article, but any deep thinker will quickly be able to point out to you the seeming inherent issues with the marriage ruling.
1- Is it fair? Why are men allowed to marry non-Muslims and not women? Doesn't this go against God's justice?
2- Faith isn’t a gene that is inherited, so why is there an assumption that a Muslim father would beget Muslim children?
3- In traditional cultures where mothers are the ones who do the upbringing, it would make sense for women to be able to marry non-Muslims because they would have a greater influence on the child’s religion.
It would have been nice to see Ali Dawah and others engage with these very reasonable concerns and show how they are not really an issue. This is how you truly tackle the challenges young Muslims face. This is how you convince them of the legitimacy of certain rulings. Anyone can believe something because they were taught that x, y or z is the right thing. But how many of us can say we believe in Islam out of true conviction and not blind faith? Believing in something because a hadith says so is a much weaker foundation to faith than believing because you understand why that hadith says so.
Really, Islamic institutions need to up their game because from what I’m seeing, we are not competing on the same level with secular ideologies. We’re not even close. A lot of us are scared to tackle difficult questions and young Muslims are not getting real answers to their questions. Although, we may not understand God’s reasoning behind everything all the time, this isn’t an excuse for being lazy and expecting that everyone is going to be happy to believe out of a leap of faith.
5- Unofficial Islamic sources of information can be misleading
When a person online says things like: ‘Islam says…’ In reality, what they’re saying is: ‘My Sunni, Hanafi reading of this issue states that…’ ‘My Sunni Maliki interpretation of this issue…’ ‘My Shiite, Jaffari reading…’ etc.
My central issue with Ali Dawah-type preaching is that it gives the audience a simplistic understanding of Islamic rulings without them really comprehending where this information is coming from. People need to be aware that when you watch a video about Islam, it is being filtered through the specific ideology of the person speaking. And when preachers don’t mention this, they don’t mention or even know their own school of thought and speak as if their ideas are universal and indisputable, this is very problematic. Why? Because it’s monopolizing Islamic truths.
Preachers should not assume that they and the 'sinner' are living based on an agreed set of rulings. This isn't always the case. Jurisprudence differs among Islamic schools of thought. Yes, there are many things that all Muslims agree on, but we need to stop assuming that rulings we believe are basic Islamic truths are universal to all Muslims. We also need to remember that there are non-mainstream thinkers who have some unorthodox ideas. There are Muslim thinkers who, for instance, don’t believe hijab is compulsory at all. I’m not saying they're right or wrong, but preachers need to stop making the mistake of assuming there is a consensus about things when there isn’t (I'm speaking generally here) And if you don’t know why someone has made a certain religious choice, it is not always effective to then remind them of the fact that you think they’re sinning. We need to be more accurate in the language we use and stop using universal statements like: ‘No Muslim scholar believes that…’ Instead you can say. ‘Based on my knowledge, most reputable Sunni scholars of most of the jurisprudence schools of thought believe….’
I've personally been told off more than once in public prayer rooms that I’m not praying correctly by individuals who are so close-minded, it never occurred to them that I could be praying differently because I happen to follow scholars that allow for different things. Everyone seems to think they have a religious duty to ‘advise’ when really, people would be better off educating themselves first. Yes, when it comes to agreed upon ethical issues like stealing and backbiting, please feel free to advise. But otherwise, I do think this kind of blind preaching can have the opposite effect desired and put people off.
We need to remember that our understanding of Islam as whole is not complete. It would be, if an infallible prophet was among us. But this is not the case. Yet, I feel the general impulse with classic dawah approaches is to one: assume that Islamic truths are clear, indisputable and universal and two: assume that their knowledge is better than that of the supposed ‘sinner.’
In the end, I want to leave you all with one question: how many people who ‘supposedly have strayed off the true path of Islam,’ are going to watch themselves being criticized by someone on the internet and think: ‘wow I think I’ve finally seen the light. Thanks for ‘advising’ me. If the purpose of preachy YouTube videos is to help and advise ‘sinners,’ they reflect a very poor understanding of social behaviors and interactions. Do people like Ali Dawah seriously think publicly criticizing someone’s religious choices or behaviour on the internet will help these people become better Muslims? I seriously doubt it…
Food for thought in this week's post. Let me know what you all think, I love hearing from you guys!