We live in an iWorld. Surrounded by iPhones, iPads, MYspace, YOUtube, the focus is clear: Me, my, I. One need not look far to see this obsession with the self. In order to sell, advertisers must appeal to the ego. For example, many ads appeal to the part of us that loves power and being in charge. DirectTV tells you: “Don’t watch TV, direct TV!” Yogurtland says: “You rule! Welcome to the land of endless yogurt possibilities, where you rule the portions, the choices and the scene.”
But advertisers aren’t the only ones who appeal to our ego. There is a global phenomenon that provides a breeding ground and platform for that ego. And it’s called Facebook. Now, I’ll be the first to assert that Facebook can be a powerful tool for good. It is, like many other things, what you make of it. A knife can be used to cut food which feeds the hungry, or it can be used to kill someone. Facebook can be used for great good—after all it was Facebook that helped facilitate the toppling of a dictator. Facebook can be used as a powerful tool to organize, call, remind, and unite. Facebook can also be used to strengthen our connection to God and to each other… Or Facebook can be used to strengthen the hold of our nafs (lower self or ego).
The Facebook phenomenon is an interesting one. In each and every one of us is an ego. It is the part of ourselves that must be suppressed (if we are to avoid Anakin’s fate of turning to the dark side, that is). The danger of feeding the ego is that, as the ego is fed, it becomes strong. When it becomes strong, it begins to rule us. Soon we are no longer slaves to God; we become slaves to ourselves.
The ego is the part of us that loves power. It is the part that loves to be seen, recognized, praised, and adored. Facebook provides a powerful platform for this. It provides a platform by which every word, picture, or thought I have can be seen, praised, ‘liked’. As a result, I begin to seek this. But then it doesn’t just stay in the cyber world. I begin even to live my life with this visibility in mind. Suddenly, I live every experience, every photo, every thought, as if it’s being watched, because in the back of my mind I’m thinking, “I’ll put it on Facebook.” This creates a very interesting state of being, almost a constant sense that I am living my life on display. I become ever conscious of being watched, because everything can be put up on Facebook for others to see and comment on.
More importantly, it creates a false sense of self-importance, where every insignificant move I make is of international importance. Soon I become the focus, the one on display. The message is: I am so important. My life is so important. Every move I make is so important. The result becomes an even stronger me-focused world, where I am at the center.
As it turns out, this result is diametrically opposed to the Reality of existence. The goal of this life is to realize the Truth of God’s greatness and my own insignificance and need before Him. The goal is to take myself out of the center and put Him there instead. But Facebook perpetuates the illusion of the exact opposite. It strengthens my belief that because of my own importance, every inconsequential move or thought should be on display. Suddenly what I ate for breakfast or bought at the grocery store is news important enough to publish. When I put up a picture, I wait for compliments; I wait for acknowledgement and recognition. With the number of likes or comments, physical beauty becomes something that can now be quantified. When I put up a post, I wait for it to be ‘liked’. And I am ever conscience of—and even compete in—the number of “friends” I have. (Friends, here, is in quotation marks because no one knows 80% of their “friends” on Facebook.)
This preoccupation and rivalry to acquire more, is mentioned in the Quran. God says:
“The mutual rivalry for piling up (of worldly things) has preoccupied you.”(102:1)
Whether that rivalry is in piling up wealth, or friends and ‘likes’ on Facebook, the result is the same: We have become preoccupied by it.
Facebook also strengthens another dangerous focus: the focus on other people, what they’re doing, what they like. What they think of me. Facebook feeds the preoccupation with others’ assessment of me. Soon, I enter the orbit of the creation. Inside that orbit, my definitions, my pain, my happiness, my self-worth, my success and my failure is determined by the creation. When I live in that orbit, I rise and fall with the creation. When the people are happy with me, I’m up. When they’re not, I fall. Where I stand is defined by people. I’m like a prisoner because I have given up the keys to my happiness, sadness, fulfillment, and disappointment to the people to hold.
Once I enter and live in the orbit of the creation—rather than the orbit of God—I begin to use that currency. See, the currency of God’s orbit is: His pleasure or His displeasure, His reward or His punishment. But, the currency of the orbit of creation is: the praise and criticism of people. So, as I enter deeper and deeper into that orbit, I covet more and more of its currency, and I fear more and more of its loss. While I’m playing Monopoly, for example, I covet more and more of its currency. And it feels great to be ‘rich’ for a moment. But when the game is over, what can I buy in the Real world with Monopoly money?
The human currency of praise is Monopoly money. It feels great for a moment to collect, but when the game is over, it’s worthless. In the Reality of this life and the next, it’s worthless. And yet, I even covet this false currency in my worship. In this way, I fall victim to the hidden shirk: Riyaa (showing off in worship). Riyaa is a consequence of living in the orbit of the creation. The deeper and deeper I enter into that orbit, the more I become consumed with gaining human praise, approval and recognition. The more I enter that orbit, the more I fear loss—loss of face, loss of status, loss of praise, loss of approval.
But the more I fear the people, the more I become enslaved. True freedom only comes when I let go of the fear of anything and anyone other than God.
In a profound hadith (Prophetic teaching), a man came to the Prophet ﷺ and said: “O Messenger of God, direct me to an act, which if I do, God will love me and people will love me.” He ﷺ said: “Detach yourself from the world, and God will love you. Detach yourself from what is with the people, and the people will love you.” [Ibn Majah]
Ironically, the less we chase after the approval and love of the people, the more we gain it. The less needy we are of others, the more people are drawn to us and seek our company. This hadith teaches us a profound Truth. Only by breaking out of the orbit of the creation, can we succeed with both God and people.
So while Facebook is indeed a powerful tool, let it be a tool of your freedom—not a tool of your servitude to yourself and the assessment of others.