The Surah al Hujrat not only enlightens us but also trains us to develop a mindset where any information is subjected to doubt, research, and a reasonable and just enquiry
Surah al Hujrat (The Rooms) of the Quran has some of the most important guidelines and principles which, if followed in letter and spirit, may cure many of the wrongs that human beings do as a result of their deviation from the straight path. One such principle is this ayat itself which demands our reflection and practice in everyday life: “O believers, if an evildoer brings you any news, verify it so you do not harm people unknowingly, becoming regretful for what you have done.”
Some exegetes are of the opinion that this ayat was revealed upon the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) in a certain context. It is said that Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) was asking his companions about the collection of zakat from different tribes. During the meeting, one companion, who had been assigned the task of the collection from a particular tribe, told the prophet that the tribe in question refused to pay the zakat. Some of the companions present in the meeting got infuriated and suggested to the Prophet that in case of refusal by the tribe, Jihad becomes mandatory against them. While the discussion on the subject was going on, Allah intervened through this ayat by asking for investigation and verification of facts before taking action.
Since Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) was guided by Allah in all of his actions and deeds, Allah asked him to verify the claim made by one of his companions. The person had actually lied to the prophet and misguided him about the tribe. The tribe had not refused to pay the zakat as the person tasked to collect zakat had not actually approached them at all. The consequences of this lie could have resulted in a war if this ayat had not been revealed. Beyond this particular context, the ayat could be also read as a universal principle for the issues and matters that can have implications and consequences beyond one’s control.
Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) admonished the person and did not act on the suggestion of jihad made by some of his companions.
In this ayat, the key words that we can reflect upon are: “fasiqun” meaning “evildoer”; “na’ba” meaning news having significant implications; “ tabayanu” meaning “verify”; “tusibu” meaning “you hurt”; “qauman” meaning “people”; “bi jahalatin” meaning unwittingly; “fa tusbihu ala ma fa’altumnadimin” meaning “and you will regret for what you have done.” Among all these words in this ayat, what we may need to further deliberate upon is the person/s who brings the news and the kind of news he brings, so that the implications are accordingly understood.
This ayat categorically calls for verification and investigation for all such news which may result in destruction of individuals, communities or nations, as the person who brings it is a fasiq (an evildoer); therefore, the first and foremost lesson that one can learn from this ayat is not to judge or act adversely against an individual or people merely because you heard something about him/ them on TV or read something about him/them in newspapers or books. Verification becomes more important if the person who brings or shares the news is not a trustworthy person and has evil motives and designs.
The second very important thing that this ayat points to is the use of a judicious approach for the evaluation, judgement and actions that one may, as an individual or state head, undertake with reference to a person or community and people. Going by the historical context in which this ayat is revealed upon the Prophet, one may say that the Prophet is stopped from listening to suggestions that are bereft of judicious approach. The word verification and investigation calls for research so that one may not miss the idea of Justice that the Quran talks about at hundreds of places in its text. Since human emotions and feelings are most of the times biased and short-sighted, the Qura’n, therefore, asks for a thorough investigation and research in case of such news and issues that may lead to hatred and war against an individual or a community of people.
Thirdly, this ayat may be read in association with a host of other ayats in the Qur’an that call for Justice, Reason and Balance. Moreover, this ayat develops an aptitude of research and thinking about all the mundane issues of the world so that one is in a position to act judiciously, rationally and justly; in other words, the powers invested with man are not allowed to be corrupted or to degenerate as a result of some disinformation/misinformation or hate campaign.
Media, stereotyping and this ayat
In our times when the media in general and social media in particular literally controls our thoughts and actions, this ayat of the Quran is an ultimate guiding principle. In our recent history, the USA destroyed and literally sent back to stone ages countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya. One of the reasons behind the destruction of Iraq was a lie that the CIA and American media sold to its government that Sadam Hussain possessed WMDs and he was in close contact with Osama bin Laden. The American media and the CIA presented this lie to junior Bush and his administration in such a way that Iraq was finally bombed to nothingness. Many years after the total destruction of Iraq, the American government acknowledged that the assumption of the CIA and media was wrong; however, the damage had been already done.
Although Islamophobia is not something new, yet post-9/11 the media and academics have exaggerated it beyond proportion. If we go by readings of Edward Said, such a mindset was at its peak in the colonial times, and was present even before that. Nevertheless, after 9/11 attacks, the print media, the electronic media, and the social media combined to make terrorism “Islamic Terrorism”, all bearded Muslims as “potential terrorists”, the veil a subject of debate all over the world, and Muslim subjectivities and identities subjected to colonial gaze once again. Such stereotyping of communities resulted in hatred among the media’s target audience. Many Hollywood and Bollywood movies provided fuel to the fire. Television talk shows and debates followed the same script, thereby not allowing any space for reason, authenticity, research and unbiased investigation. Such a stereotyped representation and portrayal of communities has polarised the world to the extent that coexistence and multicultural ethos seem things of the past now. If a rational and unbiased reading of most of the current media is conducted, the conclusion one may arrive at would be that such stereotyped representations and portrayals are guided by lies, mere assumptions, or biased media coverage.
In our times when social media rules the roost, conspiracy theories, rumours and social media gossips have taken the place of facts and truth. With conspiracy theories come rumours that add fuel to the fire. Since ours is a part of the world where conspiracy theories and rumors sell like hot cakes, reading of such an ayat not only enlightens us but also trains us to develop a mindset where any information about anything in the world is subjected to doubt, research and a reasonable and just enquiry. Having said this, this ayat is not only an ethical/moral guideline but also a direction for the development of a sound and rational mindset which does not allow stereotyping, misinformation, disinformation and rumors to control the lives of people.
From communalism to imperialism to colonialism and biases on the bases of caste, creed, colour and race, all the diseases of mankind are actually rooted in this mindset where stereotypes are important and not the facts. Surah al Hujrat deals with these other diseases of mankind ayat also. If this ayat becomes the guiding principle of governments, political parties, media houses, social media and individuals across the world, manufactured consents, conspiracy theories, stereotyping of communities, dehumanisation of people, biases on the basis of gender, race, caste, creed, region and religion would never ever be prevalent as it calls for a rational approach to understanding the subjectivities that a news may involve.
A student of history, media and journalism may unearth hundreds of such examples from the archives of world memory wherein a lie became the cause of destruction between two individuals, two communities, or two civilisations. I just quoted two examples from world history wherein in one, destruction was avoided because of investigation and verification of facts, and the second, when an age-old civilisation was sent back to stone ages because a lie was accepted as truth by the most powerful country of the world.
In this context, therefore, the present ayat of Surah al Hujrat not only serves as personal guide but also as an ethical principle vis-à-vis our social, political, cultural and administrative conduct. In our times, when the space for a dignified human life is shrinking fast, the reading of Surah al Hujrat may liberate us from many a false construct about ourselves as individuals and communities, particularly this ayat which demands thinking, application of rational and unbiased approach in social, governmental or individual action and thought.
May God protect us all from lies, manufactured consents, propaganda and their uncritical acceptance, so that the world becomes a safe place!