Technology in Ramadan: Absolute Abstinence or Enough Exposure?

“I confess. I check my cell phone…a lot,” and so the refrain goes.  Many of us have developed a mini-addiction to being ‘connected’ to ensure we don’t miss a beat.

But let’s take a step back. Connection (and the technology that facilitates connection) is neither inherently good nor bad; it’s all about the application and to whom we’re connected. So when we’re connected to a virtual coffee shop with people we have never met, but who we ‘friended’ from afar, while simultaneously driving, texting our miles away, there is a problem. Earlier this year, the city of Houston ran a campaign: “786 deaths on Texas roads this year, drive smart, text later, it can wait.” These little slogans flashed on and off for a whole week on billboards around the city, even as drivers, maneuvered hands-free while texting, and the death toll rose. I could not help but read some deeper meaning into the news serving as a direct reminder from Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) to wake up and take life on and off the road more seriously.

As we experience Ramadan, the most important month of the year, it may be time to take stock, not only of our cupboards and our refrigerators, our taraweeh timings, tilawah goals, and our Eid dresses, but also of our countless mini (and not so mini) technological addictions that put us in harm’s way, and ultimately inhibit our connection with Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He).  This is not a 21st century phenomenon. The technologies have been and are ever-changing (a recent issue of The Economist featured a story on the next generation of cars which will drive themselves), but our tendency to get distracted and stay distracted is the stuff of the nafs (the self), and it is as old as the creation of the nafs itself.  

Among the greatest gifts that Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) gave us was the example of how connected he was to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He)But he did not just tell us his example, for 23 years he demonstrated fundamental ways to stay connected to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He):

1. Dhikr

No matter how you transliterate this word, or whether you pronounce it with a South Asian tongue or an Arab one, whether you use a tasbeeh with 101 beads or 33 or just your finger tips, dhikr (remembrance of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He)) is among the most potent tools we have to stay fundamentally connected.  Dhikr has the power to help us maneuver the dunya, while maintaining our real focus on Him subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) and on the akhirah. Put the cell phone (or whatever contraption to which you may be tied) down. In fact, ‘best practice’ dictates that it should be locked in the glove box while driving, taken out only in the case of an emergency. Let your spirit reconnect and relax with its Maker through general dhikr while your hands and eyes stay firmly fixed on the wheel. While driving, try avoiding dhikr that is usually counted so that you don’t lose focus of the road. The same may be said for other menial chores which occupy much of our day: namely, find a means to connect with Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) to enhance your own safety and quality of life.  

2. Moderation

It is easy to make bold moves and big promises. It is easy to quit smoking for a day, to give up overeating, to forswear excessive Internet surfing, but what about the next day, what about day two of Ramadan…day ten? One of the beauties of Islam and Prophet Muhammad’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) character was how he demonstrated moderation in everything, from his interactions to his moderation in consumption, to his varying practices of dhikr. He did not spend his entire life, in seclusion, with a tasbeeh, even in Ramadan. And neither should we. There is a time to drive, alert, aided by iterations of salawat (sending blessings and salutations on the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him)), and there is a time to park our vehicle, get out and go to work, or move on to the next task of the day. For those of us who are blessed with cars, cell phones, and Internet access, it is important that we treat these tools as the blessings that they are, and use them moderately while also remembering and being grateful that we are among the few who enjoy these luxuries. Adopt best practices in all your affairs and move on to the next ibadah (act of worship) and another means to connect with Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He).

Applying Dhikr and Moderation

Would Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) have used Facebook in Ramadan? Honestly, I don’t know, but I do know that he embodied Qur’an and dhikr and that he lived moderately and in harmony with his surroundings, and in Ramadan he increased his acts of ibadah. So should we use Facebook? And, if so, should we continue to use it in Ramadan, if we are striving to follow his sunnah? Each of us has to face a personal jihad (struggle) of the nafs (the self), and will be challenged by different tests. My tests are not yours: for instance, I was a die-hard walker and runner until recently when I developed a heel spur and planters fasciitis, and had to recognize that my existence is not always a function of my ability to walk or run. This is ‘small fry’ in the grand scheme, but represents a test nonetheless. For many, such a test will be irrelevant as they grapple instead with weight loss or job loss, with step-children, or step-mothers. Again, each of us has a different jihad of the nafs. For some, Facebook and related social media sites are a huge drain on our time and resources. For others, Facebook usage may actually help us become closer to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) as we quickly review enlightening pages and reconnect with those dearest to us. If we are not sure, and being introspective does not reveal an answer, then it is best to seek good advisors, who know us well, to help us determine how best to spend our time and benefit from His subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) infinite blessings — the high and low tech included.

While I do not know whether Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) would have used Facebook during Ramadan, we all know that he was not a luddite: he embraced change, the technology of his era, and he was an observer of and a participant in the world around him. That said, we are advised to leave one-third of our stomachs empty when we sit down to a meal, with the idea being that we need to create space for Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), actual, physical space. Our urge, especially during Ramadan, post-iftar, is to gorge. It is a base, but human instinct. And yet, we are admonished to leave space. The same may be said about technology at times, to create and enjoy, as Pico Iyer wrote, ‘The Joy of Quiet.’ 

Each of us has the potential to create harmony in our own lives, with and without technology, and to benefit from the real blessings of Ramadan. Dig deep, be honest with yourself, recognize your own tests, try to structure your time and prioritize your goals, and when you see ‘786’ flashing, remember the wake-up call.