As the month of Ramadan commences, we Muslim purveyors of YouTube find ourselves facing an impossible predicament: virtually every Muslim YouTube channel in our subscription list now offers new and exciting content. We are tempted by fresh series of mini-lectures, lured by live streams, and are drowning in a deluge of “daily reminders”. It is ironic how it is precisely in the month of fasting that we as Muslims tend to produce and consume religious videos excessively. But one may argue: isn’t the upsurge in religious videos commendable given the occasion of the holy month?
Certainly now more than ever, with mosques in lockdown and religious gatherings in abeyance, we must be grateful to have found devotional spaces online. Our sorrow over not being able to visit the mosque is somewhat quelled by the “virtual mosques” brought to us online. But I want us to pause and ask whether this is a matter of simple substitution? Or does the mosque undergo a transfiguration when transposed onto cyberspace?
Of course, this question has been probed to much length in the works of cultural commentators like Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman. For them the “medium” of communication is not a benign vessel which merely houses a certain “content”. Rather, the container gives shape to what it contains. In other words, the content cannot remain unchanged when transferred from one medium to another.
We must look at the phenomenon of YouTube religiosity with a similar suspicion. What Postman said about the entertaining quality of television applies equally to YouTube:
“The problem is not that television (/YouTube) presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether.”
One need only think of the kind of religious videos that gather more views on YouTube. These are those that are most entertaining, or most “moving” or “stimulating” or “motivating” – typically ones in which the speaker is emotional, cries or induces the audience to cry, or buoys them up with his charisma.
Now, these qualities in themselves may not be antithetical to the kind of pious sensibility that our religion seeks to inculcate in us. What is out of place here is how these emotions themselves are divorced from the context that endows them with any meaning or substance. What a religious sermon at the mosque may have used as rhetorical flourish in a longer exposition, is now fragmented and mass consumed in its atomised form. Thus, the entertainment platform YouTube gives birth to a new kind of religious sensibility in us, one that may be termed “devotional/pious pleasure”. This term is employed by the anthropologist Charles Hirschkind in his paper analysing the YouTube Khutba phenomenon. In an eloquent passage he describes the psychological effect of surfing the Internet, which one might contrast from, say attending a religious gathering:
“To enter the Internet can mean that one embarks on an adventure, that one sets off across a quixotic, unpredictable landscape whose every twist and turn presents not the threads of an unfolding discourse or the development of a deeper understanding but the sudden surprise of an affect, the pleasure or shock of an unexpected discovery. To be online can bring a sense of vertiginous mobility, an urge to jump again and again, shifts too quick for the unfolding of an argument but enough to allow for the triggering of a fleeting sensation or psychic charge – a burst of excitement, terror, fear, silliness, sadness, sentimentality, amazement, and so on… This solicitation to set off toward what might amaze, or horrify, or enchant is particularly pronounced on sites like YouTube, where much of the content is composed of short fragments extracted from much longer productions.”
These reflections must certainly give us pause in our present circumstances. Due to the lockdown in effect, many of us have come to inhabit the digital space more and more. What may have served as a much anticipated break from our routine preoccupations, is only serving to occupy us in other ways. We are still not free. What could have been a Ramadan of seclusion and introspection is still out of reach for us.
Given the peculiar nature of YouTube religiosity discussed above, we can easily see how it may negatively impact the Taqwa-training that Ramadan seeks to put us through. However, it is precisely in this month that we see the maximum production and consumption of such content. In fact, with the spur to go on a plan, and with an endless array of plans to choose from, one finds oneself besought by a newfound anxiety – an anxiety peculiar to endless internet options.
We soon begin to realize that the surplus of choice isn’t helping us choose. At which point, we may hand over the fate of our festering anxiety to the Internet itself. We discover that the Internet makes things easier for us in this sense, by ridding us of choices altogether. We are drawn to it, compelled by instinct, emotion, and algorithm – we no longer have to choose, or to bear the dizzying burden of choice. We surrender. And our anxiety is relieved.
The philosopher Alain de Botton in his book “How to Think More About Sex” likens this anxiolytic function of the internet to a pornography addiction, and makes a case for cultivating an internet-free state of boredom. Such a state, he argues, is indispensable to creative inspiration – and we may add, to spiritual cultivation as well:
“Pornography, like alcohol and drugs, undermines our ability to endure certain kinds of suffering which we have to experience if we are to direct our lives properly. More specifically, it reduces our capacity to tolerate our ambiguous moods of free floating worry and boredom. Our feelings of anxiety are genuine but confused signals that something is amiss, and so need to be listened to and patiently interpreted – processes which are unlikely to be completed when we have to hand, in the computer, one of the most powerful tools of distraction ever invented. The entire internet is in a sense pornographic, a deliverer of constant excitement that we have no innate capacity to resist, a seducer that leads us down paths that for the most part do nothing to answer our real needs. Furthermore the ready availability of pornography lessens our tolerance for the kind of boredom that grants our mind the space it needs to spawn good ideas – the creative sort of boredom we may luxuriate in during a bath or on a long train journey. Whenever we feel an all but irresistible desire to flee from our own thoughts, we can be sure there is something important trying to make its way into our consciousness – and yet it is at such pregnant moments that internet pornography is most apt to exert its maddening pull, assisting our escape from ourselves and thereby helping us to destroy our present and our future.”
Charles Hirschkind; “Experiments in Devotion Online: The YouTube Khutba” (International Journal of Middle East Studies, Feb. 2012)
Neil Postman; “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” (Penguin Press, 2005)
Khalid Baig; “In the Lizard’s Hole: Television, Televangelism and Muslims” (http://www.albalagh.net/general/0097.shtml )
Mark Damien Delp; “Beware What Comes Within from Without” (https://renovatio.zaytuna.edu/article/beware-what-comes-within-from-without )