By Sheikh Jaffer Ladak*
Politicians unconstrained by facts; science governed by press release; environment an afterthought; famine barely mentioned; war unchecked; celebrity idols; malice given priority; and corporations given free reign to dictate laws and global culture. Check your newsfeed and you’re likely to see this cycle as the underlying diet of the daily news.
Since Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” – meaning an argument thought to be true because it “feels right”, without regard for evidence, facts or examination some ten years ago – society has come to tacitly accept the manipulation of information and news.
During the Brexit debate, Britain graduated to a “post-truth” society. While expert opinion no longer mattered, a politician could claim literally almost anything they wanted and be believed. The government didn’t even need to produce a strategy in the event of a Leave vote to be considered in the decision making process. What mattered was the propaganda and the hysteria – and people fell for it.
Then came what almost appeared to be a practical joke upon the world, the US presidential election, and parts of the media evolved into outright fake news. Satire and disinformation ruled the day. Hoax stories were used to stoke hatred and earn staggering advertisement money through click-baiting (for example, trending number one on Facebook for a while was the story of the Pope endorsing Donald Trump). Most culpable was corporate media who, for a whole year, gave 68% positive coverage to Donald Trump, but spent just 12% of their time covering his policies and 21% on how he was doing in the polls. Compared to the main election, the same major networks devoted just 10% of their time to policy issues but 42% of the coverage to the horserace between the candidates. Again, people were taken in.
Welcome To the World Of Fake News.
The reality is however, that 2015-17 has largely reflected the approach to news in previous years. News, like history and any other narrative, is crafted by those who produce and convey it for a particular purpose; for it to be believed or to promote a particular point of view. However, with the increased attention on the conduct of the media, especially since the rise of the godfather of modern satirical news, Jon Stewart, or award winning HBO show ‘The Newsroom’ critically analysing journalism, and more analytical news outlets, sections of the media are finally having a mirror held up to them.
Cumulatively, this has had an effect on the collective consciousness of society in the way it engages with and accepts the news. Trust levels in the media have generally declined, as has trust in politicians, while trust in critiques of the media has absorbed that deficit and steadily increased. It is evident how the Trump campaign utilised this trend to their advantage.
Whereas previously society generally accepted a variety of media outlets, it has in recent years significantly narrowed the sources from where it receives information. It seems we now choose our sources that match our beliefs and use those to reinforce our views, and nowhere is this more prevalent than on our phones and social media feeds, which feed back to us that which we’ve previously opened, searched or liked by algorithm, compounding the problem.
Just like any challenge to mainstream society, the Muslim community is also affected by fake or misleading news. Consider the following questions: What makes the average person not view ‘Israel’ as an apartheid state? Or believe that terror performed in the name of Islam is worse than terror performed in the name of the nation state or Western exceptionalism? Why do most people know of the essential relationship between Islamic extremism and Saudi Arabia but fail to query that the ‘Crown Prince’ can visit the White House, without even the topic of their role in ISIS be raised? What is the role of the media in shaping these perceptions?
Consider now the following questions, specific to the Muslim demographic: What made Muslims argue for voting for ‘the lesser of two evils’ in the US elections? What makes a Muslim change their social media profile after terrorist attack in Paris but not when ‘Israel’ bombs occupied Palestine? Or what made hundreds of millions of Muslims celebrate the New Year whilst five Muslim countries are presently in famine, and eight are in a state of war or conflict? Or what made a Muslim champion January’s Women’s March but not demonstrate against the ongoing genocide in Yemen? What makes a Muslim acutely aware of the White Helmets in Syria but not anything significant about which forces have mobilised to fight ISIS in Iraq?
To what extent are these attitudes voluntary or shaped by the media? The answers broadly lie in the sources, packaging and consumption of the news which ultimately directs what people come to value and believe about the world.
Growing awareness of these challenges has received varied responses. Some schools are calling for lessons of spotting ‘fake news’. The FBI is investigating Breitbart and other right-wing outlets for spreading it. Governments and media organisations have moved for legislation and to amend internal procedures to respond to fake news. However, we must ask, to what extent does this solve the problem at its roots which, arguably, lie primarily in three areas:
The first is the hegemony of corporate and social media and the echo-chambers they have created. This means there are so many outlets essentially saying the same thing or framing the issue in the same way, that the scope of the narrative is almost identical. Wherever you turn for news, it is largely saying the same thing. This ‘news’ is placed within two narrow brackets referred to as ‘The Overton Window’ and whatever falls outside of that construct is deemed as conspiracy, extreme or unreasonable. Eventually the Muslim consumer of news comes to believe much the same as everybody else does.
This creates a logical corollary, the second challenge, in that when there is the allusion of choice, people become ignorant of what is beyond the mirage. In this case, many do not know where to get objective or better analysis outside of the ‘window’. Only once introduced to a world beyond the one constructed for you, can a person begin to construct their own.
The third lies in many people’s inability to weigh up or navigate through the news that reaches them. This lies in the systemic mis-education of people taught, not how to think, but rather, what to think. This occurs as much in the home and school when a child asks “why”, and this inquisitive nature is constricted more than nurtured, as much as it does in the Madrasa and on the pulpits that prefer the comfort of regurgitation and the Islamic version of an applause-line, over challenge and analysis. The result of all three challenges combined is simply indoctrination.
It is for these challenges that this series of articles aims to address the epidemic of fake and propagandist news that engulfs consumers, and through the Islamic sources of the Qur’an, Hadith literature and Epistemology, offer some guidance as to how to navigate through the modern media. As Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (a) is narrated to have said, “Working without proper understanding and insight is like travelling in the wrong direction; it only takes one further away from their destination.” In this context, turning to propagandist news for guidance and insight into what is happening in the world will only send you further from the truth.
It is hoped that the reader will better understand how and why the media presents its information the way it does, what cumulative effects these have upon a consumer of news and how to effectively evaluate any news story that reaches you, for the purpose of reaching the truth.
In Doing So, the Articles Will Look at The Following Four Aspects:
- What does the holy Qur’an say about the media and the relationship between government, corporations and propagandist material? Where in early Islamic history can we see examples of propagandist material and how did this affect the early Muslim community?
- How do we define fake news? What is the difference between Corporate, State and Independent media outlets and how do we know what drives their opinions? What does the consumer of news need to know about how information is portrayed to them in order to not become a puppet of any news organisation’s narrative?
- What does the holy Qur’an and Hadith literature say as guidance in regard to consuming and sharing news? How does this practically apply today when we repost, tweet or share news on our groups? What is an Islamic Epistemology and how does it guide us to regard trustworthy or untrustworthy news organisations? And how might this help non-Muslims in weighing up the news they receive?
- From where can I receive sound, factual and objective news? Which journalists are most trustworthy in their fields and which news outlets might you want to readily check?
Ultimately, a person is responsible for what they choose to hear and see, what influences their nature and mind, and what they share with others. Imam Mohammed al-Baqir (a) is narrated to have commentated about the verse, “Let people think deeply about their food” (80:24) that people’s food refers to “the knowledge he acquires and from whom he acquires it.”
Allah (swt) tells us in the Qur’an, “And do not follow that which you do not have knowledge of. Certainly your hearing, sight and heart – all of them – will be called to account for it (on the Day of Judgement)” (17:36). In response, those who take lightly this warning and are misguided by false knowledge, Allah (swt) foretells such people will say, “Oh but if only we had listened or at least used our intelligence.” (67:10).
In Part 1 of this series, which was our introduction to the challenges of fake and propagandist news (read it here), we demonstrated how the media may shape the thinking of people generally and Muslims specifically. This is because receiving the news is subject to a form and narrative based upon that which the organisation or the author wishes to present to the consumer.
In the modern world of click-baiting, absolute free speech, alternative facts, fear-mongering and the “war of ideas” (read: soft conversion of a mass group of people from one set of views to another), news is often less about informing people so they may be equipped with knowledge and insight, but more for the purpose of four things:
To help commoditise something for financial gain.
This of course, is not a new phenomenon. Arguably every regime or organisation aims to establish its ideals and argue for its own cause. But there is a difference between presenting information, in this case the news, through the lens of facts, accurate historical context and analysis, and news with the driven agenda of manipulating the consumer into a conforming with a particular view.
In this article we shall look at how the Qur’an and Hadith literature have warned about the sources of propaganda and manipulative information. We will also look at a particular historical event in Islamic history and demonstrate how the early Muslims were convinced by their government’s propaganda into believing almost anything. The purpose of this is to show how Islamic source material has left guidance on this so that we can apply its logic in our own contexts.
State and Corporate Propaganda from the Qur’an
The Qur’an, “A divine writ, which makes clear everything” (16:89), has addressed the issue of media outlets as a tool of mass manipulation. It has primarily warned of propagandist news from three sources: First, at the hands of a corrupt system, second from a government that legislates (legitimises) the corruption and third an elite class of people, all of whom have vested interests in shaping the thinking of its audience to their benefit.
The most-oft related story in the Qur’an is that of Prophet Moses (a) and The Children of Israel. Amongst the reasons for this, is that the story serves as an archetype or typology for the Muslim community; whatever occurred to them has or will occur relative to the Muslim community. In fact the Prophet Muhammad (s) is narrated to have said, “You have been snuck up on by the same plague as the previous communities.” 
There are those who disregard divine stories as the Qur’an itself mentions, “When Our verses are recited to him, he says, ‘(These are just) stories of the ancients!’” (83:13-14). For others of insight however, there are “in their stories, deep lessons for people of understanding” (12:111).
Pharaoh, Haamaan, Qaaroon and their armies
The central verse warning of propagandist and manipulative media is “Verily Fir’oan, Hãmãn and the two of them, their armies indeed were sinners” (28:8).
The verses seek to define types of ruling forces and their methods of control, collusion and exploitation. How does the Qur’an do this? First, though the verses refer to historical individuals, they intend to unmask what they essentially represent. Second, the verses describe media as one of the “armies” in the hands of three sets of powers, the oppressive system, its enforcers and the elite.
Here we will explain the relationship between the individuals mentioned and what the Qur’an seeks to unmask, and their relationship to their “army”, wielding a propagandist media.
Fir’oan was the Pharaoh over the Egyptian people and the tyrant opposed by Prophet Moses (a). How do we understand Fir’oan and this verse today? Fir’oan depicts any oppressive leader as the individual, but more so is the symbol of any corruption system. Wherever you see a tyrannical system and its leadership today, this is no less a Pharaoh or Pharaonic system than the one mentioned in the Qur’an.
Hãmãn was the senior minister of his society, a high-ranking government official who obeyed and implemented the policies of the Pharaonic system. His formal position endows him with a sense of legitimacy and authority among the people; they may even feel a false sense of sympathy for his having to ‘tow the line’. In our era, Hãmãn represents corrupt and lackey elected officials placed into power by others but work for a Pharaonic system.
The verse then states, “And the two of them, their armies.” What are these armies that the Qur’an so importantly refers to? The word Junûd is an unqualified word, meaning it is not restricted to a particular meaning. Junûd primarily means armies in the conventional sense; soldiers, regiments and in today’s sense missiles and fighter jets.
However, the armies of a tyrannical system and a government that must work for this system go beyond the conventional military to any and all means of control; today they might include the spy, hacking and data mining technologies. And certainly, the greatest tool of the Pharaonic armies is its propagandist media. Leading contemporary commentator Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi al-Modarresi explains this verse saying, “Oppression is wrong. Its effect is not limited to the disadvantaged ones who are punished by it.”
Sheikh Hamza Yusuf in his commentary explains, “The Qur’an sets up a dialectic in the world between a pharaonic impulse to control and a prophetic impulse to liberate from control models. Allah says all of them are wrongdoers so being a solider for this system is also participating for the crime of the system.” Nouman Ali Khan refers to this saying Pharaoh, “had the propaganda of an entire nation at his disposal. He could control and unify the messages. What everybody is taking about across the land, is in his control.”
How do these components work together to form their propagandist narratives?
The relationship between the Pharaonic system and Hãmãn the lackey statesman is a direct and mutual one. They use each others’ resources and powers to assist one another in their aspirations of control. The Qur’an provides an example, “And Fir’oan said, ‘Kindle a fire for me, Oh Hãmãn, to make bricks, then prepare for me a lofty building so that I may look at Moses’s God’” (28:38).
Hãmãn held the governments military, its wealth, its contracts, its slaves and experience to build this fire and giant building. What would the people think of this coordinated response? Pharaoh and Hãmãn’s aggressive response would give the impression to the people that Pharaoh was capable of fighting the ‘God of Moses’ and that they should continue to fear him. This collusion and the very sight of a building being constructed to fight ‘Moses God’ would ultimately be a form of propaganda effecting the people’s understanding, edifying Pharaoh’s position.
This is an example of how the Qur’an clearly warns of state and system led propaganda.
Information manipulation and propaganda as mentioned in the Hadith literature
The Hadith literature has expressly warned about those who use knowledge to manipulate people, such as might a government and a particular class of people who use media outlets as its means of manipulation.
Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (a) is narrated to have said, “There are three kinds of seekers of knowledge. They can be recognised by their characteristics. The first are those who seeks knowledge for the sake of ignorance and quarreling. The second are those who seek knowledge to dominate and cheat people. The third are those seek for proper understanding.”
The characteristics of the second group, which we are concerned with here, are described in the narration as, “The group that seeks domination and cheating is a deceitful and flattering group. Such people try to dominate people of their kind and flatter the wealthy ones who know less than they do. Such people consume the sweet meat of the rich people but end up destroying of their own religion.” 
The narration attests to a particular group of people who specifically engage with knowledge for with the intention of dominating others through deception or what we referred to earlier as “means of control” or “manipulation”.
What is interesting is that the narration specifically states such people consume the sweet meat of the rich people, which may be understood today as the media consuming vast sums of advertising and sponsorship money from the donor class to peddle a narrative, but end up destroying their own religion, or in this sense their own industry of journalism. This is also something we shall detail in the next installment, God-wllling.
An example of media deception upon the early Muslims and its effects
Just as the Qur’an and Ahadith warns, exploitative systems, their governments and benefactors will disseminate information to its people in order to form a narrative. Nouman Ali Khan explains that this message engulfs the nation and becomes imbibed, regurgitated and believed to be their own thoughts. This is a weapon from its “armies” used to dominate and cheat its people, without them even realising it.
Islamic history has countless examples from the way the Quraysh would label the Prophet Muhammad (s) a madman, liar, poet, plagiarist, soothsayer, mischief-maker, corrupter of their faith and so on (we seek refuge in Allah from these), all mentioned in the Qur’an.
Why so? Why not just call him (s) only a plagiarist, for example? Because the more they could propagate, the more it established as the narrative and the more people it could delude. It meant the more varied accusations the Quraysh could levy, the more that people might come to accept one if not all of them. As we know many thousands were beguiled to the extent that they warred with the Prophet (s) based on this propaganda to destroy the Prophetic message.
In the era of the Caliphate of Imam Ali ibn Ali Talib (a), arguably his greatest antagonist was Mu’awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan. Mu’awiyah had control of the area of Shãm, what is modern day Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon. History testifies to the anti-Ali narrative peddled by Mu’awiyah to the extent that millions in dinars were paid to fabricate stories and change commentary of the Qur’an in favour of Mu’awiyah and abusing Ali ibn Abi Talib (a).
This happened to such an extent that Muslims didn’t even know who Imam Ali ibn Talib (a) was, the man that the Friday prayer leaders would curse weekly. 
Just think about that… how did the early Muslims, not even know who Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib (a) was – the only man in history to have been born inside the holy Ka’ba and the person whom the Prophet Muhammad (s) said in a Mutawatir narration, “The strike of ‘Ali on the day of the battle of Khandaq is superior to the worship of all men and jinn”.
Media propaganda. Still think you’re safe from it?
Conclusion and afterthought
The Qur’an, Hadith literature and Islamic history have provided important examples of how media is used to control and manipulate people.
Reflecting upon the examples of how Pharaoh, the Quraysh and Mu’awiyah used their media outlets raises a simple yet imperative point: We instinctively say to ourselves, ‘Had I been in that era, I would never have been manipulated like that! I would have seen past the propaganda and known the truth.’
But how can we know for sure? How can I objectively know whether I would have fallen for the Pharaonic or Qurayshan propaganda in that time? The answer is simple. If I fall for the propaganda today, I would have fallen for it then. And if I know how to navigate it today, I would have known how to navigate then.
*Sheikh Jaffer was born and raised in Milton Keynes, UK. After two years in medical recruitment, he opened his own agency in 2005 and subsequently appointed director of the DRC Group, the second largest agency supplying locum doctors to the NHS in the UK, leaving in 2011. After returning from Hajj in 2005, he began his Islamic studies, speaking in centres around the world, leading Ziyaarat and Hajj groups. He has studied at Jaami’a Imam as-Sadiq (a) of Ayatollah al-Qazwini, Hawza Imam al-Jawad (a) of Grand Ayatollah Syed Taqi al-Modarresi in holy Kerbala and Al Mahdi Institute, Birmingham. He has authored two books, The Hidden Treasure (2011) and The Ways of The Righteous (2015) with various other written works in the pipeline. He is currently the Resident ‘Alim of Hyderi Islamic Centre, London and completing his Masters Degree in Islamic Law at the Islamic College, London.
 At-Tusi, Al-Amali, pg 117, Hadith no. 182; Sunan at-Tirmidhi, Hadith no. 2434
 Al-Kulayni, Usul al-Kafi, Vol. 1, Book 2 The Book on the Excellence of Knowledge, Hadith no. 128, pg 34
 قال المسعودي: و ذكر بعض الاخبارين انه قال لجل من اهل الشام من زعمائهم و اهل الرأي و العقل منهم: من ابو تراب هذا الذي يلعنه الامام (اي امام الجماعة) على المنبر؟
قال: أراه لصا من لصوص الفتن Muruj ad-Dhahab, Abu al-Hasan al-Mas’udi, Vol. 3, pg, 32