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Pyrrhic Dawah #FiqhOfSocialMedia

By Omar Usman

I’ve heard it called a lot of things, but this one label set off that huge light bulb in my head that made me think about a million different things. 

Pyrrhic Victory.

It’s the label Sam Kyle gives to short term wins that come at the cost of a much larger loss. 

It’s winning the battle but losing the war. It’s when the operation is a success, but the patient dies. 

Every day there is a new controversy in Muslim social media circles. Sometimes it is classical scholarly debates being revived, or statements of a scholar being dissected. That’s followed by memes and reaction videos and reaction podcasts. Those then feed into WhatsApp debates and lengthy Facebook comment back and forths. A few people partake with passive-aggressive posts on Instagram hinting at the controversy in question. 

Underlying all of this is actually a sincere intention. Dawah

There’s a drive to spread the truth, correct misinformation, and prevent people from being misled. 

When reflecting on the most effective or most strategic way of doing that, we should reflect on our own journeys. Chances are, we didn’t start praying or practicing Islam because of a “gotcha” style hot take on social media. When is the last time a Facebook comment from someone you don’t know changed your mind on a hot-button issue? Most likely, changing your views on something came after in-depth reading, thinking, and meaningful conversations with people you trust. Change comes with relationships and work. 

The problem with what we see on social media is that it could be termed pyrrhic dawah. Discussions that produce short-term wins along with a long-term loss. 

Second-order effects are the consequences of the consequences of your actions. If you eat a big bowl of ice cream, the first-order effect is enjoyment and a full stomach. The second-order effect is weight gain or bad health. Second-order effects are often the opposite of first-order effects. 

True success comes when the second-order effects are positive. That means the immediate consequences of an action may not be entirely positive. We understand this approach when it comes to things like education. Study hard now, so you can establish a good career later. 

What about dawah? 

The first-order effects of dawah come mostly in the form of social media validation - likes, retweets, shares, comments, notoriety, and platform. Platform is the key one here because it is the one that has the facade of benefit. The more people I can reach, the more dawah I can make. Follower counts translate into credibility, and from this comes invites, honorariums, and online courses. 

The increase in platform is a first-order effect. When someone is focused on it, they are incentivized to accumulate more “wins” to increase this platform. And in the social media age, the old adage of “if it bleeds, it leads” has never been truer. 

The most efficient way to increase your platform (and thus, the ability to do dawah in a person’s mind) is to do things that get attention. This comes by way of refutations, debates, hot takes, personal attacks, tabloid-style personal discussions, and saying things purely for shock value. 

One second-order effect of this type of dawah is that it burns people out. I remember seeing people in the early 2000s engaging in exactly this same type of culture - refutations, debates, and airing of scholarly issues in public forums. Many of these people lost their drive for learning and dawah work. In some cases, sadly, they stopped regularly practicing the religion altogether. 

Another second-order effect is that it will undermine a person’s credibility. Remember that first and second-order consequences are often opposites. A person can build credibility and platform in the short-term with the very same type of dawah that will undermine it in the long-term. As people mature in their understanding of religion, they will realize what type of knowledge truly benefits. And they will see that those caught up in the “issue of the day” were not providing knowledge that truly benefits a person in their relationship with Allah. That will cause them to look at these da’ees with a deep sense of regret, and even anger at having wasted time consuming so much of their content. 

In extreme cases, this type of dawah will be looked back as being performative - increasing a person’s social capital as opposed to actually furthering a cause. Much of the discourse around arguing various types of “isms” falls into this category. This breeds a deep level of resentment. 

What does dawah look like when it’s focused on second-order effects instead?

It’s the slow brick-by-brick building of community that does not appear to have an immediate pay-off. It’s spending time in a classroom teaching for years and cultivating students. It looks like effective khutbahs that bring incremental change on a weekly basis compounding into bigger results years down the road. It is the drip by drip effect of giving a khatirah after Isha to your community every night knowing that it may take years to see the effect. It means investing in people - sacrificing your own time and effort - in order to help and serve. 

Long-term dawah means doing the unglamorous things you’re supposed to do - visiting someone when they’re sick, comforting a family on the loss of a loved one, and dropping off a meal when you know someone’s having a tough day. These are the things that will not get immediate gratification in the form of follower counts and other vanity metrics that the short-term causes us to become infatuated with. 

Perhaps most difficult, it means eschewing the Muslim social media scene in favor of reading a book or spending time in contemplation to better formulate and refine thoughts before they are presented in public. The first-order effect is that this will not increase your platform, or even get you any type of immediate reward. 

The second-order effect, however, is that you may actually fulfill the purpose of meaningfully making dawah, adding true value to the lives of others, and being a light by which others come closer to Allah. 

The responsibility of this falls not only on the one making dawah, but those of us on the other side as well. We will not change this until we better incentivize and reward the right type of dawah. Stop liking, sharing, and commenting on the things that only impact the short-term. Seek out and amplify the dawah and education that is beneficial for the long-term.

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