Engaging the Truth and changing the narrative
In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
How should Muslims engage the many false narratives around Islam in the media today?
In the current global discourse more generally, humanity seems to be in turmoil due to our collective inability to distinguish between truth and falsehood; in many cases, it is used as excuse for complacency. Even more concerning is the lack of definition for what is truth is and what is false.
It is common for people to equate facts as truths, although facts are merely events and do not constitute “truth” by themselves. In other words, fact taken out of context can support a false narrative. As Mark Twain quipped, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Put differently, statistics might be factually correct but can be interpreted in a way to support falsehood.
This confusion over truth, unless clarified, threatens the viability of human conscience and ethics. Our conscience is only relevant if it rightly guides our actions and behavior. We need to know, truly and absolutely, where we are now in this life and where we are heading in the Hereafter; if our understanding of absolute truth is not firmly established, we become paralyzed by confusion or misguided into wrongdoing.
From a monotheistic perspective, the essence of truth is very clear: Truth (al-ḥaqq) is that which is eternal and absolute, and falsehood is whatever is destined to end. Allah and his words and actions are, in fact, the only absolute truth as everything else will come to an end. Nevertheless, this definition requires more elaboration to guide our behavior.
In the revelation, Allah explained to us that his attributes, being eternal and absolute, are the basis upon which nature was created and is sustained:
خَلَقَ اللَّهُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ بِالْحَقِّ ۚ إِنَّ فِي ذَٰلِكَ لَآيَةً لِلْمُؤْمِنِينَ
Allah created the heavens and the earth in truth. Verily, in that are signed for the believers.
Surat al-‘Ankabūt 29:44
Our natural being can only be balanced if we conform to the eternal values – love, compassion, justice – derived from the characteristics of the Creator. Adhering to these absolute truths is our means of becoming eternal ourselves in the afterlife. In other words, practicing universal virtues is our only means to become “true” in the fullest sense.
Though the Creator is beyond the direct reach of our senses, we can experience his eternal attributes in the form of his ethical values and truths. In this way, true faith is distinguished from unbelief, as faith will live on forever and unbelief will perish:
بَلْ نَقْذِفُ بِالْحَقِّ عَلَى الْبَاطِلِ فَيَدْمَغُهُ فَإِذَا هُوَ زَاهِقٌ
Rather, We cast the truth over falsehood and thus it is broken and vanished.
Surat al-‘Anbiyā’ 21:18
And hence the believers will be rewarded with Paradise and spared from the fate of those who disbelieved in their Creator:
أَمْ نَجْعَلُ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ كَالْمُفْسِدِينَ فِي الْأَرْضِ أَمْ نَجْعَلُ الْمُتَّقِينَ كَالْفُجَّارِ
Or should We treat those who had faith and did righteous deeds like those who spread corruption in the land? Or should We treat the righteous as the wicked?
Surat Ṣad 38:28
Natural laws are not only built upon eternal values that constitute absolute truth, they are also greater than humanity. This reality has serious consequences, as natural law always will always win out. Reality always has a way of asserting itself every time human beings become arrogant enough to deviate from its designs and purpose:
لَخَلْقُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ أَكْبَرُ مِنْ خَلْقِ النَّاسِ وَلَٰكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ النَّاسِ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ
The creation of the heavens and earth is greater than the creation of humanity, but most people do not know.
Surat Ghāfir 40:57
All the prophets of monotheism delivered revelations that conformed to the realities of nature, as the truths of revelation and the truths of nature both have the same source:
فَأَقِمْ وَجْهَكَ لِلدِّينِ حَنِيفًا ۚ فِطْرَتَ اللَّهِ الَّتِي فَطَرَ النَّاسَ عَلَيْهَا ۚ لَا تَبْدِيلَ لِخَلْقِ اللَّهِ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ الدِّينُ الْقَيِّمُ وَلَٰكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ النَّاسِ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ
Thus, direct your face toward the religion, inclining to truth, the nature of Allah with which he has created people. Let there be no change in the creation of Allah. That is the true religion, but most of people do not know.
Surat al- Rūm 30:30
The struggle between natural truths and man-made falsehoods will always end with nature victorious. Even so, this process needs to be understood and observed in real time so that those seeking the truth can anticipate what is to come before it happens.
Stories in divine revelations are intended to uncover this process of struggle and bring awareness to those who are seeking the truth. The stories uncover the repeated cycle of truth (that is, Allah and his natural laws) defeating falsehood:
إِنِ الْحُكْمُ إِلَّا لِلَّهِ ۖ يَقُصُّ الْحَقَّ ۖ وَهُوَ خَيْرُ الْفَاصِلِينَ
The judgment is for none but Allah. He narrates the stories in truth, and he is the best to pass verdict.
Surat al-‘An’ām 6:57
Interestingly, for many people the truth is often subtle, while falsehood is more easily seen. The reason for this is that the truth is eternal and absolute, all around us at all times, so one must view the “bigger picture,” so to speak. On the other hand, things rooted in falsehood are always changing and catching people’s attention; if one form of falsehood is ended, another form quickly takes its place. It is not that the truth is hidden; rather, it takes knowledge, wisdom, and experience to learn to see it at every level.
As absolute truth is subtler and easily missed, Allah issues a warning for us not to “cover” the truth with falsehood, as if to disguise it under a garment:
وَلَا تَلْبِسُوا الْحَقَّ بِالْبَاطِلِ وَتَكْتُمُوا الْحَقَّ وَأَنتُمْ تَعْلَمُونَ
And do not cover the truth with falsehood, nor conceal the truth while you know.
Surat al-Baqarah 2:42
Because false is temporary, its end is only a matter of time. Yet it is easy for people to be deceived as falsehood in essence actively seeks to engage people. The rise and fall of any false idea follows the same universal patterns dictated by the truth of natural law. If we know this, we can predict specific outcomes with near precision.
Hiding the truth requires something to distract people in the moment and turn their attention away from the bigger picture. This meaning is expressed in the Quranic root-word ka-ta-ma, which refers to an effort to stop what is otherwise naturally occurring, like one who hold his breath. Because falsehood is temporary, it will eventually lose its grip on the narrative and the natural truth will prevail.
It is no wonder, then, that sensational experiences are addressed with extreme caution in Islam. They are, by definition, based upon intense involvement with the present through the senses (hence, it is sensational) and they can easily be exploited to distract from the truth. This observation brings us to a paradoxical conclusion; to properly address falsehood, one has to virtually ignore it.
What does this mean? Engaging in any form of discourse with falsehood is more involvement in the present, a domain where falsehood always wants us to stay. Addressing falsehood by ignoring it means that we respond to every false move by highlighting the eternal truth and bringing attention to it and its subtle nature. In other words, we use falsehood as an opportunity to contrast it with the truth, rather than sinking to its level.
As Allah said:
أَلَمْ تَرَ إِلَىٰ رَبِّكَ كَيْفَ مَدَّ الظِّلَّ وَلَوْ شَاءَ لَجَعَلَهُ سَاكِنًا ثُمَّ جَعَلْنَا الشَّمْسَ عَلَيْهِ دَلِيلًا
Have you not considered how your Lord He extends the shadow? If he willed, he could have made it stationary. Then, We made the sun a sign over it.
Surat al-Furqān 24:45
The truth and falsehood contrast each other like the sunlight and the shadow. They do not occupy the same space at the same time. Light and dark are opposites that are known and defined in opposition. So when the darkness of falsehood emerges, we should contrast it with the light of eternal truth instead of engaging it from within the darkness.
When we do so, our speech and conduct become free from reactionary attitudes that seek to tie us to the present and temporary, irrespective of the overarching background. We no longer react to external stimulus, but rather we act upon our own volition. From this wider our perspective, we understand that what is false will eventually lose control of any meaningful narrative.
In this way, Prophet Muhammad (ṣ) would convey the truth without getting bogged down into distracting and unproductive arguments. As the Prophet (ṣ) said:
أَنَا زَعِيمٌ بِبَيْتٍ فِي رَبَضِ الْجَنَّةِ لِمَنْ تَرَكَ الْمِرَاءَ وَإِنْ كَانَ مُحِقًّا
I guarantee a house on the surroundings of Paradise for one who leaves arguments even if he is right.
Sunan Abī Dāwūd 4800
And someone asked Imam Malik, “If a man has knowledge of the prophetic tradition (Sunnah), should he argue to defend it?” Malik (r) said:
لَا وَلَكِنْ يُخْبِرُ بِالسُّنَّةِ فَإِنْ قُبِلَ مِنْهُ وَإِلَّا سَكَتَ
No, rather he should convey the Sunnah if they might accept it from him, otherwise he should remain silent.
The more we disengage with falsehood directly – focusing on natural and revealed truth, instead – the greater is our status and reward with Allah in this life and in the Hereafter.
Muslims today need to renew the method of the Prophet (ṣ) as it relates to modern discourse. The narrative of violent extremists who act in the name of Islam is based upon a false understanding of the religion. Yet, we constantly react to terrorist attacks by condemning them, which is necessary, but their false narrative often puts us on the defensive. If we are not careful, we may act in ways that reinforce the false narrative. Rather, we should focus our discourse on the natural and revealed truths of Islam; in so doing, the false narrative will not be able to remain.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.