Technology: The New Polytheism?

One of the most profound experiences I have ever had was participating in the Deen Intensive’s Rihla program that took place in Spain in the summer of 2010. I had the blessing of attending the Rihla for two more years after that in Turkey. But the impact of my time in Spain on my soul was unmatched and it persists to this day. I still have dreams of going back there and pray that I do. Some may attribute this to the effect that a first time experience an intensive retreat would have upon the uninitiated. However, there was a special qualitative difference between my experiences in Spain and Turkey that goes beyond which came first.

The site of the Spain Rihla was Alqueria de Rosales, a retreat located in the mountains of Granada, remote enough from the city as to be cut off from civilization. Due to the logistic limitations of the retreat’s facilities, which could not accommodate the large number of Rihla attendees, the men stayed in Moroccan tents while the women stayed in assigned communal rooms. We showered with water that came from melted snow in the mountains, making its way down to shock the sleeping heads in the morning into total wakefulness with its ice-cold temperature. The remote location of the site meant a night sky seen, as it should in all its glory, unpolluted by the impact of city lights and unobstructed by tall buildings. And given the severely limited access to the Internet, we were effectively cut off from the online world. It is a place that facilitates polishing of the heart and emergence of the Fitra (the primordial pure nature of human beings). It reminded me of my youth in Sudan.

On one of the mornings we woke up prior to the break of dawn. We sat in the mosque, some of us reciting Quran, others deep in remembrance and praise of God as we all waited for the Sub’h prayer time to enter. When the clock struck the time indicated on the prayer times’ calendar the adhan was called. This was the moment Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah entered and asked why we were getting up to pray. We answered that Sub’h had entered. He said it did not. We pointed to the calendar. He told us to go outside and pointed to the horizon, asking where the light that broke dawn was. It turns out the calendar, which uses astronomical calculations, was to the surprise of everyone incorrect and it took another twenty minutes before we witnessed that thin sliver of light appear.

Many of us conduct our acts of worship without realizing their intimate connection to nature. Creation is a manifestation of the Divine Command Kun (Be). Yet, we tread upon the Earth without truly comprehending what that really entails. Prayer is established through movement of the Sun in the sky and changes in lengths of objects’ shadows corresponding to it. To perform it, we have to connect with Water or with the Earth before we can connect with God. Fasting and the Pilgrimage are established through changes in lunar phases that begin every month with a birth of the new crescent. One may be able to calculate the movement of heavenly bodies in the cosmos, but this does not necessarily translate to knowledge of how they will phenomenologically manifest themselves as part of human experience, which is how we are meant to establish our relationship with God.

Given our debilitating reliance upon technology it would not be an exaggeration to say that we are literally one geomagnetic storm away from realizing that without it, most Muslims will be unable to pray or fast with certainty about a foundational condition for these acts’ validity – entrance of the prescribed time. How many Muslims do you know are able to tell whether Maghreb prayer time has entered just by looking at the Sun over the horizon? Better yet, how many Muslims do you know would object against the declaration that Maghreb’s time has not entered yet based on looking at the Sun, citing that the prayer times’ calendar says it did? Then there is the issue of where to face. If asked to determine the direction of Mecca without pulling up a smartphone or some technological device, but only through reliance upon nature, it would not be farfetched to say that a miniscule minority of Muslims would be able to do this. We live in a time in which collapse of technology could spell the collapse of ritual acts of Islam for most Muslims.

Do you not see how your Lord lengthens the shade? If He had willed, He could have made it stand still – and We made the Sun its indicator – but We gradually draw it towards Us, little by little.” [Quran 25:45] There is an impact to witnessing the entrance of prayer time and power of transition between the five periods of the day and night that can only be felt experientially. One can only wonder how much of the significance of this verse from Surah al-Furqān is lost upon many Muslims who have disconnected the foundational act of worship in this religion from one of the Signs of God that is meant to be intimately linked to it. Indeed, one can only wonder how much of the significance of numerous verses of the Quran speaking about the Signs of God is lost upon Muslims because we prefer to place the filter of Instagram between them and us.

For the vast majority of Muslims, technology has transformed from being a means used to organize rituals sourced from the Quran and Sunnah, into an end dictating when rituals are to be performed, with the Quran and Sunnah merely serving as a means to facilitate them. The Beloved ﷺ is reported to have said in a Hadith related by at-Tirmidhī and others, “You will follow the ways of those who have come before you, inch by inch, and arm span by arm span to the extent that if they were to enter a lizard’s hole you would also enter it.” When the Companions asked if the previous people he ﷺ was referring to were the Jews and Christians, he ﷺ said, “Who else?” The transformation of technology’s role in the lives of Muslims is an example of what the Beloved ﷺ foretold in this Hadith.

In his 1993 book Technopoly, the cultural critic Neil Postman relates a forgotten part of the history of invention of the mechanical clock. The motive behind this invention was to provide precise regularity to routines followed by monks in the Benedictine monasteries of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which included seven daily periods of devotion. The clock gave the needed precision for the times of these devotional periods. But as Postman noted, “what the monks did not foresee was that the clock is a means not merely of keeping track of the hours but also of synchronizing and controlling the actions of men.” As this technology went outside the monasteries and began to be used for the purposes of work and standardized production, it would later come back to impose itself upon the monks in a way they did not intend for it to. Postman writes:

I have…alluded to the transformation of the mechanical clock in the fourteenth century from an instrument of religious observance to an instrument of commercial enterprise. That transformation is sometimes given a specific date – 1370 – when King Charles V ordered all cities of Paris to regulate their private, commercial, and industrial life by the bells of the Royal Palace clock, which struck every sixty minutes. All churches in Paris were similarly required to regulate their clocks, in disregard of the canonical hours. Thus, the church had to give material interests precedence over spiritual needs.

The historical events Postman related about the clock and Benedictine monks are mirrored today in an aspect of the never-ending debates within Muslim communities about when to observe Ramadan and Eid. Aside from the fallacious calls for superficial unity in setting dates to mark these events, many organizers would like to have specific dates in advance for logistical reasons related to booking venues and work commitments. Aside from discussions about their validity or lack thereof from a juristic perspective, astronomical calculations may serve a practical need, but they come at the heavy price of abandoning a Sunnah. The Beloved ﷺ used to go and sight the birth of the new crescent and upon doing so would make a prayer that included speaking directly to it, finishing with a declaration that “My Lord and your Lord is God.” It is a recognition that the moon is not an inanimate heavenly body; it is a living creation constantly in remembrance of God, even if we do not comprehend its praises of Him.

With technology reigning supreme, we have given our mathematical projections upon nature the power to control our relationship with God. Instead of experiencing nature as God’s Creation, we are now subject to the tyranny of our limited intellects. It is worthy to note here that this is also the same technology that destroys part of God’s Creation, including the very humans who use it. Hence, it should not be surprising that many of us wonder why we feel next to nothing when we pray or fast, and why the significance of the many great oaths God makes in the Quran by His Creation is missed. The problem is not with technology; it is with our relationship with it.

As our creation, our relationship with technology makes it serve as a barrier between God’s Creation and us. It acts as a filter that makes God’s work appear random and unconnected. In doing so, it turns around and imposes its own value system upon us as evident by the now taken for granted assumption of modern science being a source of Truth and an ultimate arbiter of what can be accepted about the nature of reality. Consider the analogies we make. Humans are machines. The brain is a computer. Furthermore, when many of us speak about what is considered rational we really mean that which is empirically verifiable through the technology made possible by modern science. The Unseen now refers to that which we cannot sense without the aid of technology, which makes it the Jibreel of the modern age, delivering revelation that commands us when to worship and what to believe.

God in the Quran continually refers us to His Creation as a proof of His Existence, His Power, His Wisdom, and His Will. The attributes of God represented in the Divine Names manifest themselves in His Creation. Technology gives us a filtered view of Creation that is as grand and mesmerizing, as it is myopic and cryptic. It negates the non-rational experience we are meant to have of Creation that allows the soul to recognize the nature of its reality in the way that it is meant to reveal itself in.

Have they not contemplated the realm of the heavens and the earth and that God created, and that the end of their time might be near? What [other revelation] will they believe in if they do not believe in this?” [Quran 7:185]