What does the Qur’an, hadith & Islamic history say about the dangers of media propaganda? (part 2)

News is often less about informing people so they may be equipped with knowledge and insight, but more for the purpose of maintaining as a status quo; distraction; to make people acquiesce to a particular political agenda; to help commoditise something for financial gain.

News is often less about informing people so they may be equipped with knowledge and insight, but more for the purpose of maintaining as a status quo; distraction; to make people acquiesce to a particular political agenda; to help commoditise something for financial gain.

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:

  1. Maintaining a status quo
  2. Distraction
  3. To make people acquiesce to a particular political agenda
  4. 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 acts as a guide for all times and places

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.” [1]

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.” [2]

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. [3]

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.

Thus, in the next two articles we will, God-willing, define ‘fake news’ and demonstrate clearly the methods used by mainstream media to deceive, control and manipulate its viewers.

[1] At-Tusi, Al-Amali, pg 117, Hadith no. 182; Sunan at-Tirmidhi, Hadith no. 2434

[2] Al-Kulayni, Usul al-Kafi, Vol. 1, Book 2 The Book on the Excellence of Knowledge, Hadith no. 128, pg 34

[3] 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-Masudi, Vol. 3, pg, 32