As an Islamic preacher in the Detroit area, Dawud Walid typically tweets 15 to 20 messages a day to his near 6,000 followers on issues relating to religion, the government and social justice. But in observance of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from food and drink during daylight hours, Walid will be participating in another type of fast -- a social media one.
"I don't plan on tweeting much at all," Walid said. "I'm not restricting myself to a number, but the amount of times in the day in which I would check Twitter and randomly say something, I'm desisting from that."
What role Facebook and Twitter should play during Ramadan -- if any -- is a question that Muslims are answering in a variety of different ways this year. On the one hand, social media is a known time suck that doesn't always encourage the most virtuous behavior. Facebook has been known to produce feelings of envy and low self-esteem while Twitter has been suspected of actually making people meaner.
On the other, who is to say that checking the Dubai Health Authority's weekly "Twitter clinics" for tips on fasting isn't a good thing to incorporate into observance of the holy month? And given that a survey by the Middle Eastern social media firm The Online Project found that Facebook and Twitter use peaked during Ramadan last year, doesn't that make it an opportunity to share one's spiritual reflections with a broader audience?
Walid's take, at least, is that those who love social media but are observing Ramadan should take the hours they'd otherwise be logging on to Twitter and put them toward reading the Quran. Ramadan, he argued, should not just be about the outward aspects of fasting that involve giving up food and drink from dusk until dawn.
"Those are the easier parts of the fast," Walid said. "Social media at times lends itself to gossiping and vain talk, so avoiding gossiping and vain talk are the inward spiritual secrets within the fast. It's not simply the outward but also it's the inward restraint and discipline that needs to be shown from those matters that take us away from spiritual purification."
Earlier this week, Saud Inam, who lives in Atlanta and is active in the Muslim nonprofit world, came to a similar conclusion. He alerted his friends that he'd be taking a social media hiatus via Facebook and hit the deactivate button shortly thereafter.
"I felt I should concentrate more on introspection and reflecting on my spiritual state," Inam said. "Sometimes Facebook and social media can be information overload ... It's kind of like a rabbit hole and you get lost and you don't realize how much time you've wasted."
He also plans to watch less television and stay off of YouTube.
"I wanted to make sure this Ramadan I had no distractions whatsoever," he said. "I'm reducing things in Ramadan that don't have to do with religion."
Islamic scholar Hussein Rashid, on the other hand, has been going the exact opposite route when it comes to the holy month and social media since 2009. Over the last three Ramadans, Rashid estimated that he has tweeted between 35 and 40 percent of the Quran to his 3,000 followers.
"I can definitely see the argument that you want to abstain from things that engage you too much, that are a distraction from your spiritual life," Rashid said. "I guess my approach is that these are things that are part of my daily life so how do I make them part of my spiritual life?"
Though his decision to start relaying passages from the Quran was initially driven by a desire for personal reflection, he encourages others to do the same through the hashtag "#ttquran" which stands for "tweet the Quran."
"For me, it's very much a living text that living people are to be engaging with and making meaning of," Rashid explained.
The circle of people who sign up to follow Rashid or tweet from the Quran, he said, seems to grow every year.
Nancy Kreimer, a rabbi and professor at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, has over 1,000 Facebook friends, Rashid among them. She had never been on Twitter before this week, but when she saw his status update about his plans to tweet the Quran, she signed up for an account.
"I thought it would be fascinating opportunity for me to listen in as this tweeting was going on," Kreimer said. "I thought, what a great time to learn something more about Islam."
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